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NECBA Spring 2009 Top 10
First started in 1996, the New England Children's Bookseller's Advisory Council (NECBA) makes a bi-annual attempt to identify as many high-quality titles as possible from among the numerous new middle-grade and young-adult fiction books. NECBA booksellers read advanced reading copies (ARC's) from as many publishers as possible, and review and rate as many of as we can using The Chittenden Rating Scale. (The scale created by Carol Chittenden of the legendary Eight Cousins Bookstore in East Falmouth, MA.- Pat remembers visiting this bookstore when she & Alan lived in North Falmouth on the Cape prior to their sailing and barging adventures.)
The New England Children's Booksellers' Advisory Council is a voluntary organization dedicated to excellence in independent children's bookselling. They offer a support network to New England Independent Booksellers Association members who shares the goal of encouraging quality and service within the children's book industry, and also a means for helping NEIBA organize periodic educational programming.
Pat Fowler of Village Square Booksellers is a member of NECBA, and though she doesn't always get to contribute reviews to the project, she attends quarterly meetings. Many of the reviewers own or work at children's books-only bookstores - they're real pro's!
A suspenseful, realistic story of a young girl in an isolated polygamous community whose forced “engagement” to her 60-year-old blood uncle wakes her up to the truth about the religious leadership’s corrupt motives and controlling, misogynistic underpinnings. Ages 13+ ... Core audience: ages 13+ Notable: Premise, strong voice, interesting setting, timely subject handled beautifully Review: I bit the insides of my cheeks the whole time I was reading this suspenseful, realistic story of a young girl in an isolated polygamous community whose enforced “engagement” to her 60-year-old blood uncle wakes her up to the truth about the religious leadership’s corrupt motives and controlling, misogynistic underpinnings. Thirteen-year-old Kyra struggles to hold on to the love of her large family, even as she resists the chilling news that she is to marry cruel old Uncle Hyrum. She is just a young teen, and drawn to a teenage boy, but the elders of the community seem to take all of the young girls for themselves, running off (and worse) the young men who might be competition for both wives and power. The pressure to stay obedient takes both emotional and physical forms; what keeps Kyra's spirit from being broken are the books she secretly borrows from a bookmobile she's discovered driving along one of the compound's border roads, and her connection to a few very important people in her life. The power in this story lies in its warm, human depiction of Kyra’s family and the solid, though often complicated, love that connects them — which readers recognize as the same for all families, regardless of circumstances. Williams shows great delicacy with a subject that could lend itself to easy moralizing and caricature characters, but one of the most horrifying aspects of the story is that the over-the-top violence and craziness of the leaders’ actions mirror what has actually happened in communities like these across the country. (Doing a little research on the topic, I discovered several similar real-life news accounts, one of which in particular was frighteningly close to the events in The Chosen One.) Williams' writing is simple, spare, poetic, and light, which balances the seriousness of her subject matter. The age range is listed as 12-up, but this will be an intense read for some sixth graders. Spoiler alert: I had to skim a few pages, barely reading, because the disciplining of a very young child was so harrowing and helpless-making (but ultimately not as horrific as I'd feared), I just couldn’t stand it. Shabanu, a book with similar themes but a vastly different setting and context, might be a better choice for slightly younger readers, though it has also has an intense scene toward the end. You can't tackle difficult topics without facing the truth, can you? -- and although I speak as a complete outsider, it seems to me that Carol Lynch Williams has done an amazing job of bringing some ugly truths to light, while celebrating the resilience, love, and spirit of the young women who survive the experience. Reviewer: Elizabeth Bluemle, The Flying Pig Bookstore Rating: 9.0
