And so, as promised, here are a few of the books (in the categories of ‘Children’s Literature’ and ‘YA Literature’), read over the past year, which made enough of an impression on me to stick in my memory. As with my previous list, they’re not all books published in the last twelve months, for reasons pecuniary and otherwise, but maybe some of them will be new to you anyway.
Favourite Reads of 2013
I read R.J. Palacio’s Wonder in one sitting, like taking a long drink of water on a hot day. The story of a young boy named August who has a facial deformity – and, crucially, of his sister Olivia (or ‘Via’) who struggles to cope with her feelings surrounding August’s condition, and the way people treat him as a result – it’s a beautiful little book. Some critics have called it ‘maudlin’ and ‘over-the-top,’ and, to a certain extent, it is, but I loved it anyway. I loved August, and his wonderful voice, and I really loved the way we hear from Olivia, too, and how she deals with her own feelings of jealousy (because August is ‘the special child’), as well as her overprotective tendencies and her absolute devotion to her brother. Some of the characters, particularly the adults, are a little one-dimensional in this story, but that’s not even important. This book is not about adults – it’s about one little boy, doing the best he can with what he has. Its catchphrase, ‘Always be Kinder than Necessary,’ is something I particularly remember from my experience of reading it.
I finally managed to read Frances Hardinge’s Verdigris Deep this year, too. In contrast to her other novels, this one is set in a contemporary setting, and tells the story of Ryan, Chelle and Josh who, when stuck for money to pay for the bus home one night, steal some old coins from an abandoned wishing well. From that moment on, their lives begin to change. Strange events start happening, and – in a brilliantly creepy piece of ‘body horror’, white bumps start to erupt on Ryan’s hands, which turn out to be more than just a skin infection. Then, Ryan begins to have visions of a woman who tries to speak through a torrent of water gushing out of her mouth, and he understands enough to know that this is the Well Witch, and by stealing her coins the youngsters are now bound to do her will. Ryan and Chelle try to break the spell and release themselves from the Witch’s bonds, but Josh seems to enjoy the new-found power that granting the Well Witch’s wishes gives him, and breaking him out of it is not so easy… An utterly brilliant book, ‘Verdigris Deep’ is a quick read by comparison with Frances Hardinge’s other work, which tends to be set in fantastical times and places with huge amounts of world-building. That doesn’t mean I loved it any less than her other books – on the contrary, it has become my second favourite, behind ‘A Face Like Glass.’
All Fall Down and Ways to Live Forever are novels by Sally Nicholls, and they couldn’t be more different – well, besides the fact that they both deal with death, that is. ‘All Fall Down’ is set in England during the time of the Black Death, and tells the story of Isabel and her family, who live in a small village called Ingleforn. They are peasant farmers, but seem happy – Isabel is part of a loving family, and her future has already been mapped out for her. She will marry Robin, her childhood friend, and they will raise their family the same way her parents have raised her, and so on forevermore.
Then, the pestilence comes, and everything changes.
This story isn’t so much about ‘suspense’, because anyone who knows anything about the Plague will understand what’s going to happen. It’s more a story about family, bonds between people, the sheer human tragedy of the death toll during 1348-9, and one teenage girl’s indomitable will to survive.
Ways to Live Forever is the story of Sam, who is an eleven-year-old cancer patient. He is inquisitive and wants to know everything he can – and there’s so much he wants to do before his time comes to die. He makes a list, and then his doctor tells him he has much less time left than he thought… This book made me cry in great shuddering sobs, but it’s still one of my favourite reads this year. Sam made a little nest in my heart, and he’ll never leave. I loved it, but it’s a challenging read if you’re emotional. Fair warning.
Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines was finally read by me this year. How did I leave this one so long? Heck knows. Anyway, we’re in a world where cities move on huge tracks, trundling across the land devouring one another when they can, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism rules all – the town which moves the fastest lives the longest. One of New London’s chief Historians, Thaddeus Valentine – a man seen as a hero by most everybody – is the victim of an attempted assassination by a young girl with a hideous scar running across her face. Valentine is saved at the last moment by the heroic actions of a young Historian, Tom Natsworthy, but when Tom he sees the young would-be assassin, the passion and hate in her eyes intrigue him. When she flings herself off the moving city, presumably to her death, Tom follows her. What follows is a story of intrigue, conspiracy, airships, battle, resurrected corpses used as unbeatable soldiers, heroism and sacrifice which stands with the very best SF, let alone SF aimed at young adult readers. It’s an amazing book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the series.
The novels of David Walliams were a present last Christmas, and I devoured them with great glee. The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny, Billionaire Boy and Mr Stink have lots of things in common, including compelling and lovable protagonists, several recurring characters, a focus on family and love, and not making snap judgements about people based on their appearance, and to top all that off they’re well written and extremely funny. I haven’t yet read Walliams’ new books, Ratburger or The Demon Dentist, but I plan to. If you’re looking for a gift for a child from about 7 or 8, or you just want to laugh your socks off (and cry a little, too), you can’t go wrong with these.
A few runners up:
I also read The Fault in Our Stars, along with the rest of the world, and I wept (like everyone else), but it wasn’t one of my favourite books this year, for a lot of reasons; I read The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket and enjoyed it right up to the end, which I felt was a disappointment; I finished Veronica Roth’s YA series which began with Divergent and was left a little underwhelmed by the conclusion (in Allegiant, the third book in the series.) ‘Allegiant’ is unnecessarily long, I thought, and the double-narration style is difficult to follow because the voices sound exactly the same.
So, there you have it. My list of favourite reads, as of today. Hopefully I’ve given you some gift ideas, or even some reading ideas, or maybe I’ve bored your socks off. Either way, happy Tuesday!
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