Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wrap a Bow Around This! Holiday Gift Guide 2009

Nothing says to a child, "I love how you think," like the gift of great book.

This holiday celebrate your child's curiosity by tying a ribbon around one or more of these exciting new titles!

Below I've selected 50 books, 10 in five categories, that are sure to keep brains busy and happy through the holiday, from magical picture books and short stories to rollicking adventures and suspenseful series to beautifully remade classics and novelty books that stretch the imagination.

The first category is Wondrous Read-Alouds (picture books), followed by Sweet Beginnings (storybook collections, learning books, early readers and short chapter books), Page-Turners (novels), Stellar Returns (repackaged, retold, reissued and deluxe editions) and The Unique and Unusual (novelty books and craft books/kits).

Once you find your favorites, visit author Anne Fine's collection of free bookplates at for more than 100 designs by published illustrators.

Wondrous Read-Alouds: 10 Picture Books

Holiday picture books

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Brett Helquist, HarperCollins, $17.99, age 4-8. Helquist makes you feel every scowl, and look of regret and glee that passes over Scrooge's face in this wonderful picture book adaption of Dicken's classic about a miser who is taught the meaning of Christmas by spirits of the past, present and future. Helquist is the illustrator of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Blueberry Girl, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess, HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 4-8. Gaiman's words float off the page in this enchanting New Age prayer. The author of Coraline asks the "ladies of light and ladies of darkness and ladies of never-you-mind" to guide the world's girls to be wise and safe, bold and brave. Don't miss Gaiman's magical recitation in the trailer below!

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, written and illustrated by Mo Willems, Hyperion Books for Children, $16.99, ages 3 and up. When a buck-toothed mole rat named Wilbur defies convention and puts on clothes, other bare-skinned members of his species rat him out to wise old grandpa in this delightfully goofy story about striking out on your own by a three-time Caldecott Honor author-illustrator.

Leon and the Place Between, by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith, Templar Books, $16.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages. A venturous boy leaps into a box where magic is kept and discovers a wondrous world of flying carpets, shadow puppets and fantastical tricks in this mesmerizing book about the power of believing. Illustrator Baker-Smith, who also designed the covers of Robert Plant's albums Mighty Rearranger and Nine Lives, works magic on the page.

Bridget Fidget and the Most Perfect Pet, by Joe Berger, Penguin Young Readers Group, $16.99. ages 3-5. Hearing the doorbell ring, a lovable little fireball named Bridget races downstairs and rips open a box she assumes is a unicorn or a penguin or some other grand pet in this sparkling debut about the thrill of getting a package, even when it's small. Bridget's exuberance is infectious and will delight fans of Ian Falconer's Olivia.

Robot Zot!, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by David Shannon, Simon & Schuster, $17.99, ages 3-7, 40 pages. A brash little robot with uneven teeth invades a suburban kitchen, blows up appliances, then falls in love with a cell phone toy in this wildly silly book by a Caldecott Honor-winning author. (Watch this spring for Scieszka's new chapter books series, Spaceheadz, about aliens who invade earth.)

Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex, Hyperion Books for Children, $16.99, ages 4-8. As punishment for ignoring his parents, Billy is saddled with a blue whale as long as a block and is shunned by classmates who think the whale dampens their fun in this imaginative story about making the most of a bad situation. (Barnett is also the author of the wonderful new detective series The Brixton Brothers for ages 9-12.)

Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated), Schwartz & Wade, by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith, $17.99, ages 4-8. Tired of wearing pebbles in her socks and other contrivances to keep her from floating away, a lightweight princess pulls off the heavy garb she's been forced to wear and ties a balloon to her ankle, only to find herself rising too high in the sky in this charming story by the author of The Shrinking of Treehorn.

The King of Quizzical Island, by Gordon Snell, illustrated by David McKee, Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 4-8. A king sets sail for the edge of the world and finds himself in a topsy turvy land of jigsaw pieces, going over a vertical river and being tossed into a sea of nightmares, before being washed ashore at his own backdoor in this fanciful story that bounces along like a poem by Eugene Fields.

The Odd Egg, written and illustrated by Emily Gravett, Simon & Schuster, $15.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages. Seeing other birds laying eggs, a drake tracks down a giant, green-speckled egg of his own, only to be razzed for having such an odd egg until a baby alligator hatches out and scares the birds off the page in this delightful tale by the author of Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears.

