Book-Books: children's books for lovers of words, books and reading

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2006

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Last Updated 01/09/08

Picture Books

(Click for Fiction, ages 5-12, Young Adult Fiction Nonfiction, ages 5-12 or Young Adult Nonfiction)

Anna's Book by Barbara Baker. Illustrated by Catharine O'Neill. Dutton, 2004 (0-525-47231-2) 8.99

Short but satisfying, this small story is about a toddler named Anna who just loves her new book: "Again," she says, as soon as Mommy has finished reading it. But after Mommy has read the whole book three times, she has to finish and do other things. Luckily, Anna has Teddy Bear to read her book to. "Again," says Teddy Bear. Watercolor illustrations are bright and cheerful, though a touch cartoonish. (1-3)

Dear Deer written and illustrated by Gene Barretta. Henry Holt, 2007 (978-0-8050-8104-6) $16.95

Framed as a letter from "Aunt Ant" to her "Dear Deer," this book demonstrates homophones with short vignettes of the latest zoo news, starting with the MOOSE who loves MOUSSE (He ATE EIGHT bowls) and ending, "There is no NEWS about the GNUS. They keep to themselves." Looking at the cantankerous faces of those gnus, you believe it.

Except for few slang terms that may not be familiar--"The DOE KNEADED the DOUGH, because she NEEDED the dough"--most of the wordplay is pretty self-explanatory, so beginning readers can probably enjoy this on their own. Adults are less likely than kids to find the text funny, but the comic, brightly colored pictures, which include a glasses-wearing moose cozily lounging with a bowl on his stomach, an elephant throwing a pail full of frantic mice and the aforementioned highly ticked-off gnus, have a broader appeal. (5 & up)

I Like Books written and illustrated by Anthony Browne. Knopf, 1989; Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-2162-5) $8.99

A young chimp winsomely embodies his favorite types of books: carrying a basket of books dressed as Little Red (fairy tales), sitting on letters made of books (alphabet books), reading aloud on a wall to a nervous Humpty Dumpty (nursery rhymes) and most memorably, only partially colored in (coloring books.) The pages are framed with appropriate whimsical motifs. This reprint in small, "super-sturdy" picture book format is a good choice for beginning readers, but adult fans will probably want the original edition, as the layout has changed. (2 & up)

Mine, All Mine written and illustrated by Ruth Heller. Grosset & Dunlap, 1997 (0-448-41606-9); 1999 (0698117972) $6.99 pb

Forget grammar lessons that feel totally disconnected from the English that people actually speak: Ruth Heller's superb "World of Language" series uses the information native speakers already have to make language rules seem sensible, relevant and fun. This book on pronouns starts by demonstrating how necessary pronouns are: without "his" and "he," for example,

      King Cole would call for King Cole's pipe. King Cole would call
for King Cole's bowl and King Cole's fiddlers three.
      On and on... it makes me yawn. It's awkward and wordy. The
rhythm is gone.
This is something that any native speaker (possibly even non-native speakers) can easily understand. They can also understand that the correct sentence is "he draws better than she" rather than "he draws better than her" because what the sentence is really saying is "he draws better than she draws." And when talking about presents, who wouldn't understand "They are mine. They are all mine."?

With lively rhymes that reinforce the information, silly or unusual examples, and bright, animated illustrations for eye appeal, this is a rare grammar lesson that most readers will enjoy. * (6-12)

Wonderful Words edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Karen Barbour. Simon & Schuster, 2004 (0-689-83588-4) $16.95

"I'll plant in you
      a spring-seedling
      with bursting life
      while you are reading

I am the book
You are needing."

Words rise and dance and spin; are piled like blocks; pierce the darkness; and wear long boots, hard boots in this collection of poems. Books, poems, writing, talking and even listening are what the words are about... and just as they should, they dazzle, warm and satisfy the ear when they're read aloud. The illustrations have a primitive, folk-art flair that occasionally crosses over into garishness, but most are good companions to the whimsical, wise and childlike moods of the wonderful words. (4 & up)

I took My Frog to the Library by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Blanche Sims. 1990; Puffin, 1992 (9780140509168) $5.99 pb

