Children's and YA: Gifts A to Z
At this time of year, we strive to come up with just the right gift for each young person on our list, hoping these books will go on to be perennial favorites. We hope the 20 titles reviewed below will help.
Speaking of favorites, we had a chance to sit down with Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky, the imaginative minds behind Z Is for Moose and this year's Circle Square Moose.
Bingham got the idea for Z Is for Moose while working as a storyboard artist and director for Walt Disney Feature Animation. She sat in on a casting audition one day, and heard the directors say "great job" to the actor, then "We don't want that guy" to each other. That experience, combined with a writing teacher who discussed metafiction, and a three-year-old son learning his ABCs, gave Bingham the inspiration for a story starring an animal who mistakenly believes he got the part and is waiting his turn, impatiently, to perform onstage.
"At first Mouse was going to get the part," Bingham admits, "but Moose was funnier." As the illustrator, Zelinsky said, "I had to approach it like a math problem: 32 pages and 26 letters." (Luckily, his father is a math professor.) He had to think: "If F is on the left, and G is on the right, what does that do to Y and Z?" For their first book together, they worked separately, relying on their editor, Virginia Duncan, to meld their contributions into a unified whole.
They used a more collaborative process for Circle Square Moose. Bingham said she was having trouble "finding my footing." Then Zelinsky took Bingham's text, mapped it out as a book dummy, and sent it to Duncan. Once Bingham saw the dummy, she knew where she needed to do the work.
The results? We say, "Encore!" 1 2 3 Moose?--Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Children's & Young Adult
by Sandra J. Howatt, illus. by Joyce Wan
This poetic book from a debut author will help youngsters wind down at the end of the day as nocturnal colored-pencil illustrations take them on a tour of nature's denizens heading to bed.
"See the moon? It's sleepy time," the book begins under a star-studded night and crescent moon. "Let's look for little beds/ and find where all the little ones/ lay their sleepy heads." A round-faced squirrel tucks into the hollow of a tree. A bear cub "nestle[s] in a cave." A beaver backfloats amid flowering lavender water lilies, its path lit by fireflies and the moon's reflection. An owl breaks the rhythm, poking out of a barn loft ("This one's not a sleepyhead--this one slept all day!"). A puppy and kitten slumber by the hearth, "but where's the sleepyhead" that belongs in the soft bed next to the teddy bear? Littlest ones will love finding the child "asleep in Mama's arms." --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A bedtime book that features nature's creatures winding down for the night.
hardcover, 32p., ages 3-6, 9781442422667
by Mac Barnett, illus. by Jen Corace
Telephone is an excellent example of a perfect marriage between text and artwork. Shadowy birds sit on a wire above a neighborhood scene of children playing outside. Mother bird asks a cardinal to tell her son, Peter, to "Fly home for dinner." The cardinal, holding a baseball bat, asks the goose next to him to "Tell Peter: Hit pop flies and homers." And so it goes, each bird mangling the message for the next. Finally, the wise old owl deciphers the message and tells Peter to head home for supper.
Mac Barnett (Battle Bunny), known for his engaging, often zany stories, takes a familiar childhood game to heights only he could imagine. Jen Corace (Little Pea) skillfully weaves small, delightful details into every bird's portrait, offering hints at the garbled message each will deliver. This picture book will be read over and over, as youngsters pore over every spread to guess what comes next. --Cathy Berner, Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex.
Discover: A familiar game of telephone starring birds on a wire, enhanced by artwork that hints at their garbled messages.
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781452110233
Little Elliot, Big City
by Mike Curato
New York City is hard enough for adult-sized humans, let alone little elephants. That won't stop Little Elliot, a tiny elephant covered in pastel polka dots, from trying to make it work. He's figured out how to get around the city despite his size, but is still stymied by one goal: buying a cupcake. When he helps an even tinier friend and then his new friend helps him, he realizes that teamwork is the key to happiness in the big city.
The story is sweet, but the real star is debut author-artist Mike Curato's illustrations, which set Little Elliot in a 1930s Manhattan, complete with every man wearing a hat, and 10-cent slices of pie. Children will love seeing the world from the little elephant's perspective, as Elliot struggles to do things such as open doors. The writing is simple enough for emerging readers, but kids who aren't reading yet will enjoy the story, too. --Stephanie Anderson, head of readers' advisory at the Darien Library and blogger
Discover: A charming picture book perfect for city kids and cupcake fans.
