Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Favorite Children's Books from 2013

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Our house is rarely calm. Most of the time the living room is a blur of kids jumping on couches, unfolded laundry dumped out of baskets, the boys wrestling on the floor, the girls whining, screeching, laughing, songs from the Frozen soundtrack bouncing off the walls, granola bars sneaked out of the pantry and snarfed under the dining room table.

Can you relate?

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But books do something kind of spectacular. They calm the crazy right down, draw my children together, nestle them onto the couches, shoulders touching, and conjure a quiet I believe is essential in this go-go, teched out world.

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In a matter of minutes my five children are lost in brilliant, whimsical illustrations. Lost in words that paint pictures and sing songs. Words that make them think, laugh and rhyme out loud, temporarily transporting them to a new and different place.

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I cannot imagine a world without books. 

And yet, we are drifting further and further from the feel of pages between fingers. Moving away from the solid rest of a book spine in our laps. 

Any teacher will tell you this, and I say it every time I write a post like this, because I believe it's true. The best thing you can do for the development of your child is read to them. 

"Nothing ensures the success of a child more in the society than being read to from infancy to young adulthood. Reading books to and with children is the single most important thing a parent, grandparent, or significant adult can do." - Anita Silvey

It gives them mastery over difficult words, helps them hear how language should sound, how sentences should flow, and it teaches them through fiction and nonfiction, how to live in this big, changing world. (I love these tips - seven things you should do while reading aloud.)

Then there's the bonding that happens. Sometimes when I settle onto the couch for stories with my girls, I realize it's the first time I've held or hugged them all day. That physical touch is something they need. Something I need. And it is good for us to lean against each other and share words.

In fact, as my girls get older, I think they need reading to just as much, if not more. It's a good escape. We can tackle chapter books, discuss more mature ideas, draw pictures in our minds. Reading to them has sparked conversations we never would have had without a certain book in hand.

For read-aloud suggestions you can check out my post  from October. Or for more picture book ideas, explore our book lists from past years.

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I confessed to you once that we don't have a television in our home. Still true. We watch movies on our computer, get the news online, and occasionally I turn on PBS kids for Spencer and Gordon, or put a movie in for the crew when I have to get something done without interruption. The screen, like books, is also a quick calm at our house. But the aftermath is different.

After watching television my kids are often whiny, frustrated, and sometimes angry. No one ever wants me to turn it off. But after spending time in their bedroom with a favorite chapter book or twenty minutes on the couch just looking at pictures, they are so much happier, their spirits are lighter, their eyes brighter.

I can't pin down the exact physiology, but it's obvious to me that the affect on their brain and spirit is different.

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Now don't get me wrong. Of course there's a place for movies and television. Some day we'll have a flat screen TV of some kind. But we're not in a hurry. I am convinced children need books more than television, phones, gaming toys, or gadgets. 

And it's my hope, if we give them a strong foundation of reading books early on, they will become deeper thinkers, more disciplined in their studies, better able to focus and learn. And when they do watch a good movie or play a video game, they will be able to leave it for other activities, without the snare of screen addiction. That's my hypothesis anyway.

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(Sidenote: Eliza just got braces to pull her front teeth together. So her other teeth will have room to come in. I adore her happy, gappy, metal-shine smile.) 

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There were a number of excellent picture books published in 2013. Our list this year includes some old books, some new-ish, and a bunch that are brand new. In fact, the last half of our list, beginning with Journey, were released in 2013.

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This book has had us hooting for weeks. (More about The Mischievians below.) Ever wonder why your homework disappears? Mystery solved. It's the Homework Eater. See him slouching above? 

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No Fits, Nilson! was a favorite for the boys.

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And this oldie is a must-have for any children's library. It's used in the Joy School curriculum but this year I bought a copy of my own. When one of my girls said she didn't like poetry I said, "Then I'm pretty sure you don't know what poetry is..." So we've been on a search for good children's poetry. And this has been one of our staples. More below.

