Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Raves & Faves 2013, Part II: Middle-Grade and YA

 See also, Things That Are Not Easy to Narrow Down. And I thought picture books were hard.

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo. This book succeeds at being sophisticated enough for voracious readers and visually inviting enough for reluctant ones. It is hilarious. It includes a poetry-typing squirrel and phrases like "holy unanticipated occurrences!" It rocks on the diversity front without making a big deal about it. Holy bagumba.

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates 1: Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson. Full disclosure: the author is a friend. But even if she weren't, there'd still be a talking gargoyle. And a ridiculous charm school. And a girl who runs away from it to become a pirate. This one's been an easy handsell, and I imagine a lot of young readers here in Brookline are having a good laugh.

The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata. The thing about this year's National Book Award winner is its personality. While it shows a segment of society I hadn't known much about (I think the last book I read about migrant workers was The Grapes of Wrath), it also introduces a character who's pretty unusual, largely because of the unusual situations she's been through. How many contemporary kids have had malaria? But her struggles to get along with relatives in authority (I wanted to shake that grandmother) are pretty identifiable for many middle school-aged kids, and hey, the urge to shake a character is kind of the same thing as caring about a novel.

P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia. Though this novel does stand alone, I especially love how it works as a set with One Crazy Summer.  In Summer, we got to know Delphine's mother, and particularly got to know her flaws and how they impact her daughters. In P.S. Be Eleven, the same can be said about the girls' father and grandmother. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are caught between two sets of values, which leaves them to figure out what matters to them. Sounds like a pretty good metaphor for the '60s, from what I hear.

Counting by Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. There's a reason there are so many great novels narrated by characters with unusual minds, whether they have cognitive disorders or whether they're very structured geniuses - they have their own ways of seeing the world, and those ways can be funny even as they give us new insights into serious situations. Think Sheldon Cooper in need of a hug, surrounded by other characters in need of a friend. I loved this.

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu. Speaking of characters who look at the world in unusual ways, Oscar understands the concrete details of the magician's shop where he works, but human interaction leaves him puzzled, and a magical mystery makes his world even more befuddling. There are enough twists and turns here that at one point, I really questioned what this novel was saying about kids with autism, but [spoiler, kind of] it ultimately affirms their humanity. This book is a prime example of how fantasy can be used to explore the real world.

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle. I've often lamented what traditional middle-grade doesn't do for and about kids questioning their sexuality, but this year, those rants have required a significant footnote, and Better Nate deserves mention for being that footnote. (As I've also noted, there's been even further progress since this book came out.) With the exception of some fairly ugly name-calling, this is a pretty innocent story about a very naive kid, and most of the book is about his stupid but understandable decision to sneak off to New York and audition for a Broadway show. It's funny. You root for Nate even as you shake your head at him. You maybe once or twice call him a doofus.

Eleanor and Park and Fangirl, or The Arrival of Rainbow Rowell on the YA Scene. The first of these books takes difficult situations and tempers them with tenderness and humor. The second looks like a light story about fan fiction, but there's enough going on that I think it has just as much depth. Both books show young people who don't quite fit (in more creative ways than the traditional she-wears-glasses-and-reads-and-nobody-likes-her), and in both, the characters learn to forge connections during - and to some degree, because of - difficult times. We had Ms. Rowell and three rather like-minded YA authors at our store a few weeks ago, and the room was packed with fans. I've said it before and I'll say it again: YA is getting smarter.

Relatedly, If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan. This story could've rested entirely on its premise: though homosexual acts are illegal in Iran, sex reassignment surgery is not, and protagonist Sahar wants to use that to help her be with the girl she loves. What I love about this book is that its characters are so well-drawn, their personalities are as vivid a part of the story as the strange facts of its plot. Yes, I wanted to change things for Sahar and Nasrin, but there were times when I also wanted to shake each of them. And, as previously stated, that's a good thing.

That's probably enough raving for now. Happy reading!


  1. I've heard of most of these but still haven't read any of them! So many good books, so little time. Ack!

  2. I feel you, Amitha. I'm sure there are things that would've been on this list if I'd had the chance to get to them!