The Best Children's Books of 2011
The Horn Book Magazine, the widely respected reviewer of children’s books, has released its Fanfare List of best children’s books for 2011. The list includes picture books, fiction and nonfiction titles for children and teens. Here are this year’s Fanfare selections.
Information after each book title includes author, publisher and recommended reading level. The levels include PreSchool (Grades PreS-K); Primary (Grades K-3); Intermediate (Grades 3-6); Middle School (Grades 6-9); and High School (Grades 9-12). To sign up for The Horn Book’s free monthly e-newsletter for parents, visit www.hbook.com.
Naamah and the Ark at Night
Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade; Candlewick (Preschool, Primary)
Aboard the ark, Noah’s wife sings a lullaby while the storm slowly abates and the sea’s rhythm rocks the animals to sleep. Meade’s lush, dramatic, almost tactile watercolor collages are a fine complement to Bartoletti’s quiet yet propulsive verse, modeled on an ancient Arabic poetic form. A warmly affectionate and gorgeous book.
The Money We’ll Save
Written and illustrated by Brock Cole; Ferguson/Farrar (Primary)
Pa brings home a live turkey to fatten up for Christmas (“Think of the money we’ll save!”). His plan proves ill-advised as the bird overruns the family’s already-crowded tenement. Cole’s blithe, just-this-side-of-chaotic illustrations set this entertaining holiday story in nineteenth-century New York City. The ending of this highly original tale—a brilliant solution to the problem—is entirely satisfying.
I Want My Hat Back
Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen; Candlewick (Primary)
The title’s seemingly simple premise cleverly evolves, with a minimalist text, expert pacing, and a mordant ending, as a bear encounters a series of animals while looking for his missing hat. Klassen uses different colored typefaces (matching the illustrations’ palette) and subtle facial expressions to define each character in this sardonically humorous offering.
A Ball for Daisy
Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka; Schwartz & Wade/Random (Preschool, Primary)
Dog gets (red) ball; dog loses ball; dog gets (blue) ball. Raschka’s wordless take on an age-old story is fresh and wholly engaging: Daisy’s emotions, which range from joy to sadness and back again, are captured in every squiggly, impressionistic line. Notable both for the ingenuity of its artistry and the depth of its child appeal.
Written and illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Roaring Brook (Preschool, Primary)
Trick-or-treater Gus is protected by the ghost of his beloved dog Ella when skeletons emerge from a nearby cemetery. Their triumph over the (more goofy than scary) skeletons is depicted across several wordless spreads in strong-lined relief prints. Poignant, parallel illustrations of boy and dog’s friendship frame their Halloween adventure and make this book satisfying all year long.
Written and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach; Knopf (Primary)
In 2001, after a half-century of cheerful service, subway car Jessie is unceremoniously dismantled and dumped into the ocean. She finds new purpose in her second career as an artificial reef, home to many sea creatures. Cozy illustrations move the distinctly nondidactic recycling tale—based on real events—along to its affecting conclusion.
Written and illustrated by Stephen Savage; Scholastic (Preschool)
In this wordless hide-and-seek romp, an escaped walrus hides in plain sight, eluding a zookeeper. Savage’s simple, graphically elegant art uses bold shapes, computer-aided repetition of forms, and plenty of white space. The illustrations have just the right amount of complexity to allow toddlers to stay one step ahead of the zookeeper—and rooting for the walrus.
Written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet; Handprint/Chronicle (Preschool, Primary)
Here is an interactive book that doesn’t need tabs, flaps, or apps. Tullet asks the reader to press, tilt, blow, and clap in order to change the color, shape, and order of his simply painted dots. Each page turn reveals the seemingly magic results, perfectly geared toward preschoolers—though older children and adults are also likely to suspend disbelief.
Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus!
Written by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia; Kane Miller (Primary, Intermediate)
In this third entry in a remarkable early chapter book series set in Africa, Anna hatches a plan to help her neighbors in need after a drought. As usual, Anna and her sprawling, contemporary family are relatable, while Atinuke’s focus on the everyday and her spot-on dialogue mesh flawlessly with Tobia’s lively illustrations.
Written by Franny Billingsley; Dial (Middle School, High School)
Seventeen-year-old Briony blames herself for injuries to her twin sister and their stepmother; she believes she’s a witch and lives in fear of being caught and hanged. Vivid, vigorous prose tells a gripping, intricately plotted tale of magic, mystery, murder, romance, family drama, and sisterly love.
Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol; First Second/Roaring Brook (Middle School, High School)
In this graphic novel with true teen appeal, discontented Russian-immigrant Anya, desperate to fit in, is befriended by ghost Emily. At first, having a spectral BFF is great—until Emily’s supernatural powers grow to frightening proportions. This wryly hilarious (yet hair-raising) story of self-acceptance is told through perfectly timed, personality-filled sequential art.
Dead End in Norvelt
Written by Jack Gantos; Farrar (Intermediate, Middle School)
Who knew that being grounded might afford Jack his richest summer yet? Gantos’s portrait of a real time and place (small-town Norvelt, Pennsylvania, in 1962) is shot through with loopy and unabashedly gross comedy but also conveys provocative meditations on history, coming of age, and community.
Paper Covers Rock
Written by Jenny Hubbard; Delacorte (High School)
Within the pages of his journal, Alex chronicles the drowning death of his classmate and the guilt of his own involvement. Suspenseful pacing, intriguing characters with complex relationships, and a richly detailed 1980s boys’ boarding school setting stand out in this intense exploration of the ambiguity of honor.
Life: An Exploded Diagram
Written by Mal Peet; Candlewick (High School)
In Norfolk, England, the lives of working-class Clem and landowner’s daughter Frankie artfully converge against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as their clandestine romance takes shape under an illusory umbrella of safety. Life respects teen appreciation for more adult fare, with Peet’s layered narrative building toward its inexorable climax.
