Best Middle-Grade and Chapter Books of 2011 (and one really awesome non-ficiton book)

Having completed four years worth of "Best of" lists for picture books, I was finally inspired to compile a list of the  best middle-grade and chapter books I have read in the last year. Maybe I didn't want to be forced to pick any favorites, or maybe this was the first year that I felt like I had actually read enough newly published books in a given year to compile a fair list. Either way, although I remain dedicated to working through that massive pile of older books that I want to share with my readers, I am very excited about this list and passionate about all of the books that made it on to this list. If you were to encounter me in my workplace and ask me about any of these titles, I would gush, most likely somewhat embarrassingly, about any or all of them, if you gave me enough time. 

Thank you to all of you for taking the time to read my reviews. A special thank you to those of you who comment. It's nice to know that I am not writing in a vacuum. To those of you who don't comment, I hear from just enough of you via email who let me know that you are long time readers that I know you are out there reading and enjoying. A big thank you to you, as well! As always, to everyone, please feel free to email me directly with questions! 

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu with illustrations by Erin McGuire. Anne Ursu's book is spectacular and rare for three reasons: the beautiful, often poetic writing, Ursu's nods to and integration of fantasy classics that are now so much a part of any reader's vocabulary (Hogwarts, Narnia, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Dictionopolis, and even 2009 Newbery winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead are mentioned) and, lastly, in Hazel Urusu takes the time to create a complex, fully formed character which is rare in a work of fantasy. Echoing Hans Christian Ansdersen's story The Snow Queen, Jack is changed when a sliver of a wicked mirror lodges in his eye. He wanders into the forest near his home and finds himself trapped in the castle of the Snow Queen and Hazel goes to find him and bring him home - if she can convince him that he wants to go home. While I think that this book deserves the Newbery award, I am sure it will garner at least an honor.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes written and illustrated by Jonathan Auxier.  While Auxier's debut novel can (very favorably) be described as a mash-up of Treasure Island and Peter Pan with a dash of Charles Dickens thrown in, it also manages to be wonderfully new and exciting. Although the beginning is a bit grim - we find the infant Peter adrift at sea in a basket, ravens having just plucked out his eyes, this is a crucial part of the story. Making it to land, Peter eventually finds himself taken in (enslaved, really) by a wicked man who uses him to steal from others. When Peter steals what he later figures out are three sets of man-made eyes, his adventures and the magic really begins. Auxier excels at creating fantasy landscapes, from a barren desert littered with the skeletons of ships (and thieves, who are very much alive) to the Vanished Kingdom where the children have disappeared, to a castle with an intricate web of underground tunnels used by the good and bad a like. And, Sir Tode, the dubious knight who was turned into a horse-cat creature by a cranky witch, is one of funniest fantasy sidekicks I've encountered in a while. Despite the sad start, Auxier's book has a very happy ending. A great, if suspenseful, book for bedtime reading.

Vanished by Sheela Chari. This debut novel is as rare and priceless as the family heirloom that goes missing in the second chapter of this highly entertaining mystery. As a longtime children's bookseller (and reader) I can tell you that a well written mystery for kids with a contemporary setting is extremely rare. Even poorly written mysteries are rare! Neela is a sixth grader living in Boston. The daughter of Indian parents, she straddles two cultures, although this is never an issue. When Neela brings her veena, an enormous stringed instrument a bit like a sitar, to school to share during the Instruments Around the World unit, she is shocked and saddened when it disappears from the closet in the church where she has been invited in from the rain as she walks home from school. The veena had belonged to her grandmother, who sent it to Neela all the way from India. When her parents seem willing to let the veena remain lost, Neela, who has just begun to feel passionate about her playing, wants it back. She follows a trail of clues that uncovers secrets in more than one family and lead her, ultimately, to the music shop in Chennai. Chari's Neela is a wonderfully written character and her thoughts and actions are genuine from start to finish. If it was up to me, I'd give Vanished a Newbery medal also!

