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In this issue

For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.

Horn Book Fanfare

Every year, the Horn Book editors look back through the five hundred or so books reviewed in the Magazine — almost all highly recommended to begin with — to select the best of the best, so to speak. Reflecting changing demographics, the economy, and public funding, children’s book publishing goes in cycles, and right now hardcover fiction for ten-year-olds and up claims the biggest piece of the pie — and this list. Still, though, I think this year’s Fanfare list has something for just about everybody, and I hope you find some useful suggestions for your holiday shopping. Books are so easy to wrap.  

With best wishes for this busy month,

Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

Best books for preschoolers

The Village Garage written and illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Welcome to the Village Garage, where a diverse crew of municipal workers happily tackles jobs around town. The heavy-duty vehicles will please truck fanatics, and Karas’s cheery narrative and friendly art, plus a satisfying seasonal progression, will draw in the less truck-enthused. (3–6 years)

Nini Lost and Found written and illustrated by Anita Lobel
Cat Nini can’t resist the temptation of a door left open and escapes into the alluring woods. Lobel’s gouache and watercolor paintings are abundant with the beauty of the natural world, and picture size and page design enhance the adventure.  (2–5 years)

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Salley Mavor
Mavor’s stunning hand-sewn fabric relief collages illustrate sixty-five familiar (and not so) nursery rhymes, capturing their timelessness and adding intricate detail. Every home deserves a good Mother Goose, and this vibrant collection is one of the best. (2–5 years)

Best books for primary graders

Mirror written and illustrated by Jeannie Baker
A strikingly innovative design allows two wordless stories to be viewed simultaneously; each follows a boy and his dad — one in urban Australia, the other in rural Morocco. Visually riveting, meticulously detailed collage reveals eye-opening similarities between the boys’ vastly dissimilar worlds. (5–8 years)

Me and You written and illustrated by Anthony Browne
In this haunting revisioning of “The Three Bears,” Goldilocks is a have-not who stumbles out of her gritty urban neighborhood into the Bears’ bourgeois home. Browne retains the folktale’s signal events — porridge-eating, chair-breaking, etc. — but the turned-on-its-head premise invests the story with new, poignant meaning. The inventive illustrations employ full-page pastels for the Bears and claustrophobic shadowy panels for Goldilocks’s world. (5–8 years)

I Know Here written by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James
Leaving her small northern village for the big city of Toronto, a little girl enumerates all the things she will miss: her family’s trailer, a fox, the forest. Childlike, expressionistic illustrations convey the setting and emotion to perfection. (5–8 years)

April and Esme, Tooth Fairies written and illustrated by Bob Graham
Two young tooth fairy sisters collect their first-ever tooth. Graham’s illustrations convey the tale’s humorous, eclectic mix of old-fashioned Borrowers-like fantasy (their bathroom sink is a thimble, the toilet is an egg cup) and thoroughly modern reality (Mom texts advice to the girls). (5–8 years)

Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley written by Stephanie Greene
Things get complicated for impulsive, prone-to-enthusiasms middle-child Sophie when her whole fourth grade class finds out she’s getting a baby gorilla for her birthday — which she definitely isn’t. A lively chapter book exemplary for its humor, believable family dynamics, and characters who talk and act like real people. (6–10 years)

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! written and illustrated by Grace Lin
Confident beginning readers who follow the adventures of twin sisters through five linked chapters will be equally confident that Ling and Ting are certainly not exactly the same. The illustrations are as bold and colorful as the twins, and the engaging text makes generous, humorous use of repetition. (5–8 years)

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen
With delicate, evocative language, Sidman’s poems celebrate wildlife that flourishes in the night woods; a paragraph of information about the relevant organism accompanies each poem. Just as eyes gradually adjust to the dark, readers will slowly pick out the nocturnal creatures in Allen’s skillful night-toned linocut prints. (7–10 years)

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse written by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse
Exceedingly well-wrought two-stanza poems Singer dubs “reversos” (the second stanza repeats the first, backwards) each look at a fairy tale from two different points of view. Similarly bifurcated paintings cleverly reflect the dual nature of these insightful and ingeniously devised poems. (6–10 years)

Best books for middle graders

Forge written by Laurie Halse Anderson
A patriot and a slave, Curzon enlists in the Continental Army and spends a bitter winter encamped at Valley Forge. This riveting, character-driven sequel to Chains provides a vivid account both of Revolutionary War soldier life and of the harsh realities and injustices of slavery. (10–14 years)

Big Nate: In a Class by Himself written and illustrated by Lincoln Peirce
Nate is a sixth-grade slacker well versed in the art of sarcasm, but his intentions are mostly good and always believable. Text and cartoon illustrations combine to great effect — rarely have backtalk and louche behavior been as attractive. (9–12 years)

