I am so very tired of easy chapter books getting ignored in "Best of 2014" book lists. Writing a great read for beginning chapter book readers is difficult, and it's a shame that they get overlooked for the 300+ paged novels. Claudia Mills has created some of the finest easy chapter books, and she continues her awesomeness in her Franklin School Friends series. Annika Riz, Math Whiz (#2 in the series) loves math, but her friends just don't see how fun math can be! In between preparing for the library's Sudoku competition and the school carnival, she discovers that a serious math mistake could harm the carnival festivities. Super big thumbs up for portraying enthusiasm and aptitude for math as something normal and achievable for everyone, not to mention the humor and realistic portrayals of elementary school kids. 2015 will bring two additions to this delightful series, featuring Annika's friends, running star Izzy and spelling champ Simon.
I cannot tell you how much I adore the Bad Kitty series. Tons of humor, liberally sprinkled with illustrations to interest reluctant readers of chapter books, and educational matter seamlessly presented in inventive ways throughout the story. Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble is quite meta, in that Bad Kitty finally goes head to head with her creator, Nick Bruel. Bad Kitty is not at all happy with how the plot progresses in her story (especially since it involves turnips). Each Bad Kitty novel includes information about the subject at hand; this one introduces children to the process of writing and illustrating books. We just received the latest Bad Kitty chapter book (2015 publication!), featuring Bad Kitty's nemesis, Poor Puppy (this one features information about dog behavior and dog care!).
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond is a sweet, heartfelt, and believable story about a biracial girl who bridges the gap between her Caucasian mother and her African-American grandmother. Stories about children "discovering their heritage" can be preachy and boring to young readers; this has plenty of captivating characters and enough drama (but not overly so) to keep readers turning the pages.
I love, love, love Cynthia Lord (luckily, she has a forthcoming 2015 novel! squee!). Half a Chance takes place in Lord's beloved Maine and features the importance of friendship, family, community, adventures and hobbies, as is common in Lord's novels. Lucy's father is an accomplished photographer, so it's no surprise that she is a budding talented photographer. Lucy spends her summer making friends with the children in her new lakeside community (a story line involving tension with a local girl adds realistic drama) and taking photos for a nationwide photography contest. Although the conclusion stretches credulity a tad (for me), it's a beautifully created coming of age story (and a great summertime read!).
Not only did Cynthia Lord publish the fabulous Half a Chance in 2014, but she also released a new easy chapter book series! Jelly Bean (Shelter Pet Squad #1) introduces readers to animal-loving Suzannah, who unfortunately cannot have pets due to restrictions at her apartment complex. Luckily, a community service project gives her the chance to volunteer at the local animal shelter with her friends. Lord is doing serious research for this series (she recently posted updates on her Facebook page for Shelter Pet Squad #2), and it shows. Most notably is that the children are restricted in what they can or cannot do at the shelter due to their age (i.e. no walking or feeding dogs). The financial strains in Suzannah's life are realistically depicted, but in an age-appropriate manner. Suzannah meets a devastated little girl forced to surrender her guinea pig when her family moves and promises that she will find Jelly Bean (another adorable animal character from the creator of Hot Rod Hamster) a home; due to the issues presented in this story, it's more mature than other easy chapter book series, but they don't overburden the story.
Although The Lion Who Stole My Arm is a short novel (under 100 pages), don't let its length deceive you into thinking that this is a light read. (2014 for me was all about the short novels, apparently.) Pedru's ambitions to be a great hunter like his father are dashed when he loses an arm in a lion attack. Pedru vows to find the lion and take revenge, but will he change his mind when he finally gets the opportunity to confront the lion? Davies balances the need for the community and their livestock to be protected from the lions and the concern about encroachment upon the lions' natural habitat. Western conservationists and community members work together and educate each other, which is the preferred working arrangement in some areas of conservation.
I love Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, and it's really too bad that it's not eligible for the Newbery (Karen Foxlee lives in Australia). Ophelia is a scientifically-minded eleven year old who cannot abide anything that smacks of the supernatural; finding a boy locked in the museum at which her father works turns everything upside down. I am not a huge fantasy fan, but I was bowled over by this book. (And it's under 300 pages! It's not a bloated fantasy novel!)
Revolution (and Deborah Wiles) may have its detractors, but I think, in spite of its flaws, it is an incredible achievement. Although I don't think it is as strong as Countdown (the secondary material needs to be cut back), Wiles's depiction of a young girl whose worldview is challenged by the arrival of Freedom Riders in her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi, is authentic and incredible. Her relationship with her stepmother is one of the best depictions of a stepchild-stepparent relationship I have read in a long time. I don't know when the conclusion of the Sixties Trilogy will be published, but I cannot wait to read it. The final pages of Revolution point to the final book taking place on the West Coast and focusing on the emerging peace movement (the trilogy started on the East Coast in New Jersey, so it makes sense that it ends on the West Coast in California).
Saving Kabul Corner is a companion novel to Shooting Kabul, but it's not necessary to read them in order. American-born Ariana does not see eye-to-eye with cousin Laila, who recently arrived from Afghanistan. When Ariana's family-owned Afghani grocery store faces competition from a rival store, the cousins band together to save the store. This is a richly imagined story about family and heritage, but there's also a mystery subplot that will keep readers on edge.
I probably should have put Brown Girl Dreaming in the nonfiction post, but I needed more titles in my poetry section! Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse is an astonishing achievement in a distinguished writing career. Her memories of growing up in both rural South Carolina and urban New York City is an eye-opening account of the segregation era. Her relationships with her family, especially her grandparents, are complex and ever-changing. This won the Young People's Literature division of the National Book Awards, and deservedly so.
Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems has won acclaim for Melissa Sweet's vibrant illustrations; this is a Caldecott favorite for many, and it's definitely on my short list! This very attractive volume includes selections from classic poets such as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Carl Sandburg, but also creations by modern children's authors such as Charlotte Zolotow and Joyce Sidman.
Joyce Sidman's poetry collections are extraordinary; not only are the poems joyous to read, but the illustrations are amazingly intricate and the short informational notes that accompany each poem are fascinating. Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold follows animals as they prepare and endure the winter.
Next week, I'll highlight my favorite young adult reads and graphic novels (children, young adult, and adult).
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library