Choosing the Best Children's Books

CHILD's age-by-age list of the winning titles

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.1

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The best children's books delight with their lyrical language, inspire with their imaginative illustrations, and excite with their memorable characters. Choosing the best of the best is a daunting task, given the fact that 4,000 books for children were published this year alone. But with the help of our nominating committee of experts in children's literature, Child set out to do just that. After many extraordinary hours of joyous reading and lively debate, we are proud to present the 50 most wondrous books of the year.

Ages 0 to 2

Baby Face

Text by Abigail Tabby, illustrations by Dan Yaccarino.
Watch your baby's face light up as a pull of a tab wiggles the eyes, ears, nose, and more of the babies featured in this endearingly silly interactive book. Adorable illustrations and chipper rhymes add to the fun and help teach about the various facial parts. HarperFestival/HarperCollins, $7.95.

Big and Little/What's There?
Text and illustrations by Melanie Walsh.
Surprises abound for wee ones in these two bright-as-a-button board books, which use flaps to explore opposites and position. Thus, in Big and Little, an all-black square (dark) opens up to reveal the view from a sunny window (light), while a flowerpot niftily discloses the little worm inside in What's There? Candlewick Press, $4.99 each.

Counting Kisses
Text and illustrations by Karen Katz.
Count down to bedtime with this exuberant tale of a baby gathering kisses ("ten little kisses on teeny tiny toes") from the whole family. Brimming with affection, the cheery, folk-art-inspired illustrations are simply irresistible. Pucker up! Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, $14.

Everywhere Babies
Text by Susan Meyers, illustrations by Marla Frazee.
True to the title, babies of all sizes and colors spill over the pages of this high-spirited book. Jaunty rhymes chronicle babies' busy lives -- eating and crawling, at sleep and at play -- and little ones will love seeing themselves reflected in the soft, expressive watercolors. Harcourt, $16.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.2

Little Green
Text and illustrations by Keith Baker.
Jewel-toned cut-paper collages serve up a sumptuous feast for the eyes as a young artist tries to capture a hummingbird's erratic flight ("stopping, starting, dashing, darting, zigging, zagging everywhere") on paper. Harcourt, $16.

My Car
Text and illustrations by Byron Barton.
Go for a spin with Sam as he describes his vehicle and the finer points of safe driving ("I stop for pedestrians"). Eye-popping graphics and chunky shapes give this toddler-friendly book plenty of curb appeal. Greenwillow, $14.95.

My World
Text by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd.
Back in print after a long absence, this companion to the classic Goodnight Moon finds everyone's favorite bunny venturing beyond the great green room into the larger world. Brown's playfully lyrical text is set to a familiar visual beat, with black-and-white drawings punctuating full-color vignettes of family life. HarperCollins, $15.95.

Strawberries Are Red/What Is Black and White?
Text and illustrations by Petr Horácek.
These two board books offer inventive introductions to the concepts of color and contrast. Your child will delight in the surprises at the end -- die-cut pages that stack into a zebra (What Is Black and White?) and a bowl bursting with colorful fruit (Strawberries Are Red). Candlewick Press, $4.99 each.

The Very Busy Life of Olaf and Venus: Home/Car/Park/Shopping
Text and illustrations by Pierre Pratt.
A quartet of brightly hued, near-wordless board books charts the daily rounds of best pals Olaf the Elephant and Venus the Mouse. The storylines are cleverly conjured from just half a dozen droll scenarios, and young children will get a thrill out of spotting the familiar objects (dog, telephone, chair, cheese, and so on) highlighted on each sturdy page. Candlewick Press, $4.99 each.

Whose Shoes?
Text by Anna Grossnickle Hines, illustrations by LeUyen Pham.
A little mouse gleefully plays dress-up, trying on each member of her family's shoes until she finally settles on her own "snappy just-right shoes, snuggy shoes, not-tight shoes." Nimble wordplay sets a lively pace, while gatefold pages lift to reveal answers to the recurring "Whose shoes?" refrain. Harcourt, $14.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.3

Ages 2 to 4

Astro Bunnies
Text by Christine Loomis, illustrations by Ora Eitan.
This return engagement from the creators of Cowboy Bunnies propels young readers into outer space with sophisticated mixed-media illustrations and verse that sparkles with alliteration. A reassuring message at the end is just the ticket for pint-size adventurers. G. P. Putnam's Sons, $15.99.

