Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favourite children's books of 2011

Picture books:

Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj - Many reviews have compared this interactive story to the Pigeon tales of Mo Willems, and with reason: the suspicious feline narrator of this book addresses the reader, refusing to divulge cat secrets until readers prove they are, in fact, cats themselves.

The Can Man by Laura E. Williams - A poignant story about a young boy who struggles to save enough money for a skateboard, something his family cannot afford to buy for him. He strikes upon the idea of collecting cans to make some quick cash, but soon finds that he is infringing on the livelihood of the Can Man, a local homeless man who used to live in his building. The Can Man generally keeps to himself, but pitches in to help the boy; the boy, meanwhile, struggles with why the Can Man does what he does, and whether the Can Man's desire for a winter coat is more important than his need for a new skateboard.

Won-Ton A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw - A shelter cat tells his story in his own words. A great introduction to poetry in a classroom setting, and a touching story about a tough cat with a vulnerable core. Hate That Cat for the younger set, with fewer tears and more laughs, but just as much heart.

Honourable mentions to two titles technically not published or first read in 2011:

Taming Horrible Harry by Lili Chartrand - This was my go-to book for outreach visits to the K-3 set this year, of which I made significantly fewer, alas. This is the story of a monster who becomes captivated by books and learns to read. A joy to read aloud (with opportunities for roaring (kids) and licking (adults... don't ask....)). Translated from the French.

Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple - Yolen and her daughter co-authored this charming rhyming picture book depicting a variety of princesses (some with power tools, some in sports gear ... all in crowns and NONE in pink). The illustrations are not my favourite, ever, and the crown refrain is a bit tiresome, but this is a good pick for adventurous girls everywhere. Kirkus called it "A joyful and much-needed antidote to the precious pink pestilence that has infested picture books aimed at girls." Ha.

Best book trailer for a picture book: My Rhinoceros by Jon Agee

Middle grades:

The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster - The titular ogre terrorises entire communities until he is utterly confounded by an unfailingly pleasant young girl: “Are you new to the neighborhood?” the girl asks sweetly. “Please don’t leave until you’ve had a muffin.” Ponders the ogre, "I can't be liked. It's bad for business." Verbose, exaggerated fun for the whole family, this book is full of life and wickedly funny.

This Child, Every Child: A Book About the World's Children by David J. Smith
Each page illustrates aspects of children’s lives (at home, at work, schooling, gender inequality, being “on the move” due to adoption, kidnapping, immigration, etc.) and has the text of a related Article from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in a box at the bottom (the simplified text was a bit jarring to me, but appropriate for children). Sometimes, one child’s situation is used as an example of a certain aspect of children’s lives; sometimes, two or more are juxtaposed. There is a section for “learning more” and a great list of sources for all the statistical information in the book. The Children and the future section is a bit of a platform for UNICEF programs, but it is still very good.

The Adventures of Jack Lime
by James Leck - Short detective stories written in the style of a 1950s potboiler. And I quote:

"What you are about to read are some of the more interesting cases that have crossed my desk. You see, I'm a detective, a private investigator, a gumshoe. What I do is fix problems for people who need their problems fixed. My name is Jack Lime, and these are my stories."

This book fell into my lap several months before Leck made a series of successful and entertaining class visits to several OPL branches (including Rockcliffe Park, which I was temporarily supervising at the time). Leck was fun to work with, and was great with kids. I hope to see more of Jack Lime, since it's always a struggle to find funny, interesting middle grade books with appeal to both boys and girls.

A Second Is A Hiccup
by Hazel Hutchins - A book about time (and thus, math) for the middle grades set. In other words, a pink polka-dotted unicorn. Thank your lucky stars for this charming, engaging book that illustrates different units of time with real-life examples. For instance, "A second is a hiccup--the time it takes to kiss your mom, or jump a rope, or turn around," and "If you build a sandy tower / Run right through a sprinkly shower / Climb a tree and smell a flower / Pretend you have a secret power / That should nicely fill / An hour."


Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis - A Regency England tale for young girls, about a widower parson, his three unruly daughters, and a family secret. As previously blogged, this tale features "three quarrelling sisters, two highwayman (real/not), secret family magical powers, romance, the clergy, and a flying teacup." Flavia de Luce for the 8-12 year old set.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow - An utterly captivating read. Few of you will know that I am tremendously sentimental about animals (in film and books - I was influenced early and deeply by The Velveteen Rabbit, wept at The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, avoided The Underneath and am currently studiously avoiding War Horse). As such, I am compelled to point out that the cat, Taggle, made the book for me, here. I read this shortly after my cat died and every time Taggle found himself in a sticky situation, I was falling to pieces. I wept. Seriously. ANYWAY, feline attachment aside, this is a rollicking good tale about an orphan who is the victim of a small town's superstitions. Alone and abused, Kate falls under the spell of the mysterious sorcerer, Linay, who, in exchange for her shadow, promises to grant her heart's wish. As Kate agonises over her (limited) choices, she befriends a young girl and learns that her fate, as well as that of her new friend and her deceased mother, might be connected to Linay's world in more ways than one. A truly dark and dangerous fairy tale.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins - Seen via the fabulous Elizabeth, this is a graphic novel biography of a real-life comic book artist and Holocaust survivor, Lily RenĂ©e Wilheim Peters Phillips. Lily escapes Vienna in 1939 via Kindertransport, arriving in Leeds at the home of her pen pal. She soon realises that some people in wartime England aren't quite as welcoming as she had hoped, and the book follows her as she works various odd jobs (mother's helper, servant, caretaker, candy-striper), eventually securing her (aging, ill) parents' passage to England after years spent unsure if they were still alive. Lily went on to work as a penciller for early comic books, creating and illustrating stories about Jane Martin, a female pilot, and Senorita Rio (at left). The facts of the book are compelling, and I agree with Elizabeth, who writes at Fuse #8 that "one thing about the book I liked without hesitation was the backmatter. In addition to the Glossary of German to English terms there are wonderful sections explaining everything from the British Internment Camps (something I’ve never encountered in a book for kids before) to automats." (Seriously, automats. Read all about them).

The Summer of Permanent Wants
by Jamieson Findlay
This was such an odd little book, but I really loved it! Eleven-year-old Emmeline, who suffers from aphasia since an illness abroad, sets off with her grandmother in a boat rigged up as a traveling bookstore one summer. Aboard "Permanent wants," the two voyage down the Rideau Canal Waterway, in towns real and imaginary, encountering characters both possible and impossible. This book works as a novel but is best understood as a series of linked short stories about Permanent wants's various ports of call, and the mysteries Emmeline and her grandmother encounter there. From a lonely woman whose vocation is to be a mailwoman between doppelgangers, to a fraudulent sea captain, to a reptile zoo and its extravagant owners, this is a book rich with diverse characters and suffused with tenderness.

Previous children's lists: 2010, 2009, 2008.


  1. Great choices.
    I have a new grand-niece this year, so shall have to keep these in mind for her.
    Loved the My Rhinocerous trailer.

  2. I brought Not All Princesses Dress In Pink to class last year for Children's Readership Advisory. It was pretty popular. Then I gave it to my niece!

  3. Thank you for including Won Ton. We are honored! Purrs, Ms. Lee Wardlaw =^..^=