Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Best of 2007: Books for Children

The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z by Steve Martin and Roz Chast (Flying Dolphin Press/Doubleday) 64 pages
It’s no secret that celebrity names sell books. In the last few years, we’ve seen children’s books from Madonna, Jamie Lee Curtis, Billy Crystal, Bill Cosby, Maria Shriver, Jerry Seinfeld and many others. In some ways, it’s not right to lump Steve Martin in with these others. While Martin is an actor, he’s also recognized as a writer. His novella, Shopgirl, was a bestseller long before it was a film and he’s written many other books as well as the screenplays for some of his most popular films. He’s in good form here with an alphabet book that provides a real mouthful with each letter. He’d aided in this by a really wonderful illustrator. Roz Chast’s illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review and many, many others. You may not know her name, but when you see her work, you’ll recognize it. Together they create a work of delicate sophistication and great whimsey that I anticipate will be delighting children for many years to come. -- David Middleton

Before the Storm by Sean McMullen (Ford Street Books)
Written for children and younger teens, this time travel book is a hoot even for adult readers. It’s set in a place and historical period that isn’t often dealt with in fiction and certainly not in speculative fiction. It is 1901, the year in which Australia’s colonies became one Federation. There’s going to be a huge celebration in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building, site ofAutralia’s first Parliament. Into this time and place come two young travellers from a nightmarish future world which will come about if a certain terrorist attack on the opening ceremony isn’t prevented. The two are helped by four teenagers, two middle-class siblings, a working-class boy who sells naughty postcards and a girl whose mother’s art supply shop plays an important role finding out what’s going on. It would have been all too easy to turn this tale into a regular adventure or a grim thriller, but it’s great fun -- even, at times, hilarious. It is one of the more enjoyable books I have read this year. -- Sue Bursztynski

The Big Book of Pop Culture: A How-to Guide for Young Artists by Hal Niedzviecki (Annick Press) 183 pages
Nedzviecki's book is very good and could be an important one for kids at that delicate age of understanding. At worst The Big Book of Pop Culture will offer a few interesting hours of entertainment as it explores the development of pop culture and our place in it. At best, the book will provide a key of empowerment for young people poised on the threshold of creativity. I’m betting most parents would be fine with either outcome. -- Linda L. Richards

Dinosaurs by Thomas R. Holtz Jr., illustrations by Luis V. Rey (Random House) 432 pages
We are fascinated by dinosaurs. As a result, books on the topic are anything but scarce. Even so, Dinosaurs fits in a niche not as well padded out as some of the others because, while there are lots of dinosaur-related books for new readers and young children and many for adults, young adults have less of choice. And their needs are different: they require more meat than younger children. They need more detail and scientific information. At the same time, it should be less sophisticated than the information a book for adults might include. Sure: we want young adults to have all of the information available, but it should be delivered in a way that is highly understandable and won’t deter them from their course of discovery. Thomas R. Holtz’ Dinosaurs delivers on all of these demands, and more. The book has been written specifically for young adult readers, but from the perspective of a palaeontologist. The information is shared in a gentle and lucid manner and while the writing is crystal clear, he never, ever speaks down to his young readers. And it’s not possible to discuss this book without mentioning the illustrations. Luis V. Rey is one of the most respected illustrator of dinosaurs in the world today. Nor are these your grandfather’s dinosaurs: all monochromatic and covered by identical rubbery looking skin. Rey’s dinosaurs come in every hue of the rainbow. More. And are covered in feathers and scales and tufts of strange fur. Dinosaurs is encyclopaedic in scope and exceeds all expectations. A superior book the young dinosaur lover in your life will cherish. -- Aaron Blanton

