This year, I've decided to not just quietly document my reading in a word document. I've tried to expand beyond that in the past, both on Goodreads (which I've since deleted), and Story Graph (which I endorse! Go Story Graph!). But honestly? I don't write as many reviews as I'd like.
Somehow, the idea of stopping every time I've read 16 books and doing a tournament-style bracket has changed all of that. So...here we go. Impossible choices and subjective opinions abound. I'm basically torturing myself, but I'm also thinking longer about the books and writing out proper reviews. So we forge ahead!
And also, I love how often two books that I just happen to read back to back are proving to speak to each other in intriguing ways. You see one example of that in the Hardest Brackets section down below.
Some of these were so hard! And also, some of these books were impossible to compare! Seriously, they are just doing different things and sometimes it comes down to mood!
Winner: One Zillion Valentines by Frank Modell
I admit I sucked in a deep breath at the thought of a Valentines Holiday Picturebook but this one might be perfect. The charming friendship between the two main characters models healthy masculinity (and I did have an extensive conversation with a friend about whether or not it hits the gay-coded hints common in the 1980's, when it was published). Not only that, but the community love and support is deeply heartwarming. The illustrations match this sweet and evocative tone, adding details that fill out the larger world into which the two characters are so determined to bring joy. Deeply wonderful.
Runner Up: Just Harriet by Elana K. Arnold
4.75 (original review on Story Graph)
I love books where I just want to give every character a big hug. Elana K. Arnold's work is complex as ever -- doubling back on itself in really clever ways. She has such a talent for half-hiding truths from her readers and then revealing all the pieces in the most charming of ways, forcing you to reconsider what has happened before with new eyes. This book is a gentle, loving take on a family in a challenging situation. Harriet, a charming narrator, slowly comes to realize and appreciate how gently every adult is handling her, despite having to make decisions that are hard on her. It's a wonderful look at empathy, and a lovely world to spend some time inside.
Hardest Brackets Time!!
I say below in the review that I was prepared to be very judgy about Bloomability, but I ended up loving it very much. In contrast, I remembered enjoying The Mysterious Benedict Society so much and it...left several bad tastes in my mouth, for complicated reasons. The second book is deeply accomplished storytelling. The first book is a heartfelt emotional work.
But they were fascinating to read together, because Bloomability is a book where nothing much happens while the main character slowly and carefully unpacks a lot of complicated and contradictory feelings, morals, and heavy burdens she has been carrying. It’s wonderful, and its ambiguous ending works perfectly.
In contrast, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a book where so much stuff happens, but most of it doesn’t matter and/or turns out to have been a weird test, all built around fixing an actually very simple pseudo-magical problem rather than a complex emotional one, and the moral weight to everything is honestly kind of…off…but it’s a swiss watch of a plot and a cuckoo clock of a world that’s fun to live in.
Bloomability by Sharon Creech
4.25 (original review on Story Graph)
I was all prepared to be snarky about "the middle grade Eat Pray Love" book, but the more I read, the more I found the book to be gentle, warm, and emotionally intelligent. The set-up of the book -- the youngest child of a family in a series of crises is swept away by rich-adjacent relatives to a European boarding school adventure -- is almost fairy tale, but after we get our heroine to this new place...kind of nothing happens. Events happen. She makes some friends and they have little adventures, but the real work and forward progress of the book is her slowly, carefully unpacking a series of complex emotional burdens she has long carried. The delicacy with which her aunt and uncle treat her emotional journey is a welcome relief after reading many books written at the same time as Bloomability, and the book itself also gives our heroine the time to unpack her complicated emotions and decide which of them to carry forward with her. I also give the book props for ending on such an ambiguous note -- for almost every character too!
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
3.75 (original review on Story Graph)
I feel weird giving this such a low rating (for me), because both times I have read this book I have enjoyed it a great deal! Rereading in 2023, however, several things just hit me wrong. Could there be anything we need less than a story about how there's nothing actually wrong with society and its institutions, that the way everyone is feeling upset and unsatisfied with the status quo is just the product of an evil conspiracy blasting discontent into our brainwaves? All caused by the brainwashed children being indoctrinated in schools? I understand why such fantasies are popular. Could there be anything more appealing than the idea that we could instantly fix the world (or close enough) just by taking out one shadowy figure? That our systems aren't fundamentally broken, we just need to send in a group of plucky kids to defeat a singular villain? If you like books in that vein (and I do too on occasion!), then Mysterious Benedict Society is a great example of the type -- provided you also like Sherlock-Holmes-level puzzle solving, complete with the puzzle architect being smug as they explain it to you afterward. To be fair, all of the characters are a good deal more charming than any Sherlock Holmes that I've read/seen/etc. and the fictional world is full of charming and delightful twists and turns.
I might just feel guilty for not picking the Lemony Snicket/Maira Kalman team up here. Certainly this is a book that should have been for me. I'm not even sure quite why it isn't, but...it isn't. It isn't the book I've been waiting for. Mo Willems, on the other hand, is for everyone. No exceptions.
13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman
4.0 (original review on Story Graph)
Snicket (Handler) has long impressed me with his flair for making vocabulary lessons in the middle of his stories feel fun for the reader. This picturebook does an excellent job of that on this smaller scale, and the joy with which the book takes random turns is palpable. I also appreciate Snicket/Handler insisting on long, winding words for many of his examples, when I'm sure there must have been pushback because of the age of likely readers. I know at least one two year old who uses "despondent" because of this title. One pet peeve is putting a song (especially a sudden, surprise song) in the middle of a picturebook without a hint about the tune. I don't mind making up a tune on the spot, but I have much more fun if there is a tune I can find for it (there are plenty in the public domain). And if you want me to go unexpectedly operatic, I would appreciate a little more hand-holding from the meter of the tune.
Watch Me Throw the Ball by Mo Willems
This is one of (one of) my goddaughter's favorites in the Elephant and Piggy series, and I'm delighted because it's one of my favorites too. I love a story of unstoppable optimism, and Piggy's reactions to the setbacks is right in character. If that kind of character is what draws me in to the Elephant and Piggy books, it is Gerald's ground realism that I find remarkable, because it never dips into cruelty or even wet-blanketing. Gerald cares deeply about truth, but he is never unkind to his friend about it. He gets frustrated, yes, but he doesn't punish his friend because he has a feeling. Plus the art is wonderful and it's very very funny.
Objectively, Victory. Stand! is probably the better book. I tend to think that about graphic novels anyway, because I see the outstanding artistry as well as the outstanding writing. The standard I keep finding myself using, however, is which books made me want to write the projects I am currently writing myself.
I would assign Victory. Stand! much sooner and to a larger group of people than Just Harriet, but the book I needed this month was Elana K. Arnold’s. And frankly, Victory. Stand! deserves even more awards than it’s gotten, but top of my bracket isn’t going to make a dent there.
Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist For Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes and Dawud Anyabwile
This book has racked up the non-fiction awards from the American Library Association, and it's easy to see why. The powerful visuals and narration weave together so many different elements of racism, the world of sport, family and community until each panel feels inextricable from the whole.
The famous image of the Olympian athletes raising their fist in protest on the Olympic podium becomes even more rich an image as you learn of their origins, their struggles, their battles with institutional racism, their families and loves and attempts to organize before the Games. The moment, when it finally arrives, feels deeply personal as well as symbolic and powerful. None of the extended metaphors of the book (like depicting the struggles intercut with the race itself) are overused. Every element from art to narration to dialogue is perfectly calibrated and effective. This is an impressive work of art and history.