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With the holidays right around the corner, children's books have entered a season of visual razzle-dazzle and narrative heft.
Choosing the best of the new releases is like trying to see every Oscar-worthy movie that hits the Cineplex between now and Christmas. Harder, really, because children's books vastly outnumber Hollywood films.
But we're giving it our best shot, in a list of great picks that includes picture books, middle-grade chapter books, teen novels, pop-ups and one of our favorite blasts from the past. The envelope, please ...
By Jez Alborough. Candlewick, $15.95. Ages 3-6.
A little monkey finds that small and tall are relative -- and that big-shouldered friends can always boost your stature. Jolly pictures carry the weight of this nearly wordless story, which takes the "concept book" to new heights of humor.
By Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin, $17. All ages.
An old storyteller revisits the city where he used to entertain children with his "kamishibai" paper theater until TV drew away his sidewalk audience. To his joy, he draws a throng of adults who remember him from their youth and eagerly request their favorite cliffhangers. Elegant and quietly beautiful, this satisfying tale recalls a bygone form of street art that flourished in 1930s Japan.
By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, $15.99. Ages 4-9.
Grandma fusses that a new house is "just gravy," but Grandpa is set on building up the hill. Then comes the flood of 1927, the worst in Vermont's history, and everyone -- including three horses, 100 chickens, five pigs, a cow and lots of neighbors -- crowds into the unfinished structure. It's fun, till Grandma and little Wren have to mount a search for Grandpa. This heartwarming tale, based on a true event, is a timely (and cozily illustrated) reminder that the sun will shine again, especially with the help of family, friends and neighbors.
THE GIFT OF NOTHING
By Patrick McDonnell. Little, Brown & Co., $14.99. Ages 5-8.
It's a special day and Mooch, the cat, wants to give his friend Earl a present. But what do you get a dog who has everything? Mooch finally chooses a very special gift -- the kind money can't buy. Gently humorous and philosophical, with black, white and pink artwork and characters from the comic strip "Mutts."
PACIFIC NORTHWEST BALLET PRESENTS 'NUTCRACKER'
Photography by Angela Sterling, set designs by Maurice Sendak, choreography by Kent Stowell, introduction by Francia Russell. Sasquatch Books, 96 pages, $27.95. All ages.
The "Nutcracker" ballet is a holiday staple, and the PNB/Sendak version is one of the most acclaimed. Here, the spectacle unfolds scene by scene in close-up photos paired with narrative text, for a lovely keepsake of a Seattle tradition.
BABY BRAINS SUPERSTAR
By Simon James. Candlewick, $15.99. Ages 5-8.
Baby Brains, the genius offspring of zealous parents, returns as a musical prodigy who's set to open the biggest rock concert ever -- until he shrinks from the crowd and yells, "I want my mommy!" The fans love it, and a new hit record is born. Kids and adults alike will enjoy this sly dig at overly earnest parents and their exceptional offspring.
MICE, MORALS & MONKEY BUSINESS: LIVELY LESSONS FROM AESOP'S FABLES
By Christopher Wormell. Running Press, $18.95. Ages 4-8.
Twenty-one exquisite, linoleum-block prints illustrate the morals of some of Aesop's most beloved fables, from "Belling the Cat" to "The Fox and the Grapes," followed by brief retellings of each tale. This clothbound book is a visual treat.
CARL'S SLEEPY AFTERNOON
By Alexandra Day. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.95. All ages.
Carl, the uber-responsible Rottweiler, is back and as charming as ever. Today he must stay home and nap (as if!) while mom takes Madeleine shopping. Instead, he visits a bakery, delivers medicine, aids in a veterinary procedure, rescues a litter from a burning shed and much more in this lushly illustrated, nearly wordless book. No wonder Carl looks pooped.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MAUDE MARCH, OR TROUBLE RIDES A FAST HORSE
By Audrey Couloumbis. Random House, 304 pages, $17.99. Ages 9-13.
Newly orphaned and facing a dire future, 15-year-old Maude March lights out for Independence, Mo., to seek her long-lost Uncle Arlen. Galloping at her side is her 11-year-old sister, Sallie, a flinty, dime-novel devotee who provides the tale's hilarious narration. Throw in some untimely complications -- bank robbery and well-intentioned horse thievery, for instance -- and suddenly ladylike Maude is looking at her own likeness on a wanted poster. With sharply drawn characters and missteps galore, this is a rip-roaring adventure that will keep readers glued to the saddle.
