1. Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel by Ruth McNally Barshaw
I've been meaning to check this one out since meeting Ruth at SCBWI-MI, and I'm glad I did. In fact, I'm already planning to buy a copy for one of my nieces for Christmas. Have Pen, Will Travel isn't your standard middle grade novel, because it's told with pictures as much as words -- Ellie's illustrated diary of her oh-so-dreaded camping vacation with her least favorite relatives. It's clever and funny and wonderfully true to life -- Ellie is likeable, but she can also be selfish and prejudiced and oblivious to other people's feelings, which is part of the unfolding plot of the book. Almost as a bonus, deftly woven in with the drama of Ellie coping with her "monkey-boy" brother and her disliked cousins are a lot of interesting facts about camping and wildlife and fun games that kids can play both in and out of doors, many of which were new to me even as an adult reader. And the cartoons are simply delightful.
2. Gifts by Ursula LeGuin
As a young reader I loved A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, was indifferent to The Farthest Shore and actively hated Tehanu and The Beginning Place, so I'd been under the impression that LeGuin had taken her writing in a direction that I could no longer enjoy. I unbent long enough to read The Other Wind, since it had come recommended by someone whose judgment I trust, but didn't feel particularly compelled by it. Still, the few things I'd heard about her new YA trilogy sounded intriguing, so I decided to give the first book a try -- and wow, am I glad I did. It's lovely and harsh and painful and does a wonderful job of subverting the standard fantasy cliche of the magically gifted young man coming into his powers, and while I did anticipate the twist near the end, it didn't make me respect LeGuin's work any less. The story is subtle and layered and beautifully characterized, and LeGuin does an excellent job of portraying grief without falling prey to timidity or sloppy excess -- at one point I nearly shed a tear myself. I'm really looking forward to the next two books in the series now.