My Decade in Kidlit

In the summer of 1999, I started keeping a log of all the books I read except for picture books, and still keep it to this day. Which means I have a handy record of my decade in reading. This morning, I went through and picked out my own personal favorite middle-grade and teen books of the past ten years. Here's the list. I I tried in vain get it down to 100, but did manage to winnow it down from 143 to 103, with an asterisk for my (somewhat arbitrarily chosen) favorite from each year. But really, those favorites are pretty arbitrary: how can a person pick between Feed and The Wee Free Men? Between Persepolis and Inkheart and The City of Ember? It's futile, I tell you.

One note: These books are listed by the year I read them, not by when they were published. I left out books I read earlier and re-read between 2000 and 2009, but did include older books that I was reading for the first time.

2000

  • 1.       The Good Liar, by  Gregory Maguire
  • 2.       Soldier Mom, by Alice Mead
  • 3.       *Rules of the Road, by Joan Bauer (teen)

[it was the year my daughter was born; I read a lot of fluff and parenting books. Or maybe I was too frazzled to record everything I read?]

2001

  • 4.       Homeless Bird,  by Gloria Whelan
  • 5.       Nory Ryan’s Song, by Patricia Reilly Giff
  • 6.       Little Lit, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly (graphica)
  • 7.       The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
  • 8.       In My Hands, by Irene Gut Opdyke (NF, teen)
  • 9.       Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson (teen)
  • 10.   Welcome to the Ark, by Stephanie Tolan (teen)
  • 11.   *Seek, by Paul Fleischman (teen)
  • 12.   Monster, by Walter Dean Myers (teen)

2002

  • 13.   *The School Story, by Andrew Clements
  • 14.   Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, by Peg Kehret (NF)
  • 15.   The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares (teen)
  • 16.   The Doll People, by Ann Martin and Laura Selznick
  • 17.   A Suitcase of Seaweed, by Janet Wong (poetry)
  • 18.   Here at the Scenic-Vu Motel, by Thelma Hatch Wyss (teen, sort of)
  • 19.   Hush, by Jacqueline Woodson

2003

  • 20.   Lord of the Nutcracker Men, by Iain Lawrence
  • 21.   Walk Across the Sea, by Susan Fletcher
  • 22.   Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
  • 23.   Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (teen/adult) (graphica)
  • 24.   Inkheart, by Cordelia Funke
  • 25.   *City of Ember, by Jeanne Duprau
  • 26.   Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan (teen)
  • 27.   Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen

2004

  • 28.   Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (teen, kinda)
  • 29.   The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
  • 30.   The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath (teen)
  • 31.   Hana’s Suitcase, by Karen Levine (NF)
  • 32.   Saffy’s Angel, by Hilary McKay
  • 33.   Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn (teen)
  • 34.   House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer (teen, I guess)
  • 35.   The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
  • 36.  * Feed, by M.T. Anderson (teen)
  • 37.   The Wreckers, by Iain Lawrence
  • 38.   Belondweg Blossoming, by Rachel Hartman (graphica)

2005

  • 39.   Tangerine, by Edward Bloor
  • 40.   Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
  • 41.   Ida B. …and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by  Katherine Hannigan
  • 42.   *Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer
  • 43.   Permanent Rose, by Hilary McKay
  • 44.   Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
  • 45.   East, by Edith Pattou
  • 46.   How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (teen)
  • 47.   So B. It, by Sarah Weeks
  • 48.   Airborn, by  Kenneth Oppel
  • 49.   Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee

2006

  • 50.   The Misadventures of Maude March, by Audrey Coloumbis
  • 51.   *Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary Schmidt
  • 52.   The Mulberry Project, by Linda Sue Park
  • 53.   The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall
  • 54.   The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson
  • 55.   What I Call Life, by Jill Wolfson
  • 56.   Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy

2007

  • 57.   Fly By Night, by Frances Hardinge
  • 58.   Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin
  • 59.   Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
  • 60.   Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn/David Levithan (teen)
  • 61.   Counting on Grace, by Elizabeth Winthrop
  • 62.   Tyrell, by Coe Booth (teen)
  • 63.   An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green (teen)
  • 64.   *A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, by Laura Amy Schlitz
  • 65.   Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
  • 66.   Octavian Nothing Volume 1, by M.T. Anderson (teen)
  • 67.   Clementine, by Sarah Pennypacker
  • 68.   American Born Chinese, by Gene Yuen Yang (teen) (graphica)
  • 69.   Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
  • 70.   Toys Go Out, by Emily Jenkins
  • 71.   Harry Sue, by Sue Stauffacher
  • 72.   Vive La Paris, by Esme Codell
  • 73.   Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman (teen/adult)

2008

  • 74.   The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages
  • 75.   Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller
  • 76.   Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! By Amy Laura Schlitz
  • 77.   The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (teen)
  • 78.   The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (graphica)
  • 79.   The Dairy Queen, by  Catherine Gilbert Murdock (teen)
  • 80.   Someday This Pain will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron (teen)
  • 81.   Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin (teen)
  • 82.   A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban
  • 83.   Shooting the Moon, by Frances O’Roark Dowell
  • 84.   The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes
  • 85.   London Calling, by Edward Bloor (teen)
  • 86.   The Dragonfly Pool, by Eva Ibbotson
  • 87.   Fat Kit Rules the World, by K.L. Going (teen)
  • 88.   The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (teen)
  • 89.   *The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by  E. Lockhart (teen)
  • 90.   Ten Cents a Dance, by  Christine Fletcher (teen)

2009

  • 91.   Tender Morsels, by  Margo Lanagan (teen)
  • 92.   What I Saw and How I Lied, by  Judy Blundell (teen)
  • 93.   The Graveyard Book,  by Neil Gaiman
  • 94.   Sweethearts, by  Sara Zarr (teen)
  • 95.   Life as We Knew It, by  Susan Beth Pfeiffer (teen)
  • 96.   My Tiki Girl, by Jennifer McMahon (teen)
  • 97.   Marcello and the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (teen)
  • 98.   Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau S. Wilce
  • 99.   Gullstruck Island [a/k/a The Lost Conspiracy] by Frances Hardinge
  • 100.                        Jellicoe Road, by  Melina Marchetta (teen)
  • 101.                        *When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
  • 102.                        Liar, by  Justine Larbalestier (teen)

103.                        ..and Ash, by  Malinda Lo, if I finish it tonight!

May we all have the problem of too many good books to read in 2010 and the years and decades beyond. Happy New Year!

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Doll Magic

My daughter, an only child with two December holidays to celebrate, predictably cleaned up in the gift department this year, and is revelling in all the shiny new loot. One of her very favorite presents, though, is not new at all.

When I was a kid, I collected dollhouse furniture for several years. The plan was for my mom and me to put together an elaborate Victorian dollhouse together from a kit that she'd bought. The dollhouse project, alas, was never completed, but the furniture kept accumulating. Some of it I bought, and some was given to me. So not only did I have a family of four dolls and a complete dollhouse living room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bathroom (with porcelain toilet and clawfoot tub), but a multitude of miniature food, dishes, doll toys, tiny books...even a cardboard dollhouse for the dolls to play with. My grandmother embroidered blankets and knitted little throw rugs for the dolls. My cousin went to China for two years and came back with wooden dollhouse-sized thermoses and tea mugs. Someone gave me a metal piggybank in the shape of a woodstove. None of it was incredibly valuable on its own, but all together it was an amazing wealth of dollhouse stuff.

A few months ago, my aunt e-mailed me and asked if I wanted her to ship me the box of dollhouse furnishings, which had been stored at her house for the past twenty-five years.. I was grateful that she'd kept my things all these years and excited to see them again, but wasn't sure how well the fragile materials would have stood their travels. And indeed, the first few pieces I took out of the box--including two of the four dolls, and the prized wooden bunk bed that I'd bought with my own money--were badly broken. But most of the furniture and other things, and the father and daughter dolls, had survived intact. With my spouse's encouragement, I wrapped all the non-broken items in tissue paper, packed them into two large gift bags, and gave them to my daughter on the seventh night of Hanukkah.

