In this time of COVID-19, books have become a more important gift than ever. The ability for young readers after a stressful day to lose themselves in a good mystery, a magical fantasy, a humorous picture book or a gripping adventure has become not only helpful but often crucial.
So here are a few recent titles that may fit those criteria...
EARLY YEARS (ages 2-5)
By Deborah Kerbel and Miki Sato (Pajama Press, 24 pages, $20, hardcover)
How many different kinds of snow do you know? Thornhill, Ont. writer Deborah Kerbel and Toronto artist Miki Sato show there are many kinds: first snow, surprise snow, Christmas snow, powder snow and more. For early readers, Sato’s three-dimensional illustrations make each page a delight. The padded cover and extra-heavy pages make it suitable for busy little hands.
The Teeny Weeny Genie
By Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Anna Currey (Macmillan, 32 pages, $27, hardcover)
Besides a witty title, this amusing picture book contains a clever take-off on the "Old Macdonald Had a Farm" rhyme. Here Macdonald has an old teapot with a genie who grants his every wish — until the farm gets too noisy for the genie to endure.
Donaldson and Currey are both from the U.K., and Currey’s pictures are large, colorful and action-packed. Early readers will enjoy seeing what crazy thing will be wished for next.
A World of Mindfulness
By the authors and illustrators of Pajama Press (32 pages, $20, hardcover)
In a year when the pandemic has turned the whole world upside down, children may need familiar and comforting things to hold on to. Pajama Press has gathered 14 exceptional Canadian artists to project the calming feelings that can be invoked by our senses: smelling fresh grass, feeling the warmth of the sun, hearing the sound of birds or experiencing the joy of creating things and more.
Of special note is the artwork by Suzanne Del Rizzo, who uses clay and assorted textiles to create detail-laden pictures that will fascinate early readers.
Lilliana and the Frogs
By Scot Ritchie (Harbour, 32 pages, $23, hardcover)
If you’ve ever lived near a swamp or pond where chorus frogs live in spring you’ll understand why Lilliana, the little girl in this picture book, is fascinated by how these tiny amphibians can be so noisy. She decides to move some of the frogs into her bedroom, with disastrous, if predictable, results.
Scot Ritchie, who has written over 60 books, has not only contributed the easy-to-read text, but also the full-page illustrations which are both detailed and humorous. Living in Vancouver, he tells us Lilliana’s story is based on an actual incident from his childhood, when he brought a box of wild frogs home from Camosum Bog. His book is also a plea for us to help protect places which shelter wild creatures.
The Joyful Book
By Todd Parr (Little, Brown & Co., 32 pages, $23, hardcover)
For intense colour and positive messages, this picture book is hard to beat. Each page gives a child something to celebrate: hugging, playing games, singing holiday songs, watching a parade, playing in the snow, etc. No matter what the occasion or tradition, Todd Parr shows that we can find something joyful to observe.
Parr has written over 40 books, almost all with an inspirational message, among them The Thankful Book, The Peace Book and The Goodbye Book. His bold images, done digitally in primary colours, almost leap off the page. Pre-schoolers will love this one.
FIRST READERS (ages 5-9)
By Jonathan Stutzman, illustrated by Heather Fox (Henry Holt, 48 pages, $25, hardcover)
Santa is feeling his age a little (after a few hundred years) and asks the Christmas spirit if he could get back his youth. Unfortunately he’s not too specific in his wish, and end ends up in diapers and unable to say more than "goo-goo."
The elves put him through a few tests — driving the reindeer, going down chimneys, delivering gifts — but he can’t keep up. Only after Santa summons all his willpower and draws visual clues for the elves on the blackboard does he manage to save Christmas, and realize that no matter what your age, it’s the spirit of Christmas that counts.
Stutzman, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and illustrator, Heather Fox. Her pictures will elicit chuckles, and fit the humorous text perfectly. Early readers will enjoy this amusing take-off on a well-known song.
By Sara Leach, illustrations by Rebecca Bender (Pajama Press, 120 pages, $20, hardcover)
From the author of the highly recommended Slug Days and Penguin Days, this early chapter book puts the reader squarely in the life of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Lauren has learned to use many strategies when unfamiliar events cause her dismay or alarm, but when her best friend Irma introduces her to a new, noisy, athletic neighbour she has trouble coping.
Sara Leach is a teacher-librarian from Whistler, B.C., who has worked with students who share Lauren’s condition and has been able to help them cope. Rebecca Bender, who added the sensitive, homey black-and-white illustrations, lives in Burlington, Ont., and is best known for her award-winning Giraffe and Bird books.
