Best of 2009 – *My* 2009, that is ~ Children’s & Middle Grade

Almost all the books I read are from the library. People give me books sometimes, or I pick them up for free out of boxes on the sidewalk, but those don’t tend to be the ones I read. I am constantly amazed at how many people who live here in the city don’t realize that you can order books through the public library website and have them delivered to your branch.

(On a side note, I think this function of the library is the best cure ever for late-night-internet-shopping syndrome. Do you know the thing I’m talking about? Late at night when you’re surfing the web, slightly sleepy, defenses down, and cute jewelry from Etsy or marked-down T-shirts from Threadless are just a PayPal click away? What I do is read book blogs and reviews and bestseller lists and Amazon, and then I make a list of all the books I want to read. Every delicious, enticing story and vibrant, juicy cover. And then I buy them ALL. Except when I “order” them, I’m submitting a reserve to the library, and, far from there being any shipping costs, in a few short days they arrive a couple of blocks from my house, free of charge and all mine for the next three weeks. What could be better than this?)

I keep of list of everything I read, and I have a pretty simple rating system: an asterisk next to the title of a book I enjoyed. Eventually I had to create the “1/2*” and the “**” for those books that either don’t quite rate or totally transcend the single star. Because I get all my books from the library, the books I read aren’t always the most recently published. Partly this is because it’s somewhat random how a book catches my eye – rather than a bright display of new releases at the front of the bookstore, it might be a friend’s recommendation, an older book by an author I’ve just discovered, or just something that looked interesting on the shelf. And partly this is because there can be quite a steep waiting time for popular new releases – my library has in total 48 copies of The Hunger Games with 54 people waiting in the queue to read it. And this for a book that was published last year! But I am clever at reserve-list management, creating a good mix of popular titles I’ll have to wait for and titles I’ll be able to get right away, so that my book supply remains steady at about 10 books every two weeks.

Which brings me to the Best of 2009. Since I’m not particularly following publication trends, I’m referring to the best of my 2009; the books I read this year that most impressed me, moved me, kept me up all night turning pages. I’ve split my “besties” into categories, and I’ll start here with books for children/middle graders, since there aren’t too many on the list.

My favorite books for children/middle graders read during 2009:

Eva Ibbotson – The Star of Kazan (2004)

Last year I read a great memoir by David Sheff called Beautiful Boy, and in it he writes about reading to his daughter a book by her favorite author, Eva Ibbotson. I had tried reading Ibbotson before – her book Island of the Aunts – and found it too silly for my taste and not very engaging. But something about how Sheff described the book they were reading made me want to try again. So I asked my library for The Star of Kazan and thus began my love affair with Eva Ibbotson.

When I talk about Ibbotson I find myself using sentence after sentence of exclamatory facts. She’s 84 years old and still writing books! She wrote her first book at age 50! Since then she has written 14 books for children and 8 books for teens and young adults! She was born in Vienna fled the Nazis as a child! She writes equally compellingly about old Austria, WWII-era British society, and the refugee experience!

The Star of Kazan is set in old Austria and is one of her children’s books, though it’s a sturdy, well-crafted tale that I think could delight a reader of any age. It’s a mystery and a “girl on her own figuring out which adults to trust” story, with classic themes of longing for home and finding your real family, whatever that looks like in the end.  The book has a magical feel and a sense of wonder and possibility, though it contains no actual fantasy or magic, that reminds me very much of The Secret Garden. After I finished Star of Kazan I immediately set about reading nearly everything else Ibbotson has written (there are still some books that aren’t for me, but it’s amazing what variety she has in her genres!).

Trenton Lee Stewart – The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007)
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008)

The Mysterious Benedict Society was destined to be an instant classic. Like The Dream Merchant, one of last year’s favorites by Isabel Hoving, and like countless books before it, The Mysterious Benedict Society books contain a special school for gifted children, a world in which certain skills and abilities only children possess allow them to go places and do things adult cannot, and of course chapter after breathless chapter of dangerous quests, puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel. What child could resist?

The books are also smart. When characters are meant to impress us with their clever solutions to puzzles and problems, their solutions actually are clever. The mystery part of the plot gets a little convoluted at times since it depends heavily on science that exists only in the world of the book, but the author rarely if ever uses that science to move things along in ways that are obviously just convenient or contrived. There’s a third book in the series already out, and I guess I’m totally hooked since I was considering adding its title to the “Best of” list even though I won’t read it until next week!

Kirsten Miller – Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City (2006)
Kiki Strike: The Empress’s Tomb (2007)

I’m a sucker for underground cities. Particularly in New York. If you write a book or make a movie about people living or adventuring in the vast network of tunnels and cells and abandoned chandeliered Victorian subway stations underneath a city, I’m probably going to read or watch it.

So when I picked up a book about a spunky group of talented teens exploring the “shadow city” beneath New York, author Kirsten Miller really didn’t have to much more than possess the ability to string words together in vaguely readable fashion to have my devoted readership. Happily she can do more than that, including creating a fun cast of characters, each with their own special skills and quirks, and a fast-moving plot full of unexpected twists. These aren’t the best books out there. I don’t know if I would recommend them to other people, which is usually a good indicator to me of how good I really think a book is. But they’re not guilty-pleasure bad either. (“Some people have their bodice-rippers, I have my underground cities books,” she said primly, blushing as she tried to slide the battered book beneath the folds of her skirt.) I think the first book is definitely worth checking out and, if you enjoy that one, know that the sequel is even better.

Shannon Hale – The Goose Girl (2003)

The Goose Girl is a classic fairy tale. All the themes are there – lonely childhood, betrayal, royalty in disguise, coming of age, discovery of magical powers, tests of faithfulness and kind-heartedness, special bonds with animals and the natural world. The tale is told in a straightforward manner, well-executed but without a lot of writerly tricks or flourishes. But I could not put this book down. When I was away from it, all I could think of was getting back to it. I never felt like I knew what was coming or what direction the story would take, so it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I’ve since tried to read the sequel, Enna Burning, and was so bored I was unable to make it through the first half, which of course makes me totally question my passion for The Goose Girl, but I know what I felt. I wish the next book had been as heart-stoppingly compelling, but at least as a stand-alone, The Goose Girl will always have a special place in my heart.


One Response

  1. About Goose Girl – Since we both liked GG, it’s interesting that you didn’t care for ENNA BURNING, as the only other Baeryn (sp?) book I’ve read is FOREST BORN, which I didn’t care for, either. So that leaves RIVER SECRETS… dare we?

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