Newbery Titles to Try

We look forward with great excitement every year as the Newbery and Caldecott winners are announced, but it’s also a pleasure to read (or re-read) past winners.  Cecilia tells us about a few of her favorites:

If you like historical books or old-fashioned classics, try…

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

invinciblelouisaThis biography of Louisa May Alcott reads like a novel, and even if you haven’t read Little Women, you’ll be drawn in by the story of this author’s struggle with poverty. Alcott had an unconventional childhood moving from place to place with her family, and her early writing attempts, games with her siblings and schemes to earn money are all detailed here. A timeline and index are included and the lovely cover by Jane Dyer is a nice additional touch.  Little Brown Books for Young Readers, $7.99

The Good Master by Kate Seredy

goodmasterThe plains of Hungary are the backdrop for adventures in this tale of cousins Jancsi and Kate. Jancsi has low expectations for a girl when he hears that cousin Kate is coming from the city, but he soon learns that she is an energetic tomboy with the same enthusiasm for horses, village fairs and gypsies as himself. The regional customs of Hungarian ranchers are depicted in loving detail and Kate in particular is a bright, engaging character.  Puffin, $5.99

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

rollerskatesKate would find a common spirit in Lucinda Wyman, the protagonist of Roller Skates. Set in New York City of the 1890s, it follows Lucinda through a year of living with family friends, as she struggles with her prim-and-proper cousins, experiences thrills and disappointments and makes friends with everyone from policemen to tramps to fruit sellers. References to unfamiliar things like hansom cabs and pinafores go hand in hand with games of theater and dress-up that children still love today. A great read for lovers of old-fashioned classics like Anne of Green Gables or the Little House series.  Viking Penguin, $5.99

If you like folklore and fantasy, try…

The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw

moorchildMoql is half Moorfolk and half Human without key Folk traits such as the ability to shape-shift or disappear. As a result, she is banished and sent to live among humans as a changeling named Saaski. In the human world, she also faces rejection from the villagers who fear her differences. The only place she feels safe and at home is out on the moors, playing her bagpipes. As she grows up and slowly comes to understand the tangled relationship between the Folk and the humans, she becomes determined to find the real child of her human parents and bring her home. This is a great read for fans of Franny Billingsley and other authors who write fantasy based on folktales and legends.  Aladdin, $6.99

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

perilousgardAn ambitious mix of history, ballad lore and fantasy, this story begins with Kate Sutton being exiled to the remote castle known as the Perilous Gard. There she gets pulled into a series of encounters with the Fairy Folk who live underground and eventually must use what she knows of the Tam Lin ballad to save her friend Christopher, as well as decide what she truly wants her life to be. This is a slightly creepy adventure with a strong heroine and wonderful details of fairy lore and legend.  Sandpiper, $6.99

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The False Prince: Book 1 of the Ascendance Trilogy

Newbery winners won’t be announced until January, but booksellers and librarians are already atwitter discussing candidates for the award. Some titles are mentioned in practically every blog about Newbery hopefuls — Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate — but I’m always interested in reading some of the underdogs, so I picked up The False Prince by Katherine Nielsen. It’s on readers’ radar, but hasn’t been considered a top contender.

From the moment nobleman Conner plucks him from the orphanage to be part of a mysterious plan, street smart Sage is suspicious of his intentions, and his feelings are justified. Three more orphans are added to the group and eventually it is revealed that Conner plans to make one of them his “false prince.” Rumors have circulated that the royal family has been murdered and Conner is using this as a chance to bring back the kingdom’s long lost prince Jaron, who he will install as the new puppet ruler. The four orphans are to compete the role of prince, and they knows their lives depend on getting the part. Each has his own agenda, and lies and deceit are the only way to win the game.Each of the boys puts up a strong fight, but Sage has a special secret that may be more dangerous than anyone can imagine.

The False Prince is full of intrigue and adventure with surprising twists and turns in the plot. It takes place in an imaginary kingdom, but it has the characteristics of historical fiction, so it’s a nice blend of fantasy and realism. The great thing about the book is that it has elements that will appeal to a large number of readers, including what I think is one of the hardest audiences to write for, boys ages 10 and up.