Sweet Beginnings: 10 Storybook Collections, Learning Books, Early Readers and Short Chapter Books

Holiday beginnings

A Little Books Boxed Set Featuring Little Pea, Little Hoot, Little Oink, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace, Chronicle Books, $19.99, ages 4-8. Three adorable stories about the challenges of being little are reproduced as small board books and packaged in a box with windows for photographs. Meet a pea who prefers spinach to candy, an owl who would rather sleep than stay up late, and a pig who wants to clean up instead of make a mess.

Jan Brett's Snowy Treasury, written and illustrated by Jan Brett, Penguin Young Readers Group, $29.99, ages 4-8. Brett's most beloved titles, Gingerbread Baby, The Mitten, The Hat and The Three Snow Bears, are packaged in their original size in this enchanting collection that's sure to have children climbing into laps for a marathon read-through. (Afterward, visit Brett's wonderful website of crafts listed in my favorite links.)

Creature ABC and Creature 4 Floor Puzzles, by Andrew Zuckerman, Chronicle Books, $19.99 (book), $24.95 (puzzle set), ages 4-8. Award-winning Zuckerman captures the whimsical expressions of animals in minimalist, ultra-high resolution photographs in two stunning editions: an ABC book and a box of double-sided, 2-foot-square puzzles. The creatures are so cute, your child will wish they could hug them on the page. (View a video of Zuckerman photographing animals below!)

Little Mouse Gets Ready, by Jeff Smith, Toon Books, $12.95, ages 4-8, 32 pages. A bouncy little mouse gets the hang of snaps, buttons and even a tail hole as he hurries to get dressed for a day of play in this charming early reader by Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith, author of the wildly popular graphic novel series Bone. (This is a great companion to Toon Book's 2008 release Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman.)

Max Spaniel Dinosaur Hunt, written and illustrated by David Catrow, Orchard Books, $6.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages. A lovably goofy spaniel named Max goes on a hunt for dinosaurs and ends up building his own inventive replica in this hysterical early reader by award-winning cartoonist Catrow, the illustrator of Plantzilla by Jerdine Nolen.

Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, Candlewick Press, $12.99, ages 4-8. Mercy, the porcine wonder, sets off on a hilarious chase through the drive-in theater, after leaping snout-first out of Mr. and Mrs. Watson convertible in pursuit of popcorn with real butter in Book 6 of this wonderful series.

Emmaline and the Bunny, written and illustrated by Katherine Hannigan, Greenwillow Books, ages 9-12. $14.99, 112 pages. Emmaline loves to stomp in puddles and shout silly phrases, and more than anything wants a bunny, but in the town of Neatasapin, messes are frowned upon, until one day a wild bunny come along that changes everything in this delightful book by the author of Ida B.

Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas, based on the character created by Mordecai Richler, by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, $10.95, ages 8-12, pages 112. Award-winning Fagan brings back the pint-size star of Richter's celebrated series Jacob Two-Two in a swashbuckling adventure filled with silly pirates, acrobatic brothers, a cookie-loving giant and a friend with a treasure in her pocket.

Ottoline Goes to School, written and illustrated by Chris Riddell, HarperCollins, $10.99, ages 9-12, 176 pages. Whimsical ink drawings abound in Riddell's second book about super-sleuth Ottoline Brown and her hairy monster friend Monroe, as they investigate a mysterious curse that haunts a school for "differently gifted" kids.

Book 4, Water, Water Everywhere (Sluggers), Simon & Schuster, written by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Loren Long, $14.99, ages 9-12, 272 pages. An evil chancellor closes in on Griffith, Graham, Ruby and their magical baseball as they barnstorm around the country with The Travelin' Nine baseball team, raising money to pay off debt in the fifth installment of this suspenseful series set in 1899.

Page-Turners: 10 Novels To Sweep You Away

Holiday novels

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Brett Helquist, HarperCollins, $14.99, ages 9-12, 128 pages. Twelve-year-old Odd finds the courage to take on an evil giant who's turned mythical gods into animals after losing his father on a Viking expedition and crushing his leg under a tree in this exciting Nordic adventure novella, Gaiman's contribution to the 2008 World Book Day. (View a trailer below!)

