Just when you think every topic has been covered to the fullest, somehow, talented writers, creative artists, and forward-thinking editors come up with new takes and fresh angles. This is particularly true of the books selected as the best of 2009.
The hallmarks of the nonfiction this year include some unusual scientists, from two brothers who invented day-glow paint, to a scientist tracking snow leopards in Mongolia. New heroes and events arise from the Civil Rights Movement, with untold stories from lesser-known people, and the Darwin bicentennial garnered some particularly impressive titles. Thoughtful writers of history continue to present the past in a manner that is accessible and thought-provoking. Fantasy continues to have a stronghold on the reading interests and imaginations of children and young adults, but this year’s list has some terrific genre-bending titles and mash-ups to add to the mix. The best of the fiction is original and/or timely, ranging from an eco-mystery, the effects of carbon rationing on life in the future, and a totally new spin on the tired undead theme.
The 54 books annotated below were selected as the best of the year from the 5700 books reviewed in SLJ’s pages in 2009. We think children and teens will find them enlightening, entertaining, or evocative.
BARTON, Chris. The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors. illus. by Tony Persiani. Charlesbridge. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-1-57091-673-1.
Gr 4-6–This artful blending of biography and applied science sheds light on the serendipitous invention that turned two siblings intrigued with fluorescence into successful businessmen. The black-and-white cartoon art slowly gives way to bursts of neon color.
BEARN, Emily. Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall. illus. by Nick Price. Little, Brown. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-02703-8.
Gr 2-4–A retiring mouse couple enlists the aid of a neighboring general and his mouse battalion when the humans they live with receive a visit from a rodent-obsessed relative. Cozy domestic details, thrilling adventures, and laughs galore make this British import as satisfying as high tea.
BISHOP, Nic. Nic Bishop Butterflies and Moths. photos by author. Scholastic. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-439-87757-2.
Gr 2-5–Science meets artistry in an exquisitely designed photo-essay that describes the life cycles of these breathtakingly beautiful insects. Bishop’s crystalline close-ups and lyrical narrative engage readers with mesmerizing detail and an infectious sense of awe.
BROWN, Jennifer. Hate List. Little, Brown. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-04144-7.
Gr 8 Up–When two teens compose a list of classmates who bullied or tormented them, Valerie looks at it as a game, but her boyfriend, Nick, is deadly serious. Coping with unspeakable loss and finding the courage to carry on are explored in this disturbing and totally believable novel.
CASHORE, Kristin. Fire. Dial. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-3461-6.
Gr 9 Up–Fire, the last of her breed of human monsters, is feared and despised as much for her unearthly beauty as for her ability to control minds. Caught up in a power struggle among the battling kingdoms of the Dells, she must exert all of her enhanced powers to protect the people she loves. This expansive fantasy has a compelling heroine, suspense, threatening raptors, and a tender love story.
COUSINS, Lucy. Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales. illus. by author. Candlewick. RTE $18.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4474-1.
K-Gr 2–Cousins serves up an assortment of delectable stories with all of the humor, wisdom, and just-deserts endings that have long made them favorite fare. Bold brushstrokes and dazzling colors showcase characters enchantingly innocent, laughably foolish, deliciously menacing, and always irresistible.
CRUM, Shutta. Thunder-Boomer! illus. by Carol Thompson. Clarion. RTE $16. ISBN 978-0-618-61865-1.
K-Gr 2–On a sweltering summer day, a farm family welcomes a storm that rolls in with fury and leaves behind an unexpected gift: a soaked and shivery kitten. The airy text and color-swept artwork reverberate with breathless exhilaration, tense drama, and flashes of humor.
DAVIES, Jacqueline. Tricking the Tallyman. illus. by S. D. Schindler. Knopf. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-375-83909-2; PLB $20.99. ISBN 978-0-375-93909-9.
Gr 1-4–When Phineas Bump rides into Tunbridge, Vermont, in 1790 to count its residents for a government survey, the wary townsfolk greet him with suspicion and deceit. Blending history with high jinks, the humorous narrative and honey-hued artwork cleverly introduce the first U.S. Census.
EMBERLEY, Rebecca & Ed Emberley. Chicken Little. illus. by authors. Roaring Brook/A Neal Porter Bk. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-464-6.
