I decided a couple weeks ago that a good way to kick off the new year on my blog—and a good way to end the super long blogging break that I have accidentally taken—would be to make a list of particularly awesome books that came out in 2014. (For those of you who don’t know me, I work in a library, so paying attention to awesome new books is a kind of major part of my life now, which is really cool.) I don’t actually read grown-up books very often, so I have only included children’s books and YA books. Before I actually start the list itself, I want to add a little disclaimer saying that I haven’t read every single awesome children’s book that came out this past year. There are some things that are popular and have received a lot of critical acclaim that aren’t on my list, but probably would be if I had read them. I’m going to try to make up for that a little bit by mentioning a few books that I intend to read soon and expect to really enjoy. I suppose I should also acknowledge the fact that this list is my personal opinion, not based on an objective standard or a group consensus, which is why I did not title this post “The Kaleidoscope49 Book Awards”. But those of you who are taking the time to read this paragraph can feel free to call this list “The Kaleidscope49 Book Awards” in your head, because that’s what I’m doing. Also, these descriptions should not be considered official reviews because I’m using first person all over the place. So, with all that being said, here is the list.
Quest by Aaron Becker
This book is an example of the fact that picture books are not only for preschoolers, which is something that my library school professors frequently mention. I would recommend this book for ages 5-12. Yes, I know that’s not what the publisher and reviewers say, but this is my blog here and I say what I want. Deal with it. Quest is a wordless picture book that shows two children going on a magical adventure. The plot is very complex and a little ambiguous; it leaves plenty of room for readers to decide for themselves what is happening. Although the artwork is more detailed, this book reminded me of the Harold and the Purple Crayon books, because some of the pictures show the main characters drawing their setting. I thought this was a lovely book both because of its artwork and because it was a non-stereotypical expression of an extremely common theme: the magical powers of imagination.
The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara
I picked this book at random for a review that I had to write for a class, but I ended up believing that this is a particularly noteworthy book. Needless to say, the review that I wrote was quite positive. The general gist was that the plot is fun, the tone is calm, and the linocut print illustrations do a perfect job of establishing the nighttime setting. (The only colors used are black, dark blue, and light orange.) I also specified that I would recommend this as a bedtime story or a library storytime book for ages 4-7.
This is a Moose by Richard T. Morris
My inner preschooler laughed hysterically at this one, and I anticipate that a lot of real preschoolers will react in the same way. Duck is trying to make a movie about Moose, but Moose is being silly. He doesn’t want to act like a normal moose; he wants to be an astronaut and fly to the moon. Along with a cast of other strangely-behaving animals, he escapes the confines of the moose lifestyle and goes on an adventure to outer space. I suggest this one for ages 4-6.
Baby Bear by Kadir Nelson
The basic plot is a common one—Baby Bear is lost and looking for his mother, and he stops to converse with one forest animal after another. Predictably, the book ends when Baby Bear’s mother finds him. What sets this book apart is the beauty of the artwork. I can imagine this book making an excellent bedtime story for kids under the age of four-ish, but I also imagine that the grownup reading it aloud would enjoy it just as much, if not more, than the child.
Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean
Yes, it’s a picture book that doesn’t even use complete sentences, but no, it’s not just a simple concept book. It has a poetic rhythm, a complete plot, and illustrations that deserve more than a brief glance. One of the things I love about this book is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed by a wide age range. I’ll say babies through kids age six, but I can imagine older readers liking it, too. My mock Newbery class named this as one of our honor books, and you can read what my professor had to say about it here.
On My To-Read-ASAP List
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
I feel bad for not having already read this book, partly because I am genuinely excited about its existence, and partly because I have actually held it in my hands and flipped through it. Obviously, one reason that I want to read it is because it has received a lot of positive attention, is presumably popular with kids, and is most likely a Caldecott contender. But I also have personal interest in it because of my ballet background. Besides, I like and admire the author as a dancer, so I would be very happy to be able to say that she has a lot of merit as a writer, too.
