“What does it mean to be a ‘best book?’…We start with criteria such as distinguished writing, originality of concept, artistry and technique, strong appeal, respect and recognition of [any] reader, and overall excellence…there are certain books that get under your skin–or into your heart–and stick.” –from the introduction of School Library Journal‘s “Best Books of 2016,” December 2016 issue.
As a children’s librarian, I depend on review journals quite a bit, but I also follow some stellar children/young adult reviewers who, without writing formal reviews that get printed and read by the masses, affect my purchasing. It also affects what I personally want to read. You see, I don’t always want to read what I purchase for my community, but, when something tickles my fancy, I normally am first in line to snatch it fresh off the processing rack.
When I read the above description, I had to type it so you can understand what I mean by “My Best Reads in 2016.” Basically, these are books that haunt me hours to days to even months after I close the spine or put up the last CD in the audio version. I can’t get them out of my head and often refer to them, though others don’t understand. They are stories I want to revisit.
Of the 130 I read this year, here are 16 that are my top reads of 2016. Since they aren’t all for adult readers, I’ve organized them according to age appropriateness. I’ve also included 4 of Theo’s, my three and a half year old son.
The Shining by Stephen King
I was very hesistant to attempt one of his books. However, after listening to Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, I decided if one of my favorite authors enjoys his books, then I should at least try one out. I picked The Shining because I had seen the movie and wasn’t ready to tackle clowns or spazzed out, resurrected dogs. After downloading the audio version from my library’s Overdrive app, I whizzed through The Shining in less than a week. It wasn’t because it was that scary; rather, it was that good. King can write.
There is a family on the brink of falling apart. Jack, the father, has a drinking problem. One night, after his toddler son Danny did what toddlers do (make messes) to something he was writing, Jack, in a drunken rage breaks Danny’s arm. Wendy, Jack’s wife and Danny’s mother, wants to leave Jack. But, Jack attempts to sober up. Danny begins to have fits, where someone visits him and shows him things to be. It isn’t until the family decides to go to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado so that Jack can finally work again, that Danny has a name to what he is experiencing: the shining.
This hotel isn’t like any other hotel. I didn’t get this idea watching the movie, but this hotel has a mind of its own and it wants Danny. Jack eventually does what he does partly due to jealousy of the hotel’s longing for Danny and also because of the bitterness about what his life has become. In reading the book, I have sympathy for Jack and feel that the movie doesn’t portray the empathy that Wendy and Danny have for Jack.
So, basically I’ll never spend the night in the Colorado mountains during a snowstorm.
The House of Cedar Purple by Tim Tingle
Wow! This book is for all my friends who enjoy reading about life before certain states were states, you know, during the 1800s. This story takes place in pre-statehood Oklahoma. A girl named Rose tells the story of growing up in a Choctaw town. It begins with what happened to her Amafo, her grandfather, after a fire burns down her boarding school and kills 20 girls. Instead of everyone avenging Amafo for being beat up by the local sheriff, everyone agrees to forgive. But, more drama concerning the town, this particular family, and the sheriff ensue, ending with a visit from a panther.
The writing is suspenseful, and I love all the characters. I love how this story shows just how “normal” the Choctaws are. In the late 1800s, they lived in houses and acted just like their neighbors did. When you think of a story with Indians in it, espeically that takes place in the 1800s, you assume they will be living in teepees and wearing feathers in their hair, using bows and arrows to keep up the struggle of power. This book helps to show that sterotype is not true.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling
Honestly, all I can say about this novel is the very last sentence will echo within you after you complete it: “Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal blue (funeral) carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.” And you will keep asking yourself, why can we NOT look at someone like Krystal Weedon’s doped up mother, Terri? How can we really help someone like that who is so proud and thinks everyone who is trying to help just thinks they are better than her when, in fact, all they want to do is help keep her and her family safe and healthy?
I listened to the audio version of it. At times I had to cringe because there is quite a lot of cursing (which seems to cement further my thought about the difference between an adult and young adult novel: the amount of swearing. Geez, we all know teens curse…so why only unload all the swears in an adult book? And by the way not every adult curses to high heavens and beyond, thanks!) and Simon is pretty much my dad, so that was not a happy stroll in the park. Actually, the whole situation, the entire book, makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps that was Rowling’s intention.
So, a quick synopsis: a council member dies and there is now a vacancy, what is termed “casual vanacy.” Many want to fill that vacancy. What Rowling shows us is that there is nothing casual about filling this position. Even in a small English town, politics matter more than the welfare of the people from whom these nominees are trying to win approval. My take: if what you do harms the ones who need the help the most, what good is it?
