What I Read in 2016: Picture Books

I value my picture book collection the way that Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler values her files: deeply, though you wouldn’t know it by my lack of an ordered cataloging or shelving system. Here are some of the books published in 2016 that made it onto my shelves this year.

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Panda Pants  is a dialogue between a young panda and his father. The little Panda is set on a pair of pants. The father is unconvinced. The silliness is tempered by a dead-pan delivery and a touch of philosophy. Like Zen Shorts, if conceived by the Comedy Network.

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My Friend Maggie is another fantastic offering from Hannah E. Harrison. All of her books have the emotional realism of Kevin Henkes’ work and her illustrations GLOW. This book isn’t just kid-friendly, it strikes a deep, deep chord. I’m not a crier, but this book makes me tear up every darn time.

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Miss Moon lives in a beautiful, well-mannered world of dogs and dresses and boating parties that I would also love to live in. In Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess, Janet Hill’s collection of life lessons are accompanied by her distinctive oil-paintings and would be a great gift for dog lovers, graduates, or people with a taste for whimsy.

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Sara O’Leary is grand master of the list poem. In A Family is a Family is a Family she lists a wide range of families, accompanied by Qin Leng’s delicate illustrations of the small pleasures of domestic life.

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Jo Ellen Bogart’s quietly magnificent The White Cat and the Monk is an ode to work, peace, and stillness. Even non-cat lovers will admit that there is something delightful in a monk comparing his daily routine to that of his cat’s. Illustrator Sydney Smith does a great job getting into the head of a cat and demonstrates why his work keeps turning up on award lists.

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Lion Lessons is begging to be turned into a piece of theatre. A boy studies to be a lion with an actual lion. Simple, funny, genius. Jon Agee’s books are on my auto-buy list.

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Just when you thought there were no new ways to tell a first day of school story, Adam Rex comes along with the perspective of a new school building in School’s First Day of School. Christian Robinson’s bright, retro art helps make this brand new book feel like an old favourite.

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My favourite debut of the year is Ooko, by author-illustrator Esme Shapiro. Foxes abound in children’s books, but never has a fox been so sweetly delusional before. A quirky friendship story with a twist. Bonus human leg hair!

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Julia Sarda’s colour palette of rich jewel-tones and Goth-meets-Art Deco sensibility is an unexpected but brilliant pairing with Kyo Maclear’s fable about a list-making family. Maclear tends to be paired with airier, more whimsical illustrators, but The Liszts is proof that her canny text works just as well with a darker, earthier art style.

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In Scribble, child-whisperer Ruth Ohi imbues simple shapes (circle, square, and triangle) with matching personalities who are thrown for a loop (shape pun!) when scribble arrives. The book works on two levels, as both a story about learning to accept other’s differences and also as an ode to imagination.

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There will always be a desire for counting books and Lucy Ruth Cummin’s A Hungry Lion or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals adds an element of mystery and dark humour to this tried and true formula. In a post-Klassen/hat eat hat world you may think you know the twist…but DO you?

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Thanks to Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick I have always been drawn to topiaries (yes, even after The Shining). The Night Gardener features some pretty fantastic creations and captures a sense of wonder and possibility in a spare text accompanied by old-timey, sepia-toned illustrations.

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What I Read in 2016: YA

I read a LOT of fab YA this year, some of which I won’t go into here but you should definitely pick up (A Torch Against the Night! Empire of Storms! The Sun is Also a Star!). This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are some YA titles that made me think, slipped under the radar, stood apart from the crowd, or otherwise caught my attention in 2016.

Herstory: Historical fiction featuring women’s stories 

Ruta Sepetys (self-proclaimed Seeker of Lost Stories) writes with such emotional poignancy and respect for his historical subjects and Salt to the Sea is her best novel yet. Her historical fiction is so good it often busts out YA territory and is included in adult round-ups. If you haven’t had the chance to read her yet I’m not sure what you’re waiting for…don’t you LIKE joy?

