Monday, January 5, 2015

BEST OF 2014: Favorite Books for Young Readers

Over the course of the last few months, I read (and reread) over 200 titles in my attempt to narrow down our picks for the best children's books of 2014. Children's Programmer Allison and Beth, a wonderfully helpful member of our Circulation team, also helped narrow down the final choices. It was a tough decision, hence the Honorable Mention listed below. Anyway, without further ado, BCPL's favorite 2014 books for young children are:

Picture Books (Fiction)

Any Questions? by Mary-Louise Gay
Through a series of questions, answers, and anecdotes, Gay provides a glimpse into her own writing process and encourages children to explore their creative instincts. This is a fun, interactive read featuring a story within a story and humorous interjections. Illustrations—including diverse children asking questions through speech bubbles and childlike drawings of the inner story developed throughout the book—wonderfully highlight the writing process and encourage children to ask their own questions.

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall
This delightful picture book provides a wonderful way to explain to young children where babies come from while acknowledging the many conflicting stories they may have already heard or may hear later. In the book, a young boy is told by his parents that "a new baby is coming," and after waiting patiently for a few days without a new arrival, he begins to question various family members and acquaintances. Sweetly gentle yet practical and modern, the text and illustrations combine to make a potentially confusing explanation both age-appropriate and accurate. An addendum at the end provides suggestions for dealing with common follow-up questions or to address special circumstances such as adoption.

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors by Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash
In Bow-Wow's latest misadventure, he finds himself in a haunted house facing off with mischievous, ghostly cats that have taken off with his favorite doggy bed. The story is told through a series of graphic-novel style panels, but the bold splashes of color amidst a mostly gray background and a wonderful sense of movement provide an energy that belies the need for words. The ending is comfortably peaceful but leaves readers wondering—was the entire encounter a dream, or have the army of ghost cats simply descended on Bow-Wow's home?

Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky
Moose—who first appeared in the delightfully silly alphabet book Z Is for Moose—is now taking on shapes! "Moose" may not have the same recognizable status in the shape world at stars or squares, but he will have a starring role before the end of the book if he has anything to say about it. More silly humor abounds in this fun follow-up, plus kids get to learn a bit about shapes, friendship, and compromise. It's a win-win for everyone.

Draw! by Raúl Colón
In one of the most beautifully illustrated books of the year, Colón rewards readers with a wordless adventure through Africa and a celebration of the transporting power of art and imagination.

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
In this sweetly touching wordless tale, a grumpy, lonely farmer befriends a child clown who is accidentally left behind by a passing circus. The pencil and goache artwork, featuring stark landscapes and interiors, perfectly conveys the two unlikely companions' emotions and growing bond as they spend time together.

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illus. by Christian Robinson
Gaston is an eager pup who tries very, very hard to fit in with his elegant poodle sisters and his sophisticated poodle mother. But on a trip to the park, he discovers another family of pups that looks much more like him and another puppy who looks a lot like his sisters. The mothers, too, notice the resemblances and both canine families must decide what makes a family. Energetic text and earth-tone paintings with a contemporary feel create a subtle, heartwarming, and funny story full of life, heart, and humor.

Hannah's Night by Komako Sakai
Last year, Hatsue Nakawaki's Wait! Wait! was easily one of my favorite picture books of the year. In Hannah's Night, that book's illustrator lends the same sense of gentle intimacy and breathless exploration to her own story of a toddler's late night adventure. I particularly love the spread where Hannah squats down by her cat, Shiro, after pouring him a dish of milk and pilfering cherries from the fridge for a midnight snack of her own.

Hunters of the Great Forest by Dennis Nolan
In yet another fabulous wordless picture book, seven tiny, funny gnomes leave their village on an expedition. Along the way they must overcome obstacles of terrain and potential predators. Illustrations play with light and shadow to fantastical and comical effect, and children will be delighted when the purpose of the creatures' dangerous journey is revealed. Through  the playful use of size and perspective, Nolan creates a world that will spark children's imaginations.

