At this, most wonderful time of year, reviewers are called upon to put their best feet forward, choosing those books that rise to the level of Best of the year. If you have been reading this column for a few years, you have experienced my own version of same. Rather than choose a top ten or 12 books of the year, I choose titles in more specific categories; last year brought Best Cannibals (Black Hole Sun and The Marbury Lens) and Best Literary Showdown (Zombies vs Unicorns). This year, LJ readers get the best of both worlds. A list of my favorite teen books for adult readers appears in LJ‘s Best of the Year roundup, while my list of somewhat cheekier superlatives appears here.
Bray, Libba. Beauty Queens. Read by the author. Scholastic Audiobooks, 2011. ISBN 9780545315234. $74.99. 14 hours, 30 minutes.
Anyone who witnessed her 2007 turn emceeing BEA’s Children’s Book and Author Breakfast (or her romp through New York in a cow suit in the book trailer for Going Bovine) knows that Bray is one funny woman. Defying the maxim that authors make lousy audiobook readers, Bray draws on theatrical experience and a pitch-perfect gift for accent that make her the ideal narrator for her own novel: the story of 14 Teen Dream Beauty Pageant contestants fighting for survival on a not-so-deserted island. Particularly charming is the take-chargeTexas drawl of Taylor, who urges the girls to keep up their pageant prep even as they fight giant snakes with canisters of exploding hair removal cream. It is only fitting that the wicked-hot wit responsible for this outrageous story has the opportunity to bring her book to audio glory.
Best National Book Award Surprise
Edwardson, Debby Dahl. My Name Is Not Easy. Marshall Cavendish 2011. 248p. ISBN 9780761459804. $17.99.
While this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Award was marked by an unfortunate gaff (Lauren Myracle Drops Out of National Book Award Consideration), there were some pleasant surprises among the still-remaining nominees. This second effort by Alaska author Debby Dahl Edwardson tells the story of Luke and his brother Bunna, who at the story’s start are flying from their I≈Ñupiaq community to attend Catholic boarding school. The year is 1960, and Luke has adopted a new moniker, as his given name is like to give others difficulty. My name is not easy. My name is hard like ocean ice grinding at the shore or wind pounding the tundra or sun so bright on the snow, it burns your eyes. The next five years are marked by turbulence in the nation and within the walls ofSacredHeartSchool where the Native, Eskimo, and Anglo students experience the best and worst of each other‚Ä¶and the faculty. Their beautifully crafted story‚ based on real historic events‚ serves to teach the uninitiated about the other Civil Rights movement, the move for village schools and land settlements in the author’s native state.
Best Author Double-Take
Handler, Daniel (text) & Maira Kalman (illus.) Why We Broke Up. Little, Brown, 2011. 368p. ISBN 9780316127257. $17.99.
Middle grade readers (and their parents) know Handler by his tart pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. His first novel for teens opens with Min, who is poised to drop a box on the doorstep of her former boyfriend, Ed Slaterton. Their relationship changed everything for her, and now she wants to tell him why they broke up, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is that I goddamn loved you so much. The largish receptacle contains memorabilia from their six-week romance. These objects‚ both the mundane (movie tickets) and the inscrutable (an egg cuber)‚ are elevated to art by Kalman, whose color plates begin each chapter. For those of us who have experienced such breakups as teens (or adults), there is enormous catharsis in watching Min and Ed’s relationship train go sliding off the rails. Handler gets Min’s emotional tone (scorned rage married with regret) exactly right. The elegant presentation lends further importance to this surprising collaboration, which should hit the shelves just before the end of the year.
Best Adult Book by an Author for Teens
Levithan, David. The Lover’s Dictionary. Farrar. 2011. 211p. ISBN 9780374193683. $18.
This past year, many traditionally teen authors sought to expand to an adult audience, among them Ann Brashares, Melissa de la Cruz, and Eoin Colfer. But none has seen the (deserved) literary attention of author/editor Levithan’s adult debut. Having started its life as a story published for his friends, this short and sweet novel is told by an unnamed narrator, who describes his relationship with words and their associated memories. The definitions inspire reactions ranging from mirthful familiarity (flagrant, adj. I would be standing right there, and you would walk out of the bathroom without putting the cap on the toothpaste) to shocking pain (breach, n. I didn’t want to know who he was, or what you did, or that it didn’t mean anything). The result is a human-scale exploration of the profound and complicated emotions born of the connection between two people, a subject Levithan frequently plumbs in his novels for teens. This lovely story proves that we never grow out of the drive for connectedness.
Best Armchair Travel
Phelan, Matt. Around the World. Candlewick. 2011. 240p. ISBN 9780763636197. $24.99.
History goes down easy in the work of Phelan, winner of the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award for the graphic novel Storm in the Barn. Here he presents the stories of three unlikely explorers, each inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. In the early 1880s, miner Thomas Stevens, who had never ridden a bicycle, decided to trek across the United States. The resulting fame led him to expand the journey around the globe. Five years later, girl reporter Nellie Bly met Verne himself in the course of her own adventures, enchanting her readers at the New York World. A few years after that, seafarer Joshua Slocum braved the ocean alone on a 36′ sloop. Phelan imagines the motivations of each traveler as they take on a world not yet made small by the invention of air travel. The full-color presentation lends the gloss of time to each of their taleswhile honoring their respective emotional states. I can think of no better way to explore a bygone era than to curl up at home with this book.
Best Excuse To Stay Indoors
Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. Scholastic, 2011. 640p. ISBN 9780545027892. $29.99.
Even as movie goers enjoy the Martin Scorsese‚ directed adaptation of Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), Selznick wows readers with another book told in both image and verse. Ben and Rose live 50 years apart, but their emotional states could not be closer. Both have suffered profound hearing loss, both know the pain of losing a parent, and both are intrigued by the American Museum of Natural History. The clever way the author connects their lives and their stories demonstrates his affection for librarians and book lovers alike. This doorstop-sized volume offers a great excuse to retreat to the safety of a comfy chair and enjoy the working of Selznick’s imagination, especially when a scary lightning storm figures in one pivotal scene.
Best Redefining of a Genre
Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories. ed. by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant. Candlewick. 432p. ISBN 9780763648435. $22.99.
Over the past five years or so, this fantastical subgenre has gathered steam (pun intended), with its combination of clockwork, magic, Victorian costuming, and urban decay. Here an all-star stable of teen authors each offer their unique interpretation of the genre. Libba Bray explores the workings of time in a spunky, girl-power Western. Holly Black evokes The Importance of Being Ernest in a mannered love story featuring a mechanical dance instructor. However, it is M.T. Anderson who most confounds readers’ expectations with his alternate history of a Roman- era inventor. What remains consistent throughout is the stories’ literary excellence, proving that this is more than just a response to the genre-du-jour. An inspired collection.