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Most Memorable Books for the Under-18 Set

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Book critic Paula Willey, in studio.December 10, 2013

What are the most memorable kids' books of 2013? Here, book critic Paula Willey talks with Tom Hall about her must-read list. She writes about literature for children and young adults at her blog, Pink Me, and is a librarian at the Dundalk Branch of the Baltimore County Library.  When you’re there, just look for the librarian with the pink hair.  Her full list of recommendations is below. 

Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard.

What looks like a building guide--along the lines of the terrific LEGO Play Book and LEGO Ideas Book (also both recommended)--turns out to be a science fiction novel for middle grade readers illustrated entirely in LEGO tableaus! Fascinating and mesmerizing and inspiring and inspired. That’s how my kids play with LEGO – they build houses and vehicles and tell stories to themselves – so when Milo read it, he was excited to recognize his own play activity and see it validated, in a way. Very cool.

My boys insist that this book be paired with the LEGO Play book. “There are some awesome builds in this book but not that many instructions, so you can use the LEGO Play Book to help you figure out how to build the stuff in LEGO Space. But you’ll need 36 light-saber handles if you’re going to make the Interceptor, and those are actually few and far between.”

Books of Miscellany for Browsing

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and activities for big kids, little kids, and medium-size kids

The Goods was supposed to be a newspaper insert like the Mini Page. That fell through – the newspaper business is so very weird, I bet that the publishing types at McSweeney’s were eventually like, “You need what? And we have to huh?” 

BUT. This jam-packed large-format gem is arguably better than a newspaper insert that would just have wound up in the recycling bin. Equal parts goofy and irreverent, with contributions by many leading lights of children’s literature and illustration. Here’s a sample: “Detective Sugartooth” (a comic by Aaron Renier) “Holy Quest Maze” (Carson Ellis), “Learn magic from an actual unicorn” (illustrated instructions by Bob Shea), and “Flora the Flapper” (paper dolls by Brigette Barrager). It will sharpen brains while they’re not even paying attention.

Kids who like the mazes and riddles in The Goods will also go for the puzzle-packed, twisty, turny Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.

Rookie Yearbook Two, edited by Tavi Gevinson

Bulging with teenage cred, this second anthology of pictures, essays, comics, stickers, DIY guides, fashion spreads and whatnot boasts contributions from the coolest people – from Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham to Judy Blume and Etgar Keret. It’s also super-empowered, smart, and uncompromising. A great thing for a girl to take to her room and occasionally browse, and gain some wisdom.

Pair this with Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, a hip and heartfelt story about two sisters on their way to adulthood.

Subject-Specific Nonfiction

Everything Goes: By Sea

Third in the “Everything Goes” series. Oversized, and every spread is an edge-to-edge cartoon illustration of one or many boat or boat-like vehicles. Lots of detail, lots of visual humor, and a marvelous amount of actual information.

This lively, participatory book would go well with a great chapter book to share. I’ll suggest the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson. It’s about a girl who wants to go to pirate school but is instead sent off to finishing school – aaargh! A terrific book for chapter-a-night bedtime reading to prereaders and bigger kids alike. 

13 Fashion Styles Children Should Know

Strong, open design and large photographs fit the content of this introductory fashion manual. Loaded with basics and trivia. Wonderful to hold (Prestel, you spoil us!). Refreshingly non-gendered writing and color scheme. Excellent choice of artwork and photographs. Winning nonfiction.

The Time Traveling Fashionista books by Bianca Turetsky are full of wit, history, and of course amazing clothes. So far, our fashionista has visited the deck of the Titanic, Marie Antoinette’s court, and most recently, Cleopatra’s barge.

Explore! The most dangerous journeys of all time

This book has what we call “an abundance of access points.” Captions, sidebars, tombstone info (each section is headed with short Who, Where, When, How, Distance, and Why statements), maps, photos of objects – there is something to capture the attention of any type of reader. It’s not too cluttered, though, and full-page illustrations and photos give the eye a break. Another beautiful browsable super-cool option. Kind of a boring cover though, compared to the wealth of riches within.

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon by S.S. Taylor takes the reader into an exciting and unexplored alternate American Southwest. These two books make a perfect pair.

My Big Book of Art and Illusion

Not just beautifully printed giant-size optical illusions and tricks, but cogent explanations of how the illusion “works” and why your brain interprets it the way it does. Instructions for how to accomplish similar illusions yourself. Famous illusions from Magritte and Escher as well as contemporary tricksters like Norwegian street artists Skurtur and German performance artist Johan Lorbeer.

Walls Within Walls by Maureen Sherry

Siblings move to a posh Manhattan apartment only to find that the whole apartment is a puzzle, with hidden doors, a mysterious book, and mysteries to solve!

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown

This is an engrossing graphic novel with visceral details that will stick with you – the plague of ants caused by the death of all the birds, the eye damage, people getting lost in the blizzard of dust. An airplane crashed, trains derailed. The art is sweeping where it needs to be and intimate where it can. Masterful.

