This has been a banner year in children's books. The long-awaited Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix arrived in June, outselling every adult book in its path. Madonna made a high-profile picture book debut with The English Roses, and a number of celebrities (Sarah Ferguson, Carl Reiner and John Lithgow, among many others) offered new works for young readers as well. In October, two creators of children's books, Peter Sís and Angela Johnson, won MacArthur "genius" awards. Children's authors are appearing regularly on the morning news shows, and feature coverage in newspapers and magazines is much more common than in years past.
In this climate of more attention (and yes, respect), our annual Best Books list points to several recent trends in the field. Fantasy titles continue to claim young readers' imaginations, as characters assume unusual perspectives (The Amulet of Samarkand) and as plot lines draw upon previous works of literature (Inkheart) or exotic sights, tastes and smells (The Conch Bearer). And there's plenty more of it on the way.
Newbery winners Paul Fleischman and Richard Peck, and Caldecott winners David Macaulay, Peggy Rathmann and William Steig, in his swan song, are among the many luminaries on our list. Several well-known adult authors also make a strong showing in fiction. With a mix of nursery staples, favorite returning characters, graphic flights of fancy, nonfiction told colorfully in a picture-book format, and some good old-fashioned storytelling, this list is one we hope will provide many hours of reading pleasure, for children and adults alike.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Jim Aylesworth, illus. by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic)
McClintock's Goldilocks may have the thick blonde curls and voluminous rose-pink dress of a doll, but her untied shoelaces, fierce eyes and predatory smile suggest a certain willfulness. The young troublemaker's delightful contradictions come through in Aylesworth's conversational narrative voice. Together, this team makes this classic tale a staple for nursery shelves.
Where Are You Going? To See My Friend!
Eric Carle and Kazuo Iwamura (Scholastic/Orchard)
In this innovative bilingual tale, a boy begins his journey to see his friend with an English text and Carle's signature collage illustrations (left to right), while, from the back of the book, a girl sets out to visit her friend with a Japanese text and Iwamura's exquisite line drawings with watercolor wash. Each child brings a host of animals in tow, alongside identical story lines, and the two meet in the middle in a triumphant gatefold, with an eruption of animal sounds in both English and Japanese.
George Washington's Teeth
Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora, illus. by Brock Cole (FSG)
Stringing together spry stanzas that describe the dental difficulties that plagued George Washington throughout his political career, the authors humanize a much-idealized historical figure—and give kids biographical details they can really sink their teeth into. Infusing his bustling watercolor vignettes with comic hyperbole, Cole easily keeps pace with the lighthearted narrative.
On My Way to Buy Eggs
Chin-Yuan Chen (Kane/Miller)
A Taiwanese girl's errand feels like a joyful celebration of childhood as Chen recounts the simple pleasures of her walk through the neighborhood. A fittingly homey, natural look composed of line drawing and cut, corrugated paper dominates the compositions and adheres to a central palette of earth tones. With gentle humor, this timeless tale demonstrates how children largely live in—and appreciate—the moment.
Olivia... and the Missing Toy
Ian Falconer (Atheneum/Schwartz)
The porcine star, shining against her signature backdrop of black, white and red (her favorite), is back for a third adventure. Here Falconer adds green to the palette, and mystery to the plot, when Olivia's beloved green-and-red toy disappears. Falconer's visual and verbal narrative talents continue to grow, as will the numbers of Olivia's devotees.
The Animal Hedge
Paul Fleischman, illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick)
Fleischman's inspiring story follows a father and three sons as they grow conscious of their innermost desires, which begin to take shape in the hedges they trim. Ibatoulline's watercolor-and-gouache illustrations, which appear as if painted onto a wooden surface, draw on folk-art conventions, emphasizing the message that dreams grow from simple beginnings.
Boxes for Katje
Candace Fleming, illus. by Stacey Dressen-McQueen (FSG/Kroupa)
Inspired by actual events, Fleming's engaging story of post-WWII Holland serves as a potent—and merry—lesson in generosity. Through the Children's Aid Society, an American child, Rosie, sends a box of provisions to Katje in war-ravaged Olst, a windfall the girl shares with the postman and her mother, and the generosity continues—on both sides of the Atlantic. Dressen-McQueen immerses readers in a world of cobblestone streets, Dutch architecture and vintage clothing; her artwork resonates with joy and fellowship.
