I’ve got lots on my mind as I think and write about books and giving this holiday season. But I think Kyle Zimmer, President of First Book in Washington DC says it best for me when she spoke at the National Book Awards ceremony this past month:
“In this country that we are so proud of, 45% of our children are being raised in homes that are poor or near poor. We are fighting our own Lord Voldemort. We know what the crucial key is. It’s books. They can change the life trajectory of a child forever. At First Book, we believe books are the most powerful force in the universe.”
For those of us who do read, we know there is always more to learn, and always more to be humbled by through reading a book. By sharing books with those who don’t read or can’t, we can transform lives. Let’s be agents of transformation this season.
With that in mind, here are some powerful forces in children’s books published this year.
- Some of you may already know of inspirational story of the Christmas Truce of 1914–a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western front around Christmas 1914 during World War I. Author/illustrator John Hendrix weaves fact and fiction together to create a powerful and moving centenary tribute in his new picture book Shooting At the Stars.
Told through one young British soldier’s letters home, the story unfolds with young Charlie describing the cold and the fear from the trenches as he writes to his mother, then revels in the wonder and desperate relief as he hears the sounds of voices lifted together in song coming from across the German line on Christmas Eve. All in all over the course of a day, Christmas trees are planted, pictures are taken, items are traded, hands are shaken and enemy soldiers are buried side by side.”Altogether it was a splendid day with our foes. Tomorrow I suppose we will all fight for our countries. And when the major returns, we will have to follow his orders. But I suspect our side will spend the rest of the night aiming high above their trench, shooting at the stars.” (Yes, I was in tears upon finishing this one.) This is a timeless, meaningful story that begs deeper discussion.
- I am always looking for a fun, heartwarming story that is tailor-made to be read aloud for the little-ish ones on my holiday list. Nuts To You by Lynne Rae Perkins fits the bill with its perfect mix of Watership Down animal fantasy doused with some Gary Larson humor.The adventure begins when Jed the squirrel is captured by a hawk. Managing to escape from the in-flight hawk’s talons, Jed fears that he will never see home again– little does he know his friends are setting out to rescue him. Perkins’ whimsical illustrations add warmth and goofiness to the adventure, and humans make an appearance as well by making incessant noise with their giant chainsaws and earthmovers. An ecological tale, and a story of friendship, Nuts To You will make you smile.
- Can I just say that I KNEW Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson was destined for big things when I first read it? Okay, now that I’ve gotten my ego out of the way — I also want to say that I am so happy it was chosen as the National Book Award winner last month. This memoir in verse is bold, compassionate, and elegantly written.Woodson grew up in the 60’s and 70’s between two cultures– that of Brooklyn with her hard-working mother in their Jehovah’s Witness household, and also with her loving grandparents in South Carolina, where the kids thought she talked funny. It is a story of racial divide, of storytelling, of family and of dreaming with your heart. Don’t miss this one.
- One of the most stunning fantasy debuts of the year is The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove. This is a wholly original story similar in scope to Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy. In the late eighteenth century, a great temporal disruption plunges the world into chaos—some continents remain in the present, while others are thrust into the distant past, a far future, or an ever-shifting mélange of ages. A century after the disruption, Sophie, who lives with her famed mapmaker Uncle Shadrack, arrives home one day to find their house ransacked, her uncle kidnapped, and their secret map room—housing mystical maps containing memories—emptied of all of its treasures.Grove wraps the complex central premise of this series opener in lavish detail and brisk plot turns to sweep readers along through her fascinating, fully realized world. This is a perfect gift for those mature, voracious readers of literary fantasy on your list.
- Another literary escape we love in the kid’s room this season is Vango: Between Sky and Earth by Timothee de Fombelle. Whether escaping on foot, by train, or by the Graf Zeppelin, teenage fugitive Vango always manages to remain one step ahead of the French authorities in this exciting and sophisticated novel.Set between the World Wars, it follows the story of young Vango as he travels the globe seeking to unlock the secrets of his mysterious childhood, often with the assistance of beautiful, brilliant, and spunky young ladies! Translated from the French, this novel about romantic and subversive hero Vango will appeal to teens who enjoy steampunk and foreign films.
Jane Knight is the children’s book buyer for Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, VT.