Best of Children's Books 2005












Barry, Boyhound by Andy Spearman (Knopf)

"If you have ever fallen from a helicopter onto a wedding cake, you'll know what an exploding raccoon is like." Though this line is not completely typical of Andy Spearman's prose in Barry, Boyhound, it does offer an interesting taste and gives you an idea of the kind of ride you can expect. This is wacky stuff. Not the least bit mainstream. Yet oddly -- perhaps surprisingly -- touching in a fresh and funny sort of way. The premise here is utterly ridiculous and completely satisfying. Barry -- who is definitely a human boy -- wakes up one morning to discover he's a dog. That is, he still looks like Barry on the outside. But on the inside, he's pure canine. Naturally, all sorts of calamity ensures. But that's not the lot of it. Aside from the adventures of Barry the born-again dog, we're treated to all sorts of sidebars -- some of them relevant, some of them not so much -- that makes for delightful reading. I suspect that reluctant readers might be pacified by the visual ease this broken up style of narrative supplies. But, as always, the story is the thing. This one's a peach. And if it is Kafka for kids, it's subtly enough done that no one will notice. -- Lincoln Cho

Flowers for Grandpa Dan: A Gentle Story to Help Children Understand Alzheimer's Disease by Connie McIntyre ,Illustrations by Louise McIntyre (Thumbprint Press)

Flowers for Grandpa Dan is a children's book that opens the lines of communication and provides much-needed information regarding Alzheimer's disease. It's the story of Danny, a young boy who enjoys working in the flower beds with his father and Grandpa Dan. When Grandpa Dan becomes more and more confused due to the progression of Alzheimer's, Danny finds it hard to cope. When Grandpa Dan is no longer able to continue gardening, Danny and his father must find new ways to help him continue to appreciate the flowers he has loved all his life. Author Connie McIntyre wrote Flowers for Grandpa Dan after caring for her father-in-law who had the disease and seeing the effect it had on her young children. Her mother, Louise McIntyre, illustrated the book with vibrant watercolor pictures that remind us of the beauty of life, even in the face of struggle.--Mary Ward Menke

Gracie and the Emperor by Errol Broome (Annick Press)

Really good historical fiction for children is a special gift, one worth remarking upon. I'm convinced that children exposed to the very best of this kind of writing at the proper time in their lives are more open to learning about where we come from when they reach adulthood. Whether or not this is true, it is, however, inarguable that good writing for children -- stories that sweep youngsters away to a different place and perhaps time -- is both hard to find and important to cherish. Gracie and the Emperor meets all the criterion. Eleven-year-old Gracie lives on the Island of St. Helena when the most loathed man imaginable -- Napolean Bonaparte -- is exiled there. Ex-journalist Broome weaves a beautiful, adventuresome story of a young girl and a doomed emperor in a book that provides oblique but well-wrought lessons of love and loyalty, courage and understanding. -- Monica Stark

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (Raincoast/Bloomsbury/Scholastic)

It's possible that the sixth book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series -- and the second to last planned -- evoked less excitement and roars of approval than the five previous novels starring the bespectacled magical student. I don't care. I loved every moment of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, right down to the inconclusive ending that a lot of readers -- and reviewers -- felt was a little too leading for comfort. Not me. I lapped up every magical moment and quite seriously think I'd take anything that this particular author cared to dish out. As far as I'm concerned, there just can't be enough Harry Potter in the world, at least not as he's been concieved by his titian-haired Scottish creator. And when the next -- and final -- chapter in the Harry Potter saga is ready, I'll be there in the bookstore at a moment after midnight, my hands extended for Rowling's final words on this topic. This is magic in the making and I just can't get enough. -- Lincoln Cho

Jack's Knife by Beverley Wood and Chris Wood (Polestar)

I love it when I get to report that a book aimed at young readers "has it all." What does that mean, really? In the case of Jack's Knife, the second Sirius Mystery from husband and wife writing team Beverley and Chris Wood, it means just that: everything and perhaps even a little bit more. The adventure here goes almost without saying. (The cover illustration showing a small boat tearing through a boathouse at high speed is your first clue. More follow quickly.) The book is a sharply plotted mystery filled with engaging and believeable characters. There's a dog -- and kids like dogs -- plus a strong element of time travel. What more, really, could anyone ask? -- Monica Stark

The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis (Random House)

"The heat was awful. The breeze, when we got one, felt like it came out of an oven. Aunt Ruthie hoped to take our minds off our misery by taking us to town. Even in the dim cool of the mercantile, sweat made our clothing cling to our clothes." So begins Audrey Couloumbis' third book for young readers, The Misadventures of Maude March. Couloumbis, whose first book for children, 2000's Getting Near to baby, won the Newbery Honor, evokes the tumultuous wild west of mid-19th century America without seeming effort. Her narrator here, 11-year old Sallie March, is a tomboy whose world is colored by the dime novels about infamous cowboys she reads as quickly as she can get her hands on them. When Sallie's aunt is killed unexpectedly, Sallie and her sister Maude set off in search of their remaining family... and trouble ensues (as trouble surely must). This is a wonderful story with all the right stuff. Remember this author's name. This won't be the last you've heard of her. -- Monica Stark

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte Press)

There is a trend -- no doubt started by one Ms. Rowling -- towards books of substantial weight for children. And the weight I'm talking about is really in all meanings of the word. We're seeing more books for young readers of significant physical substance: books that weigh heavily in strong, young arms. And, of course, with more pages comes the necessity to explore ideas in more depth. That is to say that the type of book I'm talking about has more emotional substance, as well. In 2005, Libba Bray's Rebel Angels emerged as one of the very best of these. Billed as a "companion" -- rather than a sequel, though it pretty much actually is -- to Bray's bestselling 2003 novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels is, once again, a book that has a bit of everything: mystery, adventure romance and more than a brush with the supernatural, Rebel Angels is, quite simply, terrific storytelling. Young teens will love the book, but it's compelling reading for adults of a certain literary bent, as well. Magnificent. -- Monica Stark

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