Denise Fleming (Holt)
Two's a crowd when a feline interloper disrupts contented canine Buster's way of life in this clever hybrid of picture book and chapter book, rendered in Fleming's signature colored-pulp paintings. She brings a cheerful childlike tone to her text, along with abundant touches of humor and tenderness—plus a clear understanding of pet (and child) dynamics.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
Mordicai Gerstein (Millbrook/Roaring Brook)
This spare, lyrical account of Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between Manhattan's World Trade Center towers unfolds like a fairy tale. In a series of vertical and horizontal ink-and-oil panels, Gerstein charts the process by which the French aerialist and street performer, with his friends, hang the cable over the 140-feet distance between the two buildings; foldout spreads track Petit's progress across the wire and offer dizzying views of the city below. The final painting of the imagined imprint of the towers, linked by Petit and his high wire, will long linger in readers' minds.
Arnie the Doughnut
Laurie Keller (Holt)
Arnie, a chocolate-frosted with sprinkles, feels blissful when Mr. Bing chooses him to take home, oblivious to his impending fate. Arnie tries to persuade Mr. Bing that a doughnut is good for other things besides eating. Keller packs the spreads with comical stage business and extemporaneous asides as endearing Arnie, with spindly arms and legs and a hole where his nose would be, clowns around in the margins.
Achoo! Bang! Crash! The Noisy Alphabet
Ross MacDonald (Roaring Brook/Porter)
In a delirious explosion of vintage typefaces and sharp retro design, MacDonald takes readers from "Achoo!" to "Zip! Zap! Zing! Zoom" in scenes that recall classic biff-bang-pow comic-book fights. Although each image stands still, the deft placement of word-sounds and motion lines suggests antic movement in this pleasingly idiosyncratic alphabet book.
On Sand Island
Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illus. by David Johnson (Houghton)
Set on an island in Lake Superior, Martin tells the story of real-life Norwegian Carl Dahl in rhythms that echo lapping water. Ten-year-old Carl wants a boat of his own and quietly sets out to build one, trading "work for work" with his neighbors in pursuit of his goal. Johnson's watercolors, tinted like Japanese woodblock prints, emphasize the endless stretch of summer days as the whole island joins together to contribute to the boy's dream.
Will Moses Mother Goose
Will Moses (Philomel)
In a marvelous match of style and content, Moses's sprightly folk-art oil paintings alternate between crisp white spreads of thumbnail vignettes paired with individual rhymes, and full-bleed panoramas that blend those vignettes together (e.g., Humpty Dumpty, on his wall, watches over the man from St. Ives with his seven wives). Readers can identify the characters on the quieter pages, then scour the busier pages to find them all over again.
I Kissed the Baby!
Mary Murphy (Candlewick)
Murphy offers indisputable proof that a newborn is one of nature's most powerful mood enhancers, as various pairs of animals gleefully compare notes in rhythmic prose about feeding, tickling or serenading the titular baby. Bold, silhouetted characterizations—popping like flashbulbs out of alternating backgrounds of black and white—make it clear that everyone comes away energized from their interaction with the infant.
The Day the Babies Crawled Away
Peggy Rathmann (Putnam)
In this rollicking rhyming tale about five babies who get away from their parents at a neighborhood picnic, an alert boy in a fire hat notices the runaways and chases after them. In these compositions of atmospheric silhouettes against twilight skies, the babies' shadowy figures never seem endangered, yet the boy senses their peril and consistently comes to the rescue. The triumphant finale does not pass judgment on the parents; instead Rathmann praises the sleepy, baby-wrangling hero.
My Name Is Yoon
Helen Recorvits, illus. by Gabi Swiatkowska (FSG/Foster)
Recorvits's first-person narrative eloquently portrays young Yoon's difficult adjustment to her arrival in America, especially at school. She refuses to write her name, and her words betray her sadness and insecurity at relinquishing some of her Korean identity, while Swiatkowska's painterly artwork translates the girl's fantasies. Yoon may be new to the country, but her feelings as an outsider will be recognizable to all children.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Robert Sabuda (S&S/Little Simon)
With a tip of the hat to Sir John Tenniel, Sabuda transforms Lewis Carroll's wonderland into a three-dimensional extravaganza. Readers will be swept up, from the initial spread of a tall green forest, topped by billowing shapes that resemble the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, to the tiny books tucked into each spread with an adaptation of Carroll's text (and mini-pop-ups within), to a grand finale—the pack of cards rising up into the air—that will have the audience studying how Sabuda created the ingenious effect of scattering and tumbling.
