Book Reviews

I have been reviewing children’s books for the Palo Alto Weekly since 1997. It’s a plum assignment that keeps me current on what’s new in kidlit, and a soapbox to stand on to shout about the best in children’s books.
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Time to Settle Down with New Books! December 2015

The search for personal identity and young people dealing with modern challenges figure prominently in notable new books for children and teens, including several by local authors. (Disclosure: the Bay Area children’s writers community is small and collegial. I know the writers and illustrators.) Listen up, parents: these books are not just for kids.

The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope by Daryn Reicherter, illustrated by Christy Hale; $15; Tuttle Publishing; ages 4-8.

Stanford psychiatrist Daryn Reicherter gracefully tells the story of a Cambodian dancer and survivor of the Khmer Rouge who now teaches ancient Cambodian dance to children in San Jose.

Sophany was a premier dancer in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over her country. Dr. Reicherter and award-winning Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale convey the horrible history of that takeover with honesty and sensitivity, then show the healing power of dance and how it can instill hope in refugees and cultural continuity for their children.

The Cambodian Dancer includes a Khmer translation of the text and an explanatory author’s note.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad; $18; Chronicle Books; ages 5-8.

Before Sophany, there was Anna Pavlova, a Russian prima ballerina who had a major impact on ballet. In poetic text and stunning illustrations, Swan shows how attending a performance of The Sleeping Beauty inspires the daughter of a single mother laundress not to give up trying to get into ballet school even though she’s too thin and her feet are all wrong. Yet she works hard and changes dance to fit her style. Anna dances for royalty, but also for those in remote areas of the globe—poor people, as she once was, until a train accident in the snow gives her a chill that leads to her death.

This lyrical biography is enhanced by a note from the author filling in the details of Pavlova’s life and influence.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; $13 paperback; Graphix/Scholastic; ages 8-12.

The brother-sister creators of the bestselling Babymouse books for younger readers here produce an autobiographical graphic novel dealing with a serious subject that’s surprisingly funny.

Ten-year-old Sunny’s summer with her Florida grandfather isn’t the vacation she envisioned. Grampa lives in a retirement community with a bunch of old people, and she has to sleep on a squeaky, uncomfortable hide-a-bed. But that’s better than what she had back home in Pennsylvania with a violent, probably drug-addicted teenage brother.

Sunny hangs out with Gramps and “the girls” and makes friends with the groundskeeper’s son. Buzz introduces her to comics and comic book heroes. Sunny learns that superheroes can’t save everyone, and neither can she. She decides she doesn’t want to keep secrets anymore, especially about her brother.

The authors end with a note encouraging kids in families struggling with substance abuse not to feel ashamed or blame themselves, and to talk about it.

George by Alex Gino; $17; Scholastic; ages 8-12.

George is a fourth-grader and the only one who knows she’s a girl. George is a groundbreaking novel by an Oakland author about a kid who wants what a lot of kids want: to be seen as they truly are, along with, perhaps, a certain part in the class play. In George’s case, her family at first misunderstands her “differentness”—George isn’t gay, she’s transgender and her name is Melissa. She’s bullied at school and isn’t allowed to try out for the part of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web because, of course, her teacher sees her as a boy. Thank goodness George has best friend Kelly in her life. Kelly comes to acknowledge George as her new girlfriend Melissa, and not only helps George with the Charlotte dilemma, but also shows Melissa how much fun being a girl can be. Parents: read this book with your kids over winter break.

Playing Juliet by Joanne Stewart Wetzel; $16; Sky Pony Press; ages 8-12.

Palo Alto author and self-proclaimed theater geek Joanne Stewart Wetzel’s middle-grade novel is certain to appeal to young people who love being on stage or backstage, or who simply enjoy a fast-paced book about a determined kid and her family and friends. The plot has as many twists and turns as Lombard Street. Bonus: it’s set in a fictional Peninsula town.

Twelve-year-old Beth has been in 12 plays at Oakfield Children’s Theater. She lives to be on stage, and is also becoming a young Shakespeare scholar. Her dream part is Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. She thinks that may happen someday, and then she hears rumors the theater is going to close. In her quest to save her favorite place in the world from eviction, Beth makes some bad choices and pays the price. Yet even while being grounded she manages to deepen her devotion to Shakespeare and, ultimately, to use her studies to the theater’s advantage. Brava!

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead; $17; Wendy Lamb/Random House; ages 10-14.

In another Rebecca Stead gem, three longtime best friends navigate seventh grade on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with varying degrees of success.

Bridge wonders if there’s a reason she’s alive after being hit by a car when she was eight. She likes to wear cat ears on a headband and is becoming friends with a boy, Sherm, whose grandfather up and left the family recently. Soccer star Emily is being asked by an older boy for cell phone pictures—an exchange that begins innocently and escalates. Third pal Tabitha discovers social justice and activism, but her attempt at civil disobedience backfires. Bridge, Em and Tab may have to break their longtime rule about no fighting.

Older teens aren’t having it any easier: a mystery high school girl can’t face the consequences of something stupid she did. Bridge’s older brother makes silly bets he always loses. And Em’s soccer teammate may not be the friend she purports to be.

Once again Newbery medalist Stead weaves plot threads with precision and fillips of humor. Read this one at least twice to see how it all comes together.

Paint My Body Red by Heidi R. Kling; $14 paperback; Entangled Teen; ages 13 and up.

Paint My Body Red is Palo Alto author Heidi R. Kling’s response to local teen suicides: a story of Silicon Valley high school students who have enormous academic pressure and irresponsible parents, where suicide on the train tracks becomes contagious. (This is not a chronicle of real people and events. The author specifically did not know the circumstances of local victims.)

Paige Mason’s mother is a CEO with a new husband and stepson who was accused of date rape in New York. Paige and her stepbrother are left alone in the house. What could possibly go wrong?

The novel begins after graduation and the sixth suicide, when Paige is sent to spend the summer with her father on his Wyoming ranch. Senior year has left her a physical and emotional wreck, wracked with guilt. She arrives to find Dad dying of ALS (Mom hadn’t told her). Paige has trouble getting over the bad times in California (“Then” chapters) even as she heals in Wyoming (“Now” chapters) with the help of a hot cowboy and a horse to break.

Paint My Body Red is ultimately a hopeful and important book for teenagers, and also highly recommended for parents.

 
 
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Blast Off Into Summer Books! June 2015

School’s out, kids: time to take a break and explore new worlds through the joy of reading. Summer is also an ideal time for parents to read aloud to older children. Even teenagers enjoy hearing an exciting or thought-provoking story. Begin by looking for these new books with definite kid appeal.

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt; $17; Chronicle Books; ages 2-8.

Take a classic fairy tale but let the heroine have more control of her fate. Zoom the story into outer space and the future. Make it rhyme. Illustrate it with whimsy and a dark-skinned prince. The result? A modern fairy tale retelling for all ages that stands up to repeat readings.

This Cinderella is good at fixing things, which comes in handy when the prince’s spaceship breaks down. Alas, she leaves her socket wrench while rushing to meet the midnight deadline. Of course the prince finds her again. But will she accept his marriage proposal? San Francisco author Underwood comes up with a clever and appropriate conclusion.

Over the Hills and Far Away: A treasury of nursery rhymes collected by Elizabeth Hammill, illustrated by more than 70 artists; $22; Candlewick Press; ages 2 and up.

The list of illustrators of this gorgeous collection of nursery rhymes from around the world reads like a “Who’s Who” of award-winning artists, including Ashley Bryan, Eric Carle, Lucy Cousins, Nina Crews, Shirley Hughes, Jon Klassen, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Raschka, Mo Willems and Ed Young. Most of the rhymes are familiar to English-speaking readers. Others are from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and all may very well become beloved by young and not-so-young listeners and readers.

How to Read a Story by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel; $17; Chronicle Books; ages 4-8.

Ingenious: a super kid-friendly picture book for children eager to read independently. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? The 10 steps are simple. Example: “Step 1: Find a story.” Yet they’re also remarkably instructive: “Step 8: If there are words you don’t know, try sounding them out or looking at the pictures to see what makes sense.” The young reader is encouraged to read with expression and predict what might happen next, and to go back to the beginning if it’s a good story—starting with this one!

The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy’s Great Idea; adapted by Raina Telgemeier; $11 paperback; GRAPHIX/Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Kids gobble up graphic novels as if they were candy. And that’s okay! In this first book of the new Baby-Sitters Club series, bestselling author/illustrator and San Francisco native Telgemeier perfectly brings to life a middle-grade classic for 21st century readers who can see how kids used an old-fashioned telephone to get after-school jobs. These girls deal with multiple opportunities and challenges involving their own families, their clients and relationships with each other.

Maintaining a notebook on their jobs helps the girls stay organized. They learn to say no to unreasonable client demands. Misunderstandings and squabbles among the four must be addressed. Once solved, the club moves on, pulling young readers with them. Book Two, The Truth About Stacey, will be published July 28. Pass the candy jar!

Listen, Slowly by Thannna Lai; $17; HarperCollins; ages 8-12.

Twelve-year-old California girl Mai (Mia to her middle school friends) is all set to spend a lazy summer at the beach in Laguna with girlfriends and a new crush when her “Do-Gooder” surgeon father and SAT-prep-pushing attorney mother surprise her. Mai is to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam so Ba can track down information about he husband, who had been held prisoner during what Mai calls "THE WAR." Mai is immediately greeted by sultry heat and hungry mosquitos, and schemes to end the trip as quickly as possible. 

Yet Mai is “trained to be obedient,” especially as Ba's caregiver. She's a witty observer of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, traffic, people, animals, customs, clothing and even architecture and skin-care routines in Vietnam. The teens Mai hangs out with, especially the frog-toting Ut and Anh Minh, Mai’s personal translator who speaks English with a Texas accent, turn out to be a lot more interesting than the beach girls and boys back home. Mai becomes less judgmental in the weeks she spends in her parents’ homeland. “The new me astonishes even me.”

Listen, Slowly is a coming-of-age story with humor and heart—another gem from a National Book Award-winning author.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch; $18; Little, Brown and Co., ages 10 and up.

In 1997, a 12-year-old Pennsylvania girl became pen pals with a 14-year-old boy in Zimbabwe. While Caitlin focused on shopping, crushes, boys and pop music, Martin, who also likes the Spice Girls, lives in a shack and doesn’t have enough to eat, much less the wherewithal to send Caitlin a photo of himself when she asks. Martin even drops out of school because he doesn’t have $20 for (public) school fees. Finally he tells Caitlin more about his circumstances … in a letter written on a discarded ice cream bar wrapper, the only paper he can find. Without letting her parents know, Caitlin starts sending Martin babysitting money for tuition and groceries.

Martin’s goal is to attend college in the U.S. and support his family in Zimbabwe. He’s always one step away from failure, as he never seems to have the money for tuition, standardized tests, airplane fare, food. Yet hard work and the willingness to ask Caitlin and her parents for help results in success all around: Martin gets the full-ride scholarship he needs, while introducing Caitlin “to a whole other world” away from “teen dramas,” and becoming an important member of her generous, tenacious family.

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio; $18; Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins; ages 12 and up.

This groundbreaking and very real young adult novel was inspired by the author’s patient during her residency at Stanford Hospital. Kristin, the main character, is a high school senior, track star and homecoming queen before a painful first experience with sex leads her to learn she is intersex. Krissy identifies as a girl, but she has (hidden) testicles and no uterus. Soon the whole school finds out—yikes! Girls she thought were her friends betray her, her boyfriend tells her he never wants to see her again and she’s bullied on Facebook. Krissy withdraws: after surgery to remove her gonads, she does schoolwork from home. Even her college plans are in jeopardy when she’s led to believe she will lose her athletic scholarship because she may not be able to compete as a female.

Krissy doesn’t always make good choices, but in time she pays attention to a therapist and meets other young women with her condition. She gets out of the house and the self-absorption of her diagnosis by volunteering at a health clinic. A fellow volunteer who’s also an old friend brings intriguing possibilities to Krissy’s new reality as not just a homecoming queen, but a complicated young woman.

 
 
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Let their Imaginations Soar! December 2014

Where can kids find magic and science, art and writing, history and holidays, and inspiration galore? Why, in the pages of these new and notable children’s books. Remember, there is no better gift for a child than a book.

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim; $17; Levine/Scholastic; ages 2-8.

For a humorous holiday take on a familiar rhyme, look no further than Palo Alto author Caryn Yacowitz’s latest clever creation. Her old lady doesn’t swallow a fly. The fun begins when Bubbe swallows a dreidel “she thought was a bagel.” Her family members, who just want to enjoy Chanukah with their Bubbe, are increasingly alarmed as she swallows larger and more complicated Chanukah-themed items, including oil, latkes, brisket and even a menorah. “Perhaps it’s fatal.” (But of course it isn’t.) Bubbe’s resolution to her eating binge will have little ones laughing out loud and asking for repeat readings.

Adding to the charm of Yacowitz’s poem is David Slonim’s artwork, which itself is based on famous works of art, including Mona Lisa, American Gothic, The Scream and even a statue local children may know from visiting Stanford’s Rodin Sculpture Garden: The Thinker.

Quest by Aaron Becker; $18; Candlewick; ages 2-8.

Author/illustrator Aaron Becker’s 2013 wordless fantasy picture book Journey won a strong following among children and adults, as well as a Caldecott Honor from the American Library Association. Celebration of the imagination continues in Quest when a king, just before his capture, gives a map to two children escaping the rain. Following the map leads the boy and girl on an adventure to exotic lands, sea and sky, and the opportunity to retrieve markers in all colors of the rainbow, draw their way out of danger and rescue the king.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm; $17; Random House; ages 8-12.

This is one of those books on its way to classic, every-kid-loves-it status. (The last novel I said that about was R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, still topping the bestseller list more than two years after publication.) “The Fourteenth Goldfish” has a unique and fun premise, a bit of magic, science and science history, touches of humor and real heart. That it’s set in Silicon Valley is a bonus for local readers.

Soon after starting middle school, Ellie’s best friend from forever decides volleyball is her new passion. Ellie feels lost, until one evening her scientist grandfather shows up—as a 13-year-old boy!—to live with her and her mom. He’s discovered a cure for aging and demonstrated it on himself. This gruff old man in a growing boy’s body even goes to school with Ellie. She alternates between embarrassment (Grandpa gets detention because he “used the facilities” without a hall pass) and pride (when he encourages her to “believe in the possible”). Too, he helps her make a new friend: the goth, heavily pierced, wise and witty Raj.

But what if Ellie’s grandfather’s experiment has gone too far? Is old age like polio, something to be cured? Ellie and Grandpa confront these and other important questions of science and morality as they decide what to do about his discovery, and Grandpa himself.

El Deafo by Cece Bell; $11 paperback; Amulet/Abrams; ages 8-12.

Some of the most affecting books for young people published in the last few years are graphic novel memoirs about growing up obviously different from other kids.

Meet El Deafo, superpower alter ego of author Cece Bell, who became profoundly deaf after a bout of meningitis at the age of four. Cece the character may have tall ears like all the other bunnies in the book, but in order to hear at school she needs her Phonic Ear: a box she wears around her neck with earpieces attached to wires, paired with a microphone for her teacher. It’s bulky and embarrassing, but it also gives her superpowers: she can hear her teachers anywhere in the building, even the bathroom!

Sensitive Cece has friend challenges. One friend is bossy, another talks too loud. Her boy crush just likes the powers of her Phonic Ear. The girl Cece gets along with best turns against her because she’s afraid of hurting Cece and giving her another disability.

Young readers will cringe when the mean P.E. teacher drops and breaks the microphone, and feel for Cece as she tries to fit in with her classmates by tipping them off when their teacher is about to return to the classroom. They’ll laugh at what might have been sad in a traditional novel. Most of all, they won’t forget this story about a special kid.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson; Nancy Paulsen/Penguin; $17; ages 10 and up.

Young Jackie Woodson grows up in the shadow of her older, brilliant sister. But oh, can Jackie tell stories. “Brown Girl Dreaming” is her memoir-in-verse, an ode to childhood in a world that is changing during and after the Civil Rights movement. In lyrical specificity, it brings to life the midcentury segregated South and its place in American history. Jackie lives with a blanket of love from her South Carolina grandparents, yet they also sit in the back of the bus. Jackie hears about trainings for marchers as well as those protesting at Woolworth lunchcounters. Colored becomes negro and then is black. When their mother leaves, Jackie and her sister and brother are pulled into their grandmother’s religion, Jehovah’s Witness. Later, Jackie’s mother moves her children to New York. In Brooklyn, Jackie’s friends, especially her “forever friend” Maria, become her anchors.

Early on Jackie recognizes the power of words. She and her siblings aren’t allowed to say bad words. But stories? “Stories are like air to me.” Stories convince her feminist teacher that Jackie is going to be a writer, even though she has trouble reading. Brown Girl Dreaming shows where and how a brilliant writer of this and other beloved books emerges from a tumultuous, important period in this country’s history. Last month it was awarded the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

 
 
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School's Out - Let's Read! June 2014

Otters and hamsters, sleeping and bathing. Soccer and magic, Broadway and shenanigans. All this and more in a fresh crop of summer books for kids.

Sleepyheads by Sandra J. Howatt, illustrated by Joyce Wan; $17; Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster; ages 2-6.

The best bedtime books hold their appeal through repeat readings. Sleepyheads does that with gentle rhymes, illustrations large and detailed enough for babies to follow, and a simple storyline. Young fans of Monterey Bay Aquarium otters will recognize a certain water-resting sleepyhead.

Hot Rod Hamster: Monster Truck Mania by Cynthia Lord, illustrated by Derek Anderson; $17; Scholastic; ages 2-6.

