Quill & Quire’s Books of the Year 2012

As 2012 comes to a close, Quill & Quire has picked their top five books for young people. Below are their top picks, along with their reasons for choosing these wonderful titles.

Middle of Nowhere Middle of Nowhere
Written by Caroline Adderson
Groundwood Books
In a kidlit market dominated by multi-volume series, it can be tough for an unassuming middle-grade novel with nary a wizard, shape-shifter, or talking animal in sight to stand out from the crowd. But Caroline Adderson’s touching tale of a 12-year-old boy who takes responsibility for his little brother when their mom abandons them (and the surprising ally they find in an elderly neighbour) does just that.

What could easily have become a heavy-handed tale of desperation is anything but thanks to Adderson’s ability to maintain a thread of humour throughout. The beauty of her delivery is that the comedy is never forced; rather, it is found in small, subtle moments – the kind readers will recognize as genuine.

Children are amazingly capable of identifying – and rejecting – sophistry. The books that speak to them tend to be the ones that treat them with respect, engaging their intellects as well as their imaginations. Middle of Nowhere is that kind of book.

Seraphina Seraphina
Written by Rachel Hartman
Doubleday Canada
Where did you come from, Rachel Hartman? The Kentucky-born author, who now makes her home in Vancouver, was an unknown until her high-fantasy debut hit stores this summer and spawned a tidal wave of appreciation. Now, with a Governor General’s Literary Award nomination under her belt, Hartman, who previously penned the mini-comic Amy Unbounded, has arrived on the scene with no small amount of fanfare. How fitting for an author whose novel is steeped almost as much in music as in dragon lore?

Dragons have been the source of literary inspiration almost since stories began, but what Hartman has accomplished is more than the continuation of a sub-genre: it’s the creation of a self-contained world that is Tolkienesque in its complexity and completeness. “What distinguishes the book from standard dragon fare … is the language,” writes Sarah Ellis in her feature review. “[Hartman] knows when to be plain and specific, and her metaphors and similes grow organically out of her created world.”

This Is Not My Hat This Is Not My Hat
Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press
Regular readers of these pages will not be surprised to find Jon Klassen’s latest effort as author and illustrator making this list. The success of his authorial debut, the highly praised 2011 bestseller I Want My Hat Back, could easily have set him up for a fall. Thankfully, This Is Not My Hat continues in the thoroughly enjoyable vein of its predecessor, proving that Klassen’s brand of deadpan humour aimed at the kindergarten set has ongoing appeal.

The only debate is whether the book’s greatest strength lies in the writing or the illustrations. The deceptively simple story – told in short, declarative sentences from a hat-stealing fish’s point of view – mimics the guileless inner monologue of a young child, instantly creating sympathy.

Ah, but those illustrations. In her starred review, Sarah Sorensen noted they “pack an expertly delivered punch. Subtle metallic colours set against a black background provide just the right amount of contrast to make the underwater world shimmer without distracting from the narration.”

Would it be too much to hope for a third book to complete the hat trick?

Virginia Wolf Virginia Wolf
Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press
Could anyone have foreseen how divisive this seemingly innocuous picture book would turn out to be? Based indirectly on Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, the story tells of a girl who is in a “wolfish” mood (that would be Virginia), and how her artistically inclined sister uses the power of imagination to help lift her out of her doldrums.

Sounds simple enough, but reactions to the book were surprisingly vehement. Some found the premise abhorrent: how could author Kyo Maclear base a children’s story on a woman who was tormented by mental illness and eventually committed suicide? Others came to its defence, pointing out the strong writing and gorgeous (Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated) illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault, and the fact that the intended audience – young children – would carry none of adult readers’ hang-ups into their experience of the story.

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Maclear and Arsenault’s tale of sisterly support made an impact this year.

You Set Me on Fire You Set Me on Fire
Written by Mariko Tamaki
Authenticity is so important when writing for teens, who tend to see the world through a haze of skepticism and self-importance. This is especially true for those at the higher end of the YA age group, who have had time to experience more of the harsh realities of life. Mariko Tamaki (whose graphic novel, Skim, drawn by cousin Jillian Tamaki, was a 2008 Q&Q book of the year) is a master of writing in the voice of disaffected, disillusioned, slightly snarky teens, combining cynical humour and razor-sharp social commentary with bleak, poignant existential musings.

Transitioning seamlessly from graphica to straight prose, Tamaki tells the story of 17-year-old Allison Lee, who’s had a rough year that includes a failed relationship with her friend Anne and being accidentally set on fire – twice. For Allison, the idea of a fresh start at university is immensely appealing. When she meets Shar – beautiful, exciting, and maybe a little crazy – her new life turns out to be just as complicated (if not more so) than the one she left behind.

As Shannon Ozirny writes in her starred review, “Tamaki’s latest effort is a pitch-perfect instruction manual for the first stages of adult life.” It’s also one that will resonate equally with the misfit, the popular kid, and the girl in love with the girl next door.