The Big Fib by Tim Hamilton
To be honest, I didn’t exactly love this book. I liked it, but I’m not sure I really want to classify it as “awesome”. But I’m including it on this list because all of the newish early readers that I did think were awesome turned out to be more than a year old. But The Big Fib definitely deserves some credit. It takes a skilled writer to tell a full story using a limited vocabulary, and Hamilton definitely accomplishes that. The protagonist and his dog go on an adventure of imagination, with the use of their neighbor’s boxes. When she discovers them and asks what made such a mess, the boy lies and blames the wind. But he feels bad and confesses, and in the end, makes a friend of the neighbor. The Big Fib is written at about a first-grade level, although an advanced kindergartener could manage it, and a younger child might enjoy hearing it read aloud.
Days of the Knights by Robert Neubecker (Tales of the Time Dragon Book 1)
Red the Time Dragon takes Joe and Lilly back in time to the year 1200 and gives them a dragons-eye view of the Middle Ages. This book is approximately a second-grade reading level and will probably appeal mainly to readers who already are interested in knights, dragons, or the Middle Ages, or who have a strong appreciation for time travel stories. I, personally, love time travel stories, so I thought this was an incredibly cool idea for an early reader series. But I am willing to acknowledge that it has a somewhat limited audience.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Anthropomorphic rabbits are used to give an autobiographical account of Bell’s experiences as a hearing-impaired child. Not only does Cece have to face the challenges that come with the disability itself, but her conspicuous hearing aid impairs her social life—or at least, so it seems to her. Over the course of the book, Cece makes and loses several friends. Aside from the fact that the characters are rabbits, this book makes it easy for readers to relate to Cece’s experiences, both the ones that are a result of her deafness and those that are common to most children. Although it deals with somewhat sad subject matter, El Deafo has a very light tone that makes it a fun quick read. The graphic novel format makes it very accessible for a wide range of reading levels; I’m going to say it’s for children in first to eighth grade, even though it normally doesn’t make sense to recommend a book for such a broad age range.
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Telgemeier’s previous book, Smile, told an autobiographical story of orthodontic woes among other childhood experiences. Sisters follows it up by telling about another aspect of the author’s life growing up: her relationship with her younger sister Amara. Although it covers events occurring over a wide time range, the majority of the book takes place on a long, stressful road trip. I would attribute this book’s popularity to its realistic portrayal of family relationships. I can see it succeeding with a wide age range of readers. I’m going to say third grade through early teens.
The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wright (Magic Shop Book 1)
The only thing that Mike is particularly good at is getting in trouble. His neighbor Nora, on the other hand, is smart and talented, and he has to spend every afternoon with her after school. One day, they stumble upon a store called The White Rabbit, which sells antiques and gag gifts, and, best of all, magic supplies. The store owner begins to teach Mike magic tricks after Mike solves a puzzle that baffles even Nora. And Mike finally discovers that he does have a talent for something, after all. This is a great book for second-through-fourth graders who can relate to Mike or who like magic tricks themselves. In fact, the book includes detailed instructions for each of the magic tricks that Mike perfects.
Lost in Bermooda by Mike Litwin (Welcome to Bermooda Book 1)
I got this book on interlibrary loan and read it because I was trying to decide if this is a series that my library should get. I think it’s a definite yes, but at this point, I’m going to wait until the third book comes out. If I remember correctly, that’ll be early this spring. The premise of the story is that there’s an island inhabited by anthropomorphic cows, who believe that “hu’mans” are mythical monsters. But then a human boy shows up on their island. Dakota (the boy) and Chuck (a calf) become friends. Most of the humor is geared towards second-grade boys, although children of the female variety might also like this series. I think that my elementary-school-aged self would have made a point to keep up with the series.
Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Franklin School Friends Book 2)
Annika has a knack for math, but her two best friends don’t understand what a useful skill that is. Annika is delighted when her teacher suggests that she participate in a Sudoku contest at the public library. Surely, winning a prize for something number-related will prove the value of math skills! A subplot shows the three girls working together on cookies to sell at a school event, but something goes wrong with every batch, and each mistake gives Annika an opportunity to lecture her friends on the importance of mathematical accuracy. Although Annika’s one-track mind would be annoying in real life, it makes for a nice and neat chapter book in which every passage contributes to the point. Although most children’s books feature a protagonist who is slightly older than the intended reader, this book is an exception. Annika is in third grade, and her story is best suited for readers of the same age.
On My To-Read-ASAP List
Soccer on Sunday by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca (Magic Tree House Book 52)
Considering that I love this series and recommend it frequently, I feel like quite a hypocrite for not having read the latest few additions to the series. This one came out in late May, just in time for the World Cup, and it was so popular that neither of my library’s two copies spent much of any time on the library shelf until just recently.
Novels in Verse
Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
This book drew my attention because, unlike most novels in verse, it doesn’t deal with profound or tragic subject matter. It’s a fairly light-hearted read about a fairly typical girl going through fairly everyday problems. Suzy’s annoying little brother is receiving a hero’s treatment, one of her friends is being wrongly accused of petty theft, and another friend has gotten a part in a play for which both girls had auditioned. When Suzy becomes fascinated by Emily Dickinson, she decides to emulate Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle, but she discovers that being a recluse isn’t easy. Although Suzy herself turns twelve early in the book, I would suggest it for a younger audience, perhaps second through fourth grade.
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
I’ll admit that part of my appreciation for this book comes from a biased standpoint. I love reading books about dancers that give a sense of how much dedication and effort goes into serious dance training. Although I’m not familiar with Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance style that Veda studies, I do know from personal experience that any type of dance requires its advanced or upper-intermediate students to dedicate their lives to it, and Venkatraman clearly shows how important dance is to Veda. But when Veda is injured in a bus accident, half of her right leg is amputated and it appears that her dreams are gone. The novel shows Veda slowly regaining her physical abilities and rediscovering her identity as a dancer. I would recommend this book for readers (particularly dancers and dance-lovers) between the ages of twelve and seventeen.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson’s autobiographical novel in verse has been one of the best-received juvenile books of the year. It has already won the National Book Award and has been mentioned in pretty much every best-of-the-year list for juvenile books. I actually do not think I’d put this in my top five or even my top ten. But it is definitely a good book that shows an inspiringly proficient mastery of language and that gives a honest and vivid portrayal of Woodson’s aspirations to be a writer, her experiences with racism, and her perception of the pop culture of the day. The tone is more nostalgic than anything else, despite the various problems and hardships that it includes. I actually think that, despite being written at an upper-elementary school level, this book holds more appeal for an adult audience than a child audience. So I’m going to classify it as being for ages ten and up, even though that’s unhelpfully vague.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Irish orphans Molly and Kip begin working for a family that is hiding some dark, mysterious secrets in this novel that features themes regarding storytelling and wishes. I think that this is a really great book for skilled readers in fourth to eighth grade who have the ability but not the interest to read grown-up classics. The style of the writing and the complexity of the plot is reminiscent of nineteenth-century literature, but the characters are children and it contains some high-action scenes that keep it child-friendly. (Although that term isn’t normally used for something as creepy as this book. It’s creepy in a likable way.) It’s a little hard to pigeonhole The Night Gardener into a particular genre. It’s technically historical fiction, since it’s set in Victorian rural England, but it’s fantastical enough that it seems inaccurate to not call it fantasy. I’ve also seen it classified as horror.
Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick (Pumpkin Falls Mystery Book 1)
I can’t remember exactly why I felt compelled to read this particular book as soon as it came in at the library, but I definitely went into it with the expectation that I was going to really enjoy it, and I did. Twelve-year old Truly Lovejoy has just moved to a small town in New Hampshire. It’s her father’s hometown, and he is taking over at his parents’ bookshop, partly because they have joined the peace corps, but mostly because he lost an arm in Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD, and everyone agrees that the change in scenery will be good for him. Truly isn’t happy about the move, but she loves her new house and she comes to love helping out in the bookshop—especially once she discovers an old letter hidden in a rare copy of Charlotte’s Web. This book is a mystery, but it’s not your typical crime-solving mystery. Truly’s mystery is one that has to do with the recent history of her community and her family. The small-town New England winter setting is well developed, as are the personalities of Truly and her family and new friends. It might be a little on the cutesy side, but sometimes, cutesiness isn’t a bad thing. I’d recommend Absolutely Truly for readers in fourth through eighth grades.
