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The Best Children’s Books of 2006

Hanukkah shopping for the kids in your life? Why not consider one of the books listed below? Oh sure, most kids want an Xbox 360 or a Bratz doll or “a REAAAALLY beautiful goooolden bracelet with a GIIIIANT heart on it” (source: guess), but instead, why not lecture them on consumerism and their crappy values until their ears bleed? And then buy them a book! That’s the plan, chez nous!

Here are my own girls’ favorite books of the year. Not in the running: any book containing monsters. Josie has issues. This means no “Beauty and the Beast” (Candlewick Press), retold by Max Eilenberg and illustrated by Angela Barrett, even though this version has gorgeous 18th-century-ish illustrations that look to me like the work of William Hogarth, but don’t quote me. No monsters means no “Thelonius Monster’s Sky-High Fly Pie” (Knopf) by Judy Sierra, illustrated by uber-Jewy Edward Koren. It’s Seussianifically rhythmic and will delight any gross-out-loving boy on your list. It would delight Josie, too, if she’d just let me read it to her, the fink.

I also loved three books that Josie, at 5, is too young for. Please ponder them for book-loving middle schoolers and high schoolers, even though those kids really want an iTunes gift certificate. “The Night of the Burning: Devorah’s Story” by Linda Press Wulf (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is about a girl who is orphaned by a Polish pogrom and haltingly makes a new life in South Africa. “Hurt Go Happy” (Starscape/Tor), by Ginny Rorby, details an abused deaf girl’s bond with a chimpanzee who uses sign language. “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” (Candlewick), by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, is a very dark fever dream of a fable about a heartless china rabbit who learns to love. This one is perfect for your Goth niece or your baby sitter who writes tortured poems about how no one understands her. (I was that teen poetess, and I finished this book sobbing like a Siouxsie Sioux fan who’s just learned that the drugstore’s all out of black eyeliner.)

Onward: Here are Maxine’s choices for best books of the year. For what it’s worth, she’s a much tougher audience than Josie. At 2, Josie would huddle happily in a big pile of books for an hour or more, buried up to her eyeballs. Max would much rather play with trains, build Lego towers and cater teas for all her stuffed bears. If she sees you holding an unfamiliar tome, she’ll shriek: “I hate it! I’m allergic!” — preferring the same old battered board books I’ve been reading to her since before she could squirm away. But she was instantly drawn to “Emily’s Balloon” (Chronicle Books), by Komako Sakai — what toddler couldn’t relate to the cover illustration of a tot silently admiring the balloon tied to her finger? I adore the design of this book, with its heavy matte pages, vintage-looking illustrations and simple charcoal outlines filled in with cool, minimal colors. It feels like a classic.

Max also adored “Hush, Little Baby” (Greenwillow) by Brian Pinkney, a retelling of the traditional folksong set among a snazzily dressed African American family in the early 20th century. Max loves being sung to (and knows the melody from a fraying, weird and delightful board book that used to be Josie’s, “Hush Little Alien” [Hyperion, 2001] by Daniel Kirk). Max loved the big, kinetic illustrations, the dance-y style of the whole book and the surprise appearance of a fire truck. Her review: “Again.” (Four times in a row.)

Finally, she liked “Whose Toes Are Those?” (Little, Brown) by Jabari Asim, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Pham’s soft yet vibrantly colored illustrations, with their patterned, action-filled backgrounds, remind me of Ezra Jack Keats crossed with Mary Blair. Asim’s text is simple and sweet. (“Ten little lovelies all in a row. Whose toes are those? Do you know?”) Sure, Maxine probably loves the fact that I’m grabbing and kissing her toes as I read as much as she loves the book itself, but who cares? And she has excellent toes.

As for Josie, shocker: her fave book this year was about a princess. But I can deal. “The Princess and the Pea” (Hyperion) retold by Lauren Child, “captured” by Polly Borland, emphasizes the nonhothouse qualities of its heroine. In the original fairy tale, the princess’s most salient feature is how easily she bruises. Big whoop. This version plays up her resourcefulness, adventurousness and politeness. And the book is just gorgeous, a series of dioramas built in rooms cut out of cornflake boxes and picture boards (there’s a useful spread in the back of the book that shows how Child and Borland made it), decorated with dollhouse furniture, delicious fabrics and sumptuous glittery paper dresses. For a wee fashionista, delicious.

