It’s that time of year again — the list-makin’ time — and I’ve read my way through nice fat piles of books to bring you some of my select favorites. Fire up the library cards, and let’s get rollin’!
Best Wordplay — Bubble Trouble by Margaret Mahy, illus. Polly Dunbar. Probably some of the cleverest rhymes this side of Gilbert & Sullivan, and a rollicking tale about a town’s efforts to rescue an adorable baby floating in a bubble. Mahy originally published this story in an anthology back in the ’80s, and it’s great to have it back. Dunbar’s illustrations are scrumptious as always. Fox in Socks ain’t got nothin’ on this puppy.
Best Read-Aloud for Preschoolers — The Terrible Plop by Ursula Dubosarsky, illus. Andrew Joyner. This update on the “Chicken Little” story has got a rhyme scheme worthy of a tap-dance. A group of not-so-bright woodland creatures are spooked into mass hysteria by a mysterious sound by the edge of a lake — until a grumpy bear demands a reasonable explanation. Joyner’s mixed-media illustrations are both cute and chic, with a definite ’50s-retro vibe.
Best Read-Aloud for Elementary School Kids — Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett, illus. Adam Rex. All hail Adam Rex, king of comic photo-surreal illustration! And all hail Mac Barnett, whose story allows me to use my Pirate Voice, Nerd Voice, Hippie Teacher Voice, Big Dumb Bully Voice, and Popular Girl Voice, all in one tidy package. There’s nothing like making an outlandish parental threat (“If you act up one more time, we’re going to get you a blue whale”) and then seeing the literal results.
Most Likely to Win the Caldecott Medal — The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. Folks, this man has Caldecott runner-ups oozing out of his ears, so it’s time. And this is the one for the gold. Lush, realistically depicted animals of the Serengeti star in a wordless retelling of the old Aesop fable. If the stellar page design isn’t enough to convince you, Pinkney’s gently humorous creatures will.
For When You Have a Big Case of the Sillies — Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas. Both wacky-fun in its own right, and a sly send-up of cheerful-yet-bland easy readers, this book reads like a classic Sesame Street sketch distilled into book form. Any book that ends with all the characters inside a vacuum cleaner gets my vote.
Reads Like a Classic — The Snow Day by Kamako Sakai. Yes, the title sounds familiar, but Sakai’s quiet book is a standout for its ability to capture the quiet, indoorsy world of snowy weather. The depiction of different kinds of light in the illustrations (sunlight, lamplight, reflected light off a snow-covered street) is masterly. I raved a few years ago about Sakai’s previous book, Emily’s Balloon, and this one is just as good.
Most Adorable Bear of 2009 — Magic Box by Katie Cleminson. A girl jumps into a cardboard box and finds a magic hat that can grant her wishes. Her wish for the perfect pet turns out to be a polar bear the size of a city block, followed by bunnies that play jazz music. A slightly surreal, but goofily fun little tale that reads like your favorite childhood fantasy play.
Feels Like it Was Created Via a Focus Group That Consisted Entirely of My Daughter — Ella Bella Ballerina Meets Cinderella by James Mayhew. Yes, that’s really what it’s called. It’s about a girl who finds a magic music box that transports her into fairy tales — in this case, Cinderella. If you cut this book, it would probably bleed pink, but I say if you’re going to go down that princess road anyway, why not choose a book with good art and storytelling? Mayhew’s fine-lined watercolors remind me of Louis Slobodkin and are just as light and spun-sugar wonderful as a real trip to the ballet.
Illustrations That Make Me Covet — The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. It’s an eco-friendly tale about a boy who transforms an abandoned railroad track into a city-wide community garden, but hidden within the modern, wonderfully detailed illustrations is a tree with a two story treehouse in it. And that just makes me drool.
Best Fight Scene — Yummy! by Lucy Cousins. Best known for her whimsical Maisy books, Cousins’ retelling of six traditional folktales (The Three Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, etc.) are gloriously faithful to the original source material. Ergo, when the huntsman shows up to off the wolf, there’s a large “CHOP!” smeared across the page, and the wolf’s head goes a-flyin’. Fortunately, Cousins’ intentionally childlike illustrations give the story more the feel of a Warner Bros. cartoon instead of Night of the Axe-Wielding Fairy Tale, and radiate a warmth that kids will be drawn to. The extra-large trim size makes it dandy for reading out loud, as well.
Hipper Than Thou — A Penguin Story by Annoinette Portis. Modern design has the occasional dabble in children’s literature, usually with obtuse, over-intellectual results (Abstract Alphabet, anyone?). But Portis’ streamlined, frictionless illustrations not only exude ultra-mod style, but are packaged with a darn fine story as well. Use it as the antidote for anyone who snored their way through Happy Feet.
Just Makes You Wanna Say “Awwwww” — Little Chick by Amy Hest, illus. Anita Jeram. Little Chick is given a trio of tales in this pleasingly plump volume, each one dealing with some sort of problem. Her carrot won’t grow! She can’t catch a star! Leave it to her ever-wise Old Auntie to save the day, and you’ll feel as comfy and at-home as you would with a favorite quilt. Go ahead: Awwwwwwww!
For Dog Lovers — Always in Trouble by Corinne Demas. There’s quite a few picture books with the misbehaving-dog-shapes-up-in-obedience-school story, but Demas throws in enough twists to keep readers chuckling and on their toes. And that dog is soooo loveably mutt-ish; who can resist that big squishy nose?
Best Use of Food in a Fairy Tale — The Duchess of Whimsy by Randall de Seve, illus. Peter de Seve. The dull-as-dust Earl of Norm wishes to woo the fabulous Duchess of Whimsy. Many humorous adventures follow, but what I love about this book is that it ultimately proves that if you can make a really good grilled cheese sandwich, you can do anything. Peter de Seve is one of my favorite illustrators for The New Yorker, and his talent for charmingly elastic faces and billowy, elaborate clothes are put to good use here. Fans of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub will approve.
A Great Gift for Grownups — All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illus. Marla Frazee. It really isn’t a story, more of a poem about the simple things in life that connect everybody. But what really elevates this book is the jaw-dropping, expansive illustrations by Frazee. Its gorgeous images of landscapes and families, in addition to its large size, make it worthy of the coffee table as well as bedtime.