It’s easy to fall in love with Hot Rod Hamster, an enthusiastic little guy on the lookout for fun at the fair: rides, food, and the chance to save the day for Fearless Franco’s monster truck show.

Artwork in Hot Rod Hamster’s third book is as energetic as its star rodent. Rhymes and “Which would you choose?” queries throughout invite little ones to chime in, and add to the book’s read-aloud charm.

President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen; Candlewick Press; $17; ages 4-8.

William Howard Taft was so hefty, he had a custom-made bathtub in the White House. Award-winning Berkeley author Mac Barnett takes the story that President Taft once got stuck in his bathtub and runs with it. “Willy” has the first lady call in members of the president’s cabinet, each of whom devises a solution appropriate to his position. (The vice president simply wants to be sworn in as president.) The text is humorous and early 20th century-sounding, with oversized illustrations that suit the subject perfectly.

Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Renato Alarcão; $17; Candlewick Press; ages 4-8.

With the World Cup in Brazil this summer and the Olympics there in 2016, why not look to a picture book to illuminate why soccer is so popular in Brazil? Soccer Star gets bonus points for showing kids living in poverty who need to work, and how overcoming sexism in sports takes determination and, if possible, a supportive older brother. Score!

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd; $17; Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Sixth-grader Felicity Pickle (love that name) sees words. She collects words such as splendiferous. She, her mother, little sister, and their dog have been wandering the country in their van, the Pickled Jalapeño (love that, too), since Felicity’s father left. Now they’ve come to Mama’s hometown, Midnight Gulch, Tennessee, a town with a magical history. Felicity wants to use words to convince her rambling mama to stay put. She makes a best friend who specializes in anonymous good deeds. Felicity also meets many of the colorful townspeople past and present in order to understand the magic in the town’s history, and what she might do to turn it loose again.

A Snicker of Magic is a charming family read-aloud. I recommend keeping a cheat-sheet of the large cast of characters and their specialized snickers of magic. That, or multiple readings.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle; Simon & Schuster; $17; ages 10-14.

Nate, the indefatigable star of Peninsula native Tim Federle’s award-winning Better Nate Than Ever, is back, and in a Broadway production, the premiere of “E.T.: The Musical.” It’s a dream come true. Or is it, when the director keeps cutting klutzy Nate out of scenes and the child star of the show, a rich kid with the worst stage mother, seems to have it out for him? What good could watching all the rehearsals and running lines with E.T.’s understudy (while they get mani-pedis) possibly do for Nate?

Lots, as it turns out. This sweet sequel is full of onstage and backstage drama, laugh-out-loud scenes, crazy characters and a touching post-production kiss. Tim Federle’s recording of the Five, Six, Seven, Nate! audiobook is not to be missed—listen to it on that summer family roadtrip.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson; Scholastic; $17; ages 10-14.

Prankster and schemer Jackson Greene swears he’s reformed: no more cons after the last one went horribly wrong, leaving him estranged from his basketball-playing love interest, Gaby de la Cruz. But when Gaby’s opponent for middle school president vows to steal the election with assistance from the crooked principal and then cut funds to clubs, Jackson and his nerdy crew come up with a clever and evolving game plan that surprises even some who think they’re in on the caper as it unfolds on election day.

There has been quite a bit written recently about the lack of diversity in books for young people. This novel, by contrast, features a charming African-American main character and his Hispanic, Asian, and nonminority friends. But kids shouldn’t be encouraged to read The Great Greene Heist simply because it reflects a 21st century population. This book has humor, multiple plot twists, and a whole lot of heart.

 
 
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Future Award-Winners! December 2013

New books for children and families celebrate inventors and inventions, fantasy and imagination, math and poetry, and darn good storytelling. ’Tis the season to add to your home library!

Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez; $17; Candlewick; ages 4-10.

Long before Tesla was a Palo Alto car company, Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla set out to prove that alternating current was the most efficient form of electricity. His biggest doubter and rival? Thomas Edison. Nevertheless, Tesla’s Hall of Electricity triumphed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. He went on to harness the power of Niagara Falls for Northeast electricity. His inventions did, in fact, light up the world.

This stunning picture book biography of the eccentric, brilliant, Silicon Valley-like inventor includes a supplemental biography, further information on the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, extensive scientific notes, and a bibliography.

Locomotive by Brian Floca; $18; Jackson/Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 4 and up. WINNER: 2014 CALDECOTT MEDAL

All aboard for a remarkable journey perfect for train enthusiasts or American history buffs. On one level it’s a picture book about a mother and two children traveling on the new transcontinental railroad from Omaha to join their father in Sacramento in the summer of 1869. But really, the locomotive, or “iron horse,” is the main character—the noises it makes, how it works, who makes it work, and how it completely transformed travel to California.

Locomotive shows the building of the transcontinental railroad; how steam powers the engine; the labor and mechanics involved in a cross-country train trip; how passengers slept, ate, and even used the train’s toilet (not in a station, please); and the variety of landscapes and wildlife seen out the windows. All that, plus remarkably detailed notes and endpapers.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell; $18; Candlewick; ages 8-12. WINNER: 2014 NEWBERY MEDAL

Warning: kids who read Flora & Ulysses, or who have this charming, comic-book-style illustrated novel read to them, may very well want their own pet superhero squirrel who types poetry, flies, and is able to rescue fathers who are attacked by evil cats. They will want their own Ulysses.

Ulysses the superhero squirrel knows his rescuer Flora has a big heart, a “capacious” heart. He uses big words because he is a poet, and because Kate DiCamillo respects her young audience enough to use larger-than-life vocabulary that kids can figure out, or ask their parents about. His journey from backyard squirrel to reborn superhero, then marked-for-murder squirrel involves a colorful, quirky cast of heroes and villains, humor and heart.

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. by Greg Pincus; $17; Levine/Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Gregory has a hard time telling his math-genius family members—especially his father—that he likes writing, not math. So what does he do? Enters himself in a city-wide math competition. He also tells his best friend that his parents agreed to send him to Author’s Camp with her, when really they’re threatening him with Math is Magic Camp unless he gets a B in his least favorite subject.

Only a kid as clever as Gregory could figure out how to use a formula called the “Fibonacci Sequence” to write his way out of the hole he digs for himself. He gets a little help from an awesome math teacher, his good friend Kelly, his (sometimes) understanding family, and a lot of pie. (And pi.)

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer; $18; Jackson/Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 12 and up.

Fans of former Menlo Park author Nancy Farmer’s 2002 National Book Award-winning masterpiece, The House of the Scorpion, may be adults now, but I hope they revisit the clone Matt in this sequel filled with clever twists and turns.

Matt returns to Opium a reluctant drug lord, under pressure to keep up opium production even while his country is in lockdown. He also has a different, more pressing mission: to figure out how to free the zombie-like, worker-bee eejits. Even the father of Matt’s friend, formerly a world-famous musician, has been turned into a mind-numbed eejit.

To succeed, Matt must use remarkable determination and wits, call on his friends’ ingenuity (including that of a smart-mouthed seven-year-old fellow clone named Listen), and battle an African drug lord, an evil physician and his scientist children—among others.

Yes, there’s a huge cast of characters and wildly imaginative settings and situations. In other words, another Nancy Farmer gem.

 
 
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All Eyes on Deck, Kids! June 2013

School's out and the summer, with more time for reading, stretches ahead. Recently published books for children 3 to 14 promise to open new worlds, including baseball, show business, math, history, and artist's take on San Francisco and a new twist on a classic. 

The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf by Mark Teague; $17; Orchard/Scholastic; ages 3-8.
Who doesn’t love a fresh, funny take on a classic? These three little pigs build houses of sticks, straws and bricks, and the wolf comes along and blows the first two houses down. But there the similarities to the familiar tale end. To begin with, the pigs are refugees after the farmer moves to Florida. The first pig likes potato chips, the second sody-pop (sorry, Mayor Bloomberg), and the third is an excellent gardener as well as home builder. The wolf isn’t really bad; he’s just hungry, and surprises himself when he succeeds in blowing houses down. 
Kids will love seeing how the book-loving, vegetable-growing third little pig gets this motley crew to behave and get along, and have oodles of summer fun.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Terry Widener; $18; Schwartz & Wade/Random House; ages 4-9.
This eye-catching picture book biography of baseball legend (and Atherton resident) Willie Mays narrates the Say Hey Kid’s journey from Jim Crow Alabama through the Negro Leagues and his first at-bat for the New York Giants (he homered), all the way to Mays’s famous catch and throw in the 1954 World Series. The text is folksy, in a sit-close-to-the-radio-and-I’ll-tell-you-a-story way, with illustrations that are emblematic of the time and the man. Baseball stats and a glossary of baseball terms complete this terrific offering.

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say; Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic; $18; ages 4-8.
Yuriko is like many Peninsula kids who are teased for not having an American name. As beautifully portrayed here by Caldecott medalist Allen Say, Yuriko is a blond with an Asian father. That father, Allen Say himself, takes Yuriko to places in San Francisco that are uniquely Japanese. They go out for sushi and visit the Japanese Garden and teahouse in Golden Gate Park, picking up souvenirs related to their heritage. Then they drive across a foggy Golden Gate Bridge, as Yuriko has to complete an art assignment about the bridge during her weekend at Dad’s. Turns out she’s just as clever as her artist father.
Thoughtful and sensitive, “The Favorite Daughter” should inspire local families to make field trips to San Francisco.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Roaring Brook Press; $18; ages 3 and up.
If ever there were a perfect book for Silicon Valley families, this is it. Everyone here knows a quirky kid who loves numbers, loves math. Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos’s life story, from being able to figure out at age four how many seconds a person has been alive, to his worldwide travels as an adult who helped other mathematicians solve problems and develop new fields of mathematics, is brought to life here brilliantly in words and pictures.
San Francisco illustrator LeUyen Pham complements award-winning author Deborah Heiligman’s engaging, accessible text by filling the pages with numbers, shapes and symbols significant to Erdos’s work. All of this is fully explained in detailed and instructive author’s and illustrator’s notes—theorems included!

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle; Simon & Schuster; $17; ages 9-13.
Here is an obviously real-life-inspired story by San Francisco native and young actor Tim Federle of escaping to New York City to audition for a Broadway show. Thirteen-year-old Nate, bullied at school in Pennsylvania, concocts a plan with his best friend and musical-loving pal, Libby, to take the bus and show up for an open audition. One complication follows another as naive Nate navigates his way through the big city with humor and determination, learning more about himself, his family, and life beyond small-town America than he ever imagined.
Young readers, especially those who dream of stardom or even of seeing a Broadway show, will cheer for Nate at every step. Pick up “Better Nate than Ever” for a perfect summer family read-aloud. Bravo!

Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes; Candlewick; $16; ages 10-14.
This historical novel, set during the final weeks of the Nazi occupation of Florence in the summer of 1944, does not mince words—or actions—about the horror, hardships and complications of civilians living in a war zone. Short, compelling chapters tell how the Crevelli family—mom Rosemary and her teenage children, Constanza and Paolo—get by after dad Franco went into hiding to fight the Germans as a member of the Resistance (Partisans). Paolo takes late-night rides on his bicycle, delivering messages and otherwise helping the Partisans. Constanza leads an escaped Canadian prisoner-of-war (and potential love interest) to safety while at the same time not being entirely forthcoming with her best friend, whose family sympathizes with the Germans. The Crevellis and their housekeeper hide the Canadian and a British soldier in the cellar. Even Paolo’s dog gets pulled into the conflict.
Families who read “Hero on a Bicycle” together will have much to talk about: history, allegiances, and perhaps even how teens in other parts of the world may be dealing with conflict right now.

 
 
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Curl up and Read! December 2012

Artists, architects and spies (plus a few furry animals and other critters) play starring roles in great books for kids this holiday season. Remember, there is no better gift for a child than a book! (To see the covers and other decorations from the Weekly, click here and scroll to page 36.)

 

The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska; $13; Houghton Mifflin; ages 2-8.

San Francisco author Deborah Underwood finds examples of quiet moments during what can be a noisy time of year—things even California kids (who don’t get snow) recognize: decorating the tree, reading by a fire, bundling up, drinking cocoa, listening to “Nutcracker Suite.” Illustrator Renata Liwska’s adorable fuzzy forest animals indulge in a bit of holiday mischief, too, which adds humor to this picture book kids will want to cuddle up with, and parents will enjoy settling little ones down with.

 

Dreaming Up: A celebration of building by Christy Hale; $19; Lee & Low; ages 2 and up.

Imagine a book that’s a terrific gift for a toddler as well as any older child interested in art, design or architecture, and you have Dreaming Up.

Palo Alto author and illustrator Christy Hale uses mixed media and poetry to show the connection between the simple things a child builds and buildings of famous 19th, 20th, and 21st century architects from around the world. Stacking cups, wooden blocks, popsicle sticks, Legos, sandcastles, a (fire)house of cards, even sofa cushion forts and blanket nooks are shown opposite real buildings inspired by their simpler creations. It’s brilliant. Dreaming Up is further enhanced by architect biographies, portraits and quotes, as well as descriptions of the buildings and a list of a source materials.

 

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen; $16; Candlewick; ages 2-8.

A little fish steals a hat from a big fish, then uses typical little-kid logic to convince himself he’ll get away with the theft—even though he knows it is wrong. But will the little guy escape, especially when someone sees him hide in the underwater jungle? Even when the someone (a crab) said he wouldn’t tell?

Kids will love to come up with their own ending for this artfully told tale that invites the question: does crime pay?

 

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand, illustrated by Sarah Watts; $17; Simon & Schuster; ages 8-12.

Everything’s perfect in 12-year-old super-student Victoria’s hometown. Her best (and only) friend, Lawrence, may have a gray streak in his hair and be obsessed with playing the piano, but he is Victoria’s personal project. Then he disappears. He’s not the only one, as other less-than-perfect children and even teachers go missing. Are they possibly being held against their will in the town’s creepy, bug-infested Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls?

Victoria takes it upon herself to solve the mystery and rescue the “degenerates” (as Mrs. Cavendish calls them), though not before experiencing the horrors of the Home first-hand. She also learns to appreciate individual differences and true friendship—which is even better than perfection.

 

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead; $16; Random House/Wendy Lamb; ages 9-14.

Life is rough for Georges (the “s” is silent)—he’s being bullied at school, his dad has been fired and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment, and his mom, a nurse, is spending all her time at the hospital. Then he meets Safer, another 12-year-old who lives upstairs. Safer invites Georges to join a Spy Club and trains Georges to pay attention to details. For they need to spy on Mr. X, who may be a murderer living in their building. Gulp!

The little things in this intricate, thoughtful novel add up to a big picture of reality—as bittersweet as it sometimes is—for Georges, his friends, family and most especially the reader. Fears eventually must be dealt with. And sometimes “rules are made to be broken.”

 

Drama by Raina Telgemeier; $11; Scholastic/Graphix; ages 10-14.

San Francisco native Raina Telgemeier clearly understands middle school drama.

Drama the graphic novel stars Callie, a theater geek with pink streaks in her hair who is filled with emotions as she goes about designing sets and navigating behind the scenes of the Eucalyptus Middle School play. Who does she like? Who likes her? Who’s gay? Why do the roles keep changing? And why the heck won’t her confetti cannon work when she needs it to?

As if there weren’t enough to love about Drama, the last names of most of the main characters are California counties. Brava!

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein; $17; Hyperion; ages 12 and up.

I am not exaggerating when I state that Code Name Verity is better than any book for adults (even NYT best-sellers and award-winners) I have read in the past year. “Verity,” a British spy who goes by many names, is a heroine as fierce and clever as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, trying to survive in a world just as evil: Nazi-occupied France.

“Queenie” (another of her pseudonyms) has been captured and imprisoned in an old French hotel. She makes a deal with the Gestapo: to tell her story, “Every Last Detail.” And what a tale it is, of how she becomes best friends with Maddie, a crackerjack English mechanic-turned-pilot who would, and does do anything for her. As Maddie puts it, the Scottish spy’s story is “full of bookish nonsense and foul language, brave and generous.” It tells of a friendship forged and strengthened amidst the horrors of war.

Code Name Verity is worth re-reading for clues and "Aha!" moments. I also highly recommend the audiobook, which brings to life these remarkable characters, a "sensational team." 

 
 
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Another Summer for Reading! June 2012

Stellar new books for kids and families inspire laughter, creativity, activity, thought and yes, even a few tears. But it’s all for the best cause: reading!

 

How to Babysit a Grandpa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish; $17; Knopf; ages 4-8.

Here’s a fresh, humorous take on grandparents as babysitters: flip the roles so the kid takes care of Grandpa. “When it’s sunny, sunscreen up—especially the top of his head.” Ha! And on a walk, “If there’s a puddle or a sprinkler, show him what to do,” with an illustration of Grandpa and the little guy happily jumping into water.

How to Babysit a Grandpa is sure to be a hit with multiple generations.

 

Happy Like Soccer by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Lauren Castillo; $16; Candlewick; ages 4-8.

City girl Sierra is thrilled to be chosen for a suburban soccer team that plays on “fields with no holes, and real goals, not two garbage cans shoved together.” But she’s also sad that her auntie cannot get away from her restaurant job to watch Sierra’s Saturday games. “Every girl has someone there but me.”

Any kid who plays on a sports team will recognize Sierra and root for her to win on and off the soccer field. Her story is illustrated by ink and watercolor paintings that jump off the page.

 

Our School Garden by Rick Swann, illustrated by Christy Hale; $18; Readers to Eaters; ages 4-12.

Palo Alto writer and artist Christy Hale provides vibrant mixed-media illustrations for this inspirational book showing the many benefits of a school garden. There is so much here: science, poetry, history, math, English … plus riddles and a recipe for stone soup, as well as a helpful list of resources.