Five Creatures
Text by Emily Jenkins, illustrations by Tomek Bogacki.
Inside a little girl's house live five creatures -- three humans and two cats. Mix-and-match descriptions ("Two who like to eat mice. Only one who likes to eat beets") add up to loads of fun. Frances Foster Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

Hushabye
Text and illustrations by John Burningham.
A sleepy cast of characters (a cat, the man in the moon, and more) all need a place to rest. Accompanied by dreamy images, the lyrical tale is capped by a tranquil final refrain: "Hushabye hushabye hush." Knopf, $14.95.

Kiss Good Night
Text by Amy Hest, illustrations by Anita Jeram.
"Book, blanket, friends, milk" -- what's missing from the Bear family's tuck-in ritual? Sam waits patiently until finally Mrs. Bear says, "Oh, I know! Kiss good night, Sam!" The finale is so satisfying that it calls for an encore. "Again!" Sam says, as will readers of this cozy story. Candlewick Press, $15.99.

Lisa's Airplane Trip
Text by Anne Gutman, illustrations by Georg Hallensleben.
Part of the Misadventures of Gaspard and Lisa series, this winning tale of a self-assured dog's eventful flight from her home in Paris to New York City will delight parents and children alike. The text's understated wit plays straight man to the broader humor of the vibrant illustrations, which depict the airborne antics of effervescent Lisa with panache. Knopf, $9.95.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.4

Sally Goes to the Mountains
Text and illustrations by Stephen Huneck.
Sally the black Labrador is back with a brand-new adventure as she leaves the city behind for a forest full of new friends. She meets birds, fish, beaver, skunks, and moose -- or does she? Elegant, striking woodcuts create a memorable landscape alight with whimsy. Abrams, $17.95.

See You Soon Moon
Text by Donna Conrad, illustrations by Don Carter.
"Hey -- the moon is coming with us!" says a boy from the back seat of a car. Sure enough, the moon follows along, a reassuring presence on his journey to Grandma's house. Cookie-cutter-shaped objects thickly frosted with bright paint grace this nighttime jaunt. Knopf, $14.95.

Some from the Moon, Some from the Sun
By Margot Zemach.
In this posthumous book by Caldecott-medalist Zemach, enchanting watercolors are paired with timeless rhymes and songs ("Star light, star bright"). The mood of the illustrations ranges from sunny to pensive, but through them all shines the artist's ebullient spirit. Rounding out the volume are previously unpublished autobiographical notes, photos, and drawings from the Zemach family archives. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.

The Water Hole
Text and illustrations by Graeme Base.
One rhino, two tigers, and so on gather at a water hole that dwindles away with the turn of each page -- until renewed by a refreshing rain. Part counting book, part visual puzzle, part gentle environmental plea, this lush companion to Base's bestselling Animalia offers elaborately detailed vistas of diverse habitats and wildlife. Abrams, $18.95.

Two Little Trains
Text by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Back in print with a fresh new look, Brown's tale of a "streamlined train" and a "little old train" is given an inventive twist by the Dillons. Here, they envision parallel journeys, one real and one fanciful. The sleek and striking new artwork invites all aboard for a journey of the imagination. HarperCollins, $15.95.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.5

Ages 4 to 6

And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon
Text by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel, illustrations by Janet Stevens.
This year's most uproarious romp gets under way when Dish and Spoon go AWOL. Soon, the Cat, the Cow, and the Dog are in hot pursuit of their pals, leaving a trail of fractured fairy tales and nursery rhymes -- not to mention outrageous puns -- in their wake. Harcourt, $17.

Little Whistle
Text by Cynthia Rylant, illustrations by Tim Bowers.
Every night when the shades are drawn at a store called Toytown, Little Whistle, a plump and fetching guinea pig, climbs out of his cage, puts on his blue pea coat, and begins a new adventure. Softly realistic oil paintings reflect all the charm of this new character, whose escapades will continue in future episodes. Harcourt, $14.

Milo's Hat Trick
Text and illustrations by Jon Agee.
Milo the Magnificent, a wannabe magician, is anything but. He "botched his card trick. He tangled his rope trick. And his hat trick was just pathetic." Enter a bear, who saves the day with a truly amazing feat. Michael di Capua Books/Hyperion, $15.95.

Olivia Saves the Circus
Text and illustrations by Ian Falconer.
When it's Olivia's turn to tell her classmates about her vacation, the little pig spins an outrageous fib about her imaginary circus exploits. Falconer serves up second helpings of his precocious porker with gusto, dressing the pages in shades of black and white splashed with red and crowned with understated humor. Anne Schwartz/Atheneum, $16.

