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.

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!

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?

New Digital Short: AMY ABBOT IS HAVING A PARTY

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I was flattered when Fierce Ink Press approached me to write a piece for their Fierce Shorts program. Featuring powerful work by Jo Treggiari, Susin Nielsen and Alice Kuipers, the Fierce Shorts program is a response to the It Gets Better movement in which YA authors write a short, digital piece about an experience they had in high school.  A portion of the proceeds is donated to a charity of the author’s choice.

Nonfiction is a tricky business. As vividly as some memories stick with you, there will always be details that need to be re-imagined. The events in Amy Abbot is Having a Party really happened. The characters are people I knew. But while I remember certain cutting comments and well-timed compliments word for word, most of the dialogue is an approximation of conversations I had.

I love reading memoir. I love the humour and the outrageous stories in Cathy Gildiner’s trilogy of memoirs, Too Close to the Falls, After the Falls, and Coming Ashore. I love the heart and charm of legit teenager Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular. I will read any food memoir. Some of my favourites include Tender at the Bone, A Homemade Life  My Berlin Kitchen. But I never once considered writing it myself until Fierce Ink came knocking.

Like most people I have a bag of anecdotes I can rummage around in and pull out something apropos as needed. The time I climbed through an open window of an abandoned house as a kid, a result of reading a lot of Nancy Drew. The time I convinced my grade eight teacher to allow me to hand in chapters of a novel instead of my English assignments.  These anecdotes are short, pithy gems polished from years of telling. They may be true stories but they have a distancing effect. They represent how I want to be perceived. Like fiction, they are a smokescreen that I can project upon.

That wasn’t going to cut it this time around.

The truth? My high school experience was very vanilla. Not even French vanilla, but no-name vanilla. I was a good student. I was a joiner. When I wasn’t at school or band practise or in the student council office I was working at my part-time job. No boys, no alcohol, no drugs, no real drama to speak of. I didn’t relate to teenage struggles presented to me in fiction or movies because I never really felt like one. I went from feeling thirteen to thirty-five. Now tween angst I can do. My tween years are as clear to me as the images on my fancy hi-def TV, which is why I tend to write middle grade.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my share of teen angst, as my journals and some truly terrible poetry demonstrate. But my shade of conflict felt pale in comparison to the struggles of so many others. Then I thought about all those thirteen-going-on-thirty-five year old teens out there who maybe don’t see themselves in YA. By writing about myself, I am also writing for them.

So this is my story, a little slice of my life back in 1999 in Woodstock, Ontario. Britney Spears had just burst onto the scene and everyone watched Survivor. I was considering taking kick boxing, which was all the rage thanks to Billy Blanks and Tae-bo.  Maybe you will see a bit of yourself in this story, or recognize a friend or family member. Or maybe you’ll simply be entertained, which is fine with me.  For each download a percentage of the proceeds will go to Girls Rock Camp Toronto, one of my favourite organizations.

You can purchase Amy Abbot is Having a Party at Kobo, iTunes or Amazon.ca

Manhattan and Macarons: The Summer Invitation Review

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This lovely confection of a book feels a bit like a contemporary fairytale, or at the very least a glimpse at what Eloise’s life might have been like as a teenager. Valentine (pronounced Valen-teen) and Franny are invited to spend the summer in their eccentric and wealthy aunt’s Greenwich Village apartment with sculptress and chaperone-of-many-secrets, Clover. Valentine is desperate to fall in love and Franny isn’t sure what she wants out of the summer just yet- but what she doesn’t want is to be left behind.

For a certain person, this is the ultimate fantasy- an all expenses paid trip to the kind of 1960s Manhattan that likely doesn’t exist anymore. Franny and Valentine shop for fancy lingerie, get make-overs, go to classic old New York bars and have deep conversations with gentlemen in their sixties. Valentine meets a handsome cellist and embarks on the love affair of her dreams. Franny is naive but an old soul at heart, and like her aunt and Clover she appreciates history, sophistication, and solitude. Think champagne, oysters, and sheath dresses. Her naiveté would make the book appropriate for a middle grade reader, though it is technically marketed as YA.

I read and enjoyed Charlotte Silver’s memoir Charlotte au Chocolat and her delicate, almost whimsical prose is put to good use here. There are hints of darkness and melancholy, but they are employed to heighten the giddy, fizzy experience of Franny’s first summer in New York. One of my favourite middle grade novels is Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, and this felt like the perfect next step for readers of that book. Light, classic and sweet as a macaron, this is a frothy and tender look at that old fictional trope, “The Summer That Changed My Life.”

The Summer Invitation is available now from Roaring Brook Press.

The Best Moments in Children’s Books, 2014

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There were some shining moments in the children’s book world in 2014. This year we encouraged children to practice their reading with cats, celebrated graphic novels, established a new YA award in Canada, and took a stand on diversity.