When Everybody Wore a Hat
William Steig (HarperCollins/Cotler)
With his signature mix of charm and directness, Steig reflects on his Bronx childhood. Throughout, his emotive cartoons indicate world events and street life of the early 20th century, from news of WWI raging in Europe to fashion trends (indeed, everyone from the burly moving guy to "Mom's best friend" wears a chapeau). This brief memoir extends the unspoken mantra communicated in all of Steig's books: less is more. He allows readers to bring their own experience to bear in what he leaves unspoken (or undrawn) between the lines.
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread
Kate DiCamillo, illus. by Timothy Basil Ering (Candlewick)
DiCamillo's omniscient narrator recalls Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, assuming a similarly irreverent yet compassionate tone and also addressing readers directly. The author introduces all of the elements of the subtitle (plus a villainous rat), masterfully linking them without overlap. Ering's drawings convey a respect for the characters even as they impart the wry humor of the narrator's voice.
The Conch Bearer
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Roaring Brook/Porter)
Divakaruni's exotic novel twines fantasy threads with spiritual teachings. When 12-year-old Anand befriends a beggar man at a tea stall in Kolkata, India, he kicks off a chain of events that lead him to a community of master healers in the Himalayas. The author keeps readers turning the pages with details of India's smells, sights and tastes, with characters that straddle good and evil, and with her exploration of the fine line between faith and magic.
A Northern Light
Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt)
Donnelly's riveting novel, like Dreiser's An American Tragedy, was inspired by the 1906 Chester Gillette case. Narrated by 16-year-old Mattie, who works at a hotel on Big Moose Lake, the story opens on the day a search party discovers the drowned body of Grace Brown, a hotel guest who had given Mattie a bundle of letters to burn earlier that day. Flashback chapters fill in details of Mattie's life on her family's farm and her yearning to be a writer. The author's ability to recast the murder mystery as a cautionary tale for Mattie makes the heroine's pending decision about her future the greatest source of suspense.
Cornelia Funke, trans. from the German by Anthea Bell (Scholastic/Chicken House)
In this delectably thick and transfixing fantasy, 12-year-old Meggie learns that when her bookbinder father, Mo, reads a book aloud, the characters and other objects appear in the real world. Nine years ago, her father accidentally unleashed evil Capricorn and his accomplice from the book Inkheart, and they are hot on Mo's trail. Once again, Funke proves the power of her imagination, in this tale within a tale.
Kevin Henkes (HarperCollins/Greenwillow)
On an August morning, 12-year-old Martha opens the door to the mother of Olive, a classmate who was recently killed by a car, and the journal entry the woman hands her begins Martha's unwitting pilgrimage. In concise chapters, Henkes reveals Martha's discovery of life's fleeting qualities and her first stirrings of romantic feeling and betrayal. Readers peer through this brief window to witness Martha's maturation, as she appreciates life anew and finds a way to give something back to Olive.
Alice Hoffman (Scholastic)
With lean, hypnotic prose, Hoffman constructs a postapocalyptic fairy tale leavened with hope, narrated by a shy 15-year-old with a talent for gardening. In an all-too-frighteningly familiar scene, she describes a cataclysmic fire that destroys the city across the river—and her family, who was there that day. The author meticulously chooses metaphors that reverberate throughout the novel, leading up to the birth of spring—which coincides with the rebuilding of the city and the narrator's reawakening.
The Canning Season
Polly Horvath (FSG)
Unpredictable and compelling, this outrageous but openhearted novel involves a 13-year-old girl sent to a remote, bear-infested region on the Maine coast to live with distant nonagenarian twin cousins. Readers may find themselves wondering just how far Horvath will go with her uncensored, Mad Hatter humor—and they won't be disappointed with her steering.
The Meanest Doll in the World
Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, illus. by Brian Selznick (Hyperion)
The stars of The Doll People—that is, the antique Doll family and the more contemporary Funcrafts—are back and better than ever. The three collaborators introduce a deliciously evil new character, Princess Mimi, "the meanest doll in the world." Besides carrying a relevant message, this enchanting novel offers plenty of action/adventure, surprises around every corner and a plethora of detailed drawings that depict the dolls' diverse moods and perspectives.
Stop the Train!
Geraldine McCaughrean (HarperCollins)
In a narrative that feels like the literary equivalent of a grand old western movie, McCaughrean paints a vivid picture of turn-of-the-20th-century settlers who arrive at a barren patch of land in Oklahoma, with the dream of creating a city there. But the land is of strategic importance to the owner of a major rail line and the group must fight for their new home. McCaughrean does an extraordinary job of bringing each member of her enormous cast—and their era—fully to life.