PreS-Gr 2–The Emberleys revitalize this oft-told fable with bright graphic-style artwork, fun-to-share-aloud sound effects, and an appealing cheeky attitude. With their whirligig eyes and comic pratfalls, Chicken Little and his bird-brained cronies display more cluck than pluck right up to the satisfyingly silly ending.
FUCILE, Tony. Let’s Do Nothing! illus. by author. Candlewick. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3440-7.
PreS-Gr 1-When two boys run out of things to do, Sal comes up with a bright idea and Frankie, being younger, gamely goes along–with hilarious results. A spot-on romp with perfect pacing and giggle-inducing cartoon artwork.
FLOCA, Brian. Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11. illus. by author. S & S/Atheneum/A Richard Jackson Bk. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5046-2.
Gr 2-5–Floca masterfully streamlines the high points of the first Moon landing into a spellbinding picture-book account. Fueled with evocative details and you-are-there perspectives, the poetic narrative and spectacular artwork accentuate the apprehension and exhilaration of venturing “where no one has been.”
GAL, Susan. Night Lights. illus. by author. Knopf/Borzoi. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-375-85862-8; PLB $17.99. ISBN 978-0-375-95862-5.
PreS-Gr 1–Bicycling through village streets in the evening with her mother and arriving at their cozy home for a birthday party, a child experiences different types of illumination, from streetlamps to candlelight to a night-light. An ambient look at life after dark with moonlit and incandescent details.
HARDINGE, Frances. The Lost Conspiracy. HarperCollins/Bowen Press. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-088041-5; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-088042-2.
Gr 6-9–In this inventive, multilayered fantasy set in a lush and treacherous island world, two sisters, one of whom is revered as a Lost, or an oracle with extrasensory abilities, and her sibling attendant, both have vital roles to play in the future of their land. Filled with heart-pounding adventure and exquisite storytelling, this is the perfect selection for those who want to get lost in a good book.
HEILIGMAN, Deborah. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith. Holt. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-8721-5.
Gr 8 Up–Heiligman mines the Darwins’ letters, diaries, and notebooks to give readers a glimpse into the hearts and the minds of the great thinker and his supportive but deeply devout wife. This is a love story for the ages, and the inevitable clash between science and religion is explored with style and grace.
HENKES, Kevin. Birds. illus. by Laura Dronzek. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-136304-7; PLB $18.89. ISBN 978-0-06-136305-4.
PreS-K–A young bird-watcher shares her enthusiasm for feathered creatures. Balancing concrete observations with flights of fancy, the buoyant text and sky-bright paintings joyfully convey a child’s innate appreciation of nature.
HEST, Amy. Little Chick. illus. by Anita Jeram. Candlewick. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-2890-1.
PreS-Gr 1–Jeram’s expressive, sun-drenched artwork shows how defeated Little Chick is when her carrot won’t grow, her kite won’t fly, and a sparkling star won’t be caught, but Old-Auntie, with her comforting and loving demeanor, is always there to alleviate the youngster’s frustration. A story as reassuring as it is entertaining.
HIAASEN, Carl. Scat. Knopf/Borzoi. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-83486-8; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-93486-5.
Gr 5-8–A gripping eco-thriller set in a Florida wildlife preserve. When their biology teacher goes missing during a field trip, Nick and Marta do some detective work and come up against an endangered panther and a larger-than-life villain. Contemporary themes, wrapped in a mystery filled with intrigue and danger.
HOOSE, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa Bks. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-0-374-31322-7.
Gr 5-8–In 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus, a courageous 15-year-old took the same stand. Hoose’s nuanced narrative alternates with the unclouded memories of the adult Colvin and affecting black-and-white photographs, offering readers a fuller picture of the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, AL.
JONELL, Lynne. The Secret of Zoom. Holt. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-8856-4.
Gr 4-7–Overly protected Christina breaks free of her restricted life and, with her friend Taft, sets out on a dangerous quest to free local orphans who are being worked to death in underground tunnels. An edge-of-your-seat adventure, lightened with fantasy and humor.
KELLY, Jacqueline. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Holt.Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-8841-0.
Gr 5-8–During the long, hot Texas summer and fall of 1899, a girl with six brothers and a disdain for the domestic arts hones her observational skills with the help of her unconventional naturalist granddaddy and a copy of Mr. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
KRULL, Kathleen. The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth. illus. by Greg Couch. Knopf/Borzoi. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-84561-1; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-94561-8.
