The Best Books I Read This Year (2014 edition)

This has been a great year for kid’s books and as usual I was completely conflicted about which books to choose! I’m at the point in my writing career where I’ve met some very spectacular published authors, soon-to-be authors, as well as aspiring authors. Knowing so many great people makes it tough to maintain a professional distance in writing my reactions to the book, so I’ve decided to include a few more categories.

Now all of these books are books I either read this year or came out this year, so these are not necessarily newly published. I’m ashamed to admit there were some books by friends that I wasn’t able to read this year (So sorry guys! Maybe next year?), and unfortunately I’m sure this will continue to happen. Each list is in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

Spectacular Books by Author Friends

 

Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburne

The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi


Something Real by Heather Demetrios

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Top 3 Books for Young Adults

Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

 

I also really loved Cinder by Marissa Meyer but have since been informed by a friend that many Asian Americans find this book offensive or at the least, just not a good enough representation of Asians in children’s literature due to its mixing of Asian cultures without many actual Asians in the storyline. I personally really loved this book, but I respect this opinion and can definitely see why they have said this. Still worth checking out if you love scifi and fairytales retellings!

Top 3 Middle Grade Books

 

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck – while there were also some Asian American stereotypes portrayed in this one, I felt this was appropriate for the time period and for the main character’s POV.

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin

The Interrupted Tale (The Incorrigible Children Book V) by Maryrose Wood

 

Best Graphic Novels (Young Adult and Middle grade)

 

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

 

If none of the above appeal to you, you might find some more goodies in this more complete list.

The Best Books I Read This Year


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Why Writing is So Important (Grammarly Infographic)

One of the most popular blog posts on my blog was kind of a throwaway post: 10 Reasons Why Books are Better than TV. I don’t think people are responding to this post because my reasons are so startlingly unique and hilarious, but because people genuinely want to know why reading is so important, and why reading is better than TV. While this is a fascinating area of research, to be honest I’m not interested in doing the work required for an exhaustive research article on the topic (especially not just to be published on my fabulous but not research-oriented blab-filled blog). Instead, here are links to a few articles I’ve found interesting:

Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Still Read Fiction

Maths advantage for pupils who read for pleasure

Making Good Decisions: Television, Learning, and the Cognitive Development of Young Children

(You may also note that sitting and reading burns more calories than sitting and watching TV.)

Now I don’t have the research to prove this, but it seems like common sense that the more you read, the better you become at writing. But why is writing so important?

I was approached by Grammarly.com to include their new infographic on my blog (in exchange for a $20 donation to Reading Is Fundamental) about a study they did of Elance profiles. They proofread 400+ freelancer profiles for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors and selected freelances with high quality of work ratings and looked at the correlation between their earnings and the number of mistakes they found on the profiles.

As someone who is horrible at catching my own typos, I’m not sure that correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation necessarily equals good writing, but still, I think this might be an interesting study and at the very least it’s a snazzy looking infographic :)

writing_skills_matter

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Minorities in Publishing podcast

Minorities in Publishing is a brand new podcast featuring interviews with publishing professionals. I’m making it sound formal and boring, but it’s wonderful and inspiring and funny and I really, really love it so far. I particularly loved their interview this week with Preeti Chhibber. A *must* listen for you fellow writers and publishing people out there.

 

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Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

Willow by Tonya Cherie Hegamin

Fifteen-year-old Willow is a resourceful, intelligent young girl who spends her days reading, writing, and taking care of her horse Mayapple. But unfortunately, Willow lives in 1848 Maryland. And Willow is a slave. Though Willow’s life is relatively easy compared to the lives of other slaves in her community, she yearns to go to school and learn to write. Meanwhile, Cato, a headstrong teenager lives a free, but still oppressed life, in Haven, Pennsylvania. Against his father’s wishes, Cato gets involved with smuggling slaves to freedom, and on his first naive attempt, he gets into more trouble than he expected. When Willow and Cato finally meet, their lives and everything they thought they believed about freedom and prejudice are completely changed forever.

