Friday, December 1, 2023

My End of the Year Round Up

  I both love and hate doing the "end of the year books" post. I love sharing my favorite books with you, but hate picking just a couple.  In years past, I picked one book per category--picture book, middle grade and YA. This year I'm adding my new obsession--graphic four best books.

If I had to pick just one, it would be my YA selection, Artifice by Sharon Cameron (Scholastic.) It's been awhile since I've read something so engrossing that I had to ration my reading to an hour a day. Otherwise, I would've read for hours straight, ignoring appointments, phones and my family.

 The action takes place (mostly) over one week in Amsterdam, September 1943. Cameron based her book on the real lives of art forger Han Van Meergen and Johann van Hulse, a professor who is credited with saving 600 Jewish babies from the hands of the Nazis. The protagonist, however is seventeen-year-old Isa DeSmit. The Nazis have confiscated all the "degenerate" art (like Picasso and Chagall)from her father's gallery, essentially closing the business. The taxes are due on the gallery, which is also her home. Isa's mother is dead and her father, lost in grief, lives in another reality. Isa's best friend Truus has disappeared into the shadow world of the Dutch Resistance. With the Nazis snapping up art, left and right (real and fake), Isa decides to sell a forged Rembrandt, painted by her father, to Van Meergen's gallery, who in turn, sells it to Hitler himself. The money will pay the taxes. This sets off a chain of events that zooms from selling forgeries, to hiding Jewish children (and real Rembrandts) master to an encounter with a young Nazi named Michel who says he want to defect...but does he really? Cameron skillfully weaves a half dozen subplots, while asking"What is real?" in a world of forged art, secret identities, and collaborators. Artifice literally left me breathless and kind of exhausted...but in a satisfactory way. 

Middle Grade--Nothing Else but Miracles by Kate Albus (Margaret Ferguson Books)

OK, I'm biased. Having published a Middle Grade WWII era novel,  I fell in love with this story set NYC's Lower East Side. When their pop goes off to war, the motherless Byrne siblings, ages 17,12 and 6 (and their cat), he promises them that they will be safe. "The neighborhood will give you what you need," he assures them. "The neighborhood," a character in itself, proves Pop right. 

The story is told from middle child Dory's point-of-view, with humorous asides where the author directly addresses the reader. Although the Byrne's neighborhood conspires with the kids to avoid social workers and truant officers who could put them in an orphanage, there is still The Landlord. When their kindly landlord dies, his replacement wants the rent on time, no pets, and would turn the Brynes to the dreaded authorities if he discovers that they are living on their own. To complicate matters, oldest son Fish's 18th birthday is fast approaching, when he will be eligible for the draft. His shipyard job and Pop's military pay barely keep the family afloat. Dory can tell no one about the least not anyone human. Her "secret friend" is the Statue of Liberty. Dory lives close enough to Battery Park, that she often goes there to confide to "The Lady," whose weathered copper presence reassures her.

  This is historical fiction at its best. Not a single off note, or anachronism, or whiff of 21st century attitude or language kept me completely within Bryne's 1940's New York. Albus based her story on her own family's tales of this place and era. She is my new favorite historical fiction writer!

Picture Book--In Between by April Pulley Sayre and Jeff Sayre(Beach Lane)

I would've selected this as my picture book of the year, even if April Pulley Sayre wasn't a good friend and MFA classmate. I would choose it even if I didn't know that this would be one of April's last books before her untimely death in 2021.  

In spare words and lovely, close-up photography, the Sayres explore nature's moments of transition, the place between just hatched (or born) and maturity. Newly hatched birds, but not ready to fly. Frogs, no longer a tadpole, but not ready to leap from water to land. Although it looks like s picture book, it's a book for everybody, because all living things experience the "in between."  

Graphic--First Time for Everything by Dan Santat (First Second)

I am not alone in thinking that author-illustrator Santat's graphic memoir is something special. It won this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature and has been named School Library Journal's Best Book of the Year...and award season is just getting underway! (Santat won the 2015 Caldecott Award for The Adventures of Beetle: The Unimaginary Friend.)

I readily identified with eighth grader Dan. I too, was the "good kid," who did what adults expected and stayed out of trouble. Dan and I both felt "invisible" to classmates, but that didn't stop us from being bullied. (My personal definition of hell is reliving 7th and 8th grade for all eternity.) So Dan is far from enthused when his parents send him on a class trip to Europe. (I also went on a European "class trip" but I was 16.)

At first, just being in a different country makes no difference in Dan's life. He's stuck with the same classmates that made fun of him. He doesn't understand why the adults in his life thought the trip was a good idea. But as he travels through France, Germany, Switzerland and England, a series of events slowly change him. He discovers Fanta and fondue. He sneaks into a semi-final match at Wimbledon and by chance sees Stefan Edberg defeat the great John McEnroe And he falls in love.

Although the book is set in 1989, the dynamics and emotions of the trip are timeless. It could've been the same trip I took in 1971. (Although the absence of cell phones does make a difference in the choices Dan is forced to make.) Not everyone has the opportunity to take such a trip, but reading A First Time for Everything is the next best thing.

I hope some of you will share your favorite books of this year in the comments.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Bobbi Miller said...

These look like grand books! Thank you for the recommendations!

Carol Coven Grannick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Coven Grannick said...

I appreciate these wonderful recommendations! Thank you for a brand new TBR stack!
My recommendation for the year is Ami Polonsky's WORLD MADE OF GLASS, which came out in January 2023, and was at once a beautifully written combination of prose and poetry (which is part of the story), and a heartbreaking-heart healing narrative of historical fiction that takes place during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. This is a book that tells the truth about the inattention and neglect and bias that was all part of the dangerous and destructive fear that accompanied those years, but does it with characters we love, whose journeys are at once courageous, loving, and authentic. This is a beautiful and impactful story, important for middle graders and their loving adults.

Danielle H. said...

Dust by Dusti Bowling is my favorite middle grade book this year. I've now read all of her books and enjoyed each one.

Linda Mitchell said...

Thank you! I must get Artifice! And, I must read it right away.

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Carol Coven Grannick— I’ll add WORLD MADE OF GLASS to my TBR stack! Thank you!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Danielle H—Dusti Bowling’s books do sound intriguing from what I read from her reviews. I Ned to give her a read. Thank you!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Bobbi Miller—you are so welcome e.