Twice a year, members of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory (NECBA) council to NEIBA (New England Independent Booksellers Association) read and review as many middle-grade and young-adult ARCs (advance reading copies) and galleys as possible. We post our reviews on the NECBA listserv (which is open to all NEIBA and NECBA members) and collate them at the end of each season in pdf form for stores to download or link to on the NECBA website (which is open to the public).
It’s a great way for colleagues to share what they’re reading with one another, useful both for smaller stores that don’t receive as many ARCs, and for larger stores that receive almost too many. The Review Project helps spread the news about quiet gems that otherwise might slip under the radar, and dishes the straight dirt on super-hyped books.
Of the hundreds of MG and YA novels published between January and June 2010, we’ve reviewed just shy of 80 titles. Some of the season’s offerings receive several reviews and ratings from booksellers; others receive none. Often, books that don’t need much handselling help don’t end up in the Review Project — which results in an interesting and unpredictable Top Ten list. We indie booksellers like championing unusual finds.
The Review Project was begun several years ago by enterprising souls such as Carol Chittenden, proprietor of Eight Cousins Children’s Books in Falmouth, Mass. As she wrote in one of the first-ever Project introductions, “This list is our attempt to identify as many high-quality titles as possible from among the numerous releases of middle-grade and young-adult fiction between January and June of the year. [Ed. note: We do a second round-up, of July-December titles.] From these titles a Top Ten list has been selected as a service to our general bookstore colleagues who are less familiar with the genre. As is ever the case, contributions are uneven, with some publishers supplying a very large fraction of the galleys, and a few reviewers supplying a very large fraction of the reviews. Such reviews are, by their nature, never soon enough or inclusive enough. Nevertheless, this list is bound to alert the reader to at least one or two — and probably more — excellent titles s/he otherwise might have missed.”
The Review Project has always been fiction-oriented, but with the groundswell of enthusiasm and support for trade nonfiction from readers and bookstores across the board, we’re hoping to expand our reach to include marvelous MG and YA nonfiction titles beginning with the Fall Review Project this year.
Now all we need is about two extra months of uninterrupted reading time, about six times a year. <grin>
NECBA’s 2010 Spring Review Project — TOP TEN TITLES (Warning: some reviews contain spoilers)
From the NECBA review by bookseller Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y.: “In this fantastic debut historical novel, 11-year-old Franny is growing up in the early 1960s. Against a backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, she deals with a mysteriously absent older sister, an uncle who is suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, and a changing dynamic in her circle of friends. I loved this book. Franny is a great character, and Wiles has set her in an incredibly interesting time period…. What makes this book completely unique is the non-fiction component that Wiles integrates into the book. Between each chapter there are pages and pages of real images from the 1960s: photos of Kennedy and Khrushchev, propaganda art, real newspaper headlines and quotes, among many others. These serve to help the reader imagine life in the 1960s and see the same images the characters see…. This will make a great companion piece to The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Since this is the first in a companion trilogy about the 1960s, I can see Wiles giving Christopher Paul Curtis a run for his money in his stranglehold on 1960s middle-grade historical fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if Countdown took home an ALA Award of some sort next January.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kat Goddard of The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass.: “Over the course of this lovely story, 11 year old Verbena Colter finds out that she is adopted and that her birth father is in jail for murder, finds out that her birth mother caused her to be born with fetal alcohol syndrome, loses her best friend to a rival and is cast adrift in a leaky boat with a multi-allergic nine year old boy, who doesn’t know she is only pretending to be a ghost. Those dramatic events may seem like the plot of any common juvenile page-turner, in Sarah Weeks’ competent hands this book is anything but. Perfect for 8-11s (especially those with a less dramatic background) this is a story of learning who you are and where you fit in the world. It is also a story of learning to appreciate what you have. Since book buyers rarely come in to the store asking for a book that will gently teach these valuable lessons, you can also describe it by merely saying it is a book about friendship and growing up. With no current events, violence, or romance this is a book I can easily sell now and forever.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins Children’s Books in Falmouth, Mass.: “Not since The Penderwicks have I so happily abandoned other chores for the pure pleasure of reading a well written middle grade book to the end. Synopsis: 14-year-old Dewey Marriss, second oldest of five siblings, is in charge of the family bike repair business while his parents take their annual “vacation.” (Mom accompanies trucker dad on one of his hauls to Canada.) Lil, at 18, is in charge of the household; smart Vince, 12, is anti-social; and the 5-year-old twins are sweet but dependent. It’s a functioning family group, but a sudden fuel crisis keeps the parents away and makes the bike business boom. Dewey is determined to demonstrate that he’s just as responsible and capable as Lil – but in ten days’ time, demand overwhelms capacity, and Dewey has to face some limits. He also has to face a parts shortage, a crabby neighbor, Sprocket the billy goat, unreasonable customers, a dog that upchucks when it gets too excited, and a growing larceny problem for which there are multiple suspects. Readers may well want to move in with the Marriss family long before the satisfying ending, though they might just as easily come to see adventure and opportunity in their own quotidian routines.