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Whatcom County teachers, librarians list top children’s literature of 2014

Fun-loving animal companions and suspenseful, fantastic and crass adventures are among local teachers’ and librarians’ favorite books of 2014 – for winter break reading or holiday gift-giving.

“It’s a good time to be a kid, or someone who loves children’s books,” said Adam Shaffer, a fourth-grade teacher at Irene Reither Elementary. “In general in the last three, four, five years, there’s been so many good books for young readers.”

Shaffer and area librarians were asked to list their top three books of the year. Not surprisingly, Shaffer found the assignment difficult, scanning his account for five-star entries in the middle reader category, which is his favorite and mine.

“It’s pretty great,” Shaffer said. “They have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. Middle-grade readers, they love everything, as long as it’s good.”

Among my own favorite reads this year were “Noggin,” by Printz Award writer John Corey Whaley; Jonathan Auxier’s horror story “The Night Gardener;” the funny and thought-provoking “Fourteenth Goldfish,” by two-time Newbery Honor writer Jennifer Holm; and the mythic drama “Boys of Blur” by N.D. Wilson. “Blur” is a kind of “Friday Night Lights” meets “Holes” and has an excellent book trailer on YouTube.

If the following suggestions aren’t enough, consider that “Noggin,” “Revolution,” (Deborah Wiles) and “Port Chicago 50” (Steve Sheinkin) were on the shortlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which went to Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” on Nov. 19. Books such as “West of the Moon,” by three-time Newbery Honor writer Margi Prues, Kate Milford’s “The Greenglass House,” and Natalie Lloyd’s “Snicker of Magic” are getting hot buzz on literary blogs and websites such as Goodreads, JacketFlap and the School Library Journal.

Picture books

Animals play key roles in picture books for the youngest readers, especially “The Most Magnificent Thing,” by Ashley Spires, said Bethany Hoglund, head of youth services at Bellingham Public Library. It’s an engaging and cleverly illustrated story about a young inventor who is full of determination, perseverance and creativity, Hoglund said.

“She and her assistant, her dog, set off on an engineering and construction adventure of prototypes, none of which turn out to be the magnificent result she desired,” she said. “Frustrated, her assistant takes her on a walk that helps change her perspective and ultimately decide to try again one last time, this time with excellent results.”

Hoglund said “Honk, Honk, Baa, Baa” by Petr Horacek is a favorite of her 9-month-old son.

“A fantastic first board book for babies that features clear, bold illustrations of familiar animals and the sounds they make,” Hoglund said. “The pages are uniquely staggered so that little fingers can practice turning a page.”

She also enjoyed “Bear Sees Colors,” by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, and “Sam & Dave Dig A Hole” by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen, the team that won a Newbery Honor for “Extra Yarn.” She recommends “Construction,” by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Brian Lovelock, “for the young truck and big machinery lovers in your life.”

Beginning readers

Theresa Hadley, children’s librarian with Whatcom County Library System, sees an emerging style among books aimed at the youngest readers — storylines in first-person narrative supplemented with drawings or information.

“One of the books I chose does seem to be a new trend,” Hadley said. “It’s almost like a diary or a journal. It’s got sketches and other things.”

Hadley said the approach can hold the interest of beginning readers.

“When kids are just learning to read, a full dense page can be intimidating,” she said. “It makes me think of the way we read now with the Internet,” always cross-referencing and clicking on content related to what we are reading.

It’s called “Alien Encounter,” by Charise Mericle Harper, and it’s is billed as the first book in the Sasquatch and Aliens series featuring 9-year-old boys who become fast friends after one becomes stuck in a tree by his underwear and the other helps free him.

Among Hadley’s favorite books this year is “Waiting is Not Easy,” the newest title in the beloved Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. Hadley loves the comic book-style of Willems’ work and the enduring friendship between the elephant, called Gerald, and his opposites-attract friend, Piggie.

