My Top Ten of 2013

One of the best parts of working on Lemon-Squash has been the excuse it provides to read. A lot. While I try to share all of the really good books I discover with you, there are a few that have stood out as particular favourites. If you know me in person, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already insisted that you read these. For those who don’t (and those who need a refresher), here are my top ten kids’ and YA reads from 2013.*

*These are titles I discovered and loved this year, not necessarily ones that were released in 2013. That said, at least a couple have sequels released this year or due to come out in 2014 that you should watch for, too.
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Ten: Lost Things

Another of the best known Arthur stories is the search for the Holy Grail. This week’s Ten highlights other stories which focus on the search for something lost.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Sometimes things get lost on purpose.
Ella lives in a town founded by the creator of the famous pangram, “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog.” When letters from the pangram start falling off the founder’s statue, the town leaders decide that any letter no longer appearing on the statue will also be removed from the town’s vocabulary. Continue reading

Ten: On a Mission

The legends of King Arthur’s knights are inseparable from the idea of questing: to slay or capture or rescue. In this week’s Ten, we share some other stories centred on a mission. The quests below vary from the weighty — a quest to save a life, or answer an important question — to the silly, and even the every day. The stories demonstrate that approaching a task as a mission can help to turn fear to determination, tedium to adventure, and entertainment to challenge. May we all do more questing!

Running out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Jessie’s quiet life in a frontier village takes a surreal turn when she is sent out alone to obtain medicine for local children dying of diphtheria, and finds that nearly everything she thought true about her life is an illusion. Continue reading

Arthur: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

The Seeing Stone coverArthur de Caldicot is surrounded by crossing places. There’s the year, 1199, which promises the mystery of a new century. There’s his home, perched on the border of England and Wales, and his family, which blends the traditions and sensibilities of both. There’s the death of Coeur de Lion, and the rise of King John. And there’s Arthur’s seeing stone, a gift from his mentor, Merlin, which give him glimpses into another life strangely parallel to his own.

This first book in Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy introduces the Arthurian legends through the eyes of a medieval teen convinced that knighthood is everything he wants. Short chapters alternate between detailed images of life in a medieval manor, and vivid scenes from King Arthur’s beginnings, from his strange conception to the much-contested drawing of the sword from the stone. Between the two, the later Arthur’s story moves almost imperceptibly forward. Though there is a central conflict and, ultimately, a kind of resolution, there is a sense that for the most part, the reader is trusted to draw meaning out everyday life. Arthur asks questions and makes choices, observes and discovers, worries and determines who he can and will trust. Having experienced all of this with Arthur, the reader is ready to recognise the full weight of the conclusion — and to reach eagerly for the next book.

I highly recommend The Seeing Stone for readers who enjoy historical fiction that provides a faithful window into another culture, and for those interested in the Middle Ages more generally. The series is also a great place to start developing a deeper sense of the Arthurian legends, as the short, memorable scenes provide plenty of entry points for understanding a more advanced work like Le Morte d’Arthur down the road without conflicting with those more traditional tellings.

Continue the series with At the Crossing Places and The King of the Middle March.

Read other reviews from Publishers Weekly and, from a writer’s point of view, Miss Reading.

Visit the author’s website to find out how his Arthur trilogy came to be, or head over to The Guardian for an interview with Crossley-Holland on the occasion of his Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

*Apologies for the delayed post!

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky coverHattie Inez Brooks arrives in rural Montana in January, 1918. Behind her is a lifetime of being shuffled from one reluctant relative to another — whenever someone stops needing her help, on she goes. Before her are the remaining requirements for “proving up” the land claim her Uncle Chester has left her. Specifically, in the next 11 months, 16-year-old Hattie must plant 480 fence posts, farm 40 acres, and finish the season with enough money to pay her debts and cover the final fee that will make the land hers.

Hattie takes the challenge eagerly, thrilled to be working toward a home that’s truly her own. With advice from books and neighbours, determination, and especially the help of the Mueller family down the road, it looks like Hattie just might make it. But in 1918, hard work in the fields isn’t necessarily enough to earn the respect of the community. With WWI reaching its peak, patriotism is everything, and suspicion is everywhere. Though Hattie dutifully attends town events in support of the war, and promises far more than she can afford in the war bonds drive, her friendship with the part-German Mueller family means she shares their assumed guilt.

