End of the Year: Top Middle Grade Picks of 2011

When I started looking through my books trying to determine my favorite picks for 2011, I kept wanting to add books to recommend.  This one...no this one.  Finally, I just selected the ones that seemed to mean the most to me this year and the ones that I always have at the tip of my tongue ready to recommend.  If you are looking for 10 new books for your library, then I would pick up each of these.

My Top 5 Middle Grade (and in most cases YA too) Non-fiction - listed in no particular order:

Witches! The Absolute True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer - This small book is fascinating to read.  I couldn't put it down.  I hadn't read about the Salem Witch Trials in years but Schanzer's book was filled with so much great information. 

Wheels of Change:  How Women Rode Their Way Into Freedom by Sue Macy - I discovered Macy's work this year and really love her books.  She made my top 25 picture books with Basketball Belles and now is coming up in my top 5 non-fiction books for the year.  Great information and great photographs. 

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg - Just the title draws you in and then when you start reading this book you can't put it down.  The perfect balance between "ick" factor and great facts. 

America Is Under Attack by Don Brown - I discovered this book when I was searching for something to share with my students for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11.  It was a powerful read-aloud.

Wideness and Wonder: The Life and Art of Georgia O'Keefe by  Susan Goldman Rubin - I am always looking for strong biographical works to recommend to teachers.  Goldman Rubin does a great job with this one.  Interesting to read, great illustrations and photos, and great facts.

And the drumroll please...My Top 5 Middle Grade Fiction - listed in no particular order:

Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger - If kids were to vote for the Newbery, then Angleberger would definitely be a winner.  It is one of those books that I must have multiple copies of or I would never get to see it.  One of the best sequels that I have read. 

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban - When I read this book, I just kept thinking of all of the students that would benefit from reading it.  Mattie's story is powerfully and simply told.  Buy lots of copies, hand them out, do a book club, but whatever you do - keep recommending it.  Urban is an amazing writer and I hope Hound Dog True gets all the recognition it deserves.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu - This modern day version of the Snow Queen is wonderful on so many levels.  A powerful story of friendship, loss, courage, and transformation.   For fans of both realistic fiction and fantasy fiction. 

Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder - Realistic fiction with the touch of the fantastical makes for a perfect middle grade read.  And Snyder does this SO WELL!  In Breadbox, the reader gets the very real sense of all the emotions of parents separating and dealing with a sudden move to a new area along with a touch of the magical (in the form of the breadbox) and the consequences of all of it.  I would love to see this book get adorned with some heavy medal bling.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai - If you had told me two years ago that I would be reading novels in verse, I probably would have laughed.  And yet, I have discovered that some of my favorite and most touching stories have been told in verse.  This story of a young girl and her family's departure from Vietnam and subsequent adjustment to living in the United States is powerful and moving.  Truly, one of the outstanding books of the year. 

Keep an eye out for the final End of the Year post.  I still have a few more books that need talking about. 

End of the Year: Favorite Picture Books Part II - My Top 10

Yesterday, I posted 15 picture books that were special to me.  Standouts in many ways.  Today, I take it one step further.  Out of all the picture books I read, here are my top ten.

#10 Blackout by John Rocco - I fell in love with the book trailer, the illustrations and the story. This had it all for me.  

#9 Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins, Illustrated by Vicky White - Incredible illustrations paired with facts about endangered animals.  A must have book for any library collection.

#8 Won-Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin - I am not a big fan of poetry of any kind.  But I am growing in my appreciation the more that I read.  When a book of haiku sticks with me for the whole year, it deserves to be on my top 10 list.

#7 Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson - Anyone who knows me knows that I love Kadir Nelson's work.  This is a beautiful story of history and people.  And the audiobook is a must listen.

#6 Perfect Square by Michael Hall - Some books are simple but incredibly executed.  A square of paper is transformed over the course of the week.  Filled with great concepts and a favorite of young students at my school.

#5 Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet - Illustrations and text that work together to tell the story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade.  A non-fiction picture book at it's best.  This one has affected so many and needs to be shared.

#4 Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell - Combination of beautiful illustrations and solid text that simply tells the story of the life of Jane Goodall for young children. This one is a winner for me.

#3  Little Chicken's Big Day by Jerry Davis, Illustrated by Katie Davis - I fell in love with the book trailer and then the book.  I want to give this book to every parent with a toddler.  I wonder if I can talk Katie Davis into a print of Little Chicken fussing in his car seat.  "I hear you cluckin' Big Chicken.." will bring a smile to my face every time.