At another end of the country, two girls – one of them a time traveler – explore 1937 Baltimore in Laurel Snyder’s Seven Stories Up. Put these books together for a really cool time study.

Folk and Fairy Tales

Ashley Bryan’s African Tales

This is an older book, but worth seeking out. Fourteen short tales and fables are told in a snappy vernacular style, with lots of dialogue and onomatopoeia. Mr. Bryan’s block-print art has a clean modern primitive style that keeps the whole thing looking sophisticated and cool.

I would give this book with a copy of The Lonely Planet's Not for Parents: Africa book. The great pictures in that book bring the continent to life, and the dozens of way-out factoids make for great dinner table sharing.

The Enduring Ark by Gita Wolf and Joydeb Chitrakar

A stunning rendition of the Noah story executed in a folk art scroll painting style from India and printed on one long piece of accordion-folded paper. Proves that the best stories transcend time and place.

Give this along with the madcap international adventures of Indian-American Takoma Park native Dini, who first has to cope with moving to India, and then has to cope with moving back! As full of light and color and humor as a Bollywood musical, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and its sequel, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic introduce readers to the fun side of South Asian culture.

Best-Loved Children’s Stories illustrated by Frederick Richardson

New facsimile edition of the 1930’s classic anthology. Richardson’s Art Nouveau-influenced illustrations are picturesque and naturalistic, with drawing of animals that rival Beatrix Potter for that combination of verisimilitude and personality. A pretty, oversize item to dip into for years to come. And the troll is like a combination of Salvador Dali and Senor Wences.

It might be fun to pair this classic with a peppy, updated fractured fairy tale. Sarah Mlynowski’s Whatever After books transport a contemporary kid and her brother into fairy tales, where they must save the princess – or not, because sometimes that messes up the story.

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm 

This is the real deal – a new edition of the 1823 English translation of the tales transcribed by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm from old folks all over Germany. Devotion and treachery, dancing princesses and enchanted frogs – the basis of so much of our popular culture, and so violent!

This is a natural to go with Adam Gidwitz’s Tale Dark and Grimm books, the third of which, The Grimm Conclusion, is now available.

Holiday Books

Melissa Posten has a terrific holiday decorating tradition – she puts out a basket (in her case baskets!) of all the holiday picture books her family owns, a mixture of contemporary and vintage titles. They read 3 or 4 every night until Christmas. Here are a couple of new books she might add to her collection this year:

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The lusciousness and precision that is Bagram Ibatoulline is the perfect foil for this melancholy episodic tale. As Gerda goes searching for her friend Kai, he gets to paint a beautiful garden, a fabulous castle, and a rough-hewn robbers’ hideout full of exotic animals. Not to mention the Northern Lights, a blizzard, an ice cave, and the perfect, stunning, freezing Snow Queen herself.

The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Holly Hobbie

Holly Hobbie is a modern master. Every composition in this book would make a great Christmas card, starting with the cover image and including the wee painting of four round sleeping mousies snuggled up together. Her color palette is beautifully balanced between warm and cool – golden beiges and washed-out reds are counterposed with warm greys, midnight blues, and piney greens. There’s a plump cat, a wide-eyed toddler and a skinny bed-headed Father to provide comic relief, and a fat, festive Christmas tree to anchor the scene in tradition. As for the jolly old elf – he might be my favorite Santa ever. He does look like a peddler just opening his pack.

Christmas from Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber 

Uh oh. Waterworks alert. True story, Christmas, aid missions… this is not going to be pretty. This is the story of Gail Halvorsen, a 27-year-old American pilot who participated in the Berlin airlift of 1948-49. The Russians had laid siege to Berlin, and people were starving, so the US and Britain undertook a massive effort to fly food and supplies into the city. Halvorsen noticed children gathered outside the fence at the air base where he unloaded, and he and his crew began dropping candy tied to handkerchief parachutes from their plane whenever they came in for a landing. The story spread, and donations of candy and handkerchiefs began to arrive from all over the world. 

Forget it, I’m done for, you’ll have to read the rest yourself. There’s a CD that comes with the book – Tom Brokaw can apparently read the thing without tears pouring down his face. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is involved too. The illustrations are great, and there are a ton of documentary photos… oh my god, I’m such a mess.

DON’T forget fiction! Super box sets available now:

• Percy Jackson and the Olympians

• Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth now available as a box set.

 The Cupcake Diaries – first four books

• The first six books of The Dork Diaries

• There’s a new box set of Roald Dahl books for all those Baltimore County 3rd graders who’ve been doing him as an author study this year.

• Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy is now out as a box set.

• There’s a new box set featuring the first 7 Wimpy Kid books and the Wimpy Kid Journal.

• And a new box set of Lois Lowry’s Giver quartet, including The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son.

Be sure to check out all of Paula Willey's book recommendations at her blog, Pink Me.  She also makes holiday cocktail recommendations (called the 24 days of Advil)--and has imagined what some of our favorite children's book characters would drink once grown up. 



 E-mail: mdmorning@wypr.org

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