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Best Books of 2013 for Newly Independent Readers

Early chapter book or read-aloud, this effort will leave its audience with lots of smiles, too.

LEFT BEHIND

From the Jasper John Dooley series , Vol. 2

After Jasper John Dooley's beloved Nan goes on vacation without him, he goes pththth.

It feels just like when the air leaked out of his beach ball. At school the next day, he writes a story about a snake that gets stepped on a lot. The story is so long that it needs staples, but he accidentally staples it to his stomach. That eventually somehow necessitates a full 28 Band-Aids, since it just keeps feeling like the air is escaping from his sad body, possibly through the staple holes. Jasper and best friend Ori, who is given to prefacing his statements with, “The thing is...” (a phrase that neatly captures his amiable take on the world), try to build a cruise ship out of leftover lumber, not altogether a success. Ori gets a bit bossy. A final trial comes when Jasper gets to bring home the class hamster for the weekend but accidentally loses it in his house. As in Jasper's first outing (Star of the Week, 2012), nothing truly compelling happens, but the concerns of this early grade schooler are so aptly, charmingly and amusingly depicted that it's impossible not to be both captivated and compelled. Clanton's simple black-and-white illustrations feature skinny bodies, oversized heads—and lots of smiles.

Early chapter book or read-aloud, this effort will leave its audience with lots of smiles, too. (Fiction. 5-8)

Pub Date: March 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-55453-579-8

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Kids Can

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

This clever celebration of individuality delights.

ODD DUCK

A sublime tale of two strange ducks who overcome the odds—pun completely intended—and become friends.

Theodora is an odd duck indeed: She spends her days swimming with a teacup balanced on her head, flavoring her duck pellets with mango salsa and watching the stars. She is content, her days are full—but they’re not quite fulfilling. One fateful day, a new duck named Chad moves next door. He’s strange, unstructured, disorderly and loud—the opposite of quietly meticulous Theodora. Despite his eccentricities—and her initial judgment of him—the pair bond over a shared love of the stars. During an outing, another duck loudly points out that “odd duck” as the pair waddle past. Each thinks that the other must be the odd one, resulting in an argument. As Theodora ponders their fight, she realizes that though she’s happy with her life, it doesn’t mean much without someone to share it with. A moral that could have been nauseatingly saccharine in the hands of a lesser author is handled deftly here. Castellucci and Varon shine together, with Varon’s trademark animal characters and Castellucci’s careful prose. Readers expecting a typical graphic novel may be a bit put off; reading like a long picture book, this is reliant on illustrations that stretch across an entire page as opposed to many boxy, structured panels, resulting in a wonderfully odd and endearing little offering.

This clever celebration of individuality delights. (Graphic fiction. 6-10)

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59643-557-5

Page Count: 96

Publisher: First Second/Roaring Brook

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

Hello, Ben! We’re glad you’re here.

COME BACK, BEN

From the I Like to Read series

This excellent early reader will send new readers’ confidence soaring.

“Ben had a balloon,” begins the spare text, accompanied by a picture rendered in cut paper and ink showing Ben holding a red balloon aloft. The next spread shows only the lower portion of Ben’s body at the top of the page as his sister, standing on the ground below him, says, “Bye, Ben.” Ensuing pages show Ben soaring higher and higher up into the sky as first a window, then bees, a tree, a kite, a big hill, rain and a rainbow all call out, “Come back, Ben.” The repetitive text will reinforce new readers’ engagement, while Ben’s consistent smile (a simple, small u shape) provides reassurance that he is untroubled by his ascent into the sky—even when he reaches a smiling moon who says, “Hi, Ben.” Ben collects moon rocks in his pockets, and their weight triggers his descent back to Earth, past all of the things that called to him as he rose up to the heavens. When he returns to his home, art on the penultimate spread shows Ben waving from his window, “Bye, balloon,” he calls, but the balloon is absent from the page. A supremely satisfying page-turn shows Ben’s sister sailing upward while holding onto the balloon’s string. “Bye, Ben,” she calls.

Hello, Ben! We’re glad you’re here. (Early reader. 4-6)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8234-2599-0

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Holiday House

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

PENNY AND HER MARBLE

From the Penny series

Whose marble is it?

