Let's start with the fiction...
A fun, screwball-ish romp where a family in 1965 wins $1,000 and uses it on a vacation to Miami Beach. In typical fashion, hi-jinks quickly ensue. Fagan's story and characters can easily be picked up by struggling readers, yet the characters are developed well enough for strong readers too. A title that is just too much fun not to enjoy.
An engaging island mystery set in the Elizabeth Islands of 1920's Massachusetts. A young girl (Crow) adopted into island scavenger life yearns to learn the truth about her real family & heritage, and the former leper colony Penikese seems to hold the answers. Wolk's descriptive writing is exquisite, rendering the book's setting as important as the characters and plot.
I enjoy duel-narrative stories, and Scaletta strikes the perfect balance here. Maya lives in Minnesota and worries about "grown-up things" like the alarming drop in bee population. Maya's sister, Grace, is a rabid baseball fan (and blogger) who takes an interest in new Twins prospect Rafael Rosales. Those worlds inevitably collide, and Maya ends up discovering more about Rafael than what meets the eye. Though perhaps I'm biased by the duel narrative (flashing between Maya/Grace & Rafael's journey), setting (my home state of MN), and sport (baseball), I found this to be a fantastic novel that is equal parts "baseball human interest" drama and "teen coming of age".
As befitting an Avi title, this story focuses on a child but doesn't pander to the kid-lit audience. Set in early-1700s England, young Oliver Pitts sees his home destroyed by a flood and his father disappear to tend to his wayward sister. Trying to reunite with his family (and stay one step ahead of the authorities eager to put him in the dreaded poor-house), Oliver engages in a number of adventures, from train-robbing to pick-pocketing. This is the type of novel that focuses on the plot/characters first and then makes it palatable to young audiences, an approach I enjoy.
The premise of this story is intriguing: In early 1900s El Paso, young Rose Solomon believes her brother is out West "being a cowboy"...until she glimpses him in a newspaper photo riding with the Pancho Villa gang. After inquiring around town about the Villa outfit, Rose is kidnapped and dropped in the middle of the gang itself! While trying to keep her cover & search out her brother, Rose experiences life with the famous Mexican revolutionary, an experience which challenges many of her preconceived notions and worldviews. I'm all for books that expand one's understanding of important causes, and that is where Krawitz shines in this one.
This is one of the most unique titles I've ever laid eyes on. It starts off narrated by a megalomaniacal baby describing his journey out of the womb (seriously!), and ends on a poignant, emotional note. Max is a baby born into the secret Nazi Germany Lebensborn program, where children are taken from their mothers and indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda. The first half of the book describes the process through the eyes and words of Max himself (even as a baby), providing some often-funny, often-biting commentary on learning a certain belief system. Once Max moves into his pre-teen years and befriends Lukas, however, all the preconceived notions of his youth are shattered. The message here is that it is important to remember that any belief system is only as good as those who question it from time to time.
When arrested for the supposed murder of his wife in 1899 Paris, Marcel Despres is discovered to have a remarkable talent: He can remember everything he sees (and has ever seen). But is this a blessing...or a curse? Both a doctor (trying to pad his resume) & a policeman (trying to solve a murder case) use (abuse?) Marcel's gifts, and both also discover the pitfalls of a man often lost in the labyrinth of his own voluminous mind. This is a mystery of the highest order, utilizing the fascinating concept of memory to add emotional depth. The themes and characters will stick with readers long after the final page (featuring a rather shocking ending!) is turned.
On to a few nonfiction favorites...
Everyone knows the story of the Titanic, but few are as intimately familiar with this similar nautical disaster. Loaded (more accurately, overloaded) with Union soldiers just released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, a boiler explosion (whether sabotage or not I won't spoil) caused the huge steamship to sink into the Mississippi River, killing over 1,100 of its passengers. Likely preempted in American history accounts due to its happening the day after President Lincoln's assassination, Sally Walker's tremendous historical research and narrative-like prose bring this event to life.
