Thursday, December 28, 2006

Great Books of the Year

by Kittenpie

It’s the end of the year, and all the great wrap-up, best-of lists are flying fast and furious.
The problem with this that I haven’t even seen some of these yet! But I will only review books I have read, so it does help me narrow things down. Here are some of the most fun or interesting books I’ve read this year.

A note about ages: I do hate putting ages on book reviews because kids are all different, and some kids are ahead or behind the curve in emotional development or reading level. If you know the child, you can take that into consideration. If not, I suppose guidelines are helpful… It’s also worth noting that children are found to read at a much higher level in books of high interest, so if you know a little one who has a real passion, it’s worth tapping into it even if the book is a smidge advanced for the child’s age.

Mrs. Crump’s Cat
Linda Smith, ill. David Roberts

Mrs. Crump had no use for a cat. But somehow it found its way in and then it was one thing after another and it was the strangest thing, but she never quite managed to turn it out as she had planned, until one night she found herself, as the grocer had predicted, sitting with the cat on her lap and wondering how she ever got along without it. The woman’s slyly amusing resistance to her own gradual warming will appeal to some kids and be missed by others. For the right kid, this book is cute and funny in a wry, winking kind of way. The illustrations, too, are lovely, with a funky modern/retro feel and a comic slant that is as subtle as the text. Ages might range from 3 to 9 on this one because I think it reveals itself slowly. It will really depend on the kid, though, as it requires a little sophistication. (0060283025)

Duck & Goose
Tad Hills

When Duck and Goose both stumble on a large, round, spotted object in the park and decide it’s an egg, each becomes instantly possessive. The squabbling that ensues is funny and spot on, and gradually a friendship forms as they find common ground. By the time they discover their mistake, they are feeling downright cooperative. Sweet without a trace of saccharine, every moment is perfectly matched to the bright, fun, deceptively simple illustrations. A current favourite chez ‘pie, I’d suggest this for ages roughly 2-6. (037583611X)

Nicola Smee

A great choice for a young child who loves playing horsey, this one just begs to be read aloud with knee bounces. Bold, simple drawings and text keep it just right for the preschool set (0-5 years would be a good range here). (1905417098)

Did You Say Pears?
Arlene Alda

Fun photographs illustrate this book of homophones, pairing (heh heh) them to amusing and philosophical effect. No range on this one, they’ll get more from it as they get older, but it’s great at any age, and I know all of us grammar-freaks and word-lovers will adore sharing it. (0887767397)

Lilly’s Big Day
Kevin Henkes

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Henkes, and have made an ass of myself in front of him to prove it. Lilly is my diva of choice, cute as Olivia might be. So you know she’s convinced she’ll be the centre of everything at her teacher’s wedding… but he has a niece. Lilly las to be the bigger mouse in this story, and she comes through with flying colours. Because you know, it’s just not fabulous to sulk. For the boa-obssessed 3-7 year old in your life. (0060742372)

Ugly Fish
Karen LaReau, ill. Scott Magoon

Ugly fish is indeed ugly. He is also mean and doesn’t want to share his home, so when a smaller fish shows up… it’s not around for long. Neither is the next intruder. But one day the new interloper is bigger than him, at least as ugly, and most certainly as mean. Gulp. What’s an Ugly Fish to do now? Funny and slightly twisted, this would appeal to a kid who is a little bit older, so that they are beyond the point of being really fearful and could get the humour in it, maybe 4-9 years old. (0152050825)

Once Upon a Banana
Jennifer Armstrong, ill. David Small

The slapstick comedy in this book starts with an old classic – the banana peel. The action doesn’t stop there, though, and the simple slip is elevated to a crazy rollicking trip right around the block, following the chaos as one mishap begets another. The book is nearly wordless, but the sharp-eyed will note the added jokes tucked on the signs that are more than just background. Great for older kids who can get it alone as well as ones who love to seek and discuss small details. The humour in it gives it a pretty wide-ranging a-peel (hyuk hyuk), from ages 3 to 9 or so. (0689842511)

The Cow Who Clucked
Denise Fleming

One of the very few authors who I would recommend without even seeing her new books, Denise Fleming almost never misses the mark. Her trademark vibrant pictures and simple, preschool-friendly text make for perfect read-alouds for ages 0-5. (08050726590

Owen and Mzee
Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Paula Kahumbu, photos by Peter Greste

The only non-fiction on this list, this longer and more difficult picture book tells the story of the hippo and tortoise who became fast friends – even family, some say – after the baby hippo lost his mother in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. This is, in the name of fair warning, a story that may well require being prepared to talk about disaster and death, but it’s also a lovely, poignant tale of starting over. Ages 4-10 would enjoy this, I think. (0439829739).