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Raincoast/Bloomsbury/Scholastic)
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows first came out, I read it in one day, because I had a review deadline. It was a fascinating exercise, if not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate a book. After I’d filed my review, I read the book again, taking my time. Then I re-read the entire series, to see how many hints there were of what was to come. Well, there was the odd hint. I had always wondered about the triumphant look in Dumbledore’s eyes when Harry told him that Voldemort had taken his blood to help his regeneration, and in the last book we found out. In that scene on the Astronomy Tower in The Halfblood Prince, we all wondered about Dumbledore’s groan “Severus -- please...” but who could have predicted that there was significance in Draco’s Disarming of him -- a significance that would eventually save Harry’s life? It was clever, but not helpful before you had actually read the last novel. I felt, at the time, that there were a number of unnecessary deaths -- and some of those happened offstage. Other deaths were inevitable and predictable. Snape, for example, had to die. I had never seen a way around it. It was just a question of whether he would die saving Harry’s life or, as happened, pointlessly and tragically. There were a number of other things that really couldn’t have been predicted, but no matter. For me, reading this book one of the more exciting experiences of this year, if only because of the anticipation and that first, rushed reading over coffee and cake, surrounded by other people doing the same. It could so easily have been a disappointment, but it wasn’t, for me, though I could have done without that epilogue. It’s a reading experience I will always remember with pleasure. -- Sue Bursztynski

Heart of Gold by Michael Pryor (Random House Australia) 488 pages
This was the most entertaining book I read this year. Set in an alternative universe Edwardian era, it’s the second in a series about the adventures of gifted young magician Aubrey Fitzwilliam and his two friends, schoolfriend George and the beautiful, intelligent and feisty Caroline, who can shoot and do martial arts, among her many talents. In this story, the trio are having non-stop adventures in this world’s equivalent of Paris, fighting everything from zombies to dinosaurs. It’s exciting and funny and utterly likeable. I’m waiting for it to be turned into a film, but meanwhile, it’s the ideal kind of page-turner to take on Christmas holidays -- by the fire with a box of chocolates if you’re in the northern hemisphere or to the beach if, like me, you live south of the equator. But be careful to keep an eye on the tide -- it just might sweep you away. -- Sue Bursztynski

How Many?: Spectacular Paper Sculptures by Ron van der Meer (Random House/Robin Correy Books) 12 pages
I’ve been exposed to lots of pop up books and I kind of figured I was over them. Let’s face it: on the surface, there’s a limited amount of things you can do with the form. After you’ve seen your quota of castles/cottages/barns pop up -- each with its own little complement of soldiers/builder pigs/lowing cows -- it’s enough. But Ron van der Meer’s How Many? goes beyond any pop up book you’ve ever seen. Well, certainly any I’ve ever seen. In short, How Many? is brilliant. Intended for children seven and up, I’ve got a hunch many of the buyers for this book will be collectors, drawn by the paper sculptures promised in the book’s title. If that’s the case, they won’t be disappointed. No wagging cow heads here, but brightly colored shapes forming complex patterns that spring up whimsically when the page is opened. van der Meer is considered to be one of the pioneers of this form of book. He is the author of over 150 books, including many pop-ups, but considers How Many? to be his very best to date. Children and art loving adults will be equally enthralled by How Many?, a truly wonderful work of art that invites participation as well as visual enjoyment. -- David Middleton

Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt) 502 pages
In a year that was dominated by the conclusion of what was arguably the best known series of books of all times, the book that may well be the best in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Annals of the Western Shore” series did not, perhaps, receive all of the attention it deserved. In Powers we meet the house slave Gavir, whose power for remembering things that have not yet happened has implications far beyond his knowledge. Powers is beautifully written and tautly told and it might be one of Le Guin’s best yet. Considering this author has won the National Book Award and been a finalist for both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, that’s saying something. I’m looking forward to seeing where this series will lead. -- Lincoln Cho

The Siege: Under Attack in Renaissance Europe by Stephen Shapiro, illustrated by John Mantha (Annick Press) 56 pages
When one thinks of books for children, military history is not a topic that springs quickly to mind. There’s good reason for this. Children today are easily bored and military history is one of those topics that can move quickly towards the pedantic. It probably does enliven things somewhat in The Siege that the author chose to set his Renaissance battle in a fictional town. A fictional battle affords the author and illustrator the ability to customize everything conveniently. The Spanish are coming, the town must be cleared, food must be stockpiled and so on. The device of fiction also allows our recorders access in a way that would not be possible with a book that was strictly non-fiction. “The grumbling had been going on for weeks,” Shapiro writes at one point, “starting quietly and gradually growing in strength.” The tone is often intimate and immediate: you are there while the tensions in the town rises during the siege and the town is bombarded. Part of this vivid feeling is certainly due the amazing illustrations by John Mantha. The paintings are careful and detailed and the entire book is given a warm, sepia treatment, as though it were an ancient manuscript. The resulting book is a treasure for budding military historians, aged 10 and older. -- Aaron Blanton

