The gift of reading | November 30, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 30, 2012

The gift of reading

From pillow forts to cathedrals, bully victims to spies

by Debbie Duncan

Artists, architects and spies (plus a few furry animals and other critters) play starring roles in great books for kids this holiday season.

For those wishing to give the gift of reading and unlock children's imaginations, here are a few books that are sure to delight.

The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska, Houghton Mifflin, ages 2-8, $12.99: San Francisco author Deborah Underwood finds examples of quiet moments during what can be a noisy time of year — things even California kids (who don't get snow) recognize: decorating the tree, reading by a fire, bundling up, drinking cocoa, listening to "Nutcracker Suite." Illustrator Renata Liwska's adorable fuzzy forest animals indulge in a bit of holiday mischief, too, which adds humor to this picture book kids will want to cuddle up with and parents will enjoy settling little ones down with.

Dreaming Up: A celebration of building by Christy Hale, Lee & Low, ages 2 and up, $19: Imagine a book that's a terrific gift for a toddler as well as any older child interested in art, design or architecture, and you have "Dreaming Up."

Palo Alto author and illustrator Christy Hale uses mixed media and poetry to show the connection between the simple things a child builds and buildings of famous 19th, 20th, and 21st century architects from around the world. Stacking cups, wooden blocks, Popsicle sticks, Legos, sandcastles, a (fire)house of cards, even sofa cushion forts and blanket nooks are shown opposite real buildings inspired by their simpler creations. It's brilliant. "Dreaming Up" is further enhanced by architect biographies, portraits and quotes, as well as descriptions of the buildings and a list of a source materials.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Candlewick, ages 2-8, $16: A little fish steals a hat from a big fish, then uses typical little-kid logic to convince himself he'll get away with the theft — even though he knows it is wrong. But will the little guy escape, especially when someone sees him hide in the underwater jungle? Even when the someone (a crab) said he wouldn't tell? Kids will love to come up with their own ending for this artfully told tale that invites the question: Does crime pay?

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand, illustrated by Sarah Watt, Simon & Schuster, ages 8-12, $17: Everything's perfect in 12-year-old super-student Victoria's hometown. Her best (and only) friend, Lawrence, may have a gray streak in his hair and be obsessed with playing the piano, but he is Victoria's personal project. Then he disappears. He's not the only one, as other less-than-perfect children and even teachers go missing. Are they possibly being held against their will in the town's creepy, bug-infested Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls? Victoria takes it upon herself to solve the mystery and rescue the "degenerates" (as Mrs. Cavendish calls them) though not before experiencing the horrors of the Home first-hand. She also learns to appreciate individual differences and true friendship — which is even better than perfection.

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, Random House/Wendy Lamb, ages 9-14, $16: Life is rough for Georges (the "s" is silent) — he's being bullied at school, his dad has been fired and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment, and his mom, a nurse, is spending all her time at the hospital. Then he meets Safer, another 12-year-old who lives upstairs. Safer invites Georges to join a Spy Club and trains Georges to pay attention to details. For they need to spy on Mr. X, who may be a murderer living in their building. Gulp! The little things in this intricate, thoughtful novel add up to a big picture of reality — as bittersweet as it sometimes is — for Georges, his friends, family and most especially the reader. Fears eventually must be dealt with. And sometimes "rules are made to be broken."

Drama by Raina Telgemeier; Scholastic/Graphix, ages 10-14, $11: San Francisco native Raina Telgemeier clearly understands middle school drama.

The graphic novel stars Callie, a theater geek with pink streaks in her hair who is filled with emotions as she goes about designing sets and navigating behind the scenes of the Eucalyptus Middle School play. Who does she like? Who likes her? Who's gay? Why do the roles keep changing? And why the heck won't her confetti cannon work when she needs it to? As if there weren't enough to love about "Drama," the last names of most of the main characters are California counties. Brava!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Hyperion, ages 12 and up, $17: I am not exaggerating when I state that "Code Name Verity" is better than any book for adults (even NYT best-sellers and award-winners) I have read in the past year. "Verity," a British spy who goes by many names, is a heroine as fierce and clever as Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," trying to survive in a world just as evil: Nazi-occupied France. "Queenie" (another of her pseudonyms) has been captured and imprisoned in an old French hotel. She makes a deal with the Gestapo to tell her story. And what a tale it is, of how she becomes best friends with Maddie, a crackerjack English mechanic-turned-pilot who would and does do anything for her. As Maddie puts it, the Scottish spy's story is "full of bookish nonsense and foul language, brave and generous." It tells of a friendship forged and strengthened amidst the horrors of war. "Code Name Verity" is worth re-reading for clues and "aha!" moments. I also highly recommend the audiobook, which brings to life these remarkable characters.

Debbie Duncan is the author of an award-winning e-book, "Caller Number Nine." She has reviewed children's books for the Weekly since 1997. Her complete reviews are available at


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