Gr 2-5–Armed with an active imagination and a pile of science magazines, a boy began tinkering with motors and gadgets; by the age of 22, he announced to the world that he had invented television. Luminous acrylic wash and colored-pencil illustrations add abundant period details to this well-told story of youthful passion and persistence.
LARBALESTIER, Justine. Liar. Bloomsbury. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-59990-305-7.
Gr 9 Up–Micah readily admits to having issues with the truth, but she attempts to set the record straight once she becomes a suspect in the murder of a fellow student and sometime love interest. The teen has some pressing physical issues as well, which are slowly and eerily revealed in this compulsively readable, supernatural thriller.
LLOYD, Saci. The Carbon Diaries 2015. Holiday House. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-2190-9.
Gr 8 Up–With carbon rationed, Laura and her older sister find that severe utility shortages, travel restrictions, lack of food, and deteriorating health standards have destroyed their lives and put their family in total disarray. An eye-opening look at a horrific near-future that we can readily imagine.
MANN, Charles C. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491. S & S/Atheneum. RTE $24.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-4900-8.
Gr 6 Up–Readers will reevaluate their ideas of pre-Columbian life during this tour of millennium-old desert settlements on the coast of Peru and Native villages across the continent. Mann produces evidence of flourishing city centers, genetically engineered foods, and environmental landscaping. Photographs of artifacts and sites illuminate the journey.
MARCUS, Leonard S., ed. Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. Candlewick. RTE $21.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3254-0.
Gr 6 Up–Through childhood recollections and anecdotes about their lives and work, 13 well-known humorists tell all in this high-spirited and lively collection. Readers will love learning about some of their favorite writers’ quirks, habits, and inspirations and just might discover a new author among this stellar lineup.
MARRIN, Albert. Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl. Dutton. Tr $22.99. ISBN 978-0-525-42077-4.
Gr 5-9–Through a stirring text and first-person quotes, Marrin explores the ecological, economic, and technological changes that coincided to create the “apocalyptic” dust blizzards of the 1930s. Iconic photographs by Dorothea Lange and others depict what these families left behind, how they traveled, and what was waiting for them when they reached their destinations.
METSELAAR, Menno & Ruud van der Rol. Anne Frank: Her Life in Words and Pictures. tr. by Arnold J. Pomerans. Roaring Brook/Flash Point. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-546-9; pap. $12.99. ISBN 978-1-59643-547-6.
Gr 5 Up–A poignant narrative, copious quotations, intimate family pictures, and photographs of the girl’s journal, the Secret Annex, and German concentration camps fill in the gaps in the famous young diarist’s life before, during, and after her two years in hiding.
MONTGOMERY, Sy. Saving the Ghost of the Mountain: An Expedition Among Snow Leopards in Mongolia. photos by Nic Bishop. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton. RTE $18. ISBN 978-0-618-91645-0.
Gr 4-8–A day-by-day account of a research biologist’s trip to the land of “the most elusive cat on the planet.” The deeply absorbing narrative and expansive color photos bring the diversity of this remote region into satisfying focus.
MURPHY, Jim. Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting. Scholastic. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-545-13049-3.
Gr 6-10-Five months into World War I, troops all along the Western front put down their weapons and emerged from their cold, damp trenches for impromptu Christmas Day cease-fires and celebrations. Murphy recounts the events leading up to the war, and the truce, documenting the text with seldom-seen sepia images.
MYERS, Walter Dean. Looking Like Me. illus. by Christopher Myers. Egmont USA. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-1-60684-001-6.
Gr 1-5–A teen looks at what defines him as an individual, as a brother and a son, and as a writer, artist, and runner. The art is a mélange of collage and photos in vibrant color, conveying the constant flux of energy and experience that forms a young man’s identity.
O’CONNOR, Barbara. The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis. Farrar/Frances Foster Bks. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-374-37055-8.
Gr 3-6–Popeye lives a yawningly sedate existence with his grandmother in a small Southern town–until a late-model Holiday Rambler gets stuck in the mud outside their house. The mobile home contains a passel of energetic kids, among them an enterprising boy his age named Elvis who teaches Popeye to assert himself and introduces him to some wonders right in his own backyard.