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As usual, if you have any favorites you want to add to this list, please mention them in the comments. Our library list always has room for recommendations!

The Circus Ship -  by Chris Van Dusen. When a circus ship goes aground off the coast of Maine, a slew of animals are let loose on an unsuspecting town. The townspeople come to appreciate the animals so much that they hide the animals when the greedy circus master comes back to find them. The fabulous rhymes and brilliant illustrations, with hide and seek fun on the last few pages, makes it a fantastic read for all ages.

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Charlie and Lola books  - by Lauren Child. I can't say enough about Charlie and Lola. If you haven't watched this favorite British show, the movies are a must too! But pick up any book and you'll be charmed. You will love the brother-sister relationship, the caring for each other, as well as the silly arguments and jests of family life. Lauren Child masterfully captures the dynamics, struggles, and joys of being little. Put all of her twenty-plus books on your library list. They are totally delightful! 

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Clorinda Takes Flight - by Robert Kinerk. I have loved everything illustrated by Steven Kellog since I was a child, but I didn't discover this gem until last year. It's about Clorinda. A cow who wants to fly, despite all odds. You know the saying... "when cows fly!" Her story of hilarious attempts with an intrepid trio is about caring for others more than yourself, dreaming big, and surrounding yourself with friends who believe in you.

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The Quiltmaker's Journey - by Jeff Brumbeau. This beautiful book is the prequel to The Quiltmaker's Gift and tells the story of how the Quiltmaker came to be. How she escaped the protective walls of privilege and wealth into a harsher world where not everyone has what they need. Just like Brumbeau's first book, it teaches the lesson of selflessness, that giving makes us truly happy.

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Beautiful Oops! - by Barney Saltzberg. All my children adore this small book for its wise lesson. One that every child and parent needs to learn: It's okay to make mistakes. In fact, hooray for a mistake! Mistakes are opportunities for discovery and creativity. Saltzberg accomplishes this with pop-ups, flaps, holes, and smudges - transitioning mistakes into something spectacular. Saltzberg's book is super creative with a wonderful message.

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A is for Abigail - by Lynne Cheney. This book, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (Fancy Nancy), is a short biography of some of the most influential women in US history. From suffragists to quilt-makers, the pages are crammed with details and astonishing stories. Eliza has looked at this one for long stretches of time, but is helpful to read with a parent, so you can discuss and fill in the brief histories of these amazing American women. 

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Round Trip - by Ann Jonas. Originally published in 1983 by Greenwillow books, this book is now available through Harcourt School Publishers. It's a visual stunner with incredible optical illusions. Black and white illustrations depict a day trip to the city and back home again to the country. The trip to the city is read from front to back. The trip out of the city is read from back to front. Just flip the book upside down. I used this book to talk to my children about illusions. How sometimes things in the world are not what they seem. How some things are depicted as good, but in reality, they are not. 

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Hailstones and Halibut Bones - by Mary O'NeillOriginally published in 1961, Mary O'Neill's renowned book of poetry about the colors of the spectrum has become a children's classic. After reading this and Autumnblings, our Sami was inspired to write her own poetry and it won two awards in our local Reflections contest. This book is a wonderful way to introduce children to the sound, look, and rhythm of poetry.

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Harold and the Purple Crayon - by Crockett Johnson. Eliza and I bought this book at the UMFA gift shop last year. Originally published in 1955, this little read is all about imagination and how far it can take you. Harold decides to take a walk at night, armed only with his big purple crayon. On a big white canvas he draws himself a fantastic landscape adventure. I'm so glad we found this book because in 2013 Aaron Becker came out with a new, award-winning version of Harold's purple crayon. It's called Journey. See below.

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Journey - by Aaron Becker. This whimsically illustrated book is just like Harold and the Purple Crayon, except it is wordless and about a girl - a lonely girl, armed with a big red marker. The girl draws herself a door, a balloon, a boat, and even a flying carpet. All of which take her on a mysterious and magical journey, full of mystique, danger, and a courageous rescue that lends itself to friendship. Journey won the Caldecott for 2013. This one goes down as an all-time favorite for me.

