Welcome to the "A List," a super-special section of Read That Again! featuring many of our favorite children's books of the last few years. We've read a ton of books (literally!) and these ones are the best.
This section is organized alphabetically by book title... you can also browse all the books reviewed on the site, listed by author or by title in the main part of the website. The "A List" will be added to along with the rest of Read That Again!, as more new books come our way...
By the way, we're always looking for new stuff to read... If you have recommendations for books you think we'd like, please feel free to write and tell us about your favorite books!
The A-List: A-C | D-G | H-K | L-M | N-R | S-Z ~ New Books ~ Other Reviews
"Adele & Simon"
Written by Barbara McClintock
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Frances Foster Books/Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006)
A masterful draftsperson, author-illustrator Barbara McClintock has outdone herself on this one... Young Simon is a French schoolboy -- dreamy and absentminded, he loses his possessions, one by one, on the way home, as his older sister Adele looks on in exasperation. They visit various Parisian landmarks -- The Luxembourg Gardens, Notre Dame, Maison Cador, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle -- all beautifully rendered in McClintock's fine-lined, fantastical style. The pictures are packed with delightful details, including bustling mobs of Parisians in period costume (and one page in which Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline and her schoolmates appear, in a walk in the Jardin de Plantes) and there is a puckish, playful verve throughout. We see the hustle and bustle of a bygone era, at the dawn of the 20th Century. There's a "where's Waldo" element to the story, where the items Simon loses are hidden inside the large, complex two-page panels: the four crayons strewn abound the Louvre are particularly hard to find. All in all, this is a very classy book -- beautiful to look at, wonderfully fun to read. (A+)
"The Adventures Of Polo"
Written by Regis Faller
Illustrated by Regis Faller
(Roaring Brook Press, 2002)
An absolutely brilliant, magical book... This fab fantasy from France is a wordless picturebook that stars Polo, a cheerful, indomitable cartoon dog with a flair for improvisation, bravery and boundless curiosity... The story starts with Polo walking out of his house -- a large oak tree on a tiny ocean island -- and setting out on an adventure with his trusty backpack and umbrella. From there it's a wild, wonderful ride where one thing leads to another: Polo climbs a ladder to the sky, is scooped up birds, imprisoned in an iceberg and climbs to the moon, where little green men welcome him into their mushroom-strewn underground world... Like Crockett Johnson's "Purple Crayon" series, the "Polo" books play on visual free association -- one inventive flight of fancy piles on top of another, although author-illustrator Regis Faller has crafted something much longer than any of the "Crayon" books, a large, bold graphic novel that clearly comes out of the European comicbook tradition, as bold and expansive as any of the "Tin-Tin" novels. Polo is a marvelous reading experience, and it expects as much from its readers as it gives back. Adults can guide children through the narrative, commenting on each panel, or summarizing entire pages, creating the narrative as they go along. Children can also spend hours alone, pouring over the panels and making up stories of their own. Faller has a wonderful intuitive grasp of fantasy and fantastic thought; his storytelling and graphic style are simply delightful... And, gee, are these books fun! Fantastic, exciting, perilous things happen on every page, but Polo never comes to any harm, he just has a great time and makes lots of friends. Highly recommended! One of our favorite books. (A+)
"Alexander's Pretending Day"
Written by Bunny Crumpacker
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
(Dutton Books, 2005)
An absolutely wonderful book about a sweet little preschool-age boy spending the day with his mom, asking her all kinds of cute, imaginative play questions, like, Mom, what would you do if I turned into a big lion? The mom puts down her newspaper and plays along, and they share one of the sweetest fantasy-play exchanges seen in a kids' book... Alexander becomes ever more imaginative, becoming a dinosaur, a monster, a river and even a book. The warmth between these characters is quite moving, and Dan Andreasen's artwork is marvelous -- a perfect compliment to a delightful story. Highly recommended. (A+)
"AlphaOops! The Day Z Went First"
Written by Alethea Kontis
Illustrated by Bob Kolar
