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Early readers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the children's book world. They get no respect. Or not much. The intent of this blog is to redress the balance and to showcase the many delights inherent in early readers and beginning chapter books.
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1. Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family


When I was growing up both The Musters and The Addams Family were on TV. For me--then and now--the people I knew could be divided into two camps: Munster or Addams. I was (am) very firmly pro Addams. In fact, I confess to sneering a bit at those who preferred the less sophisticated Munsters. In the world of easy readers something similar is going on with a couple of bad cats. I'm talking about Jack Gantos's Rotten Ralph and Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty. Bad Kitty would be right at home in the Addams's macabre mansion, while Rotten Ralph would be tormenting Spot in 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Although Rotten Ralph lacks the finesse of Bad Kitty, he's not without his charms. And in his latest outing, the bad-tempered feline returns home to visit his family to try to understand just why he's so rotten. Sarah, Rotten Ralph's put upon owner, is at the end of her rope when she can't find a catsitter willing to take on her disobedient pet. She issues an ultimatum to Ralph: "There better be some changes in the morning…or else!" In his bedroom, Ralph flips through a photo album that shows him in his younger years tormenting his feline family. The trip down memory lane inspires Ralph to return home.

Ralph's reunion is anything but sweet. With the exception of his mother, the other members of his family show their own rotten side, and by the end of his visit Ralph has an epiphany: He turned out rotten because everyone was rotten to him. A repentant Ralph returns to Sarah determined to reform. Will it last? Fans needn't worry. Ralph is sure to be his rotten self again by the next installment.

Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family
By Jack Gantos
Illustrated by Nicole Rubel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 48 pages
Published: March 2014

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2. Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine

The best nonfiction books make their readers want to go out and learn more about the subject. By focusing on one relatively minor aspect of Queen Victoria's long, long life, Gloria Whelan's latest book will have children hurrying off to the library (or Internet) to find out all they can about the Victorian age. Some of the questions they might have include: Why were women required to wear corsets and layers upon layers of petticoats? What was so scandalous about seeing a queen's knees? What is a lady-in-waiting? Nine children! Were all families so large back then? Luckily the author's note and list of sources will give curious readers a starting point in their research.

In this irreverent, rhyming picture book, Queen Victoria longs for a refreshing swim in the ocean while residing in Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. But social conventions being what they were back in the day, she can't, alas, put so much as a royal toe into the Atlantic. Happily, Prince Albert is determined to find a way for his beloved wife to "dabble and splatter and swim like a fish." After considering--and abandoning--the catapult, Albert has his Eureka moment. With help from his offspring, he devises a wheeled bathing machine that allows the Queen to discreetly change into her bathing suit and enter the water unseen.

Nancy Carpenter's colored pen-and-ink drawings are as charming as the text. Each spread is bursting with activity and telling details that add to the story's magic. There's a funny bit a la Monty Python of the Queen being flung from a catapult prototype into the sea. And the images of Queen Victoria cavorting in the water are priceless. Highly recommended!

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine
By Gloria Whelan
Illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Simon & Schuster, 40 pages
Published: April, 2014

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3. Throwback Thursday: Bea and Mr. Jones

Amy Schwartz's first picture book was published in 1982, way before Take Your Daughter to Work Day was conceived. In this hilarious variation of stories about trading places, Bea, fed up with kindergarten, and her father, worn out from being an advertising executive, swap roles.

With her deadpan humor, Schwartz deftly creates a believable story that depicts each character succeeding in his or her new career. Bea shows herself to be remarkably adept at advertising. Not only does she laugh hardest at the boss's corny jokes, she also saves the Crumbly Crackers account with her jingle. And Mr. Jones equally excels at kindergarten. He's a whiz at the colored lollipop game, rescues the class genius from a magnolia tree at recess, and aces his job as milk and cookie monitor. The detailed black-and-white illustrations add to the book's charm and anchor the fantasy, as when we see Mr. Jones on the floor spelling out "antidisestablishmentarianism" with alphabet blocks.

The ending, though, is what really sets Bea and Mr. Jones apart. In most stories about trading places, the protagonists see why they are ill-suited to their new positions and gratefully return to the status quo. Not Schwartz's duo. Bea lands a promotion and eventually becomes president of toy sales, while Mr. Jones continues to go to kindergarten. As Schwartz succinctly states, "Mr. Jones and Bea had each found their proper niche in the world." May we all be so lucky.