Bridgett has a house full of book-loving pets, but when she tries taking them to the library with her, chaos always follows: her hen lays an egg in the card catalog, her python sheds skin all over the picture books, and her giraffe rudely reads over everybody's shoulder. Even her very well behaved elephant, who stacks her books neatly on the checkout desk and listens politely at storytime, is just too big for the library. Finally the librarian has to ask Bridgett to leave her animals at home--but that's okay, because her elephant is there to read to them. Although this book is pure fun, some points about good library etiquette are effortlessly made. Busy, expressive illustrations add to the humor of the story. (4-8)

Please Bury Me in the Library by J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Kyle M. Stone. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-216387-5) $16.00

This collection of poems about words and books is uneven, but the poem above easily justifies the entire book. I love the image, the wordplay, and the way it reads aloud so easily, the scansion making each line pour out in a graceful rhythm. In fact, the entire book reads best aloud (as poetry should,) so will be more enjoyed when shared with children (or adults) than as a silent read. The pictures, by a debut illustrator, are an oddly succesful mix of comic lines and rich textures; I like their moody, dark colors and imaginative derivations from the text. (4-8)

Reading Makes You Feel Good written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown 2005 (0-316-16004-0) $15.99

Parr brings his usual exuberantly positive attitude to this paean to reading. Reading makes you feel good because... you can learn how to make pizza, find your favorite animal at the zoo, or make someone feel better when they're sick (by reading Parr's The Feel Better Book of course.) Best of all, you can do it anywhere: in a bathtub, or a bookmobile, or even underwater, if you're an octopus! Parr fills his boldly colored, whimsical pictures with fun words and signs and titles to read. (1-4)

Wild About Books by Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Marc Brown. Knopf, 2004 (0-375-82538-X) $16.95

When a librarian accidentally drives her bookmobile into the zoo, she quickly realizes that there's a whole new world of potential readers to entice! And soon Molly is filling all kinds of request, including more Chinese books for the pandas and even waterproof books for the otter, who never goes swimming without Harry Potter. As llamas read dramas while eating their llunches, Molly gently teaches the boa constrictor not to squeeze Cricktor too tight and the termites not to literally devour The Wizard of Oz. Filled with puns, allusions and all kinds of witty gags, this rhyming story is as much of a joy to read as a book with the title Wild About Books ought to be. Brown's folk-art inspired illustrations are exuberant and expressive; I particularly like the llamas, intently studying their dramas. * (4 & up)

She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain by Philemon Sturges. Illustrated by Ashley Wolff. Little Brown, 2004 (0-316-82256-6) $15.95

In a small, hard-to-reach Southwestern town, a bunch of animals folks make plans for the arrival of a very special person, including a fiesta grande with ensalada and fruitilada. As mellow lizard strums a banjo, the text moves along to the familiar tune. Astute readers may notice a few hints about who "she" may be, such as the fact that the town is named Reederville, and that those of its population of 43 who aren't preparing for the arrival are busy with a book. A nice tribute to the sometimes valiant drivers of Bookmobiles. (3-8)

Why the Banana Split by Rick Walton. Illustrated by Jimmy Holder. Gibbs Smith, 1998 (0-87905-853-6) $15.95.

The arrival of an enormous dinosaur is cue for everyone--and everything--in town to flee: the basketball players go travelling, the frogs hop a train (which makes tracks) and of course, the bananas split! But when it turns out that toothy Rex is actually a fruit-eater, everyone is glad to return--except for the poor bananas. This is great fun for beginning word-lovers, with frenetic illustrations that find the funniest potential in every silly pun: the knives cut and run, leaving chopped vegetables in their wake, the boots take a vigorous hike and the jump ropes form into panic-stricken faces as they skip town. (4-8)

This sweet little book is the centerpeice for Well's "Read to Your Bunny" promotion, which uses a simple poem to remind parents to read to their children every day: "It's twenty minutes of fun... It's twenty minutes of moonlight, and twenty minutes of sun." Wells' notes about the importance of reading aloud are convincing, but nothing could be more persuasive than her adorable pictures of parent-child bunny pairs having wonderful reading adventues. (I kind of hate the twenty minute thing though; I suppose it can be a useful guideline, but it sounds so prescriptive.) (2-4)

A Rattle of Bones written and illustrated by Kipling West. Orchard, 1999 (0-531-30196-6) OP

