Shark vs. Train
Chris Barton, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown)
This is one of those elementally brilliant ideas that evokes a "Why didn't I think of that?" response. By pitting a cartoon train and shark against each other in a series of increasingly ludicrous challenges (the train's heft is a liability in a hot air balloon race, but very effective on a seesaw), Barton and Lichtenheld tap into kids' innate ability to turn anything, anything into a competition.
There's Going to Be a Baby
John Burningham, illus. by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick)
Though they're married, this is the first collaboration between these two children's book icons, and it's a marvelous one: a dynamic and realistic exchange between a mother and her son as they await the arrival of a new family member. The soon-to-be big brother's insecurities and nervousness emerge through their conversations, yet Oxenbury's crisp ink vignettes make it clear that their tender bond will be in no way threatened by the imminent addition.
Elisha Cooper (Scholastic/Orchard)
At a time when the farm-to-table movement has never been stronger, Cooper's understated and unromantic portrait of farm life is especially resonant. He pairs breathtaking watercolor panoramas, which portray endless expanses of farmland, with matter-of-fact prose that takes readers through a year of planting, caring for crops and animals, harvesting, and preparing to begin the cycle once again.
The Boss Baby
Marla Frazee (S&S/Beach Lane)
"From the moment the baby arrived, it was obvious he was the boss." Frazee takes a sublime metaphor for the havoc that a baby can wreak, and runs with it; new parents and siblings will be laughing every step of the way (most likely through exhausted tears). Those who question whether child care is a full-time job, "with no time off," will quickly have their answer.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illus. by Brian Floca (Roaring Brook/Flash Point/Porter)
An inspired vehicle to demonstrate the dividends that collaboration can pay, this story of the making of the classic American ballet, Appalachian Spring, is both accessible and fascinating. Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca are as in synch as were their subjects—Graham, Copland, and Noguchi—building on each other's contributions to craft a memorable tribute to creative power.
The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)
Barbara Kerley, illus. by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press)
Based on the 130-page biography of Twain that his 13-year-old daughter Susy wrote, Kerley's superb study of Twain's life presents aspects of the writer seldom seen, as Susy describes his "fine" and "not-so-fine" qualities alike ("Papa uses very strong language"). Fotheringham's visual flourishes, as well as the inclusion of "journal" booklets of Susy's writing, complete this entertaining behind-the-scenes account.
Tao Nyeu (Dial)
This trio of stories is as silly as it is subversive, as a group of hapless bunnies have unfortunate run-ins with mud, a vacuum cleaner, and a pair of scissors. Despite the shock of seeing "bunnies without tails and tails without bunnies," Nyeu's cartoon world is always comforting and warm. In each instance, Bear is able to set things right thanks to a washing machine, fan, and sewing machine, so that in the end, "Everyone is happy."
The Chicken Thief
Béatrice Rodriguez (Enchanted Lion)
Wordless books are all about the details, and so it is with Rodriguez's debut, a story that appears straightforward (fox steals chicken; rooster and co. give chase), yet is anything but. Rodriguez's cartoons convey much emotion, and in so doing reveal that the fox's intentions are in no way malicious. Unexpected moments of romance, humor, and heartbreak add to a story that could be told in 1,000 words, but doesn't even need one.
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors
Joyce Sidman, illus. by Beckie Prange (Harcourt)
While many animal books try to top each other by highlighting progressively obscure creatures, Sidman and Prange take another tack with this absorbing study of species that have stood the test of time (think millennia). Covering bacteria, mollusks, and (much) later humans, Sidman writes affectionate poems about the various animals; paired with factual information and Prange's graceful linocuts, it's an expert fusion of art and science.
Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse
Marilyn Singer, illus. by Josée Masse (Dutton)
Singer and Masse are in perfect step with this clever and highly original collection of "reverso" poems (a form Singer developed), which can be read forward or backward—with significant impact on the fairy tale featured in each one. Masse plays with symmetry and dueling perspectives just as much as Singer does, giving the project a thematic cohesiveness and challenging readers to look at classic stories in an entirely new way.
It's a Book
Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)
Via a hilarious conversation between a technophile and a booklover, Smith delivers a pitch-perfect and timely ode to the tenuous relationship between printed words and those that appear on-screen. Smith's message is as much for parents as it is for kids, yet children will readily recognize the absurdity of, say, trying to translate Treasure Island to textspeak. And in case Smith's stance isn't clear: this one's not available as an e-book.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee
Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook/Porter)
What goes around comes around, in the best possible way, in this story of a zookeeper who gently tends to the animals in his care (playing chess with the elephant, reading stories to an owl), then gets similar treatment when he falls ill. As depicted in Erin Stead's delicate and precise illustrations, the friendship is made all the more poignant by inclusion of an elderly protagonist, an underrepresented demographic in picture books.