“They’re a great pair,” Hadley said. “They’re in the tradition of Frog and Toad. Everything with Gerald is big and slow. Piggie is light and fast and always jumping and moving.”

She said it’s fabulous fun for a parent and child to read Elephant and Piggie stories aloud together, with each taking a role. Such interactive reading helps keep both parents and children interested in literature, Hadley said.

Hadley didn’t limit her selections to traditional stories, singling out an illustrated book of poetry, “Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons” by illustrator and comic book artist Jon J Muth, and the nonfiction “Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World” by Caldecott Honor writer and illustrator Steve Jenkins.

“Hi, Koo” features a wise old Panda and seasonal haiku poems surrounded by luscious watercolor paintings. Jenkins’ text discusses the four kinds of eyes and other scientific facts, but it’s the stunning artwork that makes his book such a joy.

“You get a real sense of texture, they’re mesmerizing pictures,” Hadley said. “It’s a striking book, a very beautiful book. It would be a great gift.”

Middle readers

Shaffer found universal life lessons in several of the books that he and his students were enjoying this year. Among them were the graphic novels “Sisters,” by writer and illustrator Raina Telgemeier, who suffered a serious facial injury as a child, and “El Deafo,” by Cece Bell, who lost her hearing after a near-fatal bout with meningitis as a child.

“Both those were amazing stories of real life, about the authors and how they shaped who they are,” Shaffer said. Plus, they are in comic book-style, a favorite medium of his.

“Absolutely Almost” by Lisa Graff drew Shaffer’s attention for its message that “being smart is not the only thing that is important.”

Two books that address race issues in America are “Revolution” and “Port Chicago 50,” the true story of black sailors who demanded safe working conditions at a munitions depot in 1944. Its author, Steve Sheinkin, won a 2013 Newbery Honor for “Bomb!” about the race to build the first nuclear weapon.

“Revolution” is the second in Deborah Wiles’ so-called Sixties Trilogy, and focuses on young children in Greenwood, Miss., during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Her first book, “Countdown,” visited the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“It’s more of a middle school book, but it’s really fantastic,” Shaffer said of “Port Chicago 50.” “‘Revolution,’ it really transports you to that time period.”

In “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!” a boy from a small town earns a role in a Broadway show and moves to New York to live with relatives while he pursues his dream.

“It’s about a boy who wants to be a Broadway star,” Shaffer said. “He’s also a boy who’s trying to figure out his sexuality a bit.”

Other books that Shaffer enjoyed were “The Night Gardener” (“super-creepy and fun”); “The Popularity Papers,” a graphic novel about fifth-grade girls who want to be liked; “Brown Girl Dreaming,” poems about growing up African-American in the 1960s and ’70s; and “Death by Toilet Paper. “

“It’s not quite as funny as the title leads you to believe. It’s a great ‘dealing with grief’ story,” Shaffer said.

Young adult

Jennifer Lovchik, teen and web services librarian at Bellingham Public Library, who is fond of new media , called “We Were Liars,” by E. Lockhart, a “must-read (or must-listen-to.)”

“Spending the summers on her family’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts with her cousins and a family friend named Gat, 18-year-old Cadence struggles to remember what happened during her 15th summer,” Lovchik said.

She said it sings with “lyrical language and slowly unraveling suspense,” and is available as an e-book, a downloadable audiobook, and in CD as well as traditional print format.

Lovchik also recommends “Cress,” by Marissa Meyer, especially in audio format, the third entry in the Lunar Chronicles, but she said it’s best to read the first two books first. “Audiobook narrator Rebecca Stoler brings the characters and story joyfully to life,” Lovchik said.

She truly enjoyed (as did I) “Grasshopper Jungle” by Andrew Smith, calling it “one of the most imaginative books I’ve ever read,” but warning that its storyline and themes of teenage bisexuality “are not for the faint of heart. Smith’s story is wickedly funny, imaginative, heartbreaking and profane. Recommended for adventurous, mature readers who are not easily offended.”