Halloween makes a striking background for this introduction to collective nouns. Here we learn that a group of trick-or-treaters is a tribe, a bunch of crows is a murder, and a collection of spiders is a venom. All of the phrases are from published sources, although some were only recently invented; a note at the end encourages readers to come up with their own descriptions for things like a group of math teachers or bratty siblings. Despite the darkness of many of the terms, the mood of this book is oddly innocuous: a cheerful rhyming text and plenty of smiling Halloween creatures dampen the mysterious, creepy atmosphere created by phrases like an unkindness of ravens. Still, this book may well spark some imaginations. (4-8)

Fiction, ages 5-12

A is for Aarrgh! by William J. Brooke. HarperCollins, 1999 (0-06-023393-1) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440889-2) $5.95 pb

In his four previous children's books, Brooke retold familiar folk tales as a way of exploring the meaning of story in people's lives. This, his first completely original work, goes a step further, taking a whimsical yet pointedly satirical look at the possible origins of language and how its discovery changed human life forever.

Brog and his fellow cavemen have a pretty simple way of communicating, which involves pointing, grunting, and tapping each other with clubs: The translation of most conversations would have been something like this: 'Give me that.' What? Ouch.' 'Give me that.' 'What? Ouch.' 'Give me that.' 'What?...' And so on. But Brog's son Mog, who is small and timid and not much of a hunter, prefers to make silly mouth noises, even though it was very rude to start popping your lips at someone without even clubbing them hello. When the other cavemen realize that Mog's mouth noises have begun to have meaning for them, making them look up at the sun when the hear the sound sun, language is on its way. But though language is very useful for things like organizing a hunt, it can also be used to create ideas that never existed before--and to the greedy, lazy, unscrupulous caveman Drog, those ideas spell POWER.

By showing how the simple naming of the sun can lead to Capitalism, consumerism, and the company store, Brooke reveals some funny, scary, and empowering truths about the nature of words, stories, and tribes. With its gentle irony, and simple but wise characters, this is reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's Truckers series. (10 & up)

A Writing Kind of Day by Ralph Fletcher. Illustrated by April Ward. Boyds Mill, 2005 (1-59078-276-3) $17.95; (1-590878-353-0) $9.95 pb

"It is raining today,/a writing kind of day." (Here too: a reviewing kind of day.) This is the book of a young poet, a collection of poems that encapsulate what it's like to be a young poet. There are poems about family, poems about school, and poems about words and ideas and thoughts that can become new poems:

"When I look at Julia
her little bald head
reminds me of the planet Earth.

I put that in my writer's notebook
to maybe write a poem later on;
it feels like money in the bank."
And indeed, the next poem is called "Earth Head."

I like the range and openness of this book, how it is not afraid to attribute complicated images and emotions to its young poet, yet also not afraid to be very simple and straightforward, as in the poem "Bill of Sale," which is about reading a poem about a girl, "the same age as me," who was sold as a slave. There is no apparent attempt to mold the poet's horror into subtle words; it just spills out:

In a country like America
how could this ever happen?
How can I go on with my life?"
Black & white illustrations treat each poem as an individual piece, with styles ranging from scrawls and doodles at the bottom of a notebook page to elegant photographs muted behind the words. It's perhaps too sophisticated a design for a book that is so much about openness and sincerity. (8 & up)

Here Comes Silent e! by Anna Jane Hays. Illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi. Random House (Step Into Reading), 2004 (0-375-81233-4) $3.99 pb

Anyone writing about "silent e" for the television generation has an automatic handicap: how can we possibly read without "who can turn a man into a mane?" running through our heads? But even with that competition, this effective little story holds its own. Here, Silent e takes a bite out of a bit of cake and turns a troublesome kit into a high-flying kite. A helpful design emphasizes the focal words for beginning readers, who probably won't be too bothered by the occasional forced rhyme. The colored pencil illustrations have a childlike flair, somewhat reminiscent of Lynda Barry. (5-8)

The Library Card by Jerry Spinelli. Scholastic, 1997; Apple, 1998 (0-590-38633-6) $3.99 pb

In "April Mendez," the last story in this collection, April tries to give a present to a hostile stranger named Nanette: the only thing she has on her, her old library card. Nanette refuses, until a kindly bookmobile driver urges, "Take it, Nanette. It's her best thing."