With this unique novel Tonya Cherie Hegamin explores life as a slave on a plantation with a “kind” owner–the hypocrisy, the lies, and the secrets that remain hidden. She explores what it means to be not only a slave, but a female slave. What do family obligations mean when you know you are related to your master? What does “home” mean when your  family helped build the plantation where you live enslaved? What does “escape” even mean when there is nothing and no one to escape to?

Even while bringing up all these fascinating questions, Hegamin’s writing is lyrical and poignant, but most importantly it’s incredibly compelling. I connected with Willow from the very first few pages and did not want to put this book down.

Though Cato’s voice is not as strong as Willow’s and the romance between the two characters–though wonderful and believable–often felt besides the point, this novel is heartfelt, thought-provoking, and so, so good.

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Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

I can’t believe it took me so long to read Nnedi Okorafor! I can see why everyone raves about her whenever talking about diverse SFF done right.

Akata Witch is about a twelve-year old girl named Sunny, who discovers she has magical powers and can see the future reflected in a candle’s flickering flames. Sunny has always felt different from other kids–she has albinism and because of this has been ostracized her whole life. But when Orlu, a boy from her school, introduces her to a whole new world of magic, she makes new friends and discovers her own powers all while trying to take down a serial killer terrorizing the children of her city.

While this book contains a lot of familiar fantasy elements–especially for Harry Potter fans–because the setting and world-building are so unique, the book still felt very fresh and exciting. (Spells that require a knife instead of a wand?!? So awesome.) My biggest issue was with the pacing, which didn’t build smoothly to the climax, but rather moved in fits and starts. You very much get sucked in to the main character and her world, but not so much the overall plot.

Definitely recommended for older MG/young YA readers who want a brand new fantasy world to read about. I’m going to have to check out her books for adults!

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Picture Book Review: Kayla the Great and the Magic Red Dress by Stephanie Davis

Kayla the Great and The Magic Red Dress

by Stephanie Davis; Illustrated by Robert Paul, Jr.

Kayla the Great and the Magic Red Dress is about a little girl named Kayla and what happens when she loses her favorite red dress. Despite the fact that I could tell this book was self-published from first glance at the cover, I was interested to read this book because it was the first picture book I’d been asked to review that featured a biracial child.

Both my kids liked the story. Pre-K monkey specifically told me, “I love this book!” when I asked for her opinion to put on my blog. However, after the first read, she wasn’t really interested in reading it again. Likewise, toddler monkey sat quietly when I read it to her, but the book was slightly too long to hold her interest. My impression was that neither the text nor the illustrations were as polished or tightened as they could’ve been, and the book design was very poor (especially the font choice).

However, this is an okay story with a simple, easy-to-understand storyline, and I have a feeling that families with a “Kayla” in their life may very well be happy with this one. The main character looks a lot like one of my friend’s daughters, and I do love that about this book.

Disclaimer: Review based on free copy provided by the author.

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Mommy Read it Again: Apple Pip Princess by Jane Ray

The Apple-Pip Princess by  Jane Ray

Intricate illustrations combine with a gentle, earth-friendly storyline in this fairytale picture book.

I took this home from the library, figuring my Pre-K Monkey would be drawn to the pink cover and “Princess” title, and I also ended up falling in love with it myself. Sadly, this appears to be one that you’ll have to request from the library!

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YA Book Review and Giveaway: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Set in 1959 Virginia, this unforgettable novel tells the story of Sarah Dunbar, a member of the first group of African American students to integrate her town’s public high school. Extremely bright and ambitious, Sarah faces numerous threats, verbal abuse, and physical violence so she can further her education in one of the best schools in town. Complicating matters is the unexplainable attraction she feels for Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the most vocal white segregationists in town, a girl who despises Sarah and her black classmates.

