Cynsational Books of 2009

Congratulations to the children’s-YA authors and illustrators of 2009! And thank you to everyone who discussed and debated and cheered and championed this year’s books! Just for fun, here are a few of my favorites.

Picture Books

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2009). The Chicago Tribune said: “There’s a wonderful balanced imbalance between the sweeping largeness of the pictures and the spare script of perfectly chosen words.” See curriculum guide.

Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-Circle by John Abbott Nez (Putnam, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with John. Peek: “It’s a true story of adventure, determination, courage and perseverance. 1907 was an amazing age. It was a period when an obsession with flying swept the nation. For the first time in history, people were flying and even building flying machines in their own backyards.”

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Chris. Peek: “It occurred to me in the spring of 2001 that a picture book about the invention of Day-Glo colors, using those actual colors in the art, could be really, really cool. So, I got in touch with members of the Switzer family and began my research, and that fall, I began shopping a ridiculously long version of the manuscript around to publishing houses.”

New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stephané Jorisch (Dial, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with April. Peek: “During Rosh Hashanah, there is a joyous waterside ritual called Tashlich which helps us clear the slate for the coming year. We walk to the pier, sing songs, then toss pieces of bread into the ocean for each of the mistakes we’ve made in the past year.”

S Is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Esther. Peek: “S is for Story celebrates the all-important reader-writer connection. It’s an A-to-Z journey through a writer’s life and process.”

Graphic Middle Grade

Joey Fly: Private Eye by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Neil Numberman (Henry Holt, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Aaron and Neil. Peek: “I love bugs and I love mysteries, so this seemed to be a great smash-up of those two ideas.”

Middle Grade/Tween

Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Diana. Peek: “At a dinner last year, a librarian from the Midwest asked, ‘So this is a family tradition?’ Her eyes got so big when I told her it’s something the whole South Texas region does. Maybe cascarones will go mainstream like piñatas and salsa.”

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Henry Holt, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jacqueline. Peek: “One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room, and I thought to myself, how did people stand it in the heat a hundred years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing? And with that thought, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me.”

The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman (Charlesbridge, 2009). See excerpt of chapter one. Kirkus Reviews said: “Told in a first-person voice that is both sardonic and sincere, Friedman’s novel succeeds in bringing forth some common issues that challenge any immigrant American child who must straddle separate ways of life while striving for that true-blue American image.”

The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O’Connor (FSG/Frances Foster, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Barbara. Peek: “The story was inspired by a blog post by Tamra Wight, author of The Three Grumpies, illustrated by Ross Collins (Bloomsbury, 2005).”

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Grace. Peek: “It is an Asian-themed folktale-inspired fantasy where a brave young girl named Minli journeys to change her family’s fortune, traveling farther than she ever imagined.”

Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss (Walker, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jenny. Peek: “In a way, it seemed to me that we’d, as a nation, forgotten the pandemic, and if I didn’t depict things as they were, then I’d be doing the same thing, turning from something because it was difficult.”

YA Nonfiction

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya. Peek: “Although they excelled, and, in some cases, did even better than the men, NASA was not ready to allow women into the space program.”

YA Realistic Fiction

Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson (Milkweed, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jessica. Peek: “I would encourage writers to find validation apart from writing. Writing is what we do, but it shouldn’t completely define who we are (especially in a business where so much is out of our control).”

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martins, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Carol. Peek: “Long ago, I heard about a girl who had run from her home because she didn’t want to marry a much-older family member. The moment I heard that story, I was like, I’ll write a book about that some day. But the story stayed just a kernel of an idea for many, many years.”

Hate List by Jennifer Brown (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer. Peek: “When I finished Hate List, I was afraid to show it to Cori. Afraid she’d hate it and, worse, would be unhappy with me for writing something so very different than the work she took me on for.”

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2009). See awards/reviews/quotes from Candlewick. Publishers Weekly said: “Absorbing from first page to last, this sensitively written novel explores how a teenager’s crisis rocks her life as well as the lives of others.”

Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott (HarperCollins, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Elizabeth. Peek: “Love You Hate You Miss You did require a certain amount of research, mostly about young women and drinking and how that drinking is perceived. It’s strange–there’s a lot of worry about it, but there’s also a fair amount of ‘it’s a stage, it’s not really a problem because most girls don’t drink every day’–and that was something I thought about a lot, and that Amy comes to her own conclusions about in the book.”

The Morgue and Me by John C. Ford (Viking, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with John. Peek: “Nobody would (or should) care about the ‘Double Indemnity’ allusion, but it got me thinking. In ‘Double Indemnity,’ the main character is a jaded insurance salesman. Certainly, an 18-year-old’s frame of mind would be much different than his, but how?”

