Great books for young readers

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 01:51 PM

Presenting the 17th annual Wilde Awards, honoring the best books of the year for young readers. This week, the best picture books of the year. Coming in December, the best longer books. Join me for the Wilde Awards Live at Flyleaf on Dec. 5. And because there are too many books and too little print space, you’ll find more suggestions at

Wilde Awards Books for Babies & Toddlers

Alpha Block, Christopher Franceschelli (Abrams, 0-3)

This chunky study board book has alphabet cut outs that offer peeks at objects to encourage naming. 


Rock-a-bye Room, Susan Meyers (Abrams, 0-3)

A dreamy tone and soft illustrations set the tone for a mother-daughter bedtime ritual sure to lull all parties to sleep.

Night Light, Nicholas Blechman (Scholastic, ages 0-4)

In a series of rhyming pages, die-cut circles increase in number. Each page turn reveals a vehicle with nightlights, a combination sure to drive many re-readings. 

How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? Jane Yolen (Blue Sky Press, ages 2-4)

Bouncy rhyme schemes and silly illustrations of badly behaving dinosaurs may be all you need to fight a toddler’s fit. 

Tap the Magic Tree, Christie Matheson (Greenwillow, ages 2-4)

Tap “a bare brown” tree and leaves appear on the next page. Children apply author-encouraged magical touches to reflect the tree’s changes in all seasons.

First Stories:

Turkey Tot, George Shannon (Greenwillow, 0-4)

Turkey Tot, a bird with big ideas, is determined to reach the juicy, sweet, blackberries over his head despite his farm friends’ nay-saying. Their silly repeated refrains make reading aloud fun! 

That is Not a Good Idea! Mo Willems (Balzer and Bray, ages 4-6)

Adults will appreciate Willems’ silent movie structure and the drama inherent in the choruses of baby chicks who watch their mama strolling dangerously through the forest with a fox. Tension mounts en route to the exciting, surprising end.  

Bully, Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook, ages 4-6)

When a small bull is told to go away by his larger companion, he becomes a bully.  As he hurls insults, he puffs up until finally, only part of him fits the page. Vaccaro once gives a new vantage point for a well-worn idea.  

Brief Thief , Michael Escoffier  (Enchanted Lion Books, ages 4-6)

A small lizard has a big problem when he needs something for wiping and uses a holey pair of underwear he finds. Suddenly he’s struggling with his conscience … or is he? The visual ending provides readers with an answer and a laugh.

Bugs in My Hair! (David Shannon, Scholastic, ages 4-6)

Who could bring humor to a book about head lice? The talented witty Shannon lightens the terrifying subject with humor in text and illustration.

Count the Monkeys, Mac Barnett (Hyperion, ages 4-6)

Join the fun and count the monkeys. Er, wait, those monkeys don’t show up until after the final page. This book has more silly humor than counting sense.

How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, David LaRochelle (Dial, ages 4-6)

Martha won’t eat her green beans because “Green beans are bad. Very Bad.”  Even Martha doesn’t anticipate the seriousness of the threat until “a gang of mean green beans swaggered into town” and kidnaps her parents! The solution may be obvious, but getting there is so much fun. 

Sophie’s Squash, Pat Zietlow Miller (Schwartz and Wade, ages 4-7)

When Sophie adopts a butternut squash as her dearest friend, the inevitable occurs. Sophie’s blooming understanding and her parents’ worry provide lots of tender moments without sentimentality.

Older Picture Books (5-8)

Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front, Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, ages 6 and up)

The author of The Hunger Games pens an amazing memoir about the year her father went to Vietnam. This surprisingly young look at war succeeds as she stays so much in the child perspective, but the story is still sophisticated and requires pre-reading. 

The Dark, Lemony Snicket (Little Brown, ages brave 4-7)

Laszlo is afraid of the dark which is understandable with Snicket’s eloquent personification of how it hides in closets, sits behind shower curtains, lurks in the basement. Jon Klassen’s pictures add to the feeling of menace and Lazlo’s eventual friendship. An intriguing, engaging approach to naming and taming night fears.

