Good Children’s Books

Mom,

We’ll get back to some of the issues we talked about last week (including comments from at least one former Printz committee member) in a little while.  But first, I wanted to talk to you a little about children’s books.  We’re both pretty invested in YA literature, so neither of us reads nearly as widely in children’s, but it’s a definite hobby for us (and I will be participating in Jonathan Hunt and Nina Lindsay’s very fun Heavy Medal blog again this year, which I believe starts up this week).

So, here are some of the great (and not so great) children’s books I’ve read this year.

Liar and Spy – I mentioned reading Rebecca Stead last week and the reason for it was that I got my hands on an ARC of this book, which I think is phenomenal.  I actually don’t have a ton to say about the much ballyhooed twist ending – I just thought it was great writing all around, and some really wonderful characters.

But a book that I loved even more was Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  I don’t know if you’ve gotten to this one yet, but it is incredibly moving.  The writing is funny and sad and incredible: Applegate tells it from the perspective of a gorilla, and she somehow manages to convince you that *this* is exactly how a gorilla would talk and see the world.

I thought that Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone, the sequel to the Newbery Honor book Princess Academy, was even better than the first one.  It took the whole medieval fantasy world into a realm of politics and morality (especially regarding the lower classes) that I’ve very rarely seen in children’s books.

The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated is the new book in Gerald Morris’s Knights’ Tales series.  The only other one I’ve read (at Jonathan’s strong urging) is last year’s Sir Gawain the True, which I liked better–but I think primarily because I have read the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English, so I feel pretty connected to the story.  This one is just as funny – in places more so – and Elsa* loves it.  And it has some great things to say about the concept of fate, among other things.

I do want to put a word in for Ellen Potter’s The Humming Room. I’ve read everything Potter’s written, and I think she’s just absolutely brilliant.  Her last novel, The Kneebone Boy, was my idea of just about the perfect children’s book.  This new one is a retelling of sorts of The Secret Garden, a book which (you may know) I tend to think needs a retelling.  I think the story and atmosphere of Burnett’s novel are great, but it gets weighted down by her kooky religious ideas.  So, I was stoked for The Humming Room.  It didn’t quite live up to my anticipation (there’s that word again) but it was certainly a lot of fun, and definitely worth a look for fans of Potter like myself.

I thought The Mighty Miss Malone was tremendous, as well, but I know it was a personal favorite of yours, so I’ll let you say your piece first.

As far as nonfiction, you and I are both big fans of Ann Bausum’s work (especially Unraveling Freedom), and I think her book this year Marching to the Mountaintop was fascinating.  She intertwines the stories of the 1968 Memphis garbage strike (a story I had only vaguely heard about) and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last days in very enlightening ways.  King is, I think, a much more interesting human character than the cardboard saint he’s been made into (at least in my lifetime – I know he was fairly controversial while he was alive), and Bausum brings at least some of his complexities to the fore.

The other nonfiction I loved (though I found it ultimately flawed) was Mary Losure’s The Fairy Ring.  I knew the story of the two Northern English girls who took photos of their drawings of fairies and managed to convince various spiritualists (including Arthur Conan Doyle) into believing they were legitimate.  But I didn’t know anything about the girls themselves, and I had never seen the photos (at least two of which are so beautiful and otherworldly that I found myself wanting to believe in them almost as much as Doyle must have).  So, this was a great book just for the story.  Ultimately, I thought it could have delved a bit deeper into the girls’ motivations and the subject of spiritualism, but it’d be a great book to give a 4th grader.

So there’s a few thoughts on Children’s literature this year.  I assume by the end of the year I’ll have a whole new set of favorites from reading all the Newbery blog, but for now, this is where I’m at.  Over to you.

– Mark

*To our readers: my daughter – you’ll meet her again

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