The Library Bus
By Bahram Rahman, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (Pajama Press, 32 pages, $22, hardcover)
Inspired by the first Library Bus to operate in Kabul, Bahram Rahman, who was born in Afghanistan and is now a senior policy advisor for the Ministry of Health in Ontario, has written The Library Bus to show how important it is for girls to be allowed to go to school.
Pari travels in the bus with her mother, who takes books as well as pencils and notebooks to remote villages and to a refugee camp. She encourages girls to read and write and Pari learns how important it is for her as well.
Gabrielle Grimard’s pictures wrap around whole pages with watercolour and digital abandon. A graduate of the University of Quebec, she won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award in 2018 for Stolen Words.
Two Drops of Brown in a Cloud of White
By Saumiya Balasubramaniam, illustrated by Eva Campbell (Groundwood, 32 pages, $19, hardcover)
Ma comes from the Caribbean and finds snow-covered Canada cold and lacking all her favourite colours. But when she walks her daughter home from school, her daughter points out all the exciting things about a snowy day: sun on snow, snowballs and snowmen, snowflakes, snow sculptures, the taste of a snowflake on your tongue. She helps her mother see that maple syrup and big brown eyes can make drops of brown in clouds of white.
The pictures here are exceptional, done with oil and pastel on canvas by Victoria artist Eva Campbell. She also illustrated The Matatu and Africville.
MID-LEVEL (ages 9-12)
The Silver Arrow
By Lev Grossman (Little, Brown & Co., 272 pages, $23, hardcover)
What if you had access to a steam train that would take you to exotic places all over the world? With a resemblance to The Polar Express, that’s the premise of this novel about two children on a magic train.
With Kate as conductor and Tom tending the engine, they welcome a multitude of creatures on to the train, including many who are members of endangered species. They also have to solve numerous problems with the train’s operation, as it takes them across deserts and under the ocean.
As they come to know the baby pangolin, the mamba, the fishing cat, the polar bear and more, Kate and Tom realize how much of our natural world is at risk. A good adventure story with an ecological message, readers will be anxious to travel on this train.
The Magic Misfits: The Fourth Suit
By Neil Patrick Harris (Little, Brown & Co., 336 pages, $23, hardcover)
Ridley Larsen, the heroine of this mid-level novel, is in a wheelchair, but this only makes her more formidable. With her friends and cohorts — Carter, Leila, Theo, Vernon and twins Izzy and Olly — they challenge long-time rival Kalagan in this fourth and final chapter of The Magical Misfits series.
Ridley also finds she must work together with her friends to find who has been mesmerizing citizens of their town to sabotage their endeavors.
Though author Neil Patrick Harris may be better known for his stage and screen work, this series has many fans, especially those who enjoy doing magic tricks, as the book contains detailed instructions on a number of special illusions. Plenty of fun and action.
Owl and the Lost Boy
By Amy Wilson (Macmillan, 292 pages, $16, paperback)
Fantasy lovers will enjoy this sequel to Wilson’s earlier novel A Girl Called Owl. Alberic, son of the Earl of Autumn, is missing and so is his father. That means autumn has never arrived, and Owl and her friend Mallory are determined to find the lost spirits.
Their quest takes them into a dangerous dimension where Time has trapped Alberic and summer threatens to keep everyone in her sweltering grip. Owl has to call on hidden reserves of power to defeat Lady Midday, without the help of her father, Jack Frost, who is notoriously fickle.
With lots of frosty images suitable for this time of year, readers will revel in Owl’s adventures as they also learn something about the dangers of climate change and the actions humans can take to confront them. Wilson lives in Bristol, England, and is also the author of Shadows of Winterspell and Snowglobe.
YOUNG ADULT (12 and up)
A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow
By Laura Taylor Namey (Atheneum, 308 pages, $26, hardcover)
A mixture of romance, cookbook and travelogue, this young adult novel has it all.
Lila Reyes is sent to Winchester, England to recover from her grandmother’s death and a failed relationship. But while working in her Aunt Cate’s kitchen, she finds more than new recipes, including a handsome tea clerk, Orion, who appoints himself her local tour guide.
Foodies will salivate over Lila’s pastries — Flan Cubano, guava pastelitos, arroz con leche and many more — as she bakes her grandmother’s Cuban recipes. With Orion she also explores the beauty of the English countryside and the Winchester Cathedral, and comes to realize a place with history has unexpected depths. As her time in England closes she must make a crucial decision: where does she want to spend the rest of her life?
Laura Taylor Namey is a Cuban-American Californian who lives in San Diego.
Helen Norrie hopes everyone can enjoy this holiday season despite the restrictions due to COVID-19.