Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Favourite children's books of 2009

I was feeling pretty good about having avoided a major cold/flu this year, until Monday after Babytime when my throat got scratchy. Hmm, I thought, let's conclude that this is happening because it's so dry in here, and off I went to chug two bottles of water. By the end of the evening, after the LANCR event (spectacular speech here), it really hurt to swallow, and I stayed home yesterday and today with a vicious cold that has been circulating at work.

On the bright side, I haven't been bored! I read my way through all my "to read" pile at home, and have had to break into my "emergency books" stash. You know, those unread books you have lying around, that you haven't gotten to in years, but might serve you well during the next ice storm...? On the other hand, I have also been really weak today, and prone to putting books down to rest.

I also realised I hadn't yet posted my favourites from last year - and here we are more than halfway through February (2008 list here). So, without further ado.....

Favourite children's books of 2009 (disclaimer: some pub'd in 2008)

  • Word nerd by Susin Nielsen - A lonely 12-year old named Ambrose tries to convince his single mum not to be too over-protective, becomes secretly involved in competitive Scrabble, and befriends his neighbour, a 25-year old former drug addict who has just been released from jail. Equal parts laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud.

  • The vanishing girl: The boy Sherlock Holmes, his third case by Shane Peacock - It's possible that this is the best boy Sherlock story yet. Sherlock begins to face his own hunger for success, while trying to beat Malefactor in rescuing the vanished society daughter. Peacock writes heartbreakingly of Sherlock's grief at the loss of his mother (who died in the first book, but continues to haunt Sherlock and affect his actions - see scenes in this book with a mother he encounters who has lost her daughter), his desire to impress Irene, and his steadfast belief in the good in the world, all the while realistically portraying Sherlock's selfishness, jealousy, and rage.

  • Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel - The cameo by Emily Carr (who appears, with a slightly different twist, as Evelyn Karr) in this alone thrilled me. Plus her monkey; you can always get me with monkeys. Seriously, though, Oppel's alternative history with steampunk leanings (how to describe this book?!) is utterly unique and refreshingly interesting, focusing on social distinctions, gender issues, and science ethics. On the upper limit of what I would describe as a kids' book - there is a love story here, but with minimal cringe factor moments for those who aren't quite there yet.

  • The dragonfly pool by Eva Ibbotson - How bad is it that I've never read Ibbotson until now? Sigh. One of the things I needed to "fix" this year, and did! Tally's overworked single dad packs her off to boarding school under the urging of more or less the whole town when war breaks out (parallels Ibbotson's own life: she was born in Vienna but packed off to an English boarding school during the war). Tally soon finds that Delderton Hall is, shall we say, alternative? She quickly becomes enamoured of the quirky students and the quirkier-still staff, and she helps organise a school trip to the (fictional) kingdom of Bergania, where a chance encounter with the lonely young prince as war comes to Bergania changes everything. P.S. Easily one of the loveliest covers of the year, in my subjective opinion.

  • Living sunlight: How plants bring the Earth to life by Molly Bang - Nerd alert! It's a picture book about photosynthesis! And so well done... Suitable for grade 3+.

  • Julia Gillian (and the art of knowing) by Alison McGhee - I find it so difficult to find pitch-perfect books for younger readers, and this, happily, is one I was pleasantly surprised by this year. Probably not the least of that is because I can identify with Julia's angst. In this first book in a series, Julia begins to encounter her first real dilemmas, or upsets, in life: not getting the prize she wants from a local toy machine (a beloved meerkat she has been trying for all summer), reading a book with a sad ending, and no summer picnics since her parents are working. Julia learns to deal with the realities of things not working out exactly as planned, and the realities of fear, in this very gentle, illustrated tale. Random fact that really moved me: when she feels scared, Julia wears one of the papier-mâché masks she has made. Her parents know this, but they don't know that pasted inside the masks are notes they have left her in her lunchbox over the years. This one would be a good choice for advanced grade 2 readers, up to grades 4-5 depending on the maturity of the student.