Bea & Mr. Jone
By Amy Schwartz
Bradbury Press, 32 pages
Published: 1982

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4. Fall Ahead!

Fall is right around the corner--next month, folks--and that means crisp apples in the farmers' markets, little and not-so-little ones traipsing back to school, and, of course, new books hot from the presses (or fresh through the Internet). This fall's output promises some enticing reads. Here are a few I'm especially looking forward to curling up with:


I'll start with a picture book. One thing that always makes me happy is a new book by Amy Schwartz. Her Bea and Mr. Jones is one of my all-time favorites. Her latest is a tribute--in rhyme--to the things that make her happy. Among them: "fuzzy sweaters, long letters, slippery floors, dinosaurs." Pub date: October 7













And yet another Dr. Seuss book has been "found." This collection is a follow-up to 2011's The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. I wasn't all that taken with it (read my review here; there's a reason stories are "lost") but, still, new stories from the great Seuss is always a cause for celebration. Pub date: September 9












Yipee-Ki-Yay! Kate DiCamillo has started a new series of chapter books for beginning readers. Tales from Deckawoo Drive will feature characters from DiCamillo's previous series about Mercy the pig. The first book stars Leroy Ninker, a would-be cowboy who works at the concession stand at the Bijou Drive-In Theater. Illustrations are by Chris Van Drusen.
Pub date: August 26











Readers of this blog will probably be more familiar with Cece Bell as the author/illustrator of the endearing beginning reader The Sleepover, starring best friends Rabbit and Robot (read my review here). Bell has also written and/or illustrated several picture books. El Deafo is a departure, a graphic novel memoir about her struggles with hearing loss at an early age. 
Pub date: September 2 










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5. Sparky!

Children's books about kids who want pets but aren't allowed them are a dime a dozen. So it's a challenge to come up with a new spin on such a hackneyed  topic. Offill (11 Experiments That Failed) not only is up to the task, she's created an exceptional picture book in the process.

 The wistful girl who longs for a pet of her own isn't deterred when her mother says her only option is a creature that "doesn't need to be walked or bathed or fed." Ever resourceful, the girl does her research and orders a pet that meets her parent's criteria: a sloth. The newly christened Sparky is anything but. It takes Sparky so long to fetch a ball that its owner is able to go inside and have dinner while waiting.

It's clear that the girl wants more from her pet, more than Sparky can provide, yet it's also clear that a sloth is better than no pet at all. After a disastrous talent show in which Sparky fails to distinguish himself before an audience of three--the girl's mother, the school crossing guard (who approves of Sparky's because he never runs in the street), and Mary Potts (a stuck-up fellow classmate with pet issues)--the young narrator makes peace with her pet's limitations. The book concludes with Sparky and the girl on a branch, content to be in each other's company as they appreciate the sunset.

In his first outing as a picture book illustrator, Appelhans, an animation artist, uses an understated palette to showcase Offill's droll humor. Like Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back), he manages with a few strokes of his brush to get a lot of mileage of of a creature who shows minimal emotion. In fact, Offill and Appelhans do such a great job of making sloths appealing, their readers might pester their parents for one of their own.

Sparky!
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pages
Published: March 2014

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6. The Miniature World of Marvin & James

Marvin is a beetle with a talent for drawing. James, a young boy, is Marvin's BBF. The Miniature World of Marvin & James is the first in an early chapter-book series that tells about their adventures. Interestingly,  the characters come from a best-selling middle-grade novel Elise Broach wrote titled Masterpiece. In that story James and Marvin help recover a drawing stolen from an art museum. I haven't read Masterpiece yet (though I plan to), but Broach's new work most certainly holds its own.

The story starts with James packing for a weeklong vacation at the seaside. Marvin, alas, will not be going and is already missing James. Once James has left Marvin mopes around under the kitchen sink until his mother persuades him to play with his cousin Elaine. The two young beetles have an exciting adventure (and close shave) with an electric pencil sharpener during which Marvin overhears a phone conversation that suggests that Marvin has made a new friend. Marvin spends the remainder of the week worrying that James has replaced him with another BBF.

