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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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!

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave coverIn a post-apocalyptic world, Cassie feels like she is the last human alive. When the alien mothership loomed closer towards Earth, no one could have predicted what was to happen. The first wave took away their lives, the second took away hope of reconciliation, the third left only the few (both lucky and unlucky) survivors, and the fourth is killing off most of those who have outlived the other waves. Now, on the brink of the fifth wave, anything could happen — nothing and no one can be trusted.

Among Cassie’s possessions is her M-16, a first aid kit, water, a diary, some tins of sardines, pictures and a stuffed toy bear. Though worn and ragged from years of being loved, the bear represents the promise that she made to her brother, and the reason she fights so hard to survive. Little does she know that she is being stalked by someone in the shadows.

Elsewhere is another survivor who, through a miracle, has also somehow survived through all four waves. Dubbed Zombie by his rescuers, he is ushered to the barracks amongst the other surviving children to become trained “military style” to fight the enemies: you either make it or you die trying. When his regiment succeeds in bumping up its ranking and finally takes action outside camp, they are in for a surprise when they learn who their real enemies are.

Suspenseful, mysterious and with hints of romance throughout, Yancey does a stellar job of interweaving the lives and stories of its characters. He leaves the reader speculating about the realities within our day to day lives; what if the world that we live in really isn’t what we think it is? What would you do if your life was endangered by another species?

See more reviews by: Wired, the New York Times, and Mrs. ReaderPants.

Read the interview between Entertainment Weekly and Rick Yancey.

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!

Ten: Defining “Hero”

The topic for this week’s Ten followed my discovery, on following a recommendation, that my library had three different books called Sidekicks — a middle grade series starter, a YA novel, and a graphic novel. Of course I requested all three. As I read these, and the others listed below, I found that while the term “hero” is still popular, almost every story focused on a “hero” is at least partly concerned with what exactly heroism means. Traditionally — according to dictionary.com — a hero is (some mix of) daring, altruistic and courageous, and admired by his or her community for these qualities. Is that really what makes a hero? And what does heroism look like when you’re called on to be the hero? Check out this week’s titles for ten answers.

Sidekicks written by Dan Danko and Tom Mason and illustrated by Barry Gott
A group of kids with promising but undeveloped powers provide their services whenever the League of Big Justice needs a hand. When the League is captured, Guy Martin (Speedy) leads the other sidekicks on a rescue mission. While several characters claim the role of “hero” based more on supposed “powers” than on actual heroic activity, Guy and his fellow sidekicks are brave, resourceful, and willing to use their respective talents to help when needed. Continue reading

Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Beholding Bee coverBee has been part of Ellis’s travelling show all her twelve years. Since her parents’ death, she and her unofficial guardian, Pauline, have been a team. Bee helps with the hot dog cart and looks for a home that will finally get the two of them off the road. Pauline keeps records of Bee’s life and fights to keep her — and her large, diamond-shaped birthmark — out of Ellis’s “Look See” exhibit. When Pauline gets involved with a newcomer, Ellis takes the opportunity to send her off to help start a satellite show that he hopes will boost flagging wartime profits. Feeling betrayed, and vulnerable to Ellis’s greed, Bee takes off, looking for a place to claim as home.

What she finds is the cozy little house of her dreams, inhabited by two old women who welcome her and settle her into the bedroom they’ve prepared. Mrs. Potter offers comfort; Mrs. Swift insists that Bee make something of herself, beginning with school. And here’s where the story really gets going. At school, where she’s placed in the “special” class to avoid teasing, Bee discovers the responsibility of friendship, the satisfaction of being expected to thrive, and the possibility that standing up to a bully may require as much compassion as it does bravery.

Though I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book as a whole, the complexity of the characters and the relationships between them is exceptional. Nearly every character with any significance in the novel has flaws and struggles of his or her own, and each is eventually shown to deserve at least a bit of sympathy. Beholding Bee would be a great choice for a group read, with lots of potential for discussion about friendship, bullying, home, and what it means to be a good teacher or parent.

Read other reviews from Fourth Musketeer, Beth Fish Reads and Kirkus.

The American Library Association’s Association for Library Services to Children recently included Beholding Bee in its list of nominees for Notable Children’s Books. Check out the rest of the list!

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.