Saturday, January 10, 2009

Grabbers: The Best Books I Read in 2008

Alabama Moon, by Watt Key (2006, ages 9-12)

I’m with the crowd asking why Key’s book didn’t get a Newbery, or at least a Newbery Honor. What an amazing read! Its young hero reminded me of Candide crossed with Maniac Magee. The adventure just sings, buoyed up by an underlayer of emotional resonance.

Moon Blake has been raised in the backwoods by his survivalist father, and he’s learned his lessons well—he can trap, fish, dig for roots, and handle almost anything the wilderness might throw at him. He is less well prepared for the challenges of civilization, however. When his father dies, ten-year-old Moon attempts to comply with his father’s final instructions to go to Alaska and look for other people who hate the government, but he soon finds himself caught up in a system that doesn’t understand him in the least. From the hostility of a rural constable to the walls of a reform school, the traps close in on Moon. But he adapts by applying his survival skills in creative ways, and pretty soon he and two new friends are on the run, back in the woods. Of course, even a capable kid like Moon can’t solve every problem.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its characters, which are flawed, yet real and likable. Moon is a very compelling young hero, but the secondary characters are of interest, too. For example, Hal is first introduced as a bully, but Moon doesn’t know how to play that social game. He fends off Hal’s attacks, then casually befriends the baffled boy. No one has ever expected anything but trouble from Hal, and Moon’s straightforward respect helps Hal to become a different person.

I should note that this book has rich appeal for boy readers, more than just about anything I’ve ever read.

Since I came a little late to Alabama Moon, which was originally published in September 2006, I’ll note that some reviewers have objected to the book’s happy ending—and to them I say, well, every so often, in actual real life, things turn out right. For example, I know an older couple who recently adopted a six-year-old child out of the foster system. She is now being raised by loving, educated people who deeply care about her needs. So yeah, it can happen.

That said, I think the ending of this book works. It doesn’t seem tacked on so much as well earned by the indomitable Moon. Read Watt Key’s wonderful book and you’ll see what I mean.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (2008, ages 9-12)

I’m not generally crazy about horror, but I was a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan because (a) it was essentially fantasy and (b) the writing and storytelling were simply amazing. That’s pretty much how I feel about Neil Gaiman’s work. Coraline wasn’t my favorite book in the world, but it was arguably good. And now, with The Graveyard Book, I leave behind any lingering reluctance about genre to exclaim that Gaiman has written the proverbial tour de force, taking Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as his starting point and creating something utterly new.

Bod (Nobody) Owens is a toddler when his family is brutally murdered in the middle of the night. He wakes up and leaves the house, meandering over to the edge of the nearby cemetery. There he is rescued from the murderous Jack by Silas and the Owens—a vampire and a ghostly couple. The Owens take the little boy in and raise him in the cemetery, with Silas (AKA Bagheera) providing food and protection. (Note that the word “vampire” is never actually used in the book—readers are left to draw their own conclusions about Silas.)

Bod is educated by other ghosts, and one of the droller aspects of the book is that we understand what Bod does not: that his curriculum is thoroughly antiquated, being taught by tutors who predate him by a century or two. But he learns other useful things in the graveyard, phantasmal skills such as Fading, Haunting, and Dreamwalking. He also befriends a dead witch and a live girl and learns just why ghouls should be avoided.

I first read about Bod in a short story in an anthology last summer. I was utterly riveted and went to Gaiman’s website to beg him to write more about the boy raised in a cemetery. Upon discovering that a whole book was coming out, I marked the publication date on my calendar. When the day finally arrived, I rushed over to the bookstore and waited for a clerk to open up a box in the storeroom so I could get my copy.

As they say (far too often!), I was not disappointed. I think what I like best about The Graveyard Book is the tenderness intertwined with the horror. This book isn’t just a macabre adventure story: it is creative and funny and poignant and scary all at the same time.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (2007, Young Adult; I’d add ages 9-12)

Shaun Tan’s lengthy, wordless fable may be the most stunning book ever to emerge from the field of children’s literature. Of course, it is just as easily a book for adults. Having read Tan’s intriguing book, The Red Tree, I had looked forward to seeing what he would create next. It’s an understatement to say that The Arrival surpassed my expectations. I suggest you find a quiet place and block out some time to experience his book uninterrupted.

The Arrival is the story of an immigrant. With its sepia tones and old-fashioned clothing, it appears to be set in the 1940s, its hero leaving Eastern Europe to find a home in America. But readers will soon realize that the tale is set in another world altogether. The language of that new world—as written on incomprehensible signs—is like nothing we have ever seen before. Neither are the pets or the public statues or the mechanisms of everyday life.