Told in alternating viewpoints, Sarah’s and Linda’s, the novel shows us how their romantic relationship grows despite racism and discrimination from their peers. Though the story is set in a fictional town, it feels unflinchingly true-to-life, as we see through Sarah’s eyes the fear and unreasonable hatred she faces from her fellow students. Sarah is a religious Christian, and because of this feels very confused about her sexuality and is unsure of what it all means. While the budding friendship and romance between Linda and Sarah feels realistic, I wasn’t quite sure I believed the love-at-first-glance chemistry that the two girls felt for each other. They meet on Sarah’s first day of school, and I had trouble understanding how Sarah, who was terrified for the physical well-being of herself and her sister, was even psychologically able feel attracted to anyone, much less one of the meanest girls at school. I also wished that we could’ve learned a little more about Sarah’s home life as there are so few stories about everyday life for African Americans in the 1950’s.

But those minor points aside, Lies We Tell Ourselves is an eye-opening and compelling novel. I am really in awe of Robin Talley’s bravery in telling this story.

My review is based on a free copy I received from the publisher, and now you have a chance to win your own! The winner of the Rafflecopter giveaway below will receive 1 free copy of Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley from the publisher. Click the “Terms and conditions” button on the Rafflecopter widget for more information.

Edited to add: This giveaway is open to US residents only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Recap #3: Quotes from the Asian American Children’s Author Series

The Asian American Children’s Author blog series has come to an end! What was originally going to be summer series went all the way through to October. I interviewed 16 Asian American kid’s authors, asked them the same 3-4 questions (the 4th one was optional), and learned so much about them and myself in the process. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series too, and like me, are now completely excited by your to-read list!

For this final recap blog post, I’ve put together a list of the authors and included my favorite quotes from their interviews. Many of these are quotes from their “advice for Asian American readers” but there are some nuggets of writerly and readerly wisdom as well. Enjoy!

1) Padma Venkatraman 

“I had a very tough childhood, one that I wouldn’t wish on anybody, so books were my saving grace. They helped me escape sometimes, but more often, they helped me empathize, and helped me remain a good and kind kid, despite all I went through.”

2) Emily Jiang

“Create art and build

bonds with people who get you.

Life without regrets.”

3) Wong Herbert Yee

“In library class we picked a book from the shelf and sat down to read. When time was up we put it back. That was where I got my reading done. I am still a regular visitor at the local library. Find a book you like and read it. If you don’t like it, put it back and pick another.”

4) Sayantani DasGupta

“There’s nothing like opening up a book and ‘seeing yourself’ — the character doesn’t have to look exactly like you or even be from your same cultural background to resonate with you, but it does feel terrific when a character reflects your family’s heritage, customs, language or experience.”

5) Nandini Bajpai

“Your life experience as an Asian American is interesting and worthy of sharing with others. Be authentic and be heard!”

6) Mitali Perkins

“If you survive growing up “between cultures” you gain a big advantage as an adult. You will always be able to cross cultural borders easily and make yourself feel at home anywhere. You are becoming proficient in two cultures, which will enable you to acquire mastery of a third or fourth culture much faster than your monocultural peers.”

7) Livia Blackburne

“If you have the opportunity to learn more about your cultural background, be it practicing the language or renewing ties with older relatives, take advantage of it.  The opportunity won’t be there forever.”

8) Varsha Bajaj

“My advice to Asian American and all kid readers would be read with a open mind and heart and to read everything you can get your hands on.”

 9) Uma Krishnaswami

“I don’t think of myself as identifying with any of my characters. When I’m writing I’m simultaneously in their skins and at their sides, taking turns almost, dancing around inside the story and trying to bring it all to the page one or two layers at a time. Sometimes I’m close to a scene. At other times I may be hovering above the story trying to see its bigger picture. I have no time to stop and think about who I love most in that story. That’s not the way I see my job. I’m looking in many mirrors at once, playing with the story’s light and shadow and trying to figure out the lives of the fictional people I’m following.”

10) Fonda Lee

“I shake my head when I hear people say things like, “oh, I don’t read fiction” or “I don’t read YA” or “I don’t read comics.” There is something worthwhile, enlightening, or enjoyable about almost everything that is well done, and if you can appreciate it, it will open your mind to being a better reader and a better writer.”