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine: “Max leaves his Bostonian digs to seek his parents who, he finds upon landing in (mythical South American country) San Xavier, are lost in the jungle. He teams up with a very funny, acerbic Mayan girl, Lola, and together with some allies square off against the long hand of the descendants of evil missionaries. Max and Lola are a great duo, and Max’s lighthearted but self -honest narration lends a good, comfortable feel to the story. We like the good guys, we loathe the bad guys, and we can’t wait to find out about the Yellow Jaguar Stone in book two. And if Zia does turn out to be Lola’s mother, and even if, after his Uncle gives up his lucrative smuggling side line to just concentrate on the family banana business, Uncle Ted’s now disused multi-million dollar secret smuggling lair suddenly comes in handy in the future, well why shouldn’t it? A strong current will carry heavy debris downstream that would sink in more placid waters. Middleworld has an exuberance to it, a swift current which not only makes it a pleasure to read, but buoys its clunkier elements. The Voelkels plainly love Mayan culture, and their knowledge and passion for it makes this timely tale of the end of days in the Mayan Calendar, and the world’s great peril, something to be cared about not out of the perfunctory need to save the world, but because the Voelkels’ Mayan world is fun and engaging. This truly is a book that can be handsold with impunity.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Sue Carita from The Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, N.H.: “Twelve-year-old Liam has stubble on his chin, is very tall and often mistaken for a grown-up. This gets him into all sorts of funny situations and he certainly takes advantage of them! When he “wins” a chance to be part of a brand new, totally thrilling, for real, amusement park ride into outer space, he plays the adult charade to the hilt, taking along Florida, his gutsy young classmate, as his daughter. Besides being very funny, the story explores what it means to be a dad. All sorts of fathers accompany their ”prize-winning” kids halfway around the world to the site of the launch. All of them are very gullible, competitive, and lacking in real father skills. Liam, the only “parent” allowed to accompany the kids, outshines them all as he uses his common sense and very useful computer game skills to bring the kids’ rocket safely back to Earth. The ending comes rather fast (whew — I was ready!) and seems a bit trumped up, but this suspenseful, charming and funny story is even better than Boyce’s Millions and Framed.
Another fine review from Sue Carita: “Ry, sixteen, is on his way to archaelogical camp when he learns that the camp has closed. When the train stops, he jumps off to make a cell phone call to his grandfather, who is newly arrived at Ry’s house to dog-sit. Parents have gone to Caribbean for sailing vacation. No cell coverage for Ry, train takes off, and he is marooned in the middle of nowhere. Ensuing chapters tell of Grandpa’s fall into sinkhole which causes a sort of amnesia, then his link-up with a couple of dotty sisters, his parents’ terrible mishaps on the islands, and black and white comic book pages show what is up with the two dogs who have run off. Ry manages to link up with Del who is a good-hearted modern day jack of all trades. They set off together to find the parents, starting with an old patched-up truck, then a rickety homemade airplane, and a sailboat. Misguided journey aside, this wacky tale includes happenings both funny and harrowing, but Perkins keeps it light in tone. Ry wants adventure and he gets it! Determination, very blind faith and bull-dogged stubbornness bring the story to an improbable conclusion that will relieve readers hanging on for the ride of the year! Lots to think about- and enjoy.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Kathleen “Totsie” McGonagle of Buttonwood Books and Toys in Cohasset, Mass.: “A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner is the fourth book in her series about the fictional kingdoms of Eddis, Attolia and Sounis and about the wonderful characters that populate those territories. The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia are the first three books in the series. Each is complete in itself, but when one reads the books out of order, the continuity is lost and plot points from previous books are revealed. It would be my suggestion to read them in order. A Conspiracy of Kings focuses on the kingdom of Sounis. Sophos, the unwilling heir to the throne of Sounis, is more scholarly than combative. Due to much civil unrest in the kingdom, Sounis is kidnapped and his appearance temporarily altered after a severe beating. The original plan by his captors is to smuggle Sophos through the country in plain sight, and then to hide him with one of the rebelling barons. He is to be a pawn to be bartered when appropriate. An opportunity to escape from his captors materializes and Sophos joins the farm hands and hides within their world. The time spent within the laborers camp affords Sophos several opportunities to reflect and mature. When the growing escalation among the rebel groups threaten to kill his father and subject his country to a foreign power, Sophos must emerge from his anonymity and claim his title as king. Fans of writer Megan Whalen Turner will be delighted with A Conspiracy of Kings. It complements and completes the characters introduced in the earlier books. Filled with adventure, romance and complex characters, fans of medieval style fiction will spend many delightful hours lost in its pages.”