I’m not sure if The False Prince has a strong chance of winning the Newbery, but if you’re in the mood for a page-turning adventure, it’s definitely worth a read!  Look for Book 2 in the series, The Runaway King, in March of 2013.

~Kristen

The False Prince: Book 1 of the Ascendance Trilogy, by Jennifer Nielsen, Scholastic Press, $17.99

Graceling by Kristin Cashore


Graceling
has been out since 2008, but because the third book in the series was recently released, I thought it was high time to catch up!  And I’m glad I did; Graceling has the kind of rich, pulse-pounding fantasy adventures I love to read about.  As a bonus, it stars one of the coolest female protagonists I’ve read about in a while: Katsa.

Katsa is a Graceling, which means she has a magical talent.  But unlike other Gracelings who might be good cooks or dancers, Katsa is Graced to be a talented killer.  She hates her Grace and longs for the freedom to be something other than a hired thug, which is the only job she’s ever had.  When she meets Po, a Graced fighter who has a very different view of Katsa’s potential, she begins to realize she has the freedom to help people instead of hurt them.  It’s good timing, because she and Po soon uncover a truly scary conspiracy, and only two people with Graces like theirs have a chance at stopping it.

If you’re a fan of Katniss from The Hunger Games or of any of Tamora Pierce’s books, you’ll love Katsa.  And if you’ve gotta have some romance with your fantasy, well, there’s a little of that too.  A great summer read (Katsa’s trek through the snowy mountains will make you feel freezing cold!) and a great overall fantasy adventure.

—Emily

Graceling by Kristen Cashore; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 9.99; Ages 14+

A Confusion of Princes

 It sounds like an obscure collective noun: A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix. I thoroughly enjoyed this fun, plot-twisting sci-fi adventure. In an article for the latest issue of The Horn Book Magazine, fantasy writer T.A. Barron claims that the best fantasy has three essential qualities: depth of character, truth of place and richness of meaning. A Confusion of Princes can make a case for having all three.

Khemri is a Prince of the Empire, which means he is genetically altered to be faster and stronger than ordinary humans. He is also likely to be assassinated by other Princes who are competing for the role of Emperor. One of the best parts of the book is how Khemri grows from being a selfish, self-centered and arrogant teen into a compassionate and clever adult, with true depth of character. What teen hasn’t wanted to just get away from school and authority to do whatever you like? Khemri says at the beginning of the novel “I want to enjoy myself…Get a ship–you know, a corvette or maybe something smaller, of course with high automation, head out for some distant stars, see something beyond this moldy old temple, smoke a few Naknuk ships or the like….That’s not going to happen is it?”

No, it isn’t, primarily because Khemri’s Empire is not a safe place, even for a Prince with a Master of Assassins and various priests to see to his every need. The setting bounces between various planets, ships and academies, but the world  that is most fully fleshed out is one where Khemri ends up by accident–Kharalcha Four, a system with limited technology and no love for Princes. The descriptions of space ships, machines and various ‘teks’ or technologies get confusing at points, but Kharalcha Four is given many details that help the reader understand why Khemri feels at home there and decides to save these people, at any cost.

The third essential quality of good fantasy is richness of meaning. While an exciting plot, various narrow escapes and a light touch of romance are all present in this book, the heart of A Confusion of Princes is Khemri’s struggle to recover his humanity from the confusion of tek, special abilities and mind-conditioning he has had as a Prince. The question of what it means to be human and part of a family is the central idea of the novel. Readers will cheer for Khem as he makes up his mind about who, exactly, he wants to be.  — Cecilia

A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix, HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 12 and up.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Author Leigh Bardugo is on the forefront of the Tsarpunk genre. What’s Tsarpunk, you say? I asked the same thing, and thankfully Leigh has an answer here. Essentially, it’s a fantasy style that draws inspiration from Russian history and/or culture. But as soon as you start Shadow and Bone you’ll figure out that, at least in this case, Tsarpunk equals heartpounding action and a healthy dose of intrigue.