As in so many books for beginning readers, this book tackles the challenges of friendship. In simple yet poignant sentences Broach parses its complexities while managing to tell a rip-roaring story at the same time. Readers will be transfixed by Marvin's adventures and satisfied with its heartfelt conclusion. Murphy's pen-and-ink illustrations are a delight, capturing an array of insect emotion. A first-rate chapter book all around!

The Miniature World of Marvin & James
by Elise Broach
illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Henry Holt, 104 pages
Published: 2014

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7. The Most Magnificent Thing

Practice makes perfect? Not necessarily, but that can be a good thing, at least according to this picture book. As anyone who has tried to get something "just right"--whether it's leveling a picture frame or composing a work of art--knows, the process can be supremely frustrating and usually impossible to achieve. The "regular girl" in this delightful picture book by Ashley Spires (Binky the Space Cat) is certain she can beat the odds.

While out scootering with her best friend--an adorable pug--she is struck with an idea for a magnificent invention. Over the next few pages Spires shows the girl hard at work on her invention. She gathers her supplies; she "tinkers and hammers and measures" and when she's finished--it's all wrong. This does not deter our heroine and she tries again and again and again, but none of her eleven creations are magnificent--not even close.  At which point the girl has a meltdown and quits.

Luckily her best friend suggests a walk, and over the course of their stroll, the girl cools down, and refreshed, sees her rejects in a new light. They aren't complete failures. "There are some parts of the WRONG things that are really quite RIGHT." Inspired anew, the girl tackles her project again and this time it's a success. It's worth noting, however, that the invention is not perfect: "It leans a little to the left, and it's a bit heavier than expected. The color could use a bit of work, too." But in spite of its flaws it is still magnificent. So what is the most magnificent thing? Let's just say that the girl's loyal assistant is rewarded for all his hard work as the pair scooter away, the pug in a brand-new sidecar.

The Most Magnificent Thing
by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press, 32 pages
Published: April 2014

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8. I Didn't Do My Homework Because...

Ah, the homework excuses. I never used them myself because I was too chicken to show up at school empty handed. In my very brief teaching career--one semester--I did hear quite a few from my students, though. None, however, as inventive as the ones the boy narrator of this book lays on his teacher. Starting with "an airplane full of monkeys landed in our yard" and ending with "a tornado swept up all my books," the boy's outlandish tales are cleverly illustrated by Benjamin Chaud (The Bear's Song). Madcap and detailed, each pen-and-ink illustration is worthy of being pored over to fully appreciate the humor. The illustration for "our roof suddenly disappeared" shows a wrecking ball (maneuvered by the family dog) knocking off the roof with the startled people inside gazing up and the homework pages blowing away. While many of the excuses are satisfyingly dramatic--"giant lizards invaded my neighborhood"--others are understated and depend on the art for the full effect. My favorite of these is: "We had a problem with carnivorous plants." The accompanying illustration shows a giant-size Venus flytrap with its devouring leaves clamped over the heads of the boy, his father, and the dog.

Essentially an extended list, this picture book/easy reader has a satisfying twist at the end after the boy gives this last explanation to his teacher. She doesn't believe any of them, naturally, but why she doesn't is sure to have young readers chuckling--and perhaps plotting which excuse they might use!

I Didn't Do My Homework Because…
By David Cali
Illustrated by Benjamin Chaud
Chronical Books, 44 pages
Published: March 2014

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9. 26 Characters Exhibit at Oxford's Story Museum

Last week I traveled to London and Oxford with my husband on a combined business/sightseeing trip. In Oxford I was busy doing research for an upcoming book, but I squeezed in a visit to a brand new Story Museum exhibit that I'd read about at Monica Edinger's excellent blog Educating Alice. The exhibit's curators asked a number of authors and performers (the majority will be more familiar to the British than those of us who reside on the other side of the pond) to pick their favorite childhood literary character. The chosen ones were then invited to dress up as their character and be photographed by Cambridge Jones in their new duds. Each story character was given his/her designated space or room that features the photograph as well as other props. Many include sounds that heighten the experience (the wind howls in the Mary Poppins room, for instance) or recordings of the authors and performers reading a story or being interviewed about their characters. The exhibit takes up the whole of the museum and is set up like a treasure hunt. Visitors search out all 26 characters and check them off. A completed list earns the museumgoer a prize, redeemable at the museum shop across the way.