BLACK STORM COMIN'
By Diane Lee Wilson. Simon & Schuster, 295 pages, $16.95. Ages 10-14.
The nation is on the brink of tearing apart, but 12-year-old Colton Wescott has his own problems: Pa has fled the wagon train; Ma is ailing and no one takes kindly to the mixed-race family. Then Colton sees a help-wanted sign for Pony Express riders -- "orphans preferred." Bound to save his family and deliver freedom papers to his aunt in Sacramento, Colton argues his way into the deadly job of speeding the mail across the stormy Sierra Nevadas.
LISTENING FOR LIONS
By Gloria Whelan. HarperCollins, 208 pages, $15.99. Ages 10-13.
When influenza strikes British East Africa in 1919 and kills her missionary parents, 13-year-old Rachel falls victim to a greedy couple who send her to England in the guise of their late daughter -- with orders to win the heart of her wealthy "grandfather" and restore their fortune. As others have noted, there is a "Secret Garden" feel to the story, but sensitive Rachel, who yearns to become a doctor and return to her beloved Africa, is no spoiled Mary Lennox. The story glows with descriptions of Africa and with Rachel's fierce determination to live a useful life.
By Andrew Clements. Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $15.95. Ages 8-12.
Sixth-grader Greg Kenton loves money and works tirelessly to get it, so when Maura copies his scheme to sell homemade comic books at school, tempers flare. Mr. Z, their comically blood-phobic math teacher, urges detente, while the principal tries to nix Greg's scheme altogether. It falls to the school board to say if the kids have as much right as Coke and Nike to sell their wares on campus. Breezy and full of comic-book facts.
OUT OF ORDER
By Betty Hicks. Roaring Brook Press, 176 pages, $15.95. Ages 9-12.
How do two pairs of siblings become a blended family? By overcoming hurt feelings and false assumptions to stage a neighborhood rock-paper-scissors tournament to buy soccer balls for kids in Iraq. Or so it goes for Lily, 11, Parker, 9, V, 13, and Eric, 15, who take turns narrating the domestic dramas -- a vandalized sunflower, a passing insult -- that threaten the family's harmony. The story is laced with humor, and the shifting viewpoints help readers see how easy it is to misjudge people when you don't have the full story.
NOISY OUTLAWS, UNFRIENDLY BLOBS AND SOME OTHER THINGS ...
Edited by Ted Thompson. McSweeny's, 208 pages, $22. Ages 9-12.
This boy-friendly collection of short stories boasts color art, an air of fast-paced sophistication and some of the biggest names in literature, including Neil Gaiman and Jon Scieszka. The highlight is Lemony Snicket's hilarious introduction, which parodies the lesser sort of children's fare you won't find here -- such as stories about Teddy Bear Land and a perky Long Division Worm who cries, "Math is fun!"
THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ALFRED KROPP
By Rick Yancey. Bloomsbury, 375 pages, $16.95. Ages 12-up.
When lumbering Alfred goes along with a get-rich-quick scheme hatched by his night-watchman uncle, he unleashes forces beyond his wildest imagination. Because the item he's hired to nab turns out to be Excalibur, legendary sword of King Arthur. And his employer is a villain who will stop at nothing to gain its power. Inventive and delightfully original, this fast-paced tale plants ancient legend in a modern world filled with speeding Ferraris and knights in business suits. "Artemis Fowl" fans will eat it up.
EYES OF THE EMPEROR
By Graham Salisbury. Random House, 240 pages. $15.95. Ages 12-up.
In this outstanding companion novel to "Under the Blood-Red Sun," Salisbury revisits the effects of World War II on Hawaii's Japanese American community. Here, 16-year-old Eddie Okubo lies about his age to join the Army, then winds up on a dangerous, demeaning mission approved by President Roosevelt: to serve as bait for attack dogs being trained to "sniff out" and destroy Japanese invaders. Based on a little-known episode of the war, this powerful story will hold readers in thrall and trigger discussion about racism, patriotism, identity and the meaning of courage.
GIRL, NEARLY 16, ABSOLUTE TORTURE
By Sue Limb. Delacorte Press, 224 pages, $17.99. Ages 12-up.
Laugh-out-loud funny, this sequel to "Girl, 15, Charming But Insane," finds Jess held captive to her mum's plans for a summer road trip to Cornwall to visit Jess's elusive dad. Melodramatic and overwrought as only fictional British teens can be, Jess laments being ripped from the side of her true love, the witty Fred, to endure tedious stopovers at ancient ruins along the way. Meanwhile, dad turns out to be ... uh, not what Jess expected -- and she couldn't be happier. Pure, zany delight in the vein of Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones and "Full-Frontal Snogging's" Georgia Nicolson.
