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Clearly I’m reading more YA than children’s, since this selection looks pretty skimpy.  I have a few volumes of poetry on my shelf – Honeybee and This is Just to Say – and both reference good ol’ William Carlos Williams in some way.  An unintentional combination on my part, but it might mean I need to revisit WCW himself for a future post.

Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O’Connor: This one was recommended by Jules at 7-Imp, and it didn’t disappoint. This was a simple, straightforward story about a great cast of characters meeting at an old, run-down motel. It could have been sappy – but it wasn’t. There was enough of an edge to it, and some sadness, but also characters who were happy despite the tough things in life, and people who were happy with the little things. A good choice for maybe an older elementary school reader who likes plenty of points of view and a bunch of interesting characters, but doesn’t need an action-packed plot. Things move along nicely, though, with fairly short chapters. Good for adults, too, who need a breath of fresh air and a sweet little book.

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson: 100 Cupboards is like the Brambly Hedge book The Secret Staircase, only creepier and for older kids. The atmosphere is wonderful – there’s a great sense that the author knows about everything behind each cupboard, even if it doesn’t come into the story (and it looks like the first in a series, so he’d better) – this creates a sense that the world is a bigger, more wonderful and frightening place than you thought.

All of which fits perfectly into the character development of Henry. He’s le…more 100 Cupboards is like the Brambly Hedge book The Secret Staircase, only creepier and for older kids. The atmosphere is wonderful – there’s a great sense that the author knows about everything behind each cupboard, even if it doesn’t come into the story (and it looks like the first in a series, so he’d better) – this creates a sense that the world is a bigger, more wonderful and frightening place than you thought.

All of which fits perfectly into the character development of Henry. He’s led a sheltered life, but he never realized it was sheltered until he starts to experience other things. He tells us about the time he was nine and realized that other nine-year-olds don’t sit in carseats. And when he realized that other children don’t have to wear helmets for PE, and that boys pee standing up. So when Henry’s parents are kidnapped, and he goes to live with his aunt and uncle and cousins in small-town Kansas, and a mysterious wall of cupboards pushes through the plaster in his bedroom, he reacts practically. His mother just never told him about secret cupboards that lead to other worlds, he thinks.

I really liked this approach to the fantastic – Henry’s life has been set up in such a way that, to him, the cupboards are really no more surprising than the other revelations. Henry’s not the only good character – they’re pretty much all fantastic, as is the setting – both the normal world of Henry, Kansas, and the worlds that Henry finds in the cupboards.

The plot starts off a little slow – plenty of build-up of setting and character, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but someone looking for a pull-you-in plot right off the bat might be disappointed. Things definitely heat up, and the second half of the book is something of a whirlwind. A bit too much is left unresolved at the end, while we wait for a sequel, making it feel more like the first installment in a serial novel than a stand-alone story.

Why do I find it so satisfying to look back over lists of books I’ve read?  I’m not sure.  For one thing, it reminds me of good times spent reading.  Plus I like to notice little trends or coincidences or patterns in my reading habits.  For instance, last May I managed to knock out 19 books, but this May I only got up to 14.  Clearly, I’m slacking off.  Although 19 is the most I’ve ever read in one month, so I shouldn’t feel too bad.

Here’s what I’ve been up to lately in terms of young adult fiction:

Ptolemy’s Gate: Jonathan Stroud isn’t afraid of using a lot of big words, or of having a character that ought to be sympathetic turn into a real jerk for a book and a half, or of making you laugh so hard that people in other cars might think you’re crazy instead of just listening to a children’s audio book.  I could mention more things that he’s not afraid of, but that might spoil the ending.  The whole series, starting with The Amulet of Samarkand, is a riot and a long adventure covering a nice span of years.  Characters grow and change, but Bartimaeus never stops being funny.  The audio version is a delight.  For fantasy that you can really sink your teeth into, with substance as well as humor and action, this is hard to beat.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson:  This is a page-turner. I was absolutely hooked by the premise, because it could have gone so many different directions from the first chapter. Jenna is 17 and has just woken up from a coma. She doesn’t remember anything. You’ve got an enigmatic character – she doesn’t know who she is or who she wants to be. All the supporting characters are acting strangely, in one way or another. There’s a mystery to solve, but it’s a mystery of the mind – and of who we are and what defines us. Plus a whole slew of ethical dilemmas. I couldn’t put it down, even after the first big reveal. Basically, I’m having trouble finding fault with it. It’s thoughtful AND gripping all at the same time – what more do you want?

Jenna is 17, but I think it could ‘read’ much younger, and readers of different ages would take something different away from the story, and the questions it raises.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one pick up some nice shiny stickers.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld: Now, right before I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox, I finally dipped into the Uglies series.  What works about this book is a great blend of fast-paced storytelling and just enough substance to make the reader think without taxing the brain. There are plenty of revelations, well-paced through the story. Most chapters end with some sort of a hook, dragging you into the next chapter even if you planned on putting it down and going to bed. Tally goes through a plausible change of heart throughout the course of the book, from eager to become a pretty, to…well, I’m not going to tell you how the story ends! Needless to say, it leaves you ready for the next installment. I would’ve liked a bit more in the way of characterization, but that never really distracted from the story, because I was caught up in the plot.

However, prop that one up next to Jenna Fox, and I’m afraid Uglies pales in comparison.  It’s certainly got more action, and but both are page-turners.  The characters in Jenna Fox were more complex, and if you want to talk about medical ethics, well!  Uglies barely brushes the surface.  This is nothing against Uglies – it’s not quite fair to compare the two, since they’re quite different, but the similarities were just too much not to notice, especially back to back.  Jenna Fox is perhaps a more literary story, but to my mind it doesn’t need to sacrifice any of the tension or suspense to achieve that.

The Joys of Love by Madeleine L’Engle: An enjoyable read, with a lot of the L’Engle hallmarks of tone and character and earnestness, but without much in the way of magic. I don’t mean magic like A Wrinkle in Time, but magic like it had that spark, or really caught my imagination. Still, if you love L’Engle’s style, or stories about the theater, or mildly old-fashioned YA, I’d recommend it for a quick read. I really liked the character of Elizabeth, except she made me feel like a grown-up because I wanted to shout “trouble!” every time a certain character walked onto the page, and she was totally blind to his inherent gerk-ness. I like a bit more ambiguity in my ‘villains’ – it makes it more fun if you could imagine the story going either way, even though you know what will happen.

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