If you know anything about Tan’s earlier work, you might ascribe the fantastical machines and animals in The Arrival to his penchant for including such things in his work. But these components take on a new meaning in the context of immigration: readers become immigrants themselves, just as baffled by the things they see as our quiet hero is.

The implied time setting serves to remind us that our ancestors were all immigrants at one point or another. And so The Arrival succeeds in its quest to universalize the immigrant experience—a feeling reinforced by the tales that the main character and his new friends share about the kinds of oppression they fled in their former homes.

Funny how such a pointed tale doesn’t seem didactic. Instead it is a rich, heartfelt read, with details such as the contents of the man’s suitcase juxtaposed with sweeping vistas such as the clouds overlooking his journey by boat to a new land. In Shaun Tan’s work, everything becomes fraught with symbolic meaning, yet none of it seems heavy-handed. Tan’s book is a gift, and it is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Note: I’ve been telling people about this book all last year, so I was very pleased to see it win a 2008 Special Citation for Excellence in Graphic Storytelling from the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee.

Forever Rose, by Hilary McKay (2008, Young Adult; I’d add ages 9-12)

I’m a big fantasy fan, but Hilary McKay’s five books about the eccentric Casson family are my new favorites when it comes to realistic contemporary fiction for children. Like her predecessors—Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh, and Cynthia Voigt—McKay has created a group of characters that simply can’t be compared to any others.

You really, really need to read all of the books in order: Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, Caddy Ever After, and Forever Rose. You’ll meet the ineffectual Casson parents—a dreamy mother who is usually painting in a shed in the backyard and a vain artist father who spends most of his time in the city trying to impress people. Then there are the children, each of whom is named after a paint color. Each also has a book, though irrepressible Rose eventually takes over the series. First Saffy (Saffron) tries to find out about her adoption and befriends a non-stereotypical girl in a wheelchair. Then musician Indigo faces bullies with some help from his sister and her friend. Artist Rose, who is the youngest, paints on the walls and deals with her father’s defects and defection, among other adventures. Eldest Caddy (Cadmium) is crazy for animals, falls for her driving instructor, and leads the troops because of her parents’ absentminded absences. These plots might sound typical, but as you read the books they become something new. You fall in love with these characters and they seem completely real—one of the greatest compliments I can give to any book.

For the record, Saffy’s Angel won all kinds of recognition from reviewers and award committees, starting with the British Whitbread Award for best children’s book of 2002. The other books have also been well reviewed.

I will note that I loved the Casson books so much I went looking for McKay’s earlier work, but I was a little disappointed. Although her older stuff is fun, it isn’t nearly as compelling as the newer books. Suffice it to say that the author came into her own with her stories about the Casson family. I implore you to add them to your shelf of books!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney (2007, ages 9-12)

In the same way that Mo Willems has shot to the top of the picture book world, Jeff Kinney seemingly came out of the blue to write the quintessential book for and about middle school boys. Which is a real relief because, as Jon Scieska has pointed out, there aren’t that many great books for and about boys out there, partly explaining why boys don’t read more.

A latecomer to Kinney’s books, I don’t feel I need to discuss plot in detail, except to say that the books make you want to tell someone about different scenes in order to make them laugh. Coincidentally enough, this is the same way a boy the age of main character, Greg Heffley, might come home from seeing a funny movie and retell scenes in limpid, clear language along the following lines: “And then [stop to snort with laughter], and then [laugh some more] he did this thing, and then [laugh-laugh-laugh] it was just so funny!” Which reminds me that a very nice pothead in one of my high school English classes used to recounts scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a similar fashion when we were supposed to be listening to the teacher.

Okay, so my favorite detail is the Cheese Touch, which alludes to the way that any kid who accidentally touches the decrepit piece of cheese lying on the outdoor basketball court at Greg’s school since time immemorial is said to have the equivalent of leprosy, or at least the cooties, until someone else is touched by him and it’s passed along.

I did find myself telling my nephew, when I got him the first book for Christmas, “Now, the main kid in this story is kind of selfish, but he doesn’t know he’s selfish.” Which makes it, not necessarily okay, but all the more funny, for some reason. My nephew and I were both happy to learn that the third book, after Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules (2008), is coming out at the end of this month: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw. You should read it. Because it’s really [snort, snort, chortle] funny!