In this third early reader about a little anthropomorphic mouse named Penny, Henkes continues to plumb the emotional world of childhood as few author/illustrators can. The story begins with Penny taking a walk and pushing her beloved doll, Rose, in a stroller. She heeds Mama’s admonition that she “[o]nly go as far as Mrs. Goodwin’s house,” and when she arrives there, she spies a shiny blue marble at the edge of the lawn. Though unsure whether she should do so, Penny pockets the glinting little orb and scurries home. Later, Penny’s conscience bothers her, and the marble hidden in her drawer adopts a presence akin to Poe’s telltale heart. She can’t bring herself to tell her concerned parents what is bothering her, and after a fitful night’s sleep, she goes for another walk to return the marble. Hoping to make a quick getaway after surreptitiously replacing it, Penny is worried when her neighbor approaches. Will Mrs. Goodwin be angry that she took the marble? As it turns out, Mrs. Goodwin purposefully put the marble on her lawn in the hope that someone would find it and take it home as a little treasure. Reassured, Penny thanks Mrs. Goodwin and walks home, imagining herself beside a sea as blue as her new marble. Henkes’ characteristically meticulous vignettes both expand the story and provide picture clues to help new readers along.

Another gem. (Early reader. 5-8)

Pub Date: March 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-208203-9

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Greenwillow

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

Sweetly low-key and totally accessible.

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THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER

Billy Miller’s second-grade year is quietly spectacular in a wonderfully ordinary way.

Billy’s year begins with his worry over the lump on his head, a souvenir of a dramatic summer fall onto concrete: Will he be up to the challenges his new teacher promises in her letter to students? Quickly overshadowing that worry, however, is a diplomatic crisis over whether he has somehow offended Ms. Silver on the first day of school. Four sections—Teacher, Father, Sister and Mother—offer different and essential focal points for Billy’s life, allowing both him and readers to explore several varieties of creative endeavor, small adventures, and, especially, both challenges and successful problem-solving. The wonderfully self-possessed Sal, his 3-year-old sister, is to Billy much as Ramona is to Beezus, but without the same level of tension. Her pillowcase full of the plush yellow whales she calls the Drop Sisters (Raindrop, Gumdrop, etc.) is a memorable prop. Henkes offers what he so often does in these longer works for children: a sense that experiences don’t have to be extraordinary to be important and dramatic. Billy’s slightly dreamy interior life isn’t filled with either angst or boisterous silliness—rather, the moments that appear in these stories are clarifying bits of the universal larger puzzle of growing up, changing and understanding the world. Small, precise black-and-white drawings punctuate and decorate the pages.

Sweetly low-key and totally accessible. (Fiction. 7-10)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-226812-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Greenwillow

Review Posted Online: April 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

The brief text and a chapter format both make this a manageable and entertaining accomplishment for most young readers as...

BORIS ON THE MOVE

From the Boris series , Vol. 1

An early reader shaped just like a chapter book: What’s not to love?

For emergent readers who view themselves as accomplished (or wish to be seen that way), this, one of the publisher’s Branches line, might just be the perfect choice. Boris, a not-particularly-attractive hog, is frustrated. Although he and his parents live in a bus that once took them on fabulous vacations, now the old vehicle is permanently parked, and he longs for adventure. Finally, his empathetic parents fire up the engine to bring him on a journey that, it disappointingly turns out, is only across town to a nature preserve. However, Boris, his anger vividly portrayed in his frazzled body language, contrives to get himself satisfyingly lost. Happily, he’s found, first by a cat in need of a home and then by his parents. Full-color illustrations of his humorously anthropomorphized hog family and just one or two sentences of easy, large-print text per page make this an inviting read for transitioning readers, although they may initially be a bit daunted by the misleading appearance of a full 74 pages of narrative—including a simple science experiment.

The brief text and a chapter format both make this a manageable and entertaining accomplishment for most young readers as well as an amusing listening experience for those not quite able to tackle it alone. (Early reader. 4-7)

Pub Date: May 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-545-48443-5

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Branches/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: March 13, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

Like triumphant Mr. Bing, Keller walks off with a “Stiffy Stu McShiny” award for this yummy chapter-book series opener.

BOWLING ALLEY BANDIT

From the Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut series , Vol. 1

A bowling tournament gives the rolling raconteur introduced in the 2003 picture book Arnie the Doughnut fresh scope for wisecracks and wild misadventures.

