Some Books That Can't Win the ALA Awards

The American Library Association announced its prestigious children's book awards yesterday, including the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book and the Newbery Medal for most distinguished contribution to American children's literature. 

This morning's column takes a look at a few of the best books of the year that did not win either prize - not because they're not worthy, but because, being British, they're not eligible. 

Hilary McKay's acclaimed series about the eccentric Casson family comes to a perfect end with "Forever Rose."  Eleven-year-old Rose is used to the friendly chaos of her household.  As the book opens, her artist mother is ensconced in her painting shed with a bad case of bronchitis; her artist father, living in London with his girlfriend, comes home to help despite his exasperation with the way the household is run; her older sister Caddie, who ran away from her own wedding, calls Rose frequently but refuses to say where she is; and her brother Indigo's friend David, displaced from his mother's house, has set up his drum set in the living room and bunks in the attic.  Readers of the previous four books will be delighted with the way McKay ties up all the loose ends in surprising but satisfying ways.   

Terry Pratchett tackles big issues in a book that manages to be entertaining while offering middle school readers lots to think about.  "Nation" begins when a tsunami wipes out all the inhabitants of a small island in a place very like the South Pacific.  The only survivor is Mau, who is paddling back from his initiation trip, expecting to find his family and friends welcoming him home.  Instead he finds destruction, dead bodies, and a British sailing ship crash-landed in the trees.  Daphne, the only survivor on the ship, steps onto the sand, armed with a rusty revolver, and the story begins. 

In an action-packed tale, Pratchett touches on the meaning of religion and science, empire and colonialism, death, leadership, politics and royalty.  It's a thumping good read that is sure to find a wide audience among fans of alternative history, fantasy, and adventure stories.

So many fantasies are being published these days that it's refreshing to find one with a new twist.  Frances Hardinge's "Well Witched" begins when Ryan, Josh and Chelle steal coins from a village wishing well only to find that they are now in debt to the well witch.  She demands that they carry out the wishes made by other well visitors and gives them creepy new powers - disrupting electrical currents, growing extra eyes, and voicing the thoughts of bystanders.  At first, their powers help them in their task, but soon they grow frightening.

The menacing, mournful well witch is a masterful creation.  Share this with fantasy readers twelve and up who like a dark side to their reading.

Allan Ahlberg's "The Pencil" is reminiscent of Crocket Johnson's classic "Harold and the Purple Crayon," but it takes the premise to a new level.  "Once there was a pencil, a lonely little pencil, and nothing else...Then one day that little pencil...began to draw."  When the animals and people it draws start to misbehave, the pencil draws an eraser, but what will happen when the eraser comes after the pencil? Bruce Ingman's scribbly pencil drawings strike just the right note for this quirky tale about creativity.

First published in the 1-27-09 Free Lance-Star newspaper.