Almanac

Cover Story - November 30, 2011

Children's books inspire readers of all ages

Stories take the imagination from inside a bread box to around the world

by Debbie Duncan

New books for kids encourage experimentation, exploration, invention and wonder. Wow! Remember, there is no better gift for a child than a book.

"Stars," Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee; $17; Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster; ages 2-6: Stars take many forms in this gentle, glorious picture book. They're "how you know it's almost night," or they're drawn on shiny paper and put in your pocket. They're found in gardens and snowflakes, and given as rewards, among other things. "Stars" will inspire little ones to look for stars in the natural and celestial world. Parents will find it a perfect bedtime read-aloud.

"Eleven Experiments that Failed," Jenny Offill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter; $17; Schwartz & Wade/Random House; ages 4-8: An enterprising young scientist tests her hypotheses with 11 off-the-wall experiments. Children will probably figure out that a kid can't "make it through the winter eating only snow and ketchup" or that yodeling loudly will speed up a boring car ride, but that's the fun of this inventive book with terrific appeal for local families. Isn't failure a prerequisite to success in Silicon Valley?

"Wonderstruck," Brian Selznick; $30; Scholastic; ages 9 and up: Here is a modern masterpiece that intertwines words and pictures to tell the story of two deaf children separated by 50 years who find each other thanks to a shared love of collecting, museums and a longing for family. "Wonderstruck" is the best book about kids running away to a New York City museum since E.L. Konigsburg's "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" and is destined to be equally revered as a timeless classic.

"Around the World," Matt Phelan; $25; Candlewick; ages 9-12: How appropriate to use the graphic novel format to map the journeys and explain the motivation of three intrepid travelers near the end of the 19th century who were inspired by Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" to circumnavigate the globe.

Reporter Nelly Bly staged a race against time. She also sounded like Steve Jobs when a dressmaker told her he couldn't have a dress "that will stand constant wear for three months" made for her that day. Nelly told him: "Nonsense. If you want to do it you can do it." He did. And she did too, completing her journey in 72 days.

By riding a high-wheeled bicycle 13,500 miles over nearly three years, former Colorado miner Thomas Stevens promoted bicycling and person-to-person diplomacy like no one before him.

Joshua Slocum took more than three years to sail solo around the Earth — a trip filled with rough seas, pirates and the ghosts of his deceased wife and children. Perfect, in other words, for young readers.

"Bigger than a Bread Box," Laurel Snyder; $17; Random House; ages 9-12: Without warning and in the middle of the school year, 12-year-old Rebecca's mother whisks Rebecca and her baby brother away from their father and their Baltimore home to Gran's house in Atlanta. Rebecca is lost, lonely and mad as all get-out at her mom. And then she finds a magic bread box that gives her whatever she wants as long as the wished-for item fits inside the bread box. Rebecca gets a book, an iPod, a diamond, a thousand dollars — even a jacket just like the most popular girl at her new school wears. But where is everything coming from? Is magic making things better, or perhaps worse? And what good is magic when it can't give Rebecca what she really wants, for her parents to get back together so she can return home to Baltimore?

Readers will gladly become caught in the magical trap Rebecca weaves for herself and root for her no matter how many mistakes she makes in the believable unbelievable world that is "Bigger than a Bread Box."

"Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert," Marc Aronson; $17; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 9 and up: Aronson's survival story of last year's Chilean mining disaster and rescue chronicles events both below ground and above for the 69 days that 33 miners were trapped deep in the earth.

Major characters include geologists and other scientists and mathematicians the world over, NASA isolation specialists, Chilean elected officials and citizens, and of course the miners themselves and their families. Aronson uses geology, history, psychology, mythology and first-person interviews to make young readers feel as if they're right there in the Chilean desert, either helping rescuers devise a successful method to bring the miners to the surface, or in the "underground burrow" with the trapped men.

Stanford resident Debbie Duncan is the author of a new eBook, "Caller Number Nine." She has reviewed children's books for the Weekly since 1997. Her complete reviews are available at www.debbieduncan.com.

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