Favorite Books for Young Readers 2012

Back due to popular demand — my list of personal favorites from the realm of children’s/YA publishing.  Yaaaaaay!!

[Kermit-the-Frog-style clapping]

Remember: these are not by any means a comprehensive list of critical acclaim, award-winners, or bestsellers.  If I were making a list of “books from 2012 that libraries should buy” then said list would be far, far longer.

I also can’t guarantee that every book on this list is one meant for you.  I’m a librarian, which means that out of necessity I have far-ranging tastes.  Last year my friend who favors the likes of Wallace Stegner and Cormick McCarthy looked at my annual list and picked out Heather Dixon’s Entwined.  She didn’t like it, and no surpise!  I nearly had to lie down at the thought of such a literary mismatch.  Still makes me smile when I think of it.

It’s just a list of serendipitous faves based entirely on my personal tastes.  Enjoy.

Also, if you’re wondering why it takes me so long to make this list every year (sheesh, February already?) let me remind you: four children.  FOUR.


dreaming up

If you’re only going to read one picture book this year, read: Dreaming Up: a Celebration of Building by Christy Hale.  This book most excellently correlates the way children play with real-life architecture.  Awesome photography and illustration — you just FEEL SMARTER after reading it.

z is for moose

Best Metafiction: Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky

chloe and the lion

No Wait, THIS is the Best Metafiction: Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, illus. Adam Rex


Prettiest Concept Book Ever: Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.

maudie and bear

Imaginary Friends Know What’s Best: Maudie and Bear by Jan Ormerod, illus. Freya Blackwood

one cool friend

Your Father Knows You Better Than You Think: One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo, illus. David Small.

each kindness

Best Book About Bullying in a Long, Long While: Each Kindness by Jaqueline Woodson, illus. E. B. Lewis.

charley's first night

Boys Can Be Nurturers, Too: Charley’s First Night by Amy Hest, illus. Helen Oxenbury


CARS AND TRUUUUUUCKS: Demolition by Sally Sutton, illus. Brian Lovelock

nighttime ninja

Ninjas Are Always in Style: Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DeCosta, illus. Ed Young.


Bunnies!  Bubble Wrap!  Bunnies WITH Bubble Wrap! Chloe by Peter McCarty

up tall and high

It’s Harder Than it Looks to Write a Story With Simple Vocabulary: Up, Tall and High! by Ethan Long


Complain About Life All You Want, At Least You’re Not On the Underground Railroad: Unspoken: a Story of the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

eggs 123

ULTIMATE CUTENESS: Eggs 1, 2, 3 by Janet Halfmann, illus. Betsy Thompson


Best Board Book: The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson, illus. Julie Morstad

this is not my hat

Kinda Dark for a Kids’ Book (But That’s What I Love About It): This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen


national geographic poetry

If you’re only going to read one book from this category, try: The National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry edited by J. Patrick Lewis.  I was skeptical about this book for a long while, but seriously, this is a gorgeous gift-worthy book for more than just kids.

forgive me

Second place: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine, illus. Matthew Cordell

leave your sleep

I Usually Don’t Like Books Based on Albums, But This Is So Pretty: Leave Your Sleep: a collection of classic children’s poetry adapted to music by Natalie Merchant, illus. Barbara McClintock.  BARBARA McCLINTOCK!!  *swoon*

step gently out

Best Up-Close Photography of the Year: Step Gently Out by Helen Frost, photographs by Rick Lieder.

town mouse country mous

I Like it Because It’s PRETTY, Okay? The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse: an Aesop’s Fable retold and illustrated by Helen Ward

robin hood

FINALLY!  A version of Robin Hood that I can read aloud to seven-year-olds while remaining faithful to the original stories!  Robin Hood retold by David Calcutt, illus. Grahame Baker-Smith


Hedgehog.  Hedgehog that plays the violin and rides a rooster: Hans My Hedgehog: a tale from the Brothers Grimm retold by Kate Coombs, illus. John Nickle


