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.

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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: Q&A with Anna Humphrey

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Canadian author Anna Humphrey first came across my radar when I read (and loved) her funny, charming, Sarah Dessen-esque YA novel Rhymes With Cupid. Anna is now the author of four books for YA and middle grade readers and despite the range in age, the one thing they all have in common is Anna’s deft, light touch as a storyteller.Recently I spoke with Anna about her favourite books, what inspires her as a writer, and her latest heroine, Clara Humble.

VV: What was your favourite novel when you were 10?
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Anna: I Want to Go Home, by Gordon Korman. It’s about a kid named Rudy who gets sent to summer camp, hates every minute of it, and rebels and tries to escape in hilarious ways. I read it over and over, and it got funnier every time. The part where Rudy orders 1000 volleyballs from the camp office kills me to this day. Gordon Korman was the writer who first made me want to be a writer.

VV: What book do you admire so much that you wish you had written it?
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Anna: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s about a teenage girl named Melinda who nearly stops speaking and is ostracized by her peers following a very traumatic event. I have no end of admiration for an author who can write about something devastating, treat the subject with complete respect, and still make it laugh-out-loud funny in places. Laurie Halse Anderson does that better than anyone, in my opinion.

VV: What recent book (published in the last 10 years) do you wish was available when you were 10?
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Anne: El Deafo, by Cece Bell. My seven-year-old niece was visiting this summer and I read her copy. My ten-year-old daughter read it too, and we all fell in love with the story. It’s a graphic novel/memoir about growing up hearing impaired—but the author draws herself and everyone else as bunnies. She writes about how she felt embarrassed to go to school with a large hearing aid, but then soon discovered she could use it to listen in on teachers in other rooms, like a super power. I would have loved it when I was ten because it’s a book that shows how the differences we sometimes feel ashamed of (mine as a kid was being extremely shy) can become our greatest strengths if we learn to look at them in the right way. Also, it’s just a really sweet and honest story about friendship and growing up. Plus, bunnies!!

VV: What drew you to Clara Humble?

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Anna: At its core, Clara Humble is a book about a kid trying to cope with feeling powerless (something I felt often as a kid, and still do). I started writing it when I began planning to move to a new city. I knew that this very adult decision my husband and I were making was going to be really hard on my kids, as well as on our next door neighbour, a woman in her 60s who they had (and continues to have) a really strong friendship with—but that, as kids, there was nothing they could really do to stop it. I guess I was turning that over in my head and trying to come to terms with the unfairness of it. So although my kids and my former neighbour aren’t Clara and Momo… and things don’t go down the same way in the story that they did in real life… the struggle they’re facing and the feelings they’re feeling are inspired by true events.

VV: Do you have a favourite superhero?

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Anna: I’ve only recently started getting into superheroes… but the new Ms. Marvel is definitely awesome. I love how Kamala Khan is just a regular Pakistani-American teenager who happens to have amazing powers and defeats villains, but then she still has to deal with things like her parents wanting her to be at the mosque at a certain time and getting caught sneaking out. She won me over the second I saw the cover of issue 2, where she’s busy texting with one hand while absent-mindedly knocking a bank robber out cold with the other.

Thanks to Anna for dropping by to chat books! Visit her online here and here and be sure to check out her latest novel Clara Humble and the Not So Super Powers , available now from OwlKids!

 

Middle Grade Monday: Ghosts

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Cat is not at all excited to be moving to foggy, seaside Bahia de la Luna, particularly when she learns that it is a sort of capital for ghosts. But doctors have agreed that it is a better place for her sister Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis. Cat is torn between wanting to make new friends and create a life that isn’t defined by her sister’s diagnosis and the visceral need to protect her sister at all costs. With a focus on familial relationships, a diverse cast, and the stirrings of first love, this much-awaited new graphic novel is classic Raina Telgemeier.

