Book Reviews

Our Favorite Children's Books of 2013

Danyelle Leach and Tara Merrill

The year 2013 has contributed varied and high quality children's books. We chose to review some of those that we loved that did not receive much formal recognition (with one obvious exception). 
We have arranged and labeled them by approximate grade level; however we recognize that leveling is only an approximation and that many children's interests and abilities do not correspond with what might be expected of their grade in school.

Preschool-Grade 2

Bean, Jonathan. (2012). Big Snow. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.

While David waits eagerly for snow to fall, his mom tries to distract him by asking him to help around the house—baking cookies,  cleaning bathrooms, and changing sheets. Each activity is cut short, however, when David rushes outside to check the weather, leaving his mom with a mess to clean up. The falling snow echoes David's activities in the house, giving the story structure and pleasing predictability. "But then the flour, white and fine, made David think of snow. . . . Small flakes fell softly, white and fine" (n.p.). A series of double-page spreads show the neighborhood from a bird's-eye view, establishing a distinct sense of place, while following the progression of the storm from the first flakes to the "big snow" blanketing the town. Light spilling from street lights and glowing through windows reflects off the snow's surface, suffusing the final spread with warmth as David and his parents walk through the deep snow hand in hand. (Danyelle Leach)

Fogliano, Julie. (2013). If You Want to See a Whale , illustrated by Erin E. Stead. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press.

As the title suggests, If You Want to See a Whale offers advice on what to do and what not to do if you want to see a whale. While ostensibly instructing readers "not to notice" the wonders around them, both text and illustrations subtly direct readers' imaginations to those very distractions. Julie Fogliano's poem flows with elegant ease, pointing to "possible pirates," a "pelican who may or may not be smiling," and "things that are smaller than most small things." Alliteration, repetition, and delicate rhythms sparkle when read aloud. Uncluttered illustrations of a barefoot boy observing nature invite reflection, and readers will enjoy lingering over the pictures to spot the bird and dog that accompany him. The final illustration extends the text, rewarding watchful waiting with a silent appearance by the long-sought whale. (Danyelle Leach)

Brown, Peter. (2013). Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

While the other animals are happy with subdued, calm, and boring  lives, Mr. Tiger is looking for change.  As he grows wilder (and sheds his clothes), his friends drive him out of town.  He happily goes to the wilderness and enjoys climbing trees, running through grass, and doing pretty much everything tigers are supposed to do. Gray/brown hues cover the pages, while a punch of orange represents the non-conforming Mr. Tiger, and the drab colors of uniform city life are a dramatic contrast to the colorful lure of the wild as Tiger finds a place to let loose. The story resolves in an unexpected, happy ending that proves that it is always better to be yourself. (Tara Merrill)

Grades 1-3

Berne, Jennifer. (2013). On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

The curiosity and big ideas of Albert Einstein changed the world. On a Beam of Light  tells the story of a man who, even at a young age, wasn't afraid to embrace his uniqueness and think for himself; he "wanted to discover the hidden mysteries in the world." Abstract gouache illustrations with loose line work bring to life the personality of a fascinating man who loved playing his violin, riding his bike, and walking barefoot around town eating ice cream.  Red topic sentences in a large font jump off the page, and playful speech bubbles engage the reader with each page turn. This non-fiction gem is a glimpse into the life of Albert Einstein that will be enjoyed by budding scientists and history lovers alike. ( Tara Merrill)

Grades 2-5

Schneider, Josh. (2013). The Meanest Birthday Girl . New York, NY: Clarion Books.

As everyone knows, the best part of your birthday is being able to do whatever you like—and Dana does! This story for beginning readers teaches natural consequences and anti-bullying with humor and a surprising twist. On her birthday Dana likes to call Anthony an "ickaborse," pinch him, and take his dessert from his lunchbox. But when Anthony surprises Dana with the perfect birthday present—a big white elephant with toenails painted Dana's favorite color—Dana's attitude starts to change. The offbeat cartoon illustrations complement the unconventional text, and together they are sure to elicit a few giggles from independent readers. (Tara Merrill)