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780805098259
by William Bee
Preschoolers will clamor for this tour of the hamster hero's workplace and a glimpse of his daily routine. The padded rectangular package--with thick black outlines of hammers, wrenches, motor oil and more, filled with crayon-bright colors--will invite repeated readings.
"This is Stanley's garage. Who will drive in today?" Readers can glimpse part of a tow truck, and a gas pump in plain sight. First, Hattie needs a fill-up for her red sports car. Next, Shamus pulls in with a flat tire on his blue car. Simple language and pictures show the solution: "Stanley jacks the car up. He changes the flat tire for a nice round one." Other cars in familiar colors require radiator work and a tow for an engine problem. The hero repairs them all and gets a "Thank you, Stanley!" at the end. After a busy day, just like young readers, Stanley eats supper, takes a bath and heads to bed ("Goodnight, Stanley"). --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: An insider's view of a busy garage just right for preschoolers.
hardcover, 32p., ages 3-6, 9781561458042
Catch that Cookie!
by Hallie Durand, illus. by David Small
Have you ever mixed gingerbread dough? And smelled the cookies baking? In Catch that Cookie! Hallie Durand (Dessert First) delivers an inspired interpretation of the classic tale about the runaway cookie.
It's modern times. A classroom in December. Marshall's classmates have read many versions of the Gingerbread Man. Marshall makes it clear that he believes the cookies "can't run for real." His class makes the dough and sets the timer. Mrs. Gray locks the oven. But when the timer dings, and Mrs. Gray opens the oven door--the cookies are GONE! The class sets off on a scavenger hunt, led by rhyming notes left by "the G-men." Solving clues, the students race through the school hoping to catch those cookies. This book is romping fun, as well as a celebration of imagination. Caldecott Medalist David Small's (So You Want to Be President?) playful, pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations summon all the energy of the hunt and deliver a sweet parting shot. --Mollie Welsh Kruger, graduate faculty, Bank Street College of Education
Discover: A twist on the classic Gingerbread Man tale, in which Marshall and his classmates hunt down the G-men.
hardcover, 32p., ages 3-5, 9780525428350
Call Me Tree/Llámame arbol
by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Maya Christina Gonzales (My Colors, My World/Mis colores, mi mundo) smoothly integrates the metaphor of a tree and a child in this bilingual text and radiant artwork, as they grow into tall, strong stewards of life on earth.
"I begin/ Within/ The deep/ dark/ earth" accompanies an image of a child in a golden womb underground, with what appear to be seeds in tiny orbits around him. "Nazco/ Dentro/ De la tierra/ profunda/ y oscura" reads the Spanish translation. The child's hand serves as the tree's trunk ("A seed/ A tree/ Free to be free"), still engulfed in a golden membrane. The round shapes and undulating lines establish the child's and tree's symbiotic growth and emergence at the surface. Soon other tree-children join the narrator, reflecting a diverse range of cultures and tree species (some strike the yoga tree pose). "All trees have roots/ All trees belong," concludes this homage to the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A meditation for youngest children on our relationship with nature.
Children's Book Press/Lee & Low,
hardcover, 24p., ages 5-9, 9780892392940
Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual
by Kate Samworth, illus. by Oliver Dominguez
This book of fantastical birds is sure to delight budding bird watchers and future ornithologists.
With the same descriptive flair found in a J. Peterman catalog, this unique picture book does not pretend to replace real birds but instead provides a launch point for readers to create their own. Set in 2031, this fictional catalog of mix-and-match options--beaks, feathers, bodies, tails, wings, legs and feet--allows readers to invent beautiful birds of the future (albeit not guaranteed to fly). Wit-filled suggestions, delivered with deadpan humor, are sprinkled throughout, such as, when picking wings, "give your bird enough elbow room." Keeping with the catalog format, once all the bird parts are selected, there is an instruction manual, troubleshooting guide, and finally a faux order form. This gorgeous book is a truly engaging and delightful flight for the imagination. --Susannah Richards, associate professor, Eastern Connecticut State University
Discover: A fantastical catalog of mix-and-match options for bird lovers to invent their own future species.
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 32p., ages 9-12, 9780547978994
Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America's Presidents
by David Stabler, illus. by Doogie Horner
Kid Presidents, a subtle parody of a textbook, opens by debunking the cherry tree myth tied to George Washington's childhood and never lets up.