Though directed at schools, families will find Our School Garden useful and fun.

 

Discover More: Technology; $16; Scholastic; ages 9-13.

Kids will discover much to study in this fascinating digest of how things work, an illustrated fact-filled tome that explains the history, technology and workings behind smartphones, computers, robots, camcorders, engines and motors, cars, airplanes, space exploration, sports shoes, roller coasters, 3-D, clean energy generation and much, much more.

Discover More: Technology also includes a glossary and a digital companion book.

 

The Moon Over High Street by Natalie Babbitt; $16; Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Though the reader doesn’t learn until page 93 that this charming book is set in 1965, it’s clear from the outset that the characters are not living in a cell phone/computer/organized-activities-for-kids world. The women’s movement also hasn’t hit Midville yet, or at least had any effect on the town’s millionaire. Mr. Boulderwall, facing a future without a male heir to his factory and fortune, latches onto a young Midville visitor, Joe, whose parents have died but who is quite content with the care given to him by Gran and Aunt Myra. Joe has no interest in being adopted by Mr. Boulderwall; he wants to be a scientist and study the moon, not a CEO. But can he say no to a life of riches?

Though the novel’s ending is unsurprising, the journey is well worth the read.

 

Caddy’s World by Hilary McKay; $17; McElderry/Simon & Schuster; ages 10 and up.

Entering Caddy’s world is like watching a wacky British sitcom starring a family of eccentric artists who do the goofiest things in the most matter-of-fact way. In this prequel to five award-winning books about the Casson family, we meet Caddy’s three best friends, who are equally as crazy as Caddy’s parents and siblings, and as lovable. Yet they are also typical 12-year-olds: there’s Alison, who radiates negativity; Ruby, book smart and tech savvy; Beth, who’s unhappy with her body and tries to do something about it; and Caddy, “the bravest of the brave.” They build a hang-out in a stable to deal with the changes that inevitably come from being 12. Good thing, especially when Caddy is called on to make the rescue of her life.

 

Wonder by R. J. Palacio; $16; Knopf; ages 8-12.

This is one of those books for the ages—all ages, an instant classic. If you’ve heard about Wonder, you may already know it’s a novel about a 10-year-old boy with severe facial deformities. As Augie admits on the first page: “… ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.”

Yet the story of this funny, smart, sensitive boy’s year in fifth grade (his first outside of homeschooling) is told not just from his point of view, but also from those whose lives he touches and affects deeply, including his sister, his sister’s friend and boyfriend, and August’s school friends. Wonder is a beautifully written, un-put-downable book that challenges assumptions and encourages discussion, and makes a perfect summer family read-aloud.

 

Fenway Fever by John H. Ritter; $17; Philomel/Penguin; ages 10-14.

The best sports novels don’t require an intimate knowledge of the specific sport, because they are really about life. In fact, Fenway Fever could confuse young people especially knowledgeable about the 2012 Red Sox, as this is a fictional team, led by eccentric pitcher Billee Orbitt, supposedly playing for Boston during Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary year. Billee’s #1 fan is 12-year-old “Stats” Pagano, a small-statured statistical genius who lives for his beloved Sox. Stats’s family runs a hot dog stand outside the park, but Pops is in danger of having to sell the business to pay old medical bills. Billee is also in trouble. Has the Curse, the legendary bad energy, returned to Fenway? Can Stats and Billee’s summer solstice mission restore balance to the park?

The friendship between Stats and Billee, two characters “who are only just sort of normal and also sort of weird,” is fanciful and touching. Pops’s relationship with his sons, Stats and 15-year-old shortstop phenom Mark, is completely realistic. And the ending of Fenway Fever will warm anyone’s heart, even a Yankee fan’s.

 
 
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Let's Read Aloud this Winter! December 2011

Children who are read to reap numerous benefits. And cold winter nights are a perfect time to curl up on the couch with a child and a book to read aloud. Remember, books make the best gifts!

 

The Christmas Eve Ghost by Shirley Hughes; Candlewick; $16; ages 2 – 8.

This heartwarming tale by a master British storyteller and illustrator is historical and also relevant to families today.

After her husband is killed in a coal mining accident, Mam moves with young Bronwen and Dylan to Liverpool, where she supports the family by taking in laundry and painstakingly cleaning it in the washhouse out back. Mam warns her children not to speak to the O’Rileys next door, who go to a church “for a different sort of people.” Yet it’s Mrs. O’Riley who comes to the rescue when Bronwen and Dylan need help solving a scary Christmas Eve mystery.

Little ones will love the gentleness of the story and illustrations. That they may also appreciate poverty and learn tolerance are side gifts of the season.

 

The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee; Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane; $17; ages 2 – 8.

Here’s a laugh-out-loud book starring a baby who’s the boss of the household from the day he arrives. “He put Mom and Dad on a round-the-clock schedule, with no time off.” He makes demands. He holds meetings, “many in the middle of the night.” All of this without saying a word – until he does.

Frazee’s illustrations are reminiscent of classic 50’s/60’s picture books, but the narrative is thoroughly modern.

 

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, drawings by Peter Sís; Scholastic; ages 8 and up.

Prose, poetry and illustrations sing off the green ink adorning the pages of this fictionalized account of the troubled childhood of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda changes his name from Neftalí Perez “to save Father the humiliation of having a son who was a poet.” Neftalí finds allies in his younger sister, a newspaper editor uncle and a sympathetic stepmother, and to a lesser extent his older brother, also a talented artist but who bows to their father’s bullying and his demands.

That young Neftalí is able to find beauty in his world is testament to the triumph of the human spirit, and makes The Dreamer a hopeful and inspiring work in itself.

 

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, drawings by Abigail Halpin; Random House; $17; ages 9 – 12.

Penelope Grey is a bored big-city rich girl with an active imagination fueled by a healthy diet of children’s literature. She wishes “something interesting would happen . . . just like in a book.” Soon her father quits his job and the mansion falls into disarray. That isn’t what she meant! So she wishes again, and her mother inherits a run-down house in Thrush Junction, Tenn. with attached cottages that’s already home to an assortment of colorful, quirky characters. Penelope is so thrilled with her new home and new friends, she changes her name.

Penny’s father also discovers he can cook, her mother becomes a garbagewoman, and all is hunky dory – well, except for a family money problem Penny takes it upon herself to fix. Will she find the treasure? Or has she already?

The conclusion will surprise and delight readers of all ages.

 

Doodlebug by Karen Romano Young; Feiwel & Friends; $15; ages 9 – 12.

Twelve-year-old Dodo, AKA the Doodlebug, figures out - after being expelled from her school in L.A. for innocently selling the Ritalin she didn’t want to take - that she can keep her A.D.D. under control by doodling. She quickly establishes a new identity and makes friends in her much larger San Francisco middle school. The entire family loves S.F., in fact, but Mom, Dad, and younger sister Momo all have to overcome personal obstacles to be able to stay.

This impressive graphic novel with a local touch is filled with humor, as well as an insight into the impulses and learning style of kids who simply cannot sit still.

 

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm; Random House; $17; ages 9 – 12.

Family history inspired Foster City Newbery Honor author Holm to tell the story of a spirited girl sent to live with relatives on Key West during the Depression. Turtle has a hard shell and a level head. Most people she meets seem to be related to her (except for a certain writer named Papa). She hangs out with her cousin and his friends who run a babysitting business they call the Diaper Gang. She says they’re “a bunch of dumb boys.”

In Turtle’s world, kids find their own entertainment, make do with little-to-nothing and search for pirate treasure. Historical references, including the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, add authenticity and flavor to this charmer, perfect for reading aloud.

 

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson; Simon & Schuster/Atheneum; $17; ages 12 and up.

Multi award-winning author Anderson told a Peninsula audience recently that she walked barefoot in snow to get a feel for the extreme cold her characters would have experienced as soldiers camped in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1777-78. As a result, I recommend readers have a blanket – and a warm snack – handy while reading this phenomenal historical novel. You will feel the cold, and be grateful not to have to subsist on a diet of firecake with a side of squirrel.

Forge begins with one escape and ends with another race toward freedom for a 15-year-old former slave, Curzon, who’s stubborn, smart and loyal. He enlists in the Continental army, as was allowed by the Patriots. Still, he’s far from free and indeed is enslaved again by his former master, also in Valley Forge and working for the young Congress. There he re-unites with Isabel, a fellow slave and friend from New York. Isabel is even forced to wear an iron collar around her neck. With a little help from Curzon’s army buddies, the pair use their wits once again to escape the chains that bind them.

 

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins; Charlesbridge; $17; ages 12 and up.

The teen soldiers in this gripping novel are fighting in a contemporary conflict, in the troubled country of Burma. When book-smart Chiko thinks he’s applying for a teaching job, he’s forced to join the army and its ethnic cleansing campaign along the Thai border. Chiko makes friends with wily, street-smart Tai, who teaches Chiko how to handle beatings. Chiko, in turn, teaches Tai to read and write. They are separated, with Chiko sent into the jungle to be a land mine clearer for a group of soldiers spying on the Karenni rebels. One of those rebels, Tu Reh, a teen seething from having his village burned by the Burmese army, finds a badly injured Chiko. Tu Reh acts, but he also struggles for the rest of this thought-provoking book with whether he made the right decision for himself or for his people.

 

 
 
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Summertime, Summertime, Lots of Reading Time! June 2011

New books with humor and heart delight the young reader in everyone.

LaRue Across America: Postcards from the Vacation by Mark Teague; Blue Sky/Scholastic; $17; ages 3 - 8.

Pity poor post-card scribe Ike LaRue. With his doggy heart set on a cushy cruise to Mexico, his mistress offers instead to take a hospitalized neighbor’s cats on a long car trip. His schemes to get rid of the felines fail at every stop. Ike’s correspondence describes and the illustrations show typical, chuckle-inducing back-seat squabbles among siblings. Kids will get a kick out of watching the cats and Ike trick each other as they wheel their way across America to (surprise!) a cruise waiting for them on the other side of the country.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein; Candlewick; $17; ages 3 – 8.

Plucky little red chicken loves Papa to read to her at bedtime. Her problem? Though she knows she shouldn’t interrupt, she can’t keep from jumping in to save the characters from impending disaster and skip directly to “The End.” So her worn-out Papa turns the story-telling over to her. She’s pretty good at it, too.

Marty McGuire by Kate Messner, illustrated by Brian Floca; Scholastic; $6 paperback, $16 hardcover; ages 6 – 9.

Marty McGuire is a bullfrog-catching tomboy in a dancing princess world, and a terrific new character on the literary landscape. Much to Marty’s dismay, she’s assigned to play a princess in the third-grade class play. “That is so not fair.” Then Marty learns how to improvise and, along with the boy who plays the prince, comes up with and carries out a plan—and an improvisation—that steals the show. Improvising also helps Marty navigate the changing roles among friends and classmates so typical of this age. Young readers can look forward to more adventures starring Marty, beginning in early 2012 with “Marty McGuire Digs Worms.”

The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; $16; ages 8 – 12.

Foster City author Jennifer Holm’s sequel to her Newbery Honor “Our Only May Amelia” continues the compelling narrative of a whip-smart girl living on a farm “in the middle of nowhere” on Washington State’s rainy Nasel River in 1900. May Amelia holds her own in a family of seven brothers and a father who believes “Girls Are Useless.” May Amelia can, however, translate English to Finnish when Papa asks her to. Yet by doing so she puts her family front and center in a get-rich-quick scheme that leaves them and their neighbors homeless. (Who knew there was a foreclosure crisis at the turn of the last century?)

Holm spares none of the gory details of how difficult life is on the river in logging country, including wild animal attacks, crushed limbs and demented shotgun-wielding neighbors. But May Amelia has her teacher and friends and extended family in the big city of Astoria on her side. She’s also full of sisu, the Finnish term for “guts,” that keep readers cheering for her until the last page.

Nature Girl by Jane Kelley; Yearling/Random House; $7 paperback; ages 8 – 12.

Take a sarcastic, lazy middle-schooler dependent on cell phones, TV and the Internet, have her artsy family spend the summer in the Vermont woods where none of the above is available, and then have her get lost on the Appalachian Trail with her little dog, and you could have a recipe for disaster . . . or a fresh, contemporary survival story.

When Megan realizes the Trail leads to her estranged best friend’s summer home in Massachusetts, she decides to go for it. “I’m tired of quitting and failing.” Not that she doesn’t consider turning around, or allowing various rescue parties to find her. She sends messages back to her family that she’s okay and never loses her self-deprecating humor. Five days on the Trail give Megan time to think about how she can be a better friend to Lucy, whose mother has cancer. The hike gives her a new purpose in life. “I don’t want to be a cautionary tale. I want to be an INSPIRATION.” Indeed she is.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier; Scholastic; $11 paperback; ages 9 – 12.

Smile is a laugh-out-loud graphic novel based on the author’s experience as a San Francisco sixth-grader who fell and knocked out her two front teeth. (She already needed braces!) Middle school is difficult enough for most teens. Raina had the added horror of being teased for looking like a vampire or a six-year-old. Too, she dealt with years of dental repair work and orthodontia. “I didn’t even know there were this many kinds of ‘dontists.’” Raina’s drawings bring out the humor in the most difficult situations, whether they’re about her teeth or her crushes on boys. Add in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and Bay Area kids will find much to love about this book.

Liar, Liar by Gary Paulsen; Random House; $13; ages 9 – 12.

Clever and smart, eighth-grader Kevin is also a self-described liar, and good at it. He concocts a series of fairly harmless lies to get out of classes so he can get to know Tina, “the prettiest girl in the world,” and convince her that he’s “the world’s greatest boyfriend.” He has a harder time lying at home, where he’s the youngest kid in a family coping with change. And he must tell the truth about divorce to the kid he babysits. When his lies begin to unravel, he knows he has to begin the “Kevin Spencer Apology Tour” and accept the myriad consequences. This slim, funny novel by a distinguished and prolific author is especially appealing to middle-school boys.

 
 
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Let’s Read Aloud this Winter! December 2010

Children who are read to reap numerous benefits. And cold winter nights are a perfect time to curl up on the couch with a child and a book to read aloud. Remember, books make the best gifts!

The Christmas Eve Ghost by Shirley Hughes; Candlewick; $16; ages 2 – 8. This heartwarming tale by a master British storyteller and illustrator is historical and also relevant to families today.

After her husband is killed in a coal mining accident, Mam moves with young Bronwen and Dylan to Liverpool, where she supports the family by taking in laundry and painstakingly cleaning it in the washhouse out back. Mam warns her children not to speak to the O’Rileys next door, who go to a church “for a different sort of people.” Yet it’s Mrs. O’Riley who comes to the rescue when Bronwen and Dylan need help solving a scary Christmas Eve mystery.

Little ones will love the gentleness of the story and illustrations. That they may also appreciate poverty and learn tolerance are side gifts of the season.

The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee; Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane; $17; ages 2 – 8. Here’s a laugh-out-loud book starring a baby who’s the boss of the household from the day he arrives. “He put Mom and Dad on a round-the-clock schedule, with no time off.” He makes demands. He holds meetings, “many in the middle of the night.” All of this without saying a word – until he does. Frazee’s illustrations are reminiscent of classic 50’s/60’s picture books, but the narrative is thoroughly modern.

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, drawings by Peter Sís; Scholastic; ages 8 and up. Prose, poetry and illustrations sing off the green ink adorning the pages of this fictionalized account of the troubled childhood of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda changes his name from Neftalí Perez “to save Father the humiliation of having a son who was a poet.” Neftalí finds allies in his younger sister, a newspaper editor uncle and a sympathetic stepmother, and to a lesser extent his older brother, also a talented artist but who bows to their father’s bullying and his demands. That young Neftalí is able to find beauty in his world is testament to the triumph of the human spirit, and makes “The Dreamer” a hopeful and inspiring work in itself.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, drawings by Abigail Halpin; Random House; $17; ages 9 – 12.

Penelope Grey is a bored big-city rich girl with an active imagination fueled by a healthy diet of children’s literature. She wishes “something interesting would happen . . . just like in a book.” Soon her father quits his job and the mansion falls into disarray. That isn’t what she meant! So she wishes again, and her mother inherits a run-down house in Thrush Junction, Tenn. with attached cottages that’s already home to an assortment of colorful, quirky characters. Penelope is so thrilled with her new home and new friends, she changes her name. Penny’s father also discovers he can cook, her mother becomes a garbagewoman, and all is hunky dory – well, except for a family money problem Penny takes it upon herself to fix. Will she find the treasure? Or has she already?

The conclusion will surprise and delight readers of all ages.

Doodlebug by Karen Romano Young; Feiwel & Friends; $15; ages 9 – 12. Twelve-year-old Dodo, AKA the Doodlebug, figures out - after being expelled from her school in L.A. for innocently selling the Ritalin she didn’t want to take - that she can keep her A.D.D. under control by doodling. She quickly establishes a new identity and makes friends in her much larger San Francisco middle school. The entire family loves S.F., in fact, but Mom, Dad, and younger sister Momo all have to overcome personal obstacles to be able to stay.

This impressive graphic novel with a local touch is filled with humor, as well as an insight into the impulses and learning style of kids who simply cannot sit still.

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm; Random House; $17; ages 9 – 12. Family history inspired Foster City Newbery Honor author Holm to tell the story of a spirited girl sent to live with relatives on Key West during the Depression. Turtle has a hard shell and a level head. Most people she meets seem to be related to her (except for a certain writer named Papa). She hangs out with her cousin and his friends who run a babysitting business they call the Diaper Gang. She says they’re “a bunch of dumb boys.”

In Turtle’s world, kids find their own entertainment, make do with little-to-nothing and search for pirate treasure. Historical references, including the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, add authenticity and flavor to this charmer, perfect for reading aloud.

Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson; Simon & Schuster/Atheneum; $17; ages 12 and up.

Multi award-winning author Anderson told a Peninsula audience recently that she walked barefoot in snow to get a feel for the extreme cold her characters would have experienced as soldiers camped in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1777-78. As a result, I recommend readers have a blanket – and a warm snack – handy while reading this phenomenal historical novel. You will feel the cold, and be grateful not to have to subsist on a diet of firecake with a side of squirrel.

“Forge” begins with one escape and ends with another race toward freedom for a 15-year-old former slave, Curzon, who’s stubborn, smart and loyal. He enlists in the Continental army, as was allowed by the Patriots. Still, he’s far from free and indeed is enslaved again by his former master, also in Valley Forge and working for the young Congress. There he re-unites with Isabel, a fellow slave and friend from New York. Isabel is even forced to wear an iron collar around her neck. With a little help from Curzon’s army buddies, the pair use their wits once again to escape the chains that bind them.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins; Charlesbridge; $17; ages 12 and up.

The teen soldiers in this gripping novel are fighting in a contemporary conflict, in the troubled country of Burma. When book-smart Chiko thinks he’s applying for a teaching job, he’s forced to join the army and its ethnic cleansing campaign along the Thai border. Chiko makes friends with wily, street-smart Tai, who teaches Chiko how to handle beatings. Chiko, in turn, teaches Tai to read and write. They are separated, with Chiko sent into the jungle to be a land mine clearer for a group of soldiers spying on the Karenni rebels. One of those rebels, Tu Reh, a teen seething from having his village burned by the Burmese army, finds a badly injured Chiko. Tu Reh acts, but he also struggles for the rest of this thought-provoking book with whether he made the right decision for himself or for his people.

 
 
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It’s Summertime, Summertime, Summertime Reading Time! June 2010

Summer is the best time for free reading. There are a slew of new books for kids all about the joys of summer.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee; Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster; $18; ages 2 – 8.

Poetry and art synchronize beautifully in this stunning yet gentle, modern while old-fashioned-feeling oversized picture book following a biracial family through a summer day. Bay Area kids will recognize the beach, farmers market, a multi-ethnic community and a huge climbing oak tree, as well as what certainly looks like a California mission. “All the world is all of us,” the text reads, but it is also each one of us in this picture book gem, an instant classic.

Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares; Candlewick Press; $17; ages 4 – 10.

Henry Aaron was a skinny kid in Mobile, Alabama who had physical (“WHITES ONLY”) barriers to playing baseball, who didn’t know how to hold a bat. But he had a dream to play in the big leagues. When he was 12, the city opened a “COLORED ONLY” baseball field, where he played till dark. The next year Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier. Then Henry “knew his dream could come true.”

This glorious picture book biography shows Henry’s perseverance at every step to the big leagues, and how dreams really can come true.

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Summer Before by Ann M. Martin; Scholastic; $17; ages 8 – 11.

News flash for moms who grew up reading the popular “Baby-Sitters Club” series. There’s a prequel for your daughters! “The Summer Before” takes the four girls through the summer between sixth and seventh grade, that awkward time filled with anxiety and change, and also possibilities. It’s a perfect introduction to the characters and the series.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia; Armistad/Simon & Schuster; $16; ages 9 – 12.

Here is historical fiction at its finest. It’s the summer of 1968 (yes, books set in the 60’s are now historical), and 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters are sent from their Brooklyn home out to Oakland to spend four weeks with the mother who had deserted them. She’s Cecile, a tall “crazy” woman who wears “man’s pants,” a poet who reluctantly prints flyers in her workplace kitchen for Black Panthers.

Cecile makes it clear she’s still not cut out for mothering: not only does she not she indulge her daughters’ California fantasies with trips to Disneyland and the beach, she makes them fetch their own Chinese takeout and sends them to day camp run by Black Panthers.

One Crazy Summer draws readers in with memorable characters who speak and act from the heart and find themselves playing important parts during one amazing time.

Sea by Heidi R. Kling; Putnam/Penguin; $18; ages 12 and up.

Palo Alto author Heidi Kling was inspired by her husband’s relief work in post-tsunami Indonesia to write a young adult novel about a 15-year-old California (read: Santa Cruz) girl who reluctantly joins her psychiatrist father’s relief team to an Indonesian orphanage. Though she’d never admit it, Sienna (Sea) also needs help – her mother’s plane went missing three years earlier, and she hasn’t been the same since.

Sea is a page-turner set in steamy Indonesia, a place where loss abounds but life goes on and romance blooms. There are so many characters to fall in love with – headstrong Sienna, orphan-boys leader Deni, and my favorite, little Elli, who sleeps on the bunk below Sienna and scampers off to morning prayers at 5:00, carrying a “rolled-up carpet under (her) arm” as if she “were late for peewee yoga class.”

Sea is the book teen readers will be talking about this summer. Klingwill be launching her book at Books Inc., Town & Country Village on Sataurday, June 12, 6:30 p.m.

 
 
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Books and Reading – the Best Gift of All! December 2009

Local authors top the list of new books that make terrific gifts for kids of all ages.

Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur by Laura Joy Rennert, pictures by Marc Brown; Knopf/Random House; $17; ages 3 – 8.

Kids love dinosaurs. Yet with 16,00 dinosaur books already on the market, is there any need for a new one? Yep, when it’s as clever and eye-poppingly colorful as this, by Palo Alto author Laura Rennert, illustrated by Marc Brown (“Arthur”). All the popular dinosaur species are described according to their attributes as household pets. There are tips on purchasing a dino and traveling with one. And for playing – because as all kids know, “Dinos are for fun!”

The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale; Lee & Low; $18; ages 6 and up.

Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale makes a stunning authorial debut by illuminating the years Isamu Noguchi spent as a young boy in Japan. In lyrical prose and gorgeous mixed-media collages, Hale shows how designing and assisting the construction of his American mother’s house helps Isamu escape the loneliness and ostracism of a biracial child. It’s also the beginning of what would turn out to be an acclaimed career as a 20th century sculptor and artist who blended themes of East and West.

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars: And Other School Poems for Two Voices by Betsy Franco, illustrated by Jessie Harland; Candlewick; $18; ages 8 - 11.

Prolific Palo Alto children’s book author Betsy Franco visits El Carmelo School every morning for inspiration. The result here is a collection of 19 snappy poems about familiar school activities for two or more voices to read out loud. Vibrant, playful illustrations bring the verses alive.

The Islands of the Blessed by Nancy Farmer; Jackson/Simon and Schuster

The final volume in award-winning Menlo Park author’s “Sea of Trolls” trilogy brings the tale of apprentice bard Jack and shield maiden Thorgil to a romping, satisfying conclusion. Their quest? To take care of a vengeful sea hag, and rescue the Bard’s daughter. Nonstop adventure, obstacles, multiple sea voyages and characters and places from mythology will keep readers eagerly turning pages till the very end.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; Lamb/Random House; $16; ages 9 – 12.

Twelve-year-old Miranda’s favorite book is “A Wrinkle in Time.” While she puzzles the mysteries of time travel, a time-travel mystery begins on the sidewalk of her 1970’s New York neighborhood. Who’s scribbling notes to her? Why is her friend’s life in danger? And is he still her friend, anyway? When predictions in the notes come true, what does it all mean? No word is wasted in this brilliant novel destined for distinction as a children’s classic.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman; Henry Holt; $19; ages 12 and up.

This National Book Award finalist is a biography that reads as smoothly as a finely crafted novel. It tells of the long marriage and professional partnership between Charles the scientist and Emma the devout Christian, and the struggles each faced about the religious implications of Charles’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Heiligman uses letters, diary entries and jottings from notebooks to weave an unforgettable and compelling narrative of love, faith and science.

Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff; Egmont; $17; ages 12 and up.

Andrew Zansky weighs 307 pounds. His mom is a caterer, his dad’s moved out. He has a crush on April, the hot new Korean girl. So after losing his shorts in P.E. in front of 49 sophomores in one of the funniest scenes in young adult lit, Andrew goes out for football. Turns out he’s good at it. April pays attention, but to his smarts, not his offensive line capabilities. Andrew finds out what happens at parties. But is that what he wants? His fast-paced story has loads of teen appeal.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork; Levine/Scholastic Press; ages 12 and up. Peninsula readers will recognize Marcelo, a 17-year-old with “special interests” as a high-functioning autistic teen. His father wants him to get along in the real world, beginning with a summer job at Dad’s law firm. Marcelo learns more than his father envisioned, but never loses his moral bearings – which is more than can be said for some of his coworkers, including his father.

 
 
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Below are reviews of children's books that originally appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly 2003 - 2008. Enjoy!

Hey, kids! Dive into a good book this summer!

Boo Hoo Bird by Jeremy Tankard; Scholastic Press; $15; ages 3-5.

When Bird gets bonked in the head during a game of catch, his friends rack their brains trying to cheer him up. Raccoon kisses the boo-boo. Rabbit hugs Bird. Beaver gives Bird a cookie. Sheep suggests a game of hide-and-seek. But "I CAN HARDLY WALK!!!" cries Bird. Clever fox puts a band-aid on the boo-boo. Alas, nothing helps, and all the animal friends start to cry. They don't even hear Bird shout, "I'M ALL BETTER NOW!" So he shows them he's fine by standing on his head. After everyone is cheered up, Bird suggests a game of catch, which gets him . . . bonked on the head again.

Boo Hoo Bird is a vibrant picture book with a story all kids and parents can identify with, and won't mind reading over and over and around and around.

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld; Chronicle Books; $17; ages 4 and up.

Is it a duck? Or a rabbit? That's the argument two off-the-page narrators have in this eye-grabbing, sunny picture book. Eventually they see the other kid's point of view, for the drawings of the left-facing duck and right-facing rabbit are a perfect optical illusion. This is a delightful book on so many levels: fun to look at, listen to, turn sideways and think about. It encourages kids to take one side and then the other - without having to join the Debate Club or go to law school. As a bonus, the endpapers feature cloud-shaped ducks and rabbits. Clever indeed!

Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Random House; $17; ages 8-12.

Here is a wonderfully old fashioned, yet completely contemporary novel perfect for a family read-aloud, especially for fans of Edward Eager's "Half Magic" series and books by British fantasy author E. Nesbit.

Two sets of siblings - Emma and Henry, and Susan and Roy - are bored in their Quiet Falls, Iowa, town, until . . . they ride their bikes into a cornfield (think "Field of Dreams") and discover a wall. A magic wishing wall that takes them back (and forward) in time ­ to Merlin's castle, the Wild West, the "worst pirate in the world" (because he failed at pirating) and present-day New York City, as well as across town to a diner and a movie theater. It takes the kids some time ­ and a few mistakes ­ to figure out the rules for the magic wall and to make matters right when they go wrong. That's the fun, though, that the characters and lucky readers have in "Any Which Wall." Lively illustrations by LeUyen Pham add to the considerable charm of the book.

The Desperado Who Stole Baseball by John H. Ritter; Philomel; $18; ages 9 and up.

Summer wouldn't be summer without a new baseball book, and no one writes them better for young readers than John H. Ritter. His latest is a prequel to the popular "The Boy Who Saved Baseball," and takes place in 1881 in the "gold hills of San Diego." Part tall tale, part historical fiction and completely enjoyable -- think Mark Twain describing a showdown on a baseball diamond in a Wild West town where the "church" is in an abandoned gold mine -- "Desperado" is a fast-paced story starring young Jack Dillon and his new companion, Billy the Kid. Yes, that Billy the Kid, "wanted, dead or alive."

Jack heads west to follow his dream to play for the Dillontown Nine Baseball Club, led by his long-lost Uncle Long John Dillon, a black man. (Jack is merely dark-skinned, a minor detail he talks his way around.) African-Americans were barred from professional baseball until the mid-20th century, but in Dillontown, anyone can play the game ­ including Jack and Billy. John Dillon has challenged the National League champion Chicago White Stockings to a game with an enormous winner-takes-all jackpot. Jack and Billy are drawn into the contest with surprising ­ and enormously satisfying ­ results.

Swim the Fly by Don Calame; Candlewick Press; $17; ages 12 and up.

For every half-dozen terrific young adult novels for girls, perhaps one comes along that keeps teenage boys reading and laughing into the night. "Swim the Fly" is that one book, with enough bathroom humor, genital references and mishaps to impress the boys of "South Park" as well as the Three Stooges.

Fifteen-year-old Matt and his two best buds have set themselves a goal for the summer: to see a real, live, naked girl. But Matt is clueless about the opposite sex: he doesn't notice that Kelly, the object of his desire, isn't worth pursuing, or that Kelly's friend Valerie is much better girlfriend material. He tries to impress Kelly by volunteering to swim the butterfly in the championship swim meet, even though he's unable to swim one lap of the fly. He tries everything he can think of (other than actually swimming butterfly) to get in shape or to get out of swimming, often with hilarious results.

The best scenes, schemes and calamities involve Matt and his goofy grandpa - Grandpa, who has his own pursuit of a woman on his mind. Matt does his best to cover up when he messes up (multiple times), then surprises himself when he listens to the "nagging, pain in the (rear) angel" on his shoulder and does the right thing. He comes out of the pool and the summer a winner, thanks to honesty, Valerie and a little help from his friends.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson; Viking; $18; ages 12 and up.

Ten years ago, Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak," about a teen who was raped before the start of her senior year, created a stir among librarians, parents, teachers and teenage readers. It also became a National Book Award finalist and is now regarded as one of the most important young adult books of the 20th century. Although Anderson has written several novels since, "Wintergirls" is the first to have the impact - and the controversy - of "Speak."

Lia, the 18-year-old narrator of "Wintergirls," is in the depths of anorexia and depression. She counts every calorie and cuts herself in a crazy attempt to deal with the pain of her illness and the death of her best friend and Eating Disorder partner, Cassie. Lia hears Cassie's ghost calling to her, encouraging her to keep getting skinnier so she can join Cassie on the other side. Yet Lia also hears the pleas of her divorced parents, stepmother, stepsister, therapists and new friend who refuse to put up with her bull. She doesn't heed any advice until she finally decides that she does not want to die, and realizes how much her dangerous, life-threatening behavior has hurt those who love her.

Read "Wintergirls" for a realistic depiction of the anorexic mind and an impossible-to-put-down story.

Families can continue the excitement generated by the 2008 presidential election with three new books with historical themes, all suitable as read-alouds: (December 2008)

Adele & Simon in America by Barbara McClintock; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16.95; all ages.

The French sister and brother duo who delighted children with their stroll through Paris of the early 20th century in "Adele & Simon" will be thrilled with this new adventure, a train trip across America. As in the first book, there are plenty of places for Simon to lose his belongings. McClintock's detailed and elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of cities, seaside, farm, mountaintop, desert and river bring people and places charmingly alive. Young children will enjoy searching for Simon's lost treasures "Where's Waldo" style. A two-page appendix explains facts and history about each place they visit.

Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance, with an introduction by David McCullough; Candlewick Press; $30; all ages.

A "Who's Who" of children's book authors and illustrators - as well as Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, several presidents, a few First Family members, and a former slave - are here in a treasure trove volume of short stories, memoirs, poems, letters, paintings, drawings, transcripts and history of and about the White House and those who've lived there (pets and ghosts included). From the 18th to the 21st century, there is much to pore over, study and be inspired by.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson; Simon & Schuster; $17; ages 10 and up.

It's the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and Isabel, a 13-year-old slave, and her epileptic younger sister, Ruth, are sold from their Rhode Island home to a Loyalist New York City household. Madam Lockton treats Isabel and Ruth like, well, slaves. Even so, Isabel is reluctant to spy on the Locktons for the Patriot cause. When she does help to foil a plot to kill General Washington, the rebel colonel doesn't keep his promise to her. As Isabel tells a fellow slave, Curzon, "You are blind. They don't want us free. They just want liberty for themselves." Powerful! Though Isabel makes mistakes, she's smarter and has more integrity and spirit than the adults around her. Her story moves at a quick clip and brings to light fascinating historical details of both slave conditions and New York life during 1776-77. Readers can look forward to a second book starring Isabel and Curzon.

Other publications worth noting:

Holes by Louis Sachar: 10th anniversary edition with bonus material; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $18; ages 8 and up.

Additions to this multi-award-winning 1998 novel include "The real dirt" on Louis Sachar as told by his relatives; Sachar's witty (of course) Newbery acceptance speech, where we find out exactly what inspired him to write about digging holes in the hot Texas summer; and photos from filming the hit 2003 movie.

Two new series from Scholastic Press to keep kids reading about a favorite character from one book to the next:

Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls by Meg Cabot; $16; ages 7 ­ 10, chapter books starring a feisty fourth-grader with typical problems and an atypical family.

Alcatraz by Brandon Sanderson; $17; ages 9 - 12, features a 13-year-old with a talent for breaking things and having wild adventures.

And my favorite YA book of the season:

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell; Scholastic Press; $17; ages 12 and up.

The 2008 National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature is a gracefully written mystery sparkling with originality, wit and intrigue. The year is 1947, and 15-year-old Evie's stepfather, Joe, has recently returned from serving in World War II and its aftermath in Europe. With little warning, Joe whisks Evie and her gorgeous mother off to Palm Beach, a virtual ghost town in the off-season. The family takes up residence at Le Mirage Hotel along with a motley assortment of wayward tourists. Before long a young, handsome former soldier from Joe's post-war unit shows up. Why is Peter hanging around Joe's family? What does he know and whom is he really interested in? Evie falls hard for Peter, so when he drowns in a suspicious boating accident, Evie is determined to find out what happened, and why. She also takes control of the courtroom inquisition as well as her parents' fate. And in a final demonstration of her new maturity, Evie stands up to anti-Semitism in a satisfying and morally compelling conclusion to an exquisite novel.

