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NoveList's "Juvenile Brain Trust:" Picks for Great Gift Books

*Originally appeared in the November/December issue of Kids & Books.*

It's no secret that NoveList staff are always talking and trading books -- whether asking for a great audiobook for a car trip or recommending books for a family beach trip storytime. Every year, it's become a tradition for the Juvenile Brain Trust (the librarians who catalog and create NoveList content for those who work with youth) to put together a list of books that would make ideal gifts. Here's this year's gift list, just for you. 


Bo at Ballard Creek

by Kirkpatrick Hill; illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Henry Holt and Company, 2013.
ISBN: 9780805093513

Around the holidays, I always find myself gravitating towards cozy, feel-good books, both for myself and to share with others as gifts. Bo at Ballard Creek is just such a book: warm, sweet-but-not-cutesy, and focused on family and community.

Set in 1920s Alaska, it tells the story of 5-year-old tomboy Bo. Bo lives happily with her two adopted papas in Ballard Creek, a close, caring community made up of gold miners and native Eskimos. Though Bo's life is full of hard work -- endless chores, sluicing dirt for gold -- it's also got plenty of thrills, like being chased by a bear, or seeing a plane for the first time. LeUyen Pham's expressive illustrations add additional charm to the story (Bo's grumpy face after having her hair curled is especially priceless), but to me, what stands out about this book is its honest portrayal of a child's emotions: Bo's feelings of sadness, fear, exuberance, and love are realistically rough-edged.

Bo at Ballard Creek would make a wonderful gift for kids who like slice-of-life historical fiction, as well as for readers of any age who like diverse characters, authentic details, and endearingly simple storytelling. --Rebecca Honeycutt, NextReads Bibliographer


The Pirate Cruncher

by Jonny Duddle. Candlewick Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9780763648763

Last year a close family friend gave my son a copy of The Pirate Cruncher for Christmas. He was instantly hooked. The book has a great rhythm for reading aloud and the illustrations are a good blend of large pictures with smaller, more graphic novel-like panels. The story is about a lone fiddler who convinces a rowdy group of pirates to go after treasure. Only after they’ve boarded the boat does he mention a “pirate cruncher” that eats pirates and ships. The fierce captain, undeterred, sails along until . . . chomp! The treasure is on the back of a giant sea monster that swallows the pirates and the ship whole, leaving the fiddler to rhyme about the missing pirates and treasure.

I enjoy reading this story out loud (almost nightly) to my son. It’s fun and the pirate-speak keeps the reading fresh, even after many readings. The detailed illustrations are very colorful and the end fold-out image of the giant sea monster is great to pore over -- my three-year-old son loves it, and so do I! The Pirate Cruncher is a humorous, whimsical read that children will enjoy. --Danielle Allison, Cataloger


I Scream, Ice Cream!: A Book of Wordles

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Serge Bloch. Chronicle Books, 2013.
ISBN: 9781452100043

I admit that I was predisposed to love this picture book: clever wordplay is a sure-fire draw for me and this book didn't disappoint. Wonderfully inventive, Rosenthal's delightful book about homophones will be sure to attract kids -- in a playful way -- to the fun of language. Educators will be drawn to it, too -- it would make great fodder for a writing exercise, and what a cool project to have kids illustrate their own wordles.

Some of the wordles are more difficult than others (one features a Snow White reference) but this only adds to the book's staying power. Kids will grow into it, first appreciating the mixed-media art, with its muted, retro-feeling color, then revisiting to enjoy the whimsy and only later 'getting' the wordplay on a whole other level.

Bonus: the author and illustrator both include wordles about themselves on the jacket flaps.

