Thursday, February 25, 2010

Favourite teen books of 2009

(2008 list here)

Pre-amble: I was just reading an interview with novelist Allan Stratton in Quill and Quire (whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak at last year's CLA Conference), and he talked about being uncomfortable with the label "YA." He makes the excellent point (which I'm assuming is totally obvious to you, my discerning readers) that the label makes a work get more attention in one field, but it also means that "lots of people won't read your work that otherwise might." I'd like to remind you all, as he reminds me, that great "YA" books such as Catcher in the rye, Lord of the flies, and The Lovely bones, have cross-over appeal. As do almost all of the titles below!

And so, in no particular order....
  • Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography by Sabrina Jones - I've long been an Isadora Duncan fan, and this graphic biography gracefully captures both her story and the visual impact of her dancing. Feminist angle well-played.

  • Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway - One of my all-time favourite teen books. Sometimes the connection to a particular literary work is more emotional than anything: I read this last March, while deathly ill with a nasty flu bug, after a professional meeting that turned into a bitchfest directed at me. Long story. I spent the weekend in bed, snotty, reading this and at least three other books, feeling deeply sorry for myself. Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes, Audrey. Audrey breaks up with her musician boyfriend (as she leaves him - literally - behind, he calls out, "Audrey, wait!" and she doesn't turn around). Said ex's band then strikes it big with a song called "Audrey, wait," painting her as the villain in the relationship, turning many people against her (can you see how it struck a nerve?) and making her famous (hello, tabloids) for all the wrong reasons. She suffers through encounters with those who hate her (cold! unfeeling!) and those who love her (feminist! trend-setter!), and who knows which is worse. Through it all, she manages to keep a few friends and her job at the local ice-cream store, but not without drama. A great book about who people think you are versus who you really are. Website here.

  • I'd tell you I love you, but then I'd have to kill you by Ally Carter - First in a series. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the series overall is copy after copy of this book. At the time, it really stood out for me (still does!), but the 2nd and 3rd are beginning to try my patience. This is an excellent read-alike for those of you, like me, who mourn the demise of the TV show Veronica Mars. Or, I guess, for Buffy fans. For anyone who likes their narrators female, sarcastic, skilled in self-defense, full of secrets, and highly suspicious of everyone. Cammie, our heroine, attends the Gallagher Academy For Exceptional Young Women, which is basically a secret school for spies, run by her mother, one of the best spies around. Cammie and her friends try to untangle various mysteries in the series, the over-arching one being the circumstances of her father's death (on the job, of course). The first book also focuses on Cammie's first love, with a "regular" boy who has no idea that her finishing school has also taught her 14 languages and advanced encryption, and that she and her friends speak a different language (each day's selection on a notice board outside the hall) during dinner. Dry humour sample: Cammie's mum says "the worst part of the spy life isn't the danger -- it's the paperwork. After all, when you're on a plane home from Istanbul with a nuclear warhead in a hatbox, the last thing you want to do is write a report about it."

  • Hate that cat by Sharon Creech - A companion piece to 2001's Love that dog, which followed Jack's story of his dog, as told through correspondence with his teacher over the course of the school year. As his teacher exposes him to literature, particularly the poetry of Walter Dean Myers, Jack's writing changes, and his story develops. Hate that cat picks up at the start of the following school year, where his teacher has thankfully followed him into the next grade, introducing him to new poetry to inspire Jack to reflect on love, loss, worry and, yup, cats. Along the way, Jack is introduced to onomatopoeia, metaphor, free verse, William Carlos Williams, and the wonderful picture book by Walter Dean Myers' son, Christopher, Black cat. Teacher's guide to both books here. You will be incapable of not crying while reading this.

  • The adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson - Jenna awakens from a coma after an accident feeling as though her family is hiding something from her. Not to mention, while she was in the coma, they moved, effectively cutting her off from anyone in her former life. As she pieces together the circumstances of her accident, and her new life, she reaches some startling conclusions about the love parents have for their children, and the limits of what makes us human. A sci-fi title for people who don't like sci-fi. My home-based learners' book club is reading this for this month.

  • Janes in love by Cecil Castellucci - Another book I read over that long, germ-filled weekend in March. A sequel to The Plain Janes, which was on my list last year, this book follows the continued work of the Janes, whose art movement, PLAIN (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) gets a spot in the Metro City Museum of Modern Art Contest, taking the "Art saves" message to a new level. Meanwhile, on the home front, first love, crossed wires, and general awkwardness complicates everything. Can art save, or will it just mess everything up?

  • Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Weatherford - This fictionalised biography is a great title for reluctant readers, as it is written in verse and accompanied by evocative art. The bio follow's Billie Holiday's rise to fame, ending just as her first signature song makes it big. The focus here is on her unstable home life, with scenes of violence, rape, prostitution, poverty and racism. Ending on a high note, the book leaves Holiday's later tragedies to be explained via other works.

  • What I saw and how I lied by Judy Blundell - Evie's stepfather returns from WW2 with a few secrets, and he convinces her and her mum to leave New York for off-season Florida when one of his (alleged) old war buddies begins calling their home. What is he hiding? A budding romance with an older man distracts Evie momentarily, until her new beau seems more interested in her parents that in her.