July 2008 Reviews:

In a Blue Room by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Tricia Tusa; Harcourt; $16; ages 3 - 7.

A family can never have enough bedtime books, especially when these days are long and light and little ones ask for "just one more. Please?" In San Francisco author Jim Averbeck's picture book, young Alice begins by bouncing up to the ceiling, proclaiming, "I can only sleep in a blue room." Patient, knowing Mama brings fragrant lilacs and lilywhites and soothing tea, covers Alice with a comfy quilt and hangs chimes by the window. None of these are blue, yet they soothe Alice more and more on every page. And when Mama turns out the light, ". . . in comes the moon, bathing everything in its pale blue light." Magically, Alice falls fast asleep in her blue room.

Averbeck's minimal, quiet text is gloriously rendered by Tusa's vibrant illustrations. A bedtime star indeed.

Carl's Summer Vacation, written and illustrated by Alexandra Day; Farrar Straus Giroux; $13; ages 3 - 8.

Children's literature's favorite Rottweiler and his toddler charge, Madeleine, have better things to do than nap on their first day at the lake. Why, there's canoeing, berry picking, dogback-riding, playground-exploring (Carl's ears show just how much he enjoys a slide), and a baseball game and picnic to join. Madeleine's parents may not know why she and Carl are tuckered out, but little ones who have followed this story told primarily in colorful, expressive paintings will share in the joke and all the fun.

What To Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham; Scholastic; $17; ages 4 and up.

The subtitle of this engaging picture book biography by North Coast author Barbara Kerley says a lot: "How Alice Roosevelt broke the rules, charmed the world, and drove her father Teddy crazy!" Self-educated and self-directed, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was completely unique and practically uncontrollable. The press and public loved this early 20th century celebrity. Yet Alice also had excellent political sense and served as an advisor to her president father and congressman husband. She loved life and lived it up, and practically jumps off the pages of "What To Do About Alice?"

Elvis & Olive by Stephanie Watson; Scholastic; $16; ages 9 - 12.

Harriet the Spy has 21st century kindred spirits in Natalie and Annie - neighbors and unlikely new best friends who spend the summer spying on and uncovering secrets of their neighbors. Going by code names of Elvis and Olive, the girls embellish what they find and post the stories on cards in the headquarters of their secret club. Enthusiasm bordering on recklessness gets them in the sort of trouble that seems like the end of the world to a 10-year-old. Young readers won't want to put this book down until they find out how Elvis and Olive emerge from the mess they created.

Forever Rose by Hilary McCay; Atheneum; ages 9 - 12.

The final installment in the wildly popular, award-winning series about the Casson family and assorted friends stars and is narrated by its craziest (among eccentrics), youngest and most endearing character, Rose. Artistic, volatile Rosey Pose, unappreciated at school by an unimaginative teacher and lonely at home in a house that used to feel too small. Where has everyone gone? Plus, she doesn't read and certainly doesn't care for the books people keep putting under her nose.

Rose and her best friend Kiran do go along with usually boring Molly's scheme to spend the night in the arctic foxes' shed at the zoo. Who finds Rose? Her own missing and beloved oldest sister, Caddy. Caddy has a surprise of her own, one that will bring all these quirky characters together for a most satisfying conclusion.

Keeeping Score by Linda Sue Park; Clarion; $16; ages 9 and up.

Here is a baseball book that appeals to both boys and girls and to kids who may not know a walk from a balk or what team Willie Mays played on before he became a legendary San Francisco Giant. Willie Mays plays a central role in this novel set in Brooklyn in the early 1950's. He was a New York Giant then and, amazingly, the favorite player of young Maggie Fortini. Amazing, because Maggie lives, breathes and suffers with her hometown Dodgers, and the Giants are their archrivals (still are, in fact). Maggie's brother Joey-Mick tells her she has to have a Dodger as her favorite. "Besides, it's double-stupid to pick a player from your worst-enemy team."

But her buddy at the firehouse, Jim, is a Giants fan. Jim teaches Maggie to keep score while listening to Giants games during Willie Mays's breakout rookie season. Keeping score makes Maggie feel as if she has some control over the progress and outcome of a baseball game. She uses that skill to "keep score" of the Korean war after Jim is drafted and then stops sending letters home to Maggie.

Newbery-winner Park does an excellent job implying that Jim is suffering from PTSD, a disorder not recognized in the 50's but familiar to kids who know about veterans from our current wars. Resourceful as ever, Maggie cooks up a scheme and saves all her money to pull Jim out of his funk and get her family and friends to a Dodgers - Giants game. She isn't entirely successful, but she doesn't strike out either. Maggie-O is a believable, eminently likable character with a good heart and who knows her game.

Accidental Love by Gary Soto; Harcourt; $7 paperback; ages 12 and up.

Berkeley author Gary Soto has earned a well-deserved following for his realistic portrayals of Central Valley teens and their families. In "Accidental Love," Marisa and Rene, Hispanic high school freshmen from opposite sides of town, get together because of a cell phone mix-up. Marisa's toughness loses its edge when she falls for nerdy Rene, who longs to be strong as well as smart. It's a sweet, fast-moving novel perfect for middle schoolers to read on a summer night.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow; Tor; $18; ages 14 and up.

This is the young adult novel people are talking about, the "1984" of 2008. Bonus for Bay Area teens: it's set in San Francisco in the near future.

Seventeen-year-old hacker Marcus and his buddies are skipping school to play an Alternate Reality Game downtown when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and BART. In the chaos that follows they're roped in by the Department of Homeland Security and taken to Treasure Island. Marcus is released after a short imprisonment at "Gitmo-by-the-Bay," but he soon realizes that San Francisco (San Francisco!) has turned into a police state. Forget terrorists: he's determined to use his computer smarts to wage "a secret war on the secret police," get his country back and find his friend who didn't make it out of prison.

"Little Brother" has plenty of action, suspense and sex to keep the story moving, even for non-techie readers. Minor nit to pick: the author's continual reference to BART as "the BART," as if BART were a Southern California freeway. (When I sent Doctorow this review, he "confessed" that he may have been influenced by time spent in Southern California. Ha! I give him mega points for that, and wish this book well in awards season.)

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis; Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $18; ages 8 and up.

This stunning autobiographical history of the Cold War by acclaimed artist Peter Sis is a book of contrasts ­ black and white, with splashes of red, drawings of Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia as opposed to occasional color-filled art when "music from the free world - rock 'n' roll and the Beatles - made a crack in the wall." But the Prague Spring of 1968 was soon quashed by Russian tanks, and the artist had to be vigilant lest his drawings land him in prison. Sis passionately illustrates the oppression as well as his dreams of freedom. His art allowed him occasional trips to the West, and in 1984 he refused to return to Czechoslovakia. Sis's heart-rending drawing of the fall of the Berlin Wall five years later has more to say about the end of the Cold War than words in any history book.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban; Harcourt; $16; ages 8 ­ 12.

Here's a perfect book for girls ­ funny, smart, fast-paced and as different from other books for readers this age as the music its protagonist, Zoe, plays on her "wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag organ" while dreaming of performing on a "glamorous" piano at Carnegie Hall. Zoe is a charming, likable protagonist who deals with a father who's afraid to leave the house, and a workaholic mother who misses Zoe's 11th birthday and can't take her to the Perform-O-Rama organ competition. Not only that, Zoe's former best friend has turned into a "mean girl." But she has a new friend, a boy who follows her home from school every day and brings out the best in her dad. Dad manages to overcome his OCD to drive Zoe to the competition, where she shines and Mom surprises everyone.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis; Scholastic; $17; ages 9 and up.

Christopher Paul Curtis's first book, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham ­ 1963," was one of the best novels for children published in the 1990s ­ poignant, powerful and laugh-out-loud hilarious. "Elijah" is just as good, if not better. Set in 1860 in Buxton, a Canadian Settlement over the border from Detroit that was a terminus of the Underground Railroad, the novel stars 11-year-old Elijah, a sharp, sensitive, talkative, hard-working boy who was the first free-born child in this town of former American slaves. As in "Watsons," readers are treated to tales about Elijah and his fellow settlers until we know him well and appreciate what freedom means to former slaves and their children. The plot picks up considerable speed as Elijah travels across the border to retrieve money stolen from a friend who's been saving to buy his family's freedom. Elijah finds the thief in a barn, where he also finds a group of near-dead, shackled runaway slaves. But Elijah rescues the youngest, a baby, and takes her to Buxton for a new life. Bravo!

The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer; Jackson/Atheneum; $19; ages 10 - 14.

A sequel to Menlo Park award-winning author Nancy Farmer's brilliant novel for young people about an apprentice bard, Jack, and his adventures in 790 A.D. Britain. "The Sea of Trolls" took young readers to the seas beyond the British Isles. This book takes them below Earth. Jack's pilgrimage to find help at a monastery for his sister, Lucy, turns into a quest to find Lucy after she's kidnapped by the Lady of the Lake. But should Lucy be rescued? Who is she, anyway? Nothing is what it appears to be in the Land of the Silver Apples, or Elfland, where time stands still and illusion reigns. Jack's traveling companions include Pega, a freed slave considered ugly in Jack's village but adored by the king of the hobgoblins, and John's old friend Thorgil, the shield maiden from "The Sea of Trolls." The children are thrown into a dungeon with a "gloomy monk and a half-mad abbot." Jack needs to find "allies (he is) not aware of" before he can dig his way out of trouble, rescue the hobgoblins, and return to Middle Earth. Like other Nancy Farmer books, "The Land of the Silver Apples" is peppered with fillips of humor and unique characters. The story is supplemented by an excellent appendix about religion, folklore and symbols Farmer drew from for her epic. And even though Harry Potter's adventures may have ended, Jack will return in 2009 with the final book in the trilogy, "The Islands of the Blessed." Hurrah!

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; Candlewick; $17; ages 4 ­ 8.

Here's a touching Christmas tale showing the compassion a young 1940's girl feels for an organ grinder and his monkey. Frances stays up late and is horrified to find that the pair sleeps on the street, "even when it snows." Her mother (Father seems to be off fighting the war) is more concerned with Frances's line in the church Christmas pageant. Frances invites the organ grinder to the pageant, which brings "Great joy" to one and all. Detailed, Norman Rockwell-like paintings fill the pages of this picture book with warmth.

QUICK GIFT PICKS:

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon; Orchard/Scholastic; ; $16; ages 8 and up.

An excellent, kid-friendly practical guide to a hot topic.

Regarding the Bees: A lesson in letters, on honey, dating, and other sticky subjects by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Harcourt; $15; ages 8 ­ 14.

The latest in the wildly popular Regarding the . . . series.

The Encyclopedia of Immaturity: How To Never Grow Up by the editors of Klutz; Klutz/Scholastic; $19.95; ages 8 and up.

A tome that epitomizes the phrase, "Fun for all ages."

CLICK: One Novel, Ten Authors; Levine/Scholastic; $17; ages 12 and up.

Ten of the top authors of young adult literature spin remarkable tales, all related, about the life of an acclaimed international photographer and the lives of those he touched and influenced. Royalties benefit Amnesty International.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Art by Ellen Forney; Little, Brown; $17; ages 12 and up.

Deserved winner of the National Book Award, Young People's Literature, that will make teens laugh, cry and get into the head of a contemporary American Indian who dares to venture off the "rez" for high school.

Reviews from July 2007 and before:

Summer Beat by Betsy Franco, illustrated by Charlotte Middleton; Simon & Schuster/McElderry; $16; ages 1 - 6.

Prolific Palo Altan Betsy Franco has another winner in "Summer Beat," where two best bud's spend a day soaking up the sounds and sights of summer, from the "Clackity clack" of Emily's skateboard to the "Flappity-flap" of the neighborhood Fourth of July bike parade, and finally, the "Snuffle, snort" of night-time. "Summer sounds never stop." Vibrant illustrations and words that dance across the page will delight parent and child alike in this outstanding addition to any summer collection.

Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry, collected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrated by Polly Dunbar; $22; Candlewick; ages 2 - 6.

Here is a little gem of a collection of poems specifically for and about babies and toddlers and their daily activities. It's also a glorious "coffee table book" for very young children and their parents (and grandparents, certainly) to enjoy together, whenever.

The poems are exuberantly illustrated and represent many of the best poets of the English-speaking world, such as Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Wise Brown, Gertrude Stein, A. A. Milne, Jack Prelutsky, and Lee Bennett Hopkins. Families will recognize old favorites and acquire new verses, all the while inspiring an appreciation of poetry in little ones.

Imagine Harry by Kate and M. Sarah Klise; Harcourt; $16; ages 3 - 8.

In this third charming Rabbit book, Harry is Little Rabbit's favorite companion. Mother Rabbit patiently makes accommodations for Harry, although when Little Rabbit says that he doesn't want any brussels sprouts for dinner because Harry doesn't like the smell, Mother replies, "Your friend Harry is starting to wear out his welcome." Ha! Harry goes to school with Little Rabbit (and is very quiet), but as Little Rabbit makes new friends, Harry gradually fades from the scene. As Little Rabbit explains, "Harry moved away." Young children, whether they have an imaginary friend or not, will find much to love in this imaginative, sweet story brought to life with winsome illustrations.

A Second is a Hiccup: A Child's Book of Time by Hazel Hutchins, illustrated by Kady Macdonald Denton; Scholastic/Levine; $17; ages 4 - 8.

Why didn't someone think of this sooner? This clever picture book explains units of time in terms kids understand and recognize, and will be welcomed by any parent who's been asked, "How long is a second (or minute, hour, day, week, month, or year)?" The explanations logically grow longer with greater units of time ­ more happens in a month than in a minute, and much can be accomplished in a year, such as "Tiny babies learn to walk/Bigger babies learn to talk/Holidays of every kind/Linked together in a line." And "Changes come and changes go/Round and round the years you'll grow." The illustrations are loving and energetic, and add to the appeal of this instant classic.

My Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems; Hyperion; $9.00; ages 4 - 8.

Elephant and Piggie join the classic easy reader best-friend duos (Frog and Toad, George and Martha) in this first, laugh-out-loud book by the author of the best-selling, award-winning picture books "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" and "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale." Piggie is determined to cheer up her bespeckled friend, Gerald the Elephant, by dressing up as a cowboy, a clown, and a robot, and parading in front of her friend. Elephant enjoys the entertainment, but later laments to Piggie that ". . . my best friend was not there to see it with me." Piggie points out that she is there now. "My friend is here now," Elephant says, while picking up Piggie and giving her a big hug. "I need my friends." To which Piggie adds with deadpan humor, "You need new glasses. . . ." Kids just learning to read will love everything about this book: the giggles it elicits, the expressions of emotion on the characters' faces (as well as their ears and trunks and tails), and the large, easy-to-read and simple words.

Jack Plank Tells Tales by Natalie Babbitt; Scholastic/DiCapua; $16; all ages.

Natalie Babbitt, author of the modern classic "Tuck Everlasting," is a master storyteller. So is Jack Plank, her teller of tales in this perfect family read-aloud. "Jack Plank was an out-of-work pirate." (He) "wasn't good at plundering." His shipmates on the "Avarice" give him the gentle heave-ho, along with a small bag of gold florins, onto Saltwash Island. Jack takes a room in Mrs. DelFresno's boarding house. Her 11-year-old daughter, Nina, promises to show Jack around town and help the former pirate find the "perfect job." At suppertime on the eight evenings thereafter, Jack tells his fellow borders lively and imaginative (but never violent) stories from his pirating days that illustrate why he's not suitable to be a farmer, a baker, a fortune-teller, a fisherman, a barber, a goldsmith, an actor, or a musician. Nina indeed finds the perfect job for Jack - town storyteller. Of course!

Across the Wide Ocean: The Why, How, and Where of Navigation for Humans and Animals at Sea by Karen Romano Young; Collins/Greenwillow Books; $19; ages 9 - 12.

Anyone who's enjoyed a field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium or who followed the journey of the wayward whales that went up the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta this spring will find much to pore over, study and learn from in this entertaining, informative and extensively researched book. Concepts in science and geography are clearly explained here in readable text and colorful multimedia illustrations. Kids can learn about the 9,000-mile migration pattern of loggerhead sea turtles; follow scientists as they search for right whales in the North Atlantic; learn how to find latitude and longitude; find out what whales sound like; read about what submarines do and how they navigate; learn which animals and plants live at different levels below the ocean surface; study currents and weather; learn about container ships; and follow biologists as they track migration of blue sharks from one side of the ocean to another.

The Search for the Perfect Child, written and illustrated by Jan Fearnley; Candlewick Press; $16; ages 2 - 6.

Meet Fido Farnsworth, "the cleverest, sharpest, coolest dog detective in the whole world." He's looking for the perfect child. He knows that child is (among other things), creative and kind to animals, loves nature, and has style and varied interests. The perfect child likes to monkey around while still being polite and cooperative. He asks the reader/listener, "Have you seen one?" Of course! Little ones will want to hear this fun, funny picture book over and over.

Adele & Simon, written and illustrated by Barbara McClintock; Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16; all ages.

This is a book with enormous appeal for multiple generations, as well as Francophiles and "Where's Waldo?" fans. Simon tries not to lose anything while his sister Adele walks him home from school through Paris of the early 20th century. Alas, they have many places to stop, many friends to visit, and many opportunities for Simon to lose his belongings. Kids will love searching the intricate Parisian pictures for Simon's missing things and how he's reunited with them.

Clever Ali by Nancy Farmer, illustrated by Gail de Marcken; Orchard/Scholastic; $18; all ages.

