The year’s best books for kids

NewsdayDecember 29, 2013 

If You Want to See a Whale [Julie Fogliano, Erin Stead]

If you have a voracious young book-lover in the family, you know that the appetite for new books is bottomless. Here are our 10 favorite books of 2013 for small children, middle readers and young adults.

1. IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE, by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook, $16.99, ages 3-7). Babies take their sweet time about everything, but by preschool, it’s rush-rush-rush! “If You Want to See a Whale” slows all that down. “If you want to see a whale,” the book begins, “you will need a window… and an ocean … and time for waiting.” It’s all about contemplation. So tuck up together. Read aloud. This is a form of mindfulness meditation for children. And their parents. Especially the parents.

2. FANGIRL, by Rainbow Rowell. (St. Martin’s Press, $18.99, ages 14 and up). Plenty of YA novelists employ texting and blogging and other devices of technologically enabled expression. But while other writers seem to be explaining why young people are always staring at a screen, Rowell’s “Fangirl” character, a first-year college student, doesn’t need to explain anything: she lives there. All her dramas – involving a roommate, a boyfriend, a study partner, a twin sister, a fragile parent – are filtered through her secret persona as queen of a popular writer’s online fan circle.

3. EXCLAMATION MARK! by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (Scholastic, $17.99, all ages). Like a perfect marriage of beauty and brains, the idea and graphics in this book are easier to appreciate than to describe. An animated exclamation mark, trying to line up on a page with more sedate punctuation, is unintentionally exuberant. He may try to curl up his long tail and blend in with the periods, but it’s in his nature to shout! When he meets the question mark, he learns the proper use of his exclamatory voice.

4. MISTER MAX: The Book of Lost Things, by Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 8-12). Max is one of the most fetching characters in recent children’s fiction, so let’s rejoice that “Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things” is only the first installment of what promises to be a delightful detective series. The pseudo-Victorian setting gives Voigt license to deploy a bit of Dickensian melodrama as well as a slightly formal style, which gives the intelligent reader a satisfying sense of having stretched.

5. OUT OF THE EASY, by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel, $17.99, ages 14 and up). What’s not to love about a girl who was raised in a brothel and chooses to run away and live in a bookshop? Josie is tough and streetwise and filled with secret hope, and her friends are as colorful a cast of characters as you’d hope to find in New Orleans. Sepetys wrote last year’s “Between Shades of Gray,” about a grim episode in Soviet history, and there couldn’t be two more different novels. What will she do next?

6. YEAR OF THE JUNGLE, by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 4 and up). Collins, best known for “The Hunger Games,” wrote “Year of the Jungle” based on her own memories of her father’s service in Vietnam. A little girl misses her daddy, and imagines him in the jungle she knows from cartoons. Her image of the jungle grows darker, though, as the year drags on and she gleans information about where he is. Collins doesn’t shrink from the hard things, not even from the fact that the jungle changes the soldier.

7. JUST ONE DAY and JUST ONE YEAR, by Gayle Forman (Dutton, $17.99 each, ages 14 and up). These paired novels are a his-and-hers story: Boy meets girl on her last day of a teen tour in Europe. He persuades her to run away to Paris with him for 24 hours. Then they lose each other; Shakespeare is involved, so there will be twists and turns and questions of identity. It sounds romantic, but the most gripping part is the period they spend lost. When someone rocks your world, aren’t you stronger if you learn to go on without them?

8. PICTURE ME GONE, by Meg Rosoff. (Putnam, $17.99, ages 12 and up). It has become unfashionable to write about children discovering the adult world; we prefer teenagers on their own island, with parents dead, gone or irrelevant. “Picture Me Gone” is a throwback, a reminder that every child, eventually, has to learn to deal with grown-ups, even if those strange big people are hopelessly incompetent at running their own lives, let alone the world. In this novel, Mila’s remarkable powers of observation make her a character you’d love to have as a friend at any age.

9. BLUFFTON: My Summers With Buster, by Matt Phelan (Candlewick, $22.99, ages 8 and up). Matt Phelan’s graphic novel, based on a few details from Buster Keaton’s childhood, gives great pleasure to Keaton fans, but it reads just as well for those who don’t know the silent film star. The story focuses on a boy in a Midwestern town where a vaudeville troupe summers, and it will resonate with anyone who has ever envied a glamorous friend.

10. FLORA & ULYSSES: The Illuminated Adventures, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell. (Candlewick, $17.99, ages 8-12). The ever-inventive DiCamillo offers her own quirky take on comic-book fandom. In a story that dips in and out of graphic-novel format, we meet a squirrel whose ability to fly is his very least superpower; DiCamillo’s playful sense of language will persuade readers that his ability to write poetry is his greatest talent. “Holy bagumba!” the reader will learn to say, and “Holy unanticipated occurrences!”

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