Books Read in 2019: Four-Star Children's Lit and YA Fantasy


Stars Come Out Within by Jean Little. Synopsis from Google Books: Renowned author Jean Little describes her childhood with a visual impairment, the early death of her father, the shock of losing her remaining sight to glaucoma, and her battle with depression. A talking computer and her guide dog, Zephyr, brought her independence and freedom.

I pulled this off the shelf at work (school library) to read on my lunch break and then brought it home to finish it. I read Mine For Keeps when I was young, and can still remember scenes from it. This was, unsurprisingly, quite readable, written fairly simply for a younger audience but still engaging for an adult reader. I really like that the reason Little started writing books for children was that she wanted and could not find a disabled protagonist that didn't either die or get miraculously cured, so she wrote one. Her enduring humility and perseverance in the face of really unfair circumstances are admirable, and her descriptions of learning to work with a seeing-eye dog are heartwarming and hilarious by turns.

Willow and Twig by Jean Little. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Willow doesn't know what to do. Her mother has taken off again, she has to look after her brother Twig, and they're out on the streets of Vancouver with nowhere to go. Then Willow remembers her grandmother, whom she hasn't seen in years. Gram doesn't even know Twig exists, and Twig is, well, difficult. But Gram is her only hope now. After a few urgent phone calls from a police station in Vancouver to Ontario, Willow and Twig are on their way across the country to a grandmother they hardly know, and a strange household made up of an eccentric uncle, a hostile aunt, and a motley crew of animals. Willow is entranced by this new home-but is it really home? Are they safe at last?

This is the only other Jean Little book we had at my Monday library, which is kind of a travesty to be honest, and I am working on getting more in. It's excellent. Heartwrenching without being too melodramatic, heartwarming without being cheesy, the bad people aren't cartoonishly bad and it really captures Willow's perspective. I feel like a middle-grader could read this and get a lot out of it. 

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
A brave mouse, a covetous rat, a wishful serving girl, and a princess named Pea come together in Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal–winning tale.
Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other's lives. What happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out.

Honestly, the firsts couple of chapters left me a little irritated. I was suddenly over this whole tradition of anthropomorphizing bugs and reptiles and rodents. Some kid is going to try to have a conversation with a field mouse and get Hanta virus, I thought. Why does she keep breaking the fourth wall like this? Just tell the freaking story.
Should have known better than to start a book on Blue Monday - I only did because it was lunch break and my phone gets zero reception at my Monday school. I took this to the hospital with me for day surgery and it really made the no-food no-water tedious wait to be rolled in fly by. Newbery Medal winners are so varied and wide-ranging in subject matter and treatment, and this wasn't Sounder-level realism, but it also acknowledged that children are strong enough to be told that sometimes life sucks and sometimes love kills you in the face, and people who pretend to be your friend might sometimes be trying to lead you into a dungeon and leave you for dead. And Reader, by the end of it, I was rooting for the brave little mouse. (Also, another Newbery Medal book reviewed! We'll get there if I blog for another ten years).

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand. Synopsis from Goodreads: THINGS FINLEY HART DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT
• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)
Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real--and holds more mysteries than she'd ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.
With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.
Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination. 

This one is from my Wednesday library, and was fantastic. It's both a sensitive, clear portrayal of a young person's experience of anxiety and depression and what my boss at the audio publisher used to call a thumping good yarn. I loved the giant quirky family and the mystery of the house in the woods and the first fragile tendrils of romance. I went looking for other books by this author and, well, things took a hard left turn (not in a bad way) but more about that later. I am recommending this to all my grade fives and sixes.

The Doll's Eye by Marina Cohen. Synopsis from Goodreads: All Hadley wants is for everything to go back to the way it used to be—back when she didn’t have to share her mother with her stepfather and stepbrother. Back when she wasn't forced to live in a musty, decomposing house. Back when she had a life in the city with her friends.
As Hadley whiles away what’s left of her summer, exploring the nearby woods and splitting her time between her strange, bug-obsessed neighbor Gabe and the nice old lady that lives above the garage, she begins to notice the house isn’t just old and creaky. It’s full of secrets, just like appearance of a mysterious dollhouse and the family of perfect dolls she finds.
Oh, how she wishes her family were more like those lovely dolls! Then one day, Hadley discovers a lone glass eye rolling around the floor of the attic. Holding it close one night, she makes a wish that just might change her world forever.

I found this at a school I was subbing at for a surgery leave. Holy crap it was unexpectedly dark. Grade fives and sixes, particularly the girls, are often asking me for "scary" stories and this more than fits the bill - honestly, I'd probably give it with a caution. The family dynamic and Hadley's resentment and adjustment difficulties are SO good and relatable, the friendship with Gabe is perfect, and, well, the scary story is abundantly terrifying. 

The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Synopsis from Goodreads: 
Jessica has read enough books to know that her cat Worm must be a witch’s cat. He’s cast a spell on her, but to whom can she turn? After all, no one will believe that Worm has bewitched her . . . or worse.

I was aware of Snyder as an author for decades before I actually started reading her, which was when I picked up a few of her books for a dollar or so at a used bookstore. She is incredibly prolific and very, very talented. She captures troubled children, their sorrow and pride and indignation and bottomless imaginations incredibly well. This one went a little darker than some previous ones I've read, and my favourite is still probably The Egypt Game, but this was also very good. 

YA Fantasy

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads:  Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.

I reread this just before New Year's Eve before reading the second sequel. I would say it's vintage McGuire, but she has so many faces and styles, I guess all that really means is that it was right up my alley. 