Our unlikely hero, Greg Heffley, is a fairly average middle-schooler, and that's what makes him so great. Greg is always getting into trouble and scheming to find new ways to get out of homework and chores. ... Core audience: ages 9-14, grades 5-8 Notable: diary style, drawings Review: This third installment of the Wimpy Kid series certainly measures up. Our unlikely hero, Greg Heffley, is a fairly average middle-schooler, and that's what makes him so great. Through his hilarious hijinks and laugh-out-loud drawings, we get a glimpse into the world of this wimpy kid, who has to deal with such challenges as a dad who blasts classical music to scare away neighborhood teenagers and a best friend who isn't exactly the brightest crayon in the box. Greg is always getting into trouble and scheming to find new ways to get out of homework and chores. A great read for kids who don't like fantasy. Reviewer: Suzanna Hermans, Oblong Books & Music Rating: 9.0
As the only girl in a family of 6 brothers in 1899, Calpurnia’s life seems to be all planned out for her, but an attentive Callie has other things in mind. Definitely one to watch for next year’s Newbery! ... Core audience: Middle grade girls / fans of adventurous females i.e. Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn. Notable: Debut author Review: As the only girl in a family of 6 brothers in 1899, Calpurnias life seems to be all planned out for her. Her mother has decided she’s ready for cooking lessons in addition to the piano & sewing lessons already taking up her days. But an attentive Callie has other things in mind, like why there are more yellow grasshoppers than green ones in her yard that summer & what that patch of strange looking grass by the lake really is. Under the tutelage of her cantankerous grandfather (who is attempting to concoct a new type of beer from Pecans) she discovers a love of science & finds that life can be more fun if you simply open your eyes to the world around you. With each chapter starting off with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, this is an entertaining read-aloud of a feisty girl trying to make her own voice heard in a world that is changing fast. All of the characters are fully developed in their own little stories, from the oldest brothers’ first attempt at courting to her best friends’ fear of performing piano in public. Definitely one to watch for next years Newbery! Reviewer: Heather Doss, Bookazine Rating: 9.0
Micheal, Tommy, Mixer, and Bones aren't just from the wrong side of the tracks--they're from the wrong side of everything. Except for Mr. Haberman, their remedial English teacher, no one at their high school takes them seriously. Haberman calls them "gentlemen," but everyone else ignores them--or, in Bones's case, is dead afraid of them. When one of their close-knit group goes missing, the clues all seem to point in one direction: to Mr. Haberman. Gritty, fast-paced, and brutally real, this debut takes an unflinching look at what binds friends together--and what can tear them apart. ... Core audience: 15 and up Notable: Well-drawn suspense, great companion to Crime & Punishment Review: This debut novel is something like The Wednesday Wars meets The Outsiders — a school-based story focused around a group of semi-bad-boy buddies, the kind of teens who sit in the back of the class and direct their smarts toward out-of-school pursuits. When one of their number confronts a teacher and then disappears, the group begins to wonder if another teacher, their English instructor, might have something to do with his disappearance. Northrop expertly leads the reader through the unfolding of the mystery and its aftermath, set against the backdrop of a class studying Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. Literary parallels are not uncommon in YA literature, but this one is particularly well done. The author creates an impressive ramping up of suspense and realistic, not supernatural, horror — the kind we can get ourselves into, inch by inch, step by step, despite our best intentions. One of just a few one-sitting books I’ve come across this year. Reviewer: Elizabeth Bluemle, The Flying Pig Bookstore Rating: 9.25
The fourth hilarious title in Lowis Lowry's popular Gooney Birdseries! It's a cold January at the Watertower Elementary School--the perfect weather for Gooney Bird Greene to break out her special brain-warming hat! It's a good thing she has one. Gooney Bird's brain will need to be as warm as possible this month, because Mrs. Pidgeon is teaching her class about poetry. Who knew there could be so many different ways to write a poem? Haikus, couplets, limericks--Mrs. Pidgeon's students soon find that writing good poetry takes a lot of hard work and creative thinking. Gooney Bird and her classmates are up to the challenge. But just when things are going well, the kids get some terrible news. Gooney Bird will need all the inspiration her brain can muster to organize the most important poem the class has ever written. ... Core audience: ages 6-10, grades 1-4 Notable: Poetry, characters, emotional validity Review: That darned Lois Lowry. She can move me to tears with a 105-page second grade reader full of pedagogy. In this latest Gooney Bird Greene volume, Mrs. Pidgeon is teaching her class about poetry. But like the good teacher she is, she’s