Friday, December 1, 2017

Tis the Season for Our Favorites

    They're heeree!...the end-of-the-year "Best Books" list.  I'm curious as to how they are selected. Starred reviews? Committee consensus? Secret ballot? Coin toss?

 This is my list, and my criteria is if the story stays with me. I read so much that if I can remember the title, author, and the main characters months later, that's good. Mostly. It can also mean the book was memorably bad.

Forget I said that. Let's focus on the good ones.

I love historical fiction. I really do try to read across genres, but when it comes to picking my favorites--surprise, surprise--they are mostly historical fiction.


Best picture book: Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimand. (Second Story Press, 2017)
When a seven-year-old Cree girl, eager to learn more about her heritage, asks Grandpa for the Cree word for "grandfather," he admits he does not know. In age-appropriate language, Grandpa tells her how "his words" were stolen from him when he and the other children of his village were forced to attend state-sponsored residential schools with the goal of total assimilation into white Canadian culture and extinction of First Nation culture. This is a harsh story, softened by the gentle illustrations, and the beautiful friendship between the unnamed little girl and her grandfather. I can think of any number of ways this book could be used with older students in discussing personal expression and cultural identity.

Best fiction: Ages 8-12: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan (Wendy Lamb Books, 2016)
Ms Hill's fifth graders are the last class to graduate from their beloved neighborhood school, which is being torn down to make room for a supermarket. The narrative comes from the poetry journals of the eighteen students. Unlike many multiple narrator stories, the reader is easily able to keep track of the characters, each with a distinct voice and verse form. A terrific teaching tool for introducing various types of poetry, with a lesson in community responsibility and civic protest thrown in for good measure.

Best historical fiction: Middle grade and up: Clutch by Heather Camlot (Red Deer Press, 2017)
In 1946 Montreal, 12-year-old Joey Grosser struggles to keep his dead father's grocery alive. Resentful of his father's death and the family's poverty, Joey is determined to become a "big businessman," pursuing money and success at the expense of his own honest nature. In his quest of "a big house on the West Side," Joey unwittingly becomes a pawn of his best friend's father, Mr. Wolfe (!!!), a man with a record, but who can also make money. Woven throughout is the story of Jackie Robinson's season with the minor league Montreal Royals, with quotes from contemporary sports writers at the beginning each chapter. There are no "throw-away" characters. Each and every one --from Joey's Robinson-worshipping little brother David and BFF Ben, to the grocery's customers in this Jewish neighborhood--all are fully developed, and play an important role in Joey's story. This is a world you can lose yourself in. I loved it!

Best graphic novels
I love graphic novels so much, and there were so many good ones this year, I cheated and picked two. At least they are for different age groups. And I just now realized they are semi-autobiographical stories, taking place in the late 1970's (You've never seen so many illustrations of wall-mounted, push-button telephones!)

Ages 8-12: Swing It, Sunny by Jennifer L. Holm, ill. by Matthew Hale (Graphix, 2017) Although '70's in style (Sunny's family is pictured in Brady Bunch-style box frames) it's contemporary in subject. Sunny is not only coping with the stresses of middle school (remembering your locker combination is a timeless terror) but the absence of her beloved older brother, Dale, away at "boarding school." Illustrations of Dale in military school style uniform, personality changes and "getting in trouble" could lead the reader to assume Dale has substance abuse issues. At the least, he is going through a tough adolescence, leaving his adoring little sister confused and frustrated. Sunny's friendship with a new neighbor, Indian-American Neela, gives Sunny a new perspective on Dale and middle school. Funny and sad by turns, this is the only book I know with a Pet Rock as a secondary character!

Middle grade: Real Friends by Shannon Hale, ill. by LeUyen Pham (First Second, 2017)Real Friends is also a new-kid-in-middle-school story, but with more emphasis on the most traumatic aspect of the grade-to-middle-school transition--the loss of old friends, the frustration of finding one new "true friend." Since the main character is "Shannon," the reader assumes that this is the author's own story. Although there are details specific to Hale's own life (the middle child of a large Mormon family in Salt Lake City), her woes are universal; mean girls at school, a bullying big sister at home (who is sometimes depicted as a large, menacing bear!), chronic stomach aches from stress. Yep--this could've been my story (minus the bullying sibling) only fifteen years earlier and two thousand miles away. Which is to say, it is universal. That Shannon is Mormon serves gives her a moral compass to guide her, although the religious aspect is described in the most general of terms. Shannon could just as easily have been Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish. This is a darker, more mature story than Sunny. Because I so identified with Shannon, I felt a real catharsis at the book's end.

Other terrific graphic novels this year (and all geared for middle school): All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (author of last year's fabulous Roller Girl), Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson, Brave by Svetlana Chamakova (the main character is male) and Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier


Best book of the year:
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbi, translated from Italian by Lilit Thwaites (Godwin Books/Henry Holt, 2017) Historical fiction:YA
As a former librarian and someone who has read a lot of Holocaust history, the title grabbed me first. A library in Auschwitz? As it turned out, the "library" was much more than books, but a collection of teachers and students, who for mysterious reasons, live in the "privileged" family camp, BIIb. Under the rule of the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele, BIIb is a world apart from the rest of Auschwitz. Inmates are allowed to wear their own clothes and keep their hair. Most importantly, families, including young children and old people, are kept together within the confines of BIIb. But why? And for how long? This sense of living from minute to minute, always wondering how long this "luck" will hold out, drives the story relentlessly.

Based on the real life story of 14-year-old Dita Poach Kraus, and several others, the fictional Dita discovers a secret school for the children, run by the charismatic young Fredy Hirsch (another real-life character) Although too old to be a student, Dita inveigles her way into becoming the keeper of the library--a precious collection of eight books, smuggled from the possessions of less fortunate prisoners. The discovery of this motley collection--a math text, a Russian grammar,  copies of Freud and H.G. Wells A Short History of the World among others--would mean the immediate end of BIIb and it's inhabitants. Unexpected "inspections" by Mengele and his minions keeps Dita in constant peril, to keep the books from discovery. The school is the center that brings together the stories of several other narratives, but Dita's POV is the most important.

I hate when people say things like "I stayed up all night to finish this book" but...I stayed up all night to finish this book. Absolutely harrowing, riveting and ultimately, redemptive.

Happy reading, everyone.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman







2 comments:

Heather Camlot said...

Thank you so much, Mary Ann! I'm so glad you enjoyed Clutch. And I now have The Librarian of Auschwitz on my must-read list.

Carmela Martino said...

Wish I could read as quickly as you do, MA. I've finished so few books this year!