With the advent of e-readers, the struggle of independent bookstores against online retailers, and the growing amount of leisure time spent online, publishing is in a bit of turmoil. Of the thousands of books that crossed my desk this year, the one that had the most resonance was the one that spoke to this precipice: Lane Smith’s It’s a Book.
This is a picture book about … the end of picture books? Will our kids read everything on a screen? Will the tactile pleasures of a book be replaced by the snazzier features of an app? I shudder at the thought. Smith’s book has generated a bit of controversy over his use of the word "jackass" in a book aimed at elementary school readers (one of the characters is, in fact, a jackass) but I hope readers will focus on his larger message: Nothing – whether it tweets or beeps or plays a video – will ever capture our imaginations the way a great story does.
The books being produced for kids and teens have never been better, or better bargains -- gorgeously designed, thoughtfully written and edited, attractively priced at less than the cost of two movie tickets. With a wish for some year-end empty hours to fill, here are MomsMiami's choices for 2010’s best books for kids and teens.
Teens and tweens
Blank Confession by Pete Hautman (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 12-up).
This gripping whodunit begins when the new kid in town, Shayne Blank, arrives at the police station to confess to a murder. Told in alternating chapters by Shayne, the small-of-stature kid he protected from a drug-dealing bully, and the grizzled cop who takes Shayne’s statement, this is a tautly written mystery with equal doses of humor and horror.
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press, $16.99, ages 8 to 12).
Tall for his age and already sporting facial hair, 12-year-old Liam gets the ride of his life when he is mistaken for the father of a friend and sent into outerspace as a chaperone. Hilarity ensues – Liam saves the day with skills honed playing World of Warcraft -- but so does a heartfelt examination of what it means to be a dad.
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean (Harper, $16.99, ages 10-up).
His death foretold in a dream, kind-hearted Pepper has been led to believe he’d be dead by age 14. So when he wakes up, alive, on the morning of his 14th birthday he flees, hoping to outrun death by hiding from it. Thus begins an old-fashioned adventure as Pepper crosses the countryside, trying on careers, until the cleverly orchestrated climax provides Pepper – and readers – with a very satisfying ending.
Mockingbird by Kathy Erskine (Philomel, $16.99, ages 10-up).
"Tearjerker" does not begin to cover the way in which this powerful story about how a family recovers from school violence can reduce a reader to a slobbering mess. The deserving winner of this year’s National Book Award.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 12-up).
The concluding volume in the Hunger Games series is dark, brutal and brilliant. A chilling meditation on the true casualties of war, this is the rare trilogy that begins strong and sustains momentum until the very end.
My Havana by Rosemary Wells and Secundino Fernandez, illustrated by Peter Ferguson. (Candlewick, $17.99, ages 7 to 10).
A tender memoir about a boy whose family flees Castro’s Cuba for New York and who works through his grief the only way he knows how – through art -- to make the new place feel like home.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 9 to 12).
Deciding that it’s something "whose time has come," 11-year-old Delphine’s father puts her and her two younger sisters on a flight from Brooklyn to Oakland to spend a month with Cecile, the mother who abandoned them after the birth of the littlest sister. It's 1968 and Cecile, a poet, is immersed in protest politics. The unusual setting – the girls spend a lot of their time in a summer camp program run by the Black Panthers – and the vividly drawn voices of the three sisters make this story a standout.
The Red Umbrella by Cristina Diaz Gonzalez (Knopf, $16.99, ages 10-up).
Brimming with authentic feeling, this poignant first novel is notable for the author’s sure hand with the details that make 1961 come alive. Based on her own parents’ story of fleeing Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, Miami author Gonzalez captures the heart-breaking choice many families had to make during the early days of Fidel Castro’s regime.
Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House, $16.99, ages 8 to 12).
At the height of the Depression, Turtle, 11, is deposited in Key West with an aunt she’s never met. The only girl in a house full of boys, tough-as-nails Turtle must find a way to ingratiate herself with Aunt Minnie and the "diaper gang," her cousins’ no-girls-allowed babysitting service. Rich in period detail (it’s 1935 and there’s still no Overseas Highway) and written with Holm’s usually flair for comedy and pathos, this is superlative historical fiction with Conch flavor.
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Viking, $16.99, ages 4 to 8).
You could look at the mouth-watering cover of this book and buy it for the art – it’s delicious. But the narrative is equally rich – a seemingly simple slice-of-life story about a birthday party invitation that speaks volumes about both sibling dynamics and how children in immigrant families must navigate two worlds.
Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Allison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile (Candlewick, $15.99, ages 4 to 8).
If you had an All-Star Team for early readers, these three would be in the starting line-up. DiCamillo pairs with McGhee for a frisky story about unlikely friends, while Fucile supplies artwork so in sync with the text the characters nearly come alive on the page. The fact that Bink and Gollie live in apartments on different floors of a tree house tells you what you need to know about the sensibility at work here.
Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewien. (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 4 to 6).
Another title, just as apt, might have been "Is Your Kindergartner Ready to Laugh"? An adorable primer for those facing their very first first day of school with a bonus message (appropriately subtle) about the importance of understanding people’s (or buffalo’s) differences.
The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez (Enchanted Lion Books, $14.95, ages 3 to 7).
This droll, wordless caper follows a fox as he makes off with a hen, and her friends' valiant attempts to rescue her. Whether she wants to be rescued is another question -- is this a case of forbidden love? Or is it Stockholm Syndrome? The illustrations are mind-boggingly good.
It’s a Book by Lane Smith (Roaring Brook, $12.99, all ages).
Second-graders may latch onto this subversive story for the titillation of seeing the word "jackass" in a library book, but others will see it as a picture book that captures a Gutenberg-like moment in our history – the transition from a world of books to a universe of digital possibilities.
Mirror Mirror by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse (Dutton, $16.99, ages 5-up).
Singer, a poet, retells fairy tales in broken-line verse. Neat. But each poem also works as a reverse – read backwards it tells a different story altogether. Astonishing! The illustrations, by a Canadian artist, play with Singer’s symmetry for a truly extraordinary package.
Miss Brooks Loves Books and I Don’t by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Knopf, $17.99, ages 5 to 8).
Not every kid begins life loving books. To make matters worse, the heroine of this story, Missy, must select a favorite book to present – in costume -- for Book Week. "I ask my mother if we can move to a new town. My mother says there’s a librarian in every town." It takes a while but Miss Brooks, a highly enthusiastic and persistent media specialist, makes a convert of Missy. Energetic illustrations add to the fun.