Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gifts that help open young minds

From a squirrel offering safety tips to a glimpse of the future by teens, this year's selection has something for readers aged 1-16

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For ages 1-6

Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas: A Safety Guide for Scaredies, by Melanie Watt (Kids Can Press, $19 hardcover). Why do youngest readers love Scaredy Squirrel? Possibly because all the things he fears are ones they've had secret doubts about themselves.

In this Christmas offering from the Montreal-based Watt, Scaredy worries about ice storms, shopping traffic, runaway toboggans and abominable snowmen. He gives safety-rated advice on gifts, mistletoe kissing, holiday entertaining and dressing. Kids love the improbability of his fears (sharp antlers on a reindeer? Termites in your Christmas log?) and chuckle over Watt's amusing pictures of Scaredy in all his pre-Christmas panic.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?, by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 32 pages, $19 hardcover). Pleasing to both dinosaur addicts and Christmas lovers, this large U.S. picture book manages to work in many kinds of dinosaurs as well as tell a simple story about dinosaurs upsetting Christmas decorations.

Watch the dinosaurs wreck the tree ripping open presents, and eat Santa's cookies. The New York-based Teague provides extra large, ultra-colourful illustrations. The same team has provided a version for Jewish readers called How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?

Baba's Red Talking Chair, by Eric Sigurdson (Bumble Bee Books, 32 pages, $9 paperback). A Winnipeg psychiatrist, Sigurdson has practised in the Dauphin area, where he says he learned from the people.

In this gentle story, a young boy, sent to live with his grandmother for the summer, learns some of the same wisdom: where do seeds come from, how does our food grow and, more important, how does one generation pass on its knowledge to the next.

With suitably mild illustrations by Winnipeg artist Luther Pokrant.

Pop-Up Merry Christmas, by Sarah Powell, illustrated by Hally Ong-Seng (Priddy Books, $8 hardcover). This colourful pop-up book has five double pages of clever cut-outs which form 3D pictures of Christmas. There's very limited text, but the attention will be on the pictures.

Finding Christmas, by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko (Scholastic, 32 pages, $20 hardcover). The ever-popular team of Munsch and Martchenko have collaborated to produce a Christmas special based, we're told, on Munsch's own daughter, Julie, who always found her presents before Christmas.

This year Julie searches everywhere, but the presents are nowhere to be found. She finally looks on the roof, with hilarious results. Munsch, who lives in Guelph, has written more than 50 children books, most of them illustrated by Toronto's Martchenko, whose pictures are large, colourful and, as always, humorous.

Over at the Rink: A Hockey Counting Book, by Stella Pertheniou Grasso, illustrated by Scot Ritchie (Scholastic, 32 pages, $8 paperback). Young hockey enthusiasts will enjoy this counting book set to the rhythm of Over in the Meadow. Ontario-based Grasso works in players, coaches, refs and fans in her clever stanzas. For instance: "Over at the rink/ Through a maze of sticks/ McNevin drove a shot/ Past the visitors six. / 'In!' sang McNevin/ 'It's in!' groaned the six./ And we tied up the score/ Through a maze of sticks."

Santa Is Coming to My House, by Steve Smallman, illustrated by Robert Dunn (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky/ Raincoast, 32 pages, $11 hardcover). This is a colourful, fun picture book about how the smallest, newest reindeer on Santa's sleigh saves the day when the team run into fog and hoards all the carrots to help them get home. Smallman and Dunn live in the U.K.

For ages 6-9

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K.G. Campbell (Kids Can Press, 32 pages, $19 hardcover). When Lester's Aunt Clara comes to live with him because her house is eaten by a crocodile, she begins knitting him sweaters.

They don't fit, however, and they are in dreadful colours. Lester hates wearing them to school. His uncomfortable problem is solved in a creative manner when a troupe of clowns comes to town. Scottish-born Campbell now lives in California. His pictures of the dreadful sweaters are hilarious.

The Lost Christmas Gift, by Andrew Beckham (Princeton Architectural Press/ Raincoast, 40 pages, $35 hardcover). For the reader who enjoys poring over unusual images, Beckham's story is a faithful reproduction of a handmade book sent from the trenches of the First World War but only delivered decades later.

Emerson Johansson's father was a map-maker in the war. Seventy years later, in Colorado, Emerson receives a package containing, in his father's words and photographs, the story of a time when he and his father were caught by an alpine blizzard and guided home by a mysterious stranger. The pictures in the book have an extraordinary twist that will enthrall curious readers.

Beckham is chairman of the visual arts department of St. Mary's Academy in Denver.

The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Oleg Lipchenko (Tundra Books, 48 pages, $20 hardcover). For the reader who enjoys a classic with emphasis on the ridiculous, this large-format edition of Carroll's famous poem may just be the ticket.

The disparate characters in the poem (the baker, the beaver, the butcher, the bellman, the banker), each play their bumbling roles as they hunt the mysterious (and never discovered) Snark. Meanwhile, we chuckle at the author's word-play and enjoy Lipchenko's lavish, sepia-toned illustrations.

Scholars have tried for years to discover a meaning behind this poem but even Carroll (real name Charles Ludwidge Dodgson), whose most famous book was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is said to have denied it had deeper significance.

Extreme Planet: Not-For-Parents, by Michael Dubois and Katri Hilden (Lonely Planet/Raincoast, 192 pages, $23 hardcover). This fascinating book is highly recommended for the curious reader who wants to know what is the tallest, deepest, smelliest, hottest or coldest place on Earth -- plus a lot more.

With plenty of humour and full colour, eye-catching illustrations on every page and a full index to check on those improbable facts, this is guaranteed to keep young trivia fans busy for days. Dubois and Hilden are Australians who have written other books in the Lonely Planet series.