There is so much to love about Outrun the Moon. Boarding school setting? Check. Amazing scene in which a young Chinese-American girl negotiates a place at a prestigious, previously all-white girls’ boarding school with an Old White Man? Check.  Survival narrative based in an actual historical event (the San Francisco earthquake of 1906)? Check. Stacey Lee’s book hit all of my sweet spots and is a sweeping, engaging adventure story.

Out of this World: Slightly under-the-radar sci-fi & fantasy 

Where Futures End was a twisty, mind-bending collection of interconnected short stories about what happens when two parallel worlds realize each other’s existence. I’ve never read another YA novel quite like it and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who like it (*raises hand*) are fanatical about it. By far the most original book I read this year and especially good if you’re in a reading rut. I can’t wait to see what author Parker Peevyhouse does next.

By all rights Julia Vanishes should be The Next Big YA fantasy series. This first book in a planned series captured the hearts of fantasy-lovers and non-fantasy readers alike, which is not an easy task. Catherine Egan (another Canadian author) effortlessly blends a pseudo-Victorian England with witch lore, fantasy tropes and a good old-fashioned mystery. I have yet to meet a reader who didn’t fall in love with the caustic- and possibly magical- spy, the eponymous Julia.

Truth & Beauty: Writers who remind you that even terrible situations can be beautifully written

Still Life with Tornado broke my heart into six sharp little pieces. Teenage Amy meets two younger versions of herself and one older version of herself and the four of them try to pinpoint where exactly things started to spiral out of control in her life. This is a book about how an entire family is affected by an abusive member and the complicated healing process. A little bit existential, a little magic realism, this is a hugely impressive and innovative work by A.S. King.

Trilby Kent is one of Canada’s most decorated writers of young people’s fiction and Once in a Town Called Moth is my favourite of her books (so far).  She brings a poet’s eye for detail and specifics to this coming of age story that unfolds with the pacing of a mystery. The narrative goes back and forth between an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia and contemporary Toronto. Both streams are excellent but I particularly loved how Kent portrays Toronto.

What it Feels Like For a Girl: Contemporary YA dealing with sexual assault, violence & rage 

The Female of the Species walks the line between contemporary realism and allegory in the best possible way. There have been a number of YA novels in the last little while that explore female anger and this one presents rage in all its shades and temperatures. Author Mindy McGinnis did not hold anything back in her visceral descriptions, either. Lines from this book will stay with me forever.

Canuck author E.K. Johnston is having an excellent year with three new books: NYT bestseller Ahsoka;  Spindle, the follow-up to her lush A Thousand Nights; and my fave of the three, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which has so many starred reviews it’s impossible to ignore.  Unlike Johnston’s previous work, this one is based firmly in the reality of contemporary teenhood, specifically what happens after team captain Hermione Winters is drugged and raped at cheer camp. Frank discussions about faith, blame, abortion, and surviving abound. This is a fierce book; Winters has no time for small-minded, pity-filled or suspicious people or shame.

Middle Grade Gift Suggestions 2016

Last week I got to talk to one of my favourite people, Ann Foster, about middle grade fiction. When not working at the Saskatoon Public Library recco-ing kids and teen books, she is writing about fashion in TV over at You Know You Love Fashion (currently chronicling the enviable wardrobe of Phryne Fisher) and spearheading a number of podcasts, including Radio Book Club and You Were Going to be Fantastic.

Ann and I met on a book jury and we still love to find reasons to talk about books. Now you can hear us do that in this episode of Radio Book Club. The topic was near and dear to my heart (middle grade!) and I was happy to wax poetic about my fail-safe picks for this holiday, featured above.

Grab a cup of your favourite hot seasonal beverage and take a listen:

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/smy9s-655461

Follow Ann on twitter to learn about her many bookish and pop-culture endeavors

Middle Grade Monday: Raymie Nightingale

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There is a whole generation who will look back at two-time Newbery medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo the way my generation looks back at Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Kit Pearson or Beverly Cleary. In fact, in an EW article DiCamillo names Cleary as a major influence for her latest novel, the superlative Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo has defined American contemporary children’s literature in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.

