Best children's books of 2013 for holiday giving or reading

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 28, 2013 

Quirky teen romances, adventurous animals and few thrillers topped local librarians' choices for the best books of 2013 - whether you're searching for a gift or looking for something to read over the holidays.

One story in particular touched the heart of Sylvia Tag, a Western Washington University librarian who works with the university's children's collection. "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" is getting early acclaim because it explores friendship and romance without fear, she said.

"Oh my, it's fabulous, just fabulous," Tag said. "It got so much attention across the spectrum," including a 2013 Printz Honor, the Pura Belpré Author Award for Latino culture from the American Library Association and both a Lambda Literary award and a Stonewall Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature.

Author Benjamin Alire Sàenz is a brilliant new voice in the genre, she said.

"It's written so beautifully and is so well-crafted and is so true to the experience."

Another teen romance Tag enjoyed is "Eleanor and Park," about an offbeat couple and their love of music.

"It's one of the best descriptions of what it's like to meet someone," Tag said.

Tag and Bethany Hoglund, head of the children's library at the Bellingham Public Library, cited among their favorites this year a funny and heartwarming tale called "Counting by 7s" - a story I loved, too - about a young orphan of undetermined ethnic heritage who's obsessed by the number 7.

"Every Day" by David Levithan and "Three Times Lucky" by Sheila Turnage also deserved note this year, Tag said.

" 'The Living,' by Matt de la Pena is getting a lot of buzz around town among my teacher and librarian colleagues," she said. "It's my next read for sure."

That will be right after she finishes re-reading "Ender's Game," the sci-fi thriller she loved when it was published in 1985.

Finally, for poetry lovers, Tag recommends "What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings," written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski.

Hoglund offered several picture book suggestions and some titles for beginning readers - many which featured animals as the main character.

"With animals, you don't have to use a gender title," Hoglund said. "It can be a broader (reading) experience for kids."

Hoglund noted that the library is compiling its own list of staff picks for 2013 and urged book fans to ask about it at the library or check the website soon.

Until then, Hoglund couldn't say enough about "The Adventures of a South Pole Pig," by Chris Kurtz.

"It's laugh-out-loud funny and is one of those endearing little tales," she said.

She also loved "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild," by Peter Brown, a book she called "a gem on all levels.

"The story on the surface is just plain fun, but also has deeper meaning of being true to yourself and how one can do that while maintaining friendships and respect," she said. "I've had great experience reading this with children who just laugh at the silliness of the book. A winner for children and adults alike."

Mo Willems' "That is NOT a Good Idea" also made Hoglund's list of favorite picture books, which stars a duck who's being conned by a fast-talking wolf.

"This book has a fantastic surprise ending," she said. "Written and illustrated in the style of old-time black and white movies, the format begs the reader to be interactive in the story and give the duck advice on if the wolf's requests are good ideas or not. I love stories in which the author plays on the reader's preconceived notions of a story and then flips it upside down."

For reading to babies and preschoolers, Hoglund likes "Baby Bear Counts One" by Ashley Wolff and "Good Night, Sleep Tight," by Mem Fox, illustrated by Judy Horacek.

"This is a great picture book for bedtime as it features seven classic, short nursery rhymes in one story. It seems that nursery rhymes are often forgotten, but are really quite important to a child's development of language and helps build a foundation of skills needed for learning to read later in life. I love how Mem Fox's book brings these nursery rhyme favorites back - I am guessing many adults can remember reciting them as children themselves."

For beginning readers, Hoglund liked another Willems book, "I'm a Frog!" which she called a simple simple, yet fun, adventure; and "Dodsworth in Tokyo," by Tim Egan.

"The Dodsworth books have it all," she said. "Mild adventure, lots of laughs and are mini-travelogues about the locales in which they visit. These readers are for the more advanced beginning reader, say first or second grade, as their stories and vocabulary are more complex. Readers will even learn some Japanese words! These are also great books to introduce children to the idea of different cultures, traditions and how to respect those different cultures."

Hoglund's library colleague, children's library specialist Bernice Chang, said her favorite elementary/middle school read this year was "Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library" by Chris Grabenstein.

"It's so cool!" Chang said. "It's like 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' but inside a fantastical library," Chang said. "Puzzles and great characters make this book a fun and fast read. I loved this one, especially because it gives readers an idea of how the library works through clues and puzzles, which makes it even more fun! I would recommend this one for grades four and up."

Chang also passed along some recommendations from her co-workers, including "Flora & Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo - acclaimed author of "The Tale of Desperaux" and "Because of Winn-Dixie;" and "Fortunately, the Milk," by Neil Gaiman, the master of fright and fantasy.

"One that I am itching to read is 'Sidekicked,' by John David Anderson, about a boy who may be part of a secret organization for training superhero sidekicks."

For older readers, Chang was captivated by "The Fifth Wave," Rick Yancy's saga of world domination by space travelers.

"I'm not huge on aliens," Chang said, "but this one I thought was really well-written, especially with the different perspectives. It's a page-turner, for sure."

Robert Mittendorf is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events, hikes or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com.

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