The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge, HarperCollins Publishers, $16.99, ages 10 and up, 568 pages. When a tribe of shunned Lace people try to fool an inspector into believing Arilou is the next Lady Lost (a venerated woman who can detach her senses from her body), their ruse goes terribly wrong and only sister Haithin can unravel the sinister plot that threatens their enchanted island in this exquisitely written epic.

A Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck, Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 9-12, 176 pages. Struggling to fit in and scratch out a living in their new town, a Methodist minister and his family find an unexpected ally in their eccentric, gun-toting neighbor Grandma Dowdel, in this hilarious, heart-warming companion to the Newbery Medal-winning A Year Down Yonder and Newbery Honor-winning A Long Way to Chicago.

The Magician's Nephew, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka, Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 9-12, 201 pages. A 10-year-old orphan named Peter is told by a fortuneteller that he must follow an elephant to find his long-lost sister Adelle in this luminous story about believing in the impossible by the author of the Newbery Award-winning The Tale of Despereaux.

The Extra-Ordinary Princess, by Carolyn Q. Ebbitt, Bloomsbury Children's Books, $16.99, ages 9-12, 336 pages. After a plague kills the king and queen of Gossling, their youngest daughter Amelia must rescue her three older sisters from an evil spell and fulfill the prophesies of her people before an evil uncle destroys the kingdom in this fairy tale adventure by debut author Ebbitt.

Flawed Dogs, The Novel: The Shocking Raid on Westminster, Philomel Books, written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed, $16.99, ages 8-12, 240 pages. A show dog falls from grace after he's framed by a vindictive poodle for taking away a baby, then rallies his adorably odd friends from the pound to exact revenge, only to realize that all he really wants is to win over his human again in this heart-warming, hilarious first novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Breathed.

The Shadow of Malabron: The Perilous Realm: Book One, by Thomas Wharton, Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 9-12, 400 pages. A motorcycle accident strands Will in a mysterious realm where dark forces are trying to turn stories into a nightmare and looks to a spirited girl named Rowan, a wise wolf and other Storyfolk to help find a gate that will take him home in this first book in an exciting fantasy trilogy by an award-winning adult author.

Leviathan, by Keith Thompson, Simon & Schuster, ages 12 and up, 438 pages. With assassins on his heels, the prince of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire forges an unlikely alliance with a middie aboard a British hot-air beast in the first of a four-book fantasy series that reimagines the battle lines of World War I with fabricated animals and animalistic machines. (View the book trailer under my October review!)

The Wizard of Rondo, By Emily Rodda, Scholastic Press, $16.99, ages 9-12, 352 pages. Leo and his cousin Mimi plunge back into the perilous world Rondo through a portal on Leo's antique music box in search of a missing wizard and encounter a fierce cloud monster in this fun, exuberant sequel to The Key of Rondo by the acclaimed author of the Deltora Quest series.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99, ages 10 an up. By Gennifer Choldenko. Six months after his family moves to Alcatraz for his dad's work, 12-year-old Moose must pay back a favor to infamous prisoner Al Capone and figure out how a bar spreader got into his sister's luggage in this riveting sequel to the Newbery Honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts.

Stellar Returns: 10 Repackaged, Retold, Reissued or Deluxe Editions

Holiday remakes

The Little Prince: Deluxe Pop-Up Book, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Houghton Mifflin, $35, ages 9-12, 64 pages. Saint-Exupery's artwork leaps off the page in this pop-up edition of his 1943 fantasy about a pilot who rediscovers his sense of wonder after being marooned in the Sahara with a planet-hopping prince. Swiveling scenes and 3-D fold-outs make this unabridged edition the perfect introduction to a classic. (Watch a book trailer below!)

Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Oleg Lipchenko, Tundra Books, $22.95, ages 9-12, 104 pages. In this gorgeous new edition of the Lewis Carroll classic, master draftsman Lipchenko accentuates the dreamy world inside the rabbit hole with a yellowish atmosphere and detailed lead and brown pencil sketches that meander around the text. Major scenes are framed by elaborate drawings that have the feel of picture searches.

Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, retold by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Riddell, Candlewick Press, $27.99, ages 9-12, 352 pages. Jenkins' flair for storytelling and Riddell's exquisite drawings make this classic tale of the deluded old Spaniard who thinks he's a knight errant more accessible than ever. Barely a page goes by without a finely penned caricature, whether it's a knobby-kneed Quixote leaping in the air or the wild-haired Spaniard brandishing his sword against crazed cats.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence, Candlewick Press. $24.99, ages 9-12, 272 pages. Lawrence's woodcut prints look as if they were engraved from the rustic, wide planks of a pirate ship and aged in the salty sea air in this handsome unabridged edition of Stevenson's swashbuckling adventure, in which a young Jack Hawkins sets sail with the cunning mutineer Long John Silver in search of buried gold.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hyperion Books, written by Lauren Child, photographed by Polly Borland, set created by Emily L. Jenkins, Hyperion Books, 16.99, 44 pages. Child, the creator of the wildly popular Charlie and Lola series, brings her childlike sensibility to this enchanting edition of the timeless fairy tale about a girl with curly hair who snoops through the cottage of three bears. Photographic stills of a doll with ringlets and three stuffed bears beautifully mimic the way a child would act out the story.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe: A Celebration of the First Edition, written by C.S. Lewis, with interior art by Pauline Baynes, Harper, $20, ages 8 and up, 173 pages. Looking almost exactly as it did when it was first published in 1950, this wonderful reproduction of the classic story of four siblings who discover a strange, snowy wood in a wardrobe inside their uncle's house contains text and images from the first edition, and the classic cover of Lucy and Susan riding Aslan.

The Seeing Stick, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela Terrazzini, Running Press, $16.95, 4-8, 34 pages. Terrazzini's luminous artwork makes this new edition of Yolen's classic tale feel like a story debut. In this touching tale, a wise old man teaches the blind daughter of a Chinese emperor to "see" with her fingers, hands and heart after her father desperately searches for someone to give her sight.

The Man Who Lost His Head, written by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Robert McCloskey, The New York Review Children's Collection, $14.95, ages 4-8, 64 pages. When a man wakes up one morning without his noggin, he tries to make due with a jack-o-lantern, a parsnip then a wooden head until a run-in with a tiger forces a brash solution in this reissued parable, out of print for more than 25 years.

Little Blue and Little Yellow, by Leo Lionni, Alfred A. Knopf, ages 2-5, 48 pages. Two circles of color, one blue and one yellow, do everything together until one day they lose track of each other. After rolling around, they finally find each other and hug so hard they blend into the color green in this adorable classic reissued on its 50th anniversary. Learn about the train trip that inspired the story in an author's note.

Brisingr Deluxe Edition (Inheritance Book Three), by Christopher Paolini, Alfred A. Knopf $29.99, young adult, 800 pages. A must for fans of the best-selling Inheritance Cycle series, this hefty collector's edition of the third book about dragon rider Eragon's quest to right wrongs in Alagaesia includes deleted scenes, an exclusive foldout poster of Lethrblaka, artwork never before published and a guide to dwarf runes.

The Unique and Unusual: 10 Novelty Books and Craft Books/Kits

Holiday unique books

Magical Menagerie, by Junzo Terada, Chronicle Books, $24.95. Build 20 enchanting animals with this unique kit of 3-D sculptures by Japanese artist Terada. Punch out paperboard pieces and fit them into slots to make whimsical stand-alone designs, including a lion with a heart-shaped mane, a deer holding its baby and songbirds sitting in a tree. Envelopes are included for mailing or storing designs. Terada's pattern and color combinations are spectacular!

The Encyclopedia of Immaturity: Volume 2, by The Editors of Klutz, Klutz, $19.95, ages 8 +, 200 pages. In this hysterical followup to 2007 manual of immature pranks and skills, The Encyclopedia of Immaturity, Volume 1, the editors of Klutz present an array of silly how-tos, from making a toiletgram to playing indoor Frisbee golf, and explore all manner of taboo subjects, including the truth about wedgies and the art of picking diary locks. (Couple this with the first volume and your 10-year-old boy will be deliriously happy.)

