This year, same as last year, Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend. Even better, it falls on a Sunday, the one day of the week when it’s considered socially acceptable to never get out of your pajamas and lay on the couch with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon and devour a book from cover to cover. Well, okay – maybe the jar-of-peanut-butter-and-spoon thing isn’t something I should be sharing. But anyway. Sunday. Meaning even if you and your valentine have evening plans, you’ve got all day to sit down and read a good book. Do it with coffee. Do it with a jar of peanut butter. I don’t care. I won’t judge. But if you need some recommendations for what to read, here are a handful of suggestions – the books, in no particular order, that I’ve loved most this past year.
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Borgel; Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars; The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror; Slaves of Spiegel; Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario; The Worms of Kukumlima – Daniel Pinkwater
I only first discovered Daniel Pinkwater about a year ago, and the discovery was both joyful and very, very sad. It was joyful because, as I quickly found out, nobody writes quite like Pinkwater, and he has written a lot. In other words, I had loads of glorious catching up to do, and every additional book I read helped fill a Pinkwater-sized hole I’d never even knew existed in my reading life.
The sadness of the discovery had to do with the fact that I’d only discovered Pinkwater in 2015, when I was well past childhood and adolescence. Because as a kid, I would’ve been downright obsessed with books like Borgel and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars and The Snarkout Boys and Slaves of Spiegel. I just can’t help but think about just how blown my mind and expanded my imagination would’ve been had I, at the ripe of old age of ten or twelve or fourteen, encountered Pinkwater’s odd and utterly unique blend of humor and heart, his sheer zaniness and big, brain-bending concepts. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it would’ve changed my life.
In any case, I’m glad he’s blowing my mind and expanding my imagination now. Since my discovery (which happened, actually, right around Valentine’s Day last year), I have been eagerly working my way through Pinkwater’s books. And if you enjoy going for wild, hilarious, and often surprisingly heartfelt rides – whether they take you through Space and Time, into the hot desert of Africa or the murky deep of Lake Ontario or strange coffee houses and diners and theaters and bookshops – you should probably do the same.
(As a quick and parenthetical postscript, I can’t help but add that one of the handful of publishers smart enough to have published some of Pinwater’s work – Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint – recently decided to publish some of mine!)
Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature – Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta
This behind-the-scenes history of children’s literature is written with irreverence, wit, and enormous affection – the same recipe behind many of children’s literatures greatest works. These three authors – two of them librarians, and all of them writers and reviewers – also happen to know what they’re talking about. With great taste and loads of knowledge, they are the perfect tour guides for anyone looking to learn about children’s literature, whether you don’t know a thing about it or think you already know everything there is to know.
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
When I was younger and thought that maybe, just maybe, if I did nothing but read and read and read, I could get through all the world’s worthwhile books before I shuffled off this mortal coil, I somehow bypassed Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (in addition, it should go without saying, to hundreds and hundreds of other great reads). This past year, though, I went back and read it, and quickly came to see why it’s considered a classic. The book does all the things that a “classic” novel is supposed to do, vividly capturing the world it sets out to depict and populating the place with a series of representative characters while also providing a commentary on the author’s own world and offering insights into the human condition that, for centuries to come, people will be able to sympathize with and understand.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. It’s also fun. And funny. My copy was over 700 pages long, and it went by fast. And I guess that’s another, and maybe just as important, mark of a “classic” – a book that’s so well crafted and rich that a reader of any kind, no matter what they’re looking for, can find something in it that makes the reading of it worthwhile.
Absolutely Almost – Lisa Graff
I just can’t get enough of Lisa Graff. Whenever I step into the bookstore and see a new book of hers on display, I grab it and buy it. I don’t even pause to read the descriptive flap in front or the blurbs of praise on back. She could write about paint drying or picking lint out of the bottoms of her pockets, and I promise you, it’d be riveting.