Raymie Clarke’s father has run off with a dental hygienist. She is convinced if she does something spectacular- such as win the Little Miss Central Florida pageant- he will see her in the paper and come back. Raymie’s story  (abandoned by a parent) is not uncommon, but DiCamillo’s greatest gift is the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her deft hands a baton, a jar of candy corn, even a swamp becomes something tinged with wonder.

My favourite Kate DiCamillo novel is Tiger Rising, which I think gets lost in the mega-bestselling, highly-decorated books such as Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Tiger Rising is a very simple narrative about poor children leading hard lives and stumbling upon something so unexpected it feels magical. DiCamillo revisits this idea in Raymie Nightingale. In Tiger Rising, the unexpected is an honest-to-goodness tiger in the woods. In Raymie Nightingale, it is friendship.

Raymie’s new friends, prickly Beverly and painfully optimistic Louisiana have burdens of their own. They are all desperate to be heard and understood, but have been made cautious by past disappointments. There is real sadness here, but as always in a DiCamillo book, hope triumphs over all. Of all the hurting characters in this book, I worried the most for Louisiana. Of all the girls, her situation is the most dire, and yet she is the most hopeful. But even when things looked very bad, I trust DiCamillo to not only point out, but buff up the silver lining.

If I could narrow down the one thing common to DiCamillo’s range of work  it would be her warmth. Whether she is writing fantasy, realistic contemporary, early readers or historical fiction (which  is technically what Raymie Nightingale, set in the 1970s, falls under) genuine warmth for her characters, for her readers, for people permeates the language.

Raymie Nightingale is available on April 12th from Candlewick Press.

 

Kids’ Books Recommendations- Classical 96.3 FM

BookBday

This week is my book birthday and boy am I spoiled girl! Check out the incredible cake made by colleague Barb, senior manager of advertising and design at Penguin Random House Canada. It was just as delicious as it was beautiful and certainly made this author feel loved.

On Thursday I dropped by the Classical 96.3 FM studios to chat about my book, If I Had a Gryphon, as well as some of my fave new books from PRH Canada. A version of this segment will air tonight, Friday February 12th, around 7:30. If you’re not in the GTA you can check it out online here.

Over-scheduled Andrew by Ashley Spires

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How do I love Ashely Spires‘ latest book? Let me count the ways. Humour? Check. Adorable characters? Check. Timely and relatable scenario? Check. Bagpipes? French film club? Musical Theatre? Check, check, check. This story about an over-scheduled chickadee will feel familiar to busy families. A good book is the start of a conversation, and Over-scheduled Andrew encourages families to talk about the pleasures of slowing down and being “free to be distracted.”

Miss Moon: Wise Words From a Dog Governess by Janet Hill

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It’s hard to come up with an age range for this beauty of a book because it truly is for everyone. The pairing of Stratford-based artist Janet Hill‘s lush oil paintings of sophisticated Miss Moon and her dog charges romping around their estate on an island off the coast of France with pithy life lessons will hit the spot for so many people: children, dog-lovers, art collectors, recent graduates. True story: while prepping for this interview I spent alot of time drooling over Janet Hill’s etsy shop and purchased myself this print, which is how I’d like to think I look when reading *my* Nancy Drews:

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For older readers, I chose two books on a theme that feels especially pertinent in these long winter months: survival.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence

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Canadian writers have defined the survival narrative. Iain Lawrence‘s latest is a contemporary addition to the literary canon of Man. vs. Nature, pitting Chris and Frank against the wild when they are stranded off the Alaskan coast after a boating accident. The book is gritty and tense, with welcome moments of comedic relief in the form of antics from a raven named Thursday. A wonderful companion for the millions of Hatchet (Gary Paulsen) fans out there.

