published in the News and Observer and Charlotte Observer, 11/19/16
For 30 years Susie Wilde has been reviewing children’s books for various media (including her monthly column in this section), hosting workshops for teachers and would-be writers of children’s books, working with students in classrooms, libraries and community centers. For the past 20 years, she has presented her Wilde Awards, which recognizes the diversity of voice, characters and plots in 2016’s best picture books and novels. The list is a good place to start when you’re considering books as gifts this holiday season. Here is a sample of her suggestions.
“Dogman,” Dav Pilkey (Graphix, ages 7-10): What would happen if the creators of “Captain Underpants” collaborated on a new series? Hilarity of word and illustration in a graphic novel that stars a canine crimefighter tracking a felonious feline.
“Inspector Flytrap,” Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell (Amulet, ages 6-9): What could be zanier than a carnivorous plant detective and an assistant of an always-hungry goat assistant? Ridiculous humor peppered with wacky pictures.
“Sam the Man & the Chicken Plan,” Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum, ages 6-9): Sam is an inventive character who lives in a warm family in a diverse neighborhood. Small realistic incidents are amusing, relatable, and will ready early readers ready for more in this new series.
“Waylon: One More Thing,”Sara Pennypacker (Hyperion, ages 6-9): Waylon is the “scienciest” fourth-grader. He’s also an empath who suffers as his middle school sister goes goth and his class divides into factions.
“Weekends with Max and Dad,” Linda Urban (HMH, ages 7-9): Max and his father adjust during the first three weekends they spend together after Max’s father has moved out. Imagination, humor and warmth dominate, but the author doesn’t shy away from the struggles.
Returning heroes: Kate Dicamillo, “Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?” (Candlewick); Shannon Hale, “The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation” (Candlewick), Abby Hanlon, “Dory and the Real True Friend” (Puffin)
“All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook,” Leslie Connor (HarperCollins, ages 9-12): Perry is an 11-year-old whose unspoiled innocence comes from being tenderly raised in a co-ed correctional facility. When an insensitive ruthless district attorney gets Perry removed from his home, the irony is painful. As Perry’s mother burns with fury at legalities separating her from her son, Perry seeks the truth behind his mother’s imprisonment. The poignant story unites themes of truth, justice, family and home.
“The Best Man,” Richard Peck (Dial, ages 9-12): 12-year-old Archer Magill bookends his story with two weddings. In between is strong storytelling that shows an eccentric family, three beloved male role models, and a boy who is a bit slow on the social uptake. Peck excels on pacing, refrains and the balance of humor, wit and stunning characterizations.
“The Inquisitor’s Tale,” Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, ages 9-12): Ten 13th century travelers meet at an inn and recount tales of three gifted young heroes- a peasant girl with visions, a Jewish boy and a strong young monk of African descent. The lively adventurous tale meshes humor and darkness, prejudices and beliefs, legend and truth in a structure reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales.
“It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel,” Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion, ages 9-12): 11-year-old Zomorod (Cindy) Yousefzadeh negotiate the disparities of her Persian home and the 1978 California culture in which she lives. Racism and insensitivity remain subtle until Khomeini takes American hostages. History, humor and heartache combine seamlessly.
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day,” John David Anderson (HarperCollins, ages 8-11): This light read strengthens and deepens as three sixth-graders leave frivolity behind to honor their teacher, Ms. Bixby, who must start cancer treatment. Amid humor and adventure, the boys’ situations and collaborative power become clear as does the reason for their devotion to this life-changing teacher.
“Pax,” Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollins, ages 8-12): Peter’s pet fox is Pax and boy and animal are inseparable until war comes and Peter must live with his grandfather and set the fox free. Alternating chapters recount their parallel journeys to selfhood. This haunting story emphasize themes of war, sacrifice and survival, and lead the protagonists into their fullness.
“Raymie Nightingale,” Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, ages 10-12): 10-year-old Raymie becomes part of the “three rancheros” who are competing for the title of Little Miss Central Florida. DiCamillo again excels at quirky, colorful characters and the mix of harsh truths and magical realism.
“Unbound: A Novel in Verse,” Anne E. Burg (Scholastic, ages 9-12): Heartbreakingly beautiful versified voice reveals the intelligence of Grace who, promises to “keep her eyes down” and mouth shut when she’s taken to the Big House. Learning her mother and brothers will be taken to auction means beginning a new life in the Great Dismal Swamp.
“When Mischief Came to Town,” Katrina Nannestad (HMH, ages 8-11): Rascally Inge Maria arrives on the quiet island of Bornholm in Denmark in 1911 to live with her strict grandmother and wreaks havoc while fighting gender stereotypes and winning the hearts of the island’s inhabitants. The book has a lovely old-fashioned feel and strong, deep undertones.
“The Wild Robot,” Peter Brown (Little Brown, ages 8-10): The fantastical blossoms in the natural world when a robot, ROZZUM unit 7134 (Roz), crashes on a small island. First seen as a monster to the animal inhabitants, Roz becomes a friend. Strong themes of adaptation and survival of fittest are handled with a light touch. Be prepared for a tearful ending.