The Dreamer written by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sís
Although terrified by his autocratic father, Neftalí Reyes grows up with a voracious love of words, books, nature, and ideas. Sís’s imaginative illustrations and the Chilean rainforest–green type are striking complements to Ryan’s perceptive fictional account of poet Pablo Neruda’s early life. (9–12 years)

One Crazy Summer written by Rita Williams-Garcia
Eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters visit their estranged and far-from-welcoming mother for the summer in 1969 Oakland, California, where change, both political and personal, is in the air. A poignant, funny, memorable celebration of community, family, and self-discovery. (9–12 years)

The War to End All Wars: World War I written by Russell Freedman
Freedman’s account of the origins, major players, battles, trench warfare, senseless carnage, and consequences of the First World War is clear, concise, and succinct without being in the least condescending to young readers. An abundance of historical photographs enriches a characteristically lucid text. (10–14 years)

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca
A fascinating look at the remarkable collaboration between dancer-choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and artist Isamu Noguchi. Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca’s own joint effort is spare and immediate, reflecting the very nature of the classic American performance they so stunningly evoke. (8–12 years)

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot written by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop
On a remote island in New Zealand, scientists struggle to revive a dying parrot species. Delving into history, environmentalism, and the scientific process as it examines the human contribution to the kakapo’s demise and rehabilitation, Montgomery’s narrative creates an emotional resonance that augments the scientific information. Bishop’s crisp photos juxtapose the romance and reality of field work. (8–12 years)

Best books for teenagers

Incarceron written by Catherine Fisher
In Incarceron, a sentient prison, Finn dreams of escape to Outside, which he claims to remember; Claudia suspects that her ruthless father, the Warden of Incarceron, may have had a hand in the death of her childhood fiancé Prince Giles. These parallel mysteries merge with masterful pacing in a brilliantly original dystopian world. (12 years and up)

The Sky Is Everywhere written by Jandy Nelson
Devastated by her sister’s sudden death, Lennie seeks comfort in the arms of new boy Joe — and in those of Bailey’s bereaved boyfriend. Passionate, heartbreaking, and enchantingly hopeful, Lennie’s journey of self-discovery is as exquisite as the “great big beautiful love” she ultimately finds. (14 years and up)

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins
When his summer plans go spectacularly awry, teenage Ry, one of life’s consummate passengers, finds himself stranded with no money, a useless cellphone, and only one shoe. Perkins’s take on chaos and the element of chance is refreshingly optimistic in this quirky, closely observed road-trip novel. (12 years and up)

Revolver written by Marcus Sedgwick
While Sig keeps vigil over his father’s corpse, a stranger arrives at their remote Arctic cabin. Good thing Sig has a gun — or is it? With the precision of a meticulously maintained revolver, this historical mystery inexorably sights, aims, and explodes. (12 years and up)

The White Horse Trick written by Kate Thompson
This final volume of the Irish-mythology-based fantasy trilogy takes readers from world’s end to world’s beginning, as the ravages of global warming spill into the timeless land of Tír na n’Óg. Thompson has outdone herself here, with droll humor, nimble plotting, and rich characterization overlaying an ambitious, all-too-relevant theme. (12 years and up)

A Conspiracy of Kings written by Megan Whalen Turner
Heir-to-the-Sounis-throne Sophos is kidnapped, enslaved, and forced to yield sovereignty to erstwhile friend and rival royal Eugenides — and that’s just the beginning of a journey that will transform him from callow youth to king. A page-turner both cerebral and emotionally involving, chockful of intrigue, military strategy, adventure, and romance. (12 years and up)

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Southern reaction to Reconstruction period laws prompted six men to start a secret club that evolved into the still-active Ku Klux Klan. Relying upon personal accounts and primary source documents, Bartoletti’s detailed look at the origins of this brutal and pervasive homegrown terrorist organization is a powerfully moving cautionary tale. (12 years and up)

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery written by Steve Sheinkin
Even history’s villains have their reasons, and it’s to Sheinkin’s great credit that he manages to humanize America’s most notorious traitor. Better yet, he creates a rousing adventure narrative from Arnold’s courage and treachery that brings the man and Revolution to life. (12 years and up)

Five questions for Megan Whalen Turner

Megan Whalen Turner’s first novel, The Thief, was published in 1996. A fantasy set in an invented classical world (somewhat reminiscent of ancient Greece), it features an enigmatic eponymous hero named Eugenides — and a tortuous journey in search of treasure. The Thief won a Newbery Honor and attracted a slew of devoted fans enthralled by the vivid world-building, the originality of the story, and the intricate plotting (including a breathtaking twist at the end). Since then Turner has written three more books in the series, the most recent of which, A Conspiracy of Kings, appears on our Fanfare list as one of our choices for the best books of 2010. (12 years and up)

1. Sophos, the main character in A Conspiracy of Kings, plays a supporting role in The Thief. Did you always know you would bring him back in a later title? Do you have a road map for the series, or does each new book present itself after the previous one is finished?