Menlo Park award-winning novelist Nancy Farmer uses her considerable storytelling skills to spin a tale set in 12th century Egypt starring a quick-witted boy, an evil sultan, a helpful demon, and hundreds of carrier pigeons -- handsomely illustrated, perfect for reading aloud.

Akira to Zoltan: Twenty-Six Men who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee, illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy; Charlesbridge; $16; ages 8 - 12.

Palo Alto author Cynthia Chin-Lee's companion to her picture book biography, "Amelia to Zora," captures the essence of 26 men who changed the world, described in engaging, eloquent text and illustrated with imaginative and vibrant mixed-media.

Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, pictures by Marla Frazee; Hyperion; $15; ages 7 - 10.

Here is a giggle-a-paragraph chapter book starring the spunkiest character in children's literature since Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby. Clementine is fond of the expression "Okay, fine," as in "Okay, fine, Monday was not so good of a day." Perhaps because she cut off her friend's hair in the school bathroom. And then she colored Margaret's head red. By Wednesday she'd chopped off her own hair, and asked Margaret to color green curls on her head. She's constantly being sent to the principal's office and inspiring her mother to say, "What on earth were you thinking, Clementine?" She objects to "getting stuck with a name that is also a fruit," so she calls her brother vegetable names. But he's three and doesn't mind. He asks Clementine, "Go for a wok?" which, obviously, involves her spinning him on the kitchen floor in the wok. Clementine is determined to help her father bring an end to "The Great Pigeon War." She's also afraid her parents want to get rid of her because she's the "hard one" in the family. Emergent readers will be surprised and delighted along with their heroine Clementine to find out what her parents mean by "Good-bye and good riddance." Frazee's delightful illustrations to Pennypacker's story of Clementine's wacky week jump off the page with verve and personality. Buy this book for any child learning to read. Read it aloud to kids who aren't yet reading. It'll give them something to look forward to.

Regarding the Bathrooms: A Privy to the Past by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Harcourt; $15; ages 9 - 12.

This fourth installment of the wildly popular middle-grade Regarding the . . . series is a must-read for fans of puns and fun, bathroom humor (and shhhh ­ history) included.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang; First Second; $17; ages 10 and up.

Everything about this impressive graphic novel pulls the reader in: the art and the way it's presented on the page; the three intertwining stories about wanting to be someone you're not, of transforming yourself in order to assimilate; the school settings any kid living in the multicultural Bay Area will recognize, even though Asians and Asian-American are no longer a rarity; the humor in what kids will do to themselves to fit in; the chance to be un-politically correct and laugh at cultural stereotypes, but also to recognize the pain caused by typecasting . . . oh, and did I mention the Monkey King is one of the main characters?

Yang grew up in San Francisco and Saratoga, and teaches computer science at a Catholic high school in Oakland. He knows about which he writes and draws. He took a comic book writing class at Foothill College, and this, his fifth book, vaulted to the national stage as a highly acclaimed finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Don't miss it.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green; Dutton; $17; ages 12 and up.

John Green's books get teenagers - even teenage boys - to read fiction. His second novel is a laugh-out-loud, enormously clever, smart book with characters sure to appeal to Peninsula teens. Here's the first sentence: "The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath." Colin is so depressed about the break-up and also about the prospect of never doing anything actually meaningful that his best buddy, Hassan, drags him a road trip. The road leads to Gutshot, Tennessee, where they meet their match in wits and sassiness, Lindsey Lee Wells. Lindsey's mother hires Colin and Hassan for the summer. Taking oral histories gives Colin something to do while working on his "Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability," which he's deemed is his chance to make a difference. What young person would not want to be able to predict the durability of any relationship? Colin has his Eureka moment and recovers from his Katherine obsession. "Fat, hirsute," hilarious Hassan finds a girl (who's not Judge Judy). Their story is told in text, footnotes (Arabic and other foreign language translations, trivia, word games, and such) and an Appendix explaining the mathematics of Colin's Theorem. Brainy indeed.

Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jane Dyer; HarperCollins; $13; all ages.

Little ones will think this is simply a big, colorful, whimsical picture book about the many ways of looking at a cookie. Adults who care about raising thoughtful children will see it differently: all the above as well as a clever way to impart important lessons. How better to illustrate "fair" as "You get a bite, I get a bite, you get a big bite, I get a big bite," by contrasting it with "unfair," meaning "You get a bite, and now I get the rest"? Kids may not remember where they first heard the terms patient, modest, respect, greedy vs. generous, and such, but it's all here, illustrated in bright, eye-catching watercolors.

Good Boy, Fergus! by David Shannon; Blue Sky/Scholastic; $16; ages 2 - 8.

Fergus, an energetic and lovable West Highland terrier, is the undisputed star of this laugh-out-loud dog-centric picture book filled with oversized drawings and lettering. No one but Fergus's owner would ever think of him as well-behaved as he romps through his day acting like many untrained canines who beg, mess up the house, refuse to come when called, chase cats and the like. But heck, Fergus is easily forgiven because he's so darn cute. What a good boy.

Why Do You Cry? Not a Sob Story by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Henry Holt; $17; ages 3 - 8.

Little Rabbit is about to celebrate his fifth birthday with a grown-up birthday party. He tells Mother Rabbit, "I'm done with crying. . . Crying is for babies, and I'm not a baby anymore." He decides to invite only those who are big, "like me," and don't cry. But when he surveys his animal friends, he finds out that they still do cry. Mother Rabbit weeps, too, even when she's happy. Little Rabbit can't believe all this! She tells him, "You can cry for any reason. Or for no reason at all." Growing up doesn't have to mean never crying again, so they throw a huge birthday bash for all his friends. Any mother of a child who seems to be growing up too fast will understand who's holding the hankie as Little Rabbit blows out the candles. The satisfying conclusion of this sweet story is illustrated with expressive animals, sly gags, and clever details on every page. Another Klise sisters gem!

Mom and Dad Are Palindromes by Mark Shulman, illustrated by Adam McCauley; Chronicle; $16; ages 5 - 9.

Bob has a problem. When his teacher, Miss Sim, explains that "Palindromes are words that are spelled exactly the same way, forward . . . and backward," she points out to the class that a palindrome is among them. It's Bob! That's when he begins to see palindromes everywhere: his pup, Otto; his kayak; his sisters Anna and Nan; and, of course, Mom and Dad. Young language fans will have great fun finding all the palindrome words and phrases in this playful picture book, and in their own world. Wow!

John Muir: America's First Environmentalist by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Stan Fellows; Candlewick; $17; ages 4 - 12.

Here is a big, beautiful, picture book biography of the environmental icon and Sierra Club founder. Muir's love of the outdoors began in his native Scotland, and continued on his father's farm in Wisconsin. He studied and reveled in the natural environment ­ creatures, rock formations, stars. John also taught himself mathematics and turned into an amateur inventor. But he was happiest in meadows, mountains and woods. A lifelong walker, he walked a thousand miles to Florida, and later from San Francisco to the Yosemite Valley. At age 50 he directed his focus to conservation, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of the first national park, his beloved Yosemite. Bold, vibrant, double-page watercolor paintings of John Muir and the great outdoors bring this story gloriously to life. Pick this book up before the family's summer trip to Yosemite.

Landed by Milly Lee, pictures by Yangsook Choi; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16; ages 9 - 12.

This noteworthy and impressive picture book tells a true immigration experience from the early 20th century. The author's father-in-law, Lee Sun Chor, sailed from China to San Francisco with his father, a Chinatown merchant. But like other Chinese immigrants, Sun was detained at Angel Island for weeks, until he could be interrogated by immigration officials. While Sun was a "true son" of a Chinatown shopowner, many other immigrants came to America as "paper sons," posing as sons of merchants or U.S. citizens. It was the only way under the Chinese Exclusion Act for Chinese to immigrate legally. Sun studies hard for the interrogation, but when he's asked which direction the nearest neighbors' house back in China faces, he answered, "I don't know." Sun's poor sense of direction was in danger of sending him away from his father and brothers! Stellar storytelling and realistic watercolor paintings make this disturbing chapter of local and American history accessible without either sentimentality or bitterness. Twenty-first century children can learn a great deal from plucky Lee Sun Chor's story in "Landed," as well as Milly Lee's excellent author's note about Chinese immigration.

Caddy Ever After by Hilary McKay; McElderry/Simon & Schuster; $16; ages 10 - 14.

McKay's first three novels starring the hilarious, artistic and extremely likable Casson family (and friends) have racked up awards and a huge following in the U.S. and Britain. This newest offering is as entertaining and reads as swiftly as its predecessors.

Though told by alternating narrators Rose, Indigo, Saffron and Caddy, as usual the real star is young Rose. Rose, who soaks up her best friend Kiran's ghost stories and tales of wedding disasters. Rose, who always says precisely what's on her mind and is wiser and more observant than her older siblings - and they know it. Rose, who cannot let Caddy marry Alex because dear Michael, Caddy's only boyfriend who "mattered," asked Rose not to let Caddy marry anyone else. Rose, whose teacher implores her to tell the class during "Hot Gossip" how she saved the day at her sister's wedding. Quirky and endearing, "Caddy Ever After" epitomizes fun summertime reading.

Under the Baseball Moon by John H. Ritter; Philomel; $17; ages 12 and up.

The finest contemporary author of baseball books for teens ("The Boy Who Saved Baseball" et al) has written not just another baseball - or, in this case, softball - book; rather, a multilayered and thoroughly engrossing love story starring two 15-year-olds determined that this will be their "breakout summer." Freestyle skateboarder Andy Ramos "paints the town" with his old trumpet and his unique style of music, "cultural fusion." Glory Martinez also has grand dreams, of a career in fast-pitch softball. Yet first she needs to make the travelball team and impress the scout from UC Berkeley. Andy and Glory soon realize that each makes the other's craft better - takes it to a higher level. But is some strange "outside force" responsible for Andy's breaks, or Glory's shoulder problems? Did Andy make a deal with the devil? What's going on in this "organical beach town filled with soul," Ocean Beach, California? This magical mystery tale is told with brilliance, grace and style, from the lyrical first page to Andy's song lyrics that end it. "Under the Baseball Moon" gets my vote for breakout book of the summer.

Aftershocks by William Lavender; Harcourt Children's Books; $17; ages 12 and up.

The great San Francisco quake of 1906 may be the most physically earthshattering event in this sweeping, well-told historical novel. But a family secret involving power, harassment, deceit and racism both shakes up young Jessie Wrainwright's life and gives her focus and determination. It leads her to Chinatown (and later, the earthquake refugee camps) to look for Lee, the immigrant she loved who helped raise her, who left the Wainwright mansion suddenly with his niece Mei, and never returned. Jessie has many friends and makes more, whom she will need in order to rescue Mei's daughter from being sent to a cattle ranch or orphanage after the earthquake. And in spite of her father's many objections, she doggedly pursues her dream of a career in medicine. This is a book that will keep readers turning pages well past their bedtimes. Yet isn't that the fun of summer reading?

Baby Brains Superstar by Simon James; Candlewick; $16; ages 2 - 8.

Baby Brains, whose mother played classical music for him in utero, is a musical prodigy. Naturally, his parents send him to music school. He masters several instruments, but he loves the electric guitar best. Soon he wins a talent contest and is asked to be the opening act for "the biggest outdoor music concert of all time." He writes a new song, has a new outfit made and gets his (one) hair cut. But when his big moment comes, he turns into, well, a baby. Cheerful watercolors help tell this story that will have little ones laughing along with their parents.

The Jade Stone: A Chinese Folktale, adapted by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by Ju-Hong Chen; Pelican; $15.95; ages 3 - 8.

Palo Alto author Caryn Yacowitz's celebrated book that retells a Chinese folktale has just been reissued with a gorgeous new cover. It's the story of Chan Lo, a stone carver who listens to the stones tell him what they want to be. The Great Emperor orders Chan Lo to carve a perfect piece of jade into a dragon, "a dragon of wind and fire" for the emperor. But the sounds coming from the stone are gentle sounds of water, not dragon sounds. Chan Lo wants to please the emperor, but he also must remain true to his art. He carves three carp "swimming playfully in the reeds in the pool of the Celestial Palace." The emperor is so angry that he has Chan Lo thrown into the dungeon. Before Chan Lo can be punished further, the emperor listens himself to the jade stone. Artistic integrity - and Chan Lo - are the real winners of this charming picture book.

Nacho and Lolita by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Claudia Rueda; Scholastic; $17; ages 4 - 9.

Here is a new, gloriously illustrated story about the famed swallows of San Juan Capistrano. It's an old story, too, as the author based it on a folktale she heard from her Mexican grandmother. Nacho is a rare bird with colorful feathers and a gift of song, but no avian pals. He takes up residence at the dry, dusty mission. When the swallows arrive in March after their annual migration, he sings for them and helps them build their summer nests. He also falls in love with a swallow named Lolita. Alas, he's too big to join her and the others when they fly to South America for the winter. Lolita tells him they may not return to the mission again because the water has been drying up, and with it the flowers they need to attract insects. Nacho can't let that happen! He uses his magical feathers to transform the landscape into a floral paradise before his loved one's return, and ensure that the swallows will always come back to San Juan Capistrano. The illustrator is a Colombian native who herself migrated to Stanford while meticulously researching missions, swallows, and Juaneo Indians. Her colored pencil drawings are stunning in both color and detail. There is also a Spanish paperback edition of this book, called Nacho y Lolita.

Regarding the Trees: A Splintered Saga Rooted in Secrets by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Harcourt; $15; ages 8 - 12.

The latest in the Regarding the Sink series is another page-turner sure to elicit giggles from young readers. Like its predecessors, it's a pun-filled, fun-filled tale told in letters, faxes, notes, newspaper spreads, phone messages, blackboard assignments, post cards and drawings, as well as a wedding video transcript and minutes from an old Geyser Creek club called the Maids of May. Italian lessons are thrown in for flavor. The multiple plots, misunderstandings, and plot twists all relate to trees, beginning with the middle school's weeping willow tree, which Principal Walter Russ thinks needs trimming. He enlists the help of Geyser Creek's old friend Florence Waters, who mistakes his tree proposal for a marriage proposal. Flo's friend Chef Angelo sets up an Italian restaurant in the former school cafeteria and tries to take customers from Angel Fisch, owner of Geyser Creek Café. This sets off a gender war that spreads to Sam N.'s sixth-grade class. All's well that ends well, with a May Day wedding - weddings, actually - under the willow tree.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall; Knopf; $16; ages 8 - 12.

This year's winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature is a wonderfully old-fashioned story set in contemporary Massachusetts. Four sisters travel with their widowed professor father to the country for a three-week summer holiday. Each girl has a distinct personality: responsible Rosalind, 12; Skye, 11, athletic and headstrong; Jane, 10, the writer and romantic; and shy four-year-old Batty, who wears butterfly wings wherever she goes. Rounding out this appealing, spunky family is a dog named Hound. Like the girls, he's not very obedient. The cozy cottage they rent is on the edge of an estate inhabited by a snooty Mrs. Tipton and her 11-year-old son, Jeffrey, who would rather go on adventures with the Penderwicks or play the piano than head off to military school. Filled with memorable characters, scenes, family traditions and gentle humor, this book begs to be read aloud ­ or under the covers.

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko; Putnam's; $16; ages 9 - 13.

This book with the winning title also won a Newbery Honor earlier this year, so many young readers already know about it. For those who don't, they're in for a treat. It's 1935, and Moose Flanagan's family has just moved to Alcatraz Island, or as Moose describes it: " . . . a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water." His father works two jobs, as a prison guard and an island electrician, so his sister can go to a special school in San Francisco. Though the term autistic never appears in the story (because autism hadn't yet been identified), Natalie's behavior is clearly autistic. Moose's mother devotes herself entirely to finding a school to help Natalie become an independent adult. When the new school sends her back to Alcatraz, Moose's real troubles begin. He needs to watch Natalie in the afternoon so his mother can teach piano to pay for Natalie's tutor, when what he really wants to do is play baseball in San Francisco. The other kids who live on the island challenge Moose, but they also begin to help him with Natalie. And the prisoners in the cell house - Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly et al - who were sent to Alcatraz "by being the worst of the worst," are always on Moose's mind. Bay Area children will especially appreciate reading a kid's perspective of living on Alcatraz.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch; Ginee Seo/Atheneum; $17; ages 13 and up.

Keir, the 18-year-old narrator of this fine and important book for teens, has a gazillion excuses for his destructive behavior. He's a good guy, after all, whose two "brainy, insightful older sisters" support him. He'd rather "stay at home on a Saturday night to play a board game with his dad than go to a party." He wants everyone to like him. A guy like that couldn't rape the girl he's had a crush on since kindergarten, could he? You bet, especially when alcohol is involved. Told in chapters that alternate between the minutes just after the date rape and Keir's version of the incidents over his senior year of high school that led up to it, "Inexcusable" sucks the reader into Keir's head and his conscience for an unforgettable story.

Permanent Rose by Hilary McKay; Margaret K. McElderry/Simon & Schuster; $15.95; ages 9 - 12.

The artsy, hilarious Casson family and assorted friends are back, and this installment is as much a page-turner as the multi-award-winning book that began their saga, "Saffy's Angel." It's the last, sweltering week of a British summer, and eight-year-old Rose, the "real artist of the Casson family," draws pictures on the walls of the house while waiting for a letter from her guitar-playing best friend, Tom, who returned to America suddenly at the end of the school year. Older brother Indigo, who was also best friends with Tom, reads to Rose the story of Sir Lancelot. Eldest daughter Caddy is home from college and having doubts about marrying her fiance, adorable though Michael is. Cousin Saffy is determined to find her biological father. Mother Eve paints pictures in her garden shed or decorates the walls of the local hospital with cheerful art. Father Bill is still in his studio in London; he has a new girlfriend. The author deftly manages to pull all these threads and even more characters together in a story with never a dull moment. Permanent Rose is a fabulously fun summer read-aloud book for the entire family.

