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Favorite Books of 2015

Newbery MedalThe Children’s Media Awards announcements will be this coming Monday, January 11th, which is amazingly early! I have not been able to read as much as usual this past year for many reasons, but some of the books that I have read are certainly worthy, so I thought I would weigh in with my faves from the past twelve months. Click on the highlighted titles for full reviews.

Hired GirlMy favorite children’s book was The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz. This delightful historical fiction novel straddles that annoying fence between the Newbery and Printz age, but I consider it to be more suitable for the Newbery, so I’ll place it there. Other Newbery-age books that I found worthy of the medal are Echo, by Pam Nuñoz Ryan, and The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley.

Challenger DeepI found three teen books to be excellent this year, perhaps first of all Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, the story of his son’s struggle with schizophrenia. I am shocked to discover that I never reviewed this book! I think that I read it just before my mother passed away last summer. Please check it out. As you can see, it won the National Book Award. The second would be Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin, a nonfiction title concerning Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. My third would be Mosquitoland, by David Arnold. Any of these would be eligible to win the Printz Award, in my opinion.

Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt, is worthy of either award. Most blogs are tending toward Newbery for this title, but I prefer the Printz because of the theme.

WaitingMy two favorite picture books this year were Waiting, by Kevin Henkes, and Lenny and Lucy, by Philip and Erin Stead. The Caldecott Award is given to the artist of the picture book, but these two jewels appeal to me on many levels, not just for the brilliant illustrations.

 

Boats for PapaUpdate!— How could I leave out the poignant Boats for Papa, by Jessixa Bagley? This thoughtful picture book came into the library the week I returned from my mother’s funeral, so I interpreted the story one way, but the author left the reasons for Papa’s permanent absence open, so that children dealing with a parent’s death, divorce, or other change will be able to find solace and closure here. I passed this book around and brought a whole department to tears. Beautiful.

I enjoyed many other great reads this year, but the quality of writing may not reach to literary award status. No one reads fine literature all the time, and a steady diet of deep and serious books can be wearying, just as a daily regimen of spa food might be thrilling at first, but then the longing for ice cream sets in. I almost never review a book that I couldn’t recommend to someone, so please have fun with all the other books that I reviewed this year, as well.

Looking forward to a 2016 with less pain (of all kinds) and more reading. Let’s see how we do on Monday!

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The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Hired GirlFourteen-year-old Joan scrubs, cooks, and does laundry for her father and older brothers on their farm in 1911 Pennsylvania. She adores her teacher and spends her few spare minutes reading Jane Eyre and other books Miss Lang has given her, as well as writing in her diary, which forms the content of this novel. When her father forces her to quit school so that she can concentrate on her work, and then burns her books when she resists, Joan takes the money her late mother had sewn into her doll’s skirt and runs away to Baltimore, where she takes up a new life as Janet, the hired girl, in the home of a wealthy Jewish family.

The Rosenbachs already have a housekeeper, Malka, who would never admit that her advancing age prevents her from completing many of the tasks she has performed for them over the decades. They have two grown sons and an eleven-year-old daughter, and since Joan is pretending to be eighteen years old, all sorts of uncomfortable predicaments come up with crushes and faux pas that are perfectly reasonable for a much younger girl fresh from the farm. Joan’s mother was Catholic, although her father had no religion, and Joan is taking catechism lessons from a local priest so that she can become a Catholic, too. Her earnest pursuit of spiritual knowledge is punctuated by surprising revelations about Judaism and, as she says, “the anti-Semitism.”

Joan’s voice reminds me most of Anne of Green Gables, a bookish girl who lives in the stories she reads and has a hard time reconciling her romanticism with the sometimes harsh realities of the world around her. Both girls have a sweet innocence about them that enables them to endure hard labor and transcend their humble station in life. Laura Amy Schlitz uses the time period to highlight themes of feminism and religious tolerance. Many children’s writers handle these issues clumsily, but Schlitz weaves them into an absorbing, sometimes humorous narrative naturally and gracefully.

I have been a fan of this Newbery-winning author since her first book, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, but this is by far my favorite book she has written. The endearing heroine, fully-developed secondary characters, and captivating story made me wish this book would never end. Coming in September, and very highly recommended for tweens, young teens, and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reading copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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