Made by Me, by Jane Bull, Dorling Kindersley, $14.99 respectively, ages 4-8 +, 48-62 pages. Girls will squeal with delight when they flip through this charming book of crafts with colorful tutorials that are easy to follow. Dress up a plain t-shirt with embroidered flowers, felt cupcakes and a button-trimmed collar or hand sew a two-sided doll with embroidered faces. Pair this with Annabel Karmel's Cook It Together (DK, $12.99) for a wonderful gift set.

Eragon's Guide to Alagaesia, by Christopher Paolini, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.99, ages 9 +, 32 pages. Wannabe dragon riders will delight in every page of this magical guide to the mysterious land of Paolini's Inheritance Cycle series by the creators of Dragonology. Explore a map of Alagaesia stolen from the elves' library, ink drawings of shape-shifting cats and wind-vipers and the training regimen of dragon riders, and touch the scarlet gem that lives in the chest of dragons.

My Little Fire Truck, Simon & Schuster, written and illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson, $19.99 ages 4-8, 16 pages. A wonderful segue into child play, this interactive book by Caldecott Honor-winning author Johnson encourages little ones to practice telling time and move sturdy parts on a fire engine: lift a gas nozzle and fuel the truck, test tire pressure, put away fire tools, start the ignition and steer, turn the siren light and ring the fire bell. Johnson is the author/illustrator of Alphabet City and My Little Red Toolbox.

Open Me Up: Everything You Need to Know About the Human Body, Dorling Kindersley, $24.99, ages 9-12, 256 pages. Open Me Up makes a trip through the human body feel like a walk through an amusement park with exciting graphics and fun write-ups. Readers observe scientists knitting strands of DNA on a couch, sneak a peak at the report cards of the Left Brain and Right and see white blood cells zap invaders in a video-game. (A perfect followup to three other stunning fact books, DK's Pick Me Up, Do Not Open and Take Me Back.)

Drake's Comprehensive Compendium of Dragonology, Candlewick Press, by Dr. Ernest Drake, edited by Dugald A. Steer, illustrated by D. Carrel, T. Tomic and N. Harris, $19.99, ages 9-12, 192 pages. Aged to look almost a century old, this magical compendium will make a dragon expert out of any reader. Explore ink drawings and descriptions of dragons and similar creatures, learn about their habits, biology and encounters with humans, and discover how to heal sick dragons, preserve their remains and sketch them in the wild.

Fairies: Petal People You Make Yourself, edited by Rachel Haab, Klutz, $16.95, ages 9-12, 40 pages. Make a dozen enchanting flower fairies with poseable bodies using wooden beads, colored florist wire, embroidery floss and and fabric flower petals in this easy-to-use kit that inspires kids to use their own imagination. (Pair this with Penguin's 2005 Fairyopolis, the secret fairy journal of Cicely Mary Barker, and Chronicle's 2008 folding play set, Fairy Tree House by Saviour Pirotta, for a magical gift collection.)

Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary, by Simon Beecroft, contributed by Jeremy Beckett, Dorling Kindersley, $21.99, ages 7 +, 96 pages. Getting Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary is like receiving the best Lego catalog ever. Brick-building fans will delight in pictures and descriptions of every warship ever built, detailed diagrams of gadgetry, closeups of every minifigure to do battle, as well as an exclusive Luke Skywalker minifigure tucked into the cover and a flip-book element on the lower corner of every page.

Invasion of the Bristlebots, edited by Pat Murphy and scientists of Klutz Labs, Klutz, $19.95, ages 8 to 99, 40 pages. A delight for robot fans, this unusual kit comes with two motorized toothbrush heads that zip around like bugs, wire legs, feelers and beady eyes for accessorizing, punch-outs for a robot maze and a booklet with games and activities. This is the perfect choice for any child who's ever tinkered with a toy motor or pleaded to dissect an old watch.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Hotel Under the Sand

Written by Kage Baker

Tachyon Publications, 2009

$8, ages 9-12, 181 pages

Inspired by a true-life tragedy, this beguiling book about a 9-year-old girl marooned on an island and the magical hotel she salvages from the sand is a tribute to the power of the human spirit.

After a terrible storm steals away everything she's known, Emma washes up on an island where a centuries old hotel is buried and embarks on an incredible adventure to get it up and running again.

Though she's always been brave and clever, Emma never imagined she'd end up alone on an island to fend for herself and feel such loss. Then the ghost of an orphaned bell hop appears on the beach at night and Emma discovers that good things can still happen.