Alina and Mal are orphans, raised together until they are eligible for military service. Alina can’t imagine being parted from Mal, but when their unit begins a treacherous crossing through the mysterious, crushing darkness of the Shadow Fold, the unthinkable happens. When they are suddenly brought under attack by horrific beasts, Alina discovers a hidden power she never knew she had. Desperate to save her friend, she unknowingly summons a brilliant flash of light to blind the creatures. Alina is a Grisha, one of a small group of people with extraordinary talents for transforming matter.

But Alina is no ordinary Grisha. She is a Sun Summoner, gifted with unparalleled powers and potential. Taken under the wing of the Darkling, the mysterious Grisha leader, Alina is trained to use her skills to fight the darkness of the Shadow Fold. But the more she learns, the further she is drawn from everything she once knew, including Mal. Ultimately, she must make the choice between the promise of the Darkling’s power and the pull of her own heart.

If you take this book to the beach, be prepared not to step foot in the water. You won’t want to let it out of your hands! Hats off to Leigh Bardugo—she keeps the plot moving and the action coming, all the while developing characters we can actually care about. And, no spoilers, but there are some pretty awesome twists and turns to keep you guessing. Perfect for vacation down time!

Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy #1) by Leigh Bardugo; Henry Holt (Macmillan); 17.99; Ages 12+

Miss Megan Recommends: Chime by Franny Billingsley

When Chime first arrived at the store, it didn’t really spark my interest. I wasn’t a fan of the cover (still not, for that matter), and for some reason I had it in my head that it was simply another in a long line of vapid imitations of a certain popular sparkly supernatural romance. But then, to my surprise, it was nominated for the National Book Award (after a now infamous debacle in which Lauren Myracle’s Shine was mistakenly heard instead of Chime). With the book world atwitter with this NBA drama, I felt it was high time I actually read both books involved. (I had read Shine before its release in May.) And, so, I did just that.

Let me start by saying: Chime is excellent and in no way a copycat of that series of vampire thrillers I mentioned earlier. Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief.

Briony is a witch. She knows this because she can speak to the Old Ones, the spirits that haunt her home in Swampsea, and because she has already wreaked enough havoc for a lifetime. Her stepmother’s death is on her head, as is her sister’s mental condition. But Briony is determined to keep her power in check. If she can control herself, maybe she can save her sister Rose from the deadly swamp cough. Maybe she can stop herself from bringing pain to anyone else. Maybe if she squishes her true thoughts and desires behind her calm Briony mask, everything will somehow become right.

The key, Briony realizes, is to always remember to hate herself. Ever since Stepmother discovered Briony’s awful secret, she has known to be careful. But now, especially, any sign of happiness or joy or enthusiasm is a warning. When her father takes in boarders, Mr. Claybourne and his son Eldric, Briony’s determination will be tested. Eldric, she decides, is a lion, full of bounding energy, alive and joyous and unlike any other person Briony has met before. Suddenly, she doesn’t hate herself quite so much. But letting her guard down will have dire consequences, consequences that will possibly destroy everything around her. Briony knows she must make the right choice–the painful choice. She will reveal herself as a witch and submit herself to a trial and, ultimately, execution. She will save her sister. Her stoic self-hatred will finally have its reward.

Would the above summary lead you to believe I laughed out loud countless times while reading this novel? Probably not, but it’s 100% true.  Briony’s voice is exactly the sort of unflinching, wry, blunt narration I find especially compelling. She drives the plot incessantly forward–I had to tear myself away to do essential things, like eat, sleep, and shower. Franny Billingsley’s style is somehow sparing and vivid at the same time. I especially enjoyed her descriptions, which were both appropriately brief and deliciously literary. Take this, for instance: “A poem doesn’t come out and tell you what it has to say. It circles back on itself, eating its own tail and making you guess what it means.” Mmm…tasty!

This is a fantastic, enthralling read for anyone who likes their supernatural thriller/romances with a healthy dose of intelligence and sarcasm. It’s also great for anyone who just plain likes a good story, because, when it comes right down to it, that’s exactly what this is.

Go forth and read!

Miss Megan G.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley, Penguin Books, Ages 14+