The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
For my teacher-friends and parents or caregivers! I heard Stephen Krashen, an Emeritus Professor of Education at USC, praise Jim Trelease on his birthday. I had randomly heard Trelease’s title The Read Aloud Handbook, but it wasn’t until Krashen tweeted a bit about him that I knew I had to read it. And I’m still shocked that it is not required reading in Library School…or in all education classes.
This is a book to encourage parents, teachers, government officials, and pretty much anyone who wants to raise successful children to do one simple thing: read with children. And in order to read with children there are a few things that need to be funded and not cut: public libraries and school budgets. Yet, what happens anytime there is an issue with a lack of funds? Yup, snip snip. This is particularly hard in areas of poverty.
I didn’t really believe Krashen when he tweeted about their NOT being a STEM crisis, but a reading crisis. But, after reading The Read Aloud Handbook, I understand. Kids aren’t reading as well (thus not doing as well in school) as they used to because we aren’t emphasizing this basic, crucial skill. So, as parents or caregivers, do not stop reading aloud to your children, no matter how old they get. Don’t focus on phonics–focus on the joy of reading together (in fact, California in 1996 spent $195 million on phonics instruction to bring it from being last in the country for reading…by 2011, it rose to only 46).
What to Expect When No One is Expecting by Jonathan V. Last
This is a book about the world’s state of population decline. It helps to explain why our nation, in particular, is in certain economic pickles (and it’s not just because of tax loopholes): people stopped having children. No children means no one to fill jobs and no one to pay taxes. This tax burden on people my age will only increase. History tells us what this type of situation sets up: a lowering population cannot be great in the world.
I like children a lot and I like people who like children, too. However, liking kids get you into an exclusive club now a days. Everyone is waiting to have children or to not have children because of this reason or that. This book kind of helped me put into perspective the type of life I want and to realize having a family is not easy in our present world (comedian Jim Gaffigan often jokes about this fact).
Can I be wealthy with five kids? I’m not sure but my life is a lot more joyful with kids around.
Grain Brain by David Perlmutter
Another audio version I devoured. Basic story: my husband discovered Gary Taubes and Why We Get Fat. It led him on a journey, and it’s why we have our current diet. I am not here to delve into our diet because this book is not really about weight issues–it’s about neurological health, something I honestly have never considered. And it is yet another reason to support why fat is good for you.
Perlmutter’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As a doctor himself, it was difficult to see his father not be able to help himself. Through research and study, he came to understand the roles that fat plays in our brain health. Cholesterol surrounds our neurons, helping to sustain their longevity. Many people with ADHD ended up having a gluten sensitivity. There are so many problems and issues we have neurologically and it turns out they can be corrected mostly by diet, particularly one low in carbohydrates and gluten, but high in fat.
Personally, eating this way has not only made me sustain energy between meals, but my mind is sharper. I enjoy eating low carb. Because I eat fatty foods, eating low carb isn’t as difficult as it seems. And I know I’m giving my mind fuel to burn.
First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower
Because of my sociology background, I enjoy learning about people and their relation to our world. When I heard about this piece, I knew I had to read it. You rarely hear about the things the First Ladies do in office. But, they are important not only to their husbands’ legacies but to the world in general. They helped to guide their husbands or to at least support their careers, even at the jeopardy of their own careers (Michelle Obama left her high paying job as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center for her husband to be POTUS).
For instance, I knew next to nothing about Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford. After listening to this book, I deeply admire who they were and what they did. For Betty Ford to admit her addictions and then to proceed to help others get over their addictions is so humbling. A First Lady was addicted to drink and pills and got over her title to seek help? That is just one little tidbit I learned about the Modern First Ladies.
Heartless by Marissa Meyer
Marissa Meyer has been such a blessing to literature. She makes sci-fi palatable for us who don’t normally lean toward it. She makes fairy tale retellings fresh. When I learned she was doing a story based upon the Queen of Hearts I was excited. I mean, I was not as excited when she added to “The Lunar Chronicles” because Through The Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland aren’t my favorite tales.
Listening to Heartless was a pleasure. Rebecca Soler, who also reads/acts out “The Lunar Chronicles,” made the story come alive. The story itself is so much more than her acting the careers. I got more than half-way through with the tale when it dawned on me, “Wait, the Queen of Hearts is cruel–how can sweet natured Kath become that wicked lady?” In a quick (by no means rushed) manner, Meyer shows how Kath is all martyr, monarch, murder, and mad…making her by all means the cross Queen of Hearts.