The Rule of Three: Will to Survive by Eric Walters

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Child-whisperer, Order of Canada recipient and best-selling author Eric Walters is at his best with this “it could happen to you” survival story of a suburban neighbourhood dealing with a drastic lifestyle change after all power (computers, phones, automotive, etc) is cut and shows no sign of ever coming back. The dangers here come from people, not environmental or weather-related factors of The Skeleton Tree. The first book in this series, The Rule of Three, earned Eric the 2015 Red Maple award and readers have been impatiently waiting this concluding installment.

Thanks for having me, Classic 96.3 FM!

Middle Grade Monday: Pax

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I have always wanted a Direwolf of my own, so perhaps it is of no surprise that the last two books I’ve read have featured wild dogs: wolves in Wolf Wilder and foxes in Pax. What better way to explore humanity, our relationship with the wilderness, and our kinship with animals?

I am a long-time Sara Pennypacker fan. I greatly admire an author who can swing from laugh out loud, pitch-perfect early chapter books (hello, Clementine!) to elegiac, sophisticated and heart-rending middle grade novels (enter Pax). The novel alternates between the perspectives of Pax (a fox) and Peter (a boy). Pax’s sections quiver with life and observation of the natural world. Peter’s ache with yearning and a frisson of rage. The balance creates excellent suspense and makes for tense yet thoroughly enjoyable reading.

There is a hint of The Fox and the Hound in this narrative about a boy who must turn his beloved Fox who is thoroughly domesticated loose in the wild. The opening chapter, in which Peter is forced to leave Pax at the side of the road and drive off with his father, cuts deep and lets the reader know that they are in for some emotional reading. Pax’s loyalty, good heart, and ignorance of both the wilderness and war makes him both martyr and potential victim, yet it is these same qualities that allow him to grow and ultimately triumph.

At times I was far more worried about Peter- wracked with guilt, trying desperately to not turn out like his angry, violent father, and truly alone in the world- until he meets Vola. An ex-soldier, sequestering herself in the woods partially to come to terms with her actions and partially to remember who she was before the war, Vola constantly references the “cost” of war. The war that is coming is never defined, but one gets the sense that it is happening now. Pennypacker deftly illustrates this cost on the land and wildlife, something that I think is often overlooked in books. Pax’s experiences and descriptions of burnt grass and soiled water hammer the message home. A convincing argument could be made that people are bad, and Pax’s new friend Bristle certainly has many reasons why she doesn’t trust them. But Peter proves that some people can be trusted, that fox and people can coexist. If only we could get over our inclination towards war.

Pax is not an easy book. Bones and hearts break and heavy truths are learned. But it is beautiful and moving. Fair warning to anyone who has loved a pet, some sections will be hard to read. I found myself on the verge of tears for much of Pax. But don’t be afraid of an emotional read- in fact we should be telling children not to be afraid of an emotional read. True catharsis through reading is rare but powerful.

Pax is available in hard cover from Harper Collins.

*I read an ARC of this book which did not contain much in the way of artwork and so I cannot comment on Klassen’s illustrations, yet I imagine they will do much to establish tone and deepen the emotional resonance of Pax as his work did in The Nest. Pro tip/trend alert: if you want to elevate a middle grade novel to the level of contemporary classic, make sure you have illustrations.

My Favourite Books of 2015

Every time I start a year in review list I am overwhelmed by the number of amazing books out there. I always intend to pick one or two books per category but it is much, much too difficult. What follows is a mere sliver of the fabulous books I read and loved this year, which is in turn just a chip on the tip of the iceberg of the fantastic offerings in contemporary children’s literature.

Picture Books 

There was a really great piece in Quill & Quire about The Golden Age of  Canadian Picture Books that we are currently enjoying. I could not agree more- in fact I would extend the Golden Age beyond our borders to include the US and the UK as well. Just look at this years’ riches!  This is Sadie marks yet another beautiful collaboration between Canadians Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad, celebrating the imagination of a child. Jon Agee, one of my favourite contemporary picture book makers, delivers a winner with the rhyming It’s Only Stanley, in which a clueless family disregards the astronomical ambitions of their dog. Sidewalk Flowers rightfully made many best of the year lists, taking home the GG for Children’s Illustration. Look out for Hannah E. Harrison, who’s sophomore effort  Bernice Gets Carried Away combines the warmth, humour, and emotional integrity of Kevin Henkes’ work. Seriously, how does she get her art to glow like that?! Christian Robinson had a stellar year with two great collaborations, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, a colourful ode to both urban living and grandparents, and Mac Barnett’s tender ghost-meets-girl story, Leo: A Ghost Story.

Early Readers & Chapter Books 

Mo Willems has another stellar year with The Story of Diva and Flea and I Really Like Slop. 2015 also saw the start of a new early chapter book series by Canadian Kallie George, with the charming Clover’s Luck in January and the equally magical The Enchanted Egg  in November. Non-fiction is at its funniest with the Disgusting Critters series, which added The Spider to the already wonderfully gross line-up of The Fly, The Rat, The Slug and Head Lice. Soon to come? The Toad!

Middle Grade

I read a lot of top notch middle grade fiction this year. The wintry, emotional Waiting for Unicorns inspired me to get back into blogging after a hiatus.  The Penderwicks in Spring proves that some series get even better with time, and this fifth book might be my favourite installment thus far. Goodbye Stranger remains not only the book I wish I had written, but the book I think every twelve year old (and adult who lives or works with twelve year olds) should read. George proves that books that fill a necessary void (in this case, narratives starring trans children) can also be beautifully written. Major props to author Alex Gino for this sensitive, accessible novel.

Look out for stars on the rise Victoria Jamieson, who’s Roller Girl ran away with my heart and should be on the TBR pile of all Raina Telgemeier’s zillions of fans. Ursula Vernon’s confident, fraction-obsessed Harriet Hamsterbone, the first in the delightful Hamster Princess series, is guaranteed to give readers a serious case of The Giggles. Circus Mirandus transported me right back to being 10 and discovering fantasy books for the first time and Monstrous was the Frankenstein/fairy-tale mash-up I didn’t even know I wanted.

 

Teen 

Sarah Dessen proves that she is indeed worthy of the title Patron Saint of YA with her thought-provoking, nuanced and ultimately redemptive Saint Anything. All I want for Christmas is some well-deserved Printz recognition for my girl Sarah! Longtime fans of Dessen will devour newcomer Emily Adrian’s Like It Never Happened, which first caught my attention because of the high school drama club setting and won my heart with it’s honest portrayal of contemporary issues. Susan Juby, another YA pioneer, was in top form with the unforgettable The Truth Commission, serving up a devastating family drama with her trademark wit and style. Fans of Juby will also love the mad-cap, Veronica Mars-esque Trouble is a Friend of Mine, by debut Canadian author Stephanie Tromly, featuring a reluctant detective with a very dry sense of humour and a weird, mysterious boy with a tragic past who is a much-needed quirky alternative to your standard YA book boyfriend. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap wins the award for most unique book I read this year, with it’s gorgeous prose and shifting narratives. File this one under surreal mystery. For those who prefer their teen books laced with magic realism, The Accident Season provided the same kind of breathless, beautiful read as mega-bestseller We Were Liars. The series I should have read earlier but am still thankful I got around to reading is the lush, epic Throne of Glass series by NYT Bestseller Sarah J Maas. I have a terrible habit of never reading past book 2 in series, but I could not get enough of Maas’ rich, dark world. You can bet I’ll be taking the most recent book (and Goodreads Choice Award Winner) Queen of Shadows with me on vacation…that is if I can wait that long.

Sarah Dessen Patron Saint of YA

 

What books stole your heart in 2015?