This is an absolutely brilliant children's book, completely breaking the mould for ABC primers, with a clever premise and a vibrant, richly multi-layered presentation that can give hours and hours (indeed, years and years) of reading pleasure. The premise is simple -- that the letter "Z", tired of always coming last, stages a little coup and insists that they do things backwards, and let him go first for once. "A", who was just about to do the same old "is for apple," isn't happy about the disruption, but lets it happen anyway, and then the fun begins. Maybe Z has a point, but once you break the rules one way, there's no telling what might happen next... And sure enough, all the other letters want to do things *their* way, too -- some start doing more than one word, which makes other letters unhappy, and they start trying to top each other, and going in completely random order. Chaos rules, and even Z starts to get irritated and confused. Meanwhile, we readers have a total blast -- the bright, colorful artwork is as playful and anarchic as the text, packed with countless sight gags and fascinating details -- just the kind of thing little kids can really dig into. And since each letter gets their own cameo, there are a lot of opportunities for adult readers to do funny voices, etc., as well as have great dialogs with their kids about what's going on in each picture. Easily one of the best children's books of the decade... Highly recommended. (A+)
"Angelina Ballerina" (series) -- see author profile
"Animal Fables From Aesop"
Written by Aesop
Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(David R. Godine, 1991)
A delightful (though slim) set of adaptations from Aesop's moral-laden fables. Stories include "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse," "The Fox and the Crane" (in which one of the Fox's pranks backfires on him), and "The Crow and the Peacocks'' (on the pitfalls of vanity) and "The Fox and The Crow" (vanity again!) McClintock ingeniously frames the stories as the work of a traveling theater company, introducing all the characters at the beginning... and then unmasking them at the end, showing human actors beneath the gorgeously detailed costumes. The illustrations have all the hallmarks of her style: beautifully detailed animals, clad in extravagant antique clothing -- hoop skirts, waistcoats, giant, puffy gowns -- as well as an underlying whiff of playfulness and pranksterism. We read book this during an exploration of Aesop's work, and it emerged as a favorite -- both the text and the illustrations are marvelous! (A)
Written by Ilo Orleans
Illustrated by Tibor Gergely
(Golden Books, 1958)
This one is a longtime favorite, one of those odd little books from a few decades ago. I bought it because it celebrates music, showing an entire orchestra populated with animals such as tuba-tooting elephants and trombone-wiggling monkeys... The text scans well (though I made a few minor adjustments over the course of multiple readings, and a few of the instruments are misidentified (most egregiously, a bagpipe is called a fife...) But for the most part, this is a book we love. The meter of the rhyme is lively and fun, it instills an interest in music and performing arts, and there are dozens of animals to point out and talk about, and the artwork is captivating as well. Recommended! (Please note our well-chewed board book copy...) (A-)
"A Special Day For Mommy"
Written by Dan Andreasen
Illustrated by Dan Andreasen
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004)
Hilarious! The gender-balanced follow-up to Andreasen's earnest A Little Help From Daddy is a much more puckish and witty work. A little piglet girl "surprises" her mother (possibly for Mother's Day, though the text doesn't pin it down, could be a birthday, too...) The daughter brings Mom breakfast in bed (Cheerios) and spills milk all over, and though the Mom is all beaming smiles and appreciation, she also winds up cleaning up the mess, when the little girl isn't looking. This pattern continues all morning long: the girl brings Mom some flowers (by ripping up her flower beds) and makes her a sweet card (spilling glue on the floor) and makes jelly sandwiches for lunch. My girl laughed out loud and cackled with glee at the page where the piglet says "Yuck! I'm all sticky, Mom!" and the next day she said she thought it was funny. This book celebrates impishness in girls, while also maintaining a sweet, sincere emotional underpinning. Good artwork, good text -- the story is simple and clear, and the humor works both for little kids and their beleagured (but loving) parents. Recommended... If it hits you right, you'll love it. (A)
Written by Simon James
Illustrated by Simon James
A light-hearted, satirical skewering of the contemporary yuppie trend towards declaring all children total geniuses, and pushing the littlest kids towards academic achievement at ever-younger ages. You think your kid's remarkable? Well, how about Baby Brains, who finishes medical school before he dirties his first daiper! Of course, word gets around about such a special little guy, and he's recruited by the space program later that same day, although it turns out that even a kid with planet-smashing intellect just needs his mommy sometimes... When Baby is out in orbit, pulling a Major Tom, he freaks out and tells Ground Control that he wants back down. James makes his point softly, with humor and grace, but it remains to be seen whether the message will be heard in the vacuum of those who are hurriedly gathering letters of recommendation for their preschool applications. The sequel, Baby Brains Superstar, is also a lot of fun. (A)
