The end of the year is fast approaching and I've been busily reading away. Every time I was about to post some of the gems I had found, something would come up and now suddenly I find it's time for me to share my favorite books of 2009 (sorted by age and by title). If you're using my suggestions as a gift guide, please visit your local independent bookseller this holiday season!
Toddler & Preschool:
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
All the World pairs Frazee's busy world of characters with Scanlon's spare text. Frazee is at her best here, following three diverse families around in all kinds of weather, settings, and situations. When the wind blows, you feel it. When the night stars come out and the fire is crackling, you hear it. You want to be there, in that perfect world. It's a very well-done piece and has a tone reminiscent of Robert McCloskey.
Big Frog Can't Fit In by Mo Willems
This is Mo Willems' first pop-up book and fits right in to his humorous oeuvre. Big Frog really wants to fit in - both to the group and literally into the book. With the help of some smaller froggy friends, little readers will help Big Frog fold into the book.
Birds by Kevin Henkes
Birds is a wonderful introduction to what makes birds unique and special. It is very appealing to a young audience with simple ideas and colorful illustrations. For example: "Once I saw seven birds on the telephone wire. They didn't move and they didn't move and the didn't move. I looked away for just one second...and they were gone." These are truths about birds that young children can relate to.
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
I see a duck over there. No, it's a rabbit. It has a bill! Those are its ears, silly. What will you see in this tricky picture book? A duck? Or a rabbit? There are lots of ways it could be either one, but it's up to you to decide. This is the perfect book to teach young children about optical illusions.
Happy Belly, Happy Smile by Rachel Isadora
Louie takes readers behind the scenes at his grandfather's Chinese restaurant, his very favorite place. This multicultural & multi-generational book celebrates the diversity of our world, our food culture, and shows how restaurants work. All of this is paired with Isadora's signature collage illustrations.
Machines Go To Work by William Low
This is an outstanding "things that go" book, covering every genre of machines from backhoes to freight ships. Simple text makes this perfect for the youngest audience and colorful paintings show the machines and their operators hard at work. My favorite part is that you get to fold-out each page and see what the machines will do next.
Not All Animals Are Blue by Beatrice Boutignon
Pictures help children spot differences in colors, movement, and attitude. The illustrations are beautifully rendered watercolors and the things we are hunting for are whimsical and not always easy to spot. Sometimes, it's up to interpretation. This is a perfect book for examining and discussing one on one.
Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly.
This book explores the many different shades of human skin, and points out that skin is
just a covering that does not reveal what someone is like inside. Beautiful and fun
photographs make this the perfect introduction to race for very young children.
What Should I Make? by Nandini Nayar, illustrated by Proiti Roy.
While his mother makes chapatis, Neeraj transforms a piece of dough into different animals. From snake to mouse to lion, Neeraj's imagination quickly runs away with him, but his mother reminds him each time, "Roll it up, quick, quick!" The end of the book provides a glossary for the new words introduced in the text and a recipe for making your own chapatis at home.
13 Buildings Children Should Know by Annette Roeder
This book is a fantastic introduction to architectural concepts as well as the thirteen famous buildings from around the world. With photographs and detailed illustrations of building plans, cross-sections, and imagined construction, the authors have thoughtfully considered how to explain things to young readers at a variety of levels.
The Christmas Magic by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Jon Muth
Here is a beautiful little story about Santa getting ready for Christmas Eve. He does all of his work and gathers his animals with joy and anticipation. The calm, carefully chosen words and perfectly matched, stunning watercolors by Jon Muth make this a truly special book that stands well above any other Santa books out there.
Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile
Sal and Frankie have done it all. Now they're going to try to do nothing. But Frankie can't quite do nothing because if he imagines he's a statue, he also imagines pigeons all over him. If Frankie imagines he's the Empire State Building, he imagines King Kong climbing up him and he just has to react! This hilarious book celebrates the imagination with funny scenarios and great illustrations.
Princess Hyacinth (The Suprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith
This is the delightful story of a princess who floated unless she was weighted down with all her finery. Not allowed to play outside, lest she float away forever, Hyacinth spends her days watching out the window while other children play. One day she has the brilliant idea to tie herself to a string like a balloon! Mayhem and hilarity ensue. Lane Smith's wackadoodle illustrations make this a five-star fun read.
Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas
As three dust bunnies, Ed, Ned, and Ted, are demonstrating how much they love to rhyme, a fourth, Bob, doesn’t seem to understand how to rhyme, or is he up to something else? This is a consistent read-aloud favorite and has kids laughing aloud. If you're not already familiar with Jan Thomas, all her books are winners.
The Scarecrow’s Dance by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
A scarecrow happily dances away from his post one windy night, until a child's prayer
teaches him how important he is to the farm. The most gorgeous illustrations of the year
depict the scarecrow’s winsome dance across an autumn landscape.
Sneaky Weasel by Hannah Shaw
Weasel was a mean, sneaky, nasty, bully. All his sneakiness made Weasel very rich and he had a castle and a fancy car. When Weasel went to throw a big, important party to show off all his stuff, nobody came! How can a super sneaky weasel make friends? This is a very humorous book where the illustrations tell a large part of the story and include little inside jokes.
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Stick Man ends up far away from his family tree when he is fetched by a dog, thrown by a child, used as a snowman's arm, and even put on a fire! Finally Santa Claus steps in to make sure that Stick Man and his family have a joyous Christmas. The catchy rhyming rhythm in this funny book will make it a year-round favorite.
Wink, the Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed by J.C. Phillips
Wink is in ninja school where he is supposed to learn to be silent and stealthy. No one is supposed to see a ninja - but if no one can see him, how can anyone know what a great ninja Wink can be? Wink loves attention! Wink finds his enthusiasm gets him into trouble with his teacher until he finds the perfect way to express himself.
You are the First Kid on Mars by Patrick O’Brien
This is the coolest space book! It imagines what it would be like for a kid to travel to Mars, with great facts about space travel and then both fact and speculation about what it would be like if humans were living and studying on Mars. Perfect for young readers obsessed with space or as an introduction to space travel.
3rd & 4th Grade:
Bobby vs. Girls Accidentally by Lisa Yee
Bobby is entering 4th grade and things between him and his longtime friend Holly are strained as she starts doing more "girl" things -- wearing dresses, changing her hair style. Throw in a professional football player turned stay-at-home dad who brings burned cookies to the school bake sale, humorous girl vs. boy pranks and a heated class president race and 4th grade is turning out to be a lot more complicated than Bobby expected.
The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts
Each of the kids in Ms. Breakbone's class has a special talent or interest - but she calls them all dunderheads! When Ms. Breakbone unfairly confiscates a present Junkyard has for his mother, the Dunderheads unite to get even and get it back. Using each of their special skills, the Dunderheads come up with a sneaky way to get into the teacher's house, distract her, and find the missing gift. Will they succeed? This is a fun heist caper with humor for fans of Roald Dahl.
Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan
Emmaline lives in the town of Neatasapin where nothing messy is allowed. She desperately wants a bunny, but it’s against the law. One day, Emmaline takes a trip to the next town over, Untidy, where she meets a bunny that needs dirt to dig in and shrubbery to hide in. She invites the bunny home to live with her, but learns she can’t take the bunny home until she makes her home bunny ready. She sets about changing the environment, both physically and culturally to get ready. Lyrical language and watercolor illustrations make this a beautiful read.
Food for Thought: The Stories Behind the Things We Eat by Ken Robbins
Here is an excellent investigation of the history and mythology of food. From apples to pomegranates to mushrooms, the author humorously relates both fact and fiction about our most elemental and ancient foods: fruit and vegetables. A great gift for a foodie parent, this volume with its gorgeous photographs can be enjoyed by all ages.
The Gecko and Sticky: Villain’s Lair by Wendelin Van Draanen
This is an adventurous, mysterious, and TRUE (really!) story about a Hispanic boy named Dave and his talking gecko, Sticky. Sticky leads Dave to a scary old mansion that is booby-trapped with hollow walls and shrunken heads where they will steal back a magical Aztec armband that is currently in the possession of the evil villain, Damien Black. The armband, combined with powerful gold ingots, gives the wearer the ability to fly, turn invisible, or in Dave’s case, walk up walls like a gecko. Villain's Lair is the first book in a fun new series by the perennially popular Van Draanen.
