Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs (2016)

Picture Book
3-10, with appeal for all ages
Stepping Stones by Margriet RuursWhen Canadian picture book author Margriet Ruurs first saw Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork made of river stones, she was instantly captivated. How could a handful of river rock speak so eloquently? But they do! And Orca Books’ pairing of Ruurs’ touching narrative with Badr’s art has resulted in a stunning picture book that will delight readers of all ages. The book opens with Rama and Sami enjoying childhood in Syria, a life of school and fruit and tea and family and neighbours. But when bombs start to fall, the community breaks apart. Read more of this post

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (2015)

15 to Adult
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaOn Friday, May 1, 1915, the luxurious passenger liner Lusitania left Cunard’s New York City pier bound for Liverpool. Late April weather had been stifling in the city but on May Day the skies dawned cool and grey. Few of the passengers who boarded that morning saw the German Embassy’s notice in the newspaper warning that all ships “flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction” in the war-zone waters around the British isles. A few had misgivings but brushed them off, believing the warning was not intended for passenger ships, and besides, as Captain William Thomas Turner assured the few who asked him about the threat of German u-boats, a convoy of warships would protect the liner through the war zone. Read more of this post

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (1964, 1992)

Contemporary Fiction (in its day, folks!)
Ages 9-13
Harriet the Spy, by Louise FitzhughHere’s a children’s novel that completely got past me both when I was a child and when I worked as a children’s librarian. (It happens.) I have been meaning to read it for years, and finally picked it up. Awesome book that is older than I am, and clearly a game-changer in the world of children’s literature. Harriet M. Welsch is 11 years old, sassy, opinionated and determined to become a writer. To be a writer, her governess Ole Golly tells her, you have to write. So Harriet writes in her notebook, obsessively noting what she observes about her family, her friends, and the Manhattan neighbourhood she calls home. “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth,” Ole Golly advises her. Read more of this post

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge (2014, 2016)

The Lie Tree, by Frances HardingeAs embarrassing as it is to admit, I often find myself at odds with the selections for literary awards. I read them because a) everyone asks me if I’ve read it and b) expert readers have judged this a top contribution. But at least half the time, I’m left scratching my head, mystified as to why this book made the list. It’s happened again. Fourteen-year-old Faith is quietly seething under the Victorian constraints imposed by everyone from strangers to her adored father, the Rev. Erasmus Sunderly, who is also a natural scientist. Faith is a brilliant young scholar whose ambitions appear impossible to fulfill. Girls don’t know anything about the moon, her little brother informs her with sober sincerity. Read more of this post

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Dystopian Fiction
Station ElevenAn aging actor has a heart attack on a Toronto stage, performing King Lear. A child actor watches a paramedic leap onto the stage to try to save his life. Within days, nearly every person in the theatre is dead of a virulent flu that spreads rapidly and with deadly consequences. Cellphone and landlines are jammed as loved ones desperately try to reach each other; when a call goes through, no one answers. Traffic clogs the freeways as the healthy seek to escape the cities, but there is nowhere to go. Television station signals fade to nothing, but not until after the camera points at an empty newsdesk. The electricity fails, water stops flowing from taps. The few survivors begin a new count: Year One. Read more of this post

The Land of Dreams, by Vidar Sundstol (2008, 2013)

The Land of DreamsI stumbled across this series when the final book in the trilogy was released to NetGalley members. Intrigued by its description as an award-winning Norwegian crime novel set in the national forest of Minnesota, I found a copy at my local library and delved in. This first title in The Minnesota Trilogy was published in 2008, and translated into English by Tiina Nunnally for the 2013 release in North America. Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service, literally a cop in the woods. His normal work involves poachers and litterers. Until the morning a report of illegal camping leads him to discover two men, one dead. Both are naked, covered in blood, and both are Norwegian tourists. Read more of this post

The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko (2013)

The Emerald MileIn 1983, a strong El Nino event set up the conditions for a massive spring runoff that swelled western North American rivers and tributaries to record levels. One of these was the Colorado River, which cuts through the heart of the Grand Canyon. In the middle of the nights, a group of daring river rafters launched a wooden dory just below the Glen Canyon Dam, intent on riding the surge of floodwater in order to set a new speed record for a river run through the Grand Canyon. Fedarko’s book, subtitled “The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon,” is ostensibly the story of this thrilling adventure. But it’s so much more than that, as Fedarko draws on meticulous research Read more of this post

Doll Bones, by Holly Black (2013)

