Choosing a few good books to recommend from the universe of great children's literature is a daunting task. The following books were selected for their highly favorable reviews from a variety of critics, as well as for their unique voice and creative presentation, their appeal to young and middle readers (ages 4 to 13), and their skill at creating an emotional connection with their readers:
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (Scholastic, $16.99). Eleven-year-old Elijah is already somebody in Buxton, Ontario. The first free child born in his community of escaped slaves, he feels compelled to recover stolen money saved to buy freedom for a slave family. Journeying to the South, he comes face to face with the terrors of slavery, and only his own spirit can help Elijah survive the journey home.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, $22.99). Orphan Hugo hides out in a Paris train station, stealing parts from a toymaker to repair the mysterious early-20th-century automaton left him by his father. Part intricately illustrated graphic novel, part film storyboard, and part magical mystery tour, a novel like no other.
I Am Not Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos ( Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16). Book 4 in the saga of Joey, ADHD poster child, has Joey's manic father uprooting the family and changing all their names. As "Freddy Heinz," good-hearted Joey somehow manages to maintain his own center, his sense of humor, and his ability to forgive in this latest in a hilarious and inspiring series.
Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston (Roaring Brook, $17.95). Blood brothers David, who is white, and Malcolm, who is black, find their secret friendship threatened by David's Klan father as ugly racial violence breaks through the genteel veneer of small-town life in the segregated South.
On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck (Dial, $16.99). Davy Bowman idolizes his brother, a B-17 bombardier, but as the war drags on, he learns there are many ways to be a hero, on the front lines and on the home front, in this intimate look at small-town life during World War II.
Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis (Dial, $16.99). Seventh grader Emma-Jean is determined to avoid the messy emotional morass of middle-school life by maintaining the clinical detachment of a sociologist, but following her unsuspectedly empathic heart leads to the surprising insight that rigid rationality doesn't make for friendship or richness of life.
In addition to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic, $34.99), two more wizardry sequels are noteworthy:
Septimus Heap Book Three: Physik by Angie Sage (Katherine Tegen, $17.99). Septimus gives up magyk for physik, the search for the healing elixir of eternal youth, in this suspenseful sequel packed with action and wizardly family values.
The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer (Atheneum, $18.99). In the sequel to The Sea of Trolls, bard apprentice Jack struggles with Celtic mythological foes as he rescues his changeling sister Lucy and finds his lost blood sister in the mists and underworld of medieval England.
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and Christopher Myers (Hyperion, $15.99). In an original pairing of Carroll's nonsense verse and his own considerable artistic skills, Myers carries off an artistic tour de force as a huge black player, the Jabberwock, takes on a young hero armed with Vorpal sneakers and a snicker-snack of a jump shot in an urban basketball shoot-out with frabjous results.
Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett (Simon & Schuster, $12.99). Give an author-illustrator five words, four in the title, plus a final "There!" and what do you get? As many ways as the words and concepts can be related, including a pear-colored and pear-shaped bear with orange and apple. Gravett toys with words in mind-blowing and delighting ways. Also in board-book format.
Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook, $12.95). Seeger introduces us to another classic pair of unlikely storybook friends - like Pooh and Piglet, Frog and Toad - a dachshund and a teddy bear whose droll, understated adventures show that true companionship knows no boundaries. The tales are short and sweet with surprising but supremely satisfying endings.
The Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson (Simon & Schuster, $15.99). Thompson's lyrical free verse stirs the heart and taste buds in this delightfully nostalgic tale of father-daughter apple-picking and pie-baking time, perfectly paired with Jonathan Bean's rounded, Virginia Burton-esque illustrations celebrating the cosmic cycle of life.
Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems (Hyperion, $16.99). In this second Knuffle book, Trixie is devastated to learn that Sonia has brought a bunny exactly like her Knuffle to day-care show-and-tell, but when at bedtime she discovers she has taken home Sonia's look-alike, it's time for toddler meltdown II. Hilarious and heartfelt, a great sequel.
Nonfiction for Middle Readers
Spiders by Nic Bishop (Scholastic, $17.99). Striking double-page photo close-ups will lead readers to the solid science behind the 350-million-year survival of these often misunderstood animals. Don't miss the pictures of the mother wolf spider piggybacking hundreds of her tiny babies or the dinner-plate-size Goliath bird-eating tarantula. Awesome!
Camp Out! by Lynn Brunelle (Workman, $11.95). Plenty of hands-on nature science, crafts and cooking activities for camping - from the backyard to the backwoods - with loads of fun you don't even have to load the car for.