The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales; Wendy Lamb/Random House; $15.95; ages 12 and up.

This charming novel by Stanford author Viola Canales is a book of stories about a family, a culture and a young girl who is smart enough to appreciate the richness of where she came from when she eventually goes away. In her barrio, Sofia is surrounded by a loving family and a community steeped in tradition. Though she does not want a quinceanera herself, she serves as the dama de honor for her cousin and best friend, Berta, when Berta turns 15. What Sofia really wants is to accept the scholarship she won to an Episcopal boarding school in Austin, 350 miles away. But to do that she needs her parents' permission, five decent dresses, and 400 dollars - each a seemingly insurmountable task. Readers will enjoy following Sofia along the way toward reaching her goal, and the culture shock that greets her at Saint Luke's. She also undoubtedly shocks some of her classmates when she and two friends take her papa's "definitive cure for homesickness": chewing and swallowing a squishy tequila worm. Sometimes humorous and always thoughtful, Canales has taken her own experience and expertly universalized it. Look to The Tequila Worm for a shining example of young adult literature at its best.

Cornelius P. Mud, Are You Ready for Bed? written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg; Candlewick; $15.99; ages 1 - 4.

Cornelius P. Mud is an adorable little piggy who has his own ideas about how to get ready for bed ­ he puts his toys away (in the refrigerator); he feeds his fish (chocolate chip cookies); he uses the bathroom (to ride his stick horse on top of the toilet); he brushes his teeth (with a scrubbrush); he puts his pajamas on (plus an innertube, snorkel and mask, and bat wings); and he chooses a book (more like 15 books). But there's one thing missing in his bedtime routine: a hug. This cute bedtime book has big, bright, child-friendly illustrations and lettering, and humor that will make it stand up through multiple bedtime readings.

You're Not My REAL Mother by Molly Friedrich, illustrated by Christy Hale; Little, Brown; $15.99; ages 2 - 8.

It is a sentiment familiar to adopted children, especially those taken into a family of a different race - that Mom can't be the "real" mother because she doesn't "look like me." This heartwarming story starring a mixed-race young girl and her blond mother, is beautifully brought to life by Palo Alto illustrator Christy Hale. It gives concrete examples of the love and guidance all moms provide for their children, such as letting the daughter use twenty bandages instead of just one; driving to retrieve a lost stuffed animal; teaching manners, counting, shoe tying, teeth brushing, and jacket zipping; hugging and kissing and hugging some more; and bending the rules when it feels right. This timely and timeless picture book would make an outstanding and important addition to the home libraries of thousands of Peninsula families.

Russell the Sheep, written and illustrated by Rob Scotton; HarperCollins; $15.99; ages 3 - 7.

For parents like me who feel their families can never have too many bedtime books, here is another gem. Russell the sheep simply cannot fall asleep. A true insomniac, he tries every trick in the field, even (natch) counting sheep. Russell's tale is told and illustrated with wit and charm in gorgeous hues of blue, green and purple. Children will cheer at Russell's eventual success, and adults won't mind hearing the familiar "Read it again!" cry when it's for Russell the sheep.

Papa, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Josse, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee; Chronicle; $15.95; ages 3 - 8.

The unconditional love shown so brilliantly in the perennial bestseller "Mama, Do You Love Me?" comes through again with style and originality in this follow-up picture book. The series of "What if?" questions posed by a Maasai boy for his patient Papa elicit "Then . . ." replies that are both reassuring and illustrative of this African culture and land. Lavalee's watercolor paintings are stunning in both color and detail. Older children and parents will appreciate the appended glossary of African terms.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter; Harcourt; $16; ages 4 and up.

Inevitably, children have heard of the war in Iraq. In this account of present-day heroism they meet Alia Muhammad Baker, the librarian of the port city of Basra, and learn through story and pictures about war's impact and one woman's courage and determination to save the written word. Alia "takes matters into her own hands" when fighting is imminent in Iraq, and begins to remove some of the library's precious books to the safety of her home. She steps up her efforts as war reaches Basra, and enlists her friends and neighbors to help her hide the books, including a 700-year-old biography of Muhammad, in a nearby restaurant. Just as she feared, the library burns to the ground. Alia knows she must move the books, all 30,000 of them, again, so she hires a truck to take them to her house and her friends' homes for safe keeping. There they wait - for peace, and a new library. Alia Muhammad Baker's story was originally reported in the New York Times three years ago. A portion of the proceeds from this amazing children's book will be donated to a fund to help rebuild the book collection of the Basra library.

The Legend of the Curse of the Bambino by Dan Shaughnessy, illustrated by C.F. Payne; Simon & Schuster; $16.95; ages 5 - 8.

Summer just isn't summer without a new baseball book. In this one, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy cleverly has a father telling his daughter the story of the Sox selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and the supposed bad luck that trade led to for the next 86 years. C.F. Payne's illustrations of the Babe are appropriately oversized, as are the drawings of the heroes of the Red Sox team from last October, when the curse was finally, and triumphantly, reversed. Another excellent book for young fans of baseball history is "Ballpark: The Story of America's Baseball Fields," by Lynn Curlee (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; $17.95; all ages).

Amelia to Zora: Twenty-six Women Who Changed the World by Cynthia Chin-Lee, illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy; Charlesbridge; $15.95; ages 6 - 12.

Some alphabet books are forced and gimmicky ("B is for Buckaroo," "P is for Putt," etc.), but others are so good that each page is a delight to read and study, and the text flows naturally from A to Z. Put Palo Alto author Cynthia Chin-Lee's latest picture book in the latter, "great" category. Chin-Lee captures the essence of the lives of 26 important and diverse 20th century women with readable, inspiring mini-biographies and quotes. The illustrators used a variety of stunning colorful collages to show the women in their proper historical contexts as well as what they looked like: Jane Goodall holding a chimpanzee in an African forest; Lena Horne in front of an old-fashioned microphone, surrounded by sheet music; Eleanor Roosevelt towering over the White House and U.S. Capitol, from which she made such an impact; Mother Teresa holding stick-figure drawings of unhappy children; Kristi Yamaguchi on the ice. A bibliography and author's note will encourage children to learn more about these and other women, and add to the gift appeal of this fine picture book.

Novel of the Year 2004: The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer; Atheneum/Richard Jackson; $17.95; ages 10 - 15.

Menlo Park's Nancy Farmer, already the recipient of a National Book Award and three Newbery Honors, has written her best book yet. Read this out loud. Read it twice. It is a sweeping epic novel rich with detail and broad, important themes that somehow manages to be touching without being sentimental. There is enough reality to make the fantasy believable, and enough good in the bad characters to make them likeable.

The year is 783 A.D., a time when Northmen raided the Saxon coast with ruthless abandon. Eleven-year-old Jack, an apprentice bard, and his five-year-old golden child sister, Lucy, are kidnapped by bloodthirsty Northmen, known as berserkers, and carried off across the sea. Here, just some of the memorable, colorful characters Jack encounters in his adventure that spans two worlds: Olaf One-Brow, the larger-than-life leader of the berserkers; Thorgil, a 12-year-old shield maiden whose goal in life is to die heroically in battle and go to Valhalla; Bold Heart, a noble crow; Heidi, Olaf's chief wife, a wise woman who hisses when she speaks; Queen Frith, a half-troll shape-shifter who terrorizes her kingdom; Golden Bristles, a troll-boar capable of destruction as well as heroism; and the Mountain Queen and her daughters, nine-foot trolls with bristly orange hair and fangs. Jack's quest to save Lucy from being sacrificed to the goddess Freya leads him and Thorgil, his unlikely and never-dull companion, through a land of flying dragons and a murderous troll-bear to the home of the Mountain Queen, and ultimately to Mimir's well and the life force itself.

The Sea of Trolls is not without violence - these are Vikings, after all, who pillaged for a living. Boys will devour it. But so will girls, as the narrative, which moves as swiftly as a Northmen's ship in a stiff breeze, features strong, complex female characters. Too, it's packed with moments of humor ("Aren't these people ever called Gizur the Good or Magnus the Merry?") and comes to a surprising, satisfying conclusion. (And then another.) It is easily the children's book of the year.

Christmas Books:

Shall I Knit You a Hat? A Christmas Yarn by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Henry Holt; $16.95; ages 4 - 8.

Those clever Klise sisters, the author and illustrator team of popular books for middle-grade readers, have created a charming holiday story wonderfully brought to life with vibrant, fun-filled illustrations. When Mother Rabbit hears a Christmas Eve blizzard is on the way, she offers to knit Little Rabbit a hat. He likes his hat so much that he thinks they should make hats for their friends as Christmas presents. Next day they set out to measure, sometimes surreptitiously, the animals for Little Rabbit's custom designs. The Rabbits work late into the night on their creations. But when the horse, the cat, the goose, the deer, the dog, and the squirrel don their new colorful, practical hats on Christmas Eve, it's clear from the expressions on their animal faces that they are less than thrilled. Yet when the snow begins to fall, they realize just how ingenious, and thoughtful, the Rabbits are. Little ones will get a kick out of the amusing details on every page. They might even be inspired to ask for a knit hat for Christmas!

My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, illustrated by H. B. Lewis; Candlewick Press; $16.99; ages 4 - 8.

This Christmas, Joe is "really, really careful" in his letter to Santa. He asks specifically for a live penguin. Santa brings one, and he's adorable. His tag says his name is Osbert. And because Joe asked for him, he goes along with Osbert's requests: long, cold baths, creamed herring with seaweed for breakfast, and days spent in the snow. Joe also has to clean up the melted ice cream igloo village Osbert makes in his room. So in his thank-you note to Santa, Joe adds in a P.S. that it would be okay if Santa traded Osbert for a different present. Might both boy and penguin be happier if Osbert went to live in the new Penguin Palace at the zoo, where creamed herring is always on the menu? Even California kids who would never be able to house a penguin will warm to this cute tale, exquisitely rendered in soft pastels.

Other notable picture, art, and poetry books:

nonsense! poems by Edward Lear, pictures by Valorie Fisher; Atheneum/Anne Schwartz; $16.95; ages 4 and up.

Edward Lear's limericks ("There was a young lady of Firle . . ." etc.) have entertained generations of children since 1848. Here the nonsense verse practically jumps off the page in dazzling, sometimes 3-D-like illustrations that also cleverly explain some of the words, expressions and geographic locations in the poems.

A short biography of Lear and map of his world conclude "nonsense!" and add to its gift appeal this holiday season.

Rules of the Wild: An Unruly Book of Manners by Bridget Levin, illustrated by Amanda Shepherd; Chronicle Books; $14.95; ages 3 - 8.

Children may have to obey rules, but wild animals? Why, they're free to burp, stay up all night, splash on one another, spit, roar, chew with their mouths open, pig out, bathe in the dirt - all the fun stuff!

This witty picture book told in rhyme follows a rambunctious little boy as he cavorts with his animal friends: walruses, bears, dolphins, elephants, lions, cows, pigs, groundhogs and more, having a grand old time by stating, then breaking rules of behavior that children will easily recognize.

Cave Paintings to Picasso: The Inside Scoop on 50 Art Masterpieces by Henry Sayre; Chronicle Books; $22.95; ages 10 and up.

This coffee table worthy book is also worthy of study by any child with a mere modicum of interest in art. Oregon State Art History Professor Henry Sayle manages to cover about 24,000 years and at least a dozen techniques used through the centuries the world over - painting, carving, sculpture, tapestry, illustration, fresco, calligraphy, pottery and more. He puts the works in a historical context, and his stories about the pieces are inspiring as well as informative. Most of the biggies are here: the David, Mona Lisa, King Tut's mummy, Impressionists, and 20th century luminaries such as Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Andy Warhol. But so is a Colossal Olmec Head (Mexico, c. 800 - 400 B.C.), a Native American buffalo hide, and a life-sized cave painting of bulls that dates from 15,000 - 13,000 B.C. in France. A timeline and glossary complete this gorgeous volume, a fabulous gift idea for any family.

Other notable novels:

The Pepins and Their Problems by Polly Horvath, pictures by Marylin Hafner; Farrar Straus Giroux; $16; ages 6 - 12.

Polly Horvath's books beg to be read aloud - they're wildly entertaining and original, yet also surprisingly thought-provoking. "The Pepins" is for a younger audience than Horvath's award-winning Everything on a Waffle and The Trolls, and should bring her new fans. Young readers and listeners will be pulled in by the fun illustrations by popular illustrator Marylin Hafner.

The Pepins - parents, two kids, and their talking dog, cat and cow - have problems. They, and "the author," ask readers to help them solve their problems, such as: waking up to find toads in their shoes; becoming stranded on the roof, where they went to watch the sunset; deciding which is the better neighbor, Mr. Bradshaw or Miss Poopenstat; and losing track of their cutlery when they become involved in so many classes and community activities that they stop having family dinners. "Readers" from towns including Boring, Maryland; Sedro-Woolley, Washington; Miami, Oklahoma; Zig-Zag, Oregon; and Last Chance, Colorado, weigh in with suggestions. Horvath uses humor and sophisticated language to tell her stories, which conclude with a subtle point about the dangers of over-scheduled kids and parents. It's a message families should heed - even those of us whose dogs aren't able to tell us, "I am once again OUT OF KIBBLE!" (In words, that is.)

Cobwebs by Karen Romano Young; Greenwillow/Harper Collins; $15.99; ages 12 and up.

Nancy, the protagonist of this intriguing page-turner by the author of the popular The Beetle and Me: A Love Story, knows there is something that makes her family special. Though she lives in a world of backpacks, homeroom, gossip, and school dances that teenage readers will readily recognize, she's pretty sure her parents are, well, spiders. Mom Rachel lives in a basement apartment, where she weaves and never leaves. Grandpa Joke and Granny live upstairs; they're healers. Dad Ned has made a rooftop home for himself. He sprints across the roofs of Brooklyn, and may even be the "Angel of Brooklyn" written about in the papers. Nancy, who moves back and forth between her downstairs and rooftop homes, wonders if she will develop into a spider. If so, then where is her "spiderness"? And why is she afraid of heights? Dion, a boy she first saw balancing on the rail of the Brooklyn Bridge, might be at the center of the "web of unbelievable strands" that weave together into a satisfying conclusion of this novel rich with details both real and fantastic.

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis; Wendy Lamb Books/Random House; $15.95; ages 12 and up.

Luther T. Farrell is Newbery Award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis's latest hilarious narrator and hero. He has a plan: to be "America's best-known, best-paid philosopher" by the time he's twenty-one. In the meantime, his mother, aka the Sarge and the meanest, baddest, crookedest loan shark and slum landlord in Flint, has put 14-year-old Luther in charge of the Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men. When Luther isn't making sure his "crew" gets "shaved, dressed, washed up, medicated, driven to the rehab center, and driven to their doctors' appointments and therapy sessions," he attends eighth grade, helps his friend Sparky with his crazy get-rich schemes, learns about life from daytime TV and his mysterious 80-year-old roommate, adores the undertaker's daughter, and works late into the night on his science fair project. Amazingly, he makes more good choices than bad. He's determined to win the science fair, but so is the undertaker's daughter. Teens will laugh out loud at Luther's myriad musings, and cheer for his victories.

Picture books and novels published earlier in 2004:

Good Night, Harry by Kim Lewis; Candlewick Press; $15.99; ages birth - 3 years.

Harry, an adorable stuffed elephant, can't get to sleep. While his friends Lulu and Ted snooze away, poor Harry tries everything - reading a bedtime story, tidying his room, exercising, changing sleeping positions. And then, like many insomniacs, Harry starts to worry. Uh-oh. When he rolls over and takes all the blankets, Lulu and Ted wake up. They remind him that they're there for him. The three stuffies sit close together on the bed and quietly contemplate the outside world. Harry relaxes. He falls fast asleep. With words as soothing as a lullaby and soft pastel illustrations of characters that make you smile, this is a perfect bedtime book.

Doors by Roxie Munro; Chronicle Books; $15.95; ages 2 - 6.

Toddlers and preschoolers love lift-the-flap books. This clever addition to the genre also has flaps within the flap doors, and dozens of familiar as well as unusual objects for little ones to look for and learn the names of. Not only that, it's written in rhyme, which makes it an engaging read-aloud.

Roger, the Jolly Pirate by Brett Helquist; HarperCollins; $15.99 ages 4 - 7.

Ahoy, pirate fans, here's the rollicking tale of Jolly Roger, a "lousy pirate" who "smiled instead of scowling . . . grinned instead of growling." Poor fellow - not only do the other pirates call him a degrading name, they send him below deck whenever they indulge in "serious pirating." Then one day they are attacked by the Admiral, who "had vowed to bring every pirate to justice." No one suspected that Roger would choose this time to mistake a cannon for a pot, and use it to bake a cake to try to get on the good side of the other pirates. Kablam! Roger is blown up through the deck, covered in flour. The Admiral and his men think they've seen a ghost or a skeleton and quickly abandon ship. Suddenly Jolly Roger is a hero, and all pirates fly a flag in his honor. Young pirate-lovers are sure to want to hear this book over and over.

Daffodil by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Tomek Bogacki; Farrar Straus & Giroux/Frances Foster; $16; ages 4 - 8.

Daffodil, Violet, and Rose are identical triplets. Even their mother has trouble telling them apart. So when the girls go to parties, they wear fancy dresses in colors that correspond to their names. Daffodil thinks her sisters are "lucky ducks" to be able to wear pretty dresses in violet and pink, when hers is yellow: "Sour, fake-cheerful yellow that reminded Daffodil of pee." One day she refuses to wear the yellow dress. That's not a surprise, for she admits to having a "big mouth." But it turns out Violet and Rose aren't too thrilled with their party dresses either. Finally, Daffodil, Violet and Rose get to choose new party clothes in "any colors they wanted." Playful, colorful pictures beautifully illustrate this laugh-out-loud book celebrating individuality.