Kurtz, Chris. (2013). The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A Novel of Snow and Courage. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Flora, a spunky farm pig, longs for adventure outside her pen. When she is taken from her family and sent on an expedition to the South Pole, the (nearly) perpetually positive pig convinces herself that she is an important member of the expedition, despite being chained in the ship's hold and referred to as "bacon maker" and "little pork chop" by the cook. Flora believes she can pull the sled with the dog team, and she maintains her irresistible optimism as the adventure turns dangerous with thieving rats, a sinking ship, and a hungry crew. Along the way, the pig befriends an independent cat and a veteran sled dog, whose distinctive personalities reflect their natural dispositions, resulting in delightful and humorous interactions. Dialogue energizes the story and makes this a superb read-aloud. (Danyelle Leach)

Grades 5-8

Gewirtz, Adina Rishe. (2013). Zebra Forest . Watertown, MA: Candlewick Press.

Eleven-year-old Annie lives two miles outside the small town of Sunshine, with her younger brother, Rew, and her mentally unstable Gran. Since the most exciting thing she has done recently is watch ABC's television report of the Iran hostage crisis, Annie plans to spend an uneventful summer climbing trees, telling stories, and listening to the "uncluttered quiet" of the Zebra Forest--a stand of white birch and chocolate oak behind her home. Annie's life and expectations change when a riot breaks out at the nearby prison, and an escaped convict comes out of the Zebra Forest and into the family's kitchen, taking them hostage. What happens next forces family members to face long-held secrets as well as their own imperfections. At turns suspenseful and thoughtful, this story deals with anger, mistakes, responsibility, and forgiveness with powerful honesty. (Danyelle Leach)

Brown, Don. (2013). The Great American Dust Bowl. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Don Brown's illustrated account of the Dirty Thirties opens with an attention-grabbing depiction of Black Sunday's "savage storm." Brown then goes back in time to explore the factors that led to the dust storms on the American plains, never pointing a finger of blame, but instead letting readers draw their own conclusions. Gripping details and relatable comparisons underscore the magnitude of the disaster: barbed-wire fences glowing blue with static electricity, swarms of grasshoppers devouring fence posts, and dirt blowing "nearly twenty times higher than the Washington Monument." Speech bubbles with brief quotations from eye-witness accounts deepen the emotional resonance. Golds, browns, and grays dominate the multi-panel and double-page illustrations, emphasizing an unrelenting sun, inescapable dust, and the sagging shoulders of people struggling to survive. Perfectly-paced storytelling and dramatic illustrations recreate the sights, sounds, smells, and spirit of the time, giving readers a you-are-there experience. (Danyelle Leach)

Kadohata, Cynthia. (2013). The Thing About Luck. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Interlaced with humor and personality, The Thing About Luck tells of Summer, a 12-year-old girl who learns to navigate her first love and face her fears in this coming-of-age story. While her parents care for elderly relatives in Japan, Summer and her brother, Jaz, spend the season traveling with their grandparents as part of a wheat harvesting crew. Summer's extensive knowledge of wheat and her intense fear of mosquitoes (almost dying of malaria can do that) set her apart from the average tween, but her relationships with an awkward brother, eccentric grandparents, and a faithful family dog make her sympathetic. Exchanges between Summer and her demanding, yet loving, grandmother showcase a distinct cultural and generational divide that will keep you smiling at this quirky Japanese American family. (This book won the 2013 National Book Award.) (Tara Merrill)

Leyson, Leon. (2013). The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler's List. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

This memoir of a Jewish boy caught in the horrors of the Holocaust is both poignant and inspiring, without being too graphic for a younger audience. Leon was only nine years old when his family was torn away from their home. He was forced to leave his youth behind as he endured separation from his family and the horrors of concentration camps; but with intuition, perseverance, luck, and the intervention of Oskar Schindler, a man who risked his own life to save nearly 1,200 Jews—Leon survived. This story of struggle and loss will show young readers the power of kindness and human decency in the face of evil. (Tara Merrill)

Danyelle Leach volunteers at her local elementary school, presenting weekly story times. She most recently served as a 2013 Cybils Award panelist for the Easy Reader and Early Chapter Books categories.

Tara Merrill earned a bachelor's degree in English from Brigham Young University. She now shares a love of reading with her four young children.

Together they blog at