Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
Eleven pages in this issue of the magazine form WORLD’s second annual children’s book section. Last year we had one Children’s Book of the Year, Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King. This year we have two.
Our 2015 Picture Book of the Year is Mr. Squirrel and the Moon by Sebastian Meschenmoser (NorthSouth). Our Children’s Novel of the Year is The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall (Knopf). We also show in this section 13 runners-up and honorable mentions, and include columns on story-telling, classics for preschoolers, and trends in young adult books.
The members of our Picture Book committee not only read many books but tested them on parents, adults, interns, and children. Our essential understanding: Good picture books have a unity of text and illustration. They delight and encourage parents and children to spend time together reading. The best books do that and correspond to a Christian worldview—and that’s why Mr. Squirrel and the Moon is a winner.
Mr. Squirrel is an expressive little fellow with a lively imagination. He wakes one morning to find something large, yellow, and round on his branch. (Alert readers will realize it’s a wheel of cheese that has fallen off a farmer’s wagon.) But Mr. Squirrel thinks it’s the moon—and that he’s going to get in trouble—so he imagines the worst: imprisonment with a needleworking cellmate.
Mr. Squirrel responds to his crisis as humans often do: by running around in a panic and trying to solve it without understanding the truth of the matter, the big picture, and Who is really in charge. Funny illustrations document each disaster as a hedgehog, a billy goat, and many mice become involved, and Mr. Squirrel imagines all of them ending up in prison.
From the endpapers that show the farmer and the cheese, to the increasingly crowded prison cell (with its tiny toilets), the pencil illustrations with minimal color perfectly complement the simple text. Throughout, Meschenmoser’s book, translated from the original German, is a treat.
OUR NOVEL OF THE YEAR selection committee looked for books with excellent writing, absorbing stories, and strong, identifiable characters. A novel did not have to be explicitly Christian, but had to be consistent with a Christian understanding of how the world works.
The Penderwicks in Spring features steady Rosalind, dreamy Jane, rambunctious Skye, and shy little Batty (Elizabeth). They first appeared in 2005, when The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy won the National Book Award for juvenile fiction. Though the contemporary setting made occasional references to working moms and computers, the retro feel of the text and design charmed readers.
The Penderwicks in Spring is the fourth book in the series. Rosalind is away at college and Skye and Jane navigate high school and boyfriends, with their mild-mannered father despairing at times. Batty is now 10, still shy but growing in confidence as a big sister to 6-year-old Ben and 2-year-old Lydia. As the story opens, Batty is mourning the family dog, Hound, for whose death she feels partly responsible. But stumbling upon a secret related to an even greater loss sends her into isolation and depression.
The small-town Massachusetts setting for the series will of course remind readers of Little Women. While growing up in Philadelphia, Jeanne Birdsall steeped herself in time-tested children’s authors like E. Nesbit and Mary Norton, but returned often to Alcott’s classic. The relationships between the March girls held a special appeal for her: “I only had one sister, and she didn’t like me very much,” she told The Kansas City Star last April.
This book in the series shows how the sorrow of a child is as real as adult sorrow—just not as well-informed. Birdsall handles this with tact and sensitivity, never allowing it to tip the mood into dark territory. Everyone in the family has his or her struggles, and because the older sisters are all teenagers, boys loom rather large in the subplots. Everyone, for example, can see the flaws in Rosalind’s new boyfriend except Rosalind, and their reactions are both humorous and enlightening.
Batty comes through her crisis, and the immense value of strong supportive families proves itself once again. Though the author never references church or faith, her picture of rift and reconciliation between siblings, parental wisdom, and the value of human life comports well with Christian principles. The distinctive combination of gentle storytelling, graceful writing, and sympathetic characters makes all the Penderwick books worth reading, but this latest is especially rich.
We plan to expand our children’s books coverage over the next year. Past coverage includes a “Nifty 50” list of classic 20th-century children’s books (July 1, 2000) and a “50 More Nifties” list of reader-recommended titles (Dec. 9, 2000). In 2006 we asked WORLD writers and a variety of discerning readers for their five favorite picture books and five favorite chapter books, and published that list on Dec. 2, 2006.
