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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. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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:


For the Primary Grades:

Old School:

The Definitive Edition with Tenniel's Illustrations:

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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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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12. 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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13. 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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14. 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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15. 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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16. 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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17. On a Beam of Light

I wouldn't have thought Albert Einstein, poster boy for the word genius, a good candidate for a picture book biography. How could the life of the creator of E = mc2 be crammed into a few pages of text? Well, happily, Jennifer Berne has proven me wrong. Her biography, aimed at young readers between ages 6 to 9, is a masterful condensation of big ideas into clear and accessible prose.

The book begins, appropriately, with the universe: "Over 100 years ago, as the stars swirled in the sky, as the Earth circled the sun, as the March winds blew through a little town by the river, a baby boy was born. His parents named him Albert."

The text then follows him through his childhood (puzzling the secrets of the universe) to adulthood (still puzzling the secrets of the universe). We see young Albert mystified and enchanted by the workings of a compass and later wondering what it would be like to ride his bike on a beam of sunlight. As an adult, he watches sugar dissolve in his tea and pipe smoke vanish into the air and questions how one thing could disappear into another. By focusing on such concrete everyday examples, Berne grounds Einstein's remarkable abstract discoveries into things a child can comprehend.

Radunsky's innovated illustrations cast Einstein as a wide-eyed free spirit and allow you to see the child in the old man and vice versa. Through Radunsky's free-flowing hand, Einstein springs to life, striding through these pages as a wild-haired prophet in an endless search for the truth.

For readers eager to learn more, Berne provides an author's note covering other aspects of Einstein's life, such as his playful nature and his lifelong pacifism. A short bibliography is also included.

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein
by Jennifer Berne
illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky
Chronicle, 56 pages
Published: 2013

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18. That Is NOT a Good Idea!

Taking his inspiration from the silent film era, Mo Willems has crafted another winner. His latest picture book is set up to resemble a silent movie with the wolf cast in the role of villain. Playing the leading lady--make that leading bird--is a seemingly sweet, trusting goose. Spread by spread, the wolf tempts her nearer and nearer to his home in the woods. The journey is interrupted at regular intervals by a chorus of goslings who warn at increasingly higher and higher decibels that their hookup is not a good idea. But whom exactly are they warning?

As always, Willems knows how to pace a suspenseful tale, and his bold illustrations, especially those which highlight his character's expressive faces, add to the unfolding drama. Young readers might be savvy enough to see the twist that lies ahead--but this mature reader certainty didn't!

That Is NOT a Good Idea!
by Mo Willems
Balzer + Bray 48 pages
Published: May 2013

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19. Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight

The clever projects in this crafts book take art to the next level. What you make is important, of course, but what you do with your creation counts too. Aimed at elementary-age kids, Sneaky Art tempts budding artists to call forth their inner sneak, which for most will not be a problem. Each of the 24 projects uses everyday materials that are easily found around the house. Simple-to-follow directions allow kids to customize the project. Jocelyn then offers suggestions about where to place the projects for maximum effect.

Ideas for what to make and where to display the finished projects abound. Make a fractured face out of sticky notes and facial features snipped from old magazines and arrange them on a parking meter. Float a cheerful styrofoam boat in a public fountain. Click a flock of bright red bird silhouettes on a tree branch or a grocery store cart.

Many of these good-natured projects are designed to bring a smile to a viewer's face, like "Lucky Penny," in which kids glue a penny to a cardboard shape and then compose a cheerful message. The penny can be slipped into a friend's backpack or left on the sidewalk for a stranger to find.

Throughout the book, Jocelyn stresses the playful, surprising nature of sneaky art and cautions against creating anything that will damage property or cause hurt feelings. Sneaky art isn't permanent, something kids may have trouble wrapping their heads around. But as Jocelyn points out, "although it's hard to leave behind a treasure that you're proud of, you can always make another work of art."

If you'd like to check out some sample crafts from the book, including "Lucky Penny," click here.

Sneaky Art: Crafty Surprises to Hide in Plain Sight
by Marthe Jocelyn
Candlewick Press, 64 pages
Published: March 2013

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20. Odd Duck

Theodora swims balancing a teacup on her head, enjoys mango salsa with her duck pellets, and exercises her wings every morning (yet never flies). Claude dyes his feathers strange colors, constructs crazy art projects in his yard, and spends his nights gazing at the stars. So which duck is the odd one?