By Gabrielle Zevin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 288 pages, $16. Ages 13-up.
What happens when we die? Ask Liz Hall, who gets hit by a cab at 15 and finds herself on a ship to Elsewhere, a land much like Earth, where people age backwards until it's time for them to return, as swaddled infants, to a new life. Liz finds love and friendship here, finally meets her grandmother and sends hope to her younger brother. But she grieves for the life she has lost, and for losses still to come as the years carry her closer to her beginning, and her end. Powerful and thought-provoking in a way that recalls Lois Lowry's "The Giver," this bittersweet tale will move some readers to tears with its devastating beauty and loss.
THE STORY OF SCIENCE: NEWTON AT THE CENTER
By Joy Hakim. Smithsonian Books, 480 pages, $21.95. Ages 10-adult.
"Read this book and you'll know more science than Isaac Newton did," Hakim writes in volume two of a projected six-book series about the people, theories and history of science. Colorful photos and graphics will draw readers in, but the series' strength lies with Hakim, who offers substance and strong storytelling in her account of the progression of scientific thought. Given today's climate, the need for a resource like this has never been more urgent.
COOL STUFF AND HOW IT WORKS
By Chris Woodford. DK, 256 pages, $24.99. All ages.
This super-cool, graphics-heavy book demystifies everyday technology, from cell phones and MP3 players to iris scans and smart cards. Extremely detailed photos and high-tech imaging make for one hot read.
10,000 DAYS OF THUNDER: A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM WAR.
By Philip Caputo. Atheneum, 128 pages, $22.95. Ages 10-adult.
Caputo brings a dual perspective to America's longest and most unpopular war, as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and a former Marine lieutenant who fought in the war. His clear, highly readable text, bracketed by photos and sidebars, strives to be an objective account of how the war came about, how it unfolded and what came of it. It's a great boon for adults who never quite got the story straight and for students whose history teachers always seem to run out of time to talk about this modern-day war.
By Candace Fleming. Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $19.95. Ages 10-14.
Fleming deftly moves beyond Eleanor Roosevelt's saintly image to create a fully rounded portrait of this sensitive, insecure and vastly influential first lady. Much as she did with her acclaimed "Ben Franklin's Almanac," she uses a scrapbook approach to build layers of telling detail through photos, letters, clippings and compelling storytelling.
CHILDREN OF NATIVE AMERICA TODAY
By Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder. Charlesbridge, 64 pages, $19.95. Ages 8-12.
The authors' purpose is straightforward: to break down stereotypes and inform kids that Indians still exist throughout the United States. Here they profile two dozen of the nation's 500 tribes and cultural groups, including the Lummis of Washington. The text is rather dry, but kids will connect with the color photos of children, in both native and contemporary dress. Includes maps, Web sites, and many other useful resources.
YOKO'S WORLD OF KINDNESS: GOLDEN RULES FOR A HAPPY CLASSROOM
By Rosemary Wells. Hyperion, 154 pages, $19.99. Ages 4-7.
Yoko and friends learn about sharing the spotlight, saying goodbye to mom (who always comes back), not teasing and other valuable life lessons in this sweet compilation of six previously published tales of early school life. Wells' kittens, mice, raccoons and other furry kids are lovable to the max.
CLASSICS AND REISSUES
By Marie McSwigan, illustrated by Mary Reardon. Dutton, 196 pages, $10.99. Ages 8-12.
First published in 1942, this story of daring and courage is as fresh and compelling as ever. Based on true events, it tells how children in a Norwegian village sneaked $9 million in gold bullion out from under the Nazis by hiding it on their sleds and scooting it 35 miles (the story fictionalizes it as 12 miles) to a camouflaged ship bound for America. A gripping adventure.
By Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Candlewick, $26.99. All ages.
Dinosaur factoids take a back seat to 35 extraordinary pop-ups. Colorful and amazingly intricate, the book features bold, colorful centerpieces flanked by mini-pop-ups that spring up when you turn the inset pages. The effect is dazzling.
By Robert Sabuda. Little, Brown, $26.95. All ages.
Sparkling snow, icy foil and a twinkling surprise greet readers who venture into this enchanted land of gravity-defying paper art.
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