Melonhead by Katy Kelly
In the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Capitol Hill, Adam "Melonhead" Melon, a budding inventor with a knack for getting into trouble, enters a science contest that challenges students to recycle an older invention into a new invention. Melonhead’s hilarious scrapes will keep readers laughing.
Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
It is the Depression, so ten-year-old Allie's family has to move to a new town where her father can find work. When she hears that they will live on Strawberry Hill, Allie can hardly wait. Surely a place with such a name will make a perfect home! But the moving transition is harder than she expected and Allie spends the next year learning the true meaning of friendship. Fans of old-fashioned stories like The Penderwicks or The Saturdays will love this new story.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
Minli, an adventurous girl from a poor village, buys a magical goldfish, and then joins a dragon who cannot fly on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon in hopes of bringing life to Fruitless Mountain and freshness to Jade River and happiness to her parents. This lovely story combines many elements of Chinese folklore to create an original and moving story. Grace Lin has illustrated the story with illuminations in a classical Chinese style.
5th & 6th Grade:
Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted
Cody's dad is an undercover agent with the CIA, so they have always changed their names and moved around the world. When someone tries to kill them with an explosion, Cody is sent to live with his Aunt Jenny in the safety of small town Connecticut. But it's the first time Cody has ever been to school or had to interact with kids his own age. His clothes are wrong, his answers are wrong, everything about him doesn't fit in with American junior highers. Will Cody's mission to keep himself safe ever allow him to make friends and navigate junior high? Filled with hilarious situations and dangerous escapes, this book is the perfect blend of school and spies.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
This is the story of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators as they plot, carry out, and flee from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. With great archival photographs, a cool sepia type, and lots of details you never knew, this reads like a fast-paced adventure story, quick to grab the reader. There are some great gross out moments too.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Calpurnia Tate is living in a time when becoming a proper lady is the only job a girl should aspire to, but she is terrible at piano, tatting lace, and baking pies. Instead, Calpurnia wishes to be a naturalist like Mr. Charles Darwin, and maybe attend the University. The balance of these two desires drive this wonderful and timeless story. This novel lives and breathes with rambunctious brothers, a cantankerous granddaddy, and the surprisingly rich world of 1890's Texas.
The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley
Seventh-grader Abby Lovitt grows up on her family's California horse ranch in the 1960s, learning to train the horses her father sells. Her daddy calls all the mares "Jewel" and all the geldings "George" so that Abby won't get too attached to them, but Abby gets along much better with horses than with people and finds refuge from the difficulties of middle school cliques with them. Full of detailed information about training horses, this tender story will delight both horse fans and novices.
Scat by Carl Hiassen
On a school field trip to the Black Vine Swamp, Nick Waters is amazed when the swamp catches on fire. But even more amazing is the disappearance of his feared biology teacher, Bunny Starch. Did someone light the fire to cover up her kidnapping? Nick also thinks he might have seen a rare endangered black Florida panther right before the fire. Could the two be related? Nick teams up with his best friend Marta to try and find out the truth of what really happened and why, in this story full of interesting characters and humorous situations.
The Seven Keys of Balabad by Paul Haven
Oliver Finch is trying to adjust to life in Balabad, but it is nothing like he is used to in New York City, that’s for sure! Homesick for his native land and bored with life in Balabad, Oliver spends most of his time with his friend, Zee, and a used carpet salesman, who tells the boys the most incredible stories about Balabad’s history. When a priceless ancient carpet goes missing and mysterious artifacts are being stolen from prominent families, suddenly life gets a little more interesting. And when the unthinkable happens, it is up to Zee and Oliver to solve the mystery of the Seven Keys of Balabad and an ancient buried treasure.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Manhattan in the late seventies combines with A Wrinkle in Time to flavor this story of the everyday world of 12-year-old Miranda. The neighborhood, the school, even the bums on the street are casually portrayed, but all contain essential pieces of a puzzle. Notes from the future begin to appear at odd times and places, and it’s up to Miranda to decipher their meaning, sorting between what is irrelevant and what matters. This intriguing story of time travel holds truths that resonate with us all.
7th - 9th Grade (& up):
Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series by John Feinstein
Stevie and Susan Carol are teen reporters with national name recognition after they have covered a series of mysteries at major sporting events. In this installment, the two head to Boston for the World Series and meet up with a pitcher who has just rocketed to stardom from the minor leagues. But his squeaky clean image is not what it seems, so Stevie and Susan Carol try to work out what he might be hiding and learn an important lesson about journalistic integrity. This is a really great sports series and starts with Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery.
Escape by Sea by L.S. Lawrence
Escape by Sea tells the story of Sara, her father, and the crew of his ship as they must escape the Roman invasion of Carthage. With a ship full of goods, the group makes their way around the Mediterranean trading, battling pirates, and avoiding danger at all sides. An important Roman soldier they take hostage makes their situation even more precarious. Sara is in her teens and chafes against the rules and expectations for women. As calamity after calamity befalls the group, Sara becomes more powerful and is able to express herself and be heard. This is a rich historical novel of a time we rarely read about.
Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis
Teens Octavia and Tali learn about strength, independence, and courage when they are forced to take a car trip with their grandmother, who tells about growing up Black in 1940s Alabama and serving in Europe during World War II as a member of the Women's Army Corps. Sassy heroines really bring this little-known piece of history to life.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Thomas awakens to find himself alone, in a dark elevator, unable to remember anything meaningful about himself. When the doors open, he is greeted by 40 or so hostile teenage boys like himself, welcoming him to the Glade, a post-apocalyptic, manufactured world where they live to run a maze and escape from creepy blob creatures with needle appendages. Thomas's arrival starts a series of weird events that disrupt the monotonous life the boys had been leading, so naturally they suspect him of bringing them to their doom. Thomas himself is full of questions: What is the point of the Maze? Who put them there? And why does it all seem really familiar to him? This was a gripping read, full of action and mystery.
Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
This re-telling of the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" is filled magic, adventure, and romance. It's a heady mix of dark and light, lush descriptions, rich characters, and fun new details. In other words, it is exactly what one would want in a fairy tale re-telling. It can be difficult to flesh-out twelve princesses in addition to the other characters, but George does a great job focusing on a few of the girls and creating memorable details about the others. The setting and backstory she creates also work brilliantly with the story.
Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior by Chris Bradford
It is 1611, Jack and his father are employed as sailors headed for Japan when their ship is damaged in a storm and pirates take it over, killing everyone but Jack. Spared because he is so young, Jack is taken to the home of a prominent samurai where he feels like a prisoner. After he shows bravery during an attempted robbery, Jack is adopted as part of the family and is given a Japanese tutor and training to be a samurai. While his new life is exciting, Jack is worried about the younger sister he left behind in England. How can he possibly get back home? This is an awesome fish-out-of-water story with intrigue, samurais, ninjas, and fight scenes.
10th grade & up (adults, you'll probably enjoy these too!):
First, let me say that the hottest and best books of 2009 are the sequels to two of the hottest and best books of 2008: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Graceling by Kristin Cashore. If your teens (especially girls) haven't read these yet, I would recommend them and their new companion books Catching Fire by Collins and Fire by Cashore.
The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan
This is the story of Aidan and Maddy, two orphans who are on the verge of starvation out on the Kansas prairie when a wagon train comes by and rescues them. Off on the adventure of the Oregon Trail, Aidan and Maddy actually have an easier life than they have ever known before. Aidan befriends some Native Americans who saved his life and in the last third of the novel, the title earns its place. The "devil's paintbox" is another name for smallpox and it is illegal for Indians to get vaccinated. Aidan's new friends beg him to help get them the vaccine. The policies and prejudice of our past are once again shocking as this true practice is explored and Aidan has to choose between his sense of justice and his desire keep to himself.