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm
Initially, the title and first chapter of this book seem to have little to do with the rest of it. Ellie is under the impression that her goldfish has lived an exceptionally long life until her mother admits that she has been secretly replacing the goldfish each time it dies. Then the book switches to its real point, a narrative in which Ellie’s mother brings home a boy who turns out to be her father—Ellie’s grandfather—who has discovered a scientific formula that has turned him into a teenager. But these two beginnings come together nicely as the book goes on to discuss the philosophical significance of Ellie’s grandfather’s rejuvenation. Most of the book is a light-hearted read that derives humor from the grandfather’s inability to act like a kid, but it makes some thought-provoking points about the power and danger of major scientific breakthroughs. This book requires some suspension of disbelief; not only is the basic premise unbelievable, but the characters’ reaction to the situation is unrealistic. Still, The Fourteenth Goldfish does a fun job of finding a halfway point between science fiction and realistic contemporary fiction that could appeal to fans of either genre. I’d say it’s written at a fourth grade reading level, but it could certainly hold appeal for older readers as well.
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
This was one of my absolute favorite books of the year, (we’re talking top five here, maybe even top three) but I admit that it isn’t for everyone; it requires a very high cutesiness tolerance. I guess I hadn’t even realized until recently that I actually really appreciate cutesiness in middle grade novels, but I guess I do, if this list is any indication. A Snicker of Magic tells the story of Felicity Juniper Pickle, a likable but painfully shy sixth-grader whose family has just moved to her mother’s hometown of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Midnight Gulch, we are frequently reminded, used to be a magical place, but all that’s left now is a snicker of magic: ice cream flavors with fantastical properties, a cast of kooky residents with unusual abilities, and a legendary history that sends Felicity and her new best friend Jonah on a mission to uncover the town’s historical secrets and bring the magic back to Midnight Gulch. I’d recommend this book for readers in fourth through eighth grades, but again, only for readers with a high tolerance for cutesiness.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
This is another one that is geared towards a very specific audience, but this time, that’s not because it’s cutesy. Greenglass House is a complex mystery that takes place in a hotel at Christmastime. Milo, whose adoptive parents run the hotel, is fascinated by the mysterious guests’ backstories and the history of his own home, which seems to be connected to each of the guests’ reasons for being there at that particular time. His new acquaintance Meddy convinces him to draw up a character for a roleplaying game and to use that character to investigate the secrets of Greenglass House. Milo and Meddy become Negret and Sirin, and their adventures in Milo’s own home will fascinate a certain subset of nerdy kids. (For the record, when I call kids nerdy, I say that with a great deal of affection. Nerdy kids are cool.)I feel like this is a fairly advanced book; I wouldn’t recommend it for kids younger than eleven or twelve unless they were especially skilled readers. Although I do know of a very bright third grader who might like it. I think I’ll suggest it to her next time I see her.
The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
This book tells about the events occurring between the eleventh and twelfth birthday of an academically gifted but naïve protagonist. Her father suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, her mother works as a hotel maid to make ends meet, and her oldest sister Layla has taken on a lot of responsibilities and emotional burdens, but Maggie is too preoccupied by academic pursuits and sibling rivalry to notice. Even after she learns of her father’s diagnosis and does some research on the disease, Maggie is naïvely optimistic about his future. My impression is that Maggie is an unreliable narrator; her portrayal of her sisters as superficial “hot” teenagers is clearly biased and inaccurate, and her perception of her own extreme intelligence and potential is hard to take completely seriously. I found myself feeling very sorry for Layla; if this book was told from her point of view, it would be a real tearjerker. But coming from Maggie, it contains a lot of light-hearted humor, fun eighties references, and trivial everyday happenings in between the family’s woes. I think this book is best suited for readers in fourth through sixth grades, but a slightly younger reader could probably handle it.
