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It’s long been my habit to devote my January column to announcing and annotating my picks of the best books of the preceding year. However, this year must be an exception. Why? Because I’m serving on YALSA’s Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, which honors an author’s body of work with the provision that only books published five or more years ago may be considered. Accordingly, I’ve been up to my eyebrows in retrospective reading this year, and so my usual avid perusal of new books has suffered. Mightily. The upshot is that I don’t feel qualified to make an informed selection of 2018’s best. What to do then? Here’s an idea: do some retrospective selection of my own. In other words, review my last 10 annual selections and choose the best of the year in question. In short, put together a list of the best of the best. So here goes:
2018: Remember that my annual lists appear in the succeeding year’s January issue; thus, the 2018 list consists of books published in 2017, and so on. That said, my choice for the best of the 2018 list is M. T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand. The unparalleled Anderson has conjured up a singular satire to show us the world as it might be if colonized by alien critters. It’s not pretty. The resulting despoliation of the environment and the imbalance between those who have and those who have not prove heartbreaking and only too reminiscent of what passes for reality these days.
2017: No list; instead, my column was devoted to a celebration of YA’s golden age. If there had been a list, however, the winner would have been Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King, the fourth and final volume of her memorable Raven Boys quartet.
2016: M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead. Anderson takes a stroll on the nonfiction side of the street to good effect in this magisterial book about the WWII siege of Leningrad, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and his Leningrad Symphony.
2015: Again, no list. I was chair of the Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee that year and so was forbidden from talking about 2014 books. If I had put together a list, however, the choice would have been—no surprise—Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue, volume 3 in the Raven Boys quartet.
2014: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Rowell’s unforgettable debut is a large-hearted and, yes, heartbreaking love story that celebrates the “other” while bringing two wonderful teens to heartfelt life. And a runner-up: Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves, of course, volume 2 in the Raven Boys cycle.
2013: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Beautifully conceived and executed, Green’s best novel to date artfully examines the largest possible themes—life, love, and death—with sensitivity, intelligence, honesty, and integrity. And it made a swell movie, too. Oh, yes, another runner-up: Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys, volume 1 in her Raven Boys quartet, the epic story of Blue, her Raven boys chums, and their search for Owen Glendower, the sleeping king. All four volumes are marvelous in their imaginative power, compelling stories, and unforgettable characters.
2012: Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. Ness does a masterful job of bringing life to a premise left by the late Siobhan Dowd in this story of Conor, a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer and who—the boy, not the mother—is visited each night by a bona fide monster, a giant yew tree that tells Conor three stories and then demands one from the boy that will tell his truth. But what is truth, and where does it end and story begin? The book is enhanced by Jim Kay’s hauntingly apposite illustrations, which are goads to the imagination and perfectly capture the text’s mood and tone.
2011: Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men. Here is volume 3 in Ness’ magnificent Chaos Walking cycle.
2010: Patrick Ness’ The Ask and the Answer, volume 2 in the Chaos Walking cycle.
2009: M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Kingdom of the Waves. Astonishing, indeed. Volume 2 of Anderson’s masterpiece. And a runner-up for 2009: Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, volume 1 in the Chaos Walking cycle, a tour de force of unfolding imagination and execution. This trilogy has it all: a talking dog, a mind-bending noise, and a pulse-pounding adventure.
2008: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie brings his antic and empathetic imagination to this unforgettable story of Arnold Spirit, who leaves the res to attend a rich white school where he finds himself every bit as much an outcast as he was at home. Alexie combines wit with gritty realism and cartoons to create a portrait of a troubled boy who searches for a place of belonging. That Alexie pulls no punches is evidenced by the fact that his novel is among the most often challenged of YA titles.
2007: M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party. What can I say? Anderson once again demonstrates that he is a nonpareil whose wit, intelligence, and creativity distinguish him and his work. It’s no exaggeration to say that his two-volume novel is a masterpiece of historical fiction with a wonderfully idiosyncratic voice that brings the eighteenth century to vivid life. In retrospect, 2006 was a remarkable year that gave us not only Octavian Nothing but also Markus Zusak’s brilliant The Book Thief and Aidan Chambers’ own masterpiece, This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn.
So there you have it, folks, my list of the best of the best. What would yours be?
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