Blog: Kids Lit Picks

kids picks

Deep in the Sahara

written by Kelly Cunnane
illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

Ages: birth-8 years (approximately grades preschool – 2)

A young girl, Lalla, who lives in Eastern Africa, wants more than anything to wear a malafa like the women she sees all around her in her daily life. Lalla believes that the traditional Muslim head covering will make her look beautiful, mysterious, grown up, and regal. As the women around her explain that a malafa is more than something worn to change how others view you, Lalla’s desire to wear a malafa only grows stronger and stronger. It isn’t until Lalla tells her mother at the evening call to prayer that she wants to wear a malafa to show her faith and pray with everyone that, finally, for the right reasons, does she want and get one.

This lyrical, enchanting story portrays the wish of so many children: to grow up and be like the adults around them as soon as possible. The malafa, as shared by Cuannane in the author’s note, is a veil that Muslim women wear to adhere to the modesty and earnestness of their internal faith, not an external ornament or show of oppression as many might mistake it to be. Hadadi’s paper collage illustrations capture the narration’s passion, and the malafa’s beauty so perfectly that readers might spend more time gazing at the art than reading the simple-yet-powerful story about growing up. Earning multiple starred reviews from professional review journals (such as Booklist and Publisher's Weekly), Deep in the Sahara is best suited for ages birth to eight years old, and would entice readers who enjoy the works of Patricia Polacco (especially The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup) or Allen Say (especially Tea with Milk), who want to learn more about East African cultures, or who might be trying to grow up too quickly.

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A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story

by Linda Sue Park

Ages: 10 – 14 years (approximately grades 4-9)

A young boy, Salva, who lives in Sudan in the 1980’s is lucky to have enough water to drink and to be able to attend school in the city. His world is shattered one day when fighting erupts while he is in class in the city, far from his family’s village, and is forced to leave everything familiar to walk to safety. But where is safety and how long will it take to get there? Both of these are questions that Salva and his ever-changing companions have no answers to for years on end. Contrast Salva’s life as a “Lost Boy” to a young Sudanese girl, named Nya’s, in 2008. Nya must spend all day every day walking miles to and from a water hole to bring the precious resource to her family. Even with Nya’s hard work and sacrifice, the very unfiltered water that gives her village life also cripples it with disease and inability to make life easier by moving away from the water source. These two stories, both based on true events, one day merge to find a satisfying and hopeful ending, with Salva as an educated young man who survives his hardship and finds a way to help his homeland and Nya as a recipient of Salva’s hard work who is suddenly able to give up her water jug and attend school.

Although stories of a "Lost Boy" and the Sudanese struggle has been told many times over in today's juvenile fiction, this  2015 Caudill Nominee has a certain potent gravity that is felt by readers instantaneously. Between the truth behind the tale (as established in a letter from Salva himself in the book’s conclusion) and Linda Sue Park’s sparse narrative of the alternating viewpoints, this quick read gets straight to the point and hangs on tightly through both Salva and Nya’s journeys to their ultimate destinations. I predominantly listened to this title on audiobook, and believe that traditional African drum music used between chapters and the authenticity of the readers’ accents drew me into the story and helped me to feel compassion for the characters. Use the audiobook alone, as a companion to the print, or as a follow up to reading the book to experience another level of Linda Sue Park’s amazing tale. This title is best suited for readers ages ten to fourteen years old who have a keen sense of compassion, want experience first-hand accounts of the world and/or foreign wars, or budding environmentalists who want to see the narrative importance of water as a natural resource. Due to its brevity in length yet hard-hitting issues, this title is also great for group book discussions or classroom read-alouds.

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The Short Giraffe

written by Neil Flory
illustrated by Mark Cleary

Ages: 0-7 (approximately grades preschool – 1)

When Boba the baboon comes to take a picture of the tallest animals in the world, the giraffes are thrilled. They hope that this will be the most perfect picture ever. Except that Geri doesn’t fit in the frame. The terrifically tall tower (that’s a group of giraffes, people!) comes up with all sorts of ways to get Geri up to height with the other, regular-sized giraffes including stilts, hanging from a tree, and bouncing on springs. Needless to say, none of these experiments end very well and all hope seems quite lost for including Geri in the picture. That is, until a wise little caterpillar, the shortest animal of the bunch, suggests the revolutionary idea that instead of Geri ascending to their level, it may be easier for the tower to descent to his. Picture perfect!