‘Cause Being Weird is Sometimes the Best Way to Go: The Goldilocks Variations: A Pop-Up Book by Alan Ahlberg, illus. Jessica Ahlberg


twelve kinds of ice

If you’re only going to read one of ’em, try: Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed, illus. Barbara McClintock.  BARBARA McCLINTOCK!!  *swoon*  This nostalgic, lyrical little volume about the author’s childhood memories of ice skating — on ponds, streams, fields, pastures, and on a backyard ice rink — was pretty much the only thing I wanted for Christmas last year.  And I got it.  And I’ve read it about five times, and I’m already wanting to read it again.  This book is sheer happiness: and I don’t even know how to skate.

one and only ivan

The Charlotte’s Web of 2012: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate  (people who cried over Dumbo should probably bring Kleenex)

mr mrs bunny

Brilliant in its glorious weirdness.  Also, only book of 2012 to make me laugh out loud multiple times: Mr. & Mrs. Bunny: Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

splendors glooms

Victorians were darn creepy with those death masks and all: Splendors & Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

goblin secrets

STEAMPUNK! Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

summer gypsy moths

In which the foster children bury their deceased caregiver in the front yard, and a Gentle Coming of Age Story ensues: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

lulu duck park

Best British Humour for the K-3 set: Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay.


Little House on the Prairie — from the Ojibwe perspective (and a great adventure story, too): Chickadee by Louise Erdrich

GRAPHIC NOVELS (you know, comic books)


If you’re going to read just one, read: Drama by Raina Telegemier.  Nobody knows the trials and triumphs of seventh grade like this author.

nathan hales hazardous

Nobody makes history cool like this guy does: One Dead Spy and Big Bad Ironclad! (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series) by Nathan Hale (you know, the guy who did Rapunzel’s Revenge)

little white duck

Life in China is more complicated than you think: Little White Duck: a childhood in China by Na Liu, illus. Andres Vera Martinez

legends of zita

My kids can’t get enough of this series: Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke


I’m just dazzled by this guy’s imagination: Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

babys in black

For fans of rock history (esp. early Beatles): Baby’s in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the Beatles by Arne Bellstorf (this was a big bestseller in Germany, where it was originally published)


code name verity

If you’re going to read just one, read: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  A multilayered, sophisticated story of spies and female friendship during WWII.  Wein’s novels often deal with the moral predicaments of spies (I loved her earlier novel, The Lion Hunter), and this take is a triumph.

confusion of princes

Best Old-School Science Fiction: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix.  Okay, I’ll admit that the complex world-building made the first quarter of the novel a little slow.  But the protagonist’s voice is clever enough to carry you through.  JUST GET THROUGH THE FIRST 150 PAGES AND IT’S 100% AWESOME AFTERWARDS, OKAY??


Best Fairytale Mashup (and I do not give this award out lightly): Enchanted by Alethea Kontis  This book got a unanimous “in favor of” vote from the members of the YALSA Best Books for YAs meeting.  I know because I was there and did a little hop in my seat!

no crystal stair

Booksellers in Harlem are Freaking Awesome: No Crystal Stair: a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

keeping the castle

Best Jane Austen Tribute: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

grave mercy

Historical Fantasy with crossbows and poisoned chalices and secrets and awesome dresses and WOW: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

jepp who defied the stars

Being a Renaissance-era Dwarf is Nothing Like that guy in Game of Thrones: Jepp Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh


Gothic supernatural romance tempered with a hefty dose of British snark: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

NON FICTION — Truthfully, probably my favorite category this year


If you’re going to read just one, read: Bomb: the race to build — and steal — the world’s most dangerous weapon by Steve Sheinkin.  Shienkin writes gripping history with a novelistic narrative style that’s really fun to read.  This tale of the atomic arms race is a nail biter, ranging from the shenanigans of the eccentric scientists at Los Alamos, to the inner workings of sinister Soviet espionage, to the incredible team of Norwegian resistance fighters out to destroy a Nazi-operated heavy water plant.  Forget James Bond and Indiana Jones: this is real adventure.  Love it!

temple grandin

Best Biography: Temple Grandin: how the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world by Sy Montgomery.  Cows!  Autism!  What’s not to love?

chuck close face book

Best Autobiography: Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close.  Not only a fascinating portrait of one of the United States’ best artists, but an amazing story of someone who overcomes incredible hardship to keep doing what he loves (Close has severe learning disabilities, and suffered a massive stroke as an adult; he is still paralyzed from the chest down).  The centerpiece of this volume is a flip-book section where readers can mix-and-match different Close self-portraits in a variety of styles.

fairy ring

Best story you’re always been curious about: The Fairy Ring, or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure.  You know, the Cottingley fairy photographs and the little girls who took them!  How on earth did anybody think those pictures were real?