One of Telgemeier’s greatest strengths is her nuanced portrayal of the relationships between sisters (see SmileSisters and Drama). Cat loves Maya, but confesses to wanting something that is hers alone. Her guilt is ever-present and burdensome. One of my favourite scenes is a dialogue-less sequence following Maya’s return from the hospital in which Cat plays Maya her favourite song and the girls snuggle up together in bed. Unlike Drama and Sisters, the sisters in Ghosts are fictional, but the dialogue and tiny moments between Cat and Maya are so authentic that one still gets the sense that Telgemeier is mining her own experience.

Of all her novels to date, Ghosts is the darkest, touching on themes of death and mortality. It is made clear that Maya is not going to get better, a fact she accepts more than her family members. Of the two sisters, Cat is by far the most cautious, wanting to keep Maya way from even a hint of danger. But Maya’s sense of her limited mortality conversely makes her seek adventure, action, and fun, recognizing that if she has a limited about of time on earth then she’s going to make the most of it. Her favourite mantra is a song from an animated movie, a thinly disguised version of Frozen‘s Let it Go, entitled Let it Out. Her desire to befriend the ghosts is particularly poignant, knowing that her curiosity about the afterlife is grounded in the reality that she may be joining them soon.

A life-long and ardent Halloween enthusiast, I very much enjoyed the excitement leading up to Halloween and the midnight Day of the Dead party. The residents of Bahia de la Luna are decidedly ghost-friendly and the interaction between the living and the dead is when what has previously felt like a contemporary story veers off into fantasy. Among a number of other ghosts, Cat befriends her neighbour Carlos’ long-dead uncle, who then takes her flying.The energy, excitement and camaraderie of the party scenes reminded me of the Remains of the Day scene in Tim Burton’s woefully underrated movie, The Corpse Bride.

The book includes an extensive afterward from the author in which she provides more info about Cystic Fibrosis, Dia de los Muertos and touches on her own family tragedy that in part inspired the story. Telgemeier’s millions of rabid fans will not be disappointed. Ghosts is another touching, engaging and highly consumable addition to Telgemeier’s growing middle grade canon.

Ghosts is available now from Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic

Middle Grade Monday: Two Naomis

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It’s awkward enough watching your parent date, but the situation is much, much worse when the daughter of your parent’s new SO is not only the same age but has the same name as you. Such is the premise for Two Naomis, a charming story about Naomi E and Naomi M (who ends up taking on the “elegant” name Naomi Marie), unlikely friends and (potentially) future sisters.

The premise is a throwback to classic late 80s & early 90s contemporary middle grade, the kind of literature Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin and Paula Danziger were writing about; everyday kids dealing with everyday situations. Both Naomis are “average” kids, if I can use such a vague term here. No one has suffered major trauma or has significant hardships. They both have loving families and friends. But despite the classic “issue” driven premise,  this is modern New York City. The girls have cell phones, attend a coding class, and use Skype.

I am always fascinated by authors who work together. In this case, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick alternated chapters, each tackling their own Naomi and her corresponding world. You can read more about how this process worked over at Phil Bildner’s blog. The big challenge here is to distinguish between the two Naomis. The reader will have no trouble doing so. Naomi E is an only child, Naomi-Marie has a (very precocious) little sister. Naomi E is white, Naomi-Marie is black, this obvious differences leads to a funny moment when Naomi Marie’s little sister Bree suggests they solve the two Naomi problem by calling them “Black Naomi” and “White Naomi.” I love Naomi E’s skepticism, her caution when it comes to friendship or big decisions, her tendency to be sarcastic. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t excite easily. Naomi Marie on the other hand is enthusiasm personified. She is a joiner, a leader, and very competitive. The girls’ personalities may be different but are quite complimentary, something they come to learn (and appreciate) over time.

