Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In which I jump on the bandwagon...

...and present my own list of favorite* 2011 books for kids, young adults, and the adults who read over their shoulders.

*I say "favorite," not "best," because a) I have not read everything and b) the point of this list is to highlight books that made me personally say, "Wow, I'll be recommending this right and left."

In approximate order of intended audience from the earliest readers to the most advanced (though of course, all can be enjoyed in different ways at different ages).

Hervé Tullet's work. Press Here is getting a lot of notice, and with good reason. Its premise--press a dot, turn the page, and see what you've "made happen"--gives kids a chance to feel like they have power in the reading experience. But there's no need to wait until kids understand that paper in books is not for ripping. Tullet's board books, including The Game of Light, The Game of Finger Worms, The Game of Mix-Up Art, and others include some of the most sophisticated die-cut pages I've ever seen. For kids under a year old, that means lots to grab, which means reading is fun. For older toddlers, there's room for more complex involvement and exploration of shapes.

I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen, and everything Mo Willems ever does. I lump these together because they're recommend-worthy for a lot of the same reasons; the concept of a character asking for something repeatedly and getting a "no" answer, ideally from the audience, is a great one but not a new one. Still, the rabbit's fate in IWMHB is unusual in American picture books, and the book is hilarious enough to pull off a [spoiler alert] bunnicide without being scary. Speaking of hilarity, Willems embodies it so well that it's possible to forget how Elephant and Piggie's accessible speech bubbles, spare text, and variations on repeated phrases are helping kids learn to read.

Every Thing On It, by Shel Silverstein. Posthumous collections are sometimes more sentimentally interesting than they are good; after all, they're made up of work that either the author or the publisher didn't see fit to publish in the author's lifetime. But there are plenty of exceptions, and this is one of them. These poems were kept out of previous collections for the sake of sequence, and they sound and feel just as Shel-y as his other work.

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. Selznick once again alternates series of images with passages of text to create an experience like a movie. This time, there are two intertwining stories, with their parallels revealed gradually and their direct connection not revealed until near the end. As in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this book's format gives kids a chance to say they've read a really, really thick book; more than one customer has told me that Hugo was a turning point in a child's confidence as a reader. And it's not a stretch to say that a kid who's read either book has mastered a huge story; both books call for lots of inferences on the reader's part, and that's particularly true of Wonderstruck. I'd still love to see prose from Selznick that made me feel more in-the-moment, but perhaps the distance that his style creates helps with the sense that the reader has "figured out" the story.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu. It's become rarer for a fantasy to have strong roots in a realistic setting, but this one spends about half its pages building up the realistic emotional reasons for its characters to end up in its Narnia. It's full of references to the fantasies that came before it, which creates a great payoff for well-read kids.

Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson. In the voice of a kindly grandmother, Nelson gives an overview of the African-American experience. The topic is a broad one, obviously, and this book would do well with adult mediation and/or other reading. It doesn't shy away from painful subjects; there are memorable images of slavery and of a burning cross. But the kindly-grandmother voice Nelson adopts sends the message that it's okay, that it's safe, to talk about these very not-okay parts of American history.

On a lighter note, Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler's The Future of Us depicts two teens in 1996 who gain access to their future Facebook profiles. More than an amusing commentary on how social media helps us be obsessed with ourselves, TFOU points out how much control we have over our futures, but how hard it is to use that control because of how little we know. Funny and thoughtful, fantastical and realistic, and fascinating in that it's historical fiction about the decade when the target audience was born. (Feel old, my contemporaries. Feel very, very old.)

Finally, on an even lighter note, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've never had so much fun being hit over the head. This tale of a bunch of pageant contestants on a desert island is about as subtle as a plane crash, but if that means I get to laugh really hard while reading about characters who are all different kinds of kickass, I'm all for it.

Death of the book, my left pinkie toe. Happy reading.

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