I knew it! You were just dying to know what books I really enjoyed this past year.
My favorite piece of adult fiction that I read was City of Thieves by David Benioff. It's a story about a Jewish boy during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, and given that they are all starving, you wouldn't think it would be funny, but it is. (Funny in the way that Catch-22 is funny--a lot of absurdity!) In high school went through a period where I read a lot of Holocaust literature, but that is not the same as World War II literature, and I really knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad.
My favorite piece of non-fiction that I read this year--alright, to tell the truth, I'm still only half-way through it--was (is?) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Through the lens of one woman's cells, and one woman's family, we learn about: her family history, as well as ethics and racism in medical research. Maybe that doesn't sound too scintillating, but it is really engrossing.
Update 1/1/12: I forgot to put in my favorite graphic book of the year. That book would be Feynman, by Jim Otavianni (author) and Leyland Myrick (illustrator), about Nobel prize-winner (quantum physicist) Richard Feynman. And Otavianni is an Ann Arbor resident!
As for children's books:
The best children's book that I read this year--and I just read it last week--is an older book, a Newbery Award winner from 1998. The book is Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, about the Dust Bowl. It's written in free verse, and the sparing, short lines make the book a very quick read. (It is quick, but also there are some parts that are [mentally] difficult reading.) This children's literature site suggests that you could pair Out of the Dust with reading the book (and/or watching the movie) Grapes of Wrath.
I'll also mention four other children's and/or young adult authors:
Tamora Pierce has a newer book out, Mastiff, that I enjoyed. It's part of a young adult fantasy trilogy about Beka Cooper, a policewoman (Dog) in Tortall. I have pretty much enjoyed all of Tamora Pierce's books--although I will say that my daughter found them boring. But then, she doesn't like fantasy at all.
E. Nesbit is an author I keep coming back to. This summer I listened to The Phoenix and the Carpet (well, part of it--can you tell I sometimes stop in the middle and pick up the book again later?). However, my favorite book by E. Nesbit is The Railway Children. Here is a 1964 essay by Gore Vidal about E. Nesbit, in case you are interested.
Rick Riordan is in the middle of a series about Egyptian magicians, and my son has insisted that I read this series, as well as the Percy Jackson series (about the gods on Mt. Olympus). I have to admit that I give these series kind of middling grades (they are okay, but not fabulous). My son, however, disagrees and so I am sharing this with you because you might have an elementary- or middle-school child who would like to read these as well. Looking at Rick Riordan's biography (see the link above), I was surprised (but maybe I shouldn't have been) to see that, "For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private
middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. In 2002,
Saint Mary’s Hall honored him with the school’s first Master Teacher
Award." He also writes adult mysteries. Maybe I should try those.
John Feinstein must be one of the most prolific writers ever. If you've heard him on NPR, you might not know that he has a very interesting mystery series that is targeted at the young-adult, sports-loving audience. He's got two teen reporters--a girl and a boy--covering big sports events like the Final Four (Last Shot) and the World Series (Change-Up), and solving mysteries along the way. Both my son and I agree the whole series is quite good.
I don't get to spend much time with illustrated story books anymore--and I miss them--which is perhaps why I have found myself thinking about these two "vintage" books recently:
Lore Segal's Tell Me A Mitzi
Brinton Turkle's Rachel and Obadiah (and others in the Obadiah series like Thy Friend Obadiah and Adventures of Obadiah)