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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When I Was Eight written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was Eight coverAt eight years old, Olemaun helps with the sled dogs and her father’s hunting. Sometimes, her older sister reads her stories. But what Olemaun really wants to do is learn to read books for herself. She knows that you have to go to the outsiders’ residential school to do so, but it takes all winter to convince her father to let her go. When it’s finally warm enough to take the family’s furs into town for trading, Olemaun joyfully begins school — and discovers that not only will most of her time be spent working rather than learning, but one of the nuns has developed a personal grudge against her.

But Olemaun — now Margaret — is determined. She turns the same tenacity that got her into school to the task of getting her through it. Along the way, she takes every opportunity, from cluttered chalkboards to product labels, to practice her reading. In the process, she finds out that reading, and the stories it opens to her, give her resources to take on such challenges with confidence.

When I Was Eight is based on Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s own childhood experiences, and it does a beautiful job of making a difficult part of Canadian history accessible to very young readers. The story calls for some discussion with an adult in order to provide context, but it also makes space for positive conversations about the value of reading, and of tenacity in working for the things that are important to us.

If you’d like to share Olemaun’s story with older readers, check out Fatty Legs, which tells the story at a middle grade level, and includes photographs from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s childhood at home and at the residential school.

See samples of Grimard’s gorgeous illustrations on the publisher’s page (just click “look inside” on the right side of the screen).

Find out what others thought at Kiss the Book and CM Magazine.

Thanks to NetGalley and Annick Press for the review copy.

Around the World by Matt Phelan

Around the World coverTake three determined people, set before them a challenge they can’t refuse, and get ready for (vicarious) adventure.

Toward the end of the 19th century, three individuals took on the challenge of travelling around the world, each for his or her own reasons, and each in his or her own way. Thomas Stevens, eager to leave behind a life in the mines, taught himself to manage one of the new bicycles and peddled across the United States. When the first trip went well, he decided to continue his journey across the Atlantic to England, through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and finally across the Pacific to finish back in San Francisco. Reporter Nellie Bly set out specifically to outdo Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. With only one small bag, the clothes on her back, and a pet monkey purchased along the way, Bly flung herself around the world, gaining more fans with every mile, and beating Fogg (and a contemporary competitor from another publication) handily. Joshua Slocum, a retired sailor apparently made obsolete by the rise of steamships, intended little more than to take once more to the sea. Where Stevens’ journey was characterised by people-watching and new friends, and Bly’s by an expectation that the people along her way would cooperate with her determination to make it around the world quickly, Slocum’s journey was almost entirely solitary, dependent on his memories, his expertise, and the wind.

The adventure and factoids that fill Around the World will easily hold the attention of middle grade readers, but don’t miss out on reading it yourself. Phelan’s artistic and literary presentation of these three stories is rich with humour and a keen sense of the complex relationship between the journey experienced, and the journey told.

Check out more reviews from Fyrefly’s Book Blog and Kirkus.

Read the stories from their own pens! Find Thomas Stevens’ description of his journey in Around the World on a Bicycle and Nellie Bly’s story in Nellie Bly’s Book, both available on Project Gutenberg.

Catch the book trailer:

Feeling the wanderlust? Find out what travelling around the world looks like today!

Ten: Graphic Novel Biographies

Where the value of graphic novels is under debate, it may be helpful to have a few clearly educational titles to offer as an entry point to the form. Adaptations of classic novels abound, and fit beautifully into Ashley Thorne’s argument for valuing adaptations and abridgments for their ability to make substantial literature in its original form more accessible to readers. Another great option is graphic novel biographies, which not only introduce readers to some pretty amazing lives, but also, in some cases, accomplish more through the combination of printed words and pictures than might be possible in more traditional forms of storytelling. On the plus side, as is the case with classic lit adaptations, one graphic novel biography often points the way to more, either by the same author or in the same series — it seems to be an addictive sort of work!

By Jim Ottaviani
In partnership with a variety of illustrators, Jim Ottaviani has produced a long list of graphic novel biographies focused on the world of science and its intersection with society (e.g. politics, gender expectations, etc.). In addition to the titles below, look for Feynman, T-minus: The Race to the Moon, Suspended In Language: Niels Bohrs Life, Discoveries, And The Century He Shaped and more.

Primates: the Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
You’ve heard of Jane Goodall, but maybe not the others, yet. Ottaviani and Wicks give readers a glimpse of the lives and work of these three women, as well as some insight into how their work has contributed to the movement to conserve primate habitats. Continue reading

Primates: the Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

Primates coverYou may have heard of Jane Goodall and her dedicated work with chimpanzees. You may also have come across the names of the late Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, who supported research efforts around endangered gorillas and the orangutan, respectively. But have you ever wondered why they became well known, or what it might take to live a life in the jungle?