Written by Fred Haitt
Illustrated by Mark Graham
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1999)
Joey, a four-ish, five-ish year old boy, has a new baby brother and is initially uncomfortable around the newcomer, declining to help feed it or change its daipers, etc. But Joey finds his niche in the baby's life when he starts responding to the infant's babbling, and helps teach it to talk. A perfect book to read to a toddler old enough look back at their own verbal development and both laugh and relish the chance to dip back into the old vocabulary of "agoo" and "ageek." Also, the complexity of the social relationship of the two siblings is rich and fascinating. Great artwork by Mark Graham, too. This one was a big hit in our household, with lots of "read-it-again" action. (A)
Written by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley
Illustrated by R. W. Alley
(Penguin/Dial Books, 2006)
A great dance story, with a gender twist. After attending a school ballet show, a young boy named Nate decides he wants to dance ballet as well, but his older, butcher brother Ben teases him and tells him that boys can't be ballerinas. With his parents' support, Nate perseveres and enters a dance class, which he loves even though he's the only boy there. Ben keeps teasing him until one day Mom takes Nate to see a professional dance company where half the ensemble are men, and one of the principal dancers meets Nate and gives him encouragement. It turns out Ben was right about one thing: men can't be ballerinas, but the man suggests the word ballerino instead, since that indicates a male dancer. The PC sentiment aside, this is a lovely book, with great artwork that captures the personalities of all involved and provides lots of nice details (including the older brother playing video games at home, giving this a decidedly contemporary slant...) There are a few rough spots in the text -- particularly when the dad makes a parallel between the two girls on Ben's softball team and Nate going to a mostly-girl dance class; that passage could have been clearer -- but it's no biggie, the story is still a winner. A heartwarming book about gender stereotypes that makes its point without placing too much emphasis on the "you're a sissy!" part of the equation. Recommended! (A)
Written by Jules Feiffer
Illustrated by Jules Feiffer
(Harper Collins, 1999)
I grew up reading Jules Feiffer -- not these new picturebooks, of course, but other fables such as "Passionella" and "Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl" -- and as a teen I collected all the compilations of his classic strips. Thus, when I came across this book, it was love at first sight. Bark, George! is, without question, one of Feiffer's finest works, a lively, fantastic, funny story about a puppy who doesn't bark the way his mother wants him to. Instead, he meows and moos and quacks, so she takes him to the vet to see what's wrong. This book works on every level -- the story is well-paced, the jokes are funny, the artwork is fluid and full of life, and the structure of the text lends itself well to commentary and improvisation. This one will be on our shelves for a long time to come... and I've given away several copies as well. It's that good! (A++)
"Bear Snores On"
Written by Karma Wilson
Illustrated by Jane Chapman
(Margaret K. McElderry, 2002)
A raging winter storm drives a number of small animals into the comfy, cozy cave of a deeply sleeping, hibernating bear. They start a fire, make popcorn and tea and carouse through the evening, while the bear snoozes away... Eventually he wakes up and at first he's upset that they've intruded on his home... Turns out he mostly just felt left out, and when the group's ringleader, a little grey mouse, makes him some food as well, the bear settles right in. The artwork is nice and richly detailed, but what really sets this book apart is the delightful text -- it's clever and playful, and actually rhymes and stays in the meter -- a rarity among children's books, it seems! This book is a lot of fun to read, particularly with built in repetition and numerous opportunities to come up with separate squeakt voices for all the animals. Highly recommended (although the sequels are disappointing...) (A+)
"Belinda The Ballerina"
Written by Amy Young
Illustrated by Amy Young
A pure delight! The story and art quirky and cute, and each are equally joyful. Belinda is a dancer with two giant-sized, gallumphing feet, yet despite her humongous clompers, she prances and pirouettes like pro... Not that that matters to the snooty judges at her dance audition -- they take one look at her humongous hooves and send her right home. Discouraged, Belinda hangs up her tutu and goes to work in a cafe, until opportunity knocks and success beckons. A clever Cinderella-in-the-arts fairy tale, with groovy, highly stylized artwork and one of the sweetest, most demure picturebook heroines in recent memories... Kids will love the story; chances are parents who are in the performing arts will appreciate the good-natured jabs at the arts establishment... A sweet fantasy story that holds up to repeated readings... Highly recommended! (A+)