Favorite Books for Young Readers 2011

Yup, it’s that time of year again — time to stop procrastinating and decide which books for young readers were my favorites of 2011.

Take note: these are not the most popular, most distinguished, most likely to win an award, etc.  It isn’t the list of books I’d make for librarians or teachers to purchase.  It is simply an idiosyncratic list of my personal favorites.  Fire up those library cards and read away!


  • Just ‘Cause It’s Purty Snow Rabbit Spring Rabbit by Il Sung Na
  • Fun With Graphic Design Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  • Most Clever Cleverness Press Here by Herve Tullet
  • It’s Jane Goodall as a Little Kid! Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell
  • Best Christmas Story The Money We’ll Save by Brock Cole
  • Best Novella-as-Picture-Book The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (aka “The Lady Who Wrote The Yearling”), illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon
  • Reminds Me of My Own Early Childhood In the Meadow by Yukiko Kato, illus. Komako Sakai (aka illustrator of Emily’s Balloon and other favorites)
  • You’ll “Get It” if You Read It Out Loud I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • Best Cartoon Family Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael B. Kaplan, illus. Stephane Jorisch
  • Grand Prize for Stupendous Moose IllustrationThe House in the Woods by Inga Moore
  • My Kids Made Me Read It Over and Over Until I got Sick of It, So Beware Mitchell’s License by Hallie Durand, illus. Tony Fucile
  • Best Fractured Fairy Tale The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett; illus. Poly Bernatene
  • Most Likely to Cause Giggle Fits What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson
  • Just Plain Powerful Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack, illus. Leo & Diane Dillon
  • Best Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists edited by Chris Duffy
  • I Admit That Elizabeth Is a Cool Name My Name is Elizabeth! by Annika Dunklee, illus. Matthew Forsythe
  • Put it in Your Church Bag Naamah and the Ark at Night (note: Naamah is more popularly known as “Mrs. Noah”) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illus. Holly Meade
  • The Japanese Can Bring the Cute When They Need To 999 Tadpoles by Ken Kimura, illus. Yasunari Murakami
  • Because There Aren’t Enough Stellar Books About Groundhog’s Day Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox by Susan Blackaby, illus. Carmen Segovia
  • Let’s Get Excited About Vegetables! Rah Rah Radishes! by April Pulley Sayre
  • Best Picture Book About Dementia (It’s a Category If I Say It Is) Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
  • The Obligatory Awesome Mo Willems Book Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator! by Mo Willems


  • Best Anti-Girly Girl Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, illus. Brian Floca (I LOVE his art!)
  • Channeling Diana Wynne-Jones, Part I (Magic Can Be Confusing)Small Persons With Wings by Ellen Booraem
  • Channeling Diana Wynne-Jones, Part II (Pranks Can Win the War) Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
  • Channeling Diana Wynn-Jones, Part III (This Time, with Jane Austen-y Antics!) Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
  • This Author Will Be Famous Someday Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby
  • Best Historical Fiction With Talking Mice The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright
  • Best Historial Fiction With a Severed Hand Caper The Trouble With May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
  • Best Historical Fiction With Victorian Ladies Getting in GunfightsThe Year We Were Famous
  • Book With Best Crossover Appeal for Adults Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  • That Jerk Patrick Ness Made Me Cry A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Most Heart-Warming-y Heartwarming The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
  • Sometimes It’s Better When You Don’t Get Prince CharmingThe Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley
  • Treasure Seeking Hijinks With Cowboys and Dragons! The Dragon of Cripple Creek by Troy Howell
  • Arthurian Knights Can Be Surprisingly Deep — and Funny The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris
  • Poetry Can Make Your Head Spin Hidden by Helen Frost
  • But Will Martin Scorsese Direct the Film Adaptation? Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  • Immigration Can Be Hard The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Best Depiction of Contemporary Africa The No. 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke
  • Immigration Can Be Hard — Especially During the Vietnam War Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  • I Usually Don’t Like Multi-Author Anthologies But This One’s Pretty Great The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Authors Tell the Tales , illus. by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Sentient Origami Rules Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger


Note: Yes, once again it’s a short list.  I’ve grown tired of supernatural romance/gossipy frenemies/dystopian fiction, so that winnowed the playing field by quite a bit.  Plus, with the birth of Baby Katie this year, I wasn’t up for anything where anything really bad happens.    I even checked out every one of these titles from the library, kept them on my shelf, and then turned them back in.  THAT’S HOW BAD IT IS THESE DAYS.  So this year, for the first time ever — I am listing a group of books which I know are wonderful and which I know you will like, but which I am simply too wimpy to read right now.

What I Read And Thought Worthy of Sharing:

  • Best Fairy Tale Adaptation (and that’s really saying something, trust me) Entwined by Heather Dixon
  • Best Road Trip Through Europe The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson (note: this is a sequel to Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, which is also excellent)
  • When Bad Covers Happen to REALLY Good Books Chime by Franny Billingsley
  • It’s Like Seabiscuit With Legendary Irish Fairy Horses The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

What’s Probably Great But Which I Am Too Wimpy To Read:

  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (Siberian Prison Camp!)
  • Blood Red Road  by Moira Young (post apocalyptic universe! with cage fighting!)
  • All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin (dystopian future where chocolate is illegal!)
  • Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard (boy drowns at 80s prep school and it sounds way too much like A Separate Peace!)
  • The Watch That Ends The Night by Allan Wolf  (the Titanic!)
  • How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (just a sad, beautiful domestic drama!)
  • Bluefish by Pat Schmatz (bullies!)
  • Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (it’s about Thomas Jefferson’s slave children!  Also not technically YA!)
  • Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones (kidnapping!)
  • The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller (the Romanovs!  With meticulous research!)


  • Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming (go read it!)


  • The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

Favorite Books for Young Readers 2010

By popular demand, the list is back!  Although, it’s a bit simplified this year.  In the past, I’ve included images of every book, annotations for each book, and sometimes even a link to each book’s Amazon.com page.

You know what that is?  About five hours’ worth of work.  And considering that I’m only 2 days away from Baby Katie’s due date, five hours is a commitment I just can’t make right now.

So: here’s the list.  Keep in mind that, as in the past, this is a highly personal list — and also that I’m not a professional book reviewer and do not have access to every single title that came out in 2010.  I also tend to leave off bestsellers (like Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay) since I know that most of my blog readers have already read them, or at least are familiar with them.  But I consider all of them to be lots of fun, and I’m sure you’ll find something in here to please you, as well.

Oh, and yeah: I forgot your favorite book.  Sorry in advance.

So fire up those library cards!  Happy hunting!

Picture Books (and keep in mind that I am VERY picky about these.  My personal requirement is that the books have to withstand being read out loud for at least five consecutive nights without driving me crazy):

  • Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan
  • Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming
  • April & Esme: Tooth Fairies by Bob Graham
  • The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood
  • Cupcake: A Journey to Special by Charise Mericle Harper
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead — this just won the Caldecott Medal for illustration.  Hooray!
  • My Garden by Kevin Henkes
  • Sneaky Sheep by Chris Monroe
  • A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams
  • Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown

For Beginning Readers

  • Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin
  • Bink & Gollie by Kate diCamillo and Alison McGhee
  • We are In a Book! by Mo Willems
  • Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke — yeah, good luck finding this one.  It’s awesome, and yet hardly any libraries carry it.  [shakes fist at sky]
  • The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz


  • Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Sally Mavor — the fabric/mixed media illustrations are INCREDIBLE. I’m wagging my finger at the Caldecott Committee for overlooking this one.
  • Joha Makes a Wish: a Middle Eastern Tale by Eric Kimmel