The day I visited I was the only adult sans child, and I felt a bit conspicuous as I stalked the building clicking away with my camera. While I can't list all there was to see, here are some of my favorites. As for choosing my own childhood literary character, I have to go with Peter Pan (also chosen by author Cressida Cowell). My absolute favorite exhibit space, though, was the one dedicated to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Holly Smale selected Jadis, the White Witch as her character. To enter, you open an unmarked wardrobe and push past a row of fur coats. Then you're inside a magical darklit room dominated by a huge sled and a life-size photo of Smale dressed as the White Witch. Goosebumps will follow, I promise.

The entrance to the exhibit opens with a tower of cards referencing Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.


Another section features an assortment of costumes to dress up in.



And, once clad, a throne to sit on.


Neil Gaiman chose Badger from The Wind and the Willows as his favorite character.


Katherine Rundell picked Max from Where the Wild Things Are.


Here's Katrice Horsley sailing through the sky dressed as Mary Poppins.


Another childhood hero of mine--the Wicked Witch of the West, as portrayed by Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman.


The exhibit remains open until November so if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is well worth a visit. And if a trip to Oxford isn't in the cards, why not dress up as your own childhood story hero? I'm getting out my green tights right now.
 

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10. Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble

As a published author and someone who has taught creative writing, I have read many books on how to write. (And I do mean many. A quick count of the books on the shelves yields 45 books on the subject.) None, however, managed to crack me up--until, that is, I read Nick Bruel's latest. It must be the seven-year-old in me, but Bruel never fails to make me laugh. In Drawn to Trouble, Bruel inserts himself into the storyline, showing kids how to create their own stories. He begins by introducing himself as the author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty books, going so far as to draw a mirror so readers can see how handsome he is. (Bruel's definition of an author (found in the handy appendix) is: "An incredibly beautiful person who writes books and always smells like lavender, even in hot weather."

After Bruel has kids draw Bad Kitty, giving them step-by-step instructions, he tackles the various elements of fiction: character, setting, conflict, plot, etc.  He does it all humorously, putting poor Kitty in dangerous situations to illustrate his points. For instance, when discussing setting, Bruel dunks Kitty in the ocean, plops her down in the middle of a jungle, and then in a zombie-filled graveyard, before finally settling on Kitty's home. (Not that home is any safer. In one instance a giant octopus comes oozing through the door.) As usual, Uncle Murray chimes in in the series' Fun Facts spreads. In this book, he tackles the difference between plot an theme, the importance of using dictionaries, and ways to end stories. Inspired by the Looney Tunes short classics Duck Amuck and Rabbit Rampage (as well as Winsor McKay's 1914 short cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur), this wacky book is sure to have budding authors scribbling away.

Favorite line: "Like all children's book authors, I am extremely good-looking."

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press 128 pages
Published: January 2014

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11. The Sleepwalkers

Viviane Schwarz's debut graphic novel is a strange book, but strange in a good way. Its inventive plot takes readers into a fantastical dreamworld populated with the oddly engaging characters of Schwartz's fecund imagination. I confess it took me a while to become invested. Initially it's difficult to figure out what's going on, and if I, an adult, find the plot a challenge, kids in the targeted age group--seven to ten years olds--are even more likely to give up. If they persevere, however, they will be rewarded with a story that offers a reassuring message of overcoming one's fears.

The premise revolves around nightmares. Kids who have recurring bad dreams or who are afraid to fall asleep can write a letter about their fears and put it under the pillow. The Sleepwalkers will then come and rescue them. Who are the Sleepwalkers? At the start they are three wooly sheep and a friendly dog traveling in a self-navigating nightmare-proof house. The sheep, alas, are getting on in years and need replacements. These they conjure up out of well-used objects: An old quilt becomes an insecure but good-hearted bear; a pair of sock turns into an enthusiastic monkey; and a quill pen is magicked into a crow with a nib for its head. All three apprentices must learn how to rescue children from their nightmares. The dreams they enter are truly horrifying, especially when illustrated with Schwartz's manic artwork. A girl dreams hordes of mice are chasing her through an all-cheese landscape; a boy is stuck in a nightmare in which he's trapped in a prehistoric pterodactyl-shaped plane; another child is lost in a jungle teeming with beasts made from hair. With help from the sheep and the dog, the apprentices manage to solve each case, but in doing so they must confront their own inadequacies. Bonno, the cuddly bear, is my favorite. Timid at first, he slowly finds his courage as his concern for the children overrides--but never vanquishes--his fears. With each nightmare, the kids learn a way to master their bad dreams, often literally. The boy trapped in the airplane, for instance, is shown how to navigate the machine and gleefully exclaims: "I am the prince of all pilots!"    