If You Plant a Seed
Nelson tells this simple yet profound story in three sentences with vibrant, detailed, and expressive paintings. A wide-eyed rabbit and mouse labor together to grow a small garden—but at harvest time, as they take their first bite, five birds appear. The birds wait: Then selfishness produces anger on both sides, and a chaotic food fight ensues. Everyone loses. When the rabbit and the mouse have a change of heart and plant “a seed of kindness,” an unimaginably sweeter harvest of food and friendship results.
JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
A little girl in a red jacket accompanies her distracted father through dull city streets, stopping to gather flowering weeds springing through sidewalk cracks. She pauses to share a bouquet with a dead bird, a sleeping homeless man, and her tired mother waiting at home. The first part of the book is primarily black and white with splashes of bright color denoting things the child observes. The color increases as she leaves behind her flower bouquets. Sidewalk Flowers is a reminder—through a child’s eyes—that kindness and ordinary things matter—especially in the sight of God.
The Golden Plate
As Isobel plays with her friend Elisabeth’s dollhouse, she covets then steals a tiny golden plate. But when she puts the plate in her own more simple dollhouse it doesn’t look as beautiful, and she can’t escape reminders of her theft. Even her toys cast woeful eyes at her. Sunflowers, table plates, and the sun seem to condemn her. Finally she confesses to her mother, who makes her return the plate. Soft, detailed illustrations accompany this narrative showing the struggle of a guilty conscience and the sweetness of repentance and reconciliation. Though a universal theme, it’s definitely in a girlish package.
You Are (Not) Small
Anna Kang; illustrated by Christopher Weyant
Two hairy critters argue: “You are small.” “I am not small. You are big.” The argument escalates as more critters, both small and big, join in. Suddenly the feet of a giant hairy critter appear with a boom. Parachuting down from him come three tiny critters. This rambunctious story has only 25 words, making it perfect for young readers. Its simple illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny for toddlers. And the topic is important for Christians who often overestimate our size relative to God, and both over- and underestimate it in relation to our fellow human beings.
Tea party picture books
In Tea with Grandpa by Barney Saltzberg, a regular afternoon tea date with grandpa turns out to have a sweet, contemporary twist. In A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker, crisp dialogue and expressive illustrations enliven a story about a mouse inviting himself to tea with a curmudgeonly bear. When Ida tricks Frances into buying her used, cheap plastic tea set instead of a real china one, their friendship is at stake in A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban. Three cuddly wolves barely escape attacks from a hostile pig but always rescue the tea pot, in The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas. Finally, Tea Rex by Molly Idle reminds us that no tea party is complete without proper manners … and a dinosaur! —Betsy Farquhar
Honorable mention/picture books
My Grandfather’s Coat
Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock
A captivating retelling of the Yiddish folktale features a tailor who makes a coat. Years pass and the coat wears out. He turns it into a jacket. Then a vest. Then a tie, until there’s nothing left but the story. Exuberant illustrations document the passing years as the characters age, fashion and technology change, and new generations are born. It’s a story about change and continuity, and the love that binds a family together through the generations. The rhythmic and repetitive text makes the book a delightful read-aloud.
Bunny’s First Spring
Sally Lloyd-Jones; illustrated by David McPhail
A little bunny explores his world through changing seasons, sharing his exuberant observations with his affectionate parents. As winter arrives, he mourns what appears to be a dying world. Bunny hides in his burrow with his parents and sleeps. In springtime he awakes and discovers resurrection in nature. Lloyd-Jones weaves themes of new life throughout this story, which closes with a quote from Martin Luther: “God has written the promise of new life not just in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” McPhail’s soft-toned illustrations complement the story as the seasons change and the colors ebb and flow.
A full moon shines through a boy’s bedroom window as he remembers that he forgot to say his prayers. He prays for people with no homes. An illustration of a woman trying to stay warm on a park bench follows. The next illustration shows a man on a train, oblivious to the moon because he’s thinking about his soldier daughter in a war zone. The boy prays for the end of war. This beautifully illustrated book provides snapshots of the world’s needs and shows an earnest boy doing the one thing a young child can do: pray.