I wasn't sure how she'd react. Though she loves dolls, they hadn't been high on her wish list this year; instead, she'd been pretty clear that she wanted more Webkinz, an iPod, and a Nintendo DS, none of which we planned to give her. I was a little worried that she'd see the dollhouse things as second-best.

I couldn't have been more wrong. As she unwrapped the tiny things, one after another, her wonderment and excitement grew. Over and over, she pronounced them "totally awesome" and "better than a hundred million Webkinz." She exclaimed over the little napkins with minute metal napkin holders; the toolbox with tools; the miniture roll-top desk. She asked for her small wooden dollhouse to be brought back into her room from the garage; the furniture didn't nearly fit, so she cleared out some of her old books (she has a lot of books, not surprisingly) and converted two of her upper bookshelves into a doll bedroom and nursery.

Finally, we persuaded her to go to bed herself. She tucked the father and daughter dolls into their beds in the bookcase (the mother and son, she declared, were at the hospital recovering from a car accident; we have hopes of getting them fixed at a real doll hospital), and then showed me the ribbon she'd draped from the father's room on one shelf to the daughter's room, two shelves below. "So if they can move around when I'm asleep, like in The Doll People, they won't fall and get hurt going from one room to the other," she explained matter-of-factly. Then, for good measure, she put a pillow on the floor, in case the dolls fell or wanted to visit the kitchen and living room in the main dollhouse on the other side of her room.

All of which is by way of a lengthy introduction to this list of books about dolls, which figure so prominently in the holiday season: as gifts, as the premise of seasonal ballets, and as figures in creches and tree ornaments and miniature train sets and villages.

Perfect for any doll-loving girls you know, and boys too; one 4th-grade boy memorably declared to me several years ago that "The Doll People ROCKS!"
Godden's The Doll's House is often cited as the definitive dollhouse novel for kids, but this is the one I remember best: the tale of a girl far from home, who finds solace in making a home for two dolls.
The adventurous action figure who stars in this book is even a Christmas present.
The dark side of dolls. I admit I'm not planning on giving this to my daughter any time soon; it might make her afraid of her dollhouse. Excellent for older kids and the less squeamish, though.
 Another dark look at dollhouses, though the dolls here aren't as malevolent as Sleator's.
There are many gorgeous retellings of this popular seasonal ballet, including one wonderful Hanukkah adapation, The Golden Dreydl (by my cousin! Not that I'm biased or anything...)
Lifesize dolls on the run. Sounds creepy, I know, but you become quite fond of them.
A classic.
 Another classic.

Oooh, I just loved this one. A classic in the making, with a lovely old-fashioned feel.

For many people, this season of lights holds the promise of magic, and somehow these miniature reproductions of human beings embody that promise. It's easy to feel, like my daughter does, a tingle of possibility in the presence of dolls: they're not alive, we know they're not, and yet...what if they might be? That edge of uncertainty holds the key to the enchantment and the eeriness of dolls.

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No-Spoiler Zone: Two Great 2009 Books

Sometimes it’s tricky to know how much to reveal when I’m recommending or reviewing a book. There are books where I can tell you the whole plot and it won’t ruin it for you; and there are others where even mentioning the book’s genre will give too much away and diminish the reading experience for whoever reads what I wrote.

Two of the most lauded titles of 2009, which also happen to be two of my favorite books from this year, fall into the latter category. Though the two are very different, they have this in common: while I was reading each book, I was fully inside its world. And as soon as I finished each of them, I wanted to go back to the beginning and immediately start reading again to see what I’d missed, and how the puzzle was put together.