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Sara. Peek: “There’s been a movement in certain parts of Christendom for awhile now, welcoming artists and creative people back into the religious community and realizing that the safe, pleasant, Thomas Kinkade-esque visions of the world they were previously endorsing in the Christian product marketplace actually have nothing to do with Christianity. (I’m not sure how it is in other religious communities—I can only speak from my experience.)”

So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow, illustrated by David Ostow (Flux, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Micol and David. Peek: “It’s the story of Ari Abramson, a sixteen-year-old everyguy and junior at Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School, who believes that popularity is just a mere verse/chorus/verse away. He recruits his longtime best friend, the charismatic, if self-absorbed, Jonas Fein, to play bass in a band, and thus The Tribe is born. A one-song set at a local bar mitzvah catapults the group to sudden stardom–setting in motion a series of clashing egos, misunderstood friendships, and broken hearts.”

Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters (Knopf, 2009). Read an excerpt. Readingjunky’s Reading Roost says: “Rage is Julie Anne Peters’s most powerful book yet. The focus is on an abusive dating relationship and the toll it takes on victim and villain alike.”

YA Fantasy

Ash by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Malinda. Peek: “When I began work on my second draft, I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to turn the story in that direction. Did I truly want to write a ‘lesbian Cinderella’?”

Candor by Pam Bachorz (Egmont, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Pam. Peek: “Even with all my preparation, I still ask myself at the start of each chapter: ‘What really should be happening next? Does my story wire leave anything out? Can I skip ahead to something more interesting?'”

Evil? by Timothy Carter (Flux, 2009). Publishers Weekly said, “A book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but will leave readers with plenty to consider, as it addresses themes of morality, sexuality and faith.”

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (Delacorte, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Saundra. Peek: “So Iris settled down with me to think about that–to roll that idea over with me: we don’t know what other people contain. And that means no one else will ever know what we contain, either.”

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon (Greenwillow, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Cindy. Peek: “I remember my first grade teacher writing my name on the board because I didn’t know the alphabet, much less how to spell.”

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill (Greenwillow, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with David. Peek: “The challenge came from the setting, El Paso. I have never been to West Texas, so I needed a ton of information on places, names, locales, smells, sounds, and attitudes.”

Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott (Marshall Cavendish, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Ellen. Peek: “In world building, you have to follow your decisions to their natural conclusions. If one of my dwarves lives primarily underground, how can she farm? If centaurs can speak with hoofed animals (as my centaurs can), would they eat them? How much faster would a faun move across given terrain than a human?”


Don’t miss companion books/sequels to earlier YA fantasy favorites: Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater (Flux, 2009); Black is for Beginnings by Laurie Faria Stolarz (Flux, 2009)(graphic format); Darklight by Lesley Livingston (HarperCollins, 2009); Dead Girl in Love by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux, 2009); and Fade by Lisa McMann (Simon Pulse, 2009).

Cynsational Notes

Quick caveats: (a) I haven’t read every 2009 book published, though I did read 300+ (down from last year; note that picture books are very short); (b) to varying degrees, I know or have met some (but not most) of the creators above–if I cut everyone I knew, potential picks would be significantly reduced in number; (c) I will continue to read and feature 2009 titles in 2010 and beyond; (d) these are highlights, not predictions, not an all-inclusive list of my favorites.

Beyond that, I made an effort to sidestep bestsellers as well as previous ALA and NBA honorees, though one or two may have sneaked in. I decided not to list books by my advisees or that I read in manuscript or contributed to myself. Or put another way, yes, I loved Rita Williams-Garcia‘s Jumped (HarperCollins, 2009)(author interview), Libba Bray‘s Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009)(author interview), VCFA graduate Julie Berry‘s The Amaranth Enchantment (Bloomsbury, 2009), and Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci‘s Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (Little, Brown, 2009), but they don’t need the help and/or I’m a bit too close to them for our purposes here.

Likewise, I’d like to cheer my Candlewick editor, Deborah Noyes (Wayshak) on the release of Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical and African Acrostics: A World in Edgeways with poems by Avis Harley (both Candlewick, 2009). Note: in addition to my short stories in Geektastic and Sideshow, I also published a YA Gothic fantasy novel, Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

A few quick observations… It’s arguably the year of the debut author, I have an ongoing commitment to supporting new voices, and the combination of those forces definitely shows here. Likewise, I’m drawn and devoted to Texas voices and settings. I did hesitate briefly at the sight of four Austinites on my list, but quickly realized that three of their respective books are consistently appearing on “best” lists as well as that the fourth clearly deserved to be in their company. In terms of titles by and about diverse folks, the big news is a tentative foothold in YA fantasy, including high fantasy, and people of all backgrounds writing cross-culturally.

See also Favorites of 2009 (updated) from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog.