2013: Best of the Best in Children's Books

You might remember that I reviewed my favorite new children's picture books here and here and here, and mentioned my 10 year old daughter's picks in chapter books here, too. 

Below, I've narrowed these down (and added a few others published recently) to come up with the books you can't miss from 2013. I'm still feeling a bit iffy about this list, because I found it very hard to leave out any of the books I mentioned in the attached blog posts, so if you have the time ... take a look at all of them!

Picture Books

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The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall

Starred Reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal

I wrote, "If this book doesn't at least garner a Caldecott Honor (runner up for the year's best illustrations), if not the medal itself, the awards committee members deserve to have their collective heads examined. My 8 and 10 year olds adored this picture book, and I couldn't agree more. It's an underdog story of a fictional out-of-work postman in early twentieth century France. Despite being laughed at for being so small, the postman becomes a boxing champion by being light on his feet. The tale is engaging and inspiring and illustrator Sophie Blackall (who penned the Ivy and Bean series artwork) has simply outdone herself. The illustrations are Chinese ink and watercolor on hot press paper which were cut out, arranged in layers, and then photographed. I don't even know what most of that means, but the result is stunning 3D fabulosity. You must, must, must take a look at (and buy) this book!"

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Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

Starred reviews in Booklist, School Library Journal, and Kirkus

My thoughts: "I am so taken with this book! Not only does it teach kids about punctuation (which sounds very boring, I know, but hang with me), Exclamation Mark offers a super fun lesson about belonging, and why it's sometimes really cool to stand out.  Books that manage to teach on multiple levels are just magnificent! In addition, the artwork (ink punctuation with facial expressions grace staid elementary-lined writing paper) gives the exclamation point, periods, and comma characters such life. I'm buying this for my favorite second grade teacher because it's perfect not just for teaching grammar, but delivers a jolly message on the merits of individuality."

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Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf

Starred reviews in Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus.

I raved, "My four-year-old son adored this book from the library so much, that I purchased a copy that Santa will deliver on Christmas morning. Sophie takes a trip to the farmer's market with her parents and picks out a lovely squash, but instead of eating it, names the squash Bernice and proceeds to make it her BFF, despite her parents' warnings that it will eventually rot. How Sophie ignores the advice of her well-meaning parents and the way in which she works out for herself the eventual loss of Bernice to the natural elements, makes for a touching, amusing story. If you've ever had a hard time convincing a child to do things your way (a daily occurrence at my house), you really must not miss Sophie's Squash, which garnered four starred reviews. It's simply delightful. "

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The Tortoise and the Hare by Jerry Pinkney

2013 Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book  

2013 Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book        

2013 School Library Journal Best Children's Book

2013 Booklist Editors' Choice Book                    

2013 ABC Best Book for Children

Starred Reviews in each of the five major children's literature journals

I wrote: "Jerry Pinkney is a multiple-award-winning illustrator of children's books, and the accolades are sure to keep coming with his latest rendition of a classic Aesop fable. I was blown away by The Tortoise and the Hare, and so were my kids. Pinkney sets the story in the American Southwest and chooses to tell it cumulatively with first the simple word "slow" integrated into his detailed, unique illustrations, until the words turn into "slow and steady wins the race," upon the tortoise's triumph. This book of few words and intense action is a stunning tour-de-force that you must have in your home collection. I predict several much-deserved awards for this one. Pinkney is simply a master artist and storyteller."

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Thumpy Feet by Betsey Lewin

Starred Review in Kirkus

In my earlier blog piece, I wrote: "This one is up there with my most favorite picture book of 2013. Dog and cats in picture books are a dime a dozen, but every once in awhile, as in the Caldecott Award-winning Kitten's First Full Moon, an author nails this topic. Where Mr. Wuffles is the picture of feline aloofness, Thumpy Feet is his polar opposite -- a goofy, hungry, happy cat who exists to throw himself around the pages in joy only to take a break to stuff his face with kibble, or fall into a play-induced cat nap. The simple text goes something like this: "Smacky mouth, Smacky smacky, smack smacky smack" and "Snoozy snoozy snoooozy," which when read aloud with enthusiasm matching Thumpy's exploits, makes for a whole lot of fun. Thumpy's simple joi de vivre is interestingly reminiscent of many preschoolers, who really should not miss this book. This is a super- fun read aloud that left my preschool son in fits of giggles begging me to share it over and over. "

The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman

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Starred Review in Kirkus

My thoughts: "I'm absolutely smitten with this picture book, and so is my four-year-old son. I think I relate to it because I'm a whole lot like Snail, who's clearly been swimming in the shallow end for his entire existence. His friend Fish wants him to jump out of the book Snail feels comfortable in and go on an adventure in uncharted waters. Yes, that's right, this book is 3-D without the need for special glasses, making for a delightfully seamless experience in which it's hard to tell where the book ends and the reader begins. We get to watch Fish and Snail move between books that live inside the book we're reading. How's that for mind blowing? And kids totally get it. The Story of Fish And Snail is awesome on two levels: the Escheresque structure of the book as well as the poignant story it offers about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and taking risks that pay off. Deborah Freedman has a brilliant mind and a creative soul and I hope there's more from whence this one came."

