Maureen’s Favorite Realistic YA books

Most of the time, I’m really a fantasy reader (or, to be fancy, ‘speculative fiction’), but every now and then I do enjoy a really satisfying realistic YA book. Fortunately, we’re in a golden age of YA publishing right now and there’s plenty to choose from! Here are a few of my favorites.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green: I’m going to be all un-mainstream here and say that Katherines, John Green’s second book, is my favorite. It’s about a former child prodigy who has dated nineteen girls named Katherine. Mostly, it’s just plain funny and a bit weird, but definitely awesome.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: Jellicoe is the third book by Australian author Melina Marchetta, and it won the Printz award in 2009. It’s a book that manages to be completely heartbreaking and completely wonderful at the same time. I love it for the characters, whose stories come together in a fantastic way, and for the writing, which is beautiful.

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins: Sequel to Anna and the French Kiss, Lola takes place in San Francisco and is definitely in the sweet category of realistic YA. I really like Lola’s story and re-read it whenever I’m looking for the book equivalent of a piece of chocolate.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews: Okay, chocolate this one is NOT. In fact, it’s frequently gross, morbid, and otherwise not what you’d expect in a Cancer Book. However, it’s also surprising sweet, hilariously funny, and completely original. 

Heist Society by Ally Carter: I love fun spy/burglary movies like Ocean’s Eleven or How to Steal a Million, and the Kat Bishop series (of which this is the first installment) are the book equivalent of those. Completely ridiculous, and really enjoyable.


Picture Book Month

Did you know that November has been declared Picture Book Month? This is great news here in the Children’s Room because we love picture books of all types. Here are a few of my personal favorites—feel free to chime in with yours!

Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina: A peddler walks down the road with hits caps piled on top of his head. When he stops to take a nap, a bunch of monkeys steal the cap and the peddler has to get them back. This is an older book, but it was one of my family’s favorites growing up and it’s a fun read-aloud since you can act out the part of the peddler and the monkeys. With colorful illustrations and lots of detail for children to find, this is a great classic.

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey: Speaking of classics, you don’t get much better than the story of Sal and her mother who go picking blueberries on a hill. But on the other side is a mother bear and her baby. When a mix-up occurs, it’s quite a shock for everyone! The illustrations for this story are really funny and there are lots of sound effects for the kids to echo.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney: All right, one more classic. I grew up on the story of Alice, the Lupine Lady, who wants to go to faraway places, to live by the sea, and to make the world more beautiful. When she has worked in a library, traveled the world, and settled by the sea, she goes around scattering lupine seeds so that the ground is covered with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers. Without being preachy, this story has a great message.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen: When Annabelle finds a box filled with yarn of every color, she begins knitting with it. She has some extra yarn, so she keeps knitting. And then she covers her cold little town in yarn of every color. I love the deceptively simple illustrations and the slightly humorous tone of the story that at the same time inspires me to make the world a more beautiful place.

Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett and Dan Santat: “Oh no…Oh man…I knew it. I never should have built a robot for the science fair.” So says our narrator at the beginning of the book. Then she has to deal with the fact that her giant science fair robot has gotten out and is busy destroying the world. Her solution is creative…maybe a bit TOO creative!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen: Fair warning—don’t read this book with those who are especially tender-hearted when it comes to animals. However, for those of us who are a little more thick-skinned, this story of a bear who has lost his hat is absolutely hilarious. There are wonderful little jokes between the story and the pictures

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems: Okay, basically, I love anything by Mo Willems. But lots of people know about the Pigeon books and Knuffle Bunny. Leonardo, the Terrible monster is also delightful and not so well known. Leonardo is a terrible monster. He can’t scare anyone. He doesn’t have scary teeth, he’s not big, or just plain weird. Then he decides to find the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world and scare the tuna salad out of them. As usual, Willems’ illustrations are fun, with lots of expression on the different characters.

Flotsam by David Wiesner: A wordless picture book. At the beginning, a boy finds a camera washed up on a beach. When he looks at the film, he discovers a magical underwater world of mechanical fish, cozy living rooms where octopuses read to their young, and mermaids wave to squid. An enchanting book for the imaginative reader, with always a little more to find in each picture.

Vampirina Ballerina by Anne Marie Pace and LeUyen Pham: A little vampire dreams of becoming a ballerina, but it’s not easy when you have cold feet, or when your smile scares the other dances, or when you’re liable to turn into a bat when embarrassed. This is such a cute book, full of funny little details and a heartwarming story. Great for the ballet enthusiast at any time of the year.


Wolves, Hot Air Balloons and Gunpowder

Fifty years ago, long before the Lemony Snicket books were written, Joan Aiken published the first in her Wolves Chronicles series. Set in an alternate England where James III rules and wolves roam the countryside, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has a wonderful combination of brave kids in danger, truly unpleasant adults, and slightly grim humor.