Mighty Jackie - the Strikeout Queen by Marissa Moss, illustrated by C. F. Payne; Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman; $16.95; ages 5 - 8.

Every summer deserves a good baseball book. John H. Ritter, the best contemporary baseball novelist for young readers, doesn't have a new offering this year (so check out The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Ritter's 2003 stellar addition to the literature, now available in paperback). Fortunately, Palo Alto native Marissa Moss has stepped in to write a nifty picture book about the first professional female pitcher in baseball history.

Jackie Mitchell was a 17-year-old southpaw for the Chattanooga Lookouts when the New York Yankees came through town for an exhibition game in the spring of 1931. Jackie, who had dreamed since she was a little girl of playing in the World Series, was more than up to the task. Moss and illustrator C. F. Payne recreate Jackie's pitch sequence to two baseball legends, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, in riveting detail. Jackie struck them both out. Really. A beautiful book showing the rewards of grit and determination, Mighty Jackie will be especially appealing to girls - and women - who were told that all girls obviously "throw like a girl."

Regarding the Sink by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise; Harcourt/Gulliver; $15; ages 9 - 12.

Yahoo! At long last, Kate and Sarah Klise have penned a sequel to Regarding the Fountain, the wildly popular and award-winning book about the clever kids of Geyser Creek Middle School. Regarding the Sink is a fun-filled (and pun-filled) mystery told in letters, newspaper stories, blackboard jottings, sink designs, feng shui instructions, stock quotes and tips, BEAN-MAIL, and even a singing telegram that really spills the beans. This is the stuff kids love to read - read easily and multiple times.

The story? When the school's cafeteria sink becomes hopelessly clogged, Sam N's sixth-grade class turns to Florence Waters, their "Fountain Designer and Friend Extraordinaire." Alas, Flo has been missing for months - in China! The kids get the money they need for a class trip to Asia, where they follow their noses, go with the flow, and "use their beans" to uncover a nasty scheme orchestrated by none other than their own U.S. Senator. Naturally, they also rescue their friend Florence. (Adults who read this book along with their children may, like me, make a connection between Senator Ergass's company, AIR-igate, and California's least-favorite energy supplier, Enron.)

This is a fabulously fun book for kids to read and re-read. It also may very well inspire them to write a nice letter to someone they care about, since "a good letter is priceless."

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau; Random House; $15.95; ages 9 - 12.

Menlo Park author Jeanne DuPrau follows up her highly acclaimed, bestselling debut novel, The City of Ember (review below), with a wonderfully compelling and morally intriguing sequel.

Thanks to the cleverness of Lina and Doon, the Emberites have found their way out of their dying city of darkness and into a post-apocalyptic world of light. The leaders of the settlement of Sparks, knowing that jealousy and revenge had led to the Disaster and the end of civilization as we in 2004 know it, want to do the right thing and be welcoming to the "cavepeople." But supplies are limited, and refugees outnumber townspeople. Soon resentment and suspicion build between the groups. Lina goes looking for the city she dreamed of when she was in Ember, hoping it could be a new home for her people. What she finds (San Francisco 200 years after a nuclear holocaust?) isn't pretty. Doon, meanwhile, is drawn to an older boy whose main goal is to incite a violent settler rebellion. The people of Sparks aren't any better ­ they plan to kick the Emberites out into the desert. But in the end, Lina and Doon find a way to inspire both sides into doing the right thing. The People of Sparks will have kids thinking long after they finish the last page.

And these are some of my favorite books of 2003:

Owl Babies Boxed Set by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson; Candlewick Press; $12.99; ages 6 months - 3 years.

My teenage daughters and I can still recite lines from this perfectly perfect picture book first published 11 years ago, newly reissued in a board book and toy gift set. Sarah and Percy and Bill are three anxious owl siblings who stick together through the night, trying not to think about their mother's absence. Yet because "all owls think a lot," they express feelings familiar to all toddlers who worry that their parents won't return from wherever adults go when they leave the nest. The Owl Mother's return reminds her little ones, and the board book audience, that separations are temporary. This timeless story is beautifully complemented by exquisite illustrations of the most expressive baby animals in any children's book. The 5" toy adds to the gift appeal of a modern classic that translates well into the board book format (not all do).

The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann; G. P. Putnam's Sons; $16.99; ages six months - 8.

Palo Alto (and Debbie Duncan) favorite and Caldecott medalist (Officer Buckle and Gloria) Peggy Rathmann's latest gem is illustrated in silhouettes, and oh, are they gorgeous! The story and pictures follow an intrepid young boy in a firefighter's hat as he rescues babies who have crawled away from the fair and through trees and a bat cave and out onto and over a cliff. (Don't worry: young children recognize make-believe when it's depicted this cleverly.) Using rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, Rathmann manages to be both predictable and surprising from one glorious silhouetted page to the next. The babies lead, the little boy follows, and then he gets them to turn around and go back safely while the day fades away against a changing, brilliant sky. Even children who don't read will look for each of the five babies in the two-page spreads as the escapees explore their world of butterflies, bees, and birds. Careful observers will also find the main characters in their homes on the hill that begin and end this spectacular book sure to be a hit with all ages.

The Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin, pictures by Harry Bliss; HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler; $15.99; ages 4 - 8.

Everyone, especially young children, loves humor. And everyone will find humor aplenty in the observations and illustrations in Diary of a Worm. The worm-boy in the red baseball hat decides that "Hopscotch is a very dangerous game," especially when worms have to spend the day on the sidewalk after a rainstorm. When he forgets his lunch, he eats his homework. Then he eats the punishment his teacher makes him write. Grandpa worm, who lives with the diarist and his parents in a cozy hole house under the ground, teaches the importance of good manners. The worm says good morning to one ant . . . and the 600 ants behind her. At the school dance, the worms can only do two moves of the hokey pokey. But worms never have to go to the dentist ("No cavities - no teeth, either," says Dr. D. Kay) or take a bath. And they even help the earth, to boot. Comedy and a science lesson, all in one clever picture book.

The Elephant's Pillow by Diana Reynolds Roome, illustrated by Jude Daly; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $16; ages 4 - 8.

Mountain View author Diane Reynolds Roome first heard this original bedtime tale from her father. Sing Lo, a spoiled son of a rich merchant, wants to see the greatest sight in Peking, the Imperial Elephant. The poor animal is in a nasty mood from not having slept since the old Emperor died, so Sing Lo sets out to solve his problem. He finds the beast's favorite honey-glazed buns; fills a golden bowl with honey, ginger, and milk; commissions a yellow silk pillow bigger than the elephant; and scratches the Imperial Elephant right where it wants, behind the ear. Ah, sleep for the elephant, and the satisfaction for Sing Lo that comes from doing a good deed. The golden tones in the text are brought to life in vibrant paintings of yellows and reds and blues that have an ancient Chinese feeling. The Elephant's Pillow is a beautifully written, soothing bedtime story with museum-quality illustrations.

Brundibar, retold by Tony Kushner, pictures by Maurice Sendak; Hyperion/Michael di Capua; ages 4 and up.

The brilliant duo of Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak has pulled off the children's book publishing sensation of the season with this unique, wonderful and complex picture book. Playwright Kushner here retells a Czech opera performed 55 times by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. Artist extraordinaire Sendak adds detail and life and jump-off-the page character to an old-fashioned European story of a brother and sister who go to town for milk for their sick mother. They decide to sing for the money they need, but a bully of an organ grinder named Brundibar prohibits them from encroaching upon his territory. Help arrives in the form of three talking animals and 300 schoolchildren. The brother and sister sing, the townspeople and animals chase the bully and thief Brundibar out of town, and the mother gets the milk she needs. Happy ending? Well, not really. Kushner reminds his audience in a postscript from Brundibar, which Sendak has handwritten across a ticket for the 1940's opera that big, bad bullies never really go away. Most of the children who performed "Brundibar," as well as its composer, were killed in the Holocaust. Please don't let that scare you away from bringing this important book into your family's life.

Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad, pictures by David Diaz; Scholastic/Cartwheel; $15.95; ages 5 - 10.

The stunning paintings in this book do not simply illustrate the familiar Christmas song, they illuminate it. An introductory page about the parranda, a Puerto Rican Christmas tradition, explains the inspiration for Jose Feliciano's lyrics. The book is filled with oversized, bold artwork that will make young painters get out their supplies in order to illustrate their own families' holiday traditions and gatherings, as Diaz has done for Feliciano's Feliz Navidad.

The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering; Candlewick Press; ages 9 - 12 (younger when read aloud). Winner, 2004 Newbery Medal.

Parents who have been waiting for another entertaining family read-aloud from the author of the wildly popular Because of Winn-Dixie are in for a real treat. Short chapters and an intimate "Dear reader" style draw the listener or reader into this story of love, light, and forgiveness. And like all good fairy tales, it has the dark tones children crave. Despereaux, a tiny mouse with enormous ears and a big heart, falls in love with the young Princess Pea and lets her touch him. He also sits at the foot of the king. This unmouselike behavior causes the Mouse Council to banish him to the dark, smelly dungeon, where he's sure to be eaten by the rats. Despereaux saves himself, however, by telling a story to the human jailer. We then meet one of the dungeon's resident rats, who finds his way up to the light of the castle only to scare the queen to death when he falls into her soup. A poor, slow-witted girl with a fervent desire to be a princess ends up as Princess Pea's serving girl. The girl, hoping to trade places with the princess, follows the rat's orders and leads the princess to the dungeon. Ultimately, Despereaux fulfills his "once upon a time" destiny as Princess Pea's knight in shining armor when all the main characters come together in a satisfying conclusion. Some even have a change of heart. The classic quality of this story is enhanced by the book's striking design of feathered paper edges as well as soft, yet vivid pencil illustrations.

13: Thirteen stories that capture the agony and ecstasy of being thirteen, edited by James Howe; Simon and Schuster/Atheneum; $16.95; ages 12 and up.

The original stories in this collection show that the best writers for children haven't forgotten what it's like to be a child or a young teen. Thirteen is a time of questions: Who am I? What are the rules? Who decides them? And for many, why am different? Thirteen is about making choices, and mistakes, of feeling invisible one moment, and the next as if the whole world is staring at you and not liking what they see. It's about misconceptions and experimentation. It's about discovering the opposite sex, or that you may be attracted to your own sex. Thirteen means dealing with clueless parents who have forgotten what it's like to be thirteen. There are humorous, thoughtful, and touching stories in this book about all kinds of kids, and for all types of middle school readers and their clueless parents.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling; Scholastic/Levine; $29.99; ages 9 and up.

It weighs in at over 2.5 pounds, fills 870 pages (in 11.5 point type), and is a publishing phenomenon extraordinaire: a first printing of 8.5 million copies, none to be sold before 12:01 a.m. on the date of publication. Midnight parties added to the magic of the release of the most-anticipated children's book ever. Is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix magic, or is it just hype?

It's magic. (Beanie Babies, on the other hand, were hype. So were the Harry Potter movies.) This book is worth every penny of the cover price and the time it takes to read it. I have been writing about the Harry Potter books for the Weekly since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone first caught my attention in 1998. Four books later, J. K. Rowling still hasn't let me down: the amazingly imaginative details she conjures up about the wizarding world (Extendable Ears, anyone?) are matched by masterful storytelling and fillips of humor.

Unlike characters in most other children's series, Harry Potter grows up from book to book. He's 15 in Phoenix, and very much a teenager-this is certainly a young adult book. Younger readers may not like the angry Harry, but he is as real as a fictional wizard can be as he lashes out at his friends and then regrets it, acts recklessly, and entirely misunderstands the opposite sex. Yes, this book is darker than previous installments. It's a tough year for all fifth-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, what with piles of homework in preparation for the dreaded O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Level) exams at year's end. Harry is also being ridiculed in the press and in the portrait-lined halls of Hogwarts, endures the wrath of the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor (a cross between Saddam Hussein and JohnAshcroft), and is haunted by a recurring nightmare. Rowling let it be known in interviews that a main character dies in this book; guessing that person's identity has become a popular speculation among fans and is one of oodles of reasons to keep reading till the end.

The the best thing about The Order of the Phoenix and the Harry Potter phenomenon is that kids aren't going to want to stop reading, even after they finish this book. Here it is, the beginning of summer, and children and teens are wanting to read! If they're looking for other books to plunge into on these homework-less and O.W.L.-free nights, check out the titles below.

Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byne; HarperCollins; $16.99; ages 8 - 12.

This entertaining British import should find a wide American audience this summer. Molly Moon, a self-described awkward and ugly orphan who is picked on by (almost) every child and (almost) every adult, finds an old book about hypnotism that turns her life around. Molly begins by hypnotizing the ornery pug kept by the head of the orphanage, and soon she is an expert, hypnotizing audiences in England and New York to think she's the greatest actress ever, and taking up residence in the Royal Suite at the Waldorf. Yet right behind her is the evil Professor Nockman. He wants the hypnotism book, and if he can't get that, he'll get Molly to pull off the biggest jewelry heist in American history. Molly needs all her skills, wits, and the help of her best friend Rocky to extricate herself from that predicament, and return home where she's needed. A few major plot twists keep the story moving along to a surprising conclusion. Children will be mesmerized; Hollywood movie to follow.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau; Random House; $15.95; ages 9 - 13.

Menlo Park author Jeanne DuPrau's first novel for children will keep kids reading late into the night to find out what happens in this intriguing and satisfying story. The sky has always been dark in the 200-plus year-old City of Ember. Supplies and time are running out, however, and it's up to a couple of curious, thoughtful 12-year-olds, Lina and Doon, to save humanity. Lina has found a list of what she is certain are instructions for how to get out of Ember, but they're nearly impossible to decipher because her baby sister ate holes in the paper on which they were written. Doon, who works underground in the Pipeworks, helps Lina plan an escape before their world plunges into a permanent blackout.

The Canning Season by Polly Horvath; Farrar Straus Giroux; $16; ages 12 and up.Winner, 2003 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

This gem of a book, like Horvath's award-winners The Trolls and Everything on a Waffle, is a read-aloud natural and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Caveat: unlike the others, this novel, if it were a movie, would be rated PG-13. So read it with your teenagers! (I'm not kidding.) You'll all enjoy the story of 13-year-old Ratchet, sent by her self-absorbed mother to spend the summer with her twin great-aunts on the Maine coast. Tilly and Penpen, age 91, live in their run-down mansion on a "big chunk of land surrounded by the sky and the ocean and the forest." Oh, and servant-eating bears. Tilly sips a bit too much after-dinner liqueur and Penpen has just taken up Buddhist philosophy. They plan to die together. That summer, they entertain Ratchet with humorous, often dark stories about their long and surprisingly eventful lives in the woods, including how they supported themselves canning blueberries after their father died (their mother had killed herself by chopping off her own head). Another girl, 14-year-old Harper, arrives on their doorstep, and before long the teenagers whom no one had loved before have a place where they really belong. The aunts also have girls to help them with the frenzy of the canning season, when everything is ripe and the work never ends.

Ruby Electric by Theresa Nelson; Atheneum/Jackson; $16.95; ages 9 - 12.
The Boy Who Saved Baseball by John H. Ritter; Philomel; $17.00; ages 9 - 12.

California is a fairly common destination in historical fiction for children (think Gold Rush and orphan trains), but contemporary literary fiction that so clearly takes place in the California landscape is both rare and refreshing. Ruby Electric and The Boy Who Saved Baseball are beautifully written new novels about California kids facing life's issues head-on.

Twelve-year-old Ruby Miller, the witty, likeable star of Ruby Electric, has screenplays popping into her head. Her San Fernando Valley neighborhood could be any suburban California town. She goes to bargain matinees at the cineplex, and restaurant treats mean In-N-Out Burger or Chinese dives in the mini-mall. Her single mom works as a receptionist at a podiatry center. Ruby hasn't seen her policeman dad for five years, though he keeps promising to show up. Mama keeps secrets about Daddy that Ruby can only imagine. Like many children, she wants to save the environment - in her case, it's the Los Angeles River, which is more concrete than water. So why not a mural of prehistoric, native animals? Her partners in crime (literally) are the Dumb and Dumber of Hayes Middle School. One has a crush on her. Their high-stakes summer doesn't turn out like anything even Ruby might have written for a Hollywoood script. It's better.

Head south about 100 miles, and you could very well find the coed Dillontown Wildcats Baseball Camp, a motley crew charged with saving their town as they know it in The Boy Who Saved Baseball. Most folks in Dillontown do not want to become San Diego's version of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, with the hills of yellow mustard plants paved over with highways, malls, and driveways to fancy new homes. But a real estate developer is offering big money to Doc, who owns 320 acres and thinks maybe the kids could use a new ballpark instead of the 100-year-old field of dreams off his back porch. Doc decides to let "a good old-fashioned baseball game . . . settle the matter." Tom, Doc's 12-year-old friend, predicts disaster for his team and therefore the town.

The best baseball books (and movies) blend reality with fantasy as seamlessly as a Rawlings hardball. Here, a 10th camper named Cruz de la Cruz rides into town on horseback, bringing a wicked swing perfected by a new computer program. Cruz and Tom convince a local outcast and former major league slugger to coach their team, and suddenly the whole town has hope. Spanish phrases and mouth-watering Mexican food are as much a part of the landscape of this page-turner as wind-whipped tumbleweeds and line drives to center field. Fans of the book can continue the story by checking out the web site www.cruz-on.com.

 
 

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