Both titles could be categorized as interstitial—they don’t fit neatly into one literary genre. The first, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, is utterly grounded in its time and place, which is New York City in the late 1970's, but doesn’t have that remote, “this is how we did things then” sense that so many historical novels do. Rather, to me, someone who is the exact same age as the protagonist, Miranda, (twelve years old in 1978), the book has the feel of a contemporary novel actually written at that time, like something I could have plucked off the spinner of paperback books in the reading corner of my 3rd grade open classroom and then spent the whole day with.

Though it reads like 1970’s contemporary realism, When You Reach Me has more to offer than wry first-person narration and latchkey kids and seedy delis and an un-gentrified Upper West Side and a mom studying for her appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid (though those would be plenty for me). There’s a speculative fiction element that’s central to the book. You know within the first pages that something weird is going on, but it takes most of the book for the puzzle to all come together. And when it does, it’s immensely satisfying and sad and moving.

Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, is also set in New York City—in the present, this time—and also has a female, first-person narrator, and a family with a small apartment and without a lot of money. And you could also say it’s interstitial. But that’s about it for common elements. Unlike When You Reach Me, whose ideal audience would be kids in about grades 4 through 7, Liar is very much a teen or young adult novel, with darkness at its center. The narrator, Micah, tells us  right away that she’s a compulsive liar. But, she promises, in these pages she will tell the truth. Of course, most readers won’t believe that promise. And they’d be smart not to.

I wrote about Liar earlier this year, when the original cover design occasioned a fair bit of controversy  in the book world. I hadn’t yet read the book then, and now that I have, it’s hard to imagine it being released with the original cover. Although the book isn’t about race, the fact that Micah is African-American (or rather, mixed-race, since her mom is white) is an important aspect of her character, and having a white girl’s photograph on the cover of the book definitely would have misled me into thinking that she was lying about that, too. In fact, some of what Micah tells us—including her race-- is true (within the world of the novel, which is of course a big lie itself, if you count fiction as a lie). It’s just that you’re never quite sure what to believe…

I read a lot about kids’ and teen books, but I was lucky enough to come to both When You Reach Me and Liar with almost no knowledge of their contents. I’d wish the same for any reader of these books, though the longer they’re around—and I expect that both will be in print, and read, for a good long while—the harder that will be. So if you’re looking for a last-minute holiday present for a kid or teen who loves reading (or an adult who loves kid or teen books), my recommendation would be to buy them one of these titles. Tell them you heard it was terrific.

And don’t tell them anything else.

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Holiday Books Old and New

Lots of people (including me) are still working on their holiday shopping, and books are of course a great present for kids (and everyone else)! Mother Reader's 105 Ways to Give a Book is becoming a holiday classic, with ideas for all ages, from preschoolers to adults. If you and your child like to bake together,  the Scholastic website has a sweet (literally) page of Book-Inspired Gift Kits, all of which happen to involve edible treats.

And then there are the books themselves. At our house, we've dusted off my daughter's old favorite Chanukah books, The Flying Latke and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, and my new favorite, Lemony Snicket's The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. I like Scholastic's lists of holiday picture books for preschoolers, titles for independent readers, and holiday stories for early elementary school kids, which include books about Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year as well as Christmas.

One new holiday book that I just love is Winter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts, by Anna Grossnickle Hines. Despite the Christmas tree on the cover, this is actually a book about many different holiays of lights, from Christmas to Chanukah, St. Lucia Day, Chinese New Year, and other winter celebrations, as well as non-holiday winter phenomena like the Aurora Borealis. Each is represented with a short, lyrical poem. Here's the one about icicles: "Overnight/an icicle grew/catching the stars/above my window./Now/in the sunlight/ it sets/them/free". But it's the illustrations--dazzling and (I have to say it) luminous quilts-- that make this book shine. You can see several of the quilts from the book, and read about how Hines came to create them, on her website. Here's a direct link to her quilt depicting farolitos, and to the icicle quilt that accompanies the poem I quoted. I think they're just glorious.

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