Mouse & Lion
Rand Burkert, illus. by Nancy Eckholm Burkert (Scholastic/di Capua)
Retellings of the classic Aesop’s fable of good deeds rewarded are legion, but few are as elegantly and richly conceived as this mother-son collaboration. To say that the naturalistic and astonishingly detailed illustrations bring the African savannah to life hardly does them justice—paired with the story’s spare prose, each spread forms an intimate, perfectly framed vignette, charged with emotion.
Everything I Need to Know Before I’m Five
Valorie Fisher (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
Everything? Believe it. Fisher introduces readers to a wealth of concepts—numbers, letters, colors, shapes, weather, and more—and does so using cleverly composed photographic tableaus made up of vintage toys, knickknacks, thrift-store finds, and other odds and ends. Thorough, fun, and as one-of-a-kind as the objects that fill its pages.
I Want My Hat Back
Jon Klassen (Candlewick)
With deadpan humor and a hint of wickedness, illustrator Klassen makes his debut as an author with the deceptively simple story of a bear who just wants to find his missing hat. Don’t let the pared-down art and narration fool you: a wealth of emotion and personality hides behind the deadened eyes of Klassen’s woodland creatures, from anxiety to rage, stupefaction to satisfaction.
Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer (Chronicle)
So often it’s the simplest ideas that are the best—and the funniest. In this alphabetically audacious romp, the letter E has an accident, and while it is recovering, the letter O takes its place (with comodic rosults). The pages are jam-packed with so many linguistic puns, acronyms, and jokes that readers may not realize how much they’re learning about language along the way. Throo choors!
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Nelson raises the bar with every new book, and this ambitious account of the African-American experience, from slavery to the present day, may be his best yet. Pairing luminous, electric paintings with a grandmotherly narrative voice, it’s as unflinching, personal, and dignified an account as one could imagine, as Nelson confidently handles the triumphs and tragedies of African-American history.
Sea of Dreams
Dennis Nolan (Roaring Brook/Porter)
Wordless stories have a magic all their own, and that’s especially true of Nolan’s maritime fantasy, in which a child’s sand castle is besieged by the tide, setting in motion a dramatic escape for the miniature family that lives within. Nolan’s lush spreads provide abundant ammunition for readers’ imaginations, giving them an enchanting world in which to lose themselves.
John Rocco (Disney-Hyperion)
Second perhaps only to snow days, blackouts are one of the best unplanned sources of life-disrupting fun, especially from a child’s point of view. Rocco’s joyfully illustrated story of an urban family drawn together by a power outage tingles with the magic of a night lit only by candles and stars, while reminding readers that the technologies that connect us can sometimes keep us apart, too.
Stephen Savage (Scholastic Press)
A triumph of design, Savage’s wordless game of cat-and-mouse (or rather walrus-and-zookeeper) demonstrates how much one can do with a few simple forms, some repetition, and an effortlessly charming tusked hero. The delight comes not from finding Walrus (that’s easy), but in seeing the ways in which his swoopy gray curves mimic the mannequins, firemen, and can-can dancers he tries to blend in with.
Lane Smith (Roaring Brook)
This may be Smith at his most earnest—a boy wanders through his great-grandfather’s topiary garden, the sculpted hedges reflecting the elder’s story, from a rural childhood to war and finding love. Grandpa Green isn’t dead, but he is in decline, and Lane’s young narrator serves as a poignant reminder that the things we create—stories, memories, art (in whatever form it might take)—endure long after we do.
Hervé Tullet (Chronicle/Handprint)
If Lane Smith’s It’s a Book was last year’s rallying cry in defense of the printed book, 2011 belongs to Tullet’s elementally simple and playfully interactive offering, which invites readers to press, shake, and turn it—and see the results on the next page. Let the apps proliferate: books like this prove that there will always be a place for smart, well-executed, and proudly low-tech picture books.
Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator!
Mo Willems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
Willems excels at putting his audience first, and the six and a half stories that make up this pitch-perfect collection are no exception. Friendship is friendship, whether with another child or with a blue toy alligator, and Willems treats the highs and lows of Amanda and her alligator’s relationship with honesty and humor, evoking such classic pairings as Charlie Brown and Snoopy or Calvin and Hobbes.
The Future of Us
Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (Razorbill)
These collaborators use a surprising and inventive premise—teens in 1996 gaining access to their future Facebook pages by way of an AOL disk—to explore the connections between the present and the future, and the consequences of our actions. Underneath the fantastical conceit and the fun is an authentic story that asks important questions.
Franny Billingsley (Dial)
Billingsley’s sharp-tongued, self-hating Briony is easily one of the year’s most memorable narrators, as she struggles to come to terms with guilt over family tragedies, while living in a town in which new 20th-century technologies threaten supernatural beings of old. It’s a rich and layered fantasy that grabs readers tight—not unlike the bogs of Briony’s Swampsea.