How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford
Two oddballs, Bea and Jonah (aka Robot Girl and Ghost Boy) become unlikely friends when Bea arrives at a new school. They share an interest in listening to obscure radio shows, dressing up in costumes to go out, and photography. But things take a turn when Jonah discovers a huge lie that his father has told him and the new truth consumes his life. Jonah is the first true friend Bea has ever had. Can she help Jonah? Can she let him go? This is a tender and well-told story that includes great inter-generational friendships and celebrates being true to yourself.
Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey
Jessica thinks that she’s just a normal senior in high school with another boring year to look forward to - that is until Lucius shows up. Under the guise of being a foreign exchange student from Romania, Lucius is really there to tell Jessica who she really is (Antanasia, a vampire princess) and what her destiny is (to fulfill a pact made between the warring royal vampire families by marrying Lucius). What ensues is a roller coaster ride of teenage emotions as Jessica struggles to come to terms with who she is and what that means not only for her future, but also for the future of an entire race. This book is a surprising blend of humor and challenging choices.
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
At seventeen, Marcelo has found his Asperger’s Syndrome less of a challenge than trying to survive a summer challenge set by his competitive lawyer father of working in the law firm and dealing with “the real world.” All the characters and events are seen from Marcelo’s eyes and sensibility. The result is a riveting read depicting life from a viewpoint not often seen, and a revealing portrait of what most of us call normal.
The Morgue and Me by John C. Ford
This first novel reads like a classic pulp mystery, with an anti-social teen detective, fast-talking femme fatale journalist, and plenty of corruption to go around. It is the summer after senior year, and Christopher takes a job cleaning the morgue because he thinks he wants to be some kind of investigator, CIA or something. Well, contrary to his expectations, Christopher finds himself knee-deep in a murder with the medical examiner and the sheriff in on the deal. Joined by a foxy newspaper reporter, he unravels clues and follows surprising twists to a satisfying conclusion. This mystery has all the best elements with memorable characters, moody settings, and colorful language.
Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough
Seventeen-year-old Tamsin was born into a family of witches and her grandmother predicted that she would be "a beacon for us all". When her 8th birthday comes and her Talent has not manifested itself, Tamsin is basically rejected by everyone and must make her way, not fitting into her clan, but not fitting in with the regular world either. One day, a stranger comes to her with a request to find a missing magical clock, mistaking Tamsin for her highly Talented sister, Rowena. Tamsin is determined that this is her chance to prove that she can do something, just like the rest of her family, and she takes on the challenge. Needless to say, things do not go as planned, and Tamsin's actions threaten to bring down her entire clan.
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Ever since she was attacked by wolves in her backyard at age 11, Grace has been obsessed with the wolf pack that lives in the woods behind her house. Rather than being afraid, she's drawn to them. Especially to the one with the golden eyes. When she meets Sam for the first time, she looks into his golden eyes with shock and recognition. Who is this boy and where did he come from? Why does she feel like she's known him forever? In this stunning romance, Grace and Sam come to terms with the reality of his life as a both boy and wolf and try to make their complicated relationship work.
Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim
Nina Khan is the only Pakistani-American Muslim at her school in upstate New York. While she has no problem making friends at school, the difference between her life at home and theirs is pronounced. Her friends are allowed to go out, date, and have jobs. Nina is expected to study and live up to her genius older sister’s example, go to college, and marry the good Muslim boy that her parents pick out for her. Nina struggles between keeping her parents happy, keeping to her religion, and being a teenager in a U.S. high school. And don’t get her started on the body hair that is her genetic legacy. There's lots of humor in this coming-of-age story.
The Uninvited by Tim Wynne Jones
Mimi really needs to get away from a bad relationship, so her father has given her the key to his cabin in Canada, where he hasn't visited in years. When Mimi gets there, she finds a guy her age, Jay, already living there. She and Jay hit it off immediately, but Jay tells Mimi that sinister things have been happening at the house - a dead bird placed in the kitchen, someone's been messing with his recording equipment, and there's a tunnel under the house that's being used. Mimi and Jay team up to figure out why someone would be doing bizarre things and who it might be. The outcome of their search is shocking. Written with gorgeous language and creepy undertones, this is a perfectly chilling, but not terrifying, read.
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