This story, in which the library card is never actually even used at a library, really sums up the point of The Library Card. A library card is more than a piece of cardboard. It's a gift. It has power. It's your best thing.

The library cards in these stories offer life-changing gifts to four troubled children: gifts of information and wonder, of self-knowledge, of memory, and of friendship. The cards and librarians here are obviously slightly supernatural and the situations are sometimes blatantly over the top, but the underlying truth is evident: library cards are magic. And they are there for the people who need them most.

These sometimes ridiculous, often sad stories offer hope for a redemption that's open to anyone. This is a book readers will understand. They'll find it at the library. (9 & up)

Young Adult Fiction

A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32595-9) $13.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-40-22761-5) $4.50 pb

"Dear CS... I was wondering if you could tell me where a secret door is from here to Narnia... I need to go to Narnia very bad, I think someone there can help my mom, she is sick."

For fifteen-year-old Katherine, reading the letter her little sister Alisa wrote to her favorite author, C.S. Lewis, is a painful wake-up call; she can no longer pretend that their mother's weeks long drinking binge isn't affecting the family. But it's very important to keep pretending to the outside world... because although she and siblings Tracey and Douglas could always go live with their father, Alisa isn't their father's child. And as Tracey says, "he wouldn't even take her to the museum."

Katherine, who loves to keep lists and makes plans, thinks that together the three of them can cope: "we still have a chance to keep everything normal. If we just handle things right, then nothing bad will happen." But events rapidly get beyond her control. Their mother is almost comatose, the food is running out, and when Katherine has to bring Alisa to school with her--she keeps running away to look for that secret door--the religion teacher, Mr. Dodgson, begins taking a very unwelcome interest in their family situation. Even worse, he seems to be encouraging Alisa in her belief that C.S. Lewis' character Aslan can save her mother. Clinging tighter to the veneer of normality the more fragile it becomes, Katherine becomes convinced that Mr. Dodgson is their enemy, and she strikes out to destroy his credibility--only to realize that she desperately needs his help.

Katherine's narrative, which reveals both her intelligence and her immaturity, has an authenticity that makes her sympathetic even when she's clearly running in the wrong directions. Her story is as gripping as an adventure, holding our interest through calamity after calamity, but everything builds so inevitably that the book never seeming episodic or melodramatic. Only the end perhaps falters, with the author, like many another problem novelist, having trouble reconciling probability with a desire to rescue her characters; on the other hand, the ending could be considered integral to an underlying theme of sacrificial forgiveness that comes straight out of the Narnia books.

You don't have to be fan of Narnia to appreciate A Door Near Here, or even to have read the books, but it will have its greatest resonance for those who understand how much Narnia and Aslan can mean to children, especially desperately unhappy children. The resolution of Alisa's obsession is especially powerful, leaving it for readers to decide whether Aslan's appearance in her life is fantasy or metaphor.

A Door Near Here was the winner of the 15th annual Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. (14 & up)

Nonfiction, ages 5-12

What Do Authors Do? written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow. Clarion, 1995 (0-395-71124-X; 1997 (0-395-86621-9) $4.95 pb

Just how do books get written? Well, it might start with a dog chasing a cat and winding up in the middle of a duck pond... especially if the dog and cat happen to belong to two children's book authors that happen to be neighbors. As the inspired owners of the pets get to work, this book follows the process of writing and publishing a book, from that first idea to the finished product--with Rufus the dog and Max the cat very interested observers. A straightforward, descriptive text is accompanied by likeable, low-key watercolors in a comic strip format; together they make the story of writing and publishing fun, intimate and real. I particularly liked the all-too-familiar section on writer's block, which shows the frustrated authors doodling tic-tac-toe games with steam coming out of their ears; fortunately inspiration often strikes again, "usually, when they are doing something else"--like a handstand. Christelow doesn't forget to show the sometimes painful process of reading the reviews--"dumb magazine!" thinks sympathetic Max--but in this case, she didn't have much to worry about. (4-10)

Live Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Avon Camelot, 1999 (0-380-79701-1) $4.99 pb