Small Persons with Wings
Ellen Booraem (Dial)
Call them Parvi Pennati, call them Small Persons with Wings, just don’t call them fairies. Booraem’s middle-grade novel, in which an outcast girl comes into her own, is frequently sad, but those moments are perfectly balanced with humor and hope. The result is a deeply believable and human story—one that also has room for vainglorious fairies, talking mannequins, and other wonders.
Libba Bray (Scholastic Press)
Few books are as unabashedly outrageous and fun as Bray’s story of a plane full of teenage beauty queen contestants that crashes on a deserted island. But the riotous “Survivor meets Miss America” premise is a vehicle for some sharp observations about our image-obsessed, media-driven culture. Somebody get this book a tiara!
Missing on Superstition Mountain
Elise Broach, illus. by Antonio Javier Caparo (Holt/Ottaviano)
Bursting with action and (real-life) mystery, Broach’s middle-grade novel updates classic adventure novel and thriller tropes to launch a series with broad appeal. As three brothers investigate mysterious deaths and disappearances in an Arizona mountain range, Broach’s tight storytelling and chilling details will keep readers riveted.
Where She Went
Gayle Forman (Dutton)
Forman pushes beyond the tragic events of her 2010 novel If I Stay to uncover their broader consequences in this knockout of a sequel, told from the perspective of Adam, the former boyfriend of the first book’s protagonist, Mia. Love, heartache, abandonment, and music intertwine as Adam and Mia try to find their way back to each other, three years after their relationship was ripped apart.
Dead End in Norvelt
Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Set in 1962 in Norvelt, Pa., Gantos’s freewheeling, semi-but-thankfully-not-entirely-autobiographical novel is the story of a summer almost beyond belief, filled with geyserlike nosebleeds, the demise of one elderly resident after another, the arrival of the Hells Angels, and a real estate scheme that threatens the town’s existence. Suffice it to say, it’s a roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai (Harper)
Lai’s debut middle-grade novel, written in free-verse poems, draws from her own memories of moving to the U.S. from Vietnam as a child and offers a poignant account of an immigrant’s experience. Ten-year-old Hà’s journey is confidence-shaking and full of hard decisions, yet her strong voice and resilient nature are testament to the human ability to conquer obstacles.
Marie Lu (Putnam)
Set in a grim, futuristic Los Angeles, Lu’s debut novel sets up an exciting dichotomy between her protagonists, Day and June, who are both brilliant and capable, but on opposite sides of the law. A gritty and thrilling dystopian novel, with expertly handled character development and world-building.
Maile Meloy, illus. by Ian Schoenherr (Putnam)
Meloy’s first book for young readers is a wonderfully imagined alternate history, set as cold war tensions between the U.S. and Russia are reaching critical mass, and a secretive group of apothecaries conspires to protect the planet from all-out destruction. With magic, history, adventure, romance, and smart writing, it’s truly a story with something for everyone.
A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness, illus. by Jim Kay (Candlewick)
Building on a foundation laid by the late Siobhan Dowd, Ness delivers a singular story that looks death squarely in the eye, unblinking, as Conor, a boy with an ailing mother, is visited nightly by a primeval monster, which tries to prepare him for the road ahead. Blurring fantasy and reality, Kay’s haunting illustrations fade in and out, guiding readers—and Conor—toward the book’s final, inevitable truth.
The Flint Heart
Katherine Paterson and John Paterson, illus. by John Rocco (Candlewick)
The Patersons’ loving adaptation of Eden Philpott’s 1910 novel of the same name is as deliciously whimsical, funny, and, well, original as the original, while streamlining and freshening it for a 21st-century audience. It’s a story of nonstop novelty, with cavemen, a talking water bottle, and imps and fairies aplenty, told in an effervescent narrative voice ideal for fireside family reading.
Veronica Roth (HarperCollins/Tegen)
Roth’s first novel lands near the front of the current crop of dark, action-laden dystopian novels. With a volatile futuristic setting, tight storytelling, heart-stopping action, and tentative romance, it’s a thrill-ride that speaks to teenagers’ desire to determine the course of their own lives.
Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press)
In a story that’s both cinematic and personal, Selznick builds and improves upon the graphic/prose hybrid narrative style he first used in The Invention of Hugo Cabret with a story about human connections that span miles and decades. The book shines a spotlight on Deaf culture, the theme of silence a brilliant fit with the illustrated sections of the narrative.
Between Shades of Gray
Ruta Sepetys (Philomel)
Sometimes, sadly, reality proves far more devastating than the latest dystopian premise of the moment. That’s certainly the case with Sepetys’s brutal account of Lithuanians deported to Siberian work camps during WWII. Every step of 15-year-old Lina’s journey is brought vividly to life, with no detail spared or punch pulled. The novel stands as a reminder of humanity’s capacity for cruelty, but also resiliency.