Of course, I had to try creating a wordle: Why, remarkable!/Why re-mark a bull?! --Kathy Stewart, Juvenile Content Specialist


Fortunately, the Milk

By Neil Gaiman. Harper, 2013.
ISBN: 9780062224071

Neil Giaman’s Fortunately, the Milk is my new go-to gift book for kids of all ages. It is a silly adventure story that begins with a family that is out of milk and a brother and sister patiently waiting for their father who is taking ages to return from the corner shop. When they inquire about what took so long, their father has quite a tale to tell -- one that involves alien abductions, pirates, an inventor who happens to be a dinosaur, time travel, ponies, wumpires, a volcano god, dancing dwarves, and more! In just over 100 pages, Gaiman packs in as many elements as he can into a narrative that constantly twists and turns. The story is also enhanced with quirky black and white illustrations by Skottie Young that perfectly fit this madcap tale. It is an entertaining and silly read that kids will return to again and again. It would also make a great read-aloud for families to enjoy together. --Amy Morgan, Cataloger


The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin. Dutton, 1978.
ISBN: 9780525423201

Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game was published 35 years ago but it has remained a classic mystery story for young readers. Centering around the colorful new inhabitants of an apartment building near Lake Michigan, the intricately layered plot and ageless setting make this story one that is just as attention-grabbing now as when it was first written. Each of the characters has a connection to the millionaire Sam Westing and has been brought there to be a participant in his last game -- the investigation of his murder. The person who solves the mystery will inherit Westing’s estate, valued at two hundred million dollars. Grouped into unlikely pairs, each team is given a set of clues and told that the murderer is one of themselves. Also among their number (although they don’t know it yet) is a thief, a bomber, and a mistake. When the puzzle is finally unraveled, only one person walks away with millions but the rest are left with new friendships and happy endings of their own. --Renee Young, Juvenile Cataloging Supervisor

Poems to Learn by Heart

selected by Caroline Kennedy; paintings by Jon J. Muth. Disney Hyperion, 2013.
ISBN: 9781423108054

As a parent, I sometimes find myself thinking remorsefully of things I wish I’d done differently when my children were young. Leafing through Poems to Learn by Heart, a new poetry anthology with over 100 poems selected by Caroline Kennedy and beautifully illustrated by Jon J. Muth, I wish I had “READ MORE POETRY!” (See how I am exhorting you to do just that?).

This book is an excellent gift choice for any family. Written by a wide array of authors, both historical and contemporary, these wonderfully diverse poems -- some for children, some for teens, and even some for adults -- are arranged by subject. Each section is prefaced with a thoughtful introduction by Kennedy. The lovely, muted watercolor illustrations give the book a quiet feeling. Don’t be fooled by the cover illustration though; this book is not just for young children. Open it up! Browse! These poems can be read, re-read, savored, and learned by heart over time, as children and families grow up together. With more poetry! --Nancy Margolin, Juvenile Editor


Flora & Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures

by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell. Candlewick, 2013.
ISBN: 9780763660406

Whenever I read one of Kate DiCamillo’s stories I know I'm in for an adventure, and Flora & Ulysses is an extraordinary adventure. Flora, a ten-year-old comic book fan and self-described cynic, has no use for romance (her mother writes romance novels). Instead, Flora would rather pay close attention to details to be prepared for any disaster that might come her way. In fact, a disaster does happen in the first few pages, when Flora witnesses a vacuum roaring out of her neighbor’s house, heading straight for a squirrel, and sucking it right up.

Flora revives the near-dead squirrel, and he is transformed into a super-squirrel. She names him Ulysses, and takes him home where he demonstrates more of his amazing abilities (including typing out poetry). Unfortunately, Flora’s mother has very different ideas about squirrels, and the adventure continues, with girl saving squirrel then superhero squirrel saving the day.

While magnificently satisfying, this heartwarming, laugh-out-loud story is not your usual adventure; instead, it is filled with many quirky, wonderfully complex characters who become fuller and more complete as the story progresses. The pencil illustrations and visual details further broaden the story's appeal. With its rich, delicious language, Flora & Ulysses makes an excellent read-aloud, read-alone, read-again book and will continue to delight from year to year. --Beth Gerall, NoveList Creative Content Supervisor


Happy gift-giving!