What is "live" writing? It's the kind of writing "that has a current running though it--energy, electricity, juice." It's what sometimes makes a story seem more real than real life. This book is about the ways writers can make their writing more alive. Using numerous examples from his own and other's work, and a few chapters contributed by other writers, Fletcher shows how writing can grow through concepts like playing with time, building strong characters, finding a passion and expressing a true voice. This is a kind of "how to" book which is too rarely published for children: a purposeful book, for readers who are genuinely interested in learning. There are no fancy fonts, no "hot tips" outlined in boxes; instead, there is advice from a writer who addresses his readers as potential colleagues. Fletcher shows his respect for beginners by including many examples of student writing, with comments both on what does and doesn't succeed; since he's not afraid to either criticize or praise, his heartfelt appreciation for the work shines through, encouraging readers to find the beauty and "life" in writing they might have thought was too childish or insignificant to be taken seriously. Perhaps most importantly, Fletcher's own love for his craft can be felt in virtually every line of the book; readers will not only discover how to improve their writing, they'll also get a sense of why someone would want to. (8-13)

Gobble: The Complete Book of Thanksgiving Words by Lynda Graham-Barber. Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Avon Camelot, 1993 (0-380-71963-0) OP

This well-researched collection of facts and history about the origins of words associated with Thanksgiving is designed for easy browsing: open it anywhere and you'll find intriguing details about the early lives of the Pilgrims and the meanings of Thanksgiving customs. Having words as the focus of the book lets it touch on lots of diverse linguistic, historical and literary information, which is both educational and entertaining, while the forthright, matter-of-fact style is very readable. (8 & up)

Mushy! The Complete Book of Valentine Words By Lynda Graham-Barber. Illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Bradbury, 1991; Avon Camelot, 1993 (0-380-71650-X) OP

Collectors of odd facts and curious information will enjoy this well researched but light-hearted look at words and facts associated with love and Valentine's day. Organized for browsing, rather than serious study, and complimented by amusingly silly line drawings, it is nonetheless honest about the sometimes unpleasant origins of various "romantic" customs, such as "giving the bride away" (which evolved from fathers actually selling their daughters.) This adds to the validity of the book, without making its focus too serious or scholarly for its intended audience. A bibliography and further reading list are supplied for those who want to delve deeper. (8-12)

My Hometown Library written and illustrated by William Jaspersohn. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-55723-2) OP

Most children, given half a chance, are fascinated by libraries, and the ritual of getting your very own library card and choosing your own books can be an important part of childhood. My Hometown Library brought that "first library card" thrill happily back to me. Its description of the services of a public library are introduced by the author's memories of the first library he ever visited, complete with photos of the friendly staff and of books he read as a child and a young adult. Much of the book is photographs of his childhood library as it is today, showing and briefly explaining such topics as library equipment, book processing and catalogue cards. Sound boring? Somehow it's not: the bright, crisp, color photographs hold the reader's attention and the text offers just the right amount of information. Wonderful for introducing a child to the idea of a library before the first visit, or for encouraging older children to explore its possibilities; a must-buy for public and school libraries. (4-10)

My Librarian is a Camel by Margriet Ruurs. Boyds Mill, 2005 (1-59078-093-0) $16.95

"Libraries are services, not buildings," says a librarian quoted in this book, and as we see library materials being delivered by mail, wheelbarrow and shoulder, the truth of those words is abundantly clear. This inspiring book describes how books find their readers all over the world, even in areas so isolated, volunteers must carry them over log bridges. Each short section focuses on one country, oferring some general facts, a story about how their unique library system works, and plenty of evocative color photographs. Interesting quotes and photos of avid kid readers make this book very accessible, as if the premise wasn't fascinating enough. All the book lacks is a section of contact information for the organizations that do this wonderful work. * (6 & up)

The Librarian of Basra written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15205445-6) $16.00

Few book lovers could fail to be moved by this true story about an Iraqi librarian and her friends, who successfully rescued many of the precious books from the library of Basra just nine days before it was burnt to the ground. This is a very simple version for children, which inevitably discloses some of the uglier facts of war but focuses primarily on the librarian's mission, as she stuffs her home to the very brim with books. An author's note at the end reveals more facts than the short narrative supplies. Stylized, brightly outlined and colored illustrations maintain some distance from the violence while revealing the personal anguish and ultimate hope of Alia, the librarian. (5 & up)

Intermediate and Young Adult Nonfiction (10 & up)

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