Revolution by Deborah Wiles (Sixties Trilogy Book 2)
Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she witnesses the Freedom Summer of 1964, in which “invaders” come from colleges up North to encourage the “negroes” to register to vote. Sunny herself is white and has never thought to question segregation, so she isn’t sure what to think of everything that’s going on in her community. Wiles paints a picture of racism and the civil rights movement that is made especially vivid by the inclusion of pop culture references. (For example, Sunny and her friends love the Beatles.) Some chapters come from the point of view of Raymond, a black boy who is experiencing Freedom Summer from the same town but a very different perspective. Between some of the chapters, there are primary documents including a variety of photographs and quotations, some of which deal with racial controversy, and others of which deal with unrelated news events or pop culture. Revolution is a pretty long book that includes lots of “big words” and advanced subject material, so I think this book is best suited for readers who are at least as old as the protagonist herself. (That is, twelve years old) It is worth pointing out that this is the book that won the mock Newbery in my mock Newbery class. It was on the National Book Award’s short list and is probably a major contender for the actual 2015 Newbery.
On My To-Read ASAP List
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
I have already checked this book out from the library and have read the very beginning. It showed up on some Best-of-2014 list somewhere, and the plot summary sounds interesting. Apparently, it’s based on Han’s Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and takes place in a museum. Ophelia’s defining personality trait is evidently her logical and scientific mind, which sounds like a interesting premise for a character who is the protagonist in a fantasy story.
The Escape by Kathryn Lasky (Horses of the Dawn Book 1)
This is another one that I should have read ages ago. It’s been out since January, and I happen to know that my seventh-grade sister (who was in sixth grade then) really liked it. I’m actually not a big fan of books told from an animal’s perspective, as this book apparently is, but I have enjoyed Lasky’s historical fiction writing, so there’s a good chance that I’ll enjoy her animal fantasy writing, too.
The Secret of the Key by Marianne Malone (Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventures Book 4)
I started this series on audiobook, since I spend a lot of time driving and it has turned out to be efficient to use that time listening to audiobooks of children’s literature that I should have already read because it’s so popular. I have listened to the first two books and just checked out the print version of the third book. I haven’t even started it yet, so I probably won’t get to book four for a little while, but I’m enjoying the series so much that I feel very confident in saying that The Secret of the Key is great, too. The series features best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover a magical key that enables them to shrink down so that they can enter the miniature Thorne Rooms on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the record, those miniature rooms exist in real life, and I am sorry to say that I’ve never seen them, even though I have spent a good deal of time in Chicago.
Rain Reign by Ann Martin
I’ve read an excerpt and a plot summary of this book, which is about a girl named Rose who has Asperger’s and is fascinated by homophones. Her dog is named Rain, which gives rise to the book’s title. Apparently, Rain goes missing, and Rose’s search for her is the basic plot of the book. It sounds somewhat interesting but not particularly remarkable, but I’ve heard so much praise for it that I’m definitely interested in reading it for myself.
The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan (The Heroes of Olympus Book 5)
The Heroes of Olympus series is basically a subseries of the popular Percy Jackson books, which I have only just barely started even though I should have read them long ago. After all, my own teenage sister is one of the many Percy Jackson fans, and so are many of the kids I meet in my job in the library. It will likely be a while before I actually get to this book, but I’m including it on this list anyway because it’s essential that I read it sooner or later.