"Belinda In Paris"
Written by Amy Young
Illustrated by Amy Young
Belinda returns, this time as a star performer who is the talk of all Paris... But her big show is about to be a flop, since the airlines have misplaced her one-of-a-kind, oversized dance shoes... Can she find replacements in time for her gala performance that night? Her adventures through a cartoonish Parisian landscape are wonderful fun, both for folks who have been to Paris and for those who have not. And, of course, the happy ending comes with a healthy dose of laconic humor. Another highly recommended, thoroughly enjoyable story... I just wish there was another Belinda book we could read as well! (A+)
"The Big Brown Box"
Written by Marisabina Russo
Illustrated by Marisabina Russo
Two brothers, Sam and Ben, get into a big conflict when Dad gives Sam a big cardboard refrigerator box to play with, and Sam is mean and refuses to share his new house/cave/boat plaything with the toddler, Ben. When Ben cries, their parents try to intervene, but Sam just gets meaner, until finally they give little Ben a box of his own, and then things mellow out. Sam, who had exhausted the possibilities of solo play, decides to let Ben play make-believe with him, after all, and the two have a great time blasting off to the moon and back in their brown cardboard space ships. A realistic look at "parallel play" and how kids often have a hard time sharing. The way the theme plays out might be a little upsetting to littler kids (or even give them the wrong idea about what message the book is trying to impart...) But for children who are old enough to have a good discussion about sharing with and having empathy for other kids, this is a great book. Good strong narrative, too, just in terms of it engaging and holding reader's attention. Recommended! (A)
"The Birthday Fish"
Written by Dan Yaccarino
Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
(Henry Holt, 2005)
Cool book. Like many young girls, little Cynthia just loves ponies and has politely but repeatedly requested one for her birthday (or for Christmas, she's not particular) for some time now. She keeps getting other stuff -- toys, bikes, even a dog -- but never a pony! You'd think her parents would catch on, eventually... This year, she was totally sure she'd get a pony, but instead she got... a fish! Cynthia was just about to take her frustrations out on the poor goldfish when it struck a deal with her... set it free and it would grant her a wish. But in the course of setting the fish free, she realized he was kind of a cool companion, and decided to keep the fish instead. I like the hip, hyper-cartoonish art, as well as the pacing and overall feel of this book. The moral of the story, such as it is, is nice, but the action itself is really engaging... It's fun to read. Yaccarino, a TV animation writer, has a few other books out as well, but this one is the best so far. Recommended! (A)
Written by Emily & Patricia MacLachlan
Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
(Joanna Cotler, 2004)
A sweet, silly story written by the mother-daughter team of Patricia and Emily MacLachlan, in which the arrival of a new baby is seen through the eyes of the household pets, a pragmatic cat called Nigel and a neurotic canine named Julia. When the baby comes, the "man and the woman" assume it sleeps peacefully all night long, which leaves it up to Nigel and Julia to pick up the slack in the childcare department. Although the dog is initially resentful of the newcomer, she grows to love her, as does the cat. So close is their bond, in fact, that the Bittle's first words are "woof" and "meow!" This bright, playful romp is a fun way to approach the whole anxiety-about-the-second-child, sibling rivalry issue -- it also reads well for single-child families; the doggie and the kitty are engaging all by themselves, and the story is a hoot. The highly stylized, cartoonish art by Dan Yaccarino is a delight... Yaccarino, a television animator who has recently emerged as a picturebook author, adds a liveliness and good humor that perfectly matches that of the text. Great book! (A)
"Bow Wow! Meow! A First Book Of Sounds"
Written by Melanie Bellah
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
(Golden Books, 1963)
My wife grew up with this book, and it was one of the first animal-sound books we read to our daughter. It was written in the early 1960s, but holds up well, all these decades later. The artwork is delightful (even if it is perilously close to those big-eyed velvet paintings of the same era...) while the text is simple and straightforward. Thankfully, the rhymes all work and the meter scans well, making this a pleasure to read aloud and easy to memorize. This is an easy, uncomplicated read, with lots of little details to look at and comment on -- all in all, a very sweet book. Ideal for very small babies and toddlers. (A)
"The Cat Barked?"