It’s a year full of challenges, some funny, others devastating. As Hattie struggles toward her November deadline, letters to a childhood friend on the front line and Wingfield-esque, “making a go of the farm” articles for a city newspaper in Iowa allow her to interpret and reinterpret her experiences, gradually drawing meaning from the senseless, and preparing to face an unknown future with grace and courage.

I grew up loving homesteading stories, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated by home front stories in the last few years. Hattie Big Sky does a fantastic job of exploring both in a period of overlap I didn’t know existed. If you haven’t yet, read this book — you won’t regret it!

Find more reviews at Nerdy Book Club and Slatebreakers.

Check out the publisher’s Reader’s Guide.

Catch a sample of one of the Wingfield plays:

Watch for a review of the sequel, Hattie Ever After this fall!

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now CoverDaisy doesn’t exactly get along with her new stepmother. When an expected stepsibling only increases the tension between them, her father decides that a bit of distance would be a good thing, and packs Daisy off to live with her maternal aunt’s family in England. Though Aunt Penn and her four children are strangers to Daisy, they soon feel more like family, and their farm more like home, than anything else ever has. And then there’s cousin Edmond, who feels like something else entirely almost from the beginning.

When the threat of war becomes a real occupation while Aunt Penn is in Oslo trying to champion peace, the five cousins are at first thrilled to be parent-free. It turns out that the farm is needed for the war effort, though, and it isn’t long before the house is filled with soldiers, and the children are separated and billeted with families miles apart. Daisy and nine-year-old Piper are determined to find the others, even if it means setting out alone across an increasingly-violent, occupied English countryside. But while they’ve gathered enough hints to figure out where the boys have been placed, bringing their family back together is going to take far more from both girls than they can possibly guess.

How I Live Now is not a comfortable read. Between Daisy’s passionate romance with her cousin, the tension and violence of the war, and considerable risks involved in Daisy and Piper’s efforts to find the rest of Daisy’s cousins, readers are unlikely to get through this book without questioning both their own beliefs and the shape and path of the society in which they live. The book is also stunning — well structured, artfully populated, and beautifully strange. Recommended for teens open to a thoughtful, if occasionally intense, read.

Read other reviews from Angieville, The Book Smugglers, and The Observer.

Browse a bit of info on this fall’s film adaptation.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Breadwinner coverWhen the Taliban took over and barred all girls from school, Parvana was glad of the holiday. But it’s getting a bit tiresome to be the only one in the family able to go outside to collect water, and with her mother unable to work, sifting through the family’s belongings for things they can sell in the market has become a regular chore. There’s not much left that can be spared.

When Parvana’s father is arrested — and Parvana and her mother’s attempt to have him released fails — the only means of feeding the family is for Parvana to dress like a boy and take her father’s place in the market. As she and another girl-in-disguise, former classmate Shauzia, work to support their families, other women in the periphery of the story struggle in their own ways to survive, to grow, and to challenge the limitations the Taliban has placed on them.

The Breadwinner is a beautiful, difficult story that offers richly-realised glimpses of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. While the details of Parvana’s life — such as the repeated loss of “home” due to wartime destruction, and the customers eager to purchase Parvana and her father’s reading and writing skills — are valuable on their own, what I appreciated most was Ellis’s ability to present a variety of strong, unique female characters that were believable in their own context. Parvana’s mother, Fatana, who braves the Taliban and walks hours on blistered, bloody feet to try to retrieve her husband from jail. Parvana’s sister, Nooria, who desperately wants to continue her own education, but willingly gives what instruction she can in secret to a group of neighbourhood girls. Parvana, herself. The novel is full of women that inspire respect, both for themselves, and for their real life counterparts.

Continue the story with Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana, and be sure to check out the excellent audiobook edition of The Breadwinner, narrated by Rita Wolf.

Check out other reviews from The Prairie Library and from Blogging for Barakat, which supports an organisation committed to providing educational opportunities for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Read an article about how one teacher has used Parvena’s stories in her classroom: Expanding Their Worlds Through Books by Tara Smith