Horror (but very mild)
Ages 10-13
Doll BonesThis is the story of three kids who are growing up and aren’t sure they want to. At age 12, Zach, Alice and Poppy know they are getting to old to play out fantasy stories with dolls – Barbies, action figures, and thrift store dolls. But Poppy’s stories are so compelling, and they enjoy the game so much, all are willing to put up with occasional bullying and taunting. Until Zach’s father, recently back in the family home, decides it’s time to end the nonsense. Enraged and hurt, Zach abandons the game without explanation, but Poppy convinces him and Alice to help a restless ghost. Is it another of Poppy’s stories, or is there truly something sinister about the doll Queenie? Read more of this post

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner (2013)

Genre: Fantasy
Interest Level: 3-8
Mr. WufflesMr. Wuffles is hard to please – he disdains cat toy after cat toy offered by his ever-hopeful owners, until a little metal object that looks like a tea strainer catches his attention. He bats it about until he finally loses interest, settling in to nap next to his newfound toy. Except it’s not a toy – it’s a tiny spaceship filled with miniature aliens. As Mr. Wuffles snoozes, the aliens brush themselves off, bruised but relatively unhurt. Not so for the spaceship – an important device is damaged, and the aliens must brave forth in search of repair materials. Read more of this post

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (2013)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Interest Level: Adult
The Good Lord BirdThis fact-based fictionalized telling of the events that led up to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 places a cross-dressing slave boy at the centre as the often hilarious narrator. Henry Shackleford is about 11 years old when his father dies in a shootout with the notorious abolitionist John Brown, who snatches up young Henry (dressed as many boys of the day were in a potato sack) having mistaken him for a girl. Fearing for his life and seeking escape and freedom, Henry goes with the fiction and spends the rest of the novel hiding the truth, and his “walnuts,” as best he can. Read more of this post

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (2013)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Interest Level: Adult
Life After LifeThis innovative novel explores the life of Ursula Todd, over and over again. Ursula is born during a snowstorm in February 1910. The cord is wrapped around her neck, and she is stillborn. In the next chapter she is born and lives, and we begin learning about her life through two world wars. Atkinson hopscotches through time – back and forth, as Ursula dies in one version and lives in another. She dies from influenza, from falling off a roof, from a bombing, and from starvation. Her brothers and sisters also live and die in various versions, as do others in her life. Always, through, the story moves inexorably toward the Second World War and key events of the 20th century. Read more of this post

The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata (2013)

Genre: Contemporary
Interest Level: 10-14
The Thing About LuckTwelve-year-old Summer and her brother Jaz are joining their grandparents on wheat harvest, which means leaving school before the summer break. It’s been a tough few months for the family. A mosquito bite gave Summer malaria and nearly killed her; she now obsessively covers her skin with DEET and creates almost perfect drawings of both male and female of the species. Jaz can’t make any friends, her grandmother’s back pain is worsening, and now her parents are called to Japan to care for three dying relatives, leaving the grandparents to come out of retirement and join the custom harvest team. A mortgage (whatever that is) weighs heavily on the family, Read more of this post

In Darkness, by Nick Lake (2012)

Genre: Speculative Fiction
Interest Level: 15-adult
In DarknessThis title won the 2013 Printz award for the best in young adult fiction, and Kirkus describes it as “a dark journey well worth taking.” I think I agree – it’s dark, I’m glad I read it, and I won’t forget this story. But it was a dark journey indeed. Shorty is about 15 years old and dying, trapped in the rubble of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He was in his hospital bed, after being hit in a gang shootout on the streets of Cite Soleil, a slum within Port-au-Prince and one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the entire western hemisphere. Parallelling Shorty’s story is that of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the Haitian hero who led the country’s slaves to freedom during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. Read more of this post

Northwest Passage, by Stan Rogers and Matt James (2013)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest Level: 6-10
Northwest PassageLike so many Canadians, I’ve always loved Stan Rogers’ haunting ballad, Northwest Passage, and was delighted to hear this picture book was coming out. Matt James’s luscious illustrations bring Rogers’ words to life, unveiling the song’s origins as the musings of a road traveller across our inspiring geography as he contemplates the legacy of explorers in whose footsteps he follows. James goes beyond merely illustrating the song, however. He interrupts the song’s narrative to introduce the story of Franklin and his doomed search for the Northwest Passage, helping to strengthen the connection between Rogers as driver and the travellers of long ago. Read more of this post

Divergent, by Veronica Roth (2011)

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian
Interest Level: 11-18
DivergentOne of the greatest rites of passage for teens is finding the strength to leave your family – declaring yourself an adult with your own passions and interests. It’s what makes us adults, and for some it happens long after adolescence. In post-apocalyptic Chicago, it’s a decision everyone makes at age 16. Under a new world order, everyone lives in factions based on the best human characteristics – the peaceful Amity, the selfless Abnegation, the honest Candor, the fearless Dauntless, and the intelligent Erudite. But the factions are fighting, and instead of seeing each other’s qualities, people focus on what they perceive as weaknesses. Read more of this post