Written by Pat Schmatz; Candlewick (Middle School)
“Stupid bluefish” Travis Roberts and “lowlife trailer-trash loser” Vida “Velveeta” Wojciehowski star in an understated yet powerful novel. Both young teens are suffering from recent losses, and both have weighty secrets to protect. Schmatz has crafted a story of friendship that is subtle and poignant, believable and rewarding.
The Scorpio Races
Written by Maggie Stiefvater; Scholastic (Middle School, High School)
Celtic legends about vicious, flesh-eating fairy horses underpin this brilliant novel: a fantasy with a vividly and realistically evoked island setting, rich in sensory detail; a thriller that’s also a love story. The alternating voices of Sean and Kate, both desperate to win Thisby’s deadly annual horse race, combine to take readers on an unforgettable, exhilarating ride.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
Written by Allan Wolf; Candlewick (High School)
This moving verse novel chronicles the Titanic’s fateful 1912 voyage. Leaving melodrama at the dock, Wolf masterfully plays with poetic form, depicting this compelling journey through myriad distinct historical and fictional voices, providing the personal stories of wealthy and poor passengers, the crew, the undertaker, and even the iceberg.
Blink & Caution
Written by Tim Wynne-Jones; Candlewick (Middle School, High School)
Running from family trauma, two street kids in Toronto meet and find themselves caught up in dangerous situations involving a faked kidnapping and a sadistic drug dealer out for revenge. Written in meticulous prose, this terrifying crime-drama is both intensely suspenseful and deeply affecting.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin; Holt (Intermediate)
Yelchin presents a briskly paced, chilling portrait of 1950s Stalinist oppression with believable narration by ten-year-old Sasha Zaichik, whose naive illusions about life devoted to the Soviet Communist party unravel over two days. The ominous tone of the sinister-looking illustrations perfectly complements the story’s exposure of that political system’s cynical essence.
America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell
Written and illustrated by Don Brown; Flash Point/Roaring Brook (Primary, Intermediate)
Partnered by watercolor illustrations that convey the drama and tragedy of 9/11 without sensationalizing, this minute-by-minute account of that terrible morning has journalistic immediacy and commemorates both victims and heroes.
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Written by Candace Fleming; Schwartz & Wade/Random (Intermediate, Middle School)
Fleming’s gripping narrative begins the day the Coast Guard lost radio contact with Amelia Earhart on her doomed flight around the world; by the time the author begins her chronological account of Earhart’s life, readers are hooked. Taut, cinematic, immediate, and dramatic; an exemplary biography adventure.
Can We Save the Tiger?
Written by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Vicky White; Candlewick (Primary, Intermediate)
This gracefully organized and beautiful overview of endangered animals is an eloquent appeal and consciousness raiser. Engaging conversational text conveys information lucidly; pencil and oil paint illustrations, mostly black and white with occasional color, fill the large pages with creatures whose expressive eyes bespeak their kinship with us all.
Written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell; Little, Brown (Preschool, Primary)
An inspired choice, to convey the nature and scope of Jane Goodall’s vocation by showing us the childhood from which it sprouted, leaving Jane’s adult life to a final spectacular page turn. Drawings and writings from the young Jane’s hand companionably find space in McDonnell’s humble pen-and-watercolor pictures.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
Written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson; Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins (Intermediate)
Majestic oil paintings bring passion and dignity to this ambitious survey of African American history, focused through the storytelling of a distinct voice. Nelson seamlessly moves from the Colonial era through to the election of Obama, with portraits of the great and unknown alike giving faces to the history.
Orani: My Father’s Village
Written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola; Foster/Farrar (Primary, Intermediate)
Nivola provides a lovingly evoked remembrance of her childhood visits to the small Sardinian town where her father was born. The tight-knit, traditional community comes to life in child-friendly, remarkably unsentimental prose and finely detailed watercolor and gouache paintings that include both expansive and intimate scenes.
Written by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick, color by Hilary Sycamore; First Second/Roaring Brook (High School)
A biography presented in graphic-novel form, told in the first person—an unusual treatment that’s spectacularly successful in presenting its equally unusual subject, Nobel Prize–winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Ottaviani and Myrick expertly employ the format to capture personality, reveal thought processes, and even explain complex physics.
Drawing from Memory
Written and illustrated by Allen Say; Scholastic (Intermediate, Middle School, High School)
Part memoir, part graphic novel, part narrative history, this harmoniously designed book uses text, photos, drawings, and paintings to take a fascinating look at the relationship between the young Say and Noro Shinpei, the popular Japanese cartoonist who took him on as an apprentice when Say was only twelve.
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature
Written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes; Houghton (Preschool, Primary)
“A spiral is a snuggling shape. It fits neatly in small places. Coiled tight, warm and safe, it waits…for a chance to expand.” A simple, poetic text explores spirals in nature while exquisite full-bleed scratchboard illustrations suffuse every spread with shape, color, and movement. An elegantly constructed book in which form and subject merge completely.
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade
Written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet; Houghton (Primary, Intermediate)
An early love of figuring out “how to make things move” propelled Tony Sarg’s career with marionettes, before his eventual invention of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s famous giant balloons. Sweet’s economically told story, combined with her mixed-media collage illustrations emulating his whimsical creations, is an effervescent depiction of Sarg’s belief that work and play should mix.
Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story
Written and illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski; Farrar (Primary)
The New Jersey Meadowlands might seem an unpromising focus for an ecological primer, but author-artist Yezerski buoys solid scientific writing with expansive and detailed pen-and-watercolor spreads of the changing fortunes of the region. Thumbnail portraits of denizens (from fish to pesticide to mobsters) add interest and humor.