#2 Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik - Brilliant.  Truly one of the most amazing books that I have read this year.  One character's story is told in pictures and the other one in words.  Let me say it again "brilliant". 

#1 Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, Illustrated by Marla Frazee - Last year, I picked up CHALK by Bill Thomson and it was really my book.  The one that touched me more than all others.  This year when I opened up STARS, I knew without a doubt that I had found my picture book of 2011.

So what picture book touched you this year?

*Thank you Alethea (@frootjoos) for the picture book image at the top.

End of the Year: Favorite Picture Books of 2011 Part I

During 2011, I managed to read around 900 plus picture books.  It was an exciting journey.  Some were good.  Some were just okay.  And some were truly stand outs.  With so many picture books, I could not narrow it down to just 10.  I have decided to do two posts.  Part 1 will include some picture books that are memorable to me and that I would highly recommend.  There are books on friendship, books with humor, books without words, non-fiction books, and books that have special meaning for me.  Part 2 will include my absolute favorites from the year. 

Here goes - Part I (in no particular order):

You Will Be My Friend by Peter Brown - This one inspired my kindergarten teachers to dress as Lucille Beatrice Bear for Halloween.  It is that good.

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers - Is there anyone who doesn't love an Oliver Jeffers' book? 

Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat by Philip C. Stead - Wonderful text and beautifully illustrated. 

Over and Under by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal - Messner had a banner year and this was one of my favorites.  A beautiful look at the world in the wintertime.

Where's Walrus? by Stephen Savage - A wordless picture book that will have children searching for the walrus who has escaped from the zoo.

Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld - A sweet story about a little cloud who learns that she can make a big difference. 

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen - I couldn't leave this one off my list.  It inspired great discussion and much fun.  #teambear for me

A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis by Matt De La Pena, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson - De La Pena and Nelson need I say more. 

A Dog is A Dog by Stephen Shaskan - One of those fun books that makes you giggle or smile as you read it and the concept is well executed.  A dog is a dog, yes?  Turn the pages to see.

A Pet for Petunia by Paul Schmid - This is one of those "makes me smile" books.  Petunia wants a pet. Yes, a pet skunk.  Or does she?!
Just a Second by Steve Jenkins - Love the way that Jenkins leads the reader through the concept of time in this non-fiction picture book. 

Zombie in Love by Kelly DiPucchio, Illustrated by Scott Campbell - There was no way I could leave this one off my list.  I love Mortimer and Mildred. 

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidham, Illustrated by Beth Krommes - Poems, nature, and amazing illustrations.  Definitely a gift book. 

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown, Illustrated by Julie Paschkis - This one holds a special place in my memories from this past year.  I paired this up with The Dreamer by Pamela Munoz Ryan.  Students loved it.

Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops on the Map  by Sue Macy, Illustrated by Matt Collins - This book made me feel like I was transported back in time and had a chance to witness the first women's college basketball game. 

Stay tune for Favorite Picture Books of 2011, Part II - The 10 that are my must haves. 

*Many thanks to Alethea (@frootjoos) for designing the image for the post.

End of the Year: Favorite Graphic Novels from 2011

It is that time of the year.  Time to look back on all of the wonderful books that I read and an attempt to select my favorites.  I have decided to kick-off the End of the Year posts with Graphic Novels.  In looking at my GoodReads' shelf for Graphic Novels, I realized that I read a lot of graphic novels in 2011.  In coming up with this list though, I limited it to ones that were released in 2011. 

Here are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order):

Babymouse #14: Mad Scientist by Matt Holm and Jenni Holm - No list would be complete without a Babymouse GN making an appearance and not only is this one a favorite of 2011 but maybe one of my favorite Babymouse books to date.

Squish by Matt Holm and Jenni Holm - Fans of Babymouse were introduced to Squish this year and got a chance to read not just one but two Squish stories.  Yay for Super Amoebas! 

Lunch Lady #6 Lunch Lady and the Field Trip Fiasco by Jarrett J. Krosoczka - Any teacher who has taken a class on a field trip to any place will get a chuckle out of the latest Lunch Lady book. 

Sidekicks by Dan Santat - I am a huge fan of Santat's picture books and was excited to hear that he was doing a graphic novel.  And even more excited when I finally had a chance to read it.  My list would not be complete without adding it here.  This one has become quite popular among my students as well.

Amulet #4: The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi - This is one book series that I have to wrestle away from students in order to read the latest book.  And book 4 truly delivers.  Boys and girls love this series and I have students in grades 1 to 5 reading it.

Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists by Various - Nursery Rhymes get a fancy twist as illustrated by some of the most popular cartoonists out there.  First Second puts out some great books and this is one of them.  A fun way to expose older children to common nursery rhymes.

Around the World by Matt Phelan - Phelan writes about the individual accounts of 3 people who ventured out on "around the world" tours in the late 19th century. Full of the personality quirks of each of these adventurers and interesting facts. 

Hera by George O'Connor - The Olympian series by O'Connor is a favorite of mine.  And though I might favor Athena more than Hera, I certainly grew in appreciation for who Hera is/was from this book. The "Geek Notes" at the end of the book help readers connect back to the other books - or provide glimpses of what will come. Great companion to the Percy Jackson Series.

Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge - Newcomer Gulledge snagged me with her amazing artwork and I was particularly taken with how the illustrations perfectly match the emotions of the text. Some of the images were just so expressive on such a visceral level.

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol - Anya's Ghost manages to be a ghost story with just the right level of creepy with true teen angst about fitting in at high school.  In addition to a great story, I really loved the illustrations in this one.

For our youngest comic book/graphic novel fans, I need to make a special mention of Candlewick's ToonBooks which are a wonderful easy reader series of comic books.  They aren't all published in 2011 but I discovered them in 2011.  The series is perfect for Kinder to 3rd grade and the book apps are also available in multiple language. 

If you are looking to increase your graphic novel collection, and these aren't on the shelves in your library, I would encourage you to add them to your personal or school libraries (*please note - Page by Paige & Anya's Ghosts are both for Middle School and older). 

** Thanks to Alethea (@frootjoos) for the image at the top. 

Thoughts on The 2010 Debut Author Challenge & other Reading Challenges of the Year

The concept of a Reading Challenge is a wonderful one.  It hopefully motivates us to reach beyond what we would normally read and stretch ourselves.  However, most of the time, I find that life gets in the way and I am unable to actually complete a challenge. 

Here are some of my thoughts on the Challenges that I did participate in:

A to Z Challenge:
With the A to Z Challenge (on GoodReads as part of the Wild Things: YA Grown Up Group) this summer, I read 26 books but didn't really get to every letter in the alphabet (thanks @angelasunshine on Twitter).  It was a fun reading challenge, and I enjoyed the on-line interactions with the other participants.  Can't wait for the A to Z Author Challenge which starts on January 1, 2011. 

Twitter's Book-a-Day Challenge (#bookaday):
With the Book-a-Day challenge started by Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer (@donalynbooks on Twitter) this summer, I actually found myself reading more than the equivalent of a book per day.  I also expanded my reading greatly by the interactions I found with the other participants.  I explored Graphic Novels and Manga for the first time.  Discovered that my love for picture books could be considered "real reading", and explored books in all genres that were truly wonderful.  The on-line Professional Learning Network that was developed through this challenge is still going strong and one that I deeply value.

The 2010 Debut Author Challenge:
One of my favorite challenges was the 2010 Debut Author Challenge hosted by The Story Siren (Kristi).  The goal was to read at least 12 Debut Author books.  I managed to read 21 Debut author books (including 3 debut picture books and there are probably more that fit the picture book categories), currently in the middle of 3 more 2010 debuts, and have a full stack of a lot more 2010 debuts that I wanted to read but just ran out of time.  In addition to reading these books, I loved interacting with the Debut Authors on-line, supporting their book signings when possible, and creating a buzz for their books even if I didn't get a chance to read them, yet. 

The ones I managed to read on time:
James Burks- GABBY & GATOR
Jennifer Cervantes - TORTILLA SUN
Shannon Delany - 13 TO LIFE
Adam Gidwidtz - A TALE DARK & GRIMM
Christina Diaz Gonzalez - THE RED UMBRELLA
Judith Graves - UNDER MY SKIN
Teri Hall - THE LINE
Anastasia Hopcus - SHADOW HILLS
Jennifer Hubbard - THE SECRET YEAR
Heidi R. Kling- SEA
Lauren Oliver - BEFORE I FALL
Candace Ryan - ANIMAL HOUSE (*)
Jacqueline West - THE SHADOWS
(*) picture books

Currently debut novels in progress:
Kiersten White - PARANORMALCY

Wished I had gotten to sooner - but they are coming:
Alexandra Bracken - BRIGHTLY WOVEN
Kimberly Derting - THE BODY FINDER
Rachel Hawkins - HEX HALL
Karen Kincy - OTHER

So what challenges did you participate in and how did you do?