Although there are a few jokes that are funnier if you know something about English history, Aiken has really made a world that stands on its own. The main characters of the series, Simon, Sophie, and Dido, have to make their way through a dangerous world full of Hanoverian plots to overthrow the king, relatives plotting to steal fortunes, and even a few magical misunderstandings.

I first encountered the series when my grandparents gave me a copy of the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket. It was one of the weirdest things I had ever read, and I loved it. Dido is not always perfect, but she is brave and always has a keen sense for when things are not right. I gradually read the whole series and they became some of my favorites.

I mentioned Lemony Snicket at the beginning of this post because I think that readers who like the Series of Unfortunate Events would like Joan Aiken’s books as well. They have a similar mix of plucky kids, villains and a wacky but wonderful world. Although they were written fifty years ago, the Wolves Chronicles have a timeless appeal, not just for kids but for readers of all ages.


Maureen’s Favorite Books From 2012… So Far

Since we’re already over halfway through 2012 (and HOW did that happen?), I thought I’d talk a little bit about the books I’ve enjoyed so far this year.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: I find it difficult to talk rationally about this book, because I love it so much. It’s not necessarily for everyone, but it’s amazing. It begins with the narrative of a young British woman captured by the Gestapo during World War II. I can’t tell you anything else, or I’ll spoil it, but it’s all about friendship and trust and bravery. If you manage to get through it without needing tissues, I’ll be highly surprised. (For a lot more about this book, see here:

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan: If you’ve ever thought that vampire stories are cool in theory, but not so much in real life, this might be the book for you! This hilarious and slightly snarky book explores what might happen if a vampire actually attended high school. But it also unexpectedly moving, as our narrator has to face her own prejudices when her best friend falls in love with the vampire.

The Book of Blood & Shadow by Robin Wasserman: a YA thriller, complete with secret societies and international travel. The teenage angst is the icing on the cake. Actually, though, this is a great quick read and has enough heart (and smarts) to keep it from feeling too fluffy. Recommended for anyone who enjoys a heart-pounding read.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. The writing is pitch perfect from the beginning and I loved the setting, with its cosmopolitan feel and different groups interacting. It also manages to feel both fresh and comfortingly old-fashioned. It’s a book I would have absolutely adored as a teenager and liked a lot now. Plus, DRAGONS!

So far 2012 has been a great year for books—hopefully that trend will continue!


Historical Fantasy

Do you enjoy reading fantasy? What about historical fiction? If you’re a fan of both, you might enjoy one of these historical fantasies, books that have fantastic elements but which are based on historical events. Some books are set in a place almost the same as our world, and some are quite different, but all of them are pretty great!

For adults:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: English magic has died out, or so everyone thinks. Those who call themselves magicians are scholars of magic, rather than practitioners. It is a shock for everyone when a gentleman named Gilbert Norrell demonstrates undoubtable magical ability. Eventually he takes a pupil named Jonathan Strange, whose approach is as different from Mr. Norrell’s as night from day. This book tells their story, in effortless and beautiful prose.

His Majesty’s Dragon, and sequels, by Naomi Novik: Best described as Master and Commander with dragons, His Majesty’s Dragon follows the British Navy’s Captain Laurence as he unwillingly becomes a dragon captain. Full of adventure and intrigue, this is a great series!

The Curse of Chalion, and sequels, by Lois McMaster Bujold: Three in a planned five-book series, the Chalion books take place in a world roughly analogous to early Renaissance Spain. There are plenty of courtly intrigues and a few good battles, and even a little bit of romance.

For teens:

Chime by Franny Billingsley: I know I’ve already said I enjoyed Chime a lot. One of the reasons for that is the fantastic setting, which takes its inspiration from the atmosphere of the English fen country in the early 1900s. That sounds kind of boring, but it’s a great way to look at a changing world, with an added sense of gloomy atmosphere and tension.

Foundling, and sequels, by D.M. Cornish: Probably geared toward younger teens, Cornish tells the story of Rossamünd, a Foundling in the Half-Continent, a world something like Baroque Europe. Cornish spent years inventing this world, and his work shows. He’s also a skilled artist whose drawings add depth and realism to the story.

The Thief, and sequels, by Megan Whalen Turner: This is one of my all-time favorite series, so I take every chance I can to mention it. But really, it’s also a great example of historical fantasy, with a meticulously-detailed world based on Byzantine Greece. With plenty of twists and surprises, plus awesome characters, this is definitely one to check out!

The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell: A neat book by an Indianapolis author! Set in the high society of Baltimore in 1889, The Vespertine tells the story of a girl who is not what she seems to be. Mitchell nails the voice from the beginning of the book and I totally bought the romance. A nice blend of authentic detail and contemporary drama.

