Books for Younguns, Young Adults and the Young-at-Heart

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Favorite Middle Grade Books of 2012

I wanted to do a year-end recap, but in an informal way.  So I'm listing my top ten favorite young adult, middle grade and picture books of 2012.  In order to limit my options, books are only eligible if they are a standalone or the first in a series, and--of course--they must have been originally published during 2012.  Other than that, this is a completely subjective list and is not meant to be *the best*, only my favorites.  They are not ranked, but listed in alphabetical order by author.  I'd love to hear your favorites in the comments.

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
This book takes its cues from many places, but doesn't fall neatly into any one genre.  Broadly speaking, it's a fantasy, but it's just as rooted in a gritty industrial steampunk climate as it is in the realm of the fairies.  These worlds mesh surprisingly well to create an atmosphere of genuine menace where Bachmann's fanciful creations are more likely to threaten than not.  The narrative spends equal amounts of time on Bartolomew, a half fairy/half-human boy trying to save his kidnapped sister, and Arthur Jelliby, a politician who reluctantly becomes the only person who can stop an evil plot.  When the two unite, it offers a relationship that is very welcome in a genre where too often the kids are left to their own devices.

A Mutiny in Time by James Dashner
This book far exceeded my expectations.  The first in a series plotted by Dashner with individual books written by a variety of recognizable names, this easily could have been the mindless equivalent of an action movie.  However, we are instead offered a parallel universe in which our world has grown into a totalitarian dystopia due to several rifts where their timeline diverged from ours.  A trio of kids gain possession of a time travel device and set off the fix things, while saving some parents that are lost in time.  It makes for a lot of fun action, to be sure, but the solid world-building behind it lends a much-needed weight to the proceedings and the historical settings mean something might even be learned.

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson
The only nonfiction title on my list, this is a no-brainer for those, like me, who are fascinated by the Titanic.  In the hundredth anniversary year, there were no shortage of books for us, but this one stood above the rest.  It contains a superb general survey of the experience, from the building of the ship to the recovery of survivors and historical remembrances.  Lots of first-hand accounts and many photographs are included, offering an in-depth exploration that offers both detailed facts and emotionally engaging stories.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
One of my great loves of the year, this is a staggering offering for a seasoned novelist, let alone a debut.  The tale of Auggie, a fifth grader born with a perfect storm of genetic defects and physically deformed as a result who is attending school for the first time starts simply enough, with his own narration and experiences.  But Palacio gradually widens the scope of the story, lending the narration first to Auggie's peers at school, then to his older sister and their friends, all the while staying centered on the remarkable protagonist and the effect he has on them and on the community as a whole.  Multiple narrators can be tricky, but this is done right, to the degree that there is simply no other way to tell this story.  I wouldn't hesitate to hand this to any adult who thinks children's books are too simple to be literary.

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker
This is a very sweet story of two girls covering up the death of their guardian and fending for themselves.  That juxtaposition is important because while this is, at heart, the story of two emotionally damaged young ladies coming to realize what family and friendship means when they find it in each other, all those gooey emotions are tempered by the cold hand of reality that keeps the story grounded.  Their actions have consequences that aren't brushed off.  They have to work hard and go hungry, but the internal breakthroughs they make along the way make this something I wouldn't hesitate to recommend for all but the very most squeamish.

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex
Rex's wacky sensibilities are on full display here, in a tale of a corrupt cereal company imprisoning real magical creatures to use as mascots--and ingredients.  In lesser hands, this would still have been a fun romp. But Rex's attention to detail and deft ability to craft truly unique characters elevate this to a memorable level. The fanciful illustrations just add all the more reason to pick this book up.

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt
Schmidt has become one of my very favorite authors for a delicious writing style that just makes you want to step back and give the book a hug before forcing someone else to start reading it.  When I saw his latest was a foray into science fiction, I was a bit worried, but I shouldn't have been.  He nimbly transformed a plot that lesser writers would have made an action-packed fight-fest into a deeply resonant personal journey with profound effects on both a distant alien world and one little boy and his broken family.  (But it's still got some fights, I promise!)

Drama by Raina Telgemeier
As a theatre kid, I'm always interested in how they are portrayed, and Telgemeier doesn't disappoint in this love letter to the technical side of theatre.  The plot and its colorful protagonist will be instantly relatable to anyone whose been on the other side of their school's footlights.  The plot also includes middle schoolers coming to terms with sexual orientation--their own and others'--in realistic and sympathetic ways.  The fact that it's a full-color graphic novel should get even the most reluctant readers interested.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
This one is all about the narrator.  Moses "Mo" LoBeau is such a delightful character that I can't see anyone not wanting to spend some time in her head.  She's funny and charming in a way only Southerners can manage.  She has wonderfully dynamic relationships with everyone in town, not least of which are her diametrically opposed guardians, Miss Lana and the Colonel, and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III.  She's stubborn, smart and ambitious enough to tackle a full-blown murder investigation, too.

Crow by Barbara Wright
This book should be read if for no other reason than to shine a light on a neglected piece of American history.  Set in the generation directly after the abolition of slavery in a town where black men were gaining headway in the local government and leading to the only successful coup d'tat in U.S. history when they were violently run out of town, the story is narrated by 11-year-old Moses, whose father is one of the first African-American city councilmen.  His story is filled with bits and pieces of every day life, a few big adventures, and the seeds of change that set up the explosive final act.  Seeing things through his eyes gives a well-grounded perspective and really brings the emotions of this chapter in history home.

1 comment:

  1. There are tons of good books out there, but I wanna tell you that this list is one of the best I've seen in a long time. 'Wonder' is indeed a really good book that teaches a lot to whoever's lucky enough to read it. And it's so good to know that more writers with interesting stories to tell continue to create such fine literary pieces and let us have a peek inside their minds.
    Shelley @ Y\'all Twins?