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Galen’s picks: books of 2007
I am a reader.
I am also a record keeper, which is how I can confidently report that I read 402 books in 2007. Now, most of these are titles for children and young adults, including 162 picture books; very few dense, difficult tomes are represented in this total. Last week I went through my book journal and chose 10 of the very best books I read over the last year, plus a few I feel you could afford to miss. This list does not include books I have mentioned in previous reviews, though some of those are recent favorites as well. I have included the original year of publication in parentheses after each title, intentionally focusing on titles from 2007.
Peter Cameron’s first novel for young adults, “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You” (2007), quickly secured a spot at the top of my list. Smart and self-absorbed, James Sveck is the Holden Caulfield of the 21st century. Aimless, adrift and struggling to make connections with other people, Sveck makes bad choices and does a lot of self-searching before he understands how the world works — and how he might work within it. Another young adult title that swept me up and held me captive is Caroline B. Cooney’s “Enter Three Witches,” a prose interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth told from the perspectives of several of the play’s minor characters. Best known for her teen thrillers, this time Cooney offers a literary novel showing the potential reaches of horror caused by Macbeth’s decisions. In another engrossing, tension-filled novel, “Swimming in the Monsoon Sea” (2005), Shyam Selvadurai develops parallels between his main character Amrith and Shakespeare’s Othello as Amrith becomes increasingly jealous of his adoptive sister. Anyone who has experienced sibling rivalry will appreciate this thoughtful novel, set in Sri Lanka, and its complex, passionate central character.
Two books of poetry made the cut this year. The first, for teens, is Stephanie Hemphill’s “Your Own, Sylvia” (2007). The poems comprising this portrait of Sylvia Plath’s life and death are varied and accessible, representing the voices of many of the people who knew the famous poet, and interpreting the events and internal struggles that compelled her to commit suicide. The tension in the book is palpable — Hemphill shows us exactly how effective good poetry can be. For toddlers and preschoolers is Jane Yolen’s “Here’s a Little Poem” (2007), a collection of verse in a large format that begs to be read aloud. Organized thematically, these poems address the essentials of childhood, such as play, family and bedtime. Bright, active illustrations by Polly Dunbar highlight the hilarity and tenderness of each selection.
2007 also brought the publication of the simple, stunning nonfiction picture book, “Lightship,” by Brian Floca. In waves of repetitive, rhythmic language, Floca describes life aboard a lightship and the important role these boats played as floating beacons for other ships. Floca supports his minimal text with detailed illustrations, making the best possible use of the picture book format, in which images add layers of information to a story without having to weigh it down with words. He uses a similar technique in “The Racecar Alphabet” (2003), guiding readers through the alphabet with 26 alliterative sentences, while simultaneously showing the history of car racing in the illustrations. In both of these picture books, Floca achieves the perfect balance of show and tell.
A number of graphic novels caught my attention this year, including “Babymouse,” a middle grade series by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. With a great sense of humor, Babymouse constantly moves between — and sometimes straddles — the real and the imaginary. Energetic drawings and witty text combine to make every adventure a pleasure to read. The eighth volume, “Puppy Love,” was published in December. “The Plain Janes” (2007), by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rudd, and “Good As Lily” (2007), by Derek Kirk Kim, are not just your average comic books. Both novels ask teenagers to read thoughtfully and to make careful decisions in their lives. “The Plain Janes” tells the story of Jane, the only child of paranoid parents, and a subversive artist with big ideas. Jane teams up with three other classmates of the same name to secretly show their stifled suburban community the power of art. This novel pits teenagers against adults and the plain kids against the popular crowd, and gives us, in the end, a united struggle against oppression. “Good As Lily” makes its own break with tradition when high schooler Grace Kwon meets three people one night, all of whom turn out to be herself at different ages. In her efforts to care for and appease each incarnation of past and future selves, Grace learns a lot about her present life and how to meet her own, immediate, adolescent needs.
I don’t like everything I read. Plenty of pages in my book journal are filled with criticisms and comments about books that just don’t live up to my standards. I wasn’t impressed, for instance, with Jessica Scott Kerrin’s chapter book “Martin Bridge Ready for Take Off” (2005). The vocabulary in the story seemed difficult, without supportive contextual clues. The chapters did not seem to tie in well together, and some of them ended abruptly. “Fashion Kitty” (2005), a graphic novel for middle grade readers by Charise Meri Harper, is not a particularly strong or interesting story. I’d stick with “Babymouse.” Finally, David Levithan’s and Rachel Cohn’s collaborative young adult novel, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (2007), was a big disappointment. I have enjoyed other novels by both of these authors, but I found this particular book tedious and crowded. When the main characters’ self-obsessed first person voices interfere with my ability to think about what they are trying to say, I am decidedly unsatisfied.
And now I have another year ahead of me to read, read, read. May your new year be as happy as mine promises to be!
Galen Longstreth can be reached at email@example.com.