Wildwood written by Colin Meloy with illustrations by Carson Ellis. I'll be totally honest. I did not want to or expect to like this book. First of all, at 560 pages it seemed like it was just waaaaay too long. Secondly, the author is already a famous musician. There are so many already famous people, whether they are actors, singers or adult authors, taking up kid's book writing as a second career that I am just naturally skeptical. Finally, a story about a girl who discovers a hidden world of forest dwelling humans and talking animals when her infant brother is carried off by a flock of crows sounded, well, sort of already done in a few other ways. However, I am a huge admirer of the work of the illustrator Carson Ellis, who also happens to be the author's wife and mother of their five year old son. Knowing that they collaborated on the story and did their research by reading books in the same vein to their son at bedtime, I felt hopeful. I am happy to say that this book has REALLY, REALLY stuck with me, much in part because of Ellis' elegant illustrations, but also because of the fascinating characters that populate this wild wood. The geography of the story, based on an actual swath of woodland in the city of Portland, OR, is not all that magical or memorable, but the people and animals who inhabit it, as well as main characters Prue and Curtis, and their intricacies and idiosyncrasies are. After the first few chapters, you won't care where the story is headed or what time it is, you will just want to keep on reading and continue to inhabit this verdant world along with Meloy and Ellis' creation.

The Unforgotten Coat written by Frank Cottrell Boyce with photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. Unique, memorable, amazing. There aren't enough adjectives to describe this book. Please just click through and read my review, but I will try to sum it up in a few sentences here. Julie is in sixth grade when Chingis and his younger brother that he insists be called Nergui, show up at school in these fantastic coats and hats, despite the hot weather. Julie, intrigued by their foreignness, agrees to be the brothers' "good guide." She even goes so far as to ensure that the class project be "All About Mongolia" so she can learn more about these mysterious brothers. However, when the boys disappear, Julie learns that what seems like mystery from the outside has some very real, frightening and sad truths on the inside  when she learns that Chingis's family was in the county illegally and have been deported in the middle of the night, the boys leaving their coats, which, upon closer examination, Julie realizes are donated coats from Oxfam, not Mongolia, behind at school.

Waiting for the Magic written by Patricia MacLachlan with illustrations by Amy June Bates. MacLachlan takes an enormous event, specifically a father moving out on his family, and finds an amazing way to turn it into a story that young readers can grasp. Best of all, she does this with dogs. When Will's father moves out, his mother goes to the pound to get that dog that his dad has always refused. They end up coming home with four dogs and a cat. The animals all communicate with each other and, being the youngest and most brave, honest and joyful (qualities MacLachlan notes are required in order to know magic) four year old Elinor can hear and talk to the new pets from the start. As Will, his grandparents, his mother and even, in the end, his father come to experience the magic, the family undergoes some changes, including a new sibling. This is one of those amazing books that is short on pages but long on importance, meaning and wonderfulness.

The Midnight Zoo written by Sonya Hartnett with illustrations by Andrea Offermann. Sonya Hartnett is an incredible author and she weaves an incredible, magical, suspenseful story over slightly more than 200 pages in this book. Set during WWII, brothers Andrej and Tomas and their infant sister, Wilma, have fled the massacre of their people, the Romany, by German soldiers. They make their way through a deserted, destroyed town where they take shelter in a park that turns out to be a zoo. There they meet the starving animals left behind, who tell them their stories as well as the story of the zookeeper and his daughter. 

A Year Without Autumn written by Liz Kessler. Such a great book! Besides being a gripping, breathtaking, very fun read, Kessler creates very real characters in Jenni Green and her best friend Autumn. While vacationing over the last weeks of summer, Jenni takes an old elevator up to visit her best friend Autumn. When she gets to her door, she begins to realize that she is a year in the future, to the day. Everyone's lives seem to have taken a turn for the worse and Jenni struggles to figure out just what has changed and how she might be able to stop it - or if she even can - if she can figure out how to operate the elevator. 