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Cinders - A Chicken Cinderella - by Jan Brett. Jan Brett has yet to create a book we haven't loved. Her incredibly detailed illustrations always sweep us off to magical places. Cinders is her latest release. On a snowy evening, a little Russian girl falls asleep in a henhouse, where Cinders, a picked-on chicken, is transformed into a beautiful chicken princess and taken to a ball where she meets her prince Cockerel. You'll love the double foldout of all the chickens dressed to the nines, the hair on Silkie (her fairy god-chicken), and the amazing russian architecture woven throughout. Jan Brett is one of Eliza's favorite illustrators.

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The Dark - by Lemony Snicket. Meet Laszlo. He's afraid of the dark. And unfortunately, the dark lives in Laszlo's basement. Mostly it stays there, but one night it doesn't. And when it comes to Laszlo's room, it invites Laszlo downstairs to discover something. Thus begins the story of how Laszlo stops being afraid of the dark. With great emotional insight and a clever storyline, this book addresses the age old fear of the dark. 

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If You Want to See a Whale - by Julie Fogliano. This book is all about seeing. What we can see if our eyes are open, what can surprise us when watching for something else, and how sometimes, the thing we are looking for is right beneath our feet. Fogliano's story of a little boy hoping to catch sight of a whale in the ocean, is a sweet ode to the imagination. If you love the ocean you'll love the sea foam colors of Erin Stead's illustrations and the way she captures the innocence of childhood.

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Once Upon a Memory - by Nina Laden. When a feather drifts into a boy's room he follows it on a magical journey, accompanied by forest animals who help him discover the power of origin and memories. Laden poses questions like, "Does a feather remember it once was a bird? Does a book remember it once was a word?" And at the end she asks the reader to come up with images of things they remember from their own beginnings. Like eating grandma's chocolate chip cookies, learning to ski, finding a fossil, getting a letter in the mailbox. This is a darling book for young children.

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Anna May's Cloak - by Christiane Ciciolo. These days we think nothing of filling a box with unwanted clothes, but in Anna May's Cloak we come to understand the economy of a piece of fabric - how it can be used again and again. When Anna May is young her mother makes her a beautiful blue cloak. Each time she wears it she feels like a queen. Soon the cloak is too small for her, but Anna May never forgets it. Over time her cloak is transformed to lovingly meet the needs of Anna May's growing posterity. With a snip, snip, snip it becomes something new, for someone new. We loved this tender read.

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The Mischievians - by William JoyceRemember The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore? This book is written by the same fellow. And it's just as good. Ever wonder why a sock goes missing, your homework disappears, you can't get that song out of your head, or you have lint in your belly button? Dr. Zooper has the answers. It's... dun-dun-dun... The Mischievians. An ancient race of global mischief-makers who do all things that embarrass or bug you. Things YOU get blamed for! This book is a must-buy. It will broaden your vocabulary and give you something to laugh about for years to come!

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I'd Know You Anywhere, My Love - by Nancy TillmanEvery child is unique and special. This book emphasizes that truth, while acknowledging that sometimes children want to imagine they are something different. But no matter what they pretend to be, where they go, or what they do, you (the parent) will love them. Because you would know them anywhere. Tillman's life-like illustrations are gorgeous. 

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Nelson Mandela - by Kadir Nelson . With the death of Madiba this year, I wanted to find a book that told his life story with strong illustrations and some of his own words. This book does just that. It tells of his growing-up years, law school, marriage, and imprisonment, finishing with his eventual win as president of South Africa. It is just right for kids. Simple and engaging. With an author's note at the end that further explains his fight against apartheid and his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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No Fits, Nilson! - by Zachariah Ohora . Nilson and Amelia do everything together. But if one little thing goes wrong, Nilson throws the biggest, house-shaking fit ever! Amelia helps Nilson control his gorilla-sized temper with a promise of banana ice cream. But in the end we see Amelia sometimes needs calming down too. This darling book with a twist is great for preschoolers when discussing tantrums, discipline, and the need to control our tempers. But it's not just for children. This book made me realize there's a gorilla in all of us. Sometimes lurking too close to the surface. 