In Absolutely Almost, however, Graff does something much more exciting than write about paint or lint. She writes about a boy named Albie, who seems destined for nothing but mediocrity. And brilliantly, even bravely, Graff dodged all the clichés and worn-thin plots that books with such premises often run into. She didn’t write a book about Albie discovering a hidden talent for some yet-to-be-tried activity, and didn’t write a book in which he can huddle all his hurts and fears and doubts under the umbrella of a diagnosis, either. Graff forces Albie to face the harsh, messy difficulties that kids like him have to face every single day.
Most stories can be grouped (very broadly) into one of two categories: those that deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and those that deal with extraordinary people in ordinary situations. With Absolutely Almost, Graff has written a book about an ordinary boy in a fairly ordinary situation, and has made it an affecting, delightful read. It’s a serious accomplishment, and writing about it right now is making me want to pull it down off my shelf and start reading it again. I probably will. And will, as well, be eagerly waiting to read whatever Graff comes out with next.
The Literary Conference – Cesar Aira
Cesar Aira is a strange and fantastically inconsistent writer. He purposely writes himself into corners, forcing himself to slip out of them with increasingly inventive means. I could’ve chosen any one of the books by Aira I’ve read this past year, but I chose The Literary Conference because, for an author pretty much impossible to introduce, I think it serves as a fairly solid introduction. The novel begins as a piece of unassuming literary fiction, detours into a discussion of mad scientists, and ends with an pulse-quickening action sequence that involves the slaying of countless giant, bright blue worms.
If this book doesn’t shake up your reading life, I doubt anything can.
Hokey Pokey – Jerry Spinelli
Jerry Spinelli has always had a vision, and has always had a unique voice in which to share it. From his first book on, you can hear that voice, and can see that vision expressed in his characters, the circumstances and situations they find themselves in, and the ways in which they behave in them.
But Hokey Pokey, Spinelli’s latest novel, is the clearest expression of the author’s thoughts and feelings about childhood and growing up, about how to leave the one behind – but maybe also take a little bit of it with you – when it’s time to do the other. The novel also contains some of Spinelli’s most gorgeous bursts of lyrical prose. You could pick up the book and open it to a page at random, and you’d be sure to find some little delectable gem that would burrow itself into your brain and follow you around all day.
Fantastic, fun, perfectly paced and wonderfully quirky, Hokey Pokey will, I believe, one day be seen as one of this great author’s greatest works.
Lulu Walks the Dogs – Judith Viorst (Author) and Lane Smith (Illustrator)
Both Judith Viorst and Lane Smith are powerhouses in their own right, and when they get together, amazing things happen. The Lulu books are unlike any I’ve ever read. The narrative voice that Viorst has cooked up for this series is refreshing and unique. It’s snarky and postmodern, with plenty of elbow nudges and winks to the reader, and even a handful of wry, all-in-good-fun attacks on its characters.
Smith’s illustrations play off Viorst’s language, and amplify her effects. He has an uncanny way of providing the images you want to see before you’ve even realized you want to see them, and of giving characters faces and expressions that exactly match the ones being formed in your imagination.
As a team, Viorst and Smith give the greatest duos a run for their money. They’re like Batman and Robin. Like Oprah and Gayle. Like peanut butter and jelly or spaghetti and meatballs. Here’s hoping they work together again soon.
The Fourteenth Goldfish – Jennifer L. Holm
If you’ve ever read this blog (or even just this post), you’ll know that I like my books with equal doses of humor and heart, with every bit of wonkiness balanced out by a bit of warmth, and every moment of sentimentality leavened with one of silliness. No book I’ve read this past year has so perfectly hit that sweet spot than Jenni Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish. Within two pages, I was in love. I wanted to gobble the book up all at once, but also linger over every paragraph, admiring the way Holm had perfectly captured a realistic eleven-year-old voice – and then used it to talk about her mad scientist, immortality-obsessed grandfather.
It’s a short book, too. Meaning you can probably read it in a single sitting. But if you’re anything like me, you won’t want the book to end, and will find yourself missing its language and characters long after it does.
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Agree? Disagree? Thinking about a book you loved this past year? Comment below and let me know!