The Best Books of 2003











Children's Books

The Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose illustrated by Arnold Lobel (Knopf)

Arnold Lobel was considered to be one of the most important children's author/illustrator of the 20th century. Originally published as The Random House Book of Mother Goose in 1986 -- the year before Lobel died -- the book became the illustrator's swan song. He spent three years illustrating the 306 classic nursery rhymes that comprise the book. Though all of the rhymes -- the same ones you remember from your own childhood -- may not be entirely suitable for babies, there's enough here that you can graze through the book with your child, adding unexplored rhymes into the mix as she ages. -- Monica Stark

Brundibar by Tony Kushner, illustrations by Maurice Sendak (MDC Books/Hyperion)

Few children or adults in the western world are not familiar with the work -- if not the name -- of Maurice Sendak. His best known book, Where the Wild Things are, earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1964. Since that time, his engaging illustrations have enhanced the childish reading pleasure of millions of children world wide, on titles that include A Hole Is to Dig, The Bat-Poet, We Are All In the Dumps with Jack and Guy and many, many, many more. At this point in his illustrious career, a new book from Sendak is cause for celebration. Especially when, as is the case with Brundibar, the story is so compelling and timeless. Brundibar, here retold by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner -- is a Czech opera, set to music by Hans Krása in 1938. The opera was performed by the children of the concentration camp Rerezin 55 times. Krása himself perished in Aushwitz in 1944. Despite this disturbing history, Brundibar is a delightful book: a noteworthy collaboration from an incomparable teaming of talents. -- Monica Stark

Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley (HarperCollins)

Think about the title: Diary of a Wombat. I mean, what does a wombat do anyway? Not much. "Monday: Morning: Slept. Afternoon: Slept. Evening: Ate grass. Scratched. Night: Ate grass. Slept." So you think: OK, just how great can Diary of a Wombat be? But Jackie French's book underlines something that all good writers know: it's not so much the story as the telling of the story. The wombat in question -- who remains unnamed throughout French's tale -- spends a lot of time sleeping. Charmingly. In the book, she discovers that the people she lives near are useful. Once she kills their doormat ("Discovered flat, hairy creature invading my territory.") she gets a carrot from the people. She likes the carrot. A lot. And in the course of figuring out how to get more carrots, she makes a real nuisance of herself. To which she, of course, is oblivious. Bruce Whatley's appealing illustrations are lively and colorful. Together writer and illustrator seem to have captured the nuances of this story: just as it should be. Because, taken at face value, Diary of a Wombat is lovely and entertaining. Might there be a deeper, slightly moral lesson here, as well? If so, it's subtle enough that I can take it: Wild animals are best left in the wild. Even if they're gentle, friendly and milder than wild, there's a reason everyone is always telling us not to feed them. -- Monica Stark

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

I couldn't wait for my review copy to arrive. Because of the secrecy on this one, reviewers wouldn't get their copies till after the release date. I promised myself I would wait -- but I ended up buying my copy on the weekend it was released ( my extra copy was donated to the school library). I took it home and had it read by Sunday night. After that, I allowed myself to reread it at a more leisurely pace to pick up anything I might have missed. Of all the five so far, this one is the most draining and contains the most shocks: the death of a main character, the fact that the Ministry of Magic can act as a dictatorship (we'd already learned that a wizard can be thrown into prison and tortured by the Dementors without a trial), that a wizarding world teacher can do things that would have her charged with assault in our world; the glamour of the wizarding world is fast wearing out. And Harry's heroic father and beloved godfather were bullies as teenagers! There were a number of criticisms of this novel, mainly that it was too long and that no one seems to be editing any more. Stephen King said affectionately in his review that J.K. Rowling had never met an adverb she didn't like and that was certainly true. All the same,reading this novel, you realize that the series has come a long way from the cross between Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl with which it started. -- Sue Bursztynski

The Healing Time of Hickeys by Karen Rivers (Polestar)

"Here's what I know: The first day back to school always sucks. This is a generalization, sure. But the thing with generalizations is that they are usually true." So begins the first diary entry in The Healing Time of Hickeys by talented young adult scribe, Karen Rivers. Our protagonist in Hickeys is 16-year-old Haley Andromeda -- daughter of a hippy -- who we meet in conversations with her diary. This isn't a new approach: Helen Fielding has employed it successfully with her Bridget Jones books. Meg Cabot is the acknowledged goddess for young adults, with two diary-based series, most notably Mia in The Princess Diaries and subsequent books. What sets Rivers' attempt apart is that -- as the title suggests -- Hickeys really is a young adult novel and the challenges Haley faces are fairly sophisticated -- though not inappropriately so. Where Cabot's books are extremely charming, one can't imagine an actual teenager enjoying them. Not true for The Healing Time of Hickeys, where Haley is not just mooning over boys, she's being fairly proactive about it, even while she deals with her father's drug bust, the fact that she doesn't remember her mother and -- of course -- how long a hickey takes to heal. -- Sienna Powers

Njunjul the Sun by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor

When I first read this novel, I found it hard not to cry. It was sad and funny and moving all at once, with a serious message about Aboriginal-white reconciliation, but the ability to laugh as well. It was about a boy's rite of passage, both general and in his self-understanding as an Aborigine. The unnamed first-person hero, after a run-in with the police which was not his fault, goes to Sydney to stay with his Uncle Garth and his white Aunty Emma (who are unashamedly the authors' alter egos!). There, after some going off-track, he learns that he has plenty to be proud of, and that sooner or later white and indigenous Australians will heal what is between them. He has a direction for his life. Interestingly, it is Aunty Em who persuades her partner to help him find it. This book won awards and who can be surprised? You are lucky if you get one as good as this in a year. -- Sue Bursztynski

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by Peter Sis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I don't know if some copywriter at FSG was trying to be funny, but the rhyming description on the front flap of The Tree of Life sums acclaimed illustrator Peter Sis' most recent book up quite neatly: "Darwin always regretted that he could not draw. But he could write, and on his vivid description Peter Sis has fixed his sight." The Tree of Life introduces children -- and adults who might have missed these lessons in school -- to Charles Darwin, naturalist extraordinaire. Darwin is best known, of course, for connecting the dots he found in nature to bring the idea of evolution to the world. Now Peter Sis brings Darwin to the junior set, drawing on Darwin's notes and his own creative power to deliver what may well be one of the best history books ever written for very young children. -- Linda Richards

Trickster's Choice by Tamora Pierce (Random House)

Thought by many to be the high priestess of young adult fantasy, Tamora Pierce's first novel Alanna: The First Adventure was published to rave reviews in 1983. Her latest novel, Trickster's Choice, brings fans a very special resonance: her 13th book set in the fantasy realm of Tortall, the main character of Trickster's Choice is the 16-year-old daughter of Alanna the Lioness who we initially met, of course, in Pierce's first book. Trickster's Choice is the work of a mature storyteller who not only knows her craft, she knows this wonderful world that she's created and that her readers have come to love. Trickster's Choice ranks with the very best of Pierce's tales: exciting, unpredictable and completely satisfying. -- Sienna Powers


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