Mac Barnett’s TED talk

Barnett’s books are funny, clever, and sophisticated, but never at the expense of child appeal. It comes as no surprise that the author himself is an engaging ambassador for children’s literature. In his TED talk “Why a good book is a secret door,” he discusses the human aptitude for imagination and gives plenty of real-life examples from his days as a camp counselor to his work at the inventive writing & tutoring organization 826LA, and his own writing.

 

Berks ARL Book Buddies Program 

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I mean come on. Look at this picture! So cute I had to post it twice. This story of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County Book Buddies program went viral in February, due largely to this image of a little boy reading to a shelter cat posted on Reddit. Encouraging children to read AND comforting cats? I am in.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

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This grassroots organization of diversity crusaders has come a long way. After BookCon announced an all-white, largely male line-up this spring, authors and readers took to the internet to make it known that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. To their credit, the organizers responded, and a panel entitled “The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books” was added to the programming. Months later, after significant media coverage and successful crowd-funding campaigns,  WNDB is a full-fledged organization. Featuring grants, book lists, tips for bringing diversity into the classroom and an upcoming festival, it is safe to say that #WeNeedDiverseBooks is transitioning from a moment to a movement.

 

THIS ONE SUMMER wins the Governor General’s Award for Illustration

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In an insightful piece in The National Post this fall, Anna Fitzpatrick discusses the potential impact of Jillian Tamaki‘s GG win on the perception of comic arts. With the ever-growing popularity of graphic novels and memoirs for children (El Deafo, Sisters, Through the Woods and the upcoming Roller Girl), the ever-growing attendance at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and a TCAF pop-up shop at the Toronto Public Library this month, it is hard to deny that graphic art in all it’s permutations is commanding more respect. This is fantastic news. Just think of the amazing crossover and genre-bending books there are to come!

 

The Amy Mathers Teen Book Award is Established

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Book-lover and CanLit advocate Amy Mathers began her marathon of books, reading her way across Canada one YA book at a time, in January 2014 hoping to raise enough money to fund a much-needed award for Canadian YA. At the TD Children’s Literature Award Gala in November it was announced that her dream would become a reality. The first Amy Mathers Teen Book Award will be awarded in 2015. This is great news for the vibrant and diverse range of YA books published by Canadians.  Follow Amy’s journey and peruse her book reviews on her website or connect with her on twitter.

Now doesn’t that make you feel good? Here’s to a great 2015! Happy holidays, friends!

Feeling Halloweenish: 4 Spooky Books

It’s my favourite time of year! Pumpkins, black cats everywhere, clever costumes, and amazing ghost stories. What’s not to love about Halloween? Here is a round-up of some spooky, atmospheric and down-right terrifying books perfect for those of us who wait all year for October:

The Swallow by Charis Cotter

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If you’ve read Summer Days, Starry Nights you know I love the sixties. This period in Toronto is evocatively portrayed in this moody, unsettling ghost story by Canadian author Charis Cotter. The atmosphere reminded me of Janet Lunn’s old-school storey Double Spell, peopled with well-rounded Kit Pearson-esque characters.It’s hard to talk about this book without giving too much away. The stuffy, cloying house was particularly vivid, as was Polly’s large, rambunctious extended family. I will say that as an avid reader of ghost stories, this was a refreshing take on the genre. It is just as much a friendship story between two lonely girls as it is a spooky read.  Cotter captures the anxieties and frustrations of tweens very well.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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This collection of graphic (as in illustrated) short stories was pitch perfect. Emily Carroll is an acclaimed Canadian cartoonist/illustrator and I fully expected her art to be stunning. What I did not expect was her superb pacing and knack for telling really, REALLY scary stories. Definitely not the faint of heart, this collection is about the dark side of humanity as much as it is about ghosts, monsters, and ghouls. Her stories feel classic, like Poe or Irving, but they are original contributions to a tricky to navigate canon. This is definitely a book I will return to every October.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

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This collection of poems based on fairy tales isn’t strictly Halloweenish, but it does suit the creepy, atmospheric October vibe. One of my favourite poetry collections is Transformations by Anne Sexton, which also retells fairy tales. Poisoned Apples is distinctly modern, with references to selfies, social media, etc, but witches and curses and classic fairytale tropes abound in this thought-provoking collection. Heppermann weaves in reflections on female teenage sexuality, empowerment, consent, and body image, with a number of startling images revolving around eating disorders. Poetry can have a particularly strong impact of teenagers, and with the word feminism being bandied about in the media these days, this collection provides an intimate space for personal reflection. Personal favourites include: Nature Lesson, Red-handed, and Transformation.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

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I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Auxier (another Canadian! Why are we so good at scary?) has a gorgeous command of language and he practically paints the story of two Irish orphans working in the world’s creepiest house with his words. This book lends itself well to reading aloud but can be equally enjoyed curled up in a chair with a mug of something warm. Like all good ghost stories, there are questions of life and death, right or wrong, and love, above all else, reigns supreme. A classic in the making.

What are your Halloween favourites?