Another year, another chance to read my way through the Cybils Finalist List. Last year I learned the important trick of reversing the categories so I don't find myself with a stack of angsty teen books right as I'm sitting down to holidays with my family, so this year I've already started the first teen book. I don't think anyone does this as an official challenge, but I like it as it gives me an excuse to read all over the kidlit world, even though my kids are all YA now.
I'm highlighting the ones I've read, which this year was a grand three! Out of a mere 82. We'll see how far I get before I have to avoid all Cybils talk to avoid being spoiled about the winners. And I've attempted to leave the links to Amazon to benefit the Cybils, on the off-chance that anyone clicks through to buy something.
Oh, I skip Book App, because I have no idea how to try those out. I think most of them are for ipads anyway, and I don't have one.
Young Adult Fiction: (done)
I just want to say that I'm terrible at graphics and I have no idea why Everything Everything is hanging out so far to the side. It is not an indication that I didn't like it.
Young Adult Nonfiction (done)
- I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Martin Ganda. I was surprised by how caught up I got in this alternating memoir. Caitlin starts out as a boy obsessed, math-hating, giant hooped earring teenager who has never heard of Zimbabwe and would have trouble finding Africa on a map. Martin is a shy and studious student who dreams of education but doesn't expect to achieve it. Within a hundred pages I was rooting for both of them, and despite having read the back cover I was still worried as college scholarships went down to the wire. I'll pass this on to the boys for reading.
- Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson. It took a while for this to settle into its narrative, which is both a biography of Shostakovich and a brief history of Russia during his lifetime, but once it hit its stride with the German invasion it was difficult to put down. I knew almost nothing about the composer and not as much about Russia during this period as I thought I did. Another book that very pleasantly surprised me with its quality.
- Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long. Again I liked this book much more than I expected. I had never even heard of Bayard Rustin, and the story of his involvement with the Civil Rights struggle in America from the 1930s through the 1980s fascinated me. His name was often left off discussions of events he was crucially involved in (including the Montgomery bus protests and the March on Washington) because he was gay and the added controversy worried protestors (even Rustin). His strong organizational skills were a key reason for the success of the March on Washington. I wish the cover was more enticing; none of my teens are keen to try this book, and the giant ILL label on the front that covers the portrait is not helping. (Cool fact -- my copy is borrowed from a library in Wisconsin, and is signed by Jacqueline Houtman.)
- Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. A clear biography of Daniel Ellsberg, with digressions into the people around him who influenced the events around the release of the Pentagon Papers that heralded Watergate and the resignation of Nixon. Ironically, the papers described in damning details the lies and coverups of Nixon's predecessors (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson), but ended before his time. Sheinkin's narrative is simple yet gripping, keeping me interested and teaching me much I didn't know about this time and the court cases around it.
- Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World by Kathy Lowinger. A quick description of the background of the first director of the Jubilee choir, from her birth through the genesis of the choir and ending with its legacy. The risks and problems for the start of Fisk University are starkly portrayed in simple but descriptive terms. I enjoyed learning more about the choir, university, and particulars of post civil war educational obstacles for blacks.
- Courage & Defiance: Stories of Spies, Saboteurs, and Survivors in World War II Denmark by Deborah Hopkinson. This was a clear and exciting story of the Danish resistance against Germany during World War II, told from several viewpoints and giving a good overview of how different kinds of people resisted, and what happened to them if they got caught. But I don't see anything that lifts it above other WWII history texts, of which I've read a bunch -- it's good at what it does, but not great. Oh, good job to my library -- they didn't have this text back in January, but when I checked again, they had got it in before I could request it.
- Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal. I don't know that much about the crime sprees of the Prohibition and Depression Eras in the US, so there was a lot of new information for me here. Blumenthal does a good job placing the gun in the history of both crime, government regulation, and public opinion, with the parallels to today clear even before she calls them out. But it didn't quite work for me; the simplicity needed in kidlit felt flattening rather than like an introduction to a subject I could choose to go deeper into.