Emily Gravett

One of a pair of strange but really fun and interesting picture books that I’m including. This is for a somewhat older kid with a slightly dark sense of humour (maybe 6-9 years). It sees a rabbit reading a book about wolves from the library and encountering a less-than-comfy truth about their eating habits when the wolf comes right out of the pages. (There’s an alternate ending for the squeamish, though…) (1405050829)

David Wiesner

David Wiesner is a master of fantastical, wordless, and utterly stunning picture books, garnering multiple Caldecott medals and honours and making even Chris van Allsburg look tame. His latest is one of my favourites (along with Sector 7). A young boy finds an underwater camera at the beach containing images of amazing worlds under the sea, and one that shows child after child through the years holding photos from the camera. He keeps the chain going by taking his own picture and tossing the camera back to the sea, where it once again finds unseen and unimagined things to photograph. A wide range of ages can enjoy this one because it has so much to find in it and, being wordless, kids of different stages can impose on it what they want (0-10, perhaps?). (0618194576)

Houndsley and Catina
James Howe, ill. Marie-Louise Gay

An early chapter book, this one is contains three sweet stories of two friends on their search for their niche and perhaps even a little fame. I am a sucker for friend stories, especially for the young, and these are particularly good in that they avoid the trap of being too sweet but are warm and fuzzy, too. Gay’s illustration add to everything she touches, too, and this is no exception. (She has a book out this year that sounds hilarious for middle grades: Travels With My Family, about childhood road trips, but I have yet to see it, so won’t review it. I love her sense of humour though, so it’s a good bet nevertheless.) This is a book aimed at grade 2/3, though there is room for it up or down a grade depending on the reading level. (0763624047)

Me and the Blondes
Teresa Toten

Having a murderer for a father has driven Sophia out of school after school, but she has learned along the way, and at her new school, she’s got a plan. First and most important is to get in with the Blondes. But the Blondes aren’t as “blonde” as she thought. Turns out they have problems too, and the friendships are solid, cemented by secrets and support. Reads like chicklit with a heart and a brain. Good stuff! It’s in the teen section in Toronto’s libraries, but could be read by a grade 6 or possibly even a very mature grade 5, while I think a kid over grade 9 might find it too young. Nominated for the Governor General’s Award for literature. (0143053078)

Friendships: Stories
Budge Wilson

Wilson sets out by telling us that the friendships in these are not all regular friendships, some are not even between people. I wasn’t impressed by the first story, but it is I think the weakest, for I quite enjoyed most of the others. I am a sucker for a tale of friendship, but these are not, as he forewarns, your typical sappy stuff, and there is indeed a nice variety here. Another Governor General’s Award nominee for literature. I think a more mature grade 5 would be okay with this, but for most kids, grade 6-9 or 10 seems a better range. (0143017667)

Casey At The Bat
Ernest L. Thayer, ill. Joe Morse

Another in Kids Can Press’s Visions In Poetry series, which has been garnering so much acclaim for making some classics new and accessible. I think that’s particularly the case with this one, made edgy and current with the simple devices of font and illustration. Instead of going Rockwellian as so many do with this poem, Morse has made it into a multicultural, tough, urban showdown, and it really works. Even the text is not set in neat poetical lines, but encircled in speech bubbles and made forceful with two different very modern fonts. It really takes the whole thing from sweet nostalgic tale to the kind of inner city grittiness that could hold appeal for even those too enamoured of thug culture to read much else. A Governor General’s Award nominee for illustration. The text is accessible to younger kids, but this setting really puts this book in a wide range, say grades 5-12. (155337827X)