For younger readers:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and sequels, by Joan Aiken: This book is the first in the series of the same name. In an England that never was, wolves are crossing the ice to threaten London. Meanwhile Sylvia must escape from an orphanage with the help of Simon the gooseboy. Madcap fun.

The Cabinet of Wonders, and sequels, by Marie Rutkoski: Set in 17th century Prague, The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequels tell the story of Petra Kronos, daughter of a master metal-worker whose ability to work metal with his mind lands him on the wrong side of the mad Prince of Bohemia. Petra is a fantastic, spunky character, and Rutkoski writes a chilling, thrilling story.

Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis: Set in Regency England, this is the story of Kat Stephenson, the youngest of three sisters. While Elissa and Angeline try to be proper young ladies, Kat doesn’t care for polite society, or its decrees that magic is improper. Kat is a great character and her trials and tribulations are at times hilariously funny.


Maureen Loves ALA Book Awards!

On January 23rd, the ALA awards, including the Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz were announced. Because I care a bit too much, I watched the live webcast from Dallas. It was pretty neat to see the reaction from the people in the audience, and all the book lovers watching and tweeting.

Shamefully, I hadn’t and haven’t read the Newbery winner or either of the Honor books. But I have read four of the five Printz books.

What won:
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whalley

Honor books:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
The Returning by Christine Hinwood
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Full disclosure: I may have screamed a little bit when The Returning and The Scorpio Races were announced. Both were among my favorite books of 2011 and I was totally on board with their Honors.

I hadn’t read Where Things Come Back at the time of the announcement, but I have now. It’s a strong book, well-written and interesting. At the same time, I feel like it has stereotypical Printz winner written all over it. It’s contemporary realistic fiction, with a self-aware male narrator and a plot that hints at bad things happening but ultimately resolves tidily.

More disclosure: I’m a huge fantasy fan and I think it’s a shame that the Printz award has never gone to a science fiction or fantasy book. You can make a case for last year’s Ship Breaker being science fiction, but I don’t tend to think of it in that category. (It’s still a fantastic book.) At any rate, here are a few of the books I think could have been Printz contenders, which ultimately weren’t honored. And either The Returning or The Scorpio Races could have easily won, in my opinion.

Chime by Franny Billingsley: Billingsley is a sadly under-rated author in my opinion. Chime, her second book, features a strong narrator, a mystery, and the intriguing first line, “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.” Briony’s narration might put some readers off a bit, but I found it extremely compelling.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor: This one has been hugely popular since it was published, with good reason. Taylor’s writing is effortless and beautiful, and the depiction of Karou’s two worlds is amazing. However, it probably suffered from the fact that it was very obviously the first in a series, rather than a stand-alone.

Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson: Johnson has been pretty much a contemporary realistic writer until Name of the Star, which takes a turn for the paranormal. It’s fairly light-hearted, despite the subject matter, but the mystery is wonderfully plotted and the characters are a lot of fun.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young: A gritty dystopia, more along the lines of Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go than, say, Divergent or Matched. As with Chime, Blood Red Road features a narration style that not all readers will enjoy. But Saba is a fantastic main character, prickly and tender at the same time.

As I made up this list, I noticed that all of these books have a common thread. They’re mostly first person (Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the exception), by female authors and with female narrators. They’re all some brand of fantasy. So clearly, I have my own biases when it comes to YA books. Still, I think that choosing a book outside the comfortable stereotypes of the Printz award would open up the medal to a new audience.

Agree? Disagree? Have a book you think should have been awarded or honored? Tell us in the comments!

Meet Maureen…

Hi everyone! I’m Maureen, and I work in the Children’s Room at PGTPL. I’ve been here since August 2011.
Libraries have always been a big part of my life, from when I was little and one of our treats was going to the ‘Big Library‘ in our city. My parents were also big supporters of my reading habit. They had always read to me and my siblings before we were old enough to read on our own. When we could pick out our own books, we would take an old canvas laundry bag to the library and fill it up. I remember graduating to the chapter book area, and then branching out into the teen and adult sections.
When I was in middle school, the school librarian took me under her wing and let me check out as many books as I wanted to. In high school, I volunteered in the school library before school started and in my study halls.
In college, I worked in the circulation department of my university’s library. This is when I really started to consider working in libraries after I graduated. I knew it was something that I enjoyed a lot and would be happy doing in the future. But I also knew that I wanted to work in a public library, where you can meet all kinds of interesting people, and that I was more interested in children’s and teen literature than in adult.
When I graduated, I spent over a year looking for a job. I kept interviewing and eventually applied for a Children’s Assistant position at PGTPL. I had never even seen it before I arrived for the interview, but I was immediately impressed by how friendly everyone was.  I was very excited when I found out I got the job! I’ve only been working here for a few months, but I’m still impressed by how friendly and committed all my fellow staff members are. Yay PGTPL!