I reread this before reading the second sequel. The conceit of a sort of friendly rehab house for children who have come back from portal worlds is brilliant, and in McGuire's capable hands it is done superbly. It is suffused with magic, yearning, and beautiful friendships, and the fact that people keep getting murdered is almost incidental. Wonderful characters and descriptive writing. 

The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry. Synopsis from Goodreads: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves.
Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start... until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.
That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.
Emily Henry’s stunning debut novel is Friday Night Lights meets The Time Traveler’s Wife, and perfectly captures those bittersweet months after high school, when we dream not only of the future, but of all the roads and paths we’ve left untaken.

*First read in 2016*

I thought I had reviewed this. Like, I clearly remembered typing "I'm not sure I even understood what happened at the end of this, but I still really liked it". I just reread it, and I think I must have rushed through the ending last time, because this time it seemed much clearer. The sense of place is strong and lovely, the family relationship and best friend relationship are solid (Henry does those really well and I admire that - I have no time for books with romance that concentrate solely on the romantic relationship) and the story is agreeably strange and engaging. Reading it in basically one setting gave me a better sense of the continuity of the stories that Grandmother tells Natalie and their resonance with the choice she has to make. The Matt thing was a bit of a problem for me - I felt like she took a bit of a hard left turn with one event, the story would have worked fine without it and it threw other things off. Overall though, I really liked it - the setting, the weaving in of mythology, the sense of wondrous possibility, it all felt quite fresh and had some originality.

A Million Junes by Emily Henry. Synopsis from Goodreads: For as long as Jack “June” O’Donnell has been alive, her parents have had only one rule: stay away from the Angert family. But when June collides—quite literally—with Saul Angert, sparks fly, and everything June has known is thrown into chaos.
Who exactly is this gruff, sarcastic, but seemingly harmless boy who has returned to their hometown of Five Fingers, Michigan, after three mysterious years away? And why has June—an O’Donnell to her core—never questioned her late father’s deep hatred of the Angert family? After all, the O’Donnells and the Angerts may have mythic legacies, but for all the tall tales they weave, both founding families are tight-lipped about what caused the century-old rift between them.
As Saul and June’s connection grows deeper, they find that the magic, ghosts, and coywolves of Five Fingers seem to be conspiring to reveal the truth about the harrowing curse that has plagued their bloodlines for generations. Now June must question everything she knows about her family and the father she adored, and she must decide whether it’s finally time for her—and all the O’Donnells before her—to let go

I just read Henry's most recent book, read this, and then reread The Love that Split the World. This is my favourite of the three. I felt like the romance worked the best - no insta-love, just an organically developing relationship. The same loving and vivid descriptions of the land from The Love that Split the World are there, and they work really well. I liked how the fantastic elements were more magical realism than anything - just accepted as a part of everyday life, rather than something to freak out over. The mystical plot device wasn't completely different from The Love that Split the World, which is a little funny since I thought that was so original, but it's not totally the same either, and the thing is, it works really well. The best friend relationship was fantastic, almost better than the romance, and the family relationship was sweet and realistic too.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power. Synopsis from Goodreads: It's been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty's life out from under her.
It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don't dare wander outside the school's fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.
But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there's more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

My sister got me this in an Indigo Book Box - a surprise box that comes with a book, a cool postcard from the other, a pretty bookmark and some other kind of book accessory (mine was a book bag that says "I have no shelf control".) It's a beautiful, strange, hard-to-describe, very female book and I loved it. And lord, look at that cover. Actually, now that I think of it, this is maybe kind of close to that female version of Lord of the Flies that gets proposed now and then, although it's not the sweet, cooperative utopia that some people think this would be. The feminine energy here is strong, passionate, creative and brave, and doesn't really give a fuck if you're okay with it or

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Synopsis from Goodreads: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
Welcome to Weep. 

First read in 2017, reread before reading the second book. I loved it every bit as much (except this time Sarai's lower lip was compared to fruit just one time too often and it annoyed me - but I quibble). I had almost completely forgotten the ending revelation, and I can't wait to read Muse of Nightmares.

I had mixed feelings when I saw this coming out - excitement at a new Laini Taylor book and trepidation because the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy was a near-perfect reading experience for me, with that perfect storm of world-building, characters and flat-out splendid storytelling coming together just right. I loved this almost as much, though. Taylor has a gift for setting up conflicts in a way that makes it understandable how people who consider themselves good can end up doing horrible things. Her romance writing makes me believe in romance in a way that I usually don't (my snark impulse is too overactive), and she puts in enough humour to lighten up the dramatic tension, of which there is plenty. And her world-building is still beyond reproach. 


StephLove said…
What a fantastic perq of working in school libraries, being surrounded by fun kid lit to read on breaks.
Ernie said…
I am going to see if any of these titles might jump out at Curly, my ‘Why did you say this book was good?’ Reader. It just occurred to me that I used to have the kids read books to themselves on the 25-30 minute drive to and from Irish dancing. That went out the window somewhere along the way like many good intentions that kids want to buck. Anyway, now that Mini doesn’t dance - Curly can read aloud to me as I drive. She is not fully on board, but thankfully she still likes to stay on my good side. Still hoping to instill in her a love of reading. And if I ever get the nerve to bash Reggie’s school issue computer (that he only plays games on) with a hammer as I often promise, then maybe he will get with the program and start to read a book here and there. Too much to ask - I think not?

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