I have never been very good at all that best / best of / ten best BS. My little mind has trouble finding a common metric between different books. How can you say whether the silly and charming linear narrative of Sophie's Squash is "better" or "worse" than - for example - the dreamlike, lyrical Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue?
Which illustrations are better? DOES NOT COMPUTE.
I try, though - as previously mentioned, I'm a first-round Cybils judge and I will help pick a shortlist of the best picture books of the year, but oh I am so glad I'm not in the group that has to narrow it down to one.
Instead, I thought I'd run down the reading experiences that made the deepest impressions on me this year. GOOD and BAD. GET READY.
In order to be extra-arbitrary, these are listed in order of how many words are in the title.
Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick
Memorable because: Wholly unexpected. Magic realism in Manhattan? Trailer park Cinderella? I laughed out loud, and adored the over-the-top fanciness, (which is probably actually not that far beyond the realm of reality, given some of the eye-poppingly extravagant excesses I saw when I lived in NYC). Also memorable because the first 50 or so pages are - it must be said - a crazy mess, but then the story accelerates into this blistering arc, sucking meditations on everything from the monarchy to consumerism into its sparkling contrail.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Won't forget this one soon because: Sigh. Teenage daughter of a free-spirited foodie grows up in the kitchen, at farm stands, in restaurants, and on trips. And I love Lucy Knisley's winsome, straightforward drawing style. Plus recipes!
Scowler by Daniel Kraus
Just say the title of this book and watch me freeze up. I love the bright, dust-moted haze that Daniel Kraus seems to write in. I don't know how he does it, but it goes like this: as the extraordinary plot of a Daniel Kraus novel unfolds, complete with meteors or graverobbing, grievous injury, drugs, and insane people, our belief is never strained. The mood is numbed and nightmare-y, but with clear beautiful details and textures (lots of texture). You can't tell anyone what the book was about, just like you can't tell people what your dream was about, or else they'll think you're badly weird, or are trying to get them into bed.
Moonday by Adam Rex
I won't forget reading this book for the first time because: I was at home by myself, surrounded by the random cherished detritus of my family. In this book, the moon comes down into the backyard of a small family and becomes part of that family's detritus - awkward but miraculous, ethereally beautiful but also a physical, solid reality in their lives.
This book is so light, light in a lovely, slow, dancing way. It is quiet like snow falling and branches creaking and little taps of chalk on chalkboard. It's like a nice song playing on a radio through a window down the street. It made my boys snuggle up closer to me when I read it to them.
Inhuman by Kat Falls
Sticks in the brain because: Hey! Our girl hero is scared to death when she breaches the giant wall that separates her safe and sanitized city from the plague-ravaged wilderness, but she does so to save her father. Kat Falls did a slam-bang sci-fi / Western mashup in Dark Life, and now Inhuman is the best fairy-tale themed sci-fi that I've read this year: it's not arch, it's not cute - reading it felt like reading the bit in Rapunzel when the selfish mother sends her hapless husband into the enchantress's garden because she must have greens. A knife edge of dread runs through it. Characters in Inhuman are tough or insane or conflicted, AND there is an evil queen. She even wears a fur cape.
Henry's Hand by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald's super-smooth gradients and hefty volumes are reminiscent of a style that I think kind of never existed. His drawings somehow evoke The Honeymooners and Howdy Doody, and this new book, a story about a great guy who just happens to be stitched together from parts, and his right hand, who gets fed up with doing all the work, is the best match yet for his wonderful, friendly style.
Bad Machinery Volume 1: The Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison
Webcomic turned graphic novel, second print installment due out in March. Laugh out loud moments, neighborhood mystery, dry British wit. My sons love this and so do I.
Also Known As by Robin Benway
Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi
I keep meaning to do a list of best sidekick / best friend characters in children's and young adult literature. And the best friend in Robin Benway's teen caper novel Also Known As, pill-popping reckless little rich girl Roux, is at the top of that list. As is Rabi's friend Joe, who is also reckless and loyal, and whose knowledge of zombies and comics comes in pretty handy in Zombie Baseball Beatdown.
Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder
Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale
These two books were memorable because I had specific expectations about them, and I was surprised.
