2013 Best Picture Books ... So Far

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I spent the last couple of months checking out picture books, both fiction and non-fiction, that at least one of the major book review journals felt merited a starred (meaning extra awesomely special) review. I had my girls, ages 8 and 10, read them, and I read the ones that were written on the appropriate level to my four-year-old son. Then I read them myself, and based on all of our reactions and thoughts, decided which ones  are worth your time. 

Perhaps you are insane like me, and also a lover of winter holidays, and you are beginning to think on what Santa and/or Hanukkah Harry might bring your children come December. Something that might not end up at the bottom of the toy bin, no less. Or maybe you are even nuttier and don't shop until the holiday eve. Regardless, I hope these titles are ones you will squirrel away in your memory or shopping cart, as they'd make simply lovely gifts. But, really, who am I kidding ... who needs an excuse like a holiday to buy a beautiful book? It's always book-buying season!

Here's the first half of what I loved, with more to come next week ...  

No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah O'Hora (ages 2-6) 

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This is the hands down hit of the party, as far as my pre-Kindergarten son is concerned. We've read it about three hundred sixty-two times since I checked it out from the library last month;  a surefire sign of a book worth purchasing. The woodcut engraving artwork is very cool, but more importantly the story reverberates with the temper tantrum crowd. Basically, it goes like this: Amelia's companion, Nilson, a giant blue gorilla with a heart on his chest, is prone to losing his cool when things don't go his way. Amelia demonstrates the varied methods she engages to help Nilson calm down when he's on the verge of freaking out. In the end, it turns out that Nilson is really Amelia's stuffed lovey, so perhaps it is Amelia herself who has the tendency to tantrum? Very clever and a book that little ones can heartily relate to. 

That is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems (ages 3-10)

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How Mo Willems keeps coming up with genius children's book concept after genius children's book concept is completely beyond me. Let's just say he is really, really good at writing and rendering picture books. In his latest offering, he pushes the zany envelope even further, and all three of my kids loved it. (His books are wonderful if you need a gift for kids across an age range, because they are clever enough to appeal to everyone with a sense of humor.) That is NOT a Good Idea! is rendered as a silent movie, with pages that depict interactions between an innocent goose and her foxy pursuer, followed by pages of text to correspond with the action. Interspersed are a bunch of goslings who appear to be watching the film, and keep yelling at the characters, "That is NOT a good idea!" While it seems that the goose is headed towards her ultimate demise, the book ends in a complete surprise, which my kids really enjoyed. As the back cover says, "Thrills! Drama! Dinner!" And with Mo Willems at the helm, you know it's good.

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall (ages7-11)

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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!

 Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon (ages 6-10)

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This one is really a graphic novel falling somewhere between a picture and chapter book. I love graphics because they engage kids at all levels, from reluctant readers to advanced ones. Odd Duck would be perfect to read aloud to a young child, and something older kids can enjoy on their own. This book also provides a great example of why librarians (and parents) really should rely on kids' impressions of books, as opposed to adults'. When I first read this I liked it, but the fact that my 8 year

old read it at least a dozen times over the course of a week on her own, and then asked me to read it to her at bedtime, helped me see just how worthwhile Odd Duck is. Essentially, it's the story of two ducks who don't fit in with the rest of the world, and have very little in common, but find in each other friendship based on an appreciation of differences. The message is important, but it's delivered without heavy-handedness and never devolves into sap. Odd Duck is fun, it's cute, and it's very much worth sharing. 

Snippet The Early Riser by Bethanie Deeney Murgia (ages 3-8)

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Oh my goodness this adorable little picture book is so endearing! Typical of the youngest child, Snippet the snail is an early riser bent on waking his snoozing family up so that another exciting day can get underway. Not only does Snippet creatively problem solve his way to success, but readers are treated to a laugh when all that work results in a sleepy little snail. The endpapers contain some interesting basic snail facts and Murgia delightfully executes her watercolor illustrations. I am not into sweet and cute, which is overdone in picture book land, but Snippet the Early Riser transcends that genre by offering a plucky hero and charming artwork. It would make a  marvelous gift.

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (ages 5-8)

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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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Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes (ages 4-7)

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I'm hoping you've already met Kevin Henkes' endearing and hilarious picture book mice, including Lily of purple plastic purse fame, and Owen, and Wemberley to name a few.  Henkes has garned multiple awards and he's back with a new character, Penny, featured in early reader (books for kids learning to read on their own) format. Penny and Her Marble is the third in the series, in which Penny impulsively swipes a shiny bauble from her neighbor's yard only to be plagued by worry that perhaps it actually belongs to someone else. Henkes is a master of facial expressions and movement, as well as a talented writer. His ability to capture the joy and angst of early childhood is unsurpassed. I'm thrilled that beginning readers are now able to enjoy his books on their own.

Now, come back next week for seven more that you can't pass up!