Tag Archives: young adult novels

Best of the Year

I know one is supposed to post these in the weeks leading up to the end of the year, but I didn’t get around to it.  So, here it is, our best children’s books of the year.  For me, I only included books I read for the first time this year, which ruled out a number of wonderful rereads.

Farrar’s Top Five
(fiction only, in no particular order)


Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
middle grades classic
I can’t believe it’s only in the last year that we read half a dozen of the Moomin books (only Moominpappa at Sea was a bust for us).  We love their weird, fantastic, nonsense world.

The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Cathrynne Valente
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, this book, with its complex language and plot blew me away.  There should be more challenging fantasy like this in middle grades.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
middle grades historical fiction
This award winner brought together so many elements without it feeling forced and managed to wrap everything up neatly while still letting the characters be messily human.  Oh yeah, I reviewed it.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
young adult contemporary fantasy
This satire was probably the best young adult book I read this year.  It was hilarious and insightful, as I said in my review.  Count me as a firm Libba Bray Devotee.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
middle grades fantasy
As I said in my review, never have I read a book for children so dark yet so appropriate.  This one continues to push my thinking even months after I read it.  I think it may be my very favorite of the year.

Mushroom’s Top Five


Dodsworth (the whole series) by Tim Egan
easy readers
These are funny.

Your Very Own Robot (Choose Your Own Adventure) by R.A. Montgomery
easy reader
In this book, there’s a kid who makes a robot and does all this crazy stuff with him.  You can make a way through the book and choose which way you want to go to, like if I say, would you like to have ice cream or soda, you can pick which one and go through the book differently, so you can read it as many times as you want.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
This book is about a few kids who go to Arundel for vacation.  And they meet a kid named Jeffery, but his mother is evil and the person she marries is evil too.

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
middle grades classic
This book is little like The Penderwicks but it has not as many parts with sadness or badness inside it.

You Can Cook by Anabel Karmel
A lot of the things inside here, kids can’t cook by themselves.  I love it because it has chicken tikka masala, Swedish meatballs, and burgers.  It also has lots of treats at the end.

BalletBoy’s Top Five
(BalletBoy didn’t have anything to say about his choices.  He was more concerned that I get the appropriate cover images.)


The Fog Mound: The Travels of Thelonius by Susan Schade and Jon Bueller
middle grades fantasy

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
middle grades classic

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
middle grades contemporary
BalletBoy might not have anything to say about it, but I did review it.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi
middle grades graphic novel

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
middle grades fantasy

Fat Vampire

I wanted to like this YA novel so much.  I really enjoyed Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday.  While I don’t think the idea of the schlubby vampire or vampire life as boring and annoying is as revolutionary as some have said (see Catherine Jinks’s The Reformed Vampire Support Group, for example), I do think it hasn’t been done to death and has potential.   The first quarter or so of the novel didn’t let me down.  Doug, the titular fat vampire, and his best friend start the book by going to Comic Con and knocking over a bloodmobile.  A reality show starts hunting Doug and back at Doug’s hometown, a formerly internet addicted girl named Sejal arrives as an Indian exchange student.  The scenes are funny and the plot seems promising for a comic novel.

Then the story begins to hit a snag.  Doug turns out to be a complete jerk and when the humor slows down, it’s hard to enjoy him.  Sejal and her observations are interesting, but her purpose in the narrative doesn’t become clear.  Some mildly amusing plot detours, such as a trip to a Rocky Horror show, begin to bog down the story.  Then, what was originally presented as one of the biggest plot tensions, the reality show hunting Doug, suddenly disappears, making the book seem unanchored.  When the real villain finally emerges, I found him a little offensive.  I think maybe the author was trying to spoof the concept of the gay villain, or contrast it so we can see Doug’s homophobia, but I’m not even sure.  By that point, the book was all over the place and I was pretty much through with it.

Anyway, suffice it to say, I was disappointed.

On the Oregon Trail

The Water SeekerI was never allowed to play Oregon Trail, the classic game from my childhood about outfitting wagons to go west.  I’m still sort of convinced it’s because my 5th grade teacher didn’t like me that every other kid in the class seemed to get a turn on the computer to play.  Oh well, because I’m sure this book is way better than that game ever was.

Kimberly Willis Holt’s newest novel, The Water Seeker is about a lot more than the Oregon Trail.  It’s about a boy growing up in the first half of the nineteenth century with a number of special gifts, including the ability to dowse for water.  Amos Kincaid gets bounced around in life and eventually ends up heading west on a wagon train with his father where the trip is full of the sort of adventures and tragedies you would expect from a story about a wagon train adventure.  I really enjoyed this beautiful told tale about growing up.  Holt brings the feel of that time period to life without it feeling like a history lesson.  The way Amos travels from family to family brings us a lot of details about different ways of life, however the details always feel integral to understanding Amos and the story.  As Amos grows up, I really felt for him as he tried to make his own way in life and figure out what he wanted.  There are a number of vaguely supernatural elements to the story, but they remain on the periphery, almost like a historical magical realism.