“Wolf Hollow,” Lauren Wolk (Dutton, ages 9-12): 11-year-old Annabelle. Annabelle lives on a quiet Pennsylvania farm with loving parents until she faces the menace of bully Betty Glengarry. Simultaneously, World War II prejudices transform her peaceful town into one that is suspicious and ugly. When the town’s cruelty turns on a homeless, kindly World War I veteran, Annabelle’s innocence fades and she’s determined to make a stand.
“Anna and the Swallow Man,” Gavriel Savit (Knopf, ages 13 and up): Seven-year-old Anna’s father, a linguistic professor, never returns from a meeting with the Nazis who are swarming Krakow. Days pass before Anna, left alone, meets an enigmatic stranger who know as many languages as she, more perhaps, for he seems to speak swallow. The Swallow Man leads Anna on a meandering journey through Poland teaching rules of survival in a country overrun by wolves (Nazis) and bears (Russians). Savit’s lyrical language and thought-provoking writing contrast with the stark setting. His convincing characters are startlingly real in a haunting book with a mysterious, metaphoric, mythic tone.
“Beware That Girl”, Teresa Toten (Delacorte, ages 13 and up): Kate O’Brien, a scholarship senior at a wealthy Manhattan school, will do anything to get to Harvard, including being friends with popular, wealthy Olivia Sumner, who seems more a mark than BFF. Complexity builds when a gorgeous new school administrator seeks an alliance with each of the girls for unclear reasons. Twists and turns abound in this fast-moving psychological thriller.
“Burn Baby Burn,” Meg Medina (Candlewick, ages 13 and up): 17-year-old Nora Lopez’s home has communication problems. Her mother speaks little English and doesn’t discipline Nora’s abusive brother Hector.Frustrations and worries escalate in the tensions of 1977’s blackouts, lootings and the Son of Sam murders. Overly responsible Nora come to terms with independence, love, and keeping family secrets.
“The Great American Whatever,” Tim Federle (Simon and Schuster, ages 13 and up): 16-year-old Quinn Roberts lost his smart sassy voice and script-writing gift with his movie-making sister’s death. Federle’s first YA brims with a winning blend of humor, darkness, smart dialogues and well-chosen imagery.
“Julia Vanishes,” Catherine Egan (Knopf, ages 13 and up): Spira City is a dangerous place. Serial killers and nocturnal beasts roam the streets at night and anyone can be drowned for being a witch. 16-year-old orphan, Julia, earns her keep with cons and thieves because of her amazing gift to “go unseen.” Collecting clues in the secretive house of a powerful, enigmatic woman puts Julia in peculiar, puzzling situations. Lyrical writing provides as much escape as book’s mystery and tension.
“The Lie Tree,” Frances Hardinge (Amulet, ages 14 and up): 14-year-old Faith Sunderly’s intelligence and curiosity have been constrained by her stern father, self-consumed mother and 19th century gender mores. She explodes into being when she discovers a magical truth-telling plant might solve her father’s murder. Science, mystery, history, fantasy combine with beautiful writing in this gripping, haunting novel.
“Rebel of the Sands,” Alwyn Hamilton (Viking, ages 12 and up): Wild West and the Arabian Nights mesh in the Amani’s world where djinn and mythical beasts are not just characters in the stories her murdered mother once told. Adventure, humor, romance, and a huge cast of realistic and magical characters bode well for this series start.
“The Serpent King,” Jeff Zentner (Crown, ages 14 and up): The impending separation of three graduating seniors who have mutually supported each other’s coming of age in a narrow rural town thrusts all three characters into self-examination and finding independence. Readers see the strengths of each and the constancy of their enduring affection woven into the powerful alternating viewpoints and heartbreaking ending.
“Still Life with Tornado,” A.S. King (Dutton, ages 13 and up): Sarah, always renewed by art, can no longer draw or attend school. Encountering versions of herself at different ages further complicates her confusion. King skillfully transitions between realities as Sarah’s tamped-down traumas remake her world.
“The Sun is Also a Star,” Nicola Yoon (Delacorte, ages 12 and up): Natasha, an illegal Jamaican teen is full of raw and seething emotions that only increase as she learns she may have only one day left her New York home before being deported. Korean-American Daniel, usually calm, is stirred by an unexplainable, instant attraction to Natasha. In one day, their relationship changes from rebuff to love and then heartbreak. Alternating chapters add internal views of the many characters’ past, present and futures.
“Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age In Palestine,” Ibtisam Barakat (FSG, ages 11 and up): This engrossing memoir continues “Tasting the Sky.” Lyricism and painful detailing continues as does the tenseness of 1970’s occupied West Ban and the strongly motivated heroine.
“Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story,” Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda, ages 11 and up): A readable narrative brings alive Sachiko’s life and family as well as historical settings and personages that provide context.
“We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Adolf Hitler,” Russell Freedman (Clarion, ages 11 and up): Poignant photographs and powerful writing tell the story of young Hans and Sophie Scholl, who formed a student resistance movement against Hitler’s cruelty. The author integrates a contextual setting that makes this nonfiction even more tragic and inspiring.