PALATINI, Margie. Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes. illus. by Barry Moser. S & S. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-689-80246-1.
PreS-Gr 3–A know-it-all fox solicits help from his friends to obtain some difficult-to-reach morsels, but when his convoluted and humorously diagrammed plans fall flat, he declares the grapes sour. This crowd-pleasing send-up of an Aesop’s fable is told with perfect comic timing and vivacious artwork.
PARTRIDGE, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary. Viking. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-670-01189-6.
Gr 6 Up–Through eloquent text and haunting images, Partridge tells the stories of the steadfast and brave children and teens who, along with family and friends, witnessed and endured harassment, hatred, and violence during the 1963 voting rights protests in Selma, AL.
PATRICELLI, Leslie. Higher! Higher! illus. by author. Candlewick. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3241-0.
PreS-Gr 1–An exuberant girl with an ear-to-ear grin holds tight to her swing as it soars up and up into space. Safely back home after meeting her extraterrestrial counterpart, she utters the word in readers’ minds: “Again!”
PINKNEY, Andrea Davis. Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride. illus. by Brian Pinkney. Disney/Jump at the Sun. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-0767-3.
K-Gr 3–This perfectly cadenced picture-book biography starts small and hits its stride when Sojourner speaks her gospel of truth. Luminous artwork sets the scenes and portrays a woman on the move and an indomitable, larger-than-life spirit.
PINKNEY, Jerry. The Lion & the Mouse. illus. by author. Little, Brown. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-01356-7.
PreS-Gr 3–Pinkney’s stunning–and elegantly wordless–version of a well-known Aesop’s fable is incandescent with the shimmering hues of its African savannah setting. The artwork’s captivating realism and riveting visual perspectives reveal that though these creatures differ in size and stature, they both possess a lion’s share of courage and compassion.
RUDDELL, Deborah. A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems. illus. by Joan Rankin. S & S/Margaret K. McElderry Bks. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-4211-5.
K-Gr 5–Twenty-two playful poems introduce a memorable menagerie of woodland denizens and touch upon the wonders of their environment. Written in a pleasing variety of moods and styles, these selections are illustrated with waggish watercolors in warm earth tones.
SÁENZ, Benjamin Alire. Last Night I Sang to the Monster. Cinco Puntos. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-933693-58-3.
Gr 9 Up–Eighteen-year-old alcoholic Zach doesn’t know how he got to rehab, but with the steadfast support of his therapist and his fatherly roommate, he gradually allows horrific memories to emerge. This is a wrenching and inspiring portrayal of loss, love, and the process of recovery.
ST. GEORGE, Judith. The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. Viking. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-670-01124-7.
Gr 5-9–Early on a July morning in 1804, on a patch of field overlooking the Hudson River, two prominent political figures dueled. Suspenseful, alternating chapters follow the contrasting lives and characters of the men from birth to that fateful day.
SALLEY, Coleen. Epossumondas Plays Possum. illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. RTE $16. ISBN 978-0-15-206420-4.
K-Gr 4–The endearing baby possum gets lost in the Louisiana swamp where, distracted by thoughts of the terrifying loup-garou that his mama had warned him about, he nonchalantly plays dead and protects himself from one real-life predator after another. A storyteller’s delight, with perfectly paced narrative and entertaining mixed-media artwork.
SCANLON, Liz Garton. All the World. illus. by Marla Frazee. S & S/Beach Lane Bks. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-8580-8.
K-Gr 2–From a morning beach excursion to an evening filled with music and friends, this bright and breezy picture book celebrates the whirlwind of family life in summer. Lilting rhymes and enchanting drawings depict moments both great and small, striking a tone that is both intimate and universal.
SPIRES, Elizabeth. I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings. Farrar/Frances Foster Bks. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-374-33528-1.
Gr 7 Up–Spires blends archival photos of the artist and his works with her own free-verse poems to convey Edmondson’s earnest inspirations, rock-solid faith, and quiet wisdom while alluding to his place in history and the broader mysteries of the creative process.
STEAD, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-385-73742-5; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-385-90664-7.
Gr 5-8– Miranda has no trouble navigating her 1978 New York City neighborhood, but she does have trouble with sixth grade when her best friend deserts her, mysterious notes appear that seem to predict the future, and she keeps encountering a homeless man who is somehow connected to her life. A perfectly crafted, time-wrinkling puzzle.
