Friday, December 9, 2016

These Are Few of My Favorite 2016 Books

 2016 came with my own personal ear worm, a song from the Stephen Sondheim's Follies. On a tiny, dusty stage in a corner of brain, Elaine Stritch sang, "I'm Still Here."

Good times and bum times I've seen them all
And, my dear, I'm still here.

This has not been a year of fun and frivolity for anyone, and my reading seems to reflect that. When I looked at my end-of-the-year favorites I thought (in true Baby Boomer stye) "Wow.  Heavy man!"

Half of them have WWII themes. There seemed to be lots of WWII books published this year. This puzzled me, until I realized (this week!) that it's the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.  (Duh). Most of them have death at the heart of the story. As usual, my picks are a mishmash of non-fiction, middle-grade and YA fiction and a graphic novel.  My usual eclectic mishmash.

I'm a big fan of graphic novels, especially those of Raina Telgemeier. Her previous books always make me giggle, because this author/artist turns middle-school misery into something manageable for the young reader, without ever condescending or trivializing their issues.

Her latest book, Ghosts, has it's light-hearted moments--along with magical realism--in what sounds at first like a bummer of a book. Middle-schooler Catrina's family moves to coastal Northern California, leaving Catrina one unhappy camper. The move however, is for her little sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. The cool, salty sea air will make it easier for Maya to breathe.
Maya takes to her new town right away, especially when the boy-next-door tells them the secret of Bahia de la Luna...ghosts in habit the town. Meeting a ghost appeals to Maya; Catrina, not so much. The story culminates at a Day of the Dead a way I did not see coming until the final pages. Ghosts is humorous in spots, but over-all a positive, life-affirming book.
 I've read an awful lot of WWII historical fiction but Alan Gratz's Project 1065, has a POV I'd never considered. Thirteen-year-old Michael O'Shaunessesy's parents work for the Irish Consulate in WWII Berlin. Michael does his best to fit in with his schoolmates, including joining the Hitler Youth. But Michael has a secret; although Ireland is a neutral country, his parents are Allied spies, and use their son to gather intelligence. For Michael, his every move involves a life or death situation. He participates in book burning and bullying, despising himself for it, yet knowing that it's crucial to his gaining access to information for the Allies. When Michael learns of a new super secret Nazi weapon, his life becomes even more complicated. He must prove his loyalty to the Hitler Youth, even if it means risking everything dear to him, including his own life.

Monica Hesse's Girl in the Blue Coat set in WWII Netherlands, and like Project 1065, is a mystery, and features a reluctant hero(ine). Hanneke is older than Michael, although her age is never specified. After her fiancé is killed in the German invasion, Hanneke turns to the black market, both to support her parents and as a personal spit-in-the-eye to the Nazis. Suddenly, one of her customers asks her help in finding "an item" not on Hanneke's usual trade list.  The woman wants Hanneke to find a missing Jewish teenager she had been hiding. I like a book with a lot of twists and turns and surprising (but logical) endings. Although they are nothing alike, Girl in a Blue Coat has elements of some of my favorite recent books, Gone Girl, Girl on the Train and Code Name Verity.  Definitely for older teens.

The last title in my WWII fiction binge is Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Again, this one centers around a true event I've never heard of, the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a transport ship, evacuating German military and citizens as the Red Army advance on Prussia. Narrated by three teen characters, whose paths unite, and fates intertwine, together, they make their way through battle scarred Germany, seeking salvation promised by the Wilhelm Gustloff. Septeys' research on this all-but-forgotten event is meticulous. I was in the heart and soul of each other narrators, every step of the way, as desperate to learn their fates as they were.  Upper middle grade/YA.

On to the non-fiction, and guess what? My favorites are biographies of hero/martyrs of WWII.

No one better than Russell Freedman when it comes to non-fiction. I make a point to read everything with his name on the cover. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler centers on a small circle of university friends who dare to print and distribute pamphlets condemning Hitler and Nazism. Led by siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, their story illuminates the power of courageous individuals. whose efforts, at first glance, would seem to be futile. Eventually, their message that freedom from tyranny is worth dying for, takes root. I first came across the The White Rose story 40 years ago as a young librarian. I am so happy that Freedman has written their story for young adults, a story every bit as relevant as it was in 1943.

Patricia McCormick's YA novels Sold, Cut and Purple Heart are so immediate, it is hard to believe they are fiction. The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero is her first venture into the equally gritty world of non-fiction. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister in Nazi Germany, who I first learned about in (where else?) Lutheran Sunday School. He was referred to as a "Lutheran marytr" but no one ever bother to explain to the 6th grade class what he had done to merit execution by the Nazis and ensuing martyrdom. His life was more complex than I could've imagined. Born to wealth, and trained as a concert pianist, Bonhoeffer renounced "worldly pursuits" to become a Lutheran pastor. The death of a brother in WWI transformed Bonhoeffer into a pacifist. But with the rise of Hitler, what could a Christian pacifist do in the face of pure evil? Again, like the Scholls' story, this emphasizes the "power of one."

Switching to another time in history, It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas covers serious subjects, in just the way you might expect a middle schooler to do. New kid Zomorod Yousefzadeh tries to makeover her Iranian person, to fit into The Brady Bunch world of 1970's Southern California. Action number one; is to rename herself "Cindy". Her assimilation seems to be progressing, even if her parents seem determined to stick with the "old Iranian ways." Then disaster strikes. Iran takes over the American embassy inTehran, holding its employees hostage. Suddenly, "Cindy" is not just the weird foreign kid...she and her family are now considered "The Enemy." With Cindy narrating, we feel her pain and joy as she navigates between her two worlds.
If you've read Cammie McGovern's YA novels, you know she never pulls her punches. She is just as hard hitting in her first middle-grade novel, Just My Luck.

Fourth grade is just not turning out the way Bennie Barrows had hoped.  His best friend has moved away and Bennie hasn't found a new BFF.  He's a terrible bike rider, even though his autistic older brother can do bike tricks.  Worst of all, Bennie fears he may be responsible for a terrible accident that sends his father to the hospital with serious and perhaps permanent injuries. Benny deals with his problems by trying to be helpful to others...but even this doesn't seem to help. Benny feels as if he is a walking pile of bad luck...until he discovers differently. What I loved about this book is that it's not about "fixing" life, but coping with what "is", something I don't often see in middle grade works.

I leave you with one more work of outstanding contemporary middle grade fiction, Mrs. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson. Mrs. Bixby is the best kind of teacher, the one who makes coming to school worthwhile. When buddies Topher, Brand and Steve learn Mrs. Bixby will not be able to finish the school year, they band together (told from each boy's POV) to give her the last day they think she deserves. You will think you know where this story is heading...but you won't. I guarantee it.

One of the joys of being the second person to post on this topic is that Esther and I had some of the same "best books" on our list. The ones that both of us agreed belong on a "bests" list are:
The Best Man by Richard Peck; Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet;  The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.

Back on that small, dusty stage in my head, Elaine Stritch is belting out her big finish...

I got through all of last year, and I'm here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I'm here
Look who's here, I'm still here

Yeah! Come on, 2017!

P.S. Don't forget to enter our current book giveaway.


Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Mary Ann, for adding books to Must READ list!
Ruta's book tops my current pile of books waiting to be read.
After I finish writing, I'm clicking on to my CPL to reserve several of your titles.
Thank you!

I, for one, am so glad you are here! :)

Rosi said...

Wow. What a great list. My TBR list expands. Thanks for the post.