There is no doubt that Benjamin Franklin was one of the most interesting figures in U.S. history. However, the language of his nuggets of wit & wisdom can be confusing to young people. Koystal remedies that problem by taking Franklin's best sayings and translating them for a younger/contemporary audience. A quote from Franklin is given, its "nowadays" translation is provided, as well as an example from his life and a lively drawing depicting the event taking place. It all adds up to a fun way to explore history (and the enigmatic Franklin) for readers of all ages.
A book combining Star Wars & infographics...of course it's going to be a hit! This title epitomizes the phrase "high interest", combining the ever-popular (and ever-expanding!) Star Wars universe with the newly-popular trend of infographics. Charts in all different shapes and sizes and about all kinds of Star Wars topics are featured here, some expressively made for humor with others depicting key Star Wars facts in interesting visual formats. It won't matter if the reader is in grade school or sat in the theater for the original Star Wars showing...this has something for everyone!
Finally, I've always been a big fan of biographies, and these told compelling stories of their protagonists...
While most everyone knows Harry Houdini for his magic, what many may not know is that he also spent a significant portion of his life fascinated by spiritualism (mostly debunking fakers & frauds). Spiritualism (mediums, seances, etc.) is a practice that has mostly been relegated to the scrap-heap of history in today's era of science, so it is fascinating to see a time in which it was considered (by many) to be quite legitimate and widely-practiced (e.g. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous Sherlock Holmes author and good friend of Harry's, is a profound force for the practice throughout the book). Pictures and unique text formats abound, making this as much a visual treat as a literary one.
The name "Jack London" immediately conjures up images of wilderness and survival stories. But how did London come to write about such fare? That is what Lourie examines, chronicling London's journey to "hit paydirt" in the Canadian Yukon territories at the height of the Kondike gold rush. Lourie makes a compelling case that, by braving harsh terrain, staying in rough-and-tumble miner camps, and actually going through the mining process himself, London was given all the life-experience components needed to inspire later novels like "The Call of the Wild" or "White Fang". With those books widely enjoyed at the grade-school level to this day, this engaging and visually stunning (full of pictures) bio of London's formative experiences is sure to please.
Even the youngest of U.S. history scholars know names like Washington, Jefferson, & Madison. The name Alexander Hamilton may not be quite as familiar (outside his infamous duel with Aaron Burr). Kanefield shows, however, that Hamilton had as big of an impact on the formative years of America as any of the other Founding Fathers. By fighting for his country during the Revolution, his role in ratifying the constitution, heavy contributions to the iconic Federalist Papers, and his service as the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton is (finally) given the airing he deserves. With the musical of the same name sweeping the nation, now seems like the perfect time to put this book in the hands of youngsters.
What Jackie Robinson was to Major League Baseball is what Perry Wallace was to the Southeastern Conference of college basketball in the late 1960s. Playing at Vanderbilt University, Wallace was the first black man to compete in the conference, a title that garnered him many accolades as well as his share of pain and persecution. In an era where beatings or lynchings of black people were not entirely uncommon, Wallace traveled through the Deep South in pursuit of basketball glory and racial equality. Every bit as compelling as other sports or civil rights tales, I'm glad that Wallace's story was tackled by Maraniss (and made into a YA-friendly version).
During the tragic and harrowing events of September 11, 2001, a man wearing a red bandanna helped, comforted, and/or rescued many people fleeing the second tower. This book tells the story of the man behind the bandanna, Welles Crowther. While this easily could have turned into a very sad story, Rinaldi chooses the approach of acknowledging the tragedy but then looking for rays of light amidst the chaos and suffering. In other words, honoring Crowther's life & memory instead of bemoaning his ultimate fate. This is a story, first and foremost, about people and relationships, and Rinaldi focuses on those who interacted with Crowther (family, friends, 9/11 survivors, etc.) to craft a tale that is somehow heartbreaking & uplifting at the same time.
I'm sure that as summer '17 turns into fall, there will be more titles to recommend. When this post publishes, I will be vacationing in California (the perks of having a brother working for a production company!), hence the beach pic.
Perhaps the inspiration for my next "Best Of" list will begin in the Golden State, on a sandy beach overlooking the cliffs of Malibu or the pier in Santa Monica. You just never know!