The Quiet Book
Deborah Underwood, illus. by Renata Liwska (Houghton Mifflin)
To turn a concept as intangible as "quiet" into a full-length picture book is ambitious, but Underwood and Liwska nail it with a collaboration that has an overall muted quality yet finds surprising depth in its nearly silent subject matter. From the solitary mystery of "swimming underwater quiet" to the uneasiness of "top of the roller coaster quiet," the book conveys a wealth of emotion in life's less in-your-face moments.
City Dog, Country Frog
Mo Willems, illus. by Jon J Muth (Hyperion)
Expectations are understandably high for a superstar pairing like this, and Willems and Muth more than deliver with an understated story of friendship between a dog and a frog that unfolds across the four seasons. The idea that the seasons (and life) inevitably end is counterbalanced by the subtle humor evident in both text and paintings, as well as the promise of a new friendship when spring returns.
Knuffle Bunny Free
Mo Willems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Willems's conclusion to his Knuffle Bunny trio is as heartfelt and emotionally true as its predecessors, bringing Trixie's relationship with her stuffed rabbit to a moving conclusion that feels inevitable in the best of ways. Willems writes with respect, honesty, and empathy for Trixie, as her inner confidence (very) gradually takes the place of the external comfort Knuffle Bunny has unfailingly provided.
Art and Max
David Wiesner (Clarion)
Although three-time Caldecott–winner Wiesner's latest can be read simply (and enjoyably) as the story of the Odd Couple–style friendship between two lizards, it's as much a meditation on the nature of art (aided in no small way by the fact that one lizard is named Art). Their adventure in painting takes turns both surreal and slapstick, matching plentiful laughs with contemplative insights about friendship, creativity, and identity.
Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
Set in a grim near-future, Bacigalupi's YA debut is an action-packed, frighteningly believable story of class warfare set on the ecologically wrecked Gulf of Mexico coast. Bacigalupi's world-building is exceptional, as his protagonist, Nailer, learns uncomfortable truths about a world that has already dealt him a difficult hand.
Frank Cottrell Boyce (HarperCollins/Walden Pond)
In a story that's equal parts Willy Wonka and Big, Boyce offers a hilarious yet moving exploration of what it means to be a man and, in particular, a dad (whether on Earth or in outer space). Twelve-year-old Liam's extraterrestrial journey, as he masquerades as a friend's father, will have kids rethinking the notion that adulthood is a breeze.
Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press)
Collins brings to a close a trilogy that captured the hearts and spirits of teenagers and adults alike, while inspiring the current craze for dystopian fiction. While readers might not be ready to say good-bye to Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games, Collins does so with grace and an ending that's heartrending yet completely satisfying.
Ally Condie (Dutton)
In this dystopian romance, debut author Condie crafts a cerebral society in which individual choice has all but ceased to exist, and exposes the ugliness at its heart. With undercurrents of The Giver and Fahrenheit 451, this story of forbidden loves, long-lost poems, and a teenager's desperation to break free and think for herself will leave readers hungry for the planned sequels.
Bink and Gollie
Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illus. by Tony Fucile (Candlewick)
DiCamillo, McGhee, and Fucile introduce two iconoclastic—and instantly iconic—heroines who turn striped socks, an imagined mountain-climbing expedition, and an "unremarkable" goldfish into friendship-testing (and strengthening) experiences. Bink and Gollie would call this trio of stories a "bonanza," and they'd be right.
Catherine Fisher (Dial)
Fisher's story of star-crossed romance flips between two worlds that aren't what they seem: the sentient prison known as Incarceron and the tech-phobic outside world that has reverted to a medieval way of life. Impeccably developed world-building and characters and powerful insights into freedom, history, and society at large make this a rewarding work of science fiction.
A Tale Dark and Grimm
Adam Gidwitz (Dutton)
Gidwitz debuts with a deliciously twisted reworking of Grimm's fairy tales that casts Hansel and Gretel in lead roles in several other stories, as they seek a perfect (or even just "nice") family. Quite gory and quite funny, Gidwitz's expertly engineered collection has heart, too, and is all but certain to reignite readers' interest in the source material.
Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same!
Grace Lin (Little, Brown)
Over the course of six blithe, slice-of-life stories, two Chinese-American twins demonstrate that while they share much, they are unquestionably individuals, too, despite the assumptions of others. The stories exude a timeless charm, and while twins will appreciate the validation, Ling and Ting's message will hit home with all children who have felt dismissed or misunderstood.
Finnikin of the Rock
Melina Marchetta (Candlewick)
Printz Award–winner Marchetta's epic is distinguished by flawed and endlessly surprising heroes, an atmospheric island setting, and a compelling quest to restore a desecrated kingdom to its former glory. Shot through with complexities, humor, and exquisitely crafted dialogue, interactions, and relationships, this is fantasy that succeeds on every level.
The Death-Defying Pepper Roux
Geraldine McCaughrean (Harper)
Populated with singular characters, McCaughrean's warm and exuberant adventure follows Pepper as he attempts to outrun the death he has been raised to believe awaits him on his 14th birthday. It's a massively enjoyable journey of mistaken identities, preposterous careers, unconventional friendships, and fortunes that turn on a dime.