Freaky Green Eyes
Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins)
The daughter of a charismatic football star-turned-sportscaster narrates Oates's captivating novel, which bears some resemblance to the O.J. Simpson story. Fifteen-year-old Franky's feisty alter ego, Freaky Green Eyes, emerges when Franky is nearly raped at a party. The quick-thinking survival instincts that "Freaky" embodies become essential to the narrator's ability to make sense of her world, as her parents' marriage begins to collapse and her mother goes missing. Oates builds the mounting tension masterfully, crafting a fast-paced and haunting narrative.
The River Between Us
Richard Peck (Dial)
Structured as a framed story, Peck's novel begins in 1916, as 15-year-old Howard travels to visit his grandmother in a town situated on the Mississippi River at the southern tip of Illinois. The narrative then shifts to the dawning of the Civil War from the perspective of his then-15-year-old grandmother, growing up in a divided state and country, and the arrival of a young woman from New Orleans. The author crafts his characters impeccably and threads together their fates in surprising ways that shed light on the complicated events and conflicts in America at that time.
The Amulet of Samarkand
Jonathan Stroud (Hyperion/Miramax)
A seemingly omniscient narrator begins this darkly tantalizing launch of a trilogy, set in modern-day London. The voice belongs to the djinn Bartimaeus, who appears in front of Nathaniel, the 10-year-old magician who has summoned him to steal the Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace. Other plot elements quickly come to the fore: the motive for the boy's charge, how Simon came by the Amulet, and the fallout from the theft. What these reveal about the characters of Simon and Nathaniel makes for engrossing reading and sows seeds for further installments.
Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer
Robert Byrd (Dutton)
Strategically organized, intricately and informatively illustrated, the spreads of this compendium provide self-contained, almost encyclopedic coverage of Leonardo da Vinci's life and work. Byrd explains Leonardo's theories clearly and simply, while also revealing the man behind them in well-chosen, often witty anecdotes and quotations. Skillful design tames the flow of ideas, so that readers may absorb this handsomely oversize book from cover to cover or just a few sidebars at a time.
Baseball for Everyone: Stories from the Great Game
Janet Wyman Coleman with Elizabeth Warren (Abrams)
This elegant volume may well be irresistible to fans of America's favorite pastime. In lively, informative text, the authors trace the history of the sport from its beginnings prior to 1900, pausing for a look at "Heroes and Bums" of the early years, through the breaking of race barriers and ending with its current status around the world—but particularly in the U.S. Incorporating a plethora of photographs, memorabilia and often astonishing folk art, the book's crisp design also hits a home run; the visual bounty helps to underscore the sport's tremendous influence on the national psyche.
Ben Franklin's Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman's Life
Candace Fleming (Atheneum/Schwartz)
Fleming apes the layout of Franklin's own Poor Richard's Almanack with her clever format here, to illuminate a man whose diverse talents ranged from editing the Declaration of Independence to experimenting with electricity. Organized into chapters on larger themes, the handsome oblong volume offers a generous peppering of primary source material in digestible helpings, which allows Franklin's wit and personality—and contradictions—to emerge. Throughout, pen-and-ink portraits, black-and-white etchings, humorous cartoons and facsimiles of newspaper and book pages help place this man within the context of his time.
David Macaulay (Houghton/Lorraine)
Macaulay broadens his bookshelf of architectural wonders with this timely new addition. He whisks readers to the Ottoman Empire of the 16th century, where a fictitious admiral underwrites a new mosque, and he meticulously illuminates the spiritual and architectural considerations in the process of its design and construction. The monument grows stone by stone through color-washed pen-and-ink illustrations; full-spread vistas alternate with smaller inset sketches that offer a step-by-step look at brick-making, the crafting of stained glass windows, etc. The level of visual detail is extraordinary, as is the explanation of the mosque's role at the center of Muslim social and religious life.
The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker
Peter Sís (FSG/Foster)
Transforming a staggering amount of information into an opulent and absorbing tapestry of maps, thumbnail portraits, diary entries, floor plans, family trees and more, Sís defines the grand events of Darwin's life and accents them with intriguing particulars. The artist's trademark style, with its meticulous cross-hatching, pointillistic images and slightly enigmatic air, invites close inspection and repeat readings; this picture book could launch adults as well as children on their own voyages of discovery.