I knew what Sophos’s story was by the time I was working on The Queen of Attolia. What I didn’t realize then was that it would take an entire book to tell it. He changes so dramatically — from being something of a self-indulgent ninny to becoming a young man willing to own his flaws and persevere in spite of them — that I realized it would be a difficult alteration to believe in if it happened offstage, or occurred as the subplot of another book.

I didn’t have a road map. In fact, I wrote The Thief as a stand-alone, and it wasn’t until [librarian] Barbara Barstow asked me for a sequel that I considered where the story would go next. However, I did have all the characters and the circumstances for the stories, and I feel that what I’ve written since are just the consequences of those characters and those circumstances.

I knew, for example, that Eugenides would engage in more and more flamboyant exploits. I could have written several more books just about those, and I think they would have gotten steadily less appealing; the only really interesting change in his character would come when he got caught. It was inevitable that Gen, being Gen, he’d keep taking bigger risks until he took one too many, so in Queen of Attolia I decided to write about that part of his story.

2. Have you ever heard from a reader who guessed, say, Gen’s identity from the outset, or indeed saw through any of the misdirection you’re so famous for?

I’ve been astonished, not only that so many people were surprised, but that they kept, and still keep, their reviews spoiler free. Even reviewing journals like The Horn Book were quiet about Gen’s identity when The Thief first came out. It’s only recently that I’ve started to hear people say that they guessed, and I think that’s largely because they’ve had it drummed into them that there is a Major Twist coming and they should watch out for it. Just knowing that you should look is enough to make all the signposts pretty obvious.

The funniest side effect of people knowing there is a twist but not knowing exactly what it is: a number of readers have assumed Gen must be a girl in disguise right up until he strips down for a wash in the stable yard.

3. Your books yield even more riches on second readings. Do you consciously write for the re-reader?

It’s my hope that people who enjoy The Thief will have one experience the first time they read it and a whole new experience when they read it again. If people only read it once, I feel the book hasn’t succeeded on my terms. I always read my favorite books again and again, and most readers I know do that as well, so I wanted to write a book for that kind of reading.

4. Maps. Your books don’t have ’em. Why not?

Oh, maps are a painful question. I know that some readers want them and I understand why. But . . .

When I had the idea for The Thief, I knew that I wanted to set it in a world that looked nothing like Middle-earth. Given the ubiquity of Tolkien’s creation, that’s much more easily said than done. I eventually visited Greece and found there the landscape I was looking for. Now imagine that I drew a map of it, with little pointy chevrons to make the mountains, and bunches of circles to mark the forest, and a squiggly line for the river. That’s probably the best map I could produce (so entirely not an artist), and it would still look a lot like . . . Middle-earth. When I can come up with a better map, I’ll put one in.

Or then again, maybe I won’t. I used to want a map, but I am not sure that I do anymore. I am not convinced that a map makes a better reading experience. An easier experience but possibly not a better one. I’ll have to keep working on it, and see what turns up.

5. What do you say to critics who question your books’ appeal for child audiences?

Honestly, this question gets under my skin more and more. People with very little experience of children’s or YA books will sometimes write a review that praises the books in one line and denies that they are for children in the next. They usually have two reasons. The first is that they, as adults, have enjoyed the books, so obviously, they are not for children. More frustrating is that they, as adults, were confused on the first read, so obviously these books are not for children. Both judgments reflect a disturbing lack of respect for children. Sometimes, I think that children may be more willing to step up to a challenge than adults are.

And mea culpa, too. I wrote The Thief with my junior-high self in mind as a reader. I was a kid who read a lot, read fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, old books, new books, adult books. And that’s who I thought my audience was — confirmed readers. So I’ve been pleasantly taken aback by the letters from nonreaders who say that The Thief is the first book they ever finished and by the letters from ESL teachers who say that their kids have to work twice as hard to get through text, but they love the book.

I guess all I can say is that if you never give a kid the book, you can be pretty sure he’ll never read it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

— Martha V. Parravano


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Notes from the Horn Book, Volume 3, Number 12.
© 2010 by The Horn Book, Inc. A Media Source Company.


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