The ghost, who is not at all frightening, is that of Winston Oliver Courtland, a good-hearted bell captain who died when an Equinox storm buried The Grand Wenlocke hotel under sand. The Victorian hotel was built by the eccentric inventor Mr. Wenlocke, who figured out a way to make time last as long as patrons wanted it to.

Mr. Wenlocke's invention, the Difference Engine, stretched out time inside the fancy hotel, so vacations would never seem too short, and generated electricity from sand, sunlight and seawater without polluting the dunes outside. Instead of spewing smoke or ash, the engine produced clean water that was piped back into the hotel for use.

But just as the hotel was about to open, the Storm of the Equinox came out of a clear sky and sent up columns of sand a half-mile high, burying the hotel and catapulting Winston out of its front door to his death. Mr. Wenlocke and the rest of the staff went missing, and ever since, Winston's ghost has been waiting to return to the hotel.

After hearing Winston's frightening account, Emma realizes another sandstorm could come without warning and builds a fence with wreckage from the beach around her camp and unearths a deserted rowboat to sleep under. That night, just as she feared, a fierce sandstorm hits the beach, but Winston appears just in time to hold her ground.

When the winds finally die down, Emma and Winston lift the boat off their shoulders to find a magical sight, a five-story palace of turrets and verandas has risen from the sand. It is The Grand Wenlocke, looking exactly as it did the day it was buried. Apparently Emma's fence had deflected the wind just right to salvage the hotel.

At first Emma and Winston are unable to enter the hotel, as the Difference Engine is stuck, but once inside, they find a lushly decorated foyer with graceful settees and golden statues and discover that the hotel's kind cook Mrs. Beet and her dog Shorty have come back to life after being frozen in time with the hotel.

Together, Mrs. Beet and Winston agree that the hotel is rightfully Emma's since she is the one who salvaged it, but soon two other characters are staking claim. A salty sailor with a peg leg comes to the front door with a map to treasure hidden in the hotel and a haughty boy claiming to be the last descendant of Mr. Wenlocke crashes down outside in a flying apparatus.

In exchange for the treasure, the sailor Captain Doubloon agrees to tow The Grand Wenlocke with his ship to an island with firmer ground. They all know another sandstorm could bury the hotel as it had before. But suddenly a strange group of patrons are lining up to stay at the hotel and if they're not careful, Winston's spirit could be lost forever.

Baker's first children's book is an uplifting fantasy about rising above adversity. Emma is as sweet-natured and level-headed as Dorothy was in the Wizard of Oz. In the face of terrifying circumstances, she makes the most of what she has to work with and jumps headlong into an adventure that is as captivating as any child could dream of.

Baker, the author of the popular adult sci-fi series The Company, wrote the book for her 8-year-old niece Emma after she lost family in a terrible tragedy. Every week, Baker would mail off a chapter to comfort Emma in her grief and many of the details, including the pirate and the dog, were added because they were things Emma loved.

The island is modeled after the great Dunes north of Point Conception along the California coast, where the real Emma lived when she was very small. Dubbed "the graveyard of the Pacific," it has seen its share of shipwrecks and at the turn of the century was the site of a hotel that tipped on its side when a storm blew sand out from under it.

Revenues from the book go toward Emma's college fund.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bird Child

Written by Nan Forler, illustrated by Francois Thisdale

Tundra Books, 2009

$19.95, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A skinny girl with wobbly legs finds the courage to stand up for a classmate who is being picked on in this poetic story about believing in what can be.

Eliza is as frail looking as a newly hatched bird, but is told by her mother that she can do anything she puts her mind to. Ever since she was a baby, her mother has told Eliza she can fly.

"Look down and see what is," her mother says. "Now, look up and see what can be."

Then one day Lainey, a new girl with a big smile bounds up the steps of the school bus, and Eliza must dig deep inside herself to learn what those words really mean.

Lainey has a friendly face, but looks different from the other kids. Her yellow hair sticks out like straw. Her coat is frayed and torn. The buttons on her coat are mismatched. And soon the kids are taunting her and making her feel unwelcome.

At school, Eliza sits next to Lainey without saying a word. She peers over Lainey's shoulder to watch her paint pictures of a beautiful castle in the sky. But as the teasing picks up, the sunlight and birds begin to fade from Lainey's artwork.

