- Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures: Recommended. A damaged girl and an odd squirrel fight the establishment. I enjoyed Flora’s biting sense of humor. She’s smart and cynical but still feels like a child. I also appreciated the inclusion of a somewhat present, redeemable mother. In most of DiCamillo’s other novels, the mothers are dead, missing, not well characterized, or useless.
- Kevin Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller: Recommended. Henkes’ characterization of seven-year-old Billy and his family could not have been more perfect. He makes adult readers remember all the little thing about being an “average” grade school kid growing up in a “average” family. And he give children a relatable and sweet story without becoming saccharine or didactic. I look forward to reading this one aloud in a few years.
- Holly Black’s Doll Bones: Recommended. I tried Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe and felt underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, just not particularly memorable. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by Doll Bones. Despite the supernatural overtones, the characters and relationships feel true and grounded.
- Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home: Recommended. My favorite of the bunch, this historical mystery manages to be both grim and humorous. I genuinely could not predict where Timberlake would take Georgie and Agatha’s story of family discord – and loved her choice of ending.
- Vince Vawter’s Paperboy: Recommended. Even before reading the biographical blurb or internet information, I could feel Vawter drawing on his own experiences growing up with a disability in the segregated South. All the relationships (if not all the plot points) feel so believable. Particularly refreshing is the protagonist’s honest questioning of religion and parental responsibilities – and his fairness in his assessments. He does not make snap judgments one way or the other and sees people as people. There may be hypocrisy or disappointment, but he is still charitable and open to learning. Most children’s novels would use grown-ups’ flaws as an impetus for total hostility or rebellion or emo-cry-black-eye-liner-pity-parties, and Paperboy doesn’t. Kudos.
May next year’s list be just as good!