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. Gidwitz is a genius. He has taken lesser known stories of the Brothers Grimm and woven them together with a story and characters of his own creation who happen to be named Hansel and Gretel. Add to this a narrator who both warns and softens the moments of blood and gore that are an integral part of fairy tales and you have a really amazing book!

The Seven Sorcerers written by Caro King. With Nin, Caro King creates a fabulous main character to travel though magical lands in search of her baby brother Toby. Sounds kind of "already done," but King brings so many rich and wonderful creations to her story that I could not put it down. From the bogeyman named Skerridge who cannot resist a challenge to the dying magical land of Celidon to the final battle at the Terrible House of Strood, King creates a richly detailed, complete word in her debut novel, the sequel to which comes out in the US this year!! 

Horton Halfpott or The Fiendish Mystery of Smudgwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset written and illustrated (except for cover art by Gilbert Ford) by Tom Angleberger. How does this guy do it? This book is so different from Angleberger's debut, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda, and every bit as good! A Dickensian tale of a boy forced into servitude to help his sick father, Horton Halfpott finds himself embroiled in a tricky mystery that involves a pompous detective, a spoiled brat and a vain, plump lady who, when she decides to loosen her corset, thus setting off a very funny chain of events.

One Day and One Amazing Morning On Orange Street written by Joanne Rocklin with illustrations by Chris Buzelli. Rocklin's book is an incredible story that combines the important minutiae of childhood with some of the larger, more intense aspects of adult life. From trying to fit in with your family, to loss of a parent to memory loss and tumors, Rocklin takes these huge life issues and gently folds them into her story of children

Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg. Another one of those amazing books that packs a lot into a little space. Written in verse, Eleanor tells the story of losing her beloved Bibi, her caregiver since birth. Matthew Cordell's superb illustrations bring Eleanor and her experiences to life as she learns to live without Bibi and maybe even accept Natalie, her new babysitter. Eleanor's grief is very real and the way that her parents and Natalie help her cope is both gentle and loving in that they give her the space to feel her feelings, grieve and grow without forcing her to move on because of their discomfort with her sadness.

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis. Best mash-up of the year! Regency England meets practical magic in a kid's book! Kat is the youngest of four siblings and the most mischievous, despite the fact that her older brother has gambled himself out of college and it is she who must save the day when their Stepmama threatens to marry off her sisters to save the family money. Burgis does a wonderful job creating a magical discipline for Kat to discover and learn, as well as societal prejudices against those who practice the various kinds of magic available.  I can't wait to read book 2, Renegade Magic.

Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman is the story of Gabe, a ten year old who is very excited to learn that he will be spending his vacation at the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment. When he also learns that he will be getting a stepbrother who doesn't think being smart is very cool, he beings to look at his life, his passions and his friends in a new way. Weissman does a brilliant job of capturing a boy at a still impressionable age and genuinely portraying him as he questions his life choices. In the end, Gabe develops looks at his situation as one big logic problem and works out a formula for solving it.

Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan. Set in 1919 in India and England, Whelan brings us yet another masterful work of historical fiction with a strong, curious girl at the center of the story. Rosalind has been allowed freedoms that many British girls, especially British girls living in India, have not. When her father returns from war and discovers that Rosalind has bought back the infant that one of her father's fired servants has sold into slavery, he sends her to England to live with his repressed and repressive sisters. 

Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way By Sea, Air and Land, by Stuart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty. Beisty is the master who created the raft of children's books presenting cross-sections of everything from buildings to machinery to vehicles. He brings his marvelous talent to Stuart Ross's interesting look into various voyages that changed history. The first voyage begins in 340 BC when Pytheas sailed to the Arctic Cirlce and ends with the moon landing in 1969.  The chapters are not too long and packed with fold-out maps and charts and other fabulous illustrations. You know I don't really like non-fiction, but I could not put this book down! 

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