STORK, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-05474-4.
Gr 8 Up–Forced to take a summer job at his father’s law firm, an autistic 17-year-old must learn to navigate the workplace. When it comes to office and personal politics, Marcelo’s moral compass never wavers, but he begins to understand who he is and to see others, including his father, through new eyes. An original and memorable coming-of-age story.
STURM, James, Andrew Arnold, & Alexis Frederick-Frost. Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics. Roaring Brook/First Second. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-369-4.
Gr 2-6–In this goofy graphic novel, a knight on a quest encounters a candy-stealing dragon and receives instruction in the elements of cartooning from a cheerful elf. Clear layouts illustrate the terms used and get readers thinking about visual storytelling.
THIMMESH, Catherine. Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From. Houghton. RTE $18. ISBN 978-0-547-05199-4.
Gr 5-10–The discovery in 1974 of the skeletal fragments of a 3.2 million-year-old bipedal with a small brain rocked the scientific world and turned theories of a linear hominid family tree upside down. In illuminating detail, the author explains the significance of the find and unveils how a paleo-artist reconstructed an image of this small figure, affectionately known as Lucy.
THOMPSON, Kate. Creature of the Night. Roaring Brook. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-59643-511-7.
Gr 8 Up–A troubled 14-year-old heading for a life of crime moves from Dublin to the country, where Irish lore, murder, and a touch of kindness and the supernatural change the direction of his life. A riveting story filled with suspense, mystery, and full-blooded characters.
TRACY, Kristen. Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus…. Delacorte. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-385-73687-9; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-385-90633-3.
Gr 3-5–From a frightening but funny opening scene to all manner of problems at home and at school, this lovable fourth grader faces life’s ups and downs with self-confidence, a take-charge attitude, and a heart full of hope. Camille’s narrative shines with honesty, realism, and irrepressible humor.
WALKER, Sally M. Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. Carolrhoda. PLB $22.95. ISBN 978-0-8225-7135-3.
Gr 6-9–Recent excavations and analyses of burial grounds have led scientists to new understandings about the diet, health, lifestyle, social customs—and deaths—of the colonists. Arresting photographs of the remains, the sites, and laboratories provide a glimpse into the meticulous investigative work of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists.
WEITZMAN, David. Pharaoh’s Boat. illus. by author. Houghton. RTE $17. ISBN 978-0-547-05341-7.
Gr 3-6–History, custom, and instruction in the ancient art of shipbuilding are at the core of this account of the amazing discovery and reconstruction of a 4500-year-old funerary vessel. The book’s dynamic design incorporates elegant stylized drawings in warm hues.
WESTERFELD, Scott. Leviathan. illus. by Keith Thompson. S & S/Pulse. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-7173-3.
Gr 7 Up–In this alternative World War I history, the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, clash with the Darwinists, who develop highly efficient new species to help them wage war. A sweeping steampunk adventure with nonstop action and engaging teen protagonists.
WILLEMS, Mo. Pigs Make Me Sneeze! illus. by author. (An Elephant & Piggie Bk.). Hyperion/Disney. RTE $8.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-1411-6.
PreS-Gr 3–In this easy reader told entirely through dialogue balloons, Gerald is dismayed by the notion that he might be allergic to his best friend-until Dr. Cat comes to the rescue. The animals’ expressions and body language are a riot, and the friends’ very real emotions are priceless.
WOOD, A. J. & Clint Twist. Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure. Candlewick/Templar. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4538-0.
Gr 4-8–A clasped cover, decorative endpapers, and pages of journal entries, sketches of exotic creatures, labeled diagrams, and period maps fittingly conjure images of a 19th-century naturalist’s notebook. Intriguing inserts, including facsimiles of letters, the Beagle’s manifest, and notes on navigation and slavery round out this fact-filled, interactive look at the life and travels of the eminent scientist.
WOODSON, Jacqueline. Peace, Locomotion. Putnam. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-399-24655-5.
Gr 4-6–Tender-hearted Lonnie, a foster child who lives with kindly Miss Edna in Brooklyn, writes poetry about peace and shares his observations and feelings in letters to his sister. This stand-alone sequel to Locomotion is a deeply affecting story of loss, love, family, and survival.