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Did a teacher ever give you a gold star for your work when you were a kid? Mine did, and I remember the thrill it gave me. Somebody I respected, my teacher Miss Beatty, had recognized my work, something that I had done on my own. And, of course, lest I disappoint, the act motivated me to do even better the next time. I was thinking of this recently when I realized the star is now on the other foot. I am now the one giving them out in the form of starred reviews of exemplary books. They aren’t gold, these stars, but perhaps they’re worth their weight in the glittering stuff, for publishers have told me that starred reviews result in increased sales. Indeed, there are some librarians who buy only starred books. But I’d like to think they do more than that, these stars. I’d like to think that they, like the one I earned as a kid, reward excellence and motivate authors to do even better the next time out of the gate. I’d like to think the stars call attention to exemplary work, caroling, “Yoo-hoo, here’s something special—pay attention.” I’d like to think that they’re a way of saying that this book is of more than ephemeral interest, that it is of enduring value, that it just may become part of the canon. This is heady stuff, and it means that I don’t pass these stars out like popcorn. Consider that of the 115 reviews I’ve written thus far in 2018, 46 were of books for youth, and of that number, only 15 were starred.
So what do I look for when I’m considering starring a review? Well, first of all, because I’ve been an avid reader for some 70 years (now there’s a scary thought), I look for originality. I don’t want to reward books that are derivative, though, Lord knows, there are plenty of those because in publishing, as in movies, nothing succeeds like imitation. I also look for character and the development of characters. Think of Dickens; yes, we remember his plots, but I’d argue that it’s his wonderful characters that first spring to mind when we consider his work—David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Micawber, Uriah (ugh) Heep, Scrooge, and a whole panoply of others. Next, it’s voice, the style in which the author speaks to me. Think, for just one example, of M. T. Anderson’s glorious The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing and the author’s voice, which helps establish a vividly realized setting. Here again it’s originality I look for. And here I confess that I have a fondness for the offbeat. The same could be said of plot; I don’t want a book I’ve read a jillion times before. All of these factors make for a tall order because what I’m talking about here is art. So what are the books I’ve starred this year? Here they are in the order in which the reviews appeared, most recent first.
I lead off with Erica Silverman’s Jack (Not Jackie), an innovative picture book about a little girl who knows he’s really a little boy. Next is Neal Bascomb’s The Grand Escape, a sterling example of narrative nonfiction with a beautifully realized WWI setting. Speaking of war: how about Monica Hesse’s War Outside, a memorable story of WWII and the injustice of internment camps? And then there’s Jo Langford’s The Pride Guide, an important nonfiction title that offers an encyclopedic overview of all things LGBTQIA. Don’t overlook Sabaa Tahir’s A Reaper at the Gates, a book in which plot is obviously in the driver’s seat.
What can I say about Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay? To me, this is the book of the year, one that matches or exceeds my expectations in every category. I would give it two stars if I could, but I can’t, so I gave it a rave review. How about David Levithan’s Someday, his wonderfully innovative novel about a protagonist who wakes up every day in a different body and persona? The challenge, which Levithan has met, is to give each of the many characters his or her own individual identity. And then there’s Preston Norton’s Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe, an ambitious exercise in theme driven by two multidimensional characters. God is in the details of this one. Another war story, though this one focuses on the wages of war, is Todd Strasser’s Price of Duty, which is driven by its careful examination of ethics and morality and the cost in lives and honor that war exacts of its soldiers. It reminds me to mention that one of the other things I welcome in a book is its invitation to discussion, something that Strasser’s novel is sure to do.
Then comes Alison McGhee’s What I Leave Behind. What distinguishes this one, aside from its memorable protagonist, is its tone, which I would describe as artful melancholy. Samuel Miller’s first novel, A Lite Too Bright, comes next. This novel, a classic quest tale with a page-turning plot, is so accomplished it’s hard to believe it’s a first effort. Next, how about the new novels by two veterans, Chris Crutcher and Jane Yolen? Crutcher’s Losers Bracket is the offbeat story of a girl blessed—or cursed—with an eccentric family. Yolen’s Mapping the Bones is a Holocaust novel brought to vivid life by its characters and its page-turning plot. Finally, here comes Timothée de Fombelle’s The Book of Pearl, a beautifully imagined and written modern fairy tale from France. So that’s it: my faves from 2018. I don’t expect you to agree with every choice, but I hope I’ve excited your interest in some titles you may have missed. In that case, my work here is done.
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