  • Crusade: The heretic's secret, Part I by John Wilson - A brilliant depiction of the rise of the Albigensian (Cathar) Crusade, as told via the relationship between two orphan boys, John and Peter. While Peter's intensity and need for certainty and power leads to a career in the priesthood, mentored by one of the Crusade's key figures, John's love of art and literature, and his desire to question the way things are in the world, leads him to befriend the Good People (as the Cathars were known). Their lives intersect throughout the book, with often tragic consequences. At the end of this first book in a series, John is embarking on a trip to Spain with a young woman Peter once loved, and Peter is embarking on his first trip to Rome. A powerful examination of the fervent quest during the Middle Ages for the salvation of the soul, at the cost of all else.

  • Rough magic by Caryl Cude Mullin - An interpretation of the events preceding and succeding The Tempest, told from various perspectives, including that of Caliban and his mother Sycorax.

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Goodreads censored in Iran

...And I do really mean censored:

As Goodreads community manager Jessica Donaghy eloquently writes on their blog, "Goodreads has provided an online forum where Iranians participate not only in robust discussions of literature, but also, by natural extension, healthy debates about politics. We have been proud to provide this safe space for honest opinions. Last Friday, February 5, 2010, we were saddened to see Goodreads traffic in Iran plummet, which can only mean that Goodreads has joined the ranks of sites blocked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime."

More from the Guardian

More from Goodreads

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Notes on a World Class City by Vancouver poet laureate Brad Cran

Excerpt: "The great irony is that when we look to celebrate ourselves in 2010 we have simultaneously, if only temporarily, allowed Olympic bureaucrats to ignore and distort the basic principles that make Vancouver a city to be envied."

Read it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Today was a good day at work. I made an outreach visit to a First Words Screening Clinic at a local community centre, and it was a lot of fun. Basically, I hang out in the waiting room with the families until they are called in, and since it takes each family about 15 mins to be interviewed, the wait can really drag. I brought 4 books (I know, not a lot, but I can't carry the whole library!) and, since I've done one of these clinics before, I have to say, I totally chose the best books. In case you're wondering, I brought My little sister ate one hare, by Bill Grossman, Who's under that hat? by Sarah Weeks, Mille Mimi (or Maisy, if you prefer) by Lucy Cousins, and De quelle couleur est ta culotte? by Sam Lloyd. See, the key is, simple books that translate easily, since the families are (possibly) francophone and/or anglophone. Plus, the children are there because their parents are concerned about their language development, so you don't want to discourage or intimiate them. Lift-the-flaps are good. The totally obvious is good. And underwear... well, books about underwear are always a good choice.

It went well, the families read the books together and separately, I read to all the kids individually, they played with the Mimi/Maisy and Lola dolls I brought, and I handed out Every Child Ready to Read pamphlets, library program information and my cards. I even got one kid to participate in the hokey pokey, but he was totally just humouring me.

What was interesting, too, was that two of the parents asked me for help filling out the forms they were given by the clinic. It is discouraging to see how literacy can be an intergenerational problem, too. I also had a neat conversation with a mum who was in the middle of her first Canadian winter, having arrived in Dec. from Australia. She's already brought her daughter to skate on the canal.

When I got back to the branch, one of my colleagues was telling me that the executive director of one of our partner organisations had stopped by while I was gone, and was almost moved to tears by the Black History Month display that I had put up (and my colleagues Monica and Kristina helped fill!) Seriously, apparently she took pictures. And she is bringing a class in to look at it. It's nice when you see your work concretely appreciated!

Yesterday, a little girl (4, max.) watched with rapt attention while I repaired a minor tear to a page of a picture book for her. When I was done, I clapped it shut and gave it back to her, whereupon she bounced (literally) back to her reading chair, hollering YAY!

If only we could solve all our problems so quickly and efficiently....

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dangerous words: A freedom to read week event

Come on down! My local library association will be co-hosting a great event in Ottawa in exactly 2 weeks. Come for the round table and/or the drinking.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Félicitations, Michel!

Michel Rabagliati's wonderful Paul à Québec has won the Prix du public au Festival de la bande dessinée d'Angoulême.

If you haven't read the Paul series, do so immediately. Tinged with nostalgia (for childhood in the 70s, for Montreal - Rosemont, specifically, for camping...) and deeply affecting, the books follow Paul from young adulthood into parenthood. The most recent volume, Paul à Québec, deals with the death of Paul's father-in-law, a larger-than-life character whose biography is explored via flashbacks.

Beyond the affecting stories of growing up (first jobs, finding love, conceiving a child), I've learned a lot from Paul about joual (not that I didn't pick up a fair amount in the Eastern Townships...!)

Oh, prison censors... Pablo Neruda, really?

The works of (deep breath) James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen, Hunter S Thompson, John Grisham, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Walker, Pablo Neruda and Andre Gide (and others!) were all blocked in Texas prisons.

Quote of the day: "The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster and Win More Business was rejected in December, the American Statesman reported, because censors feared it 'could be used to persuade others'."

Monday, February 1, 2010

""To the author's credit, it's a good story line," ...

...but I'm still going to challenge it, because it "contains sexual content that my child, at that age, doesn't understand."

Well, duh. Don't let your kid read it, then!

Just a hint: if it's won an award for TEEN books, maybe it's a teen novel!? Maybe you should have a quick look at what your 11-year old brings home?

(book in question: One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, by Sonya Sones)