11) Kashmira Sheth

“Read as much as you can. It may be difficult to find books that reflect your experience of being Asian American but all stories hold deeper truths from which you can learn. Also, listen to the stories your parents and grandparents tell you. Those stories will keep you connected to your past.”

12) Sheela Chari

“You don’t always have to read about characters that look different from you. On the same token, you don’t have read only one kind of book about Asian-Americans either – the horizon is opening up to include fantasy, mystery, adventure and even historical fiction. In the end, an interesting book can be about anybody in any circumstance, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open.”

13) Grace Lin

“…you will never be Asian and you will never be American. You will always be Asian-American. Don’t try to choose a side, because it is not a dividing line.  And while there will definitely be points in your life where that hyphen between the two identities seem like it is subtracting from the other, in the end you’ll find it’s actually a wonderful bridge. Life with a hyphenated-identity is actually doubly richer.”

14) David Yoo

“…whenever an adult figure told the teen me not to sweat the small stuff, I’d always scoff/roll my eyes at them (behind their backs). That they considered the issues in my life small stuff I interpreted as proof that they were utterly clueless about what it’s like to be a teen… I still remember how pointless it was to tell a teenager to trust that things get better–no offense to the whole “It gets better” movement! Frankly, a kid doesn’t have the patience to feel happy knowing that, decades from now, things will turn around. That there will come a time when you look back on this sad or lonely or depressing moment and find humor in it, even. The only reason you appreciate things when you’re older is because you have more perspective on life, which you simply don’t have when you’re younger. So I hesitate to tell AA kid readers, hey, it’ll be all right, even though it’s true.”

15) Mike Jung

“…when I was a kid reader, I devalued my own identity as an Asian American. I lived in an overwhelmingly white community, I wanted very badly to fit in, and looking back now it’s easy to see all the little ways in which I accepted the idea that being Asian American was some kind of stain on my identity that needed to be removed or at least hidden. I hope my book, and all of my future books, will be helpful and positive to you in resisting that kind of impulse, and those pressures. Remember that your identity counts; remember that YOU count. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

16) Veera Hiranandani

“…if you ever feel different, remember we’re all different in some way. Anything that makes you feel different is usually what will make you stronger and will probably turn out to be one of your best qualities.”

 

That’s all for now, folks!

 

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Veera Hiranandani, Author of the Phoebe G. Green series

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The next author in my Asian American Children’s Author blog series is Veera Hiranandani, author of the middle grade novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl. She has two books coming out today (!) in her brand new Phoebe G. Green series, Lunch Will Never Be the Same and Farm Fresh Fun.

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?1400170474

Veera Hiranandani: I definitely identify with Phoebe in my new chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green. I was a bit of a young gourmet like Phoebe discovers herself to be, so that was part of the inspiration for the series. I always loved trying new foods, even foods my friends thought were gross like chicken liver, spinach, and mushrooms. I also really liked spicy foods at a young age like lamb vindaloo.

But I identify most with Sonia from The Whole Story of Half a Girl. My mother is Jewish American and my father is from India. I also grew up in a similar place as Sonia and had to change schools like Sonia, but for different reasons. Many of the social and identity issues that Sonia struggles with are very close to what I experienced back then.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

1400170532VH: Well, I think this advice could apply to any young person–if you ever feel different, remember we’re all different in some way. Anything that makes you feel different is usually what will make you stronger and will probably turn out to be one of your best qualities.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

VH: I have many favorites, but Mitali Perkins is at the top of the list. I also love Sheela Chari and Uma Krishnaswami. I’m a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, but she’s an adult author. Something to look forward too!

About the Author:

Veera Hiranandani is the author of several works for children including the novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Delacorte Press), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist. She is also the author of the new chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She received her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster and Montessori teacher, Veera is now focused on writing, teaching, and family life. You can learn more about Veera at www.veerahiranandani.com.

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