Written by Lydia Monks
Illustrated by Lydia Monks
(Dial Books, 1998)
A funny, whimsical British import wherein an orange, stripey kitty-kat complains to its girl that it would rather be a dog than a cat, since dogs get all the glamour, praise and good PR. The girl convinces the "silly old cat" that being feline isn't so bad after all (you get to nap all day long and don't have to fetch sticks...) and all is right in the universe again. What's great about this book -- apart from the playful premise and well-written rhymes -- is the groovy, collage-style artwork, which is packed with loopy, humorous, richly textured details... Lots to laugh about here, and plenty of details to point out and talk about to little ones as well. Recommended! This one's a favorite around here...
"Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop"
Written by Chris Raschka
Illustrated by Chris Raschka
(Scholastic Books, 1992)
Great book. Great, great, great book. The funny thing about this one -- for me, at least -- is that I do not, in fact, particularly like Charlie Parker's music. Too fast, too cerebral, not my kind of jazz. But this book! Well, now, that's a different story. This is a free-flowing, genuinely jazzy tone poem, with a meter that's built around Parker's version of "Night In Tunisia." You don't need that recording as a reference, though -- the rhythm and bounce leap off the page, accentuated by Raschka's wild, playful artwork and surrealistic text. I recommend reading it twice through -- you get to the end and start over again -- and improvising, just as if you were playing jazz yourself. Which -- surprise! -- you are! As far as I can tell, this is the best of Raschka's work... After we got heavily into the "Charlie Parker" book, I went on a brief kick where I also picked up all his Snaily Snail, Whaley Whale, Wormy Worm, etc. board books... and found them to be pretty dumb and entirely useless as children's book. Oh, well. This one's a gem, though.
Written by Charles Perrault
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
(Scholastic Books, 2005)
A magnificent adaptation of this classic rags-to-riches fairy tale... McClintock gives the story a slightly softer edge -- Cinderella's dad doesn't die at the start, and she winds up forgiving her wicked stepsisters (and hooking them up with royal hubbies of their own...) The text flows well, though the art's what's most magical here... McClintock returns the story to its Parisian roots, modeling the palace after Versailles and the fashion from that of the 17th Century courtiers. She takes many of her stylistic cues from the Roccoco movement (even citing 18th Century master painters Jean-Honore Fragonard and Antoine Watteau as inspirations on the dust jacket...) The result is delicious, with rich detail and innovative design -- on several pages the action flows from left to right via staircase, and the compact text is handsomely framed by ample negative space. Once again, the craftsmanship of McClintock's work is far and away above that of your average picturebook, giving this volume a classic, timeless feel -- it should be around for quite some time! Highly recommended.
Written by Jill Runcie
Illustrated by Lee Lorenz
(Simon & Schuster, 1991)
Yeah, there are about a bazillion farm books, and a bunch that go the "cock-a-doodle-doo" route... This one's at the top of my list. What sets this apart is the enchanting artwork and excellent comic timing of the husband-wife team of Lee Lorenz and Jill Runcie. Lorenz is, of course, an old-timer on the staff of The New Yorker, a professional cartoonist whose loose, fluid, charcoal-y style is immensely appealing, especially when applied to the world of children's books. The text is great, too, with a strong repetitive structure that makes this book fun to read and easy for kids to learn. The plot is simple: Farmer Jones goes to sleep each night confident that his rooster will wake him up, but it is actually all the other critters in the barnyard who wake the rooster up, each animal waking the other up, until they hit the end of the moo chain. The rhythm of the writing is a delight; the artwork even moreso. I came across this one in our local library and quickly tracked down a copy online: it's been a big favorite in our house ever since.
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