Jo also loved “Pandora’s Box” (Little, Brown) by Jean Marzollo. I didn’t have high hopes for it. As a kid I was addicted to “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths,” so I initially resisted the design of this version. I did like the little cartoon-y Hellenic frieze on the bottom of each page, a line of birds commenting on the action like a Greek chorus. Still, I didn’t expect Josie’s immediate, passionate response. (Should I have been so shocked? She’s so my kid. To her, this was the D’Aulaire version. And there’s something so primal about myths and legends. I should know: I grew up to major in folklore and mythology in college.) Josie found the book almost unbearably suspenseful — she actually got up and hid behind the couch when it became clear that Pandora was going to open that chest. But she adored the ending, which sparked a lively discussion about free will, deism and ethics. And the next day, she asked me to put the word “HOPE” in her lunch, in the form of alphabet cookies.

Another book that gave us a lot to talk about was “Library Lion” (Candlewick) by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. A lion shows up for story hour at the local library, learns how one behaves, then is faced with an ethical dilemma. When is breaking the library rules justified? The old-school pen-and-acrylic drawings (and fashions and hairstyles and typeface) make this book feel like something from a Gen X parent’s own childhood. And what kid hasn’t related to feeling confused and constrained by rules?

Next up: “The Adventures of Polo” (Roaring Brook Press) by Regis Faller and “Flotsam” (Clarion Books) by David Wiesner. The narratives are complex, but Josie can read them entirely by herself and finds something new in them every time. She gets utterly absorbed, and I get to ignore her. Win-win! The kicker: Both are stories without words. “Polo” is a graphic novel about a puppy who seems simultaneously very French and slightly futuristic. With his tiny backpack, he explores the oceans and skies, making friends and dealing resourcefully with setbacks. Très charmant. “Flotsam” is a trippy yet hyperrealistic Chris Van Allsburg-like fantasy about a boy at the beach who finds a strange underwater camera. He gets the film inside developed and pores over the resulting pictures. So does the reader, marveling at each otherworldly image. I don’t want to spoil the story, which blows Josie’s tiny mind over and over again.

Also on the trippindicular tip, “Flamingos on the Roof” (Houghton Mifflin) is the latest poetry book by Calef Brown. We have ’em all. His poems are funny and playful but not ha-ha — there’s something off-balance and a little mysterious and unbabyish about a lot of them. (“Allicatter Gatorpillar/by and by/my oh my!/Allibutter Gatorfly!”) The poems fit perfectly with Brown’s illustrations, which are very hip, crazily colorful and crammed with detail in an Art Brut kind of way.

This year our big Jewy hit was “Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost” (Clarion) by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Jacqueline M. Cohen. It’s a Chelm-like tale of a shtoonk who insists he’s unlucky and is tricked into finding his own luck. Again, it gave us a lot to talk about: Is luck something that happens to you unbidden, or can you create luck yourself? And like all small children, Josie loves stories in which adults act like morons. Bonus: Cohen’s flat, slightly Chagall-y folk-arty illustrations are very easy on the eyes.

Among chapter books, I was delighted to discover “Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything” (Atheneum) by Lenore Look, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, and “Clementine” (Hyperion) by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by my beloved Marla Frazee. Ruby and Clementine join Megan McDonald’s Judy Moody in the pantheon of mouthy, quirky, perpetually-in-trouble girl protagonists who are not vomitously cloying like certain first graders I could name. (I’m talking to you, Junie B. Jones, you sitcom-cute, gratingly ungrammatical endless-literary-series-starring hambone who talks like no actual child I have ever known.) The protagonists here are a bit older than Josie (and icky Junie), but the books are great bedtime reading for any girl who is moving beyond picture books into longer, more complex narratives.

If you’re actually using this list to shop (as opposed to marveling at my navel-gazing about my children), you also should check out “There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me” (HarperCollins) by Alice Walker, a kind of existential prayer-poem illustrated in a ravishing Mexican-folk-art-meets-Picasso-meets-Henri-Rousseau way by Stefano Vitale, and “Lilly’s Big Day” (Greenwillow) by my personal rock star, Kevin Henkes, about the perfect tragedy of not getting to be a flower girl. It contains a picture of Lilly hefting a wide-eyed smaller child, lugging her around like a sack of potatoes in a way that totally reminds me of my two little characters.

Happy reading.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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