Open Sesame: 11 Notable Kids’ Books of 2014

One Last List: A Few More Notable Kids’ Books of 2014

2014 saw the publication of many brilliant books for kids. My family and I were smitten with fantastic new characters and imaginative stories – many of which I reviewed here in this column.

As we ready to turn the page on another year, I have one last parting list of notable books – a few picture books, a few novels, a bit of nonfiction – to herald out 2014. Find a moment, with or without a cozy companion, and open a book today.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell, is pure sweetness manifested in a little boy who shows his affection with two arms and a squeeze. The enormous amount of love in one small human is infectious. He has a hug for anyone and anything, whether soft or prickly, a mother or a mailbox. He is quite literally a hug machine. And this picture book is full of that universal sign of love and tenderness. The expressive and soft watercolor cartoons add warmth and good feelings to every page. The perfect book for cuddling. — Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014   ISBN: 978-1442459359

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc is a quietly beautiful and gently paced picture book about friendship.  When a lion nurses an injured bird back to health, and invites the bird to stay through winter, the unlikely pair keep each company and develop a tender friendship. When the flock returns in spring, the friends say a bittersweet goodbye. The sadness the lion feels, his missing the little bird, is emotionally rendered through wordless spreads and soft pastel illustration. Then, one day, the lion hears a single note, a prelude to a joyful surprise. — Enchanted Lion Books, 2014    ISBN: 978-1592701513

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, with photography by Tim O’Meara, is a unique tribute to artist Frida Kahlo. With spare text, just a few words plus a Spanish translation per spread, and multi-dimensional illustration involving stop motion puppetry, paintings, and digital features, this picture book presents a colorful and imaginative glimpse of Kahlo’s creative process. Young readers will delight in each scene’s gorgeous detail and feel a sense of the artist’s drive and inspiration. — A Neal Porter Book of Roaring Brook Press, 2014    ISBN: 978-1596436039

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers is an unusual picture book that brings the alphabet alive in a clever and completely original anthology. Through 26 short stories that unfold over 112 pages, readers meet characters and situations that range from tender to ridiculous to darkly edgy. Full of cross-references, subplots, and cameo appearances, this is a book readers will go through again and again. Jeffers’ ink illustrations enhance the wry humor, imagination, and surprise of this quirky picture book. — Philomel, 2014   ISBN: 978-0339167911

El Deafo by Cece Bell with color by David Lasky, is a graphic novel memoir about growing up deaf in a hearing world. Bell shares her childhood navigating elementary school wearing a big, awkward chest pack for her hearing aids and trying to make friends. She becomes her own superhero, turning her differences into strengths. Her agonies are both personal and universal, from deciding not to learn sign language to learning how to find a friend. Easy to follow frames, an engaging storyline, and a charming protagonist (who is portrayed as a rabbit with tall ears) make this graphic novel a great pick for middle graders. Warm, funny, and full of honest emotion. — Amulet Books, of Abrams, 2014  ISBN: 978-1419712173

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is one of those dog stories that pull at the heartstrings. Fifth grader Rose is obsessed with homonyms and rules, and tells the reader right away she is different from other kids. Living with her father, who teeters between high-strung impatience and drunken anger, Rose finds new meaning and happiness when Rain, a stray dog, becomes part of her life. After a hurricane hits their small town, Rose reveals her pure, big heart in the wrenching but right decision she makes about Rain. A middle grade tear-jerker that rings with earnestness and truth. — A Feiwel and Friends Book, of Macmillan, 2014   ISBN: 978-0-312-64300-3

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a moving autobiographical work chronicling the author’s childhood in South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York, during the 60’s and 70’s. Written in free verse poetry, honeyed with eloquence and emotion, each poem draws the reader into the life of a young girl as she reveals the workings of her heart and mind. Themes of race and religion, family and friendship, are rooted in the power of place and familial love. Young writers will be especially inspired by Woodson’s discovery of her love for writing and her girlhood dreams of becoming a writer. An exquisite novel. — Nancy Paulsen Books of the Penguin Group, 2014   ISBN: 978-0-399-25251-8

The Red Pencil written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Shane Evans, is a story of hardship and hope. Through narrative poetry, 12-year-old Amira tells of her peaceful village life in Sudan, and then the violent attack by the Janjaweed who unleash horrendous crimes upon the town. Left with nothing, she must travel by foot to a refugee camp, where she struggles to survive in desperate circumstances. The gift of a red pencil changes everything, and rearranges what she thinks is possible. Evans’ spare sketches enhance the story with movement and emotion. — Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014   ISBN: 978-0316247801

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire, is a fantastical excursion into Russian folklore, starring three great Russian archetypes – Baba Yaga and her chicken leg house, which is an entertaining character in its own right, the firebird, and the ice dragon. Set in Tsarist Russia, during a winter that’s not winter, the lives of two girls, Elena born into poverty, and Cat born into privilege, intersect in ways that are both catastrophic and redemptive. Together, with the help of the Tsar’s godson, the magic of Baba Yaga, and two unique eggs, they reset the fine balance between magic and reality. A warp and weave of fairytale, legend, and real world human condition in a powerhouse of storytelling that is masterful, sophisticated, funny, and tender. — Candlewick Press, 2014   ISBN: 978-0-7636-7220-1

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson explores the horrors of post-traumatic stress experienced by war veterans through the story of 17-year-old, Haley. After five years of being on the road, as her father tried to escape the memories of his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, they settle in the New York town where he grew up. Going back to school and negotiating friendships, a boy crush, and her father’s increasingly desperate state of mind as he turns to drugs and alcohol to cope, Haley’s life becomes a fast-paced, emotionally charged and compelling drama. A few alternating chapters from her father’s point-of-view reveal the harrowing reality of PTSD. An edgy young adult novel with an important and relevant theme deftly handled by Anderson. — Viking, 2014   ISBN: 978-0670012091

Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale is a powerful anthology of poetry, artwork, photography, and interviews from 64 contemporary Native American artists, including a hip-hop dancer, graffiti artist, chef, and tribal leader. They share their vision, voice, and real experiences on what it was like growing up indigenous. Divided into four sections – “Roots,” “Battles,” “Medicine,” and “Dreamcatchers” – the book addresses a wide range of topics, leaving almost nothing unturned, from adoption and bullying to heritage and identity to poverty and racism.  A vibrant portrait of 21st century American Indian culture. — Annick Press, 2014   ISBN: 978-1554516872


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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