Andy Mulligan (Random/Fickling)
A cinematic story of redemption set in an unnamed nation, Mulligan's debut novel rotates mainly among the perspectives of three boys who eke out a living picking through trash mounds, until a surprise discovery sets them on a path of moral quandaries and political corruption. The injustices that Mulligan depicts so starkly make the novel's triumphs all the sweeter.
Monsters of Men
Patrick Ness (Candlewick)
As brutal and provocative as its predecessors, Ness's conclusion to the Chaos Walking trilogy hits with the force of a concussive blast, as armies of terrorists, mass murderers, and subjugated aliens converge with Viola and Todd at the center of it all. Few books in recent memory have addressed issues of warfare, racism, misogyny, and human nature with such power.
Before I Fall
Lauren Oliver (HarperTeen)
If the plot of Oliver's debut novel suggests at first glance Groundhog Day (high school senior Samantha relives the day of her death again and again), it quickly becomes clear that this is a very different kind of story. Samantha's death may be inevitable, but the changes that result from her choices each day say so much about what it means to be alive.
Heart of a Samurai
Margi Preus (Abrams/Amulet)
Based on the life of Manjiro Nakahama, the first Japanese man to set foot on American shores, Preus's gripping historical fiction is an inspiring story of personal determination set against the hardships and prejudice of the mid-19th century. A superior mix of history, adventure, self-discovery, and personal triumph.
Octavia Boone's Big Questions About Life, the Universe, and Everything
Rebecca Rupp (Candlewick)
Rupp delivers a complex and nuanced story of a girl's search for faith and meaning, as seventh-grader Octavia uses science—and synesthesia—to try to understand her mother's decision to join a fundamentalist religious group, which causes the implosion of her family. With no easy answers and many flawed adult characters, it's a deeply honest yet sympathetic novel.
Louis Sachar (Delacorte)
In Sachar's expert hands, what is perhaps the unlikeliest subject for a YA novel—the game of bridge—becomes the basis for a moving and humorous story about the testy relationship between narrator Alton and his eccentric, blind great-uncle. Parallels between the game and real-life human connections become clear, and Alton's growing respect for and fascination with the game will mirror that of readers.
Marcus Sedgwick (Roaring Brook)
In a story as brutal and cold as its setting miles north of the Arctic Circle, Sedgwick tackles issues of violence, manhood, and morality. With both his parents dead and a threat to his life and that of his sister literally at the door, teenage Sig faces impossible choices in a historical thriller that holds readers with a viselike grip.
The Marbury Lens
Andrew Smith (Feiwel and Friends)
To say that Jack's world is turned upside down when a pair of glasses transports him to an alternate world doesn't do justice to the horrors he witnesses in Marbury, a twisted apocalyptic land with a very high body count. Jack's "real" life isn't so hot either, and the calamities that unfold in both places will be as unforgettable and traumatic for readers as they are for Jack.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
Francisco X. Stork (Scholastic/Levine)
Themes of vengeance, loss, and self-determination are woven through Stork's story of the friendship between orphan Pancho and terminally ill cancer patient D.Q. Pancho's emotional journey, from a place governed by the deaths of his father and sister to one where he can open up to D.Q. and others, is rewarding and deeply affecting.
Janne Teller (S&S/Atheneum)
One boy's existential crisis and minor act of civil disobedience has profoundly disturbing consequences in Teller's story of peer pressure and the point at which civilized society breaks down. The escalation of Pierre's classmates' frustration and rage makes the story, which is evocative of Lord of the Flies, all the more believable and devastating.
Deborah Wiles (Scholastic Press)
The Cuban missile crisis provides a tense backdrop for this moving story of innocence lost in 1960s Long Island; the changes happening on a national level mirror the small-scale turmoil in the family and social life of 11-year-old Franny. In tandem with Wiles's visceral prose, strong design elements—extensive photographs and other imagery—bring the setting to life.
One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperCollins/Amistad)
With expert depictions of sisterly dynamics and the tumultuousness of the 1960s, Williams-Garcia offers the memorable tale of 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters, as they grow to understand their unconventional estranged mother better—with a little help from the Black Panthers. A vivid and highly relatable coming-of-age story.
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group
Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin)
A powerful study of the development of the Ku Klux Klan, from its formation to the present day, Bartoletti's accessible and chilling work makes use of letters and other writings of some of the group's founders, as well as her own firsthand research, including a visit to a Klan gathering. A searing examination of fear, hate, violence, and an organization that, despite progress, persists to this day.
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World
Sid Fleischman (Greenwillow)
The late Fleischman's final gift to readers is a captivating and balanced portrait of film legend Chaplin, which celebrates his successes without glossing over his failings. Packed with period photographs, it's a biography that's as entertaining as it is informative—but who would expect any less from Fleisch-man?
The War to End All Wars: World War I
Russell Freedman (Clarion)
Freedman's hard-hitting account of WWI skirts none of the conflict's brutality, as major advancements in weaponry produced a war the likes of which the world had never seen. Photographs and quotations from combatants drive home the atrocities and the war's ramifications for future generations.