This gift of empowerment isn't all that Schwartz (There Are No Cats in This Book) gives to her readers. Studded throughout the book are fun extras, like instructions on how to make a sock monkey or a recipe for a banana milkshake. With a copy of The Sleepwalkers under the pillow, a child could face whatever terrors the night dreams up.

The Sleepwalkers
by Viviane Schwarz
Candlewick, 96 pages
Published: May 2013

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12. Ball

It might seem odd that a picture book that repeats just one word is an Honor Book for this year's Geisel Award. Yet Ball offers beginning readers much more than the opportunity to really, really learn how to decode the word ball. It tells a fantastic story almost entirely in pictures. The long-snouted, rotund mutt--who could come straight from a New Yorker comic--is obsessed with his red ball. From the moment his redhead owner awakes he is after her to throw his toy, which she enthusiastically does--until it's time for her to leave for school. Dog then spends the agonizing hours until her return trying to get the other members of the household (a blissed-out yoga mom, a drooling infant, and the family cat) to play ball without success. Finally Dog stumbles into a restless sleep and dreams of--what else--chasing his ball. The dream sequence is sidesplittingly funny, especially the spread that leads him down a toilet and through a labyrinth of pipes. First-time author/illustrator does a bang-up job of creating a humorous homage to dogs and their love of balls.

Ball by Mary Sullivan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages
Published: 2013

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13. Urgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf

Doctor Glenda has a tough case on her paws. A wolf has been rushed to the emergency room of City Hospital with something--or someone--stuck in his throat. And who is that little girl in the red coat looking for her grandmother? With the help of Nurse Percy--a chicken with a sensible fear of wolves--Doctor Glenda performs a successful Heimlich maneuver to extract Grandma from the wolf's gullet. Then Grandma and the red-coated girl go off together, none the worse for wear. The winner in the 2013 Cybils' Easy Reader category, this entertaining easy reader will have beginning readers chuckling as they recognize their old fairy tale friends in a new setting. And luckily for them, a companion book, Urgency Emergency!: Itsy Bitsy Spider, is available as well.

Favorite Line: "She was damp and a bit chewed around the edges, but otherwise OK."

Urgency Emergency!: Big Bad Wolf
By Dosh Archer
Albert Whitman
Published: 2013 

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14. Cybils Winners Announced!

Happy Valentine's Day! For you lovers of children's books we have a special treat. The winners of the 2013 Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) were announced today, and there are sure to be books that escaped your radar on the list. As a second round judge for the Elementary and Middle-Grade Nonfiction category, I am, naturally, thrilled with our pick. It's Look Up!: Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate. Here is the blurb we wrote to go with it:

Budding ornithologists won’t be the only ones to delight in this jam-packed introduction to the joys of bird-watching. Annette LeBlanc Cate's enthusiasm for her subject shines through her humorous yet informative text and in her inviting pen-and-ink illustrations of birds, birds, and more birds. Cate recommends that you begin by looking for birds in your own backyard because “you don’t have to go anywhere fancy to watch birds, nor do you need to know their fancy Latin names." A useful list of bird-watching dos and don’ts, should-haves and don’t-needs (binoculars!) introduces the text. In subsequent chapters, Cate explains how to identify birds by color, shape, behavior, and other characteristics. Along with charts, sidebars, and a bibliography, the book features an engaging cast of cartoon bird characters. Sassy and opinionated, they help to spread Cate’s message: “Bird-watching is fun!” Look Up! isn’t just a title—it’s an invitation to a new way of looking at the avian world.

By happy coincidence, this weekend is The Great Backyard Bird Count, and it starts today. It's not too late to sign up and be part of a worldwide attempt to "create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance" of the feathered creatures we share the planet with.

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15. The Watermelon Seed

This year's winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader is Greg Pizzoli's The Watermelon Seed. The book is Pizzoli's first and an impressive debut it is. A small crocodile whose favorite food is watermelon accidentally swallows a seed. This causes him undue anxiety as he imagines the seed growing inside him. He worries: "It's growing in my guts! Soon vines will come out of my ears!" Any child who's downed a wad of bubblegum or buzzing insect (it happens!) will relate to the little reptile's fears.