Primates‘s graphic novel format makes their stories accessible. Readers will learn, for example, how Jane’s observations led to the need to redefine the term “man,” how Dian got right into ‘the scoop of things’ through her dung swirling technique, and about the accident that left Biruté’s bottom looking like a “burnt marshmallow.” They’ll also find out how all three women’s work stemmed from that of archaeologist and naturalist Dr. Louis Leakey.

This graphic novel offers a somewhat fictionalized telling of the trials and tribulations of the three female primatologists’ lives and their groundbreaking work as they observed the lives of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

While gender gaps are being addressed, it is still rare to come across literary material that showcase the notable work of female role models. Past the appeal of the book jacket and the beautiful illustrations, what attracted me to this graphic novel was the focus on three powerful and dedicated women who made a difference in the history of science. The addition of a real photo of the three primatologists standing together as if they are in discussion, as well as a list of resources at the back of the book, encourages further curiosity about the lives of these scientists. The book can also be a route to building awareness about primates’ increasingly endangered habitats, and to furthering the fight for the preservation of what remains today.

See other reviews: NY Times Book ReviewNY Journal of Books Review and Finding Neverland.

Read the interview between staff at School Library Journal and author Jim Ottaviani.

Tales of Two Quirky Heroes by Jason.

You may be familiar with the ironic humour and sardonic canine charm of Norwegian comic book artist and author Jason, real name John Arne Sæterø. His art is reminiscent of Hergé, in that he draws in a seemingly simple style and uses colours that are bold and bright. His stories are populated by anthropomorphized dog-people doing their best to succeed at life. The first Jason book I read, The Left Bank Gang, starred a dog-faced Ernest Hemingway and several of his famous pals planning a bank heist. Jason writes with a wry sense of humour that easily disregards the restrictions of reality; the result is pure entertainment.

The Last Musketeer coverThe Last Musketeer stars Athos, who remarkably is still alive in present day France — how or why this is the case is not explained. One of the other Musketeers, Aramis, also survives, although he has traded his adventures for a quiet married life. When the planet Mars attacks France, Athos goes to Aramis with a plan to fight the Martians, but Aramis refuses to help. Undeterred, Athos hi-jacks a Martian spaceship, ends up in prison, escapes, battles with Martian robots, and eventually secures the help of the daughter of the Martian dictator. Athos also discovers what really happened to Porthos, the third musketeer. This comic is appropriate for middle school students, but would likely be enjoyed by any comic fan. Watch a video preview on YouTube, and read this super short review form Publishers Weekly.

I Killed Adolf Hitler coverThe hero of I Killed Adolf Hitler is a 20th-Century hitman. In the alternate reality of this book, assassins are legitimate businessmen hired by average folks to exact revenge. Hired by a scientist with a time machine, the hero of this story goes back to 1938 to assassinate Hitler. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite as planned, and instead Hitler escapes to the future, leaving the assassin to wait until he is in his 70s to try again. This story is more about relationships and letting go than it is about the wish-fulfillment of assassinating Hitler. Due to the sexual innuendo and murders so frequent they verge on banal, I would recommend this for ages 16+.  This review from ComicSphere provides more description of Jason’s unique storytelling style. Read the Artist Bio at Fantagraphics, or a Q&A with lots of sample art at The Casual Optimist.

Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb coverThe basics of the development of the atomic bomb are familiar to most. The details, less so. Bomb is full of scientific, historical, and political explanations that will make the circumstances surrounding the first atomic bombs much clearer. This may well intrigue those who enjoy reading about particle physics or political history. Here’s why you should check out Bomb even if you don’t: Sheinkin does a fantastic job of making something you should understand into something that you actually care about.

The story begins years after the Second World War, with Harry Gold, one of the American men drafted as a spy for the Soviet Union, agreeing to confess his crimes. The unlikeliness of this scenario — Gold is a nervous chemist who still lives with his father and brother — sets up the project well. All the way through, Sheinkin pulls in details and anecdotes that help the events described, and the people involved, come across as real, memorable, and eminently shareable. Read the book yourself, and you will be dropping bits and pieces into conversation. Pass it on to a student, and they’ll come back looking for more about Moe Berg, Robert Oppenheimer, and Richard Feynman.

Bomb is a truly fascinating account of the scientific and political pursuit of the first atomic bomb, rounded off with a sobering look at what the existence of the bomb means we are able to do to one another. With incredible research, skilled narrative, and an emphasis on characterisation that puts plenty of fiction to shame, Sheinkin tells history in a way that will keep even the most story-oriented reader engaged.

Read reviews from Book Love and Kirkus

Read an interview with author Steve Sheinkin on School Library Journal, or watch Sheinkin talk about his approach to writing history: