Best children’s books of 2012
All through the year I’ve reviewed books I thought “best,” including Cyndi Sand-Eveland’s “A Tinfoil Sky,” Priscilla Maltbie and Daniel Miyares’s “Bambino and Mr. Twain,” Rachel Vail and Matthew Cordell’s “Justin Case: Shells, Smells and the Horrible Flip-flops of Doom,” and Claire A. Nivola’s “Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle.” Here, at the 11th hour of 2012, are a few I couldn’t bear to leave behind.
A Rock Is Lively
By Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Chronicle)
Writer Aston and artist Long have teamed
together to create previous award-winning
science picture books: "An Egg Is Quiet," "A Seed Is Sleepy," and "A Butterfly Is Patient."
All are dazzlingly beautiful, detailed, and
artfully simple. "A Rock Is Lively," a worthy
successor, introduces the young reader to asteroids and meteorites, granite and gemstones. Each full-color page features a new theme ("A rock is huge," "A rock is helpful," "A rock is surprising") and a new way to look at something we might think of as ordinary. "A Rock Is Lively" proves how wrong that would be. In cave paintings or outer space, rocks tell the history of the universe. "The oldest known rocks on Earth were formed billions of years before the sky turned from green to blue, before dinosaurs thundered across the earth, before humans learned how to make fire." A visual and verbal feast, this book deserves a place on every library shelf.
Bad Kitty: Litter Boxed Set
By Nick Bruel (Roaring Brook)
Bad Kitty is back, bigger and badder than ever in a handsome new boxed set containing three favorites: "Bad Kitty Gets a Bath,"
"Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty," and "Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray." Kids love Bad Kitty because he's so cranky, cartoony, unpredictable, and adorable. Parents love Bad Kitty because they get all the jokes. The boxed set includes a free poster, but mostly this collection is a good idea because once children gets their hands on one "Bad Kitty" they are going to want them all.
If You Spent a Day with Thoreau
at Walden Pond
By Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor (Holt)
Minor's sweet, verdant watercolors shine in this tale of a straw-hatted old-fashioned Thoreau spending a day with a contemporary boy (complete with running sneakers) by the shores of his beloved Walden Pond. Burleigh interprets Thoreau's own words to create the imaginary day. Henry "wakes with the sun," Burleigh tells us. His tiny house contains "nothing but three chairs, a table, a desk, and an old bed. Yet Henry has just what he needs." Together the two friends row, walk, and weed. They recognize the calls of various birds, wade in Sandy Pond, study ants at war. Now and then, Thoreau's own voice sings out: "I like to make the earth say 'beans' instead of 'grass.' " Admittedly, the book takes a soft view of this flinty figure. ("If you spent a day with Henry David Thoreau, you would hike past Fair Haven Hill, where the huckleberries grow . . . Yum!" But as a young child's introduction to the thoughts and work of Thoreau, this captures many essentials. "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity," Henry wrote 150 years ago. It's still good advice for makers of picture books.
Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals
By Michael Hearst (Chronicle)
Hearst introduces young scientists, animal lovers, and kids who just love weird things to a host of odd and exotic creatures, including star-nosed moles, Komodo dragons ("the largest living lizards on the planet") and hammer-headed bats, whose honking "rivals the loudest and most repetitive car alarms." Some, like the glass frog, with "see-through skin on its belly and chest" are eerie and delicate, while others like the Jesus Christ lizard astonishes us with its "amazing ability to run on water." Hearst writes lively, vivid, and kid-friendly prose. He includes factual tidbits, authorial asides, quizzes, myths, and light rhyming verse. Most of the animals are rendered monochromatically, and the little maps and measurements have a dull, textbook quality that doesn't match the sparkle of the words. Nonetheless, "Unusual Creatures" provides a cool compendium of fascinating animals.
One Year in a Coal Harbor
By Polly Horvath (Schwartz & Wade)
Horvath's sequel to her Newbery Honor book, "Everything on a Waffle," is a perfect charmer — in fact, an even better, funnier, smoother novel than the first. Our feisty young philosophical heroine, Primrose Squarp, no longer lives parentless, but her troubles and adventures are far from over. Now she must cope with Coal Harbor loggers, developers, newcomers, and matchmaking schemes. Hilarious and touching by turns, "One Year in Coal Harbor" shows Horvath at her best — with mini-marshmallows on top. ("Of course because we were at Evie's house the ice cream had mini marshmallows in it. They didn't improve the ice cream but they didn't hurt it either and I thought that was what you could say about most things . . . It kind of took the pressure off your time on earth. Mini marshmallow theory of life.") "One year in Coal Harbor" hosts a cast of wildly lovable and eccentric characters, in prose as lovely as poetry: "It looked like the sea was flinging bedsheets over a bed that refused to stay made." Real recipes that run throughout the book supply the icing on the cake.
The Great Unexpected
By Sharon Creech (HarperCollins)
Narrator Naomi and her best friend, Lizzie, are two immensely likable orphan girls living in Blackbird Tree. Optimistic Lizzie never shuts up but she's Naomi's favorite company — at least until the mysterious boy Finn falls out of a tree at her feet. Newbery Medalist Creech's "The Great Unexpected" is charmingly imperfect, which I'd take over charmless perfection any day. The plot shuttles between England and Blackbird Tree, past and present, murder mystery and middle-grade comedy. "Lizzie said that if you imagined you were standing on the moon, looking down on the earth . . . You wouldn't see the mean Granger kids squirting mustard on your white dress . . . the whole earth would look like a giant blue-and-green marble floating in the sky. Your worries would seem so small, maybe invisible."
A ROCK IS LIVELY. By Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long. Chronicle. $16.99. Ages 3-7.
IF YOU SPENT A DAY WITH THOREAU AT WALDEN POND. By Robert Burleigh. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Henry Holt. $17.99 Ages 5-9.
BAD KITTY: LITTER BOXED SET. By Nick Bruel. Roaring Brook Press. $20.99. Ages 7 and up.
UNUSUAL CREATURES. By Michael Hearst. Chronicle Books. San Francisco. $16.99 109 pp. Ages 6-11.
ONE YEAR IN COAL HARBOR. Polly Horvath. Schwartz & Wade Books. NY. $16.99. Ages 9-12. 216 pp.
THE GREAT UNEXPECTED by Sharon Creech. Joanna Cotller/Harpercollins age 8-12. $16.99 226 pp.