The book's brightly colored palette of pinks and greens reinforces the watermelon theme. Readers are sure to chuckle at the amusing ways Pizzoli portrays the crocodile's distress. My favorite illustration is the one where he imagines himself a watermelon morsel in a fruit salad. The text is simplicity itself, with just one or two simple sentences on most spreads. The story whizzes by to a hilarious conclusion that solves the crocodile's problem--though not for long. A definite win for the six and under set.

The Watermelon Seed
By Greg Pizzoli
Disney Hyperion Books
Published: 2013

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16. Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll!

One hundred and eight-two years ago, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was born. Imagine if he hadn't been. Imagine a world without Alice, the Hatter, the Walrus and the Carpenter. Not to mention the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or the Cheshire Cat.

For the past three months I have been steeped in all things Alice. I'm writing a book that encompasses the many adaptations of the Alice books--illustrations, stage productions, film, TV, games, and on and on and on. There are even operas and ballets set in Wonderland. In future posts I'll share some of what I've learned. In the meantime here are some illustrated books I especially like. For as Alice says, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"

For the Toddler Set:


Pop-Up:



For the Primary Grades:


Old School:


The Definitive Edition with Tenniel's Illustrations:



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17. CYBILS Finalists for 2013



With the start of the new year comes one of my favorite traditions: the announcement of the CYBILS finalists. Since October, Round One judges have been hard at work reading stacks of books and winnowing down the choices to a select few. To see the finalists for each category, visit the CYBILS site here.

After a well-deserved round of applause for the winners, the next step is for the Round Two judges to make their final selections. As one of the judges for Elementary and Middle-Grade Nonfiction, I'm excited to crack open the spines of these intriguing titles and get the discussion going. Onward!

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18. A Year-End Round-Up

As I write this it's snowing outside, the perfect backdrop for composing a post about some of my favorite children's books of the year. All would make great gifts for young readers. Without further ado:

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean
This lovingly detailed picture book describes building one's own house from scratch. A young girl narrates the story of how she, her parents, and baby brother move from the city to the country to build their own home. A fascinating look at a process most kids will be unfamiliar with.

Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller
Hands down my favorite picture book of the year, if not the decade. It's a love story between a girl and her squash. Sophie picks out a butternut squash at a farmers' market and before long the gourd has become a beloved toy. When dinner arrives, she can't bear for Bernice to be eaten. Like the best picture books, the story captures the essence of childhood.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrations by Melissa Sweet
A stunning picture book biography about Horace Pippin, a self-taught artist. Bryant and Sweet join forces to present Pippin as a black man determined to create his art, even when he loses the use of his arm as a soldier in World War I.

Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes
The third in a series--and the best one yet--about Penny, a small mouse, who finds and takes a blue marble that doesn't belong to her. The guilt this causes is worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. Kevin Henkes can do mice like nobody's business. An easy reader that is destined to be a classic.

My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrations by Eva Eriksson
Originally published in Sweden, this early chapter book describes Dani's year in first grade. It's a time of change, as she makes a best friend and then loses her when the girl has to move away. Lagercrantz respects her protagonist's emotions and doesn't shy away from showing Dani's grief or her resiliency.

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci, illustrations by Sara Varon
A wacky read about two ducks who are very different but who ultimately find they do share things in common--namely that they are both rather odd--and that's okay. A graphic novel for the six-to-ten-year old set.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
Billy Miller starts second grade worried that he won't be smart enough to tackle the demands of the school year. His father reassures him, telling his son that "this is the year of Billy Miller." In this short novel, Henkes has created a totally believable seven-year-old boy in Billy Miller. Young readers will root for him as he faces and overcomes the obstacles life throws at him. A quiet gem of a book.

Doll Bones by Holly Black
I knew I wanted to read this middle-grade novel the second I laid eyes on its eerie cover. The doll, made from the bones of a dead girl, is believed to be haunted--or is she? That question is left deliberately unanswered by the author as Zach, Poppy, and Alice undertake an epic journey to return her to her rightful place. Underpinning the spooky ghost story is the friendship between the three protagonists as they struggle to put childhood and childish things behind them.  