One of my only lingering questions is who the book is really for.  Amos goes from a young boy to a young man in the course of the story.  Adult perspectives also get a great deal of play.  My library had it shelved with middle grades novels, but it feels more like a YA story to me, though it’s not typical teenage fare either.  The other thing I’m left wondering is what’s up with all the yellow on covers recently.  This cover looks like it’s referencing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, another historical novel, though a very different one.

A Girl and her Sport

Thanks to the recommendations of one of my terrific writing groups, I recently tore my way through Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s YA novel Dairy Queen and its sequels, The Off Season and Front and Center.  All three books follow DJ Schwenk, a painfully shy high school junior growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.  DJ comes from a family of athletes.  Both her brothers play college football.  Her family is loving, but has trouble communicating.  DJ has trouble with her confidence, despite the fact that she’s a gifted athlete herself.  Dairy Queen follows DJ as she decides to try out for the football team herself.  The next book deals with the topic of sports injuries.  In the final book, which came out last year, DJ has to work for an athletic scholarship and decide where to go to college.

I feel like its one of the highest compliments I can give to say that a book felt compelling even when the topic wasn’t one that usually interests me.  Honestly, I can’t even watch the Superbowl for the ads.  That’s how little I care about football.  Also, despite having grown up in North Carolina, where college basketball was pretty much the only sport going and my own mother is a pretty serious Duke fan, I can’t say I care for that much either.  However, these books had me reading about football, coaching, athletic injuries, and NCAA recruiting rules.  There’s more than a little teen angst and boy drama thrown in there, but unlike reading some narrators, whose inability to grow up or see the truth frustrates me as a reader, reading DJ’s voice always had me sympathetic with where she was in her life and impressed with how she was growing up.  Overall, I enjoyed these light summer reads a lot.

The Young Wizards Go to Mars

Some series are well-mapped out, time limited sorts of things, like Harry Potter or His Dark Materials.  Others begin and become an author’s bread and butter then never, ever end, like The Magic Treehouse.  And then there’s a strange third way, the series that seems to add another volume at random intervals, like Diane Duane’s Young Wizards.

I’m a huge fan of this young adult series, but it hasn’t fully satisfied me in the last few books.  However, diving back into the storyline in A Wizard of Mars, I was reminded how much I love the main characters, Nita and Kit.  The world of the books, with its strange melding of magic and theoretical physics and broad themes about good and evil is a complex and interesting one.  Others have compared them to Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, which is a flattering but fair comparison in my opinion.

This book started very slow and I felt like in the opening chapters Diane Duane had just brought back every character from the previous volumes to satisfy fan interest, which annoyed me.  There were also several storylines and themes that didn’t fully pay off for me.  Both Nita and Kit face issues at home with their families that aren’t resolved.  A subplot about Nita’s sister, Dairine, seems to be nothing more than a dead end or a buildup for a future book.  Speaking of sisters, one wonders if the whole deal with Kit’s sister, Carmela, will ever get explained.  Recurring mentions and thoughts about gender differences feed into the larger plot but also don’t fully get explored.

But despite any issues, the action picked up midway through when the focus went squarely back to Nita and Kit and the book became a very quick read.  I like how the issues Kit and Nita face are slowly becoming less black and white as they age from book to book, as well as more about working with others in the larger world.  The plot cleverly explores all our stereotypes about Mars.  And finally, I think anyone who has enjoyed this series will be pleased with the ending.  It’s not the classic that the first book, If You Want to Be a Wizard, is, but it’s a strong entry into the series.

One to Skip and One to Try

I recently read Peter Abrahams’s latest YA book Reality Check, which has just been released in paperback.  I’ve had a growing interest in reading mysteries, a genre which I somehow completely missed growing up.  Even with that interest, this isn’t the sort of book I would have picked up in a million years, except that I so enjoyed Abrahams’s Echo Falls series.  Well, I finished it, but mostly because it was such a quick read.  I can’t say it was my cup of tea at all.  The protagonist was just so relentlessly dumb.  I get what Abrahams was trying to do in showing that his persistence and good intentions eventually paid off, even if he wasn’t the brightest bulb.  Still, I spent most of the read thinking that it was an annoying plot device that just let him give the reader clues at a slower rate.

So forget about that.  But do read Abrahams’s wonderful Echo Falls series, which begins with Down the Rabbit Hole.  These are in the YA section, but the characters and the handling of the crimes and mysteries are done with a little more innocence than Reality Check. The main character, 13 year-old Ingrid, is smart enough to know better than to keep getting involved all the town’s mysteries, but her curiosity keeps getting the better of her.  I like how Abrahams hits on a familiar young adult theme by making the grown-ups around Ingrid, even the well-meaning ones, incapable of helping her.  Even though Ingrid is clever, she’s still clearly a kid, not a miniature adult.  I’ve seen this series compared to Veronica Mars.  I don’t know if I’d say it’s that good.  All of Ingrid’s mysteries are also considerably less complex than season two of Veronica Mars.  But I certainly enjoyed reading, even if I occasionally saw the plot twists coming.