Middle Grade Novels

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams
  • Countdown by Deborah Wiles
  • Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm
  • Palace Beautiful by Sarah DeFord Williams– historical fiction set in the Avenues of Salt Lake City!  And in the 1980s, so one of the characters is totally into a The Cure knockoff band!  A great debut from a local author.
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz — probably my favorite American novel of the year, although it’s not for everybody
  • Cosmic by Frank Cotrell Boyce — my favorite British import of the year; it definitely IS for everybody
  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby — a fabulous fantasy debut from yet another local author!
  • The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry — wins the prize for being the most Roald Dahl-esque
  • Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

And one more: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool it just won the Newbery Medal, so even though I haven’t read it (and hadn’t HEARD OF IT until it won the award) I’m recommending you track it down anyway.

Graphic Novels

  • Smile! (middle grade) by Raina Telgemeier (it’s excellent, but I admit a little extra bias in favor of a book set in the late ’80s/early ’90s.  She wears ex-cla-ma-tion perfume and a turquoise scrunchie that matches her turqoise socks!  What’s not to love?)
  • The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier (middle grade)
  • Mercury by Hope Larson (young adult, although I’d give it a PG rating)
  • Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale (middle grade; gorgeous illustrations by Nathan Hale)


  • Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman
  • Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors ALSO by Joyce Sidman.  Wow.
  • Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer


  • Kakapo Rescueby Sy Montgomery.  Probably one of the best science writers out there, and that goes for adult nonfiction, too.

Young Adult Fiction (caveat: Owing to my high pregnancy-induced hormonal state, I didn’t read as much YA fiction this year as I usually do.  You’ll notice a distinct lack of contemporary and historical fiction here; escapist fantasy and sci-fi was more my cup of tea this year.  Except for Monsters of Men.  It’s part of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, and makes The Hunger Games look like a kitten wrestling with a rainbow.  I couldn’t even look at the cover without bursting into tears.  Okay, caveat over.)

  • As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins
  • The Cardturner by Louis Sachar — probably more appeal for adults than YAs with this one, depends on the kid
  • A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner — best fantasy writing of the year, hands down
  • Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve — a stand-alone prequel to his excellent Hungry City Chronicles
  • Bruiser by Neal Schusterman (excepting the very last paragraph)
  • Incarceron by Catherine Fisher — so glad to see this author getting some appreciation; I loved her Oracle trilogy
  • Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi — winner of the Printz Award for outstanding YA fiction!  This made me VERY happy.

One More Quirky Category — Best Vintage Children’s Fiction I Read in 2010

  • Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe Saga: Ordinary Jack; Absolute Zero; Bagthorpes Unlimited.  Very funny farcical British fiction; there are jokes set up in Book 1 that don’t come into fruition until the end of Book 3.  Brilliant stuff, although it takes a bit of patience to “get” the British humor.  Absolute Zero was my favorite of the bunch.

Favorite Reads of 2009: Fiction

Yeah, I know.  Finally.

After about a zillion kick-in-the-pants reminders from my friends, I’ve gotten around to creating my list of favorite fiction for young readers from 2009.  Take note: this is not a list of the best” fiction, or the most critically acclaimed, or the most award-winning.  There are plenty of lists around the board where one can find such things already.  My list is of personal favorites, and personal favorites only.  What books do I wish I owned, or wish I had written?  That’s what these are. 

Yes, that means lots of glaring omissions, most notably When You Reach Me.  I’ve got no beef with When You Reach Me, but I feel as if it’s gotten all the accolades it needs, and adding it to this list seems kind of like gilding the lily at this point.  (As if I had any guild to start with.)

I also have to say that if you are a parent, please please please review these books before handing them to your child.  Everybody has different tastes and standards where kids’ reading is concerned. 

Now, Here We Go!