Presidential and history buffs will appreciate the opening numerical list of leaders 1-44. Then author David Stabler takes a different tack, organizing stories about the presidents' youth into sections such as "After-School Activities"--tales of them as pranksters--and "Hardly Working," about the various jobs taken by would-be presidents to earn spending money. Stabler and Horner break out episodes from several presidents' lives as a kind of illustrated full-color cartoon. Two standouts: a 13-year-old Andrew Jackson outsmarting some British soldiers long enough to help their target flee; and a young Franklyn Delano Roosevelt getting "a day of freedom" from his parents (and taking the secret of his day's activities to his grave). Horner's humorous asides to the comics-style scenes allow those who prefer to skim to still get the meat of the tales. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: The perfect gift for both presidential and history buffs, brimming with fun facts and full-color, comics-style artwork.
hardcover, 216p., ages 8-12, 9781594747311
Animalium: Welcome to the Museum
by Jenny Broom, illus. by Katie Scott
This oversize volume does not have to beg to be opened. It invites readers into a natural history museum where the species are curated, categorized and presented in six visual "galleries."
Spectacular colored pen-and-ink illustrations capture some of the 200 million species that inhabit, or once inhabited, the earth. Readers (children and adults alike) will savor and investigate this visual catalog over and over again. Using Charles Darwin's Tree of Life as their model to show the classes' evolutionary order and how animal groups are related, the text and the section introductions read like museum exhibit catalog copy. Each color plate is accompanied by the scientific name for the species, its actual size, and a nugget of information about the species written as if it were a label for the image in a museum display. Animalium: Welcome to the Museum will capture the interest of budding scientists, future curators and all animal lovers. --Susannah Richards, associate professor, Eastern Connecticut University
Discover: A museum in a book, with spectacular colored pen-and-ink drawings, presented in an elegant 11"x15" volume.
hardcover, 112p., ages 8-12, 9780763675080
by M.A. Larson
In a world where only the strongest and bravest get to be princesses, what Evie most excels at is incompetence.
Despite escaping from a horrible witch and helping to save handsome Prince Remington, Evie still has no idea who she is or where she comes from. All she knows is that she must survive her training at Pennyroyal Academy. It's where today's "bold, courageous youths" learn to become "tomorrow's princesses and knights." But poor Evie is clumsy. She can't remember the fairy tales, and she keeps passing out from strange visions. Nobody thinks she is proper princess material. Ultimately, Evie must learn to believe in herself, and call upon all of her courage and compassion, if she is to have any hope of making it out alive.
Populated by evil witches, dangerous dragons and the occasional Fairy Drillsergeant, Pennyroyal Academy is a fun and fantastic tale. --Lynn Becker, host of Book Talk, the monthly online discussion of children's books for the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators
Discover: An exciting fairy tale mash-up, wherein princesses and knights learn how to keep the world safe from witches.
hardcover, 304p., ages 10-up, 9780399163241
by Eugene Yelchin
Soccer and the politics of Soviet Russia dominate in Arcady's Goal, the latest novel from Newbery Honor author Eugene Yelchin (Breaking Stalin's Nose). Narrator Arcady is 12 years old and, according to the government, a "socially dangerous element": a child of enemies of the people. Soccer keeps Arcady alive--the risk, the thrill and his natural skill. His life takes an abrupt turn when the oddly mysterious Ivan Ivanych sees him play and decides to adopt him. Could Ivan be the one to help Arcady find a way to become a real soccer player?
Yelchin's tale, inspired by his own father, is a fast-paced blend of sports and history. Arcady's emotions ring out on every page and bring the story to life, enhanced further by Yelchin's illustrations. Ivan's own past simmers on the horizon until Arcady and fate force it into the present. A perfect story for soccer fans, fathers and sons, and history lovers. --Kyla Paterno, reviewer
Discover: An orphaned boy dreams of soccer stardom in Soviet Russia.
hardcover, 240p., ages 9-12, 9780805098440
Courage for Beginners
by Karen Harrington
Mysti Murphy is astonishingly well-adjusted for a seventh-grader who's not only dealing with an agoraphobic mother, but also a best friend who's running a social experiment that includes not talking to her in school. That changes after her father has an accident, upsetting the delicate balance of life in the Murphy household. Though she likes to picture herself as a character in a book, Mysti now needs to step into the real world to develop new skills in order to get through the next few months.