Creative problem solving and inclusiveness are the main driving points for this plot, showing readers that experimentation is great even if it doesn’t lead to the desired result, and that being a friend is far better than being right. The cartoon-like, bright illustrations keep the messages light-hearted and enhance the silliness that ensues during Geri’s attempts to be tall. Children will love this story because, if anyone, they know all about being short! This is also a great title for children who love giraffes or guessing what the real solution to a story’s problem will be.

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Bomb: The Race to Build –and Steal- The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

by Steve Sheinkin

Ages: 12 years and up (approximately grades 4 and up)

Did you know there was far more than American scientists working furiously to create the bomb that ended World War II? Following the lives of a theoretical physicist, a Soviet spy, and a secret Norwegian agent, Bomb expertly weaves the story leading up to, during, and after the creation of the world’s first atomic bomb. While keeping suspense and energy high throughout the fast-paced tale, Bomb also adequately informs readers of every aspect and angle of the race to build the atomic bomb, from the science involved in an atomic explosion, to the planning and execution of a top-secret mission, and more. Filled with espionage, sabotage, suspense, and revolution, Bomb exploded into the scene in 2012, earning it many starred reviews, awards, and honors in the years to follow, most notably a 2013 Newberry Honor and a 2015 Caudill Nomination. Don’t let its nonfiction status throw you: this narrative history of the worldwide arms race to build the first atomic bomb reads just like any science fiction thriller set in a war-torn country with humanity’s very survival at stake. What makes Bomb all the more thrilling than any other novel out there? The story is completely true.

Using a narrative approach to tell this dynamic story, Steve Sheinkin, master of the nonfiction craft, makes Bomb (and all of his other books, too) read not like your text book’s nonfiction, but like a suspenseful crime novel that you can’t wait to finish. Peppered with photographs, maps, quotations, letters, and diagrams, Bomb’s visual expressions are nearly as strong as its narrative, and help to set the stage for the time period and vast importance of the atomic bomb’s creation. Within the gripping tale, as well as in the epilogue and author’s afterwards, both arguments for and against the bomb’s creation are presented and give a well-rounded debate on the pros and cons of creating and wielding this weapon. Readers who are ten years old and up who enjoy historical fiction, thrillers, or have an interest in war and peace will simply devour this chronicle.

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar

by Eric Carle

Ages: 0-5 years (approximately grades preschool - kindergarten)

In this classic picture book, written and illustrated by notable children's author and illustrator, Eric Carle, in 1969, readers follow the life of a very tiny and very hungry caterpillar from the time he hatches from his egg, eats through a week’s worth of delectable food, spends a quiet time in his cocoon, and makes his final metamorphosis to a beautiful butterfly. The beautiful, childlike illustrations draw young readers in instantly and keep them hooked until the very end is a defining staple of Carle’s work. What is wonderful about this title isn’t just its classic status, but the enduring interest children have in its many timeless subject matters: caterpillars transforming into butterflies, delicious food, and of course, counting.

How one simple picture book can successfully encompass so many topics of interest is a question that can be answered upon your first read of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Helping your reader count one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday, and so on, die cut page by die cut page could amuse for hours. That is until a full, two page spread on Saturday shows the ravenous caterpillar eating what most of us (okay, or maybe just I) would like to have for our Saturday lunch, including, but not limited to: a piece of cake, a pickle, lollipop, a sausage, and a watermelon. The then gargantuan caterpillar, taking up an entire page, feels sluggish just as a young tummy might after consuming so much, and turns into the iconic butterfly. What is even more brilliant about Carle’s iconic illustrations is that they are easily emulated by children, turning this read-aloud into a wonderful segway into a drawing session, turning readers into artists, who could perhaps draw all the scrumptious things they would like to eat one Saturday afternoon…

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Start Your Kid with a Classic!

by various authors

Ages: 6-11 years (approximately grades kindergarten - 6)

Have you ever read a story with your child, only to find yourself flooded with memories of you reading that very same book when you were young? This happens so often when parents introduce classic children’s books to their own children. Classic literature can stir up images, experiences, and memories from our childhood in a way that modern fiction simply cannot. But that is one of the benefits of reading the classics with your child—it encourages conversation, connection, and memory-making. One of the challenges, however, is that length, reading level, and sometimes even content of these older titles may not always be appropriate for a young reader. Thankfully, the Classic Starts series gives young readers the opportunity to experience these timeless stories from an early age.