Sleepy Book
Text by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrations by Stefano Vitale.
Radiant new artwork in twilight hues provides a glorious backdrop for the rerelease of this classic bedtime fare. Setting the stage for sleep with a drowsy menagerie that begins with bears in "dark caves the long winter through," Zolotow masterfully evokes the hush of nightfall. HarperCollins, $15.95.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.6

Sophie's Masterpiece
Text by Eileen Spinelli, illustrations by Jane Dyer.
Artistic Sophie is "no ordinary house spider." Alas, her talents for weaving are unappreciated at Beekman's Boardinghouse, until she befriends a penniless young woman whose newborn baby needs a blanket. With delicate watercolors to capture its beauty and poignancy, this tale is as deftly spun as one of Sophie's splendid creations. Simon & Schuster, $16.

Tattered Sails
Text by Verla Kay, illustrations by Dan Andreasen.
Staccato quatrains make up the backbone of this catchy read-aloud, a recounting of one family's arduous voyage to the New World. Whether describing conditions aboard ship or the life that awaits, the verses neatly sum up the Pilgrim experience. Handsome pictures add a timeless touch. G. P. Putnam's Sons, $15.99.

The Other Side
Text by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrations by E. B. Lewis.
Two young girls -- one African American, one Caucasian -- have been told not to cross the barrier that separates their backyards, but they find their way to friendship nevertheless. This story will also resonate with older kids, who can appreciate the deeper themes and strong visual metaphor of the fence. G. P. Putnam's Sons, $16.99.

Waiting for Wings
Text and illustrations by Lois Ehlert.
A profusion of garden-bright color greets young naturalists curious to learn more about the life cycle of butterflies. The pages start out small when the focus is on caterpillars, then expand to accommodate the winged beauties. A vibrant afterword includes butterfly and flower facts. Harcourt, $17.

Yoko's Paper Cranes
Text and illustrations by Rosemary Wells.
Like the cranes in her grandmother's garden that fly away every year, Yoko the kitten, too, must leave Japan for faraway California. One day Yoko makes origami cranes and sends them to her grandparents with a promise that she will return someday -- like the cranes that come back each year. Vivid Japanese motifs illustrate this tender tale of love and family ties. Hyperion, $15.99.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.7

Ages 6 to 8

Baloney (Henry P.) Text by Jon Scieszka, illustrations by Lane Smith.
Threatened with "permanent lifelong detention" by his teacher, Miss Bugscuffle, for being tardy, a young alien (the aptly named Henry P. Baloney) invents a whopper of an excuse. Futuristic, computer-aided artwork and "extraterrestrial" words (plucked from foreign dictionaries) are used to enliven Henry's wild story: "I foiled their plan to disintegrate me by plugging their blassa with my zimulus." Glossary, er, "decoder" included on the last page. Viking, $15.99.

Betty Doll
Text and illustrations by Patricia Polacco.
This loving tribute to the author's mother is based on a real doll -- one Polacco's mother made when she was a little girl -- who witnesses all the important events of a family over several generations. The story is made even more moving by the personal photographs incorporated into the nostalgic, soft-focus drawings. Philomel, $16.99.

Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story Text by Lynn Roberts, illustrations by David Roberts.
Greta's angular stepsisters and gimlet-eyed stepmother make a deliciously wicked trio in this arch retelling of a favorite fairy tale. Kids and grown-ups alike will get a kick out of the art deco details, from the flapper fashions to the white Rolls-Royce that whisks the belle to the ball. Abrams, $16.95.

Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story Text by Lynn Roberts, illustrations by David Roberts.
Greta's angular stepsisters and gimlet-eyed stepmother make a deliciously wicked trio in this arch retelling of a favorite fairy tale. Kids and grown-ups alike will get a kick out of the art deco details, from the flapper fashions to the white Rolls-Royce that whisks the belle to the ball. Abrams, $16.95.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.8

Gleam and Glow
Text by Eve Bunting, illustrations by Peter Sylvada.
Inspired by a real incident from the Bosnian war, this haunting story tells of a refugee family's flight, the pair of goldfish the kids leave behind, and the surprise that awaits when they return. Compassionate, sobering, hopeful, and wise, the tale is played out against the bittersweet backdrop of rich, luminous oil paintings. Harcourt, $16.

Lizards, Frogs, and Polliwogs
Text and illustrations by Douglas Florian.
Reptiles and amphibians of all shapes, sizes, and colors are celebrated in this playful poetry collection. The short, snappy verses ("But did you know that alligators/Sometimes swallow second graders?") are infused with high spirits that extend to the impressionistic watercolor collages. Harcourt, $16.

Martin's Big Words
Text by Doreen Rappaport, illustrations by Bryan Collier.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of love, justice, and freedom shines through every page of this powerhouse of a book. Watercolor and cut-paper collages pack a visual punch, and the fluid narrative is simple enough for young readers. Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, $15.99.