The Scorpio Races
Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic Press)
Stiefvater creates a startlingly original mythology in this captivating novel set on an island that has an uneasy relationship with the vicious horses that rule its beaches and waters. Just as these fairy creatures are no ordinary horses, neither is this an ordinary horse novel; rather, it’s an atmospheric fantasy about a girl working to control not just her mount but her family and her life’s direction.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Laini Taylor (Little, Brown)
Taylor has a gift for creating spellbinding fantasies that feel wholly novel and utterly real. This one is the story of Karou, a 17-year-old art student in Prague, raised by demons and caught in an escalating war with angels. Taylor takes star-crossed romance, wonderfully complex characters, and a fascinating mythology and spins a magical, heartbreaking story.
Anne Ursu, illus. by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins/Walden Pond)
Fairy tales are an evergreen source of inspiration for authors, and Ursu works some serious magic with “The Snow Queen” in this frequently somber but entirely beautiful story of an adopted fifth-grader from India pursuing her lost friend into a mysterious Minnesota forest. Sly references to other fairy tales and classics of children’s literature only sweeten the deal.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Catherynne M. Valente, illus. by Ana Juan (Feiwel and Friends)
Valente’s glittering fantasy playground began as an offhand mention in one of her other novels, turned into a crowd-funded e-book, and finally became a print book with artwork that matches the wonderfully surreal story of a girl’s journey from Omaha into Fairyland. With literary allusions scattered throughout, the book holds delights for readers of any age.
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
Chris Van Allsburg et al. (Houghton Mifflin)
Some might dismiss the idea of creating stories for the enigmatic illustrations in Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as literary heresy. But really, that sort of imaginative extrapolation is the whole point of the earlier book, an exercise formalized in this volume with creepy, funny, and provocative entries from the likes of Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Gregory Maguire, and Van Allsburg himself.
Robison Wells (HarperTeen)
Wells’s first novel is a blisteringly fast-paced thriller, set at a boarding school where students are trapped, divided into factions, and unable to escape. Wells keeps readers—not to mention his characters—on their toes, engineering twist after twist in a story that brings elements of boarding school and survivalist novels into grim, futuristic territory.
Where Things Come Back
John Corey Whaley (S&S/Atheneum)
This smart, darkly funny, and multilayered debut novel juxtaposes the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy with the possible reappearance of a woodpecker thought to be extinct. Whaley weaves numerous story lines and themes together with the confidence of a seasoned writer, resulting in a thought-provoking story about media, faith, and family.
Blink & Caution
Tim Wynne-Jones (Candlewick)
An unlikely premise—two homeless teens stumble into a faked kidnapping with major implications—forms the basis for a thrilling yet compassionate story that skillfully explores themes of social, environmental, and racial justice. Blink and Caution are unforgettable characters, working just as hard to find themselves as they do to unravel the ever-widening mystery.
How to Save a Life
Sara Zarr (Little, Brown)
Life and death, grief and joy are closely linked in this story of a family in flux. Deftly handling such emotionally turbulent subjects as the death of a parent, teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, and adoption, Zarr delivers a moving, funny, and emotionally honest story about three women whose understanding of family, and of themselves, shifts in profound ways.
Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert
Marc Aronson (S&S/Atheneum)
A year after the Chilean mining disaster that commanded the world’s attention, Aronson delivers a captivating account of the mine collapse, drawing on everything from Greek myth to eyewitness accounts. Aronson crafts vivid portraits of the miners’ experiences underground, as well as those of the families and countrymen breathlessly awaiting their safe return.
Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants
Tony Johnston, illus. by Stacey Innerst (Harcourt)
Few things are as quintessentially American as blue jeans, and that also goes for the story of their creation, which Johnston tells with humor, exaggeration, and liberal use of the word “Dang!” Levi Strauss emerges from this rip-roaring picture book biography as a savvy, quick-thinking entrepreneur; Innerst’s raucous artwork, painted on denim, provides the perfect counterpart.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
Albert Marrin (Knopf)
One hundred years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Marrin offers an unflinching chronicle of the disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers, mostly immigrant women. The story is harrowing from start to finish, especially with the inclusion of contemporary parallels that make it clear that much progress remains to be made in ensuring the safety of workers around the globe.
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade
Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin)
Ingenuity and the excitement of creation are at the forefront of Sweet’s fascinating picture book biography of Tony Sarg, the man behind the floating balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a story that speaks directly to the American dream, as Sarg, a self-taught immigrant, worked and reworked his ideas to create something that endures to this day, beloved by millions.
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China
Ed Young (Little, Brown)
Caldecott Medalist Young shares a remarkable chapter of his family’s history in this picture book memoir about his upbringing during WWII in a sprawling house in Shanghai built by his father. The household feels like a small miracle, a haven filled with games, parties, and black-and-white Western films, all part of Young’s father’s commitment to keep his children safe until the end of the conflict.