Quill & Quire’s Books of the Year 2013

As 2013 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.

Sorrow's Knot Sorrow’s Knot
Written by Erin Bow
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
You’d be forgiven for thinking we have a crush on Erin Bow (the author herself made a comment to this effect after she was featured on Q&Q’s October cover). But if we do, we’re not alone. The Kitchener, Ontario, author inspires in readers the kind of cultish devotion that seems particular to fantasy, science-fiction, and other genres. After the success of her debut, 2010’s Plain Kate, expectations were running high for her follow-up. Happily, Sorrow’s Knot delivers.

Written with the same overtone of mystical intensity, Bow’s sophomore effort is a coming-of-age story steeped in magic. Her characters – protagonist Otter, in particular – are so fully fleshed out that their voices leap from the page, their joy and despair felt on a visceral level. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Sorrow’s Knot is that, although darkness an death cast shadows on every page, there is lightness and hope in the mix as well.

Plain Kate may have heralded Bow’s arrival on the YA scene, but Sorrow’s Knot leaves no doubt that the author is here to stay.

In the Tree House In the Tree House
Written by Andrew Larsen
Illustrated by Dušan Petričić
Kids Can Press
Two brothers spend a summer playing cards and reading comics in their tree house. Their relationship is clear: the older brother is in charge, the younger brother idolizes him. The following summer, the elder boy decides he’s too old to hang out with his little brother and abandons their perch among the leaves in order to latch on to some cooler teens. When a blackout pitches their city into a night lit only by the stars, the brothers reunite in the tree house, at least for a little while.

Toronto author Andrew Larsen has described his 2011 picture book Bye, Bye, Butterflies! as “a grown-up story … presented in a way that is accessible to children.” The same can be said about In the Tree House. Themes of growing up, disappointment, sibling relationships, and independence permeate the narrative.

And yet, Larsen’s text plays to young readers (and listeners). In her starred review, Q&Q contributing editor Sarah Ellis highlights the author’s deft ability with language: “In a few perfect words, Larsen captures the idyllic nature of that summer: ‘We had comics. We had cards.’”

The powerful story is made more so by the expressive illustrations of masterful Serbian-Canadian artist Dušan Petričić. His uncanny ability to mine the narrative for unspoken moments results in visuals that allow for reading between the lines, catching the moods of the characters through a lopsided smile or a contemplative gaze.

How To How To
Written and illustrated by Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
Adults who regularly read to young children will tell you: sometimes the simplest books are the best.

The beauty of Julie Morstad’s How To is the way it purely and honestly portrays the joy of being a child. Each page features a suggestion for “how to” be or do something, with a whimsical, clever illustration to match. “How to disappear,” for instance, shows a child hiding behind a curtain, only a pair of tiny feet peeking out to give her away.

“Compared with countless books that try too hard to teach a lesson or prove a point, this one delights with its easy, unforced relationship between words and pictures,” writes Katherine Pedersen in her starred review.

While the text delights, the real draw here is Morstad’s artwork. The established Vancouver artist, who also works in commercial illustration, animation, and design, has steadily fostered respect in the kidlit world for her nostalgic, detailed pen-and-ink drawings, which evoke a softer, gentler Edward Gorey. Each of her rosy-cheeked children is imbued with movement, even when at rest. As Pedersen notes in her review, “Rarely are books so alive.”

Once Upon a Northern Night Once Upon a Northern Night
Written by Jean E. Pendziwol
Illusrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Groundwood Books
With her exquisite picture book, author Jean E. Pendziwol, who hails from Thunder Bay, Ontario, captures the hearts of old and young alike. The story evokes the magic of a wintry night, the stillness that descends in the midst of a snowfall and the hushed quality of the landscape as the frozen flakes dance and float in crisp, cold air. The tone of the narrative is that of a loving parent, softly murmuring about the beauty of the Northern Lights, while woodland animals venture shyly forth as the child slumbers cozily in a nearby house.

The illustrations by Governor General’s Literary Award winner Isabelle Arsenault bring Pendziwol’s imagery to life with stunning grace, employing subtle shading and touches of colour.

In her starred Q&Q review, Sarah Sorensen notes that Once Upon a Northern Night “offers an enchanting interplay of text and illustration that grows richer with each turn of the page, and seems destined to join the ranks of winter-themed classics to be reached for year after year.”

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B
Written by Teresa Toten
Doubleday Canada
Issue-driven literature is often akin to a bran muffin: good for you, but not particularly enjoyable. What a delight then, to encounter a YA novel that not only handles the tricky subject of mental illness with delicacy and respect, but is genuinely funny, too.

Toronto author Teresa Toten’s novel, nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, was the only book named by every kidlit expert and Q&Q reviewer polled for this list.

In The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, 15-year-old Adam Spencer Ross is a complex character whose efforts to control his obsessive-compulsive disorder are undermined by circumstance: he falls in love with another OCD teen; he is burdened with his mother’s hoarding and the fact that she is receiving threatening letters; and he’s the only one able to deal with his little brother’s emotional problems.

“Ultimately, the book draws the reader in with its emotional intensity and sophistication,” writes reviewer Cara Smusiak. “The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of life, loss, love, brokenness, and the purest form of bravery: giving in and asking for help.”