- National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry: More than 200 Poems With Photographs That Float, Zoom, and Bloom! by J. Patrick Lewis. I love these kinds of books -- anthologies of short, varied, mostly wonderful poems with a background of amazing photography. I think they had one before? I recognize some of the poems but find many more that are new, and marked a few to add to my poetry notebook. And the astonishingly vivid photographs reinforce the images and sounds of the poems.
- Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold (Junior Library Guild Selection) by Joyce Sidman. Sidman has carved out a niche of beautiful picture books that pair delicate poems about an animal or moment with a well written description of the science around that creature or event. I like the idea that you can hook kids in it for the beautiful language and expose them to how the science makes it happen, or lure in kids with the interesting explanations and show them the wonders of poetry. I know my youngest would put up with these books in his elementary years, and he was not a poetry fan. This one is a strong entry, although there's only one poem I'd consider keeping in my poetry journal -- "What Do the Trees Know" and I'm not sure it will stand up without the lovely illustration.
- Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido: Animal Poems / Poemas de Animales by Julie Paschkis. Again I think I'm confused about the difference between picture books and books of poetry (this happens to me a lot in this category). I felt this was a beautiful picture book, with illustrations and words working together to create a more powerful whole. The mirroring of the English/Spanish pages enhanced the experience, with subtle and powerful changes in the pictures yet (probably) equivalent words adorning the images. The poems themselves worked as part of the pictures, yet none of them stood out enough that I'd want to save them as poems. And since I have very little Spanish, I couldn't evaluate the Spanish versions at all. It looked like some poems worked better in Spanish -- the whale page showed a Spanish version that probably had a lot more sound resonance. I think I would have rated this book higher as a picture book than I did as a poetry book; how much of that is just my poor understanding of categories I don't know.
- The Popcorn Astronauts: And Other Biteable Rhymes by Deborah Ruddell. This is a pleasant book with cute poems and appropriate illustrations. Maybe I read it too late at night but nothing struck me as spectacular -- it's a fun book with fun poems but that's about all to say.
- Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott. This one is tough. The book is very powerful -- it's telling a story of horror and cruelty with grace and truth. But it doesn't feel like a book of poetry. It's not a book with really short lines -- it's more as if the lines and words are torn asunder by the images it is depicting, so the short phrases and lines are all that can be told by the characters. But I don't see treasuring the individual pages as poems by themselves; it's a story told in gasps and choppy breaths. So I haven't rated it very high in this category although I'd probably have placed it near the top of the YA Fiction.
- Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton. As I note below with House Arrest, I dislike verse novels, especially verse novels that are "journals." The story was good but I found the verse form distracting and that it detracted from the impact of the story. It was trying to use shortcuts for emotion -- it's a poem so it's emo! But the story of growing up biracial in a small Vermont town in 1969 was a good one, and if I stepped back from the choppy lines I could like Mimi, the protagonist. I did feel bad knowing that she would never get to the moon no matter how many feminist battles she fought, because the space program would collapse. This would have been a good novel, but it's only all right as poetry.
- House Arrest by K.A. Holt. I'm not a big fan of verse novels; this one felt more like a case of extra "returns" than poems. And the conceit of a kid forced to write a journal is rather tired. It also was a weird way to tell a story of malfunctioning medical and juvenile justice systems. Timothy, the narrator, is told by a man who I believe we are supposed to think is a good guy that he needs to prove himself not to be a sociopath after stealing a wallet and using it to pay for his fragile baby brother's medicine. Throughout the book Timothy is manipulated and coerced by the authority figures who punish him for not letting his brother die. I left the book sickened at America's failing health system and abusive juvenile detention systems, but without really believing in Timothy or his family as real people rather than symbols of oppression.
Graphic Novels For Young Adults (completed)
- Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Wow, this one knocked my socks off. It eased me into a comfortable story of a villain getting a new sidekick, almost like Castle Hangnail but with a chaperone. Then the body count edged up, but instead of disengaging your emotions it instead made a sidestep to emotional realism. This book has dragons, knights, quests, and also thorny ethical issues and relationships, and a man learning to be a father and a friend. Wow.
- Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash. Utterly gorgeous memoir of coming of age at a girl's camp, realizing your crush is not who you expected it, and that the person you are growing into may not be somebody you recognize. The details were delightful, and only occasionally did I forget who was who (remember my picture-blindness -- I spend most of my time in graphic novels forgetting what people look like). I'm going to hand this on to my picky niece, which is a giant compliment for any book.
- March: Book Two by John Lewis. This book alternates the story of John Lewis's work in the Civil Rights movement up through the March on Washington with scenes of Barack Obama's inauguration, showing the difference in expectations for African Americans then and now. It also highlights the incredible risks that the Freedom Riders took to highlight the injustice and violence that threatened black Americans in the south; the nonviolent protest of asking to buy a movie tickets and accepting a refusal bore the real risk of a not just a jail sentence but also a beating. Riders of the buses added firebombs and murder to the threats against them. It's a powerful story of what people who are still with us today did to get basic human rights in America. The illustrations and text work well together, and the narrative made sure I always knew who was who, which is not a small task when the reader is me.
- Lion of Rora by Christos Gage/Ruth Gage/Jackie Lewis. I'm rating this higher because I learned a lot about a corner of history that had been blank to me.
- Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by G. Willow Wison. Good but not as emotionally resonant as those above it.
- Oyster War by Ben Towle. Wow, if this is in sixth place, then this was an excellent category. This is a beautifully drawn story of magic and oyster wars, mixing together possible history with pirates, selkies, sea monsters, and ex-confederate generals. Well worth the read.
- Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin Who Ignited World War I (Fiction – Young Adult) by Henrik Rehr. Another powerful entry; the only real reason it's on the bottom is because I'm apparently face-blind when reading graphic novels. I always have problems telling people apart unless one wears a funny hat or something; it's almost a family joke, so this black and white depiction of ethnically similar guys did me no favors. But it illuminated a piece of history I only knew the outlines of, and did it in a sympathetic way.
Graphic Novels For Elementary And Middle Grades (done)
Fiction Picture Books (DONE!)
- In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van. This was an unexpected delight! I love circular stories, and the delicate, rich illustrations led us in through the rhythmic words from the village to the house to the painting to the boat to the village... And the final picture with the cricket brought it all together in a safe way. This would be a delightful bedtime read with a small child, and also interesting through the preschool and early elementary ages.
- Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor. I got to listen to this read aloud by a young first grader, and then read it myself later. Both times it was a lot of fun -- I can definitely see my children enjoying this as small ones. It's deliciously gruesome -- Hoot Owl is going to eat the stuffing out of all those cute little animals, as soon as one of those clever disguises works. But you don't have to feel guilty for cheering the owl on, because the final prey is a pizza. Prefect for fall reading, and perfect for rereads.
- Blizzard by John Rocco. I'm not sure why this doesn't count as nonfiction, as it's apparently autobiographical, but the details and realism sold me. The whiteness of the snow gives a real sense of the power of the storm, contrasting with the warmth and cosiness of the family inside. Details like the days of the week appearing in various places, and the fold out page showing the epic journey strengthen the story. I can see having great fun reading this to my kids.
- Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina Perhaps low expectations are the key. I thought this would be a didactic moral about the importance of a family heritage (the "Our World" sticker the library slapped on the cover didn't help; I still don't like them organizing picture books by theme). But I was thoroughly charmed by both the text and the warm illustrations. I liked the integration of Spanish in the text as the narrator learns her grandmother's language while teaching English back. And I liked how the parrot helped them bridge the boredom before they could say interesting things.
- Bug in a Vacuum by Melanie Watt. I expected a lot, but felt a bit let-down after finishing this. The bug conceit is cute, but the art style seemed faintly repulsive and the recurring labels with Kubler-Ross grief steps seemed like a smirk at the adults over the heads of the children. Also, the dog sure got over his stuffed animal quickly, and the pooch's eyeballs were creepy. And the vacuum conveniently breaking annoyed me.