Young Adult Novels
Grandmaster by David Klass
This is another one that definitely goes on my top five favorite books of 2014, maybe even in the number one or number two slot, and it’s not just because I like chess. (In fact, although the book takes place at a chess tournament, it actually doesn’t have much to say about chess strategy itself.) Daniel Pratzer is a newby chess player at a private high school where the chess players are the cool kids. Little does he know that his father was once a teenage grandmaster—that is, until his popular chess club classmates suddenly take notice of him and demand that he and his father join them for a parent-child chess tournament. Daniel’s father reluctantly agrees, and over the course of the tournament, Daniel slowly learns about the emotional breakdown that led his father to give up chess years ago. This actually isn’t the type of book that I normally like, because I’m a bigger fan of fantasy and time travel than of realistic contemporary fiction, and Grandmaster has some scenes that could be described as being sappy. But this book works very well and I found it to be very engaging and memorable. Most reviews recommend it for ages 12-17, and I’ll concur with that even though it’s pretty broad. Daniel is a freshman, and the reading level isn’t very advanced, so it may be slightly better suited for the younger half of that age range.
The Art of Secrets by James Klise
This one is kind of a crossover between children’s fiction and YA fiction. The characters are mostly juniors and seniors in high school, but it’s written at a level that will work just fine for readers as young as sixth or seventh grade, maybe even younger. Still, I could see a highschooler thoroughly enjoying this book. Saba Khan’s family’s apartment has been burned, evidently as a hate crime, but things seem to be turning out just fine when some of her classmates set up a charity auction. Even better, one of the items to be sold is valuable artwork that Saba’s classmates happened to find and generously contributed to benefit Saba. But then the artwork is stolen, and the investigation is only turning up conflicting leads. The story is told through a string of journal entries, letters, and the main characters’ sides of conversations with reporters or police. The conclusion of the mystery comes as a compete surprise—or at least it did to me—but the real appeal of The Art of Secrets has less to do with the mystery than with the interesting format and the complex relationships between the characters, who all seem to have preconceptions about one another. This was the other book that my mock Newbery class named as an honor book.
On My To-Read ASAP List
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This has been, without a doubt, one of the most popular and important YA books of the year. Maybe not quite as big of a deal as Eleanor and Park (from 2013) turned out to be, but pretty close to it. I’ve already started it, and to be honest, I’m not enjoying it as much as I had expected so far. The protagonist Cadence has suffered from what seems to be brain trauma at her wealthy family’s vacation spot. She had gone swimming at night, but she doesn’t remember the details. I guess I had been expecting this to be a sort of mystery story, in which she tries to learn what exactly happened, but so far, the point of the book seems to be how snobbish Cadence’s family is about their social standing and family background. I initially was a little turned off by the extremely short chapters, the repetitive sentence structures, and the length of the backstory expositional passages, but then I got to the point where I was reading it as if it was a novel in verse, and now the writing style is working better for me. I notice that the customer reviews on amazon allude to twists and turns and intrigue later in the book, so I may have a very different opinion of it once I get a little farther.
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins
Don’t let the picture book format fool you—this is a highly informative work on ocular anatomy that contains definitions and descriptions that even an adult might find instructive. But, even with its big words and small text, it’s extremely accessible to young readers because of the colorful and bright illustrations. For all its science words, Eye to Eye still reminded me of little-kid concept books about animals. I think that even a preschool-aged child might enjoy flipping through this book and even a teenager or adult could learn something from it, but its primary audience is kids in first to fourth grade.
A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin
I considered not including this book on my list because it is extremely dry, but it’s also extremely informative and would be extremely useful for a reader who is studying John Brown, the Civil War, or black history. For instance, unlike most children’s books that describe slavery in America, it mentions the Arab slave trade, which led to European adoption of racial slavery, which was carried over to the New World long before the era of cotton gins and the Confederate battle flag. A Volcano Beneath the Snow reads like a seventh or eighth grade textbook, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it for pleasure reading unless the reader was a big non-fiction reader and already had a strong interest in the specific subject matter.
On My To-Read-ASAP List
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, both because it’s been so well-received and because I’m interested in the subject, so when I noticed it in a bookstore while waiting for a train the other day, I couldn’t resist buying it. It was in hardcover, so it was super expensive. But I’m really looking forward to starting it, once I finish one more of the books I’m currently reading. I’m working on six at a time, which I feel is probably enough for now.