It made me uncomfortable, which is okay. I don’t believe we all should succumb to fate. We can change our fate. Kath could have overcome the prophecy those three girls spoke. Our choices do not automatically mean “blank” will happen. And if a bad choice happens, then we shouldn’t let that dictate our next step negatively. Thought is powerful and revenge makes you ugly.
Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
I loved this horror book: its short chapters, the normal main gal who doesn’t feel like she needs to lose weigh to be loved, and how it’s not a part of a trilogy so I won’t ever know if everyone turns into a sugar zombie.
Basically, there is a new sugar substitute that helps you lose weight. The corporation rents a cruise ship and makes the release a celebrity-hyped up event. People who want to lose weight have to pay to be on the cruise. Laurel is on the cruise with her friend but due to sea sickness she does not begin taking this sweetener, Solu. As she slowly gets back to her normal eating activities, she avoids Solu to her unknowing good luck because everyone who eats Solu loses weigh, but gains a savage addiction to it–willing to kill and eat the Solu enhanced blood of their kill. Crazy and strangely enjoyable how it pans out.
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
I am always on the look out for Junie B. Jones read-a-likes, mainly because I don’t care for the series and want to avoid it, but also because people who enjoy Junie B. Jones will need more stories! Dory fits the niche very well. It’s a terrific read aloud and has pictures on every page. In fact, every time you read, you see something new to add to the hilarious tale.
Dory, also known as Rascal to her family, has a vivid imagination. In the series opener, Dory Fantasmagory, you get introduced to her world. Much of it is like ours, such as her family and the fact she as the younger sibling annoys her older brother and sister. Some of her life is not like our own: her fairy godmother, Mr. Nuggy, who is a gnome, her best friend Mary the monster, and Mrs. Gobble Gracker the villain of the series!
Mrs. Gobble Gracker is out to get Dory, or that is what her siblings tell her. Is she real? Dory thinks so! She tries many ways to get her to leave, perhaps annoying her siblings more than ever! Her tales continue with The Real True Friend and Dory Dory Black Sheep.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Corinne lives on a swampy island with her father. While growing up she heard tales of fantastical creatures, such as jumbies. But, things from fairy tales can’t be real…or can they? Corinne finds out fast that they can be real. Will she muster up enough courage to defeat such evil and save her father? A perfectly spooky tale based on a Haitian folktale.
The Terrible Two by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
I was hesitant to pick this one up because I am not a fan of pranks or being silly for silly’s sake, which is what I thought this book was about. Thankfully it was on the Texas Library Association’s 2016-2017 Bluebonnet Reading List (this is a recommended reading list TLA puts out each year for kids in 3rd to 6th grade, so I had to read it…and loved it! It’s great for fansof Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
It’s all about Miles Murphy, the new boy in town, and his quest to be known as the Prankster. Problem is, there already is a residence prankster. Can Miles out-prank him? The best part of the whole book is when you discover who the prankster really is!
The Land of the Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
This book. Y’all, I liked it so much that when Harry Potter & the Cursed Child became available I had to finish The Land of the Forgotten Girls. It is about two Filipino immigrant children who came over with their dad and stepmother. The dad leaves them with their terrible stepmother. The sisters have fantasies that (a maybe pretend) Aunt Jove will come to rescue them. It’s a story about the strength of sisterhood, the realities of families, and the struggle to be happy amidst so many hard knocks.
The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox
This past year had been one filled with spooky, eerie reads. This story is a historical novel and extremely unsettlingly. In the late 1800s, a lady wants to do right by her husband and produce a heir. She can’t, so she makes a pact with a man of magic. To get her a child, she must give him a part of her. The child she captures to be the heir…well, the entire situation caves in. She begins to try other kids. Each time, he takes different parts of her body and replaces them with robotic-like appendages. Each time, she captures kids no longer for a heir or for companionship–but for immortality and power.
Fast forward (or for us readers go back in time) to the 1940s and England: parents send their kids off to the country so that they don’t endure the Blitzkrieg. A group of children go to a castle that this lady somehow inherited. But no one is the wiser as to who she is. Soon, however, kids go missing and other odd children are seen in the castle.
Now, the story is written very mysteriously and it takes awhile to understand who is who and what is going on. But, I enjoy that in a book. So, I enjoyed this one immensely.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children And Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz with illustrations by Hatem Aly
Here is another historical fiction novel told by many folks at an inn. It is concerning three children and a dog who are dubbed by many in medieval France of being saints, including the greyhound. One boy is an orphan who grew up in a monastery and is like a giant. One is a girl who has fits, but sees the future during them. The dog resurrected after saving the girl’s life. The third child is a Jew who can heal.