Cecil Castellucci has written a touching and sophisticated graphic story about two friends who learn to appreciate the other's nonconformity. Readers see the story through Theodora's POV, from the day that Claude moves into the empty house next door--disrupting her routine--to their gradual realization that "even though they were very different, they felt the same way about most things."

Then one day as the pair waddle past a group of snickering ducks, they overhear one remark, "Look at that odd duck." Theodora and Claude each assume the comment was meant for the other. Their fallout drives them back to their respective houses and appears to end the friendship. But Theodora finds life isn't the same without her odd friend and ultimately comes to a realization about herself.

Books about friendship are big with six to ten year olds, the group this book is clearly aimed at. Young readers will find much to enjoy in the six short chapters. And the illustrations are a joy, with hundreds of details for readers to ponder in the duck universe that Varon creates. In fact, pairing Castellucci, best known for her YA graphic novels, with Varon (Robot Dreams) was an inspired choice. Both are rather odd ducks themselves (in the best possible way) and their collaboration is proof that birds of a feather flock together!

Odd Duck
by Cecil Castellucci
illustrations by Sara Varon
First Second, 96 pages
Published: May 2013

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21. Fog Island

Ungerer declares his latest picture book a homage to Ireland. Set in a coastal town "in the back of beyond," The Fog tells an atmospheric tale of two children, a brother and sister, who become lost in a soupy fog at sea and must find their way back home.

Finn and Cara live with their parents in a cozy cottage. Their father is a fisherman; their mother manages the family farm. The children help out, tending sheep and cutting peat for the hearth.

As a surprise, one day their father presents them with a small rowboat--a curragh. He also warns them never to go near Fog Island, "a jagged black tooth" miles offshore.

But while out in their boat, a thick fog surrounds Finn and Cara, and strong currents pull them to the island. While exploring the eerie place, the children encounter Fog Man, "a wizened old man" covered from head to toe in strands of long, seaweed-green hair.

A genial host, Fog Man shows the children how he makes fog and promises to provide them a fog-free journey home the following morning. The trio spend the night singing songs and slurping shellfish stew. Although Fog Man is not around when Finn and Cara wake up, true to his word, the fog is gone.

After a eventful trip home--in which they lose the boat in a fierce storm and are rescued by fishermen--the children are reunited with their parents, none the worse for wear. They find, however, that no one believes their story about the Fog Man. But the brother and sister know the truth, and when Cara finds an extremely long strand of hair, they giggle in mutual appreciation.

The mist-colored illustrations are studded with intriguing details for young readers to wonder at. As they climb a steep mountain stairway, claw-like branches seem to reach out for them, adding to the scene's tension, and the jagged slabs of stones appear eerily human. Yet throughout their adventure, the children show no fear and prove themselves resilient. Ungerer's message of curiosity and imagination trumping fear is one that will resonate with many readers. It certainly did with this one.

If you'd like to hear Ungerer talk in length about Fog Island, I urge you to watch this YouTube video.

Fog Island
by Tomi Ungerer
Phaidon, 48 pages
Published: April, 2013

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22. Nino Wrestles the World

When two of my nephews were around six and seven nothing delighted them more than tuning in to Thursday night's wrestling shows. Naturally, they refused any adult's attempt to inform them that the performances were fake. When I read this page-turning picture book, I thought of them (now young adults) and how much they would have enjoyed it.

The nino of this title sports a pair of tighty whities and not much else. Using his way too active imagination, he casts himself as a luchadore, a professional wrestler popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. Nino's opponents are nothing to sneeze at. What I liked best about this book was Morales' depiction of these truly scary characters. There's La Momia de Guanajuato, a zombie-like creature; Cabeza Olmeca, an ancient stone-head sculpture; La Llorona, a ghost, El Extraterrestre, a space alien; and El Chamuco, the devil himself. Nino creatively dispatches his opponents with ease--until, that is, he faces his most fearsome match. Las Hermanitas, his twin sisters, wake from their nap and gleefully attack their big brother.

The bold art offers surprises on every page and the graphic text adds to the excitement. An informative end note explains lucha libre, Mexican professional wrestling, in greater detail. Great fun!

