I fantasize about running away and writing children's books the way most people fantasize about running away to join the circus. It's not just that children's books offer a cozy respite from a harsh, cruel world, and it's not even that my winter-dulled brain just gets really happy whenever it sees bright colors and short sentences. It has more to do with memory and discovery, and how a good children's book can still take me back to that indescribable moment when I first found my love for reading.
Young readers have a lot to be excited about this year. In addition to the fact that the two biggest movies of the holiday season both originated in the pages of children's literature, this was also a great year for new characters and old favorites alike. Beginning with picture books, the holistic charms of Yoko's Paper Cranes ($15.99) by Rosemary Wells, are many. In the previous book, Yoko, our kitten heroine takes sushi to school and teaches her classmates to appreciate another culture. In Yoko's Paper Cranes, she learns origami in order to send a flock of paper cranes to her grandmother in Japan. The theme incorporates every part of the book: readers will learn how to make paper cranes right along with Yoko, and the text incorporates the textures and patterns of washi and origami papers and even visual references to the Ukiyo-E art tradition!
Usually, books about manners aren't all that fun. Madeline Says Merci ($11.99) is the upbeat exception. Written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans' grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, the book is true not only to the original Madeline but also her unflappable French panache. All the usual P's and Q's are covered here, including thank you letters, teasing, table manners and so on. The text is bouncy, fun and ripe for repeating. We especially liked this line: "Nobody likes a boastful bore / Who brags 'My dad's a rich ambassador.'"
In another nod to famous children's books of the past, My World ($15.95) is a nice choice for the very young, featuring the familiar characters, prose and "great green room" of Margaret Wise Brown's classic Goodnight Moon. Originally published in 1949, the reissue of My World takes us into the daytime world of the little bunny we first meet in Goodnight Moon. Brown's lyric simplicity and Clement Hurd's comfy line drawings are again a perfect picture book pairing.
Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon($14.99) by Patty Lovell and David Catrow, comes highly recommended by several booksellers. And after reading this story of a plain little girl who sees herself as nothing short of beautiful, it's easy to see why. Molly is short, buck-toothed and has a voice "that sounds like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor," but she's never minded because her grandmother has always told her to walk tall, smile big and sing loud. That advice works fine until the school bully gets the idea that Molly might make an easy target for his merciless teasing. The cheery prose and bright colors make this a great book for reading aloud.
Middle readers will no doubt huzzah and cheer that the latest volume in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is out. The much-beleaguered Baudelaire orphans are back, and in The Hostile Hospital ($9.95), they find themselves scheduled for some (gulp) "unnecessary surgery." These books are hilarious and adults will even laugh out loud at the gloomy Victorian predicaments that constantly befall the young Baudelaires. With an oh-so-British appreciation of the absurd and a darkly humorous bent Edward Gorey would have appreciated, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a nice in-between series for kids who aren't quite old enough for Harry Potter.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants ($14.95) by Ann Brashares, is theoretically just the story of an ordinary pair of jeans, but it's a rare pair of jeans that can generate this much excitement among young adult readers, booksellers and librarians alike. Irreverent, funny and hip, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants chronicles one summer in the lives of four friends, who take rotating ownership of the pants. Whether the pants star in one girl's "suckumentary" about her lame hometown or cause an epiphany in Greece for another, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants goes to show that the right pair of pants can make anything happen.
Stuck in Neutral ($6.95) by Spokane's own Terry Trueman is proving to be a big hit with boys in the YA age bracket. Born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, Shawn McDaniels is unable to voluntarily move a muscle, even to speak or blink. Inside his imprisoned body, however, Shawn is gifted with a rich imagination and an uncanny sense of perception. Trueman combines intense storytelling, a good ear for dialogue and a surprising sense of humor in this amazing read.
Finally, although the Lord of the Rings film is generating a lot of excitement for the books, not all readers are quite ready for their great epic scale. The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander are not new, but like the Lord of the Rings, they are tales of the eternal battle between good and evil, peopled by wonderfully complex characters. Available in paperback, they've recently been reissued in hardcover with striking new dust jackets bringing back the cover art I remember from when I first read them many years ago. Based loosely on the Welsh myths of The Mabinogion, the five Prydain books (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King) follow the hero's journey of Taran, an assistant pig keeper who longs to be a prince. Alexander's unforgettable characters -- including the talkative, headstrong princess, Eilonwy and the hairy, faithful Gurgi -- combined with his astonishing talent for telling a good story, make these books a series of modern-day classics.