As with Sure Signs of Crazy, Harrington's characters are genuine and Mysti's voice is funny and believable. The author's ability to write about how mental health problems affect entire families is unparalleled for this age group. Though the story is upsetting at times, it will engage readers from the start, especially those who have gone through the challenge of trying to keep their home life private. --Stephanie Anderson, head of readers' advisory at the Darien Library and blogger
Discover: Another spectacular middle-grade novel from Karen Harrington that will suit almost any chapter book reader.
hardcover, 292p., ages 10-14, 9780316210485
by Kate Milford
This satisfying middle-grade mystery features a colorful cast of characters and their even more colorful secrets.
The creaky old Greenglass House, known as an inn for smugglers, is usually quiet over Christmas break, but a storm ensures that, this year, there's "no vacancy"--it's full of eccentric characters. The innkeepers' adopted son, Milo, wishes he could have his parents to himself, especially when they enlist their cook's help in serving the houseful, and young Meddy tags along. Soon, however, Milo and Meddy find themselves in the middle of the guests' secrets and mysteries, such as items gone missing, and the true motives for their stay.
This book makes you want to curl up by the fire with a hot beverage and not stir until the last page. Much like a Dickens novel, every detail about the characters propels the plot apace--and, at times, tucks in some whopper surprises. Highly recommended as a family read-aloud and equally pleasurable as a vacation book to be savored by independent readers. --Susannah Richards, associate professor, Eastern Connecticut State University
Discover: A satisfying mystery with a colorful cast of characters and their even more colorful secrets.
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 376p., ages 10-14, 9780544052703
The Mark of the Dragonfly
by Jaleigh Johnson
In the meteor-scarred lands of the Merrow Kingdom, a 13-year-old scrapper named Piper longs to find a new life as a machinist in a big city. After a meteor shower destroys a caravan passing through town, Piper rescues a girl from the wreckage with no memory of who she is beyond her name, Anna. Their only clue is an elaborate dragonfly tattoo on her arm: the mark of the Dragonfly king. When a dangerous man comes looking for Anna, the two girls escape on a train and embark on a thrilling cross-country adventure.
A careful blend of sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk, this book holds plenty of magic and surprises. Readers will root for its memorable characters as they thunder through a landscape of bandits, mentalists and cosmic dust. Those looking for a plucky heroine or danger-tinged adventure will eagerly lose themselves in this novel, as smart as it is imaginative. --Julia Smith, blogger and former children's bookseller
Discover: A sci-fi adventure starring two girls with rare gifts who run for their lives, toward unknown dangers and opportunities.
hardcover, 400p., ages 10-up, 9780385376150
Nuts to You
by Lynne Rae Perkins
If given the chance to chat with a squirrel, most of us would probably demand peace for our backyard bird feeder. But, as she explains in her authors' note, when Newbery Medalist Lynne Rae Perkins (Criss Cross) is approached by a chatty squirrel on a park bench the conversation turns to more interesting lore.
Jed, a squirrel, is plucked from his forest home one day by a hawk with a not-so-firm grip and, "like the great Houdini escaping a straitjacket," manages to break free. Now stranded among squirrels who have their own slang, customs and exotic cuisine (pine cones), Jed realizes he may never make it home. Chai and TsTs (so common, it's "the 'Emma' of squirrel names") follow him, and what they discover will forever change their lives.
With references to YouTube, tips on squirrel style, plus the author's own illustrations and plenty of witty footnotes scattered throughout, Nuts to You will satisfy the animal advocate in your life who's curious about what happens beyond their proverbial tree. --Molly Magro, librarian, Eyer Middle School, Macungie, Pa.
Discover: A forest-based folktale for anyone with wanderlust, a "nutty" sense of humor and perhaps a soft spot for squirrels.
hardcover, 256p., ages 8-12, 9780060092757
The Witch's Boy
by Kelly Barnhill
This dark, haunting tale opens with the death of one of Sister Witch's twin sons, and village whispers that "the wrong boy" survived.
In her grief, the witch uses her magic to bind the dead boy's soul to her remaining child, Ned, but this desperate act is not without its consequences. In another part of the kingdom, the Bandit King's heart grows twisted with greed and he sets his sights on the witch's stores of magic. As he tries to steal it, he inadvertently puts in motion events that throw his daughter and Ned together, as was foretold in dreams and rumblings of ancient stones. More than adventure, The Witch's Boy weaves a complex history of corruption and magic into a classic fairytale framework, making it both familiar and entirely new. Kelly Barnhill casts her own spell with this beautifully written tale that carries a message about kindness and taking control of your own destiny. --Julia Smith, blogger and former children's bookseller
Discover: A darkly magical tale of a witch's son, a bandit's daughter and a wolf destined to change the fate of a kingdom.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,
hardcover, 384p., ages 10-up, 9781616203511
The Only Thing Worse than Witches
by Lauren Magaziner
Lauren Magaziner soars onto the scene with a story that has echoes of the classics but is completely original.
