Kids' book authors offer humorous take on classic rhyme, new stories destined to become classics


Where can kids find magic and science, art and writing, history and holidays, and inspiration galore? Why, in the pages of these new and notable children's books.

Remember, for both overall development and sheer enjoyment, there is no better gift for a child than a book.

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim; $17; Levine/Scholastic; ages 2-8.

For a humorous holiday take on a familiar rhyme, look no further than Palo Alto author Caryn Yacowitz's latest clever creation. Her old lady doesn't swallow a fly.

The fun begins when Bubbe swallows a dreidel "she thought was a bagel." Her family members, who just want to enjoy Chanukah with their Bubbe, are increasingly alarmed as she swallows larger and more complicated Chanukah-themed items, including oil, latkes, brisket and even a menorah. "Perhaps it's fatal." (But of course it isn't.)

Bubbe's resolution to her eating binge will have little ones laughing out loud and asking for repeat readings.

Adding to the charm of Yacowitz's poem is David Slonim's artwork, which itself is based on famous works of art, including Mona Lisa, American Gothic, The Scream and even a statue local children may know from visiting Stanford's Rodin Sculpture Garden: The Thinker.

Quest by Aaron Becker; $18; Candlewick; ages 2-8.

Author/illustrator Aaron Becker's 2013 wordless fantasy picture book, "Journey," won a strong following among children and adults, as well as a Caldecott Honor from the American Library Association.

Celebration of the imagination continues in "Quest" when a king, just before his capture, gives a map to two children escaping the rain. Following the map leads the boy and girl on an adventure to exotic lands, sea and sky, and the opportunity to retrieve markers in all colors of the rainbow, draw their way out of danger and rescue the king.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm; $17; Random House; ages 8-12.

This is one of those books on its way to classic, every-kid-loves-it status. (The last novel I said that about was R.J. Palacio's "Wonder," still topping the bestseller list more than two years after publication.)

"The Fourteenth Goldfish" has a unique and fun premise, a bit of magic, science and science history, touches of humor and real heart. That it's set in Silicon Valley is a bonus for local readers.

Soon after starting middle school, Ellie's best friend from forever decides volleyball is her new passion. Ellie feels lost, until one evening her scientist grandfather shows up as a 13-year-old boy! to live with her and her mom. He's discovered a cure for aging and demonstrated it on himself. This gruff old man in a growing boy's body even goes to school with Ellie.

She alternates between embarrassment (Grandpa gets detention because he "used the facilities" without a hall pass) and pride (when he encourages her to "believe in the possible"). Too, he helps her make a new friend: the goth, heavily pierced, wise and witty Raj.

But what if Ellie's grandfather's experiment has gone too far? Is old age like polio, something to be cured? Ellie and Grandpa confront these and other important questions of science and morality as they decide what to do about his discovery, and Grandpa himself.

El Deafo by Cece Bell; $11 paperback; Amulet/Abrams; ages 8-12.

Some of the most affecting books for young people published in the last few years are graphic novel memoirs about growing up obviously different from other kids.

Meet El Deafo, superpower alter ego of author Cece Bell, who became profoundly deaf after a bout of meningitis at the age of 4. Cece the character may have tall ears like all the other bunnies in the book, but in order to hear at school she needs her Phonic Ear: a box she wears around her neck with earpieces attached to wires, paired with a microphone for her teacher. It's bulky and embarrassing, but it also gives her superpowers: She can hear her teachers anywhere in the building, even the bathroom!

Sensitive Cece has friend challenges. One friend is bossy; another talks too loud. Her boy crush just likes the powers of her Phonic Ear. The girl Cece gets along with best turns against her because she's afraid of hurting Cece and giving her another disability.

Young readers will cringe when the mean P.E. teacher drops and breaks the microphone, and they will feel for Cece as she tries to fit in with her classmates by tipping them off when their teacher is about to return to the classroom. They'll laugh at what might have been sad in a traditional novel. Most of all, they won't forget this story about a special kid.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson; Nancy Paulsen/Penguin; $17; ages 10 and up.

Young Jackie Woodson grows up in the shadow of her older, brilliant sister. But oh, can Jackie tell stories.

"Brown Girl Dreaming" is her memoir-in-verse, an ode to childhood in a world that is changing during and after the Civil Rights movement. In lyrical specificity, it brings to life the midcentury segregated South and its place in American history.

Jackie lives with a blanket of love from her South Carolina grandparents, yet they also sit in the back of the bus. Jackie hears about trainings for marchers as well as those protesting at Woolworth lunchcounters. "Colored" becomes "negro" and then is "black."

When their mother leaves, Jackie and her sister and brother are pulled into their grandmother's religion, Jehovah's Witness. Later, Jackie's mother moves her children to New York. In Brooklyn, Jackie's friends, especially her "forever friend" Maria, become her anchors.

Early on Jackie recognizes the power of words. She and her siblings aren't allowed to say bad words. But stories? "Stories are like air to me," she says. Stories convince her feminist teacher that Jackie is going to be a writer, even though she has trouble reading.

"Brown Girl Dreaming" shows where and how a brilliant writer of this and other beloved books emerges from a tumultuous, important period in this country's history. Last month it was awarded the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Debbie Duncan is a Stanford writer and author who has been reviewing children's books for the Weekly since 1997.

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Like this comment
Posted by Booklover
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 5, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I always look forward to this column on the latest children's books and enjoy it even more when a local author is featured.

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