Best Picture Book Writing of the Year: The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman, illus. David Robers.  OKAY, OKAY.  I know this is supposed to be  a list of novels, but I had this on my list of Best Picture Books and completely forgot to type it in!  But if you’ve missed this suave lil’ gem of a picture book, pick it up right away.  This classroom caper is a glorious mishmash of Ocean’s Eleven and Miss Nelson is Missing! with some of the tightest storytelling you can fit in 52 pages.  A soon-to-be-classic.  (All ages)

Favorite Read-Aloud: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.  I’ve been touting Lin’s novels as superior fare for the elementary school set for ages, and it looks like the Newbery Committee finally got on my side this year.  This beautiful, old-fashioned adventure tale takes its setting and inspiration from Chinese folktales, and Lin’s story of a spunky girl out to seek her fortunes with the help of magic goldfish, talking dragons, and tiger-fighting twins is somehting that belongs on every child’s bookshelf.  (All Ages)

For Those Who Like Their Plots Thick, and the Worldbuildng Thicker: The Lost Conspiracy by Francis Hardinge — Sentient volcanoes!  Exotic killer beetles!  Assassins that dye their skin blue with the ashes of their victims!  This has been touted as the fantasy novel of the year, and I’m not inclined to disagree.  Taking cues from Maori and Pacific Islander cultures, Hardinge has crafted one of the most satisfyingly complex fantasy cultures I’ve ever encountered.  As a bonus, the story is thick with intrigue, has a clever heroine who evolves from a beleaguered underdog to spirited leader, and one of the creepiest bad guys this side of Simon Legree.  (Ages 12)

Romance Done Right: Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor.  In these three fantastical tales (two short stories and one novella), Taylor explores budding romance and everything a first kiss can mean: not just love, but betrayal, temptation, and salvation.  The stories borrow motifs from traditional folklore — babies cursed at birth, children kidnapped by fairies, young ladies perishing from poisoned fruit — and uses it to stunning effect, drawing out the elemental, enriching darkness of fairy tales and giving them new life.   Her prose reads like a colorful exotic costume discovered in an attic trunk; it’s just lovely.  As a bonus, the first story draws on Christina Rossetti’s beloved poem “Goblin Market” for inspiration.  Gotta love that.  (Age 12+)

Historical Fiction That Won’t Kill You: Crossing Stones by Helen Frost.  It can be difficult to sell a historical novel to a kid when it’s 300+ pages long.  TA-TA-TA-TWAAAA!  Helen Frost to the rescue!  Her succinct story of two families who grow and change during World War I and the suffragette movement is told in a series of poems narrated by the different characters.  Clever readers will notice that the form and shape of the poems reflects the personalities of the characters.  Regardless, it’s easy to get swept away by Frosts’ clear, succinct imagery, knowing period references, and characterizations so keen that you fall in love with them with just a few lines.  (Age 12+)


The Book I Wish I Had Read When I Was Twelve: The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O’Roark Dowell.  There are many, many books that tell the story of the Good Book-Loving Girl and the Mean Best Friend Who Rejects Her After Getting on the Cheerleading Squad.  O’Roark Dowell takes this premise and transforms it: hey, cheerleaders are people too, and just because your best friend has developed different interests from you, it doesn’t mean you can’t still work at being friends.  The tone of the writing is so spot-on middle school and clever that I wish I had a highlighter pen to score all the quotable lines.  Oh, and did I mention that the protagonist wears black boots and listens to Joni Mitchell?  SCORE!  (Age 9-13)

Most Terrifying Book of the Year: The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd.  It’s Bridget Jones’ Diary – meets – An Inconvenient Truth, as a middle-class London teen recounts the trials and tribulations of Britain’s efforts to cut back national carbon emissions by 60%.  When a series of floods threatens to destroy civilization and make such rationing pointless, it’s almost enough to make you cower under the bed with a box of compact flourescent lightbulbs, but Lloyd seasons her story with enough glorious humor to make the book as touching as it is terrifying.  The scene where Dad trades in mum’s Saab for a horse, cart, and pig is worth the price of admission alone.  My only complaint: 2015?!?  C’mon, don’t we have a little more time before the end of the world?  (Age 14+)