Arnie goes to the bowling alley weekly to meet his cheesy triangular friend Peezo and belt out hits (from “Livin’ la vi-DOUGH loca!” to “DOUGHNUT make my brown eyes blue”) at the karaoke machine for admiring crowds while his (human) buddy Mr. Bing hits the lanes. Their visits slide into a scurry of sleuthing when Mr. Bing’s new ball, Betsy, inexplicably starts heading for the gutter rather than the pins on every roll. Presented in a frenetic mix of narrative, cartoon collages, dialogue balloons and melodramatic exclamations, the investigation leads the chocolate-frosted shamus to an identity thief at the end of a trail of dropped sprinkles and other clues. Unsurprisingly, it also provides opportunities aplenty to drop punch lines as well as to lay out bowling techniques and rules with help from a confused baseball umpire (“Ya see, Ump, in baseball strikes are BAD, but in bowling they’re GOOD!”), Albert Einstein and other walk-ons.

Like triumphant Mr. Bing, Keller walks off with a “Stiffy Stu McShiny” award for this yummy chapter-book series opener. (Graphic/fiction hybrid. 7-10)

Pub Date: June 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9076-5

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

Even readers who received fastidious toilet training and admonitions against potty humor will let down their guard and find...

TOILET

HOW IT WORKS

A perfect blend of humor and clarity—in text and in artwork—explains the anatomy of human waste, the mechanics of a flush toilet and the subsequent treatment of waste in septic and sewer systems.

Cartoony images of three toilet bowls—one being used by a thirsty, shaggy dog, one surrounded by a somber family with a dead pet goldfish, and one heaped with flowers, shown outside a home—adorn the first page of the book, along with this opening sentence: “Everybody knows what a toilet is for.” Genius Macaulay, with Keenan’s (unspecified) assistance, continues this tongue-in-cheek romp with clever drawings as he also carefully discusses such scientific facts as the function of bacteria in breaking down waste; the physics behind the tank, the bowl and the siphon; and the role of wastewater treatment plants in the overall water cycle. Cutaway views aid in showing exactly how various systems work, while unique visual angles of everything from human organs topped with eyeglasses to a bird’s-eye view of a bustling city encourage viewers to venture beyond reading literacy to art appreciation.

Even readers who received fastidious toilet training and admonitions against potty humor will let down their guard and find this book both informative and entertaining. (glossary, resources, index, author’s notes) (Informational early reader. 7 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59643-779-1

Page Count: 32

Publisher: David Macaulay Studio/Roaring Brook

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

New readers will dig this.

SEE ME DIG

From the I Like to Read series

In this gem of an early reader, a cast of cavorting canines find more than they expected when they start digging—namely a scary bear, buried treasure, pirate ghosts and heavy construction equipment.

Meisel follows his first title in this series (See Me Run, 2011) by using the same dog characters and limited first-grade-level vocabulary for kids just beginning to read on their own. This time, the endearing dogs dig up a huge box buried in the sand after the bear chases them away from the forest. In a surprise twist that will tickle young readers, the enormous chest contains not gold coins, but the ghosts of pirates who chase after the dogs until one brave pup stands up to the ghosts with a big bark. But there’s another danger looming: the clawlike tines on the bucket of a tracked excavator appear to threaten the dogs, until excavator and dogs find that they can all dig in the sand together, side by side. Using just a few words and extremely short sentences, Meisel delivers a funny story with a real plot containing several surprises. His cartoon-style illustrations in watercolor with pen-and-ink and pencil details capture the canine personalities and create deliciously spooky (but not really scary) villains in the pirate ghosts.

New readers will dig this. (Early reader. 5-8)

Pub Date: April 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8234-2743-7

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Holiday House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

A straightforward tale of conflict and reconciliation for newly emergent readers? Not exactly, which raises it above the...

ROBOT, GO BOT!

In this deceptively spare, very beginning reader, a girl assembles a robot and then treats it like a slave until it goes on strike.

Having put the robot together from a jumble of loose parts, the budding engineer issues an increasingly peremptory series of rhymed orders— “Throw, Bot. / Row, Bot”—that turn from playful activities like chasing bubbles in the yard to tasks like hoeing the garden, mowing the lawn and towing her around in a wagon. Jung crafts a robot with riveted edges, big googly eyes and a smile that turns down in stages to a scowl as the work is piled on. At last, the exhausted robot plops itself down, then in response to its tormentor’s angry “Don’t say no, Bot!” stomps off in a huff. In one to four spacious, sequential panels per spread, Jung develops both the plotline and the emotional conflict using smoothly modeled cartoon figures against monochromatic or minimally detailed backgrounds. The child’s commands, confined in small dialogue balloons, are rhymed until her repentant “Come on home, Bot” breaks the pattern but leads to a more equitable division of labor at the end.

A straightforward tale of conflict and reconciliation for newly emergent readers? Not exactly, which raises it above the rest. (Easy reader. 4-6)

Pub Date: June 25, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-375-87083-5

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: April 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

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