Savvy, by Ingrid Law (2008, ages 9-12)

Mibs Beaumont’s relatives on her mother’s side all have unique magical gifts called savvies, and now it's her turn—almost. Mibs is about to turn 13, which is when a savvy manifests itself. One of her brothers channels electricity and another creates storms (not always conveniently!). Her mother’s intimidating savvy is to do things perfectly, while her grandfather can create new land where there wasn’t any before. I like how her great-aunt would go back in time 20 minutes every time she sneezed, but my favorite savvy is the one that belonged to Mibs’s grandmother—she collected snippets of old radio music in jars to play back later simply by taking off the lids.

The whole family is gearing up for Mibs’s 13th birthday and the onset of her savvy when disaster strikes: her father, who is out of town, gets in a car accident and hovers near death. With the wild hope that her soon-to-be savvy will allow her to heal people, Mibs sets out to see her father—only she doesn’t have permission to go. Soon she and a little entourage of fellow runaways have commandeered the bus of a traveling Bible salesman and are making their unexpectedly circuitous way to her father’s bedside.

The savvies, Mibs’s interactions with her sibling and friends, and odd bits and pieces of plot such as the salesman’s trouble selling a shipment of pink Bibles all combine to make Law’s book a fresh contribution to a genre that too often consists of a stultifying blur of swords and magic portals. (An agent once told me he simply refused to read even one more attempted fantasy featuring kids going through a magic portal!) It just won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award, and there’s been some talk about it getting a Newbery nod. Whether that happens or not, Savvy is helping to reshape a genre that, by its very nature, calls out for continual reshaping.

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories, by Joan Aiken (2008, ages 9-12)

In my first riff (soon to post!), I’m going to talk about people getting a little tired of British fantasy, but the fact remains that the best of it is simply outstanding—I’m thinking of two of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, among others. The Serial Garden is a somewhat old-fashioned book, a collection of stories Joan Aiken wrote over the course of many years, and yet it’s utterly compelling and fresh.

Think about it: who wouldn’t want the chance to raise a baby griffin? One reason for Aiken’s success her is that none of the outlandish scenarios are treated by her characters as if they were shocking. Whether Harriet and Mark are kept up late doing assignments by a ghostly governess while supposedly on vacation or their parents are turned into ladybirds (ladybugs), they see the situations as handy adventures or problems to be solved. The parents are especially stoic about all of this random magic.

Aiken is sometimes poignant and often funny. Yes, if the golden apple is in your house, the three Furies are likely to move into the coal cellar and cast an aura of gloom over the whole place. If miniature people live nearby, they are simply another set of neighbors, and fairly troublesome ones, at that. Living in a magical spot can also mean your home will be co-opted by wizards or cursed by witches at some point. And if you’re an Armitage, you really must keep an eye out for elderly druids fighting over a bathmat made of beard hair in your backyard.

Paper Towns, by John Green (2008, Young Adult)

I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about and read one of John Green’s books. So hey—he’s a really good writer! That just might kind of possibly explain all those awards and glowing reviews. At any rate, I would say that John Green has claimed the crown as the new voice of YA fiction for boys, with Rachel Cohn as his counterpart for girls (a sort of anti-Homecoming king and queen, considering the outsider status of their key characters). Put it this way: Green and Cohn’s books are the ones I usually recommend to people who want to know what YA is all about these days.

If you want to be convinced that Green is good at what he does, read the first chapter of the dreadful Daniel X by overly popular writer James Patterson. Then read the first chapter of Paper Towns. Now, and this is tricky: which character do you care about? Please mark Q or—if you’re from the distant planet Who Cares—X.

Yes, folks, it’s all about the characters. Okay, well, plot matters, but plot without characters who matter is simply a waste of your valuable page time, especially when it comes to Young Adult fiction. In Paper Towns, we find that main character Quentin has been watching his bold neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, from afar for a long time, so when she comes to his bedroom window asking him to take her on a vengeful series of midnight adventures, he quickly caves. Then Margo disappears, leaving Q to solve the mystery of her whereabouts and plans.

John Green uses the odd device of a paper town as the key symbol in this book; he also incorporates Walt Whitman’s poetry. A review I read complained that Quentin and Margo are one-dimensional and fail to ring true—like the paper towns. I would say instead that Green makes a point of showing us that Q thinks he knows who Margo is, and she thinks she knows who he is, but both are wrong. They eventually begin to move past their flat views of each another to catch glimpses of dimensionality. Which is what’s supposed to happen in real life, let alone in a book for and about teens.

Note for WPs (Worried Parents): There is enough talk about sex, drinking, and body parts in Paper Towns that you may not want your child to read it, especially if he or she is at the preteen end of the spectrum.

