I am a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, which means I have the privilege of reading 60 to 70 books a year for early, middle grade, and young adult readers before they’re published. Whatever the magazine sends me, I read and review. I get to read debut novels, works from authors just a few books old, and books from established authors. The fact that I am able to read so many of them before they’re published continues to tickle my literary bones because there’s such excitement in this world of books.
I can request to review a book when I learn it’s in the works, but my request is never guaranteed to be fulfilled. Sometimes, however, Booklist will send me a package that includes a book by an author I admire. Other times, I’m jealous that another reviewer was given the opportunity to read and review a book I’ve got on my “Get It When It’s Published” list – less because I’ll have to get it from the library or buy it at my local independent bookseller and more because the other reviewer got to read it first.
And so it goes. There’s always another book to read, and I’m happy to say that there have been very few that I’ve rejected (yes, I can do that because the magazine recommends books to “librarians, book groups and book lovers” rather than flood them with “don’t-waste-your-time” reviews).
In 2016, I went on hiatus from Booklist for the first half of the year – well, it turned out to be more like six-and-a-half months because a needed hip replacement happened toward the end – so my involvement with Booklist was sliced in half. Still, I’ve read many good books, rejected only one, and gave starred reviews to three, which is less than I would in a full year.
However, this is not about me; it’s about the books, and I want to share those “Best of 2016” starred reviews with you. Please note that the order in which I list them is by publication date of the review.
First up is Character, Driven by David Lubar. With typical Lubarian humor, the well-known, award-winning, and always-adventurous author looks at two diverse challenges that certainly resonate with many teen guys (and girls).
Lubar, David (author).
Mar. 2016. 304p.
Tor Teen, hardcover, $17.99 (9780765316332);
Tor Teen, e-book (9781466852693).
REVIEW. First published January 1, 2016 (Booklist).
With high-school graduation drawing near, Cliff stands at the precipice of his future, uncertain which way to jump. Yet he knows he has to do two things before the end of his senior year: lose his virginity and get Jillian, the new girl, to notice him. But that’s not everything crowding his proverbial plate because life isn’t that simple. His unemployed father threatens to kick him out when he turns 18 unless he contributes to the household, so Cliff works two part-time jobs and shelves the idea of college for the time being. His only havens are his closest friends, books, and art. However, one day he’s forced to dial 911, and life as he knows it changes. The most alluring feature of this book is the effective way Cliff breaks the literary fourth wall to share truths and admissions with the reader. Readers will giggle and guffaw at Lubar’s trademark humor, while their heartstrings are tugged and feelings are tied in knots. This exquisitely crafted coming-of-age novel gets down and dirty—and even rebellious—without sacrificing honesty, thoughtfulness, or respect. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal whether he gets the girl, but readers will certainly fall for Cliff and find support in his trials and tribulations.
— Jeanne Fredriksen
Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Character, Driven
- The Best Possible Answer
- The Homecoming
- King Dork, Approximately
- The Serpent King
The next book, also categorized as young adult, is Nowhere Near You by Leah Thomas. This is the sequel to Thomas’ intriguing debut novel, Because You’ll Never Meet Me (2015).
Nowhere Near You.
Thomas, Leah (author).
Feb. 2017. 400p.
Bloomsbury, hardcover, $17.99 (9781681191782).
REVIEW. First published November 15, 2016 (Booklist).
Electro-sensitive Ollie and eyeless Moritz and his pacemaker return in a sequel that is darker than Because You’ll Never Meet Me (a 2016 Morris Honor Book), and the boys’ affectionate epistolary relationship continues. As Ollie bravely travels out of his Michigan woods to meet other blunderkind, or blunderkids like himself, he is eager yet apprehensive about his mission to write their stories. In Chicago, he meets Arthur, who is bizarrely tall and has regenerative bones that are as brittle as chalk; and in suburban Ohio, he meets Bridget, who removes her heart from her body when she no longer wants to feel. Meanwhile, Moritz bumps into dual-mouthed Molly, who is the most popular actress at Myriad, their creative-arts high school. Ollie and Moritz, in unforgettable and distinct voices, discover worlds they never dreamed they could be part of. Their raw emotions and new confidences tumble out in a more intimate and personal exchange as they realize their capabilities and cross boundaries. In this character-driven installment that cries for a third volume, Thomas allows her characters to be like any other teens—clever, fearful, curious, and determined, while questioning their place in society. A fantastic novel that will be especially resonant for readers who struggle with being or feeling outside of “normal.” — Jeanne Fredriksen
Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to Nowhere Near You
- Kids of Appetite
- A 52-Hertz Whale
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
The third and last starred review I’d given for 2016 belongs to a fun, sweet, and destined-to-be-cherished debut late early reader/early middle grade novel, The Secret of Goldenrod by Jane O’Reilly.
The Secret of Goldenrod.
O’Reilly, Jane (author).
Oct. 2016. 376p.
Carolrhoda, hardcover, $17.99 (9781512401356).
REVIEW. First published November 15, 2016 (Booklist).
New Royal, Iowa—population of 397—is convinced that Goldenrod, the abandoned Victorian mansion outside of town, is haunted, because of its tragic history. Almost-11-year-old Trina Maxell is convinced, as well, when she and her handyman father arrive with a year-long contract to make the structure habitable again. However, to Trina, a year in a house is as close to having a permanent home as she’s ever had. Poking around the upstairs rooms, she discovers a dollhouse and Augustine, a century-old talking porcelain doll who becomes her first friend, confidante, and mentor. Trina’s desire to learn the history of Goldenrod helps her uncover the source of the legends and understand what Goldenrod has been trying to tell her. Trina vows to make things right again for Augustine, Goldenrod, New Royal, and Annie, the little girl who lived in Goldenrod in 1912. O’Reilly’s debut integrates elements of spooky otherworldliness with beautiful writing to create a complex story of loss, longing, and hope that is populated by endearing characters. This wistful and superlative coming-of-age story highlights the discovery of friendship and belonging in an otherwise chaotic world. Perfect for readers who crave contemporary stories that feel like a classic, this is one to be reread and enjoyed many times over.
— Jeanne Fredriksen
Booklist Editors Recommend Titles Similar to The Secret of Goldenrod
- The Doll Graveyard
- Last in a Long Line of Rebels