not so much teaching her students as she is helping them to learn. Gooney Bird claims she learns better when her brain is warm, a condition she creates with a hat that accommodates her pigtails – and looks suspiciously similar to a pair of ruffly green panties. Gooney’s so grave about it that everyone respects her choice in spite of themselves – even Mr. Leroy, the principal. There’s much more to the plot, but I don’t want to give it away, except to say that it demonstrates the power and comfort of poetry more clearly than anything besides Love That Dog and Hate that Cat. Each of the Gooney Bird Greene books could stand alone perfectly well, but up to the present, I believe this one is my favorite. Reviewer: Carol B. Chittenden, Eight Cousins Rating: 9.0
In a single moment, "everything" changes. Seventeenyear- old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck... A sophisticated, layered, and heartachingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all makeaand the ultimate choice Mia commands. ... Core audience: 14 and up Primarily Girls Notable: Strong Musical Elements, Lots of tragic pathos Review: If Aristotle had reviewed Gayle Forman’s If I Stay in his Poetics as an exemplar of Young Adult tragic fiction, he would almost certainly have expressed great displeasure. After all, he considered the proper engine for pathos to be the fall of an otherwise virtuous person based upon a single tragic flaw, whereas If I Stay works strongly to evoke pathos from arbitrary tragic circumstances befalling its teenage heroine, Mia. Forman begins her novel by deftly drawing Mia’s sympathetic family and then sending them off to a car accident on a snowy road, in which her parents die straightway and her seven-year-old brother lingers in the hospital. Mia, a gifted musician, is herself badly injured. Prior to the accident she had stressed out over the prospect of leaving behind her wonderful boyfriend, rock star musician Adam, for a prestigious music academy. In the wake of her tragedy, the term “if I stay” takes on fresh meaning. If If I Stay were a 10-meter platform dive, it would start out with a low degree of difficulty, given the benefit of all that tragic material, but Forman pulls it off amazingly well. The characters are clearly drawn and our sympathies are engaged on many levels. Mia narrates the book from a state of heightened awareness as she lies in a hospital bed, seemingly unconscious. This unusual narrative device conveys a vital immediacy much like that found in Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral. In the end, as we listen through Mia’s ears to Adam’s wrenching plea that she stay, one part of our mind is registering that Adam is an impossibly good guy, but somehow it doesn’t matter. If I Stay is a tearjerker that works because it is both heartfelt and tightly constructed. Teen readers should be more than ready to incur Aristotle’s wrath and join booksellers in embracing this fantastic new book. Reviewer: Kenny Brechner, DDG Booksellers Rating: 9.0
Set in 1968 Chicago, this powerful debut novel follows 13-year-old Sam Childs, the son of a known civil rights activist who questions the possibility of change after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick's bed, he's not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore. Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect chnage without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he's involved in something far more serious -- and more dangerous -- than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river? ... Core audience: ages 9-14, grades 5-8 Notable: historical fiction, civil rights Review: In The Rock and the River, we meet Sam, a 13-year-old growing up in 1968 Chicago. Sam is the son of a prominent civil rights activist: a man whom he loves and respects greatly. Sam's older brother, Stick, begins to drift away from the family, becoming more and more secretive about his whereabouts and activities. Sam discovers literature about the Black Panther party under Stick's bed, and decides to confront his brother. What ensues is a conflict of ideology that nearly tears their family apart. The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon is a compelling read, with strong characters and a vivid backdrop of Chicago in the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Reviewer: Suzanna Hermans, Oblong Books & Music Rating: 9.0