This isn’t a story about divorce causing irreparable damage to a child. The parent-kid relationships are very positive. Both Naomis’ sets of parents are quite civil and seem to have had  amicable divorces. Although Naomi Marie lives with her mother, she sees her father frequently. Naomi E’s mother is away in LA working in film, and her absence is definitely felt by her daughter and is the root of some of her anxieties. They Skype, but Naomi E is starting to crack with the longing to see her mother, and plans are made for that to happen.

As a kid, I loved reading about what other kids lives were like at home. What after-school snacks did they eat? What were their bedtime routines? How did their family spend Saturday mornings, etc. There is something fascinating about peeking behind the curtain of someone else’s home life. I felt like this reading Two Naomis. This is a funny, frank and positive exploration of how two tweens deal with their parents’ dating.

Two Naomis is available now from HarperCollins.

Middle Grade Monday: Fall 2016 Preview

This has already been a staggeringly good year for middle grade (don’t call it a comeback), with personal favourites such as Raymie Nightingale, The Wild Robot, Look Out for the Fitzgerald Trouts, and Pax garnering all sorts of buzz and attention. Here is a sampling of the new kids on the block this fall:

Ghosts 

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Ghosts is probably my most anticipated read of the fall. When it comes to middle grade, Raina Telgemeier is the gold standard we all aspire to- funny, relatable, original, and lots of heart. Ghosts promises to delve into deeper and somewhat darker territory than Smile, Sisters, or Drama, but readers are always safe in Raina’s hands.

A Day of Signs and Wonders 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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Say the name ‘Kit Pearson’ to Canadian readers of a certain age and watch grown women turn into blubbering, starry-eyed tweens. She is as much a part of my childhood as Hypercolour T-shirts, slap bracelets, and the movie My Girl. Kit Pearson exploring the childhood of artist Emily Carr? Too perfect to be true

The Best Man

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Somehow Richard Peck, author of rich slices of Americana such as A Year Down Yonder and A Year in Chicago, has pulled off a pitch-perfect contemporary novel about a community-and one boy in particular- who have their biases checked when everyone’s new favourite teacher turns out to be gay.

The Inquisitor’s Tale

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If you’ve been following the buzz on this hotly anticipated novel from story-wizard Adam Gitwitz you’ll note that common themes among reviewers are “incomparable” and “hard to describe.” I have heard Adam speak about how religion is the last taboo in middle grade and he definitely gives readers a lot to chew on in this Medieval ensemble piece. I very much enjoyed the multiple narrators. Also, farting dragons.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

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I didn’t think this charmer could possibly stand up to the hype, but boy did it ever. This weeper is tinged with just enough magic realism to keep a reader guessing. Take The Secret Garden, set in during WWII, and throw in some winged horses for good measure. Deft prose and emotional resonance give this one the feel of a classic.

The Griffin of Darkwood  2000px-Maple_Leaf

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This latest offering from solid (if a little under-sung, IMO) Canadian author Becky Citra has a stellar cover and is getting good reviews. There is a strong Canadian tradition of gothic middle grade novels (The Nest, The Night Gardener, Flickers, The Swallow being just a few), and this seems to fit right in. Run-down castles, a side-kick who emulates his idol, Julia Child, AND the promise of griffins? Yes please.

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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Most of the books on this list are middle or upper middle-grade, but Clara is appropriate for those younger readers in grades 3-5. How do you hook a reader for life? By offering them funny books featuring true-to-life scenarios with just enough imagination to delight. Featuring spot illustrations by Lisa Cinar, this is a spunky, zippy book that deals with change gently and with much humour.

MINRS 2 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I thoroughly enjoyed the action-packed first book in Kevin Sylvester’s latest series, about a group of tweens who find themselves stranded underground on Mars after an attack (from their own allies) leaves all of the adults from their settlement dead. Book one ended with a great revelation and a heck of a cliff-hanger. This is Survivor in space featuring resourceful tweens instead of fame-hungry “reality” stars.