From the review by Carol Chittenden: “Nicky, age 11 ¾, narrates with a hilariously nervous internal monologue about getting his bearings in a tough Boston neighborhood after his parents split and left their affluent suburban life. His mother is a little impulsive, and brings Reggie, a German shepherd home from the pound to their tiny Charlestown apartment. Nicky is appalled, but forced to care for Reggie, and discovers that Reggie is a trained guide dog. Gradually boy and dog bond. But Nicky’s so busy suppressing his rage at his parents’ breakup that he spins all kinds of white lies at school, at home, and around the community as he tries to figure out why Reggie is no longer an official guide dog. And Nicky’s VERY good at dreaming up excuses on his feet, until the whole web comes apart, releasing Nicky’s tensions, cleaning up a number of ragged relationships, and giving a fine dog a good home.
The author has integrated fascinating material about guide dogs and visual disabilities, so the book would be a great teaching asset – but he’s also constructed it so tightly, with plenty of snappy dialogue, it’ll keep readers hooked on the story, and would make a terrific screenplay as well.”
NECBA bookseller Ellen Richmond of the Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, adds: “I, too, really like How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life (and a Dog). Nicky’s voice is distinctive and believable throughout. He’s a kid trying to deal with circumstances that he doesn’t like and that he can’t control. Though he doesn’t see it, his mother is struggling, too. Her impulsive adoption of Reggie is just one attempt to help convince Nicky (and herself) that they’ve got a great new life. Nicky blames his mother for all his miseries, from having to walk Reggie to being bullied at school and not seeing his father (even on scheduled weekends). His quest to learn Reggie’s history gives Nicky some focus other than his anger. Nicky’s lies are not born of meanness, but are (as Carol said) dreamed up on the fly, in a sticky situation. One plot point that seemed a bit forced is the sudden conversion of Nicky’s arch nemesis into a friend and ally, but that’s a minor complaint. Threatened with Reggie being returned to the pound, Nicky and Reggie go on the lam; Nicky is forced to face some truths that white lies will not help. I appreciated the upbeat, but not unrealistically perfect, ending.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle, of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt. (that’s me): “Here, Amelia and her nerdy buddy posse are struggling with the age-old issue of popularity, and I love how Gownley hits it — giving them a solid sense of themselves with just enough doubt (and yearning to be popular) to ring very true. The book opens with sarcastic, smart-mouthed-but-mostly-goodhearted Amelia and her friend, “Rhonda with the lumpy hair,” dressed in dorky space-age costumes, running from an angry mob of classmates. They escape up a tree, and the backstory eventually unfolds, along with subplots about cheerleaders, existential questioning (can the advice “be true to yourself” apply to jerks?), and the uncomfortable reality of facing one’s own worst behavior (ignoring the kids even nerdier than oneself, spouting off mean truths about people in a fit of impulsive anger, etc.). Fortunately, Amelia has a sympathetic young aunt and a solid, kind mom in addition to her goofball gang of friends, to help her figure it all out.
Gownley salts and peppers his stories with tongue-in-cheek homages to other cartoonists and literary influences, from Bloom County to Archie to Harriet the Spy. I think of Amelia’s gang o’ buddies as a latter-day Peanuts, the subversive, brilliant Peanuts comic strips Charles M. Schulz was writing in the 60s and 70s. This is one of the best graphic novel series out there for kids—and for adults with vivid, funny memories of childhood.
Note: This is number 5 in the series. While it absolutely can be read as a stand-alone (I’ve read books 1 and 2, but not the rest, yet), it’s probably most enjoyable for readers who have watched Amelia’s trials and tribulations from the beginning.”
From the review by NECBA bookseller Sandy Scott of The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt.: “Finnikin’s kingdom and its people were ravaged by traitors who murdered the royal family and set in place a new king to rule. During the five days of terror that accompanied the coup, however, a powerful witch was burned at the stake, and her parting words were a curse upon the land that kept those who had left from returning and those who remained from leaving. Finnikin was among those exiled to foreign lands, and he has spent most of his teenage years traveling with his mentor, the King’s First Man, trying to help his fellow exiles and find a glimmer of hope for the return of his homeland. When he is contacted by a messenger who tells him to retrieve a girl named Evanjalin from a cloister, a girl who has the gift of walking through the dreams of their scattered countrymen. She tells him that she knows the true heir to the throne still lives and that they must find him and return to their kingdom to take it back.
Evanjalin and Finnikin’s world is brutal and the complexity of the characters in this book reflects that brutality. Good men and women commit murder; one character who tries to rape Evanjalin is later redeemed; the people who have been oppressed rise up and take bloody revenge on their oppressors. The murders, and especially rapes (though not written in great detail), are why I would recommend this for teens. Finnikin of the Rock is a riveting story that will appeal to readers who want excitement, mystery, and romance and don’t mind the violence. I’d recommend it to fans of Graceling.
So, dear readers, there you have it. What are your Top Ten of the January-July 2010 season?