|(From “Brontorina” illustrated by Randy Cecil)|
For kids, 10 glittering stars of year
Although I admired many books for young readers in 2010, these 10 exemplified “the unique factor.’’ All combine the highest standards of art and writing; when introduced by an enthusiastic adult, they connect with young readers. Children’s books that adults admire but that children also find meaningful have always been the most difficult to create. The authors and artists of these works accomplish that feat in very different and original ways.
Picture books Although they have been married for 45 years, John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, two of England’s most talented author-illustrators, have never collaborated before on a book. In “There’s Going to Be a Baby’’ (Candlewick) a mother and her son talk about the child who will arrive in the fall. When will baby come? Do we really need a baby? The boy’s insecurities emerge through their conversations. Exquisite Japanese-style woodcuts alternate with cartoon drawings, in which the boy imagines what the baby will actually do. The simple but universal situation has been brilliantly explored in a book good enough to become a classic.
Picture story books with texts that bring cries for rereading — like “Make Way for Ducklings’’ — have become an endangered species in the last decade. In “Brontorina’’ (Candlewick), written by comic genius James Howe, author of “Bunnicula,’’ the protagonist shares the dream of many children — she wants to become a ballerina. But, unfortunately, Brontorina is a dinosaur. Not only does she lack the appropriate shoes, but she also doesn’t quite fit into Madame Lucille’s dance academy. For this wonderful but ridiculous story, Randy Cecil has added fanciful drawings of our heroine executing an arabesque or plié. If you are headed to the “Nutcracker’’ this season, the book will give you something to talk about: What if Brontorina came?
With corkscrew logic, Lane Smith explores a conversation between a book lover and a technophile in “It’s a Book’’ (Roaring Brook). Three characters — an ever patient monkey, a jackass, and a mouse — talk about the book that Monkey wants to read. Does it scroll? Can you blog with it? Can it text or tweet? Finally, the jackass, who has been pestering the monkey with these questions, picks up the book and gets lost in it. But Monkey gets his revenge with the final cutting line, “It’s a book, jackass.’’ Not only does the picture-book set enjoy this saga, but teachers are using it successfully in high school. Fresh, original, subversive, Smith, illustrator of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,’’ remains devoted to the audience that has always embraced him — children who love to read a book.
Three-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, David Wiesner turns to subjects dear to him — art and artists. Arthur, a horned lizard and classical painter, and his friend Max, a green collared lizard and experimental artist, disagree about what constitutes a good picture. Eventually Max starts to paint his friend, and chaos ensues. “Art & Max’’ (Clarion) pays homage to Dalí, Morandi, Pollock, Seurat — as well as Pink Floyd and The Who. Wiesner presents a visual feast for the eyes on every page. Adults love the art education; children enjoy the madcap romp of these lizards. An exciting and memorable creation, “Art & Max’’ combines great book design, classic typography, and meticulous production, making it a book that people love to hold in their hands as much as they enjoy reading it.
Novels M. T. Anderson has won countless awards, including the National Book Award, for his serious titles, “Feed’’ and “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.’’ Although less well known, his fast-paced and funny adventures like “The Suburb Beyond the Stars’’ (Scholastic) are just as technically skilled. In a story that began in “The Game of the Sunken Places,’’ two heroes, Brian and Gregory, are plotting their next move in a game that pits the Norumbegans against the Thusser Horde. But the Horde moves first and has started infiltrating suburban developments. Plot-driven, this narrative provides action and more action — chase scenes and villains foiled. But what always distinguishes Anderson is his delicious use of language and phrasing: “The man’s face was riddled with old pockmarks, scumbled like cottage cheese.’’ Children, and even adults, can read the book for its language or for its adventure; either way, everyone comes away smiling.
“The Strange Case of Origami Yoda,’’ (Amulet) the most original novel of the year, comes from a journalist on the staff of the Roanoke Times in Virginia. He combines text and art in an alternate-format book that will keep even the most reluctant readers turning the pages. Dwight walks around school all day with an origami finger puppet, Yoda from “Star Wars,’’ who gives advice to his classmates. Is Dwight faking it — or does he have the Force? For anyone who likes to teach point of view to children in grades 5 through 7, each chapter is narrated by a different student, with comments by two other students. The author, who has provided an ideal next book for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’’ enthusiasts, seems to be in touch with some force — he knows how to stay true to childhood behavior and language while drafting a funny and engaging saga.
Alternate history, in which an author changes some of the facts, has been a fascinating genre for adult writers, attracting Philip Roth and Harry Turtledove. But how does a writer develop this genre without confusing those who know very little history? This question had been largely unanswered until Scott Westerfeld began his planned trilogy about World War I in “Leviathan’’ (2009). England and the Allies (the Darwinists) embrace Darwin immediately, and he leads them into the genetic engineering of military animals. The German states (the Clankers) focus on perfecting mechanical creatures that can walk. Two engaging protagonists, the Archduke Prince Aleksandar of Serbia and Deryn Sharp, a girl who disguises herself as a British midshipman, alternate telling this sprawling saga. In “Behemoth’’ (Simon Pulse), Deryn serves as a cabin boy for Darwin’s granddaughter, Nora Darwin Barlow, on a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Empire. With escapes, chases, and strange beasts, this steampunk novel entertains but educates at the same time.
On the most basic level “One Crazy Summer’’ (Amistad) works as a character-driven story of three sisters, who find themselves living for a month with their mother in Oakland, Calif., in the 1960s. Narrated by Delphine, age 11, the story explores how the girls adjust to a summer camp sponsored by the Black Panthers, who provide food for the community. Filled with humor — with lines like we “didn’t come for the revolution. We came for breakfast’’ — the book not only brings the times and political issues alive, but it explores the universal journey of a child seeking a mother’s love. Whether you read it to understand the world of the Black Panthers or just for the mother-daughter saga, there is a lot of wisdom in these pages.
Poetry and information On Oct. 30, 1944, a new dance was performed at the Library of Congress. With music by Aaron Copland, choreography by Martha Graham, and sets by Isamu Noguchi, “Appalachian Spring’’ combined the talents of three of America’s most brilliant creators. Of all the art forms, dance is probably the hardest to convey in a book. Hence the accomplishment of the two authors and illustrator of “Ballet for Martha’’ (Roaring Brook) is even more remarkable. With a text full of telling detail, the authors focus on the creative process and explore art, music, and dance. But they don’t overwhelm the reader with information and leave just enough room for illustrator Brian Floca to work his magic. Readers feel like they are watching this historic performance as they turn the pages. Bravo! All three deserve a standing ovation.
In one of the most beautifully written books of poetry of the last few years, Joyce Sidman tackles the 4.6 million year history of Earth and its hardiest creatures in “Ubiquitous.’’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Why do some creatures thrive, and others die out? Everything from bacteria to mollusks to human beings gets honored with an exquisitely constructed poem, a hand-watercolored linocut, and well-written factual information that supports the poetry. Never have art, science, literature, and fact been so well blended.
Anita Silvey, a former editor of The Horn Book review journal, is the author of “Henry Knox: Booksellers, Soldier, Patriot’’ and the Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac. She can be reached at email@example.com.