600 Black Spots by David A. Carter (Little Simon) 20 pages
Sure, there are words, but who needs words when you’ve got these jaw-dropping pop-ups? The jacket says this book is for people three and up. I rather think it’s more for the “ups” than the “threes,” since the constructions are so fragile that any grabby kid could render the book garbage in about five seconds. The game here is that you’re supposed to count the friggin’ dots. But really, who cares? Just open the cover onto the first spread, and you’ll have to stop and take a deep breath. It’ll slay you. Forty-five terribly narrow strips of paper, arranged in a fan that fans by you as you open the thing. I mean, who does this? Well, David A. Carter does -- and he does it brilliantly. Once you get over the first page, there are other miracles: the Mondrian-inspired concoction on the next spread, the one a few pages later which requires you to pull some tabs (transforming this kids book into a kinetic sculpture worthy of that form’s master, Yaacov Agam), another one two or three spreads later, which (with your help) turn into dancing pyramids of color and string, and the last, an explosion of color and rounded paper spikes. This isn’t a book to read -- but it is one to experience again and again. And yes, again. It’s a bloody miracle. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Tin Angel by Shannon Cowan (Lobster Press) 336 pages
Personal tragedy forces Ronnie Page from her home, the lodge that her family has owned for generations. But the tragedy seems to go even deeper when 14-year-old Ronnie is accused of murdering the man who has been helping her family since the tragedy... and who Ronnie blames for most all of the disasters that have been plaguing her family. This is author Cowan’s third book, the first two were written for adults. Even so, Cowan hits her stride right out of the gate. “I was fourteen years old when they arrested me for the murder of Louis Moss,” the book begins, “a man I knew briefly as the man who wrecked my family.” Like life, don’t look for a happy ending and all of the things that Ronnie must face -- accusation, incarceration and even personal redemption -- are sometimes hard to watch. Tin Angel is rich and real and bittersweet. A triumph for an author who we anticipate still has many stories to tell. -- Linda L. Richards

What They Found: Love on 145th Street by Walter Dean Myers (Wendy Lamb Books) 243 pages
A new young adult book by Walter Dean Myers is reason to sit up and take notice. Arguably, one of the most respected authors of literature for young adults writing today, Myers is best known for his novel Fallen Angels published in 1988. The book, which is about the conflict in Vietnam, is number 24 on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. His first book, Where Does the Day Go, was published in 1969, and there have been more than 50 since. Along the way, Myers has won or been nominated for every award he was eligible for and he is a two-time winner of the Newbery award, a five-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award and a two-time National Book Award Finalist. What They Found is a collection of connected short stories, and many of them take place in the Curl-E-Cue beauty shop against the backdrop of the lives struggling there. In one respect, What They Found celebrates the African American community Myers is proud to be part of, in another it highlights some of the things that connect us all. -- Monica Stark

The Whole Sky Full of Stars by René Saldana, Jr. (Random House) 131 pages
Though The Whole Sky Full of Stars takes place in a Latino community in Texas, the challenges faced by our heroes, Barry and Alby, are universal. What else is universal: author Saldana’s prose. Though the sentence’s are constructed simply, the emotions and relationships Saldana conveys are anything but. Reluctant readers will appreciate this simplicity, sure: but so will those who realize that the very prose is often less rather than more. Allowing the reader to come to conclusions that the writer gives us the groundwork for. Boys especially will enjoy Saldana’s book for the boxing scenes, and for those that center around the car that grace’s the book’s gorgeous cover. (It’s a 1964 Ford Galaxie and it has a meaty role.) But, again, the story here is universal: the importance of friends in one’s life. Of family. And the inevitability of truth. -- Lincoln Cho

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