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
When a wounded bird becomes stranded in the late autumn, a gentle, solitary lion decides to nurture the young bird. Throughout the course of the winter, the two become close friends, but separation is imminent as spring approaches. This is a sweet intimate story told with just a few carefully chosen words and softly colored illustrations. Thoughtful and lovely, the illustrations make ample use of white space to stunning effect. 

Naptime by Iris de Moüy
This naptime/bedtime story with a difference features a cadre of jungle animals who grouchily resist a young girl's insistence that it is time for a nap. The animals' refusals and excuses will be familiar, and the text and color-splotched sketches are full of emotion and humor despite their simplicity. It may not actually work as a bedtime story, but it is sure to mirror children's own experiences in a fun and intriguing way.

Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
Short, sometimes overlapping stories combine to create this unique children's alphabet book. Over-sized pages and interweaving stories and characters lend an expansive feel to the spare, four-page stories while equally spare drawings provide comical additions to the playfully absurd tales.

The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems
Pigeon is still in fine form in this tale. By now, fans can probably guess how the story will go, and yet the rapid-fire arguments, pleas, and excuses and the comical illustrations still feel fresh and all-too true.

Quest by Aaron Becker
In this magical, wordless follow-up to Journey, two children enter the door to a mystical realm on a mission to rescue a kidnapped king. Along the way, they encounter fabulous ruins and dodge evil soldiers, armed only with colored markers, quick thinking, and the power of their imaginations.
Read Tracy's Review

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illus. by Jon Klassen
A simple story and quiet yet nuanced illustrations provide a wonderful exploration of teamwork and the magic of possibility. Observant children and parents will notice small differences in the before and after scenes which hint at a fantastical discovery, while Sam and Dave remain oblivious. Children will delight in the details and will likely want to provide their own advice on how Sam and Dave should continue their adventure. Children who love exploring or the joys of digging "just because" are sure to demand rereads.

Shhh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
Big, blocky shapes, deep blues and violets, and jewel-tone accents are used to illustrate this comical caper of plans gone awry. A small band of night-time hunters are trying to net birds and other creatures but can never seem to succeed. The circular narrative will appeal to young readers and the oft-repeated catchphrase will inspire giggles at the next anticipated failure and perhaps start a new family saying.

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman
After accidentally shattering their momma's prize seashell, three young cubs—too terrified to fess up—decide to find a replacement instead. Their journey takes them across the ocean in a small sailboat, asking directions from (sort of) helpful strangers along the way. The illustrations are lush, vibrant, and simply gorgeous, and the bears' personalities—delightfully conveyed through expression and subtle, human-like body language—shine. Both child and adult readers will hope to see many more adventures starring Dash, Charlie, and Theo.

Weasels by Elys Dolan
This off-the-wall picture book imagines a place in which weasels are secretly plotting to take over the world. Of course, first they must have a nice cup of coffee (they drink A LOT of coffee) and solve their technical difficulties. This is a fun and imaginative tale with lots of visual cues to help kids learn to pick up on important details and practice creative problem solving. Plus, these weasels are pretty darn funny in a harried, mad-scientist sort of way.

Honorable Mentions
The Animals' Santa by Jan Brett
Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illus. by Johnathan Bean
Blizzard by John Rocco
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
Brave Little Chicken, retold and illustrated by Robert Byrd
Breathe by Scott Magoon
Brother Hugo and the Bear by Katy Beebe, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Druthers by Matt Phelan
Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison
Flashlight by Liz Boyd
Give and Take by Chris Raschka
Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood 
How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob She, illus. by Lane Smith
Mix It Up! by Hervé Tullet
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illus. by Isabelle Malenfant
My Teacher Is a Monster (No, I Am Not) by Peter Brown
Nancy Knows by Cybèle Young
Ninja! by Arree Chung
Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer
Sparky by Jenny Offill & Chris Appelhans
This Is a Moose by Richard T. Morris & Tom Lichtenheld
What If...? by Anthony Browne

Picture Books (Nonfiction)
Ben Franklin's Big Splash by Barb Rosenstock, illus. by S.D. Schindler
With alliterative text and varied typography, this "mostly true" story introduces youngsters to a young Benjamin Franklin, the scientific method, and the benefits of believing in oneself and one's ideas despite naysayers. The watercolor and ink illustrations are joyful, and the back matter provides further inspiring details on Franklin's accomplishments.