  • Peaceful heroes by Jonah Winter - While not perfect (oversimplification, much?), this book focuses on the stories of various non-violent heroes, from the famous (Jesus, Gandhi, King, Kyi, Rusesabagina) to the forgotten (Corrie Ben Boom, Ginetta Sagan, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Meena Keshwar Kamal). Winter doesn't shy away from controversy, underlining that non-violent protest is possible in Islam (so said the blogger, drily) and stating that "most people in other countries think that America has done more harm than good in Iraq." A good choice for early readers looking for an introduction to these important lives. Booklist interview with Winter here. Disclaimer: Winter's oversimplification hits new lows in his latest offering, Barack Obama, a title we didn't buy at work because of bias, unsuitability to age group, and wacky illustrations.

  • The composer is dead by Lemony Snicket - I brought this with me to outreach last weekend at a concert for kids at the National Arts Centre, and I caught a few parents reading it cover to cover, snickering happily. Like all Snicket, the humour is pretty advanced in some ways, but utterly enjoyable for various ages. The premise of the book is that the composer has been murdered, and each of the instruments feign innocence and explain their whereabouts at the time of the crime, which acts as a perfect opening for a discussion of what role each instrument in the orchestra plays. Evidence points to the conductor, because of course, "wherever there's a conductor, you're sure to find a dead composer!" P.S. This book was originally an orchestral work by Nathaniel Stookey (I had to check. His father's first cousin is Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary) for which Snicket wrote the narrative.
    N.B. This and the next five titles are what we call special (advanced) picture books: books written in picture book format that are for the more advanced (read: mature) reader.

  • The enemy by Davide Cali - A powerful advanced story book about propaganda and humanity during wartime. The style of illustration is similar to the notebook scribblings of a schoolchild (or a man crouching in the trenches); the setting could be any war, any time, anywhere. The soldier who narrates this tale tells of watching the enemy every day, and also reports on his own loneliness, irritations, despair, fear. Slowly, he comes to realise that the enemy is facing some similar situations, and he resolves to stop participating in the war. Warning: ambiguous ending.

  • Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion by Jane Barclay - While we are on the subject of war, the best Canadian picture book about Remembrance Day I have seen in awhile, and the winner of this year's Make Alex Cry at Work Award. I can't even write this review without tearing up. A grandfather (Poppa) shares his memories of being a soldier with his grandson, using similes of animal behaviour: he was proud as a peacock signing up, brave as a lion, busy as a beaver, etc. At the end, the boy imagines an elephant in the mists on Remembrance Day. “Elephants never forget,” he whispers to his poppa. “Then let’s be elephants,” says his grandfather.Seriously, now I'm crying again. Honestly. This would be a great read-aloud, but I'm not sure I could get through it. I can hardly get through Tootle, for heaven's sake. Great review in CM here.

  • That book woman by Heather Hanson - For the child who doesn't like to read, a story about a dirt-poor family in the rural Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, and about the Pack Horse Librarians. Previously praised by me here.

  • Mama says by Rob Walker - Words of wisdom about courage, kindness, and faith from mothers around the world, as told to their sons. Stunning illustrations.

  • Violet by Tania Duprey Stehlik - Violet's parents are red and blue; Violet is, well, violet, which never bothered her until someone at school asked her about it.

  • Smitten by David Gordon - I'm sorry, I just couldn't stop laughing at this love story between a lost sock and a lost mitten.

  • One by Kathryn Otoshi - Looks like a concept book about colours and counting, but it's actually a deceptively simple, non-preachy book about bullying. Red, you see, is hot. Blue is not. Bullying ensues until the number 1 comes along to confront the colours: "If someone is mean and picks on me, I, for One, stand up and say, No." Then the colours all become numbers, too. Somewhat confusing, but really interesting.

  • Big bear hug by Nicholas Oldland - A picture book to strike fear in the hearts of the logging industry. A bear hugs some trees, doesn't understand why people are cutting them down, concludes these people need some hugs, too. Go read it.

  • Penguins by Liz Pichon - What happens when zoo penguins get their fins on a small girl's camera? Hilarity ensues when the photos are developed!

  • Ernest by Catherine Rayner - Ernest the moose would love to star in this book, with his friend chipmunk. The problem is that Ernest can't FIT in this book.

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