For the Aspiring World Traveler: Hannah’s Winter by Kierin Meehan.  When Hannah, an Australian girl, is sent to spend the winter as an exchange student in Japan, she is thrilled by the prospect of adventure, but soon finds that her hosts’ house is haunted by an ancient samauri, and requires her to solve an ancient mystery to be rid of it.  What makes this story more fun than spooky is its overwhelming love of the oddities of foreign travel: the Bean Throwing Festival!  A suit of armor that emits colored smoke!  Donuts filled with green tea ice cream!  Someone send me a dozen of those, pronto.  (Age 10+)

For When You Feel the Need to Wield Some Axes: Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud.  There’s nothing like the classic combination of Vikings and snark to keep a reader happy.  Stroud uses both to masterful effect here, giving us the tale of black-sheep-of-the-royal-family Halli and his adventures between a dozen or more warring clans . . . which he has mostly “accidentally” angered himself.  A funny, exciting tale about family, destiny, and whether or not you should believe stories about man-eating trolls in the mountains.  (Age 12+)

Best Summer Story: The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O’Connor.  What’s a kid to do when he’s alone for the summer in the deep forest of the Deep South with nobody but his strict grandmother and deadbeat uncle for company?  When a rickety RV with a six-kid family gets stuck in the mud nearby, Popeye sees it as his best chance for excitement. When a series of small boats keep mysteriously appearing in the creek nearby, he and his new friends find a perfect adventure.  In the hands of any other writer, this book’s setting (rural impoverished South) would be the makings for high drama, but O’Connor keeps it refreshingly light and honest.  And funny.  Did I mention the funny?  (Ages 7-9)

Doing it Old School!  Fire by Kristin Cashore.  A prequel to last year’s hit fantasy novel, Graceling, this tale continues Cashore’s penchant for strong characters, a very old-fashioned fantasy setting, and the trials and tribulations of a girl so beautiful that men literally throw themselves on their swords for her.  The fact that she can also control minds makes for a very interesting shades-of-grey morality story.  I’d also like to give points to Cashore for Fire’s father, Cansrel, who with his silver-blue hair, party-boy ways, and habit of collecting exotic animals, makes him the glammest fantasy character I’ve ever run across.  (P.S. I’ve no idea what “doing it old school” really means.)  (Age 15+)

A Swedish Import So Lovely it Puts IKEA to Shame: A Faraway Island by Annika Thor.  I’ve described this book before as “Anne of Green Gables – meets – Number the Stars,” and I stand by that.  This book — the first in a bestselling, beloved series from Sweden — is the story of sisters, two Jewish girls from Vienna who are evacuated by their parents on the eve of World War II to live with foster parents on a tiny island off the coast of Sweden.  Times are tough, especially for older sister Stephie, who finds it difficult to make friends, worries for her left-behind parents, and whose foster parents are dead ringers for Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert.  But eventually, she comes to find home.  Thor teases out lovely details — the traditions and festivals of the islanders are especially sweet — and is wise enough to make her characters uncomfortably complex: the villagers are kind but also bigoted; Stephie has a well-meaning schoolmate who gives her a picture of Hitler as means of lessening her homesickness (whoops).  I can only hope that American publishers continue to bring the remaining books in this series to our shores.

Best Reissue: The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken.  From the author of the beloved Wolves of Willoughby Chase comes a set of charmingly loopy fantasy stories, published in various volumes and periodicals and finally collected here.  On her honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage makes a wish that she will “never be bored with happily ever after,” and in the ensuing magical adventures, she never is: the family finds out that the kindergarten teacher is really a witch, what to do when the house has been comissioned by fussy wizards, a Christmas party in which all the children are turned into fish, how to deal with a ghostly governess, and much more.  Aiken’s style never takes itself very seriously (this is a family who, when a unicorn turns up in the garden on Tuesday morning, responds by blustering “but this usually only happens on Monday”), and the stories usually end with all problems resolved and the characters sitting down to tea.  It makes for a glorious read aloud, too.

Favorite Reads 2009: Picture Books

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 WordplayBubble 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 MedalThe 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 ClassicThe 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 DaughterElla 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 SceneYummy! 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 LoversAlways 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 TaleThe 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.