V O L U M E  2 ,   N U M B E R  12   •   D E C E M B E R   2 0 0 9




In this issue

For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.

Between The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide, we review around five thousand new books for children and teenagers every year. Many of these are terrific in one way or another: terrifically useful, fun to read, eye-opening. But the twenty-seven listed below in this issue of Notes are our choices for the very best young people’s books of 2009. Best how? That’s a complicated question, but here is the short answer: all the books on our “Fanfare” list respect and nurture children’s intelligence, talents, and imagination. Not every book is for every child, but you will surely find something on this list to enrich the lives of young people you know.  

Roger Sutton
Editor in Chief

Best books for preschoolers

These choices offer plenty of read-aloud possibilities, from the animal-noises-only Lion & the Mouse to the tongue-twisting Bubble Trouble. Parents and young children alike should enjoy this array of picture books, illustrated in styles that range from lush to loud.

In the simply titled Birds, a young girl muses on birds, their colors and sizes, their movements and mysteries. Kevin Henkes’s poetic text is full of child appeal, as are Laura Dronzek’s rich, versatile acrylic paintings, which contain overtones here of Marc Chagall, there of William Steig. (3–6 years)

When Mabel blows a bubble, it engulfs her baby brother, who blithely floats away, chased by half the townspeople. For Bubble Trouble, Polly Dunbar’s buoyant mixed-media illustrations capture the large cast of characters and are as nimble and boisterous as Margaret Mahy’s rhyming tongue-twister of a tale. (4–8 years)

In Leslie Patricelli’s Higher! Higher!, a small girl on a swing flies ever higher, past rooftops, clouds, and into space — where she meets up with her counterpart, a little green alien (“Hi! / High five! / Bye!”). The mix of adventure and security (the girl is always tethered to Earth by the swing’s chains) is preschooler-perfect and reinforced by the cheerful cartoonlike acrylics. (2–5 years)

In All the World, a family stops at the beach, a farmers’ market, a park, and a café; returning home, they host friends and family for an evening of music. Marla Frazee’s
wondrous skyscapes and her joyous portrayals of people young and old build a story around Liz Garton Scanlon’s spare but warm and poetic text, whose child-friendly simplicity is reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown. (2–7 years)

"k won't give a kiss good night. / l cries, ‘Don’t turn off the light!’” In The Sleepy Little Alphabet: A Bedtime Story for Alphabet Town, twenty-six children (the lowercase letters) try to avoid bedtime while adults (the uppercase) corral them toward the inevitable. In Judy Sierra’s lively hybrid ABC/bedtime book, illustrator Melissa Sweet’s colorful block letters have big round eyes, short limbs, and plenty of attitude. (4–6 years)

A lost mitten keeps a number of animals toasty and warm — for a while. Jim Aylesworth retells The Mitten with tremendous gusto and skill; Barbara McClintock’s comic abilities are on display in small vignettes of the animals struggling to squeeze into the mitten — the physical comedy stretched, like the yarn, to the ultimate limit. (4–7 years)

Button Up!: Wrinkled Rhymes by Alice Schertle allows clothing to speak for itself. Who knew apparel could inspire such variety, impeccable form, and fun? “Bob’s on his bike / and I’m on Bob. / I’m Bob’s helmet. / I’m on the job.” The delicacy of Petra Mathers’s watercolors does not disguise their mischief. (4–7 years)

The only text in this retelling of Aesop’s The Lion & the Mouse consists of sound effects, all the better to showcase Jerry Pinkney’s character-revealing narrative watercolors,
which (beautifully) set the story in the Serengeti Plain. And the absence of a wrap-up moral encourages children to draw their own conclusions about what makes a hero. (2–7 years)

Five Questions for Jerry Pinkney

Jerry PinkneyWatercolorist Jerry Pinkney has had a long and distinguished career, demonstrated by his receipt of five Caldecott Honor citations and five Coretta Scott King Medals (not to mention a glorious sequence of six Horn Book Magazine covers he created for us in 1995). His Lion & the Mouse was easily the most agreed upon inclusion for this year’s Horn Book “Fanfare” list and was one of the most honored books of 2009. You can read an essay about painting by Jerry in the January 2010 issue of the Magazine; meanwhile he answers a few questions I had about The Lion & the Mouse.

1. Lion or Mouse: which one is the hero?

In my mind, the mouse is the hero. One can imagine the lion a majestic creature, king of the jungle, reigning over all, powerful enough to provoke fear in creatures large and small. You can see how the lion might see the little mouse as a pest, as an annoyance, in the same way we might brush away a fly. Yet the small gray-brown mouse, always looking out for the possibility of danger, heard a deserted roar in the jungle, then rose above her natural instincts, leaving her home and family to rescue a lion. Having said that, I can just picture in my mind a ticker-tape parade on the Serengeti with all the animals cheering for both lion and mouse.

2. What do you have to particularly keep in mind in creating a wordless picture book?

I feel the challenge is to keep the narrative on a direct course. It has to have those elements we find in all good storytelling, but without the support of text. One should not add things that might distract readers from understanding the sequence of events. Growing an image within a setting, this is where the fun comes in, and I begin to play with character expressions and postures. In The Lion & the Mouse, I give mama mouse a family of baby mice to care for, and this is what draws her out of the nest in search of food and puts her on the path to meet the lion. I have also given the lion a family that you will find in some of the pictures. My intent was to make the fable much fuller and to show the beauty and expansiveness of the African Serengeti.

3. What do you think the moral of the story is?

In The Lion & the Mouse I found a narrative that is rich in fantasy and possibilities. No act of kindness goes unrewarded. Even the strongest can sometimes use the help of the smallest. Neighbors help neighbors. By the way, if you lift off the book’s jacket, you will discover on its back cover my homage to Edward Hicks’s painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. This artist was inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah 11:6-9. In my image I have replaced Hicks’s animals with those of the Serengeti.

4. In selecting a picture book to read with your own children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren!), what did/do you look for?

My wife, author Gloria Jean, did most of the storytelling with our children. When reading to our grandchildren, I began looking for books that held between their covers the use of exceptional yet accessible language and extraordinary visual storytelling. With our great-granddaughter I tend to read stories that have topics and subjects she is interested in. She loves to explore the outdoors and collect leaves, so my search is for books where the leaves are central to a story! Also, because she is fascinated with birds, I read her books about birds. Supplied with books that feed her interests, we have a lot of fun.

5. Have you ever seen a lion in the wild?

No, but I do recall as a child going to the Philadelphia Zoo, watching lions pacing up and down in their small cages. Their outdoor habitats were situated in enclosed areas that were largely hidden from visitors. Those trips always left me with the feeling that those great cats were lifeless. Today I realize that their cages confined those animals much like the netting that catches up the lion in The Lion & the Mouse

—Roger Sutton

Best books for primary graders

For kids aged five through eight, we suggest the chapter-book realism of Alvin Ho, the science-meets-adventure of Redwoods, the lyric mystery of Red Sings from Treetops.

Second-grader Alvin Ho, Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters, “born scared and . . .still scared,” goes camping and discovers there are things more frightening than teachers. Lenore Look’s story (second in a series), brimming with hilarity and appealingly jam-packed with LeUyen Pham’s comical illustrations, will have chapter-book readers laughing in the face of fear. (6–9 years)

Jon Agee presents infectious and hilarious tongue-twisters in flawless meter and rhyme. Whether terminally tricky or resolving in a rare sayable line, the poems in Orangutan Tongs: Poems to Tangle Your Tongue positively demand participation. Bold-lined, dynamic watercolor illustrations help readers (and listeners) parse the tangled scenarios and facilitate the pitch-perfect interaction between story and wordplay. (5–8 years)

In Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, Joyce Sidman’s poems celebrate the way colors, and how we perceive them, change with each season: green is shy in spring, “queen in summer,” “tired, / dusty, / crisp around the edges” in fall, and in winter “waits / in the hearts of trees, / feeling / the earth / turn.” Pamela Zagarenski’s mixed-media paintings add a surreal touch, sustaining the poems’ sense of awe and mystery. (5–8 years)

In Jason Chin’s Redwoods, a straightforward and informative text about coastal redwoods captions pictures that tell not exactly a different story, but one whose metafictional cheek will draw readers in — just as the book’s hero is drawn, by his imagination, high into the redwood canopy. Science and story are seamlessly pulled together in neatly crafted paintings. (6–9 years)

The visually sublime Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 takes young readers along on the historic mission — from preparation to launch to moon landing to safe return. Brian Floca distills a multitude of facts into a concise text, sparely lyrical yet concrete and relatable; his watercolor and ink illustrations capture size, power, and perspective as well as moments of suspense and wonder. (6–9 years)

Part biography, part ode to the beauty of the seas, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau employs humanizing anecdotes, technical explanations, and straightforward but evocative narration to encapsulate the aquatic pioneer, his inventions, and his causes. Dan Yaccarino’s simple text and luminous illustrations capture the essence of what so enraptured Cousteau. (5–8 years)

Best books for middle graders

There was some excellent nonfiction for the nine-to-twelves this year, and novels ranging from L’Engle-ish fantasy (When You Reach Me) to contemporary realism (Heart of a Shepherd).

Living in Nazi-occupied Greece, twelve-year-old Petros plays at espionage, helping his older brother distribute secret messages and aiding a resistance fighter hiding in the family’s well. Based on the boyhood of Akila Couloumbis and written by him with wife Audrey Couloumbis, War Games infuses boyhood mischief with heroic purpose and deadly stakes. (10–14 years)

It’s up to sixth-grader Brother and his grandparents to keep the family ranch going while Dad is in Iraq and the older boys away at school. Distinctively set in rural Oregon, Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd is an intimate and honest home front story, incorporating Christian spirituality in a natural and compelling way. (9–12 years)

Jack, a child of the Dust Bowl, has never seen rain — until he discovers a mysterious figure seemingly made of the stuff in an abandoned barn. Matt Phelan’s sparing use of color in The Storm in the Barn, his debut graphic novel, is stunning; his simple yet profound storytelling and expansive, emotive illustrations masterfully evoke the complex historical and emotional landscapes charted. (9–12 years)

In late-1970s Manhattan, ordinary sixth-grader Miranda receives a series of anonymous notes that, remarkably, seem to come from the future. The larger mystery of When You Reach Me contains smaller ones (why does the “weird homeless guy” sleep with his head under the mailbox?). Thanks to Rebecca Stead’s expertly crafted plot, they all mesh; thanks to her closely observed characters, they all matter. (9–12 years)

A twelve-year-old Jewish girl, evacuated with her younger sister from Nazi-occupied Vienna to a fishing village in Sweden, faces the challenges of the unfamiliar: family, language, food, landscape. In A Faraway Island, Stephie’s gradual adjustment to her new life unfolds believably due to author Annika Thor’s focus on child-centered joys and humiliations and her unsentimental prose, which employs an immediate present tense. (9–12 years)

Mission Control, This Is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon is an outstanding history of the piloted Apollo missions. Andrew Chaikin and Victoria Kohl transmit the excitement, tragedy, humor, and quest for knowledge that defined the golden age of the United States space program. Bean, an Apollo astronaut turned artist, lends his impressionistic paintings of the missions, along with extraordinarily articulate, detailed captions. (10–14 years)

In Just the Right Size: Why Big Animals Are Big and Little Animals Are Little, Nicola Davies explores the rules that control what bodies can and can’t do, taking a close look at the difference between “little things” and “big things” to explain why there are no giant spiders and why humans can’t fly. The integration of humor (especially in Neal Layton’s cartoon illustrations) and riveting scientific information, clearly and succinctly conveyed, makes this a standout. (9–12 years)

With a tightly focused narrative and dramatic pacing, Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary follows the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery from the viewpoint of children and teenagers who participated. Equally as spectacular are the black-and-white photographs, expertly selected, that provide visual, visceral force and a powerful sense of immediacy. (10–14 years)

Best books for teenagers

From science fiction (The Carbon Diaries 2015) to a biography of a true teenaged hero (Claudette Colvin), here are five challenging — and rewarding — books for older readers.

In tart, insightful diary entries, South London teen Laura chronicles her life after Britain pioneers a stringent carbon rationing system — a challenge to daily norms that is soon eclipsed by food shortages, extreme weather, and rising civil unrest. Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015 is an exemplar of speculative fiction that expertly plays big-picture fears against social and familial drama. (12 years and up)

In Marcelo in the Real World, seventeen-year-old Marcelo Sandoval, who has an Asperger’s-like disorder, takes a summer job at his father’s law firm. Predictably, his social skills are put to the test; unexpectedly, his moral beliefs also undergo a rigorous workout. Francisco X. Stork’s brilliant coming-of-age novel introduces an exceedingly well-wrought protagonist whose story is as inspiring as it is memorable. (14 years and up)

With great empathy and humor, Deborah Heiligman’s lively Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith examines the life and legacy of Charles Darwin through the unique lens of his domestic life. Here’s a book that works as a history of science, as a biography, and, last but not least, as a romance. (12 years and up)

In 1955, a year before Rosa Parks was arrested, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat. Like Parks, she was jailed; unlike Parks, she was forgotten. Through interviews with Colvin and others, Philip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice delves into the details behind this largely unknown incident, ensuring that readers will have Colvin’s courageous story forever seared into their memories. (12 years and up)

Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, an account of the ultimately unsuccessful effort to get women into NASA’s Mercury training program in the early 1960s, is a perceptive, page-turning inquiry into the history behind some of our most iconic moments. Featuring first-person interviews, extreme testing details, and incisive historical analysis, Almost Astronauts is by turns fascinating, infuriating, and inspiring. (12 years and up)

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