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow
Faiza Guene

Ask Me No Questions
Marina Budhos

These books both feature teenaged muslim girls as main characters, and each grows and comes into her own over the course of the novel. In Kiffe Kiffe, a poor girl in the projects outside of Paris is beginning to shut out hope of anything better until people around her – her mother and an older friend - start to find ways of improving their situation and their outlook, and she too starts to see things looking up. (0156030489) The beautifully written Ask Me No Questions is centred around a family of Bangladeshi illegal aliens living in Queens. When the climate changes after 9/11, the father panics, and the family flees to seek asylum in Canada, and are turned away by immigration officials who are swamped with applicants, her father detained. As her older sister sinks into despair, the younger daughter finds her voice, and becomes the hero of the family. (1416903518)
I would suggest both of these as teen titles for high schoolers.

We All Fall Down
Eric Walters

This is one of the first books to deal directly with 9/11 for kids and teens, and does so quite well. The story is told realistically, and really gives a sense of what it must have been like to be in the midst of it. I also liked the way the boy’s relationship with his father changes over the course of just a couple of extraordinary hours. My only beef was that the ending was a bit false, but I think even for a teen book, the author really wanted to put one happy ending on this day, and I can certainly understand that impulse. Grades 6-11.

Half Moon Investigations
Eoin Colfer

Colfer (author of the fantastic Artemis Fowl series) is a master of writing the kind of action that you can see playing out on the big screen. Here he turns to a young boy who finds himself in hot water when his detective career goes awry and he becomes a suspect himself. Fast, brilliant fun for grades 4/5 to 9.

My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary
Nadja Halilbegovich

This book has been described as a modern Anne Frank for the war in Bosnia-Herzigovina, with its diary format. The young girl in hiding is indeed poignant in many of the same ways, but I found this interesting for two important differences. This girl had a fair bit of information about what was going on due to the radio and newspapers, so her writing is surprisingly informed for a young girl. I find her more mature than the older Anne, in fact. Secondly, this girl survives. This does change how you read the diary, of course, and has also allowed her to intersperse her diary entries with remembrances, giving it further context and the perspective of an adult looking back on her experiences. A vivid and important reminder about the horrors of war, and a rare look at that particular conflict, this is a strong book for an older child or a teen grade 6 and up.

A career Children’s Librarian, kittenpie has worked in library systems in both New York and Toronto, and delights in sharing favourite books with kids of all ages. Settled back in Toronto, she now brings work home to read to her own little Pumpkinpie.


metro mama said...

Thansk kittenpie! I am often overwhelmed by the selection of children's books. I will be referring to your recos often.

Lisa b said...

holy kp you have been busy!
I don't think I can ever keep up with your recommendations but thanks for the tips.
I will refer back

crazymumma said...

I love all of your recommendations!
Right now, bigirl is immersed in all of the Ramona books, anything by Kate Dicamillo, Harry Potter. There are so many good books out there, I would love to know of a good one about peer pressure in school. Any hints?

kittenpie said...

crazymumma -
I love the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, actually, and they go through a whole range of ages (which does mean - look for the young ones which aren't into the whole boys issue stuff yet). They are about a girl growing up without a mom and all the situations she finds herself in growing up and how she wishes she could talk to someone - but it's not a downer, it's just really real and she takes all the crap of preteen years head-on better than most people I've seen.

A lot of the girl-oriented books in school settings do take this on - you might look at some of the better series, like Amber Brown, Junie B. Jones, etc. I'm not a big fan of series overall, but kids tend to like them around the 7-10 year old window, and a lot of them deal in the kind of situations kids find themselves in, so I can see the appeal.

Sandra said...

Thanks for this list and for including different age ranges. I will print it out to bring wiht me the next time we are book shopping

Ali said...

owen and mzee is at the top of my list@
(i reviewed it to use in one of our programs.) love it!

i'm also a huge kevin kenkes fan and i love love love Lilly. she reminds me so much of my daughter Emily and i adore every story he's written about her. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse is my favorite.

mo-wo said...

We had a tough call on our Christmas pick to give this year... I shied away from the David Wiesner (Sector 7 in our case,.... we love Sector 7!!) because it seems sort of prentious. Am I wrong?

And, I picked up the tip for Ziggy and Plugfish... bought it for some sharp 4th graders and reviews seem good.

something blue said...

Thanks a lot for feeding my book addiction! I better get to the library soon.