A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illus, by Catia Chien
A successful conservationist relates his own story as a child stutterer who found comfort, purpose, and the inspiration to speak out through his love of animals. The artwork perfectly captures the boy's loving spirit and combines with the text to deliver a resonant, sweet story that brought tears of empathy and joy to my eyes as the boy finds strength and solace in his beloved animals. The final scene, in which Alan as a young man encounters a jaguar in the wild, is simply breathtaking.

Creature Features by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
From cute to ugly to the truly bizarre, the authors explore some of the most unusual features of animals and in simple, light-hearted text explain the purpose of each.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illus. by Frank Morrison
With vibrant acrylic oil painting and mellifluous text, this is a captivating biography of a little known musician who dared to follow her dream despite gender expectations and racial discrimination. The words and illustrations wonderfully convey movement, music, and inspiration, and back matter provides further details on one of the lesser-known pioneering women of jazz.

The Right Word by Jen Bryant and illus. by Melissa Sweet
Brought to life with Sweet's stunning mixed-media collages and a clear love of words themselves, this picture book biography of Peter Mark Roget celebrates the power of words and the joy found in pursuing your interests.

The Scraps Book by Lois Ehlert
The author of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Color Zoo gives young readers a peek into her creative inspirations and book-making process using examples from her own works. Parents and educators will want to have plenty of scraps and found objects on hand so that the kids can create their own mixed media art after reading.

Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
An important story of desegregation and fighting for what is right is told through one family's struggle to end the "Mexican schools" in California. Folk-inspired artwork celebrates Mexican and Latino heritage while the text clearly explains why segregation is wrong. 

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman
This informational picture book maintains an impressive balance between Jefferson's great achievements and some of the darker parts of his history. Though not recommended for very young children, it offers a great opportunity to begin a discussion of flawed "heroes" for slightly more mature picture book readers.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Biography meets tribute in this unusual, bilingual offering. Spare, evocative text and digitally enhanced images of three-dimensional art create a sense of mystery and revelation that gives insight to Frida Kahlo's artistic vision and motivations rather that providing traditional biographical details.

Picture Book (Poetry)
Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko, illus. by Melissa Sweet
Through brief poems from the likes of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, and others, this picture book takes readers through the seasons of a year. Some poems have more of an impact than others, but Sweet's artful illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment to give clues for any needed interpretation. Some of my favorites include the elephant-inspired island for "The Island," the vibrant, mud-splatterd galoshes in "A Happy Meeting," and the two-page spread of benevolent moon smiling down of the sparking sea of "Sea Trade" and an untitled poem by Emily Dickinson.

 Easy Chapter Books
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Dory has quite the imagination, and sometimes it drives her parents and older siblings mad. But she's also irrepressible and completely lovable despite her crazy antics. Early chapter books usually leave me fairly indifferent, but this one is truly something special. It's the first in a new series, and I already can't wait for the next installment. Kids will love it.

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo
In this new series tied to her popular Mercy Watson tales, Leroy Ninker decides that as a cowboy he needs a horse. Gleefully silly situations—such as a horse that gobbles up three pots of spaghetti—and gentle lessons in listening and consideration for others combine for a fun and amusing tale.

Lulu's Mysterious Mission by Judith Viorst
Early chapter book readers up for a bit more of a challenge will enjoy this latest addition to the Lulu series. In this third title, the spoiled, tantrum throwing Lulu is faced with her biggest challenge yet: a no-nonsense babysitter. But, Lulu has a plan! Short chapters, abundant white space, appealing typography, clever foreshadowing, and a cumulative recitation will encourage readers to take on the challenge of more pages and some slightly more advanced vocabulary.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale
In this princess tale with a twist, the perfect, pink-wearing Princess Magnolia disguises herself as the Princess in Black—otherwise known as the PIB—to save innocent goats and fight off monsters who invade her kingdom. The only trouble is she has to make it back to the castle before a snooping duchess can uncover her secrets.The text is simple and presented in a large font for the very earliest chapter-book readers, and the illustrations are brightly colored and a bit tongue-in-cheek to compliment the text.

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