The Matchbox Diary, Paul Fleischman (Candlewick, ages 6-10)

A small girl meeting her great-grandfather for the first time is surprised by the collection of small matchboxes which he refers to as his diary. In each is a small symbol that represents events of his immigration from Italy to America. Bagram Ibatoulline’s magnificent realistic illustrations switch between color and black and white to differentiate the past from the present. 

Mysterious Traveler, Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham (Candlewick, ages 8 and up) The co-authors achieve a poetic sense of far away and long ago in this longer picture story book that tells the tale of a young girl found in a vast desert by an elderly guide who raises her. Illustrations by P.J. Lynch match the lushness of the authors’ descriptions of place and the tender relationship between the child and her adoptive grandfather.

Papa’s Mechanical Fish, Candace Fleming (FSG, ages 5-8)

An inventor driven to build a “mechanical fish” succeeds with the help of his family’s comments. Based on the true story of Lodner Phillips’ 1851 discovery. 

Carnivores, Aaron Reynolds (Chronicle Books, ages 7 and up)

Lion, shark and wolf? They’re not bad guys and “they get their feelings hurt” from their prey’s cruel comments. Reynolds and illustrator Dan Santat take the situation to extremes — support groups, attempts to adapt, all expressed with tongue-in-cheek attitude.

The War Within These Walls, Aline Sax (Eerdmans, ages 9 and up)

A poignant narrative combines elegant descriptive writing and striking pen and ink drawings, recreating a horrifying picture a young boy who joins the Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto.


The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, Brenda Z. Guiberson (Holt, ages 4-7)

A fascinating presentation of dinosaurs, each of whom makes a case to prove it is “the greatest dinosaur of them all!” Gennady Spirin’s detailing brings richness to this nonfiction.

Eat Like a Bear, April Pulley Sayre (Holt, ages 4-7)

This sensory strong picture of a bear waking from its hibernation. Textural collages by Steve Jenkins make a great match for the text.  

The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest and Most Surprising Animals on Earth, Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, ages 6-9)

Steve Jenkins’ life-long love of animals leads to collage and present fascinating facts for 300 of them.

A Little Book of Sloth, Lucy Cooke (McElderry, ages 8 and up)

This photojournalistic perspective on sloths weaves lots of information about their behavior with a text full of word play and adorable photos

Volcano Rising, Elizabeth Rusch (Charlesbridge, ages 4-8)

Volcanos, always a popular topic, are made vivid by a plethora of active verbs, sounds and senses-rich imagery. The book stresses the creative instead of destructive force as “whoosh, fountains of red-hot lava” swell and bulge with the whooshing “fountains of red-hot lava.” 

Locomotive, Brian Floca (Atheneum, ages 7-10)

The days of locomotive as sole transport have faded, but Floca pictures them in illustration and details from an 1869 transcontinental journey.

The Mystery of Darwin’s Frog, Marty Crump (Boyds Mills, ages 8-10)

In this unusual species of frogs, the males bear the offspring. The subject isn’t the only engaging factor, the author amps up the appeal with humor and voice.

Picture Book Biographies

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, Deborah Heiligman (Roaring Brook, ages 7 and up)

Mathematician Erdos was so wildly eccentric, it’s hard to believe this a true story!  Fascinating math concepts are hidden in the illustrations, extending conversations in even more directions!

When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot, Lauren Stringer (Harcourt, ages 7 and up)

Two artists, one collaboration, an innovation that rocked the world. Stringer captures the union of musician and dancer with vivid writing and enthusiastic illustrations. 

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, Jennifer Berne (Chronicle, ages 7 and up)

This sensitive look at Einstein’s childhood stresses how his misunderstood curiosity was a trait that turned him into a stellar force in scientific and mathematical understanding. Simply voiced, with word choices and illustrations as exciting as the subject.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, Jen Bryant (Knopf, ages 7 and up)

Horace Pippin’s Grandma raised him knowing “the biggest part of you is inside, where no one can see.” The author uses strong details to introduce children to this hard-working self-taught 20th century artist who managed to create despite poverty, racism and a WWI injury that severely damaged his right arm.

Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,