On the schoolyard, a boy tosses Lainey's hat into the snow and other kids join in, kicking it deeper into the snow. Then the boy squishes snow into Lainey's face and wipes away what was left of the smile she had on the first day of school.

Eliza stands in the back of the group, with her chin tucked in her collar, and does nothing to help. She feels like a statue in the snow, her mouth is as dry as wool. She knows she should say something, but she can't get herself to speak up.

It is deep into winter and the suffering both girls feel is made more acute by the cold outside: the sting of loneliness that Lainey feels and the chill that is going through Eliza when she watches the bullying without coming to Lainey's defense.

When Lainey walks with her head down back to class and draws sad pictures that afternoon, Eliza feels shame and it shows in her face; without moving her head, she steals a glance at Lainey, as if pretending she's not looking.

The next day, Lainey doesn't show up for school and Eliza can no longer bear the guilt inside her.

Eliza goes to her mother and tells her about Lainey's sad drawings and the silence that occurred when no one stood up for her. Instead of admonishing Eliza for not coming forward, her mother helps Eliza realize what she should do: reach out and show Lainey how to fly.

Forler's lyrical words capture so well the trepidation a child feels standing up to bullies, as well as the guilt that comes with doing nothing to help, then offers an inspiring example of a child doing what is right and feeling uplifted by it.

Thisdale uses photographs of real faces enhanced by paint to convey emotions, at times so honestly they're painful to see, as when Lainey scrunches her eyes shut after being hit in the face with snow. Other times expressions are exhilarating, as when Lainey looks with a faraway smile at her painting of a castle.

Any child who's ever found themselves at a crossroads, deciding between standing up for what is right or looking the other way, will find the courage to fly after reading this lovely book.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Christmas Magic

Written by Lauren Thompson and illustrated by Jon J. Muth

Scholastic Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

In the days leading up to Christmas, children love to imagine what Santa is doing.

To them, he's as mysterious as he is nice. They sit on his lap at the mall, but rarely get to ask what it's like to be the jolliest man on earth.

In this spellbinding collaboration, Thompson (author of the award-winning Polar Bear Night) and Muth (author-illustrator of the Caldecott Honor book Zen Shorts) give Santa's fans a rare glimpse into the hours leading up to Christmas.

As we expect, the friendly old man in the red suit has much to do at the North Pole, however Santa isn't racing around his workshop, looking harried. He's calm and reflective, soaking in every magical moment before he comes to town.

In a little yellow house with a red door, far removed from the bustle of cities, we find Santa standing in front of a picture window with a wondrous look in his eyes as a tingling sensation moves through his whiskers.

He has bunny slippers on his feet and a comfy apron over his wide tummy, and he's pausing to gaze out the window at his reindeer and watch the setting sun turn the undersides of clouds an orange-pink.

It's time to slip on his floppy red hat with a giant star at the tip, step outside with his littlest reindeer, a smiley fellow that follows him like a puppy, and call to the older reindeer to prepare for flight.

"Come along home now," he says through a blow horn. "The magic will be here soon."

In the barn Santa brushes burs off the shaggy coats of his reindeer and feeds them berries and parsnips from his hand, before swinging open a giant door to reveal his big red sleigh.

After polishing the sleigh's metal sides, he buffs the bells on the harness until they jingle, then goes to house, where he oils his boots, darns his socks, combs his beard and gives his mustache one last trim as a kitten watches from his shoulder.

Now it's time to climb the stairs to the attic where all of the toys are kept. Santa runs his fingertips over every entry in his big book of names and smiles. He knows exactly which toy each child dreams of most.

Soon his sack is bulging and he climbs to the top of the bag and cinches it closed.

Outside in the night, the stars twinkle brighter than ever and the moon reflects on the bark of trees. Santa stands on his sleigh, his body slack as if humbled by a greater power, and looks upward to the sky for a sign.

All at once, his whiskers tingle and the night begins to thrum with magic. Santa takes his seat and with a shake of his reins, the reindeer dash off with the sleigh as fluffy snowflakes swirl around in the dark sky.