Chapter Books

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Doll Bones by Holly Black

Five starred reviews and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

Here's what I wrote previously: "This spring release garnered starred reviews from all of the major trade journals, so come January I expect to see it on awards lists for 2013.  Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say: 'A middle-grade fantasy dons the cloak of a creepy ghost tale to deliver bittersweet meditations on the nature of friendship, the price of growing up and the power of storytelling. The lifelong friendship of Zach, Poppy and Alice revolves around their joint creation, an epic role-playing saga of pirates and perils, queens and quests. But now they are 12, and their interests are changing along with their bodies; when Zach's father trashes his action figures and commands him to "grow up," Zach abruptly quits the game. Poppy begs him to join her and Alice on one last adventure: a road trip to bring peace to the ghost possessing her antique porcelain doll. As they travel by bus and boat (with a fateful stop at the public library), the ghost seems to take charge of their journey--and the distinctions between fantasy and reality, between play and obligation, begin to dissolve....Veteran Black packs both heft and depth into a deceptively simple (and convincingly uncanny) narrative. From Zach's bitter relationship with his father to Anna's chafing at her overprotective grandmother to Poppy's resignation with her ramshackle relations, Black skillfully sketches their varied backgrounds and unique contributions to their relationship. A few rich metaphors--rivers, pottery, breath--are woven throughout the story, as every encounter redraws the blurry lines between childishness and maturity, truth and lies, secrecy and honesty, magic and madness. Spooky, melancholy, elegiac and ultimately hopeful; a small gem.'

According to my daughter, if you like creepy books like The Series of Unfortunate Events or the Spiderwick Chronicles, you should read Doll Bones. She liked that the characters still use their imaginations and play with dolls even though they aren't little kids anymore, and found the adventure the friends went on to bury the doll in a graveyard thrilling. 

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The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt

National Book Award Finalist

School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

I wrote: "I believe this novel is a serious contender for the 2013 Newbery Medal. Appelt already earned a Newbery Honor (the equivalent to runner-up) with another novel a few years back, and the reviews of True Blue Scouts are even better. The New York Times Book Review wrote: 'Kathi Appelt can tell a story. Her mastery of pacing and tone makes for wonderful reading aloud, even to children who would happily take on a relatively long novel on their own. There is music in her prose: "For as long as raccoons had inhabited the Sugar Man Swamp, which was eons, they had been the Official Scouts, ordained by the Sugar Man himself back in the year Aught One, also known as the beginning of time." In short chapters...  Appelt tells a mythic tale with a rich cast of characters. Appelt takes her readers to spy on a greedy land developer, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who is plotting with Jaeger Stitch, the World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere, to implement a nefarious plan to create an adventure theme park on the land, destroying the swamp habitat. And if that isn’t enough excitement, a rampaging gang of huge wild hogs is headed in the direction of Sugar Man Swamp, wrecking everything in its path. "Mothers and fathers, lock your doors. Pull the covers up to your chinny chin chins. Head for the hills.’' Librarians often say that every book is not for every child, but The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is.'

My daughter raved about this animal adventure and mentioned that it reminded her of Carl Hiaasen's novels for kids (Hoot, Flush, Scat, and Chomp), which often have an environmental slant, and are wildly funny. She also really likes folktales with lyrical language reflecting the region in which the book is set; this novel is an extended folktale.  If you only pick up one book on this list for your child, I believe this is the one to choose.

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Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and K. G. Campbell

Four starred reviews, multiple "best of 2013" lists, National Book Award finalist

Booklist said: "Newbery-winner DiCamillo is a master storyteller not just because she creates characters who dance off the pages and plots, whether epic or small, that never fail to engage and delight readers. Her biggest strength is exposing the truths that open and heal the human heart. She believes in possibilities and forgiveness and teaches her audience that the salt of life can be cut with the right measure of love."

And in School Library Journal: "Rife with marvelously rich vocabulary reminiscent of the early superhero era (e.g., "Holy unanticipated occurrences!") and amusing glimpses at the world from the point of view of Ulysses the supersquirrel, this book will appeal to a broad audience of sophisticated readers. There are plenty of action sequences, but the novel primarily dwells in the realm of sensitive, hopeful, and quietly philosophical literature."

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The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

Publisher's Weekly Best Book of 2013

School Library Journal Best Book of 2013

National Book Award Winner

In a starred review, Booklist wrote: "It seems that if Summer’s Japanese American family didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. Certainly good luck (kouun) is elusive. Consider that Summer has had malaria; her little brother, Jaz, is friendless; her parents have to fly to Japan to take care of elderly relatives; and her grandmother (Obaa-chan) and grandfather (Jii-chan) must pay the mortgage by coming out of retirement to work for a custom harvesting company. When the siblings accompany their grandparents on the harvest, Summer helps her grandmother, a cook, while Jaz is Jaz: intense, focused, and bad-tempered. At first, things go reasonably well, but then Jii-chan becomes sick, and it appears that it might be up to Summer to save the day. Will she succeed? Kadohata has written a gentle family story that is unusual in its focus on the mechanics of wheat harvesting. Readers may skim the more arcane aspects of the labor-intensive work, focusing instead on the emotionally rich and often humorous dynamics of Summer’s relationship with her old-fashioned but endearing grandparents and her troubled younger brother. Another engaging novel from the Newbery Medal–winning Kadohata."