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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Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

Ways to Live Forever coverWhen he is eleven years old, and dying of cancer, Sam decides to write a book. Nothing big — just his own story, and his favourite interesting facts, and the questions that he wishes someone would answer (but no one ever does). Instructed initially just to “write something about yourselves,” Sam discovers that this is a great way to process how he, and the people around him, respond to the expectation the doctors have given that this will be his last battle with cancer.

Sam is particularly fond of lists, and one — an assignment to describe things he’d like to do — ends up providing the central thread through his book. Sam lists eight things that he’d like to do, without believing that any of them is really possible. When his friend, and fellow cancer patient, Felix, challenges him on that, Sam sets out to complete his list. Some are relatively easy: while his mom is busy shopping one afternoon, Sam sneaks off to trek up a down escalator. Others take creative interpretation, like the World Record Setting Occasional Wardrobe Nightclub. And at least one requires the help of his dad, who’s had a hard time believing that his son really won’t be healthy again.

Sam’s story is sometimes intense, often funny, and always very personal. Sam and his family and friends are fully-realised and complex; together they provide an engaging picture of one child’s death that avoids cliché and manipulation while suggesting how others in a similar situation might feel. Sam shows fear and anger, and determination and humour and curiosity. His mother is weary and grieving and expects homework and manners while understanding that sometimes going sledding together is more important than responsibilities. His father denies, and loves, and does what he can to help his son to do something silly and improbable and somehow deeply important. If you’re looking for a novel that is honest and moving, this is one to find.

Find more reviews at The Weaving Knight and Inis Magazine (the publisher’s website also offers a collection of journal reviews).

Watch the trailer for the (so far) limited-release film based on the book. Explore the website to find out how the makers hope to use the film to help fight childhood cancer.

Ten: Saying Goodbye

Modern kids’ and YA fiction doesn’t go easy on its readers. Some of the best books out there look honestly at topics as real and raw as war, racial injustice, and poverty, giving readers a safe space to engage deeply with these topics, and guidance to help them understand and respond in healthy, constructive ways. This week’s Ten highlights stories about loss and grief. Though the stories are sometimes painful to read, they almost always end with hope: in friendship, memory, and new things to come.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Caitlin’s brother, Devon, used to help her understand how things worked and what she was supposed to do. A handy thing when you have Asperger’s, and a lot of what people do (and expect) really doesn’t make sense. But Devon was killed in a school shooting, and with their dad turning his back on the world in an attempt to cope, Caitlin’s left pretty much on her own to figure things out. A counselor at school helps some, and so does her friendship with a younger boy she meets at recess. But Caitlin wants closure, and she’s going to have to find it for herself. Continue reading

Word after Word after Word by Patricia MacLachlan

Word after Word after Word coverThe kids in Miss Cash’s fourth grade class have their very own, real, live author for the last six weeks of school. Each day, Ms. Mirabel teaches them a little bit more about writing: that people might write for lots of different reasons — to tell a story or ask a question or figure out what they think or feel about something; that different people write in different ways; that writing gives you a chance to be brave. The story focuses on a group of friends within the class, and explores the ways that each child takes on Ms. Mirabel’s challenge to be brave. Russell, who helps his parents by watching his baby brother Oliver every afternoon, writes about missing his dog, Everett. May expresses her frustration with her parents’ determination to adopt another child, and her surprised affection for the funny-looking baby who arrives. Lucy struggles to write something free of the sadness that surrounds her mother’s cancer. Gradually their writing, and the conversations that surround it, help the children to understand and share their experiences a little bit better.

Word after Word after Word is a beautiful story. There’s no doubt that the children are more articulate — and certainly more sensitive to each others’ feelings – than most real people of any age. As Ms. Mirabel points out, though, sometimes writing something unreal — a parable, a metaphor, a remarkably compassionate child — helps to communicate something true. I think that MacLachlan may have managed just that.

Check out more reviews from Shelf Elf and The Deakin Review of Children’s Literature.

Find some great questions and activities in the publisher’s teaching guide for Word after Word after Word.

Ten: Staying Home for School

As homeschooling becomes more mainstream, more and more novels are depicting homeschooled kids and teens, either as main or secondary characters. While many of these novels continue to oversimplify the decision to homeschool as being broadly ideological (e.g. based on distrust of what is being taught in school on moral or political grounds), some take a more nuanced approach, often coming to the conclusion that while the classroom has benefits, homeschooling is the best choice available for this student at this time. While the benefit to homeschooled readers of seeing their own (or similar) experiences represented in fiction is somewhat mitigated by the frequency with the novels focus on the characters’ return to school, the generally positive depiction of homeschooling itself is certainly a step in the right direction.

Ida B. and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Kathryn Hannigan
Ida B. (not to be confused with her mom, Ida) has been homeschooled most of her life. When her mother’s cancer makes homeschooling impossible — and simultaneously requires most of her beloved orchard to be sold to pay the medical bills — Ida B. is devastated and retreats into herself, shielding herself from fear and further betrayal by building a wall of anger that soon becomes nearly impenetrable. A heartbreaking and beautiful story less about homeschooling than about a very human response to loss. Still, Hannigan believably portrays some of the strengths and weakness of both homeschooling and public school.

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Ten: Fathers and Mothers, Daughters and Sons

It’s not uncommon for parents to play a minimal role — or no role at all — in children’s and YA fiction. It gives the protagonists additional space and agency to explore themselves and their world, and allows readers to do so vicariously. Even so, the parent-child relationship remains an important one for young readers, and plenty of books offer insight into both its challenges and its potential. This week’s Ten suggests that even when parents are distant, even when they break trust, there is a place for hope in love and the possibility of restoration.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban
Zoe’s dreams and her father’s psychological limitations come into conflict, introducing new tension into a quirky but loving father-daughter relationship. Growth in both characters makes this a very satisfying story. Continue reading

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (“inspired by an idea from Soibhan Dowd”), illustrated by Jim Kay

A Monster Calls coverWhen bad things are happening, it can be tough for a thirteen year old boy to get his hands on the truth. Conor’s mom is sick, and ever since his teachers found out, they’ve been letting him get away with anything. At home, his mom and grandmother argue over how much to tell Conor – but neither asks him whether he wants to know. And then, one night, a monster arrives at Conor’s window, demanding that Conor tell the truth that he’s been hiding from himself.

The best first: Jim Kay’s illustrations are glorious — dark and detailed, with an emotional strength about them that grabs the attention and adds hugely to the power of the story to linger in the imagination. The characters are believable, and Ness does a great job of bringing the reader into Conor’s experience, offering comfort for those who have experienced something similar, and increasing understanding and compassion in those who have not. The fantasy element adds mythic depth to the story — in keeping with the theme of the novel, there’s a sense of universal truth here, even as the majority of the story lives in the particulars of selfish fathers and guardians too caught up in their own pain to see and address the needs of a child. Although, to me, the story doesn’t quite fulfill its potential — it stays too much on the surface, moves along too quickly, to really develop the depth of truth it hints at – this is absolutely a novel worth sharing.

Read about how Ness and Kay turned Siobhan Dowd’s idea into A Monster Calls, or read a review written from a doctor’s perspective.

Watch a trailer (and see a sample of the illustrations!):