The story is about how their lives come together and how they are willing to be martyred to preserve something the French government and King Louis IX deem unacceptable. All three children are so different from each other, yet they are friends, even a Christian and a Jew which back then turned out to be beyond unacceptable.
You learn quite a bit about the Medieval Ages, that is, how people lived and thought. Beyond the history and heavy subject of racism and martyrdom, it’s really funny. They help heal a farting dragon. Gidwitz is a delightful writer and Hartem’s illuminations help with the lengthy text.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Heidi was a surprise. I prefer to listen to my “classics” because the texts can be daunting…too many big words that sound rich but can read dryly. So, I started listening to Heidi expecting a, let’s be honest, boring story about some orphan handed a good life. Well, it couldn’t be farther from fact!
Heidi is about an orphan who is sent to live with her grandfather. On the Swiss mountain where he lives, everyone thinks he is terrible. In fact, they kind of think he will eat her live. But, Heidi and her grandpa hit it off so well that when an aunt comes to profit from Heidi by making her a rich man’s invalid daughter’s companion, her grandpa and her are so devastated. The rest of the story is about getting Heidi back with her grandpa while still taking care of her invalid friend, Clara.
It is a gentle story of friendship and families. It is also a love letter to mountainous and provincial living. What helps to cure Clara? Mountain air. What helps a lonely doctor? The mountains. The story of Heidi makes you remember that there is more to life than “making a living.”
Looking for Bongo by Eric Velasquez
A story about an Afro-Latino boy whose stuffed dog, Bongo, goes missing. He searches for it and asks family members if they have seen it. After finally finding Bongo, the boy decides to make sure he won’t go missing again. In the end, you find out not only how he will keep Bongo from escaping but also who keeps taking Bongo.
It is perfect for toddlers and preschoolers. Spanish phrases are peppered in this story. This was the first book with Spanish in it that Theo didn’t recoil from.
We Forgot Brock by Carter Goodrich
I remember reading about this book in review journals and being turned off by the art. However, TLA’s 2×2 Reading List included this title in its 2016 recommendations so I had to purchase it. Since this booklist offers reading materials suitable for kids 2 years old to those in 2nd grade, I like to sample most if not all of them with Theo.
After reading it with my son, I understand the artwork. It is similar to David Shannon’s art, where the messier it looks the more impressive it actually is. Goodrich combines clearly painted reality with hand-drawn “imaginary friends.” I put that phrase in quotes because that’s what his parents think Brock is; Philip knows otherwise.
You see, Phillip’s family goes to a fair and he falls asleep while Brock decides to continue enjoying the fair. Problem is, Phillip’s parents leave Brock at the fair! Brock is equally saddened when he discovers that he has been left, but a little girl with her “imaginary friend” find Brock and take himhome. Eventually, Phillip finds Brock and gains a new “real” friend.
The Princess in Black by Shannon & Dean Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Another gem discovered thanks to the 2×2 Reading List! Can princesses help save the kingdom in a costume? Yes, they can! Princess Magnolia has an alterego, the Princess in Black. When her gemstone ring rings, she knows her kingdom is under attack by the monsters from Monsterland. She then dresses up as the Princess in Black and with her faithful steed Blacky they “twinkle twinkle smash” monsters.
This is part of a four book series. Totally recommend it, even for boys! Theo loves Princess in Black. We often play act it and quote phrases from it.
The Great Pet Escape: Pets on the Loose by Victoria Jamieson
This one just barely snunk in. I took it home not intending to read it to Theo since it will be on TLA’s 2017-2018 Bluebonnet Reading List, a recommended reading list for kids in 3rd-6th grades. But, he saw it and wanted to hear it. This is a new graphic novel series about a few class pets. One of them, GW (short for George Washington) is a hamster who really wants to reunite with his Furry Fiends and leave the elementary school. When he locates the rest of the Furry Fiends, bunny Barry and guinea pig Sunflower, they are not as fiendish as he still is. He convinces them to escape, only to be stopped by another class pet, Harriet a white mouse with an attitude. Scared that her escapdes at night will be hampered by a failed escape from GW, Barry and Sunflower, she tries to stop them. Her plot to sicken the school at lunch is stunted by the Furry Fiends. They all agree to remain at the school and have fun at night. It is a series, so I wonder if the next one will have another escape plot.
I’m not sure why Theo likes this one so much, but I love reading it out loud! I am hoping to share more graphic novels with him.
As 2017 dawns, I hope you or someone you know may find my 2016 Best Reads as timeless as I have. I look forward to what treasures 2017 will bring me. Let me know which ones left their marks on your soul this past year.