Traction Man Meets Turbodog, by Mini Grey (2008, Picture Book)

I am, quite simply, in love with this book, and with its predecessor, Traction Man Is Here! It represents action figure play better than anything I’ve seen since Pixar’s Toy Story. The child who owns the titular toy hovers just outside the edge of the story telling as Traction Man takes center stage, along with his faithful pal, Scrubbing Brush (cleverly drawn to act like a little dog).

In this second book, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush get dirty playing, so much so that the kid’s father apparently attempts to throw Scrubbing Brush away and replace him with a snazzy new sidekick, Turbodog. Not only does Turbodog make a lousy Robin to Traction Man’s Batman, but Traction Man is worried about his missing friend. He sets out on a quest to find Scrubbing Brush, accompanied by the obnoxious one-note Turbodog.

Deadpan humor is the name of the game here, but I’m going to stop trying to describe these books and just tell you—step over all the action figures in your kid’s room and read the Traction Man books with him!

The Flim-Flam Fairies, by Alan Katz (2008, Picture Book)

Could it be that there is too much bathroom humor in this picture book? Of course not! Yet I don’t hear much talk about The Flim-Flam Fairies on the Web. I’m telling you, this one should be the new gold standard for potty humor. Forget Walter the Farting Dog; Flim-Flam Fairies is the book for any child who likes to say “poo” and then fall apart laughing!

In this cumulative tale, the sweet Tooth Fairy actually ends up losing her temper. But first the young reader is addressed by a series of fake fairies who interrupt each other to offer outrageous deals. All the child has to do is tuck certain items under his (or her) pillow: we meet the Earwax Fairy, the Dirty Underwear Fairy, and the Clipped Toenail Fairy, to name just a few. Rendered in a nice graphic style by Michael Slack, the fairies are a parade of goofy thugs, each with a slightly different wing style. The Flim-Flam Fairies is such a great, icky book for little boys—and also for small girls who aren’t obsessed with pink! (In fact, if Fancy Nancy ever had an opposite number, this would have to be it.)


The next two writers are in my small writing group, so I’ll just confess my bias up front. But here’s why you should check out their most recent books:

Death by Latte, by Linda Gerber (2008, Young Adult, though I’d add Tweens)

Aphra Connolly is gearing up to be the tween and teen girl’s answer to Alex Rider, especially in this second book. (At first I thought Aphra was going to be the new Nancy Drew, but there’s too much international travel and suspense for such a small-town, albeit classic, model.) The first book, Death by Bikini, was a lot of fun, but Gerber really hits her stride with Death by Latte.

Aphra fools her father and flies to Seattle in search of her mother, who has her reasons for not having been in touch—she’s CIA, in search of a rogue agent. The bad guys would love to use Aphra against her mother, but it’s still a shock when Aphra realizes her mom is not happy to see her. Aphra also has another encounter with Seth Mulo, whom she met in the first book, and discovers he has his own agenda. Soon an agent is murdered and Aphra and Seth must find the information he hid before he died—while avoiding a swirl of danger and double crosses. I look forward to the next chapter in Aphra’s adventures, Death by Denim, which is due out in May 2009!

Daughter of War, by Marsha Skrypuch (2008, Young Adult)

Historical fiction isn’t usually my first pick, but you should know what this Canadian writer has been up to: she’s telling the kinds of stories most people don’t know about or think about, and yes, she’s gotten death threats. She was also given a medal of honor by the President of Ukraine for her work. Skrypuch primarily writes books about dark chapters in history, such as the Ukrainian and Armenian genocides.

Daughter of War continues a story begun in Skrypuch’s 2003 book, Nobody’s Child. Marta has managed to escape the genocide, but she is virtually a slave and even becomes a concubine while living in Turkey, pretending to be Muslim. Amid shifting politics and threats, she struggles to locate her sister and her friend Kevork. Even if she can find Kevork again, will he accept what has happened to her since they were separated by the war? Teachers who’ve been concentrating on the Holocaust should seriously consider rounding out their curriculum with Skrypuch’s painfully moving books from the hidden corners of history.


Tarie Sabido said...

Hi, Kate! Nice to see your baby blog. :o)

Anonymous said...

GREAT blog, Kate!

Homeschool Friend said...

Welcome to the world of book blogging! Your blog looks great! I look forward to following along!


Sally Murphy said...

Great blog Kate. I'm adding you to my blogroll now.

Unknown said...

you know what my next "fix" is going to be...all those books you listed on your blog!!
great job on getting your blog started. you're going to love it!!!--kc