The Classic Starts series is a collection of beginning chapter books, which are abridged retellings of traditional children’s fiction. In these books, chapters are brief, font size is larger, and there are even pencil drawing illustrations interspersed throughout the text. And no one book is more than 160 pages long. Each novel is adapted and rewritten with language that has a more contemporary feel for easier reading. Even so, the magic from the original stories remains.

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Star Wars: Darth Vader and Son & Vader’s Little Princess

by Jeffrey Brown

Ages: 3-10 years (approximately grades preschool – 4)

Laugh your way through the joys (and mishaps) of parent-and-childhood through the eyes of Darth Vader and his son and daughter, Luke and Leia. These books will appeal to any level of Star Wars fan: from those who are not at all familiar with the workings of the Galaxy, to those who are able to use the Force themselves (or at least wish they could…). Whichever side of the fandom you fall into, Jeffrey Brown’s hilarious duo of books show the Star Wars characters you love and loathe are just like you and your kids!

In these two books, you will see Darth Vader deal with the everyday trappings of parenthood in a way that only a Sith can. View the younger side of parenthood with Darth Vader and Son, where Darth pours Luke cereal (using the Force), answers tough questions like “where to babies come from?”, and fends off a bothersome Luke during an important holo-call from Darth Sidious. In Vader’s Little Princess, Darth teaches a mostly school-or-teenage Leia how to drive, meets her scruffy-looking boyfriend (Han Solo), and fields complaints from Luke about Leia taking forever in the bathroom.

Not enough Star Wars for you? Fear you should not, young Padawan! The books are both peppered with actual Star Wars references from Darth telling Luke “It is pointless to resist, my son” as Luke throws a tantrum, to a horrified Darth finding Luke playing in the trash compactor, to Darth listening sympathetically to Leia’s dilemma of telling her boyfriend she loves him, and "all he said back was, 'I know.'" Full of laughs for parents and children already in love with the Star Wars world, and a great primer for those who want to learn more, Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess fit the bill for anyone looking for a quick read between the ages of three to ten years old, and is a wonderful pairing with this week’s previous Kid Lit Pick, Star Wars: Jedi Academy.

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Star Wars: Jedi Academy

by Jeffrey Brown

Ages: 8-12 years (approximately grades 2-7)

This week’s review comes to you a little early, to pay tribute to a very special holiday across time and space: May the 4th.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a young boy named Roan Novachez kept a diary detailing his desire to attend Pilot Academy Middle School and become a great star pilot, just like his brother and dad! To Roan’s extreme disappointment, his application to Pilot Academy is rejected and he believes he will be stuck on Tatooine forever… until, that is, Master Yoda caught wind of Roan’s situation and extended him admittance to another school for kids on Roan’s side of the galaxy: Coruscant Jedi Academy. In classes with other young Jedi-in-training, many of whom started their schooling at birth, Roan sticks out like a sore tentacle. He can barely even lift a pencil using the Force, everyone notices, and not everybody is nice about it. Little does Roan know that Jedi Academy is filled with non-Force related activities such as student council, where he creates posters promoting elections and school dances, and the school newspaper, where he creates funny comics strips about pilot Ewoks. Steadily, like any Earth-bound middle-schooler, Roan learns the value of working hard and believing in himself, and eventually builds a solid foundation for his education, his budding friendships, and his future not as a star pilot, but as a real Jedi Master!

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Maple

by Lori Nichols

Ages: 0-6 years (approximately grades preschool – 1)

This is a lovely, sweet story about sisters that starts with a girl named Maple who loves her name and where she got it. Her parents planted a maple tree when Maple was “still a whisper.” Maple grew up with her tree and made it her friend, playing with it and taking care of it throughout the seasons. One day, Maple notices a sprout by her maple tree. Soon after her sister, Willow, is born and Maple is sure to let Willow know just how special she is, just like she did with her maple tree.

A story that starts and ends with the power and importance of a name and a namesake, Maple is a beautiful story with even more beautiful illustrations. The characters (mainly Maple and Willow) are reminiscent of the popular Peanut characters, very simple cartoons with subtle coloring, with slightly more intricate backgrounds than Charles M. Schulz gave his gang. This simple story is sure to hit a sweet spot with new big sisters, a child with a tangible namesake, or any child that has a special object or shrubbery in their life.

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