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19. My Happy Life

In this charmer of an early chapter book, Lagercrantz brilliantly captures the essence of first grade with all its ups and down. Dani, the book's resilient heroine, is concerned that she won't make friends. She does, of course, and she and Ella experience all the joys of getting to know each other. They share swing rides, a friendship necklace, and sleepovers. There is also the pain of the first fight, when Ella refuses to swap her angel bookmark.

But all good things must come to an end, and Dani's world crumbles after Ella moves away. Until her friend's departure, Dani used to go to sleep counting all her happy times. Now she no longer can. Dani is deeply sad and one of this book's strengths is that it doesn't shy away from childhood grief. Dani misses her friend and although her teacher and father try their best to make her feel better, things go from bad to worse. In the days that follow Dani skins her knee, is tackled playing soccer, and feels terribly guilty after injuring a boy during a class free-for-all. Slowly, though, Dani regains her old cheerful self. She makes new friends (although none can take Ella's place). She gets two hamsters. Finally, she receives a letter from Ella and an invitation to see her new home. Joy.

Translated from Swedish by Julia Marshall, the book's twenty easy-to-read short chapters explore the day to day life of a young child, respecting each experience, from the small joys of jumping rope 500 times to the larger issues of death and loss.

"Dani used to have a mother who lived there too, but she passed away. That's what people said when someone died. They said she had passed away, but how could a dead person pass anything? And away to where?"

The pen-and-ink illustrations are full of life and vitality, just like Dani. Eriksson manages with just a few strokes of her pen to capture a multitude of expressions on the children's faces. The world she creates rings true and subtly adds to the story. Just by looking at the illustrations of Dani's teacher we know she's great at her job.

A treasure of a book!

My Happy Life
by Rose Lagercrantz
illustrations by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press, 134 pages
Published: 2013 (U.S. edition)  

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20. Toilet: How It Works

What kid--or grown-up for that matter--hasn't wondered what happens when a toilet is flushed? In yet another superior beginning reader nonfiction book, David Macaulay provides the answer. With a generous dose of humor, Macaulay begins at the beginning--how food is processed into human waste--and proceeds to explain how a toilet works and how waste is treated as it is processed through septic and sewer systems.

Each illustration reinforces the text. Some drawings show labeled cutaway views, such as a toilet tank or a septic system. Another provides an impressive bird's-eye view of a city. Many of the illustrations include clever details, such as the empty toilet paper roll with just a scrap of paper dangling or the walking set of human organs complete with a How Things Work manual.

The book begins with "Everybody knows what a toilet is for," showing spot art of a dog drinking from the toilet bowl, a goldfish being sent on its way to the afterlife, and an toilet remade into a flower-fille planter. By the time they reach the last page, readers will have a much more inclusive knowledge of what a toilet is for and how waste is disposed.

Toilet: How It Works
by David Macaulay with Sheila Keenan
David Macaulay Studio/Roaring Brook, 32 pages
Published: September 2013

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21. Pinch and Dash and the Terrible Couch

Anyone who has ever tried to fit a large piece of furniture in a tiny space will sympathize with poor Pinch. (Count me among them. I once had to return a couch that wouldn't fit through the apartment door.) While oversized furniture might not be a pressing problem for most kids, the humor in this easy reader will win them over and they are sure to relate to the plight of being the recipient of an unwanted gift.

That's what happens to Pinch when he unwittingly opens to door to a huge couch on his top step, a present from his Aunt Hasty, who sold her house and moved into a tiny apartment. The movers, Push and Shove, cram the couch into Pinch's small den without any regard for his other belongings. The guff duo have little patience for Pinch's predicament and have some of the book's best lines. When Pinch dillydallies about where to set the couch, Shove tells him: "We move things. We do not stand around holding things." I think I met these guys during my last move.

Unlike the first book in the series, Pinch and Dash Make Soup, Dash doesn't appear until midway through. He tries to help his friend by rearranging the furniture in the den, but when that doesn't work to Pinch's satisfaction, Dash falls sound asleep on the offending couch. And that is the beginning of an idea that leads to an amusing visual conclusion.