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Happy reading!


  1. Hey, you know what I just realized? While we do have a wealth of wonderful German books (or some in translation), it has always been hard to read the great English or American books with my kids -- you just can't get into the flow of a story, if you always have to translate. But a year from now, after the kids have settled into their new International School, we'll be able to have the best of both language worlds, ;-).

    So long,

    1. This move will give your children such amazing tools, from language and culture appreciation, to adaptation, and a real tightness as a family. I kind of envy you - brave, beautiful lady! :)

  2. We have read many of these this year--so many great ones in this list. Two others my kids totally loved this year were Ah Ha! by Jeff Mack and ABC vs. 123 by Mike Boldt.

  3. Thanks cath! I want to buy them all! :)

  4. Journey is one of my favorites from this year, too. I love the illustrations, but I think it's such a great analogy for life in so many ways too.

    Some day we will meet in person, my friend...

  5. Oh, and I know I probably said this last year, but I love the favorite books share.
    And I love the discussion re: less screen time, more real time, more interaction, more thinking and talking and engaging.
    We don't have a tv either. We did just buy a flat screen, tho, just last month (and now have apps for all kinds of screening). I have to confess I'm loving it. But. Screen time works like a charm here too when I need it. It's a treat because it doesn't happen very frequently.

  6. Thank you for this...I know two little people in my life that will benefit from you sharing your faves books! Also...I have proclaimed myself the Book Nanny...since those same little people receive books from their Nanny for almost any occasion.

  7. FoxyJ - Perfect. You are in the know. Writing them down now. Thank you!

    Alex - no doubt! Wish I could buy every book I fell in love with.

    Elizabeth - Agree. I didn't even mention Journey with that interpretation in mind. But it is so true. Absolutely beautiful. And thanks for commenting on the screen time discussion. I was a little worried about it - I know opinions on this are varied. But I think you're right. It is like a treat when it doesn't happen frequently. And more than ever I think we need engaging and talking and listening to each other, rather than screen time in separate rooms. It's going to be a challenge as our children get older. Trying to plan now, make the best decisions possible. And we WILL meet! For sure. Will you ever visit Bob and Gay? If so, please let me know... love to you and still thinking about your sweet Dad.

    Lisa - I love that you're the Book Nanny. What a gift you will give those grandchildren. On so many levels. Wish I could claim you too! ;)

  8. Book recommendations are my favorite recommendations. Thanks, Cath!

  9. Catherine, I do visit Bob and Gay, and talk with Bob fairly frequently via text. Aren't you right around the corner from
    them? Gaylyn has spoken so highly of you. xoxo

    1. Yes, just around the corner and down the street. Next time you're in the neighborhood, ask them for my number. Or shoot me an email when you're coming. I would LOVE to have you stop in. xoxo

  10. Thanks for sharing your book list. I actually came across it on today (which is how I ended up on your blog). I'm always looking for good recommendations and just reserved all of these books today. And I also look forward to reading your recommendations from previous years. BTW, I just came across this book list a couple weeks ago and it has been excellent (in case you haven't seen it):

    I look forward to coming back to your blog in the future.

    All the best.

  11. I can't WAIT to check out your books from the library! Thank you for the recommendations! Some of our favorites have come from you.

    Have you read Owl Babies by Martin Waddell? We also love Charlotte Zolotow books - Over and Over and The Storm Book are 2 favorites. Dear Garbage Man is a cute Gene Zion book, as well. We just checked out Jan Brett's Annie and the Wild Animals and Loved it, too!


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