You know what it's like: Someone asks you for a book recommendation, and all of a sudden your mind goes blank. Then it fills so rapidly you can't possibly filter out just one title or two.
That's how I felt in trying to pick my five favorite books of the year. After all, it was murder just narrowing down to the hundred-and-a-few that appear on Kirkus’ combined Best Books list for children and teens. And no matter what I pick today, I'm going to think of a different set tomorrow.
"Favorite" depends on context, too. So, without giving myself any more time to revise and re-revise and re-re-revise, here are five of my favorite books of 2011, and their contexts.
Book that made me feel like I was eating the very best chocolate: Chime, by Franny Billingsley. This alternative-history fantasy about the very smart, very tortured and very funny Briony, who lives next to possibly the eeriest swamp in literature and, as the book opens, has confessed to witchcraft, has some of the most delectable language I've read in some time. "We leapt into snickleways, waded through velvet ooze. We dripped out the far side, trailing smells of sulfur and rotten eggs." And the romance is to die for. As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to turn it right over and gobble it up again. Yes, I'm greedy.
Book that made me think lightning had struck me twice: Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick. As a card-carrying fan of Selznick's format-busting Caldecott winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I was a little nervous to see that his follow-up shared the same groundbreaking pattern of prose alternating with wordless pages of pictures. Could he pull it off again? He did, in spades. The paired stories of motherless Ben, searching for his unknown father in 1977, and lonely Rose, grasping for her own familial connection in 1927, intertwine electrically, the one in prose and the other in cinematic black-and-white sequences. The picture of Roaring-’20s–era Times Square is worth the price of admission all by itself. I spent the rest of the week showing it to everybody I knew.
Book that made me giggle hysterically in public: Tilt, by Alan Cumyn. I had no idea how much 16-year-old boys thought about sex until I read this book. Poor Stan. Despite the continual betrayals of his body, particularly when he thinks about the divine Janine Igwash, he is nevertheless the most responsible member of his household, parenting both his genius little sister and his feckless mother. Then the father who abandoned them reappears, with the child of the affair that broke up the family. Incredibly, the story of how Stan mans up and handles this chaos is both touching and incredibly funny. I read it on an airplane. Big mistake. I actually snorted.
Book that made me wish I were a Depression-era socialite: The FitzOsbornes in Exile, by Michelle Cooper. The second in The Montmaray Journals finds the tiny royal family of the tinier island kingdom of Montmaray living with their redoubtable aunt in England, alternately trying to win League of Nations support for an attempt to kick the Nazis off their bit of Bay of Biscay rock and negotiating their aunt's efforts to marry them off responsibly. As chronicled by Princess Sophie in her journal, their exile is both heartbreaking and extremely funny. A cameo by Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy made me so fond of her that I actually sniveled when I discovered how she died.
Book that took my breath away every time I looked at it: Heart and Soul, by Kadir Nelson. The follow-up to his multiple–award-winning chronicle of the Negro Leagues, We Are the Ship, takes the same device of a fictional narrator paired with heart-stopping oil paintings and expands it to give readers the history of America through an African-American lens. It's impossible to read this book without stopping to study the monumental image of the black sharecropper, burdened but unbowed by a giant basket of cotton, the double-page spread of Louis Armstrong, arms outstretched in ebullience, or the triumphant final close-up of gnarled black hands cradling an "I Voted" button. It's one of those books that makes me feel honored just to hold it.
Vicky Smith is the Children's and Teen Editor at Kirkus.