Downside Up 2000px-Maple_Leaf

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I love when my city is well-represented in literature, and in this fantasy story about family, grief, and second chances, we get two representations of Toronto: the regular one (Sorauren Park! High Park! Sunnyside Beach!) and a slightly tilted version, where what was lost is once again found. And then of course there’s the dragons. Don’t be fooled by Richard Scrimger’s talent for humour, this one tugs on the heartstrings.

What’s on your middle grade reading list this fall?

 

Some Book: George

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All over the country there are debates about whether the needs of transgender children are being met in our school systems. I’m thinking particularly of this recent case in Edmonton, in which the mother of a seven year old transgender girl is fighting for her daughter’s right to use the girls’ washroom. The Catholic school board is set to review and debate a new policy, but the mother feels that without a provincial policy in place conflicts like these are sure to arise again. This story makes my heart ache and I am so thankful for books like George, which should not only be required reading for children, but for adults making decisions for children. 

George knows she is a girl, even if to the outside world she looks like a boy. She has dreams of wearing skirts and make up and keeps a stash of women’s magazines hidden in her closet that she can flip through and pretend that she is one of the girls in the photos. It is getting harder for her to pretend to be a boy. When auditions for the school’s production of Charlotte’s Web come up, George wants to try out for the role of Charlotte

It is fitting that George identifies with and yearns to play Charlotte, the wise female spider who understands the power of words. Charlotte is perhaps the most graceful character in children’s literature. Grace is a word I kept coming back to while thinking about this book. Alex Gino’s prose is graceful and unfettered, yet full of nuance. I hesitate to call a book with such impact gentle, and George experiences violence at the hands of a school bully that is not at all gentle, but the tone is pitched just right for younger middle grade, ages 8-11, and I believe this is the age group that needs this story the most. I’ve gone on about how YA is too late to address sexuality, identity, or any controversial issue. We’re kidding ourselves if we think children don’t wonder about these issues before the age of 10. Why not acknowledge their questions and curiosity and provide them with informed information and stories with heart and truth to bolster confidence and inspire empathy? Stories like George?

Empathy is a quality we talk about but I’m not sure that I see it in the never-ending news stories about inadequate rights for LGBT students and challenges to sexual education. You cannot teach empathy without demonstrating it, and George is a perfect example of empathy in book form. Through the narration, which is third person but very firmly inside George’s head, we know that George refers to herself using female pronouns. It is jarring when characters do otherwise. Words like ‘brother, my boy’ feel wrong and their implications carry much more weight. This is a simple but effective technique that allows readers the tiniest glimmer of what it must feel like to be George. It would be hard for a reader to walk away from George with not only a deeper understanding of what it is like to be trans, but also how we can support trans people.

It goes without saying that this is an excellent discussion book. The concept of being trans can be tricky for children to wrap their heads around, particularly in a culture that sees people as Pink or Blue. Let’s face it, many adults have trouble understanding and accepting the concept.  Gino is careful in presenting a variety of reactions to George. There is an especially lovely scene between George and her older brother Scott when she tells him she isn’t gay, she’s a girl. Two things happen. One, Scott says “That’s more than being just gay,” suggesting that it is harder people to come to terms with transgender people than it is to come to terms with homosexuality. The second observation is that Scott “looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time.” What a lovely moment of acceptance. For those looking to use George in the classroom, Alex has a section on their website about how to talk about George and transgender people in general.

I have to give a shout-out to George’s best friend Kelly, she of the slogan t-shirts and loud opinions. Kelly is exactly the friend George needs. She embraces George being a girl and comes up with the plan for George to go to the city zoo with her and her uncle (who has never met George) as Melissa, the name George calls herself. George comes to her house, tries on girls’ clothing and lip gloss and gets to spend one day as her true self. The scene has a jubilant feel to it and ends with Melissa contemplating the best week of her life “so far.” This quiet promise of good things to come, that things will get better, is exactly the kind of affirming message that children struggling with issues of identity and acceptance crave and deserve.

George is available in hard cover now from Scholastic.