Mice and Beans
Text by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrations by Joe Cepeda.
The only thing Rosa María doesn't have room for in her big heart is mice -- but she changes her mind after furry little helpers secretly come to her aid when she forgets to fill the piñata for her granddaughter's birthday fiesta. An amusing visual storyline provides the perfect seasoning for this appealing tale, appropriately spiced with Spanish words and phrases. Scholastic, $15.95.

On My Way
Text and illustrations by Tomie dePaola.
As he did so skillfully in such autobiographical picture books as Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, bestselling children's book author and illustrator dePaola continues the story of his life. In this third installment of the 26 Fairmount Avenue chapter-book series, dePaola evokes all the warmth of his close-knit family in episodes brimming with humorous detail. G. P. Putnam's Sons, $13.99.

The Journey
Text by Sarah Stewart, illustrations by David Small.
"I'm finally in a big city! And more, I've escaped the farm and chores!" writes a young Amish girl in her diary during a trip to Chicago. Lyrical watercolors and Hannah's awestruck musings contrast the wonder and excitement of bustling city life with the simple pleasures of her pastoral Amish community. In the end, however, she discovers the old adage proves true: There's no place like home. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.9

Ages 8 to 12

Dial-a-Ghost
Text by Eva Ibbotson, illustrations by Kevin Hawkes.
Take one 10-year-old orphan, add a pair of conniving relatives, top it off with a mix-up by the dithering owners of a placement agency for ghosts, and the result is this utterly delectable farce. Dutton, $15.99.

Everything on a Waffle
Text by Polly Horvath.
Eleven-year-old Primrose Squarp is convinced her parents aren't lost at sea, and so sails confidently through a series of eccentric guardians. She's aided by friend and confidante Miss Bowzer, the owner of a restaurant where everything, including pork chops, is served on a waffle (hence the title and recipes at the end of each chapter). First-rate characterizations and Primrose's sassy voice carry this sharply written, amusing story effortlessly along. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

Fair Weather
Text by Richard Peck.
"It was the last day of our old lives, and we didn't even know it." Thirteen-year-old Rosie Beckett's words prove true when Aunt Euterpe invites her family to the 1893 world fair in Chicago. Dial, $16.99.

How Tía Lola Came to Stay
Text by Julia Alvarez.
It's horrible enough that 10-year-old Miguel has to move after his parents divorce -- from New York City to Vermont, where "his black hair and brown skin stand out" and he has yet to make a friend. But now, his flamboyant aunt from the Dominican Republic is coming to visit. How will Miguel ever fit in? Knopf, $15.95.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men
Text by Iain Lawrence.
Strange things begin to happen when World War I breaks out and Johnny is sent from London to the safety of the countryside. Is it the 10-year-old's imagination, or are the battles he stages with his toy soldiers foretelling events his father later describes in letters home from the front? This suspenseful story is best suited for children at the upper end of the age range. Delacorte, $15.95.

Choosing the Best Children's Books, p.10

Love That Dog
Text by Sharon Creech.
Written entirely in free verse, this slender novel by Newbery-medalist Creech paints a poignant picture of a boy who is reluctant at first to try his hand at poetry: "I don't want to/because boys/don't write poetry/Girls do." Joanna Cotler Books/ HarperCollins, $14.95.

Moonpie and Ivy
Text by Barbara O'Connor.
Stranded at her Aunt Ivy's in backwoods Georgia by her feckless mother, Pearl slowly begins to blossom. She befriends a neighbor boy and envisions a life in the framework of a loving family. In the end, things don't turn out quite the way Pearl had imagined, but she carries away something new with her -- hope. Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.

The Blues Singers
Text by Julius Lester, illustrations by Lisa Cohen.
From Billie Holiday to James Brown, 10 musical legends are profiled in this jazzy picture book, related as first-person reminiscences from grandfather to granddaughter. The dynamic descriptions ("a voice as wide and long as the sky") are further enlivened by pop-art-style portraits. Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, $15.99.

The Sands of Time
Text by Michael Hoeye.
The second installment in the ongoing escapades of mouse detective Hermux Tantamoq finds the diminutive watchmaker off on a quest to discover an ancient tomb, where the secret to mouse history (including whether or not cats ever really existed) lies buried. Hoeye's tale boasts the kind of minutely detailed world into which kids (and adults) can't wait to immerse themselves.Terfle Books, $12.95.

Wishes, Kisses, and Pigs
Text by Betsy Hearne
Did Louise really turn her brother into a pig when she wished on a star? There's magic afoot in this engaging tale, as Louise scrambles to deal with her folly and reunite her family. Bewitched readers will find themselves guessing to the very end. Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, $16.

Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the December/January 2002 issue of Child magazine.

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