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23. Annie and Simon: The Sneeze and Other Stories

This the second in a series about Annie, a preschooler, and Simon, her big, big brother. Catharine O'Neill based the stories on her own daughter and stepsons. Refreshingly, the sibling relationship is free of angst. Simon is a protective, sympathetic older brother,  and Annie is an admiring younger sister. ("Simon," she said, "do you know everything?")

The four stories involve casual moments as the two hang out together. Is Simon minding Annie? Perhaps, but if so the author never lets on. In the first story, which takes place on a dock, Annie sketches animals while Simon incorrectly identifies them. (He thinks a clam is a rock.) In "The Sneeze" Annie nurses Simon through his allergies, although in actuality it's Simon who ends up doing the bulk of the work. Chapter Three has Annie learning to appreciate her dog Hazel's dogginess, and in the final story Annie learns (with some gentle prodding from Simon) to share the horse chestnuts she's collected with a deserving squirrel.

While the pace of these stories might be a bit slow for some tastes, the underlying humor and the real sense of affection between brother and sister more than makes up for it. The typical reader for this book most likely falls somewhere between the two protagonists ages: older and more savvy than Annie, yet younger and less accomplished than Simon. Again, this might be a problem for certain readers. Most, however, should be able to feel comfortably superior to Annie (who's just learning to read), while aspiring to Simon's sophistication. All in all, this is a worthy series for beginning chapter book readers.

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24. Joe and Sparky Go to School

Stories that feature animals in a school setting are always lots of fun, and Joe and Sparky Go to School, I'm happy to report, is no exception. Joe, an inquisitive giraffe, teams up with Sparky, a turtle more interested in sleeping than adventure, to investigate a school bus parked in Safari Land's lot. The bus, filled with "noisy short people" is heading back to school, and when Sparky mistakenly gets whisked away, Joe takes off after him. When the pair arrived at the school, Joe decides a field trip is in order. (Poor Sparky just wants to go home.) Luckily for Joe--and for young readers--Miss Hootie, the teacher, breaks her glasses and never discovers that two zoo animals are among her students. This, of course, provides for more belly laughs as Joe gets into trouble because he's, well, a giraffe. Sparky does much better and by day's end his shell is plastered with gold stars. Don't worry, though. Joe manages to get a star too, in a heartwarming way.

The third in a series, Joe and Sparky Go to School is sure to win over beginning readers. The action moves along at a brisk pace and something to chuckle over happens on nearly every spread. The section in which Joe and Sparky visit the boys' restroom is sure to have kids rolling on the floor! Remkiewicz's cheerful illustrations help reinforce the story line and add to the humor. All in all, this is one easy reader that will have kids eager to go back to school. Who knows? Just maybe a giraffe and his sidekick turtle will visit their class.

Joe and Sparky Go to School
by Jamie Michalak
illustrations by Frank Remkiewicz
Candlewick Press 48 pages
Published: June 2013

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25. Squirrel's Fun Day

It's a sunny summer afternoon and what am I doing? Sitting in my office writing this post. Why? Because that's my version of a fun day. What's Squirrel's? To play with his friends: Mouse, Turtle, and Rabbit. Trouble is Mouse is busy cleaning. So Squirrel helps, but he makes more of a mess than before. Next he urges a sleepy Turtle off his log and ends up slathering his friend in mud. Finally he convinces Rabbit to alter his routine and poor Rabbit ends up lost. In the final chapter of this easy reader, Squirrel realizes that while he had fun, his friends didn't. Or did they? Sometimes going outside your comfort zone and trying new things can lead to, yes, fun.

Squirrel, a rambunctious fellow with a tendency to repeat himself, makes an engaging character that young readers will identify with and root for. Although he's often clueless, his heart is in the right place and, like many children I've known, he can't contain his exuberance for life. The quartet of friends, each charmingly portrayed, cavort through Gorbachev's idyllic landscape, a forest rendered in soft mossy hues. Reading this pitch-perfect book, the second in a series, beginning readers are sure to have their own fun day.  

Squirrel's Fun Day
by Lisa Moser
illustrations by Valeri Gorbachev
Candlewick Press, 46 pages
Published: 2013

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