Pinch and Dash and the Terrible Couch
by Michael J. Daley
illustrations by Thomas F. Yezerski
Charlesbridge, 48 pages
Published: 2013

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22. The Meanest Birthday Girl


How mean is she? Dana, our birthday-girl heroine, is a pincher, a name caller, a show off, and a dessert stealer. She especially picks on Anthony, who, while visibly annoyed, does not retaliate. At least not at first. Although not invited to Dana's birthday party, Anthony shows up after the festivities have ended with his birthday present--a white elephant. Now, fyi, long ago kings of Siam used to make a present of white elephants to obnoxious courtiers who caused them displeasure. The cost of keeping such a huge animal ruined the person financially. But Dana, alas, hasn't read the Wikipedia article on white elephants. She's thrilled with her present--at first, that is. The elephant's demands soon render Dana hungry (the elephant eats her food), exhausted (it needs exercise and keeps her up nights), and bikeless (the elephant attempts to ride it). Luckily, Dana undergoes a change of heart and finds the perfect recipient for her unwanted pet.

Early chapter book readers are going to love this one for sure. The lesson--what comes around goes around--is so humorously presented that kids will gobble it up as easily as they do spinach sneaked into brownies. (And yes, there's a recipe for that!)

The Meanest Birthday Girl
by Josh Schneider
Clarion Books, 48 pages
Published: 2013

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23. Ling and Ting Share a Birthday

Of course they do! Ling and Ting are twins and in the second outing of this easy reader series their birthday serves as the anchor for six charming stories. Ling and Ting try on birthday shoes, go shopping for presents, bake cakes, make wishes, open their gifts, and read a story about Ming and Sing, twins who--surprise--also share a birthday but, unlike their counterparts, don't excel at sharing.

Each story cleverly focuses on how the girls are alike and how they are different, just as in the first book in the series. In story 3 for example, the girls decide to each bake a cake. Ling's comes out perfect, but Ting, who didn't read the instructions carefully, is left with an inedible mess. Ling has a solution. She cuts the cake in half, and, presto, they each have their own cake. In the next story, it's Ling's turn to mess up. She doesn't blow out one of the candles on her cake and fears her wish won't come true. Ting steps up to the plate and tells her twin not to worry. "We will share my wish. I will wish that we both have wishes. Then we will each have a wish." Now that's a good sister!

The bright and cheerful gouache images were inspired by 1950s children's textbook illustrations, as Lin explains in an author's note.

Ling & Ting Share a Birthday
by Grace Lin
Little, Brown and Company 48 pages
Published: 2013

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24. Cybils Nominations

Woo-hoo! Tomorrow, October 1st, is the big day! That's when nominations for the 2013 Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) open to the public--that's you! Be sure to stop by and nominate your favorite books and apps. Any English or bilingual book published in the U.S. or Canada for the youth market between October 16, 2012 and October 15, 2013 is eligible.

I'm happy to report that this year I'll be a second-round judge for elementary and middle-school nonfiction. I can't wait to see which books are nominated and, of course, I'll be taking a extra long look at the books nominated in the easy readers/short chapter books category.

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25. Sophie's Squash

I love, love, love this picture book. Perfect for the fall season, Sophie's Squash tells of an abiding friendship that forms between a young girl and her, well, gourd. Sophie spots an appealingly shaped butternut squash at a farmers' market and by the time suppertime rolls around, she's named her new acquaintance Bernice and given her a face with markers. Her mother, who is shown thumbing through a cookbook looking for squash recipes, says, "I'll call for a pizza."

If the mother thinks her daughter will tire of her new friend, she's mistaken. Sophie and Bernice enjoy idyllic fall days playing together. When Bernice develops some spots, Sophie, undeterred, calls them freckles. But soon even Sophie can't deny that her friend isn't her usual self. "Bernice seemed softer, and her somersaults lacked their usual style."

On advice from a farmer, Sophie tucks her friend into "a bed of soft soil" to recover. And recover she does, and come summer Sophie has two new friends that are "just the right size to love."

Pitch perfect and with exquisite pacing, this book is sure to charm young readers. I only wish it was around when my daughter was a first grader. That's when she created--without any help--a sister doll from a rolled-up sleeping bag, tee shirt, hat, and a pasted-on face. That's why I wasn't surprise to learn that first time author Pat Zietlow Miller based the story on her daughter, who, like Sophie, met a squash she couldn't resist.

Anne Wilsdorf's illustrations are endearing and full of life. Her Sophie looks just the type of girl who would tenderly bounce a squash on her knee or cuddle it in her arms.  

Highly recommended!

Sophie's Squash
By Pat Zietlow Miller
Illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf
Schwartz & Wade Books
Published: 2013

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