In the coastal witch town of Gliverstoll, 11-year-old Rupert Campbell often finds himself on the receiving end of his fifth grade teacher Mrs. Frabbleknacker's punishments. Her latest threat, to kick him to the witches' doorstep, doesn't seem so bad, especially since he's never met one. But when Rupert finds an ad in the newspaper for a witch's apprentice, he thinks it's "beyond perfect." Witchling Two needs help mastering her spells before her upcoming Bar Exam to become a full-fledged witch. If she fails, she'll be exiled forever.
This hilarious and tenderhearted debut about friendship will keep readers laughing at Witchling Two's many backfired spells, lollipop addiction and amusing musings. The climactic battle with an evil witch is one for the ages. Roald Dahl fans, look no further for your next charming read! --Adam Silvera, children's bookseller
Discover: When a fifth-grader answers a young witch's ad for an apprentice, hilarity ensues.
hardcover, 272p., ages 8-12, 9780803739185
Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines
by Paul Fleischman, illus. by Various
Eschewing the role of authority, in Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines, Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman (Joyful Noise) acts as a companion to teens in their quest to acquire the facts and arrive at their own convictions.
"History is happening right here and right now," he writes, giving examples of the things teens have never lived without, and the tradeoffs that come with them. He explores technology and the fossil fuels that power them, as well as farming and agriculture, and how decisions about the use of finite resources make an impact on teens' lives.
"I'm no trained scientist," Fleischman writes, but as a citizen scientist, he aligns himself with readers. He encourages critical thinking by pointing out the power of advertisers and lobbyists and the idea that "convenience is addictive." Further reading within the narrative and copious source notes, including the gold seed--his "How to Weigh Information"--at the back of the book give readers plenty of fodder for their own investigations. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: An attractively designed guide for teens to thinking deeply about their world and what they can do to shape it.
hardcover, 206p., ages 12-up, 9780763671020
I'll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson
With powerful language and complex characters, Jandy Nelson (The Sky Is Everywhere) delivers the story of twin siblings coming of age.
Noah and Jude are as close as twins can get. Jude is always rescuing her awkward brother from bullying or worse. Noah is happy to have his art, his mom and his sister's devotion. He can live with his father's disapproval and his lack of social life. Jude is the teenage golden girl--carefree surfer, secret sculptor of sand figures and the object of most boys' desire. Fast forward three years: a terrible tragedy has alienated the siblings. Until they can find some way back to each other, neither can be whole.
I'll Give You the Sun is both resonant and rewarding, offering readers the heartbreaks of adolescence through Jude's and Noah's alternating voices. With a sprinkling of magical realism, this lyrical novel portrays loss and loneliness from several perspectives--adults as well as teenagers, gay as well as straight. --Nan Shipley, literary scout
Discover: Give this to John Green fans clamoring for a smart, savvy writer who speaks their language.
hardcover, 384p., ages 14-up, 9780803734968
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces
by Isabel Quintero
In diary entries, Gabi, an unforgettable narrator, describes her entire senior year at her Catholic high school in Southern California.
She loves carne asada, her best friends Cindy and Sebastian, poetry and guys. Though at the beginning she's not yet been kissed, she makes up for it over the course of the book--as both initiator and recipient. Gabi's intelligence informs her sense of humor, and also her ability to see things with clear eyes, such as her father's drug addiction and the double standard behind people judging Cindy for getting pregnant while celebrating Gabi's mother's pregnancy. She loves Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," Sandra Cisneros and Ginsberg's "Howl." She writes, "That's the magic of poetry--some gay Jewish poet wrote about people wasting away around him because of drugs, and I, a straight Mexican-American girl, know how he felt...."
Debut author Isabel Quinetero delves into the thoughts of a talented teen struggling with a complex home life, body image and mixed messages. A writer to watch. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A funny, insightful high school senior, and a debut author on the rise.
hardcover, 378p., ages 14-up, 9781935955948