A family has a yard sale because it is moving into a small apartment. The young daughter doesn’t really understand until people root through their stuff. “You can’t take this,” she yells to a man who wants to buy her bike. Bunting conveys the pathos of the situation from a child’s viewpoint. Simple ink and watercolor illustrations complement the text. They show the mom and dad, and the mom, dad, and daughter hugging and holding hands, while neighbors and strangers carry off their belongings. That affirms the book’s message that familial love—not stuff—is what lasts.
Children’s book publishing has been a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy publishing picture. Parents worldwide continue to buy physical picture books. That could be a response to research showing that e-books don’t measure up: Children get distracted by the bells and whistles, retain less of what they read, and are less likely to benefit from parental snuggles when reading on a tablet.
English-speaking Christian parents have much to be thankful for. Many publishers keep in print old favorites. And many new books appear each year that implicitly affirm a Christian worldview of creation (it’s marvelous!), of creatures (they’re silly, selfish, and noble), and redemption (second chances are possible and hope is reasonable). It’s rare for these themes to be explicit, but the discerning parent can find them in many wonderful books, like those we’ve recognized. The best picture books delight us because they reflect honestly the way things are, and offer hope for the way things could be—and Jesus promises they will be. —S.O.
Runners-up/suitable for ages 9-13
Absolutely Truly: A Pumpkin Falls Mystery
Heather Vogel Frederick
When Truly Lovejoy’s family moves from Austin, Texas, to tiny Pumpkin Falls, N.H.—in January, no less—she faces more than a weather adjustment. Her father is mourning the loss of his arm in Iraq and the derailment of his career plans. Her mother is going back to school, leaving Truly and her four siblings to pitch in and help run the bookstore that has been in the family for generations. But a note found in a rare, autographed edition of Charlotte’s Web propels Truly into a mystery that will make her life more interesting as it brings her family and community together.
The Green Ember
Pickett and his older sister Heather enjoy a peaceful life with their family in a quiet burrow in Nick Hollow—even though their father appears to be hiding from a painful past. When a ferocious band of wolves invades their home and apparently kills their parents and little brother, the young rabbits learn that they are heirs to a glorious heritage and a present task that will test their loyalty, resilience, and courage to the breaking point. This is the first in a series of Christian fantasy novels that promises thrills, heartbreak, and triumph as Heather and Pickett mature.
Though he lives in India’s Sunderman Islands, 11-year-old Neel is similar to boys everywhere when it comes to homework. His fisherman father dreams of the boy winning a scholarship to school on the mainland, but Neel doesn’t see the point of study if it cuts into his playtime. News that a tiger cub has escaped the nearby wildlife preserve, and risks being captured and sold, propels Neel into an adventure that will test his resolve and courage. This absorbing story for younger readers will expand their understanding of other cultures as it underscores the importance of using their gifts.
Thirteen-year-old Muchoki’s life changed forever the day a hostile tribe destroyed his village and killed his father. Weeks later, his mother succumbs to tuberculosis and the boy must decide whether to stay in the refugee camp or take his little sister on a long walk to relatives in south Kenya. Though a bit slow-paced at first, the action picks up as Muchoki shoulders responsibility far beyond his years, encounters unexpected kindness, and learns the value of forgiveness as he ponders God’s providence. The story is based on true events, and the author shares an abundance of video, audio, and photographic resources on the Walking Home website.
In All the Answers, by Kate Messner, Ava discovers that a pencil hastily grabbed from the kitchen drawer seems to “know” the answers to her test questions—and some of her social and philosophical questions, also. Arcady’s Goal, by Eugene Yelchin, introduces young readers to Stalinist Russia through the eyes of a 10-year-old soccer prodigy who seeks to ride his talent out of the orphanage.
The Cottage in the Woods, by Katherine Coville, retells the story of The Three Bears as a Charlotte Bronte–style romance, with the participation of other fairy-tale characters. El Deafo is a funny and touching graphic memoir of author Cece Bell’s experience of growing up deaf. M.M. Vaughan’s Six launches a brother and sister on a dangerous quest to find their kidnapped father, using a device that allows them to communicate telepathically. —J.B.C.