I read my friend Laurel's new book Seven Stories Up in manuscript form, prepared to loyally adore it. I should have known better. Friendship ain't got nothing to do with how much I enjoyed this book. It happens every time actually - whenever I've read one of Laurel's excellent middle grade novels I've been grabbed up into the story and sent back in time.
Reading Seven Stories Up turned me into a captivated kid, eagerly turning pages of my printed-out PDF, holding hands with Annie and Molly as they explored 1930's Baltimore and the grand hotel where Molly makes her home, oblivious to everything else. Kids read with that kind of intensity - my son Milo falls into a book so hard it's like he's not even in the room, but it rarely happens to me anymore.
I expected to enjoy the newest installment of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales for all the usual reasons - funny nonfiction done up in meticulous drawings - but I sort of failed to take into account just exactly how miserable and hopeless conditions must have been for the stranded Donner Party in order for them to resort to butchering, cooking, and consuming their fellow travelers. Sticks with you, does this story.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
This is Ezra's pick for Most Memorable. "It really gave better knowledge on disabilities and how people with disabilities are treated worse or differently than other people. You could really touch into all the stuff that was happening to Melody. I don't know if Sharon Draper really knows what she's talking about with all of that, because I don't believe she has CP, but it's a really good book."
The Rule of Three by Eric Walters
I will not forget how this book epitomizes one aspect of (usually older) sci fi novels written by (usually older) men, and how angry it makes me.
One day, everything that relies on computers to run stops working. Nobody knows what's going on, and as alarm begins to turn to panic, the neighborhood looks to teenage Adam's mom, the police chief, to tell them what to do. Except NOT. Adam's elderly neighbor Herb is an ex-government operative, a flinty type prepared for anything and surprised by nothing.
Chief Mom is absolutely marginalized and subverted by Herb as walls are erected, weapons stockpiled, and lawns converted into farmland. And it would be one thing if Herb was doing this because he was treacherous or bigoted, but it is clear that the author doesn't think Chief Mom is up to the "tough decisions" that Herb makes either. I don't think she even fires a gun in the entire book - her job is to express doubt or make soothing noises.
The last straw was this: Adam's girlfriend Lori is the only child of a farm family the community has taken in. Ergo, she is one of exactly three people who know anything about farming, an activity the neighborhood must learn - and quickly - if they are to become self-sufficient. However, when a daycare center (kids, look! it's the famous daycare center cliche of postapoc fiction!) is proposed, Adam thinks it sounds like something Lori might be interested in. Because chicks automatically dig little kids? UGH. SHE HAS A JOB, JACKASS. She's busy teaching the women and children how to milk cows so that you don't STARVE.
Talker 25 by Joshua McCune
The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E. K. Johnston
I will not forget the moment I realized that contemporary dragon fantasy had totally arrived.
In Talker 25, the dragons come from nobody knows where and they are vastly destructive and have been contained on reservations. The military has been completely rejiggered to cope with the threat they represent, and even popular culture has been sucked into the dragon paranoia, with the most popular show on TV a dragon-hunting reality show.
Teenage Melissa discovers that the dragons she has always feared and hated might not be all bad when she finds that she is a rare "talker" - a person who can communicate telepathically with the beasts. She is captured herself, of course, and here's about where we fall into Hunger Games-type political drama and possible terrorist allegory? There's also quite a lot of torture - although it does at least pass the Bechdel Test. But all in all, I was left very uncomfortable about where that allegory was going.
The Story of Owen is a dragon of a different color. The dragons have always been here (of course), and so have the dragonslayers. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, dragonslayers have been hired away from their towns and villages to work for big corporations.
Yup, there's a lot of ground to be covered, but all this wonderful, funny, imaginative alternative history is deftly slotted into a great contemporary friendship story about Owen, destined to be a heroic dragonslayer, and Siobhan, a talented musician who gets kind of caught up in Owen's destiny. It's not like that though - one of the many pleasures of this book is the bantering exploration of the relationship between hero and sidekick. Mmm!
These were not my only memorable reads of 2013 - just the ones I didn't manage to review on Pink Me. Other great ones that I did review include Wise Young Fool, Man Made Boy, and Proxy - these are special books indeed.
All right then. What are the books that made the most lasting impression on you this year? Let me know - and here's hoping that 2014 offers just as many if not more memorable reads.