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson. I see why this won the Newbery rather the Caldicott; it's got a strong message and a great theme, but I can see my kids getting a bit bored with it. It feels like a lecture on enjoying the beauty of the world, which is something that preschoolers tend to do instinctively; it's the parents and older siblings who need to relearn the lesson. So as a read-aloud picture book, it's preaching to the choir, and the idea of working at a soup kitchen is probably hazy. However, if you still read to your elementary kids (and I did), this would work wonderfully.
- Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson. I read this at the library while browsing picture books, as I do while waiting for the bus. The flash of color as the kid picked flowers was fun, but overall the book didn't really excite me. I gave it three stars and didn't write a review; I think I remember guessing that it wouldn't be much fun to read to my kids and that I thought the child was annoying. Seems I missed something the rest of the world appreciated!
- Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon I've read this. It was one of my few five stars of 2015. It has a lot of heart and takes some unexpected turns. One of my go-to gifts for this age group. Sadly I read it over my blogging hiatus but I remember that I found that it took what seemed like common tropes and infused them with real emotion and several surprising twists so that the book had heart and tension and great potential as a read-aloud.
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall. Wow, I didn't think Ursula Vernon would have tough competition, but Mars Evacuees was a lot of fun. I liked the situation, the echos of WWII evacuation stories (which I also like), and I loved the Martian settings. The three main children were vividly portrayed, and the first-person narration did a great job of illuminating her character through her actions. I bet my kids would love this; I'm sad that I didn't read it until it was overdue so I can't foist it on them.
- The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. This is an engaging story with an interesting protagonists, spunky orphans who all excel at their favorite things, and a kindly adult who has accumulated them before conveniently falling ill before the start so our kids can be independent. As an adult I found some of the coincidences amusing, but I think it would be a fun read for less cynical audiences. Fun word play adds to the enjoyment.
- Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes. The cover seems very dissonant to the tone of the book, which is a mystical, dreamy sense of a girl awakening to magic powers to resonate with nature. (Also, the girl makes a big deal of wearing her overalls in the forest, not her dresses.) The protagonist comes to stay with her grandmother and learns both the mundane skills of cooking and wood lore and how to interpret dreams and swim with mermaids, which helps save the community from the oil slick caused by the drill rig explosion. I didn't quite buy into the mix of mysticism and environmentalism; I would have liked either separately but I found they weakened rather than reinforced each other's themes.
- The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson. This book seemed very meta, and I'm not sure that someone unfamiliar with D&D would find it amusing. It brings all the classes and cliches to life, with some attention paid to the silliness of finding tons of gold locked up by monsters in winding dungeons, along with kids attending school, making friends/found families, and growing up and confronting betrayals among the people they trusted.
- Wings of Fire Book Six: Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland. Although this middle aged series about dragons learning to live together after an inter-species (intra-species? It's unclear) war is fun, joining at book six left me a bit disconnected. I think the other books are about the war, which was probably exciting, but this one is about the first steps towards peace and I found the protagonist hard to like and some bits of dragon anatomy hard to understand, which distracted me.
Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction (done)
- Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow. This had a strong narrative, solid information, and a gripping subject; I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did contemplate a drinking game where I'd lift my glass every time the word "feces" appeared. It would have made reviewing rather fuzzy. I liked the pictures, each carefully captioned, and I enjoyed the even handed discussion of Mary Mallon and her imprisonment, inviting although not ordering the reader to make a judgment on its fairness.
- Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America’s Presidents (Kid Legends) by David Stabler. This book has short chapters about the boyhoods of various presidents (to think I almost got to write "childhoods", but not necessary) which give bits of background along with entertaining pictures. I learned some new things, and am closer to being able to list all the Presidents now that I have some facts to ground them (of course, I'll probably forget it all in days). But it's the sort of thing I would have liked as a kid, and has good pacing to entice both the history buff and the slower reader.
- One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (Millbrook Picture Books) by Miranda Paul. This is a biography picture book, but one that does a good job of keeping a coherent narrative while still grounding the information as facts. Time jumps were explained as well as echoed by details in the illustrations (the boy growing up was helpful), and the details and impact of the work were clear. It was fun to read and pleasant to look at, and I learned some things.
- Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall by Anita Silvey. This biography had great pictures and a good through line, although I never got a deep sense of Jane Goodall as a friend or person. I wanted more detail on how she was accepted by the scientific community, and how the details of her activist work went. But it was a good read.
- I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. This is a another picture book that doubles as nonfiction. The talking fly educates a class on fly anatomy, life cycles, and unsanitary behaviors before realizes the dangers inherent in being studied by humans. Obviously children are not supposed to believe in talking insects, but the book sets outs the facts about flies in a clear and unambiguous way. The line between fact and fiction is clear, so I'm happy to shelve and judge this as nonfiction. (See other picture books, such as Blizzard and Emmanuel's Dream, that don't have as clear a demarcation.)
- Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson. As a picture book, this works really well, with the words and illustrations working together to tell a strong story. As a book of nonfiction, I felt frustrated by unknowns left out to make the story work better -- how old was Emmanuel when he made is run? (The afterward says 24, but the book did not make it feel as if 11 years had passed since the death of Emmanuel's mother.) Did he work in the meantime? What really happened? I don't understand why this is nonfiction but Blizzard and Slither, Snake! are in different categories. Especially Blizzard, which is also a true story told in the rhythms of a picture book, just like this.
- Guts & Glory: The Vikings by Ben Thompson. This one just didn't click with me. I felt the exaggerations for effect made it hard to tell when the information was solidly true rather than speculation or said for humor. And the attempts to make the information lively often veered into near misogyny -- girly was an insult, the author was astonished when women appeared in the narrative as important people, and overall it felt very like a boys club.
Early Chapter Book:
- Dory and the Real True Friend (Dory Fantasmagory) by Abby Hanlon. Great, from Dory's wild imagnination to Rosamund's royal background.
- The Magical Animal Adoption Agency, Book 1 Clover’s Luck by Kallie George A story with an enterprising main character, good suspense, and a moral message.
- Lulu and the Hamster in the Night by Hilary McKay. Lulu is awesome. She's definitely appeared on these lists before. I really liked how this one skated on the edge of naughtiness, with the girls pushing at the rules, usually in a good cause, but also demonstrating kindness and initiative. The problems were small and realistic, and the illustrations supportive but not condescending. I think it would be a great read-aloud, private read, or shared read. If my nephew were talking to me, I'd propose it as a shared read, as he likes hamsters.
- My Pet Human by Yasmine Surovec. The conceit of pets training and adopting their humans is an old one, but Surovec gives it vim and energy in this version. The stray cat accepts homage from many, but claims to be uninterested in all the bother of having his own human pet. It's clear from the first that he will eat these words, which he does with glee along with the tuna fish and olives said human tempts him with. I kept waiting for the vet appointment that might cloud the issue a bit, but the book does not go there. A fun read.
- Ranger in Time #1: Rescue on the Oregon Trail [Hardcover] by Kate Messner. This story about the Oregon Trail is hooked around a time-traveling rescue dog, encouraging both dog lovers and history buffs to pick it up. Ranger understands language, but behaves mostly in a canine way, loving bacon and responding to affection. But he's been trained as a rescue dog, which comes in handy when safeguarding preschoolers or saving drowning victims. The author's afterward sets more context and gives information on sources. I enjoyed the story but didn't find it all the resonant.
- Big Bad Detective Agency by Bruce Hale. Justice is not strong in Fairyland, so if the Wolf can't find an alternate candidate he's going down for the destruction of the Three Pigs homes based on his reputation alone. So off he goes with a baby brother big as a detective sidekick, interviewing snarky versions of various fairytale people. I am probably too jaded to properly appreciate this, but kids with a fresher approach will appreciate feeling superior as they recognize the different characters but see them in less idealized lights.
- West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O’Donnell. My library does not seem to have this. (Until they got it!) Two kids who spend half their time in the special education room set out to solve the mystery of the messed-up lunchroom. They get bullied, but apparently just because it's their turn, not because of their special ed-status. That seemed a bit unlikely, but not a big deal. It was readable, but I didn't fall in love.