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.

Tea Rex by Molly Idle

Tea Rex coverIf you’ve never invited a Tyrannosaurus Rex to tea, clearly you’re missing out. In Tea Rex, Molly Idle instructs young readers in the proper etiquette for a polite and dignified tea party: welcome your guest, offer a variety of tasty snacks, and engage him or her in conversation. Her illustrations depict two children — a dainty little girl in a giant hat and a little boy who fully appreciates the noisy joy of their guest — trying very hard to live up to the stated expectations while things get more and more out of hand. In the midst of happy chaos, there’s just the barest hint of a moral. If a guest needs to drink his tea from a giant hat and have room to swing his tail to be comfortable, good manners might be a lot more interesting than we thought.

I loved the combination of dinosaur and tea party, and the casual presence of both brother and sister at the tea table. Tea Rex skips over stereotypes to tell a story that anyone can enjoy for its humour and its familiarity — who hasn’t planned something out and had it turn out terribly wrong just the same? Idle’s illustrations carry the weight of the story, and do so beautifully. Soft and colourful, full of activity and silly details, they strike a balance between gentility and playfulness that fits the tone of the story just right.

Read more reviews from Three Books a Night and Publishers Weekly.

A sweet book trailer:

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

Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey coverTake a little Harold and the Purple Crayon, a little Where the Wild Things Are, some glorious illustrations, and a world you’ll remember (and wish for!) long after finishing the book, and you have Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, Journey. Tired of waiting for her family to put down their electronics, and for the neighbourhood kids to invite her into their games, Journey‘s protagonist sets off on her own adventure. Red marker in hand, she creates a door that leads her from sepia-toned reality to a grand and richly green forest. When a stream appears, the marker produces a small boat, and when the stream-turned-aqueduct suddenly ends, it provides a hot air balloon in the nick of time.

Making (literally) her own way along is only half the adventure, though. While floating above the city in her balloon, the girl notices a purple bird being caught and caged. Abandoning her meandering trip, the girl follows the hunters’ airship, determined to find and free the bird. Accomplishing her task might earn her what she’s wanted all along. It might also cost her everything.

I’ve been waiting for Journey since spring, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I was surprised. I’d anticipated something of an update on Harold, and wondered how such a personal journey would come around to the “act of tremendous courage and kindness” described in the publisher’s blurb. While the red marker does play a significant role in the story, the vast, detailed landscapes and distinct contrast between the girl’s travels and her family’s screen-and-cord-bound lives combine to make this a much more outward-focused journey than Harold’s from the start. And while the story is simple, I think that this is another one where rereading and discussing will reveal more to love about Journey every time.

Read about the book from a teacherly point of view at Reading, Teaching, Learning, or from a mom’s perspective at Everyday Reading.

Come join the Sharp-Schu Book Club on Twitter on Wednesday, September 25th to talk about Journey and ask Aaron Becker questions!

If the art is what grabs you in Journey, check out Becker’s guest post on Gurney Journey to find out how he did it.

In case you haven’t seen it already (and even if you have), you really need to watch this gorgeous book trailer:

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

The Melancholic Mermaid written by Kallie George and illustrated by Abigail Halpin

The Melancholic Mermaid cover Simply ReadBoth Tony and Maude were born a little different. He has webbed fingers; she has two tails. The latter, at least, seems like a good thing at first. Double-tailed merfolk have a tendency to make history. Unfortunately, the extra speed and agility that allows them to do so also makes Maude unpopular with the other merchildren — she’s way too fast to be any fun for games and races. Tony, too, has trouble with the other kids, who tease him relentlessly.

Tony and Maude meet one another as fellow circus performers. Tony was turned over to the circus by his concerned and trusting parents, who hoped that the Ring Mistress was right when she told them Tony would be happier there. Maude was caught by a fisherman’s net, and sold to the circus for a mint. When neither act proves profitable, the Ring Mistress decides to recoup her losses by having the stage-frozen Tony train the despondent Maude. But Tony realises that he and Maude have a thing or two in common, and he devises a different plan entirely.

The Melancholic Mermaid is its own kind of different. There’s the story, which brings together imagined mermaid lore, bullying, show business, and adventure. There’s the format, which crosses picture book with chapter book. And there are the pictures, which are full of sea colours and personality and just…wonderful. Because of the length, the story would be a great choice for a more confident reader who still loves lots of pictures, or as a read-aloud for a mixed-age group. Make sure to read to the end – the epilogue is the best part!

Read several more reviews collected on the publisher’s website

Check out an interview with Kallie George and Abigail Halpin at Cynsations.