Mrs. Bunny Starch, the most feared biology teacher ever, was last seen during a field trip to Black Vine Swamp. The school's headmaster and the police seem to have accepted the sketchy, unsigned note explaining that her absence is due to a "family emergency." There's no real evidence of foul play. But still, Nick and Marta don't buy it. Something weird is definitely going on. Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the "Miami Herald "and is the author of many bestselling books, including "Sick Puppy," "Nature Girl," and "The Downhill Lie." He lives in Florida. ... Core audience: boys and girls grades 6-8 Notable: humor, suspense, environmental issues, sensitivity to others' feelings Review: A much disliked and feared biology teacher goes missing during a class field trip in the swamps of the Everglades. There us a fire that abruptly puts an end to the trip. The class "delinquent" with a history is blamed then truly framed. As with most of Hiassen's stories, there are the dishonest developers (of oil this time!) and plenty of caring enviromentalists. The endangered black panther also makes an appearance. Nick and Marta display plenty of chutzpa and courage in trying to find out what happened to their missing teacher and clear their classmate of the unfair arson charges. Of special interest is the fact that Nick's father returns from his National Guard stint in Iraq with a missing arm. Nick has his own right arm taped up in a move of solidarity with his Dad. Together they try to strengthen their left arms with the backyard baseball practice they have always shared. There is something for everyone here. Despite some "too easy" personality changes and a totally unbelievable substitute teacher , a good choice for middle grade teachers to use in the classroom. Reviewer: Sue Carita, The Toadstool Bookshop Rating: 8.5
And the first runner up is... When Dara Cohen was little, she was a bright, shiny star. She was the cutest seven-year-old who ever sang Ella Fitzgerald, and it was no wonder she was crowned Little Miss Maine. That was then. Now Dara's seventeen and she's not so little anymore. So "not" little, that when her classmates find out about her illustrious resume, their jaws drop. That's just one of her many problems. Another is that her control-freak mom won't get off her case about anything. Yet the one that hurts the most is the family secret: Dara has an older sister her parents tried to erase from their lives. When a disastrously misinterpreted English project lands her in the counselor's office--and her parents pull her out of school to save face--Dara realizes she has a decision to make. She can keep following the rules and being misunderstood, or she can finally reach out to the sister she's never met--a sister who lives on a collective goat farm in Massachusetts. Dara chooses B. What follows is a summer of revelations, some heartbreaking, some joyous; of friendship, romance, a local beauty pageant; and choices. And as autumn approaches, Dara finds she may have to let go of everything she's taken for granted in order to figure out who she really is, and what family really means. ... Core audience: Girls, 12 and up Notable: Debut novel, set in New England - starts in Portland and ends up in western Mass Review: When Dara Cohen was little, she was a singing sensation and brought home the Little Miss Maine crown. Now she's 17 and not so little anymore. When an autobiographical film project is horribly misinterpreted, she is hauled out of school by her controlling mother and set to finish up her semester at home, in between trips to her new counselor. This is where Dara says enough. She road trips to a collective goat farm in Massachusetts to stay with the sister no one talks about and she has never met. There are so many books with teens about self-image and I really appreciated this one because Dara emerges from her summer a better, changed person, but its not because she miraculously lost weight and became perfect looking. I think the book deals with her issues realistically and better still, there's blossoming romance, a lesbian sister and gay best friend, and still another pageant, to keep the story going. Reviewer: Laura Lucy, White Birch Books Rating: 9
Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friendas restless spirit. In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Liaas descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery. ... Core audience: ges 14+, girls Notable: Eating Disorders, Cutting, Recovery Review: Laurie Halse Anderson's newest novel has blown me away. Though I confess it is the first book of hers that I've read, the minute I was finished I couldn't wait to devour everything she has written. Lia and Cassie have been friends for years, but when Cassie is found dead in a hotel room Lia's life begins to spiral out of control. Both girls had been battling eating disorders, and Lia's anorexia begins to take over as she is haunted by the spirit of her friend. This haunting novel will surely become the go-to book for eating disorder recovery in older teens. In that respect, it is important to note that it does not glamorize anorexia or bulimia. Lia is a smart girl whose disease begins to overpower her, and through her eyes we see her desperation and frustration with the system. I dare say this is one of the best books I've ever read. Suzanna Hermans, Oblong Books & Music Rating: 10