Everyone knows how rushed the days can be leading up to Christmas. Here's a magical book that will put the brakes on all the stress and help children revel in the wonder of it all.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Little General and The Giant Snowflake

By Matthea Harvey, drawings by Elizabeth Zechel

TinHouse Books, 2009

$10.95, ages 4 and up, 62 pages

A little general tries to rid the world of imaginative thoughts until one day his mind forces him to see a wondrous thing that doesn't exist: a giant glistening snowflake.

In this charming little book about the importance of the imagination, the little general lives atop a hill and spends every waking moment trying to keep order in and around his house.

He grows petunias in a perfect line, counts out every food on his plate, assigns a day to every jacket and each afternoon at 4 o'clock, marshals an army of realists at the base of the hill to do battle against a group of dreamers -- though nothing ever comes of it.

Across the battlefield the Dreamers are so busy twirling around and giggling that they never have time to fight. Some days, half of the Dreamers pretend to be bees. They flit about imagining their comrades are flowers, tickling their armpits to get nectar.

The Realists, however, are always ready to take up arms. Like lemmings on the little general's favorite TV program, "Order in the Wilderness," the Realist army goes along with whatever the little general says, no matter how extreme. Sometimes the little general orders formations that are so complicated that his troops fumble about, unable to make sense of them.

Yet deep inside, some of the Realists find it hard to suppress their imaginations.

Sergeant Samantha, who towers over the little general, is love-struck. She wistfully wishes she was small enough to fit in the little general's house so he would invite her in. And Lieutenant Lyle, who wants nothing more than to sing silly songs, is trying so hard not to sing that he gets in trouble for repeating what other people say.

Then one day, as the little general heads off to do battle, he sees something that is not real: a snowflake three times larger than himself land on his prize bed of roses. Forgetting he doesn't believe in giant snowflakes, he draws his sword and orders it to get off his flowers, only to notice that the snowflake looks rather pretty the way it sparkles.

Appalled by his reaction, he snaps out of his reverie and steps around the snowflake and down the hill for another day of preparing for battle. Today the Dreamers are pretending they have invisible pets and an imaginary monkey bounds over the battle lines and pinches the little general's nose. Of course the little general only scowls, dismissing the empty spot where the monkey would be.

But when the little general gets home, the visions don't end. There in his yard is the snowflake from that morning. He wonders if his mind is deluded by fever, but his forehead isn't hot. Then while eating dinner, he sees the snowflake drift in front of his window. As the moon shines on its points, the snowflake glistens on forks and saucepans in his dish rack.

The little general is so flustered by the fanciful sight that he doesn't act like himself. He forgets to to pick up his dinner plate and brush his teeth, then goes to bed early and does what he normally takes pride in never doing. He dreams. Not just once but three times.

In the first dream, the little general dances around a battalion of lemmings. In the next, he has snowflake wings and flies around the country dropping sugar cubes into lemmings' bowls for tea. And in the last, he dreams he's holding a baby lemming, scratching its ears and calling it "my little Snowflake."

When the little general wakes, he is completely out of sorts and hurries to his bookshelf to find his medical book, a realist's guide to diseases of the imagination. Under "Snowflake, Giant," he discovers he suffers from a rare hallucination, a snowflake that's three times a person's size. No cure exists.

The little general decides he has no choice but to pretend that the giant snowflake isn't actually there. But this proves difficult and by the next day the snowflake is floating an inch above his head on the battlefield.

That evening the little general has another scandalous dream, this time about Sergeant Samantha climbing a rope of lemmings up a tower to save him. By morning, all of his soldiers have come down with little snowflakes over their heads.

For the first time the little general is in tears over what to do. With no rational solution at hand, it''ll take Sergeant Samantha stepping outside the bounds of propriety to cure the hallucinations and suggest a formation to bring peace to the land.

This little book is so quirky and philosophical, you may not know what to make of it at first, but the further you get into it, the more it charms you with its messages: embrace your imagination and you'll find what your heart desires, be open to other ways of looking at the world and the differences between people won't seem as great.

Peter Sis, author and illustrator of The Wall, summed up the book beautifully on its back cover.

Writing to Harvey, he said, "Your book is strange, it is like a dream I remember having as a happy child. The dreams were like worlds to themselves … Sometimes I got scared and wanted to wake up … Sometimes I wanted them to last forever. And your book is such a dream."