For ages 10-14

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen (Tundra, 224 pages, $20 hardcover). Vancouver author Nielsen first won acclaim as a scriptwriter for TV's Degrassi Junior High. She followed with awards for the novel Word Nerd, including the Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Award.

Henry, the 13-year-old title character in her newest juvenile novel, shows Nielsen's familiarity with the feelings and fears of this age group. Henry's brother, the subject of intense bullying at the local high school, has taken his father's rifle and ended both his own life and that of the bully. The family has moved to a new city to escape notoriety, but Henry still has trouble making friends until he meets the unlikely team which is competing in Reach for the Top.

The novel is written in the form of a journal. Nielsen's characters are well drawn and attractive, including Farley, the Chinese student who lives in a mansion with his nanny, and Alberta, the only female member of the team, whose sense of style is eccentric. This young adult novel has just won the Governor General's award for best children's book of 2012.

Hockey Girl, by Natalie Hyde (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 215 pages, $10 paperback). Cambridge, Ont., author Hyde writes about hockey with real understanding in this sports-orientated novel that is sure to appeal to girls.

The Cartwright Roadrunners are a girls' softball team that decides to play hockey in the winter to keep in shape. The competition becomes serious when the boys' team challenges them to a dare, and it becomes a battle for equal rights between the genders.

Hyde has written a dozen works of non-fiction and one other YA novel, Saving Arm Pit. In Hockey Girl, she adds a bit of romance, some smart dialogue and touches of humour that make this a recommended read.

The White Bicycle, by Beverley Brenna (Red Deer Press, 198 pages, $13 paperback). Taylor Jane Simon has Asperger's syndrome and understands the world differently. Figures of speech confuse her, but math is easy. She learns to read in kindergarten, but playing with other children is hard.

Saskatchewan-based Brenna has written two previous novels about Taylor. In The White Bicycle, Taylor travels to France with her mother to help care for a young man with cerebral palsy. But her mother fights her new independence and Taylor needs all her resolve to strike out on her own. Set in an attractive area of France, this novel gives valuable insights into the mindset of individuals with Asperger's syndrome.

The Lewton Experiment, by Rachel Sa (Tradewind Books, 180 pages, $13, paperback). Readers who dislike big-box stores and distrust their corporate culture will enjoy this juvenile mystery about 17-year-old Sherri, who arrives in a small town for a summer job as a reporter with the local paper.

When Sherri discovers all the small businesses on Main Street are closing and their owners are now working at the giant superstore, she becomes suspicious of foul play -- or worse. The solution is in the realm of fantasy, but Sa, a Toronto journalist, works in plenty of suspense and action.

For ages 12-16

Such Wicked Intent, by Kenneth Oppel (HarperCollins, 310 pages, $20 hardcover). Toronto author Oppel leapt to million-copy success with his Silverwing series, about a colony of bats with human qualities. His latest novel is Book 2 of the apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, following This Dark Endeavour.

In the first volume, Victor tried unsuccessfully to cure his brother, Konrad, from a fatal illness, even sacrificing two of his own fingers to make a magic potion. In Such Wicked Intent, he is obsessed with trying to resurrect his brother, a quest that takes him, along with the lovely Elizabeth, and his friend Henry, into the dangerous and frightening world of the dead.

Not for the squeamish reader, Oppel's novel is full of scary encounters and unpleasant images, such as the "mud creature" that Victor tries to grow from a few strands of Konrad's hair plus a mysterious piece of life force.

While Oppel's many fans may relish this venture into realms of mystery and horror, its appeal will be limited to those who enjoy darker fantasy.

Grim, by Anna Waggener (Scholastic, 313 pages, $20 hardcover). If fighting impossible odds in an atmosphere of lavish but corrupt magnificence is your cup of tea, then Grim may be your choice. When Erica is killed in a horrible car crash, she wakens to find herself in the land of Limbo, where souls have not yet been released.

Her only thought is to get back to her three children. When she begs her guide, Jeremiah, to bring them to her, her wish has unexpected consequences.

Thai-born Waggener (she lives in Minnesota in the winters) combines fantasy and adventure with romance in a complicated novel that doesn't always work seamlessly. But older teens with a preference for the supernatural may enjoy Erica's exploits with the six princes in Limbo as she struggles to rejoin her family.

Winter Shadows, by Margaret Buffie (Tundra, 327 pages, $13 paperback). A new paperback edition of Winnipegger Buffie's 2010 novel has plenty of familiar scenes. Cass, living in a centuries' old house in the St. Andrews area north of Winnipeg, becomes linked with Beatrice, a young woman who lived in the house in the 1850s.

Their lives are remarkably similar. Both have lost their mothers and are living with stepmothers who resent their presence. Both have Métis blood and feel prejudice against their Cree grandmothers. Cass is able to read Beatrice's journal after finding a gold broach in an old fireplace. With that connection, they are able to help each other make important decisions in their lives, including Beatrice's choice of husband.

Buffie provides a vivid picture of life in the Red River settlement that became Manitoba. With frequent words in Cree mixed into the dialogue, we get to realize what a diverse heritage makes up the history of our province.

The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (Razorbill/Penguin, 336 pages, $22 hardcover). It's 1996 and teen neighbours Emma and Josh have just tried out a free AOL disk on Emma's new computer.

Suddenly they are seeing images of the future, such as a site called Facebook that hasn't been invented yet, that show them their lives in 15 years. And every time they log in, the picture changes.

They are fascinated by images of themselves and their friends until they realize they don't always like the future they reveal. Can they change what will happen by what they do now?

Should they forget the computer images and just live in the present? Today's social networking generation will enjoy these challenges. Collaborators Asher and Mackler live in California and New York, respectively.

Helen Norrie is a former teacher-librarian in Winnipeg. Her column appears on the third weekend of the month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 J10

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