childhood, where his inability to excel at sports eventually gives way to his hidden talents as a persuasive public speaker and, later in life, politician. Score one for the eggheads! >

Kid's Stuff -- Books About Cool Kids
Other Topics | Main Book Reviews

Kid's lit is packed with great characters, and many seem like people you'd actually like to know -- curious, quiet boys, little girls who are full of thunder, little babies who dream big dreams. Here are some of our favorite cool kids... If you have suggestions for other kids we should meet, please feel free to let us know... Thanks!

"Bertie And Small And The Fast Bike Ride"
Written by Vanessa Cabban
Illustrated by Vanessa Cabban
(Candlewick, 1999)

A delightful (though short-lived) series, starring Bertie, a cheerful, enthusiastic two-year old who dresses up like a rabbit, and his stuffed bunny, named Small. In this volume, Bertie and Small explore the back yard, finding mountains and deserts and gather treasures to bring back to Mommy. A simple, joyful celebration of imagination and childish fun, these books are well-paced and beautifully drawn. A little sappy, perhaps, but in a good way. This one was a hit at our house. Reminiscent of Helen Oxenbury's Tom & Pippo series, but livelier and more engaging. (A)

"Bertie And Small's Brave Sea Journey"
Written by Vanessa Cabban
Illustrated by Vanessa Cabban
(Candlewick, 1999)

Another nice Bertie & Small story, this time with Daddy showing up to help Bertie use his imagination to transform a cardboard box into a pirate ship on the high seas. Cabban's artwork is just as joyful and precise, and the books shares the same celebratory spirit as the first. I like her work! (A)

"Callie Cat, Ice Skater"
Written by Eileen Spinelli
Illustrated by Anne Kennedy
(Albert Whitman & Co., 2007)

Do what you love - because you love it! A nice story with a nice message, about a young girl (an anthropomorphized cat) who loves ice skating, gracefully gliding on the frozen pond near home anytime she can. When a skating contest is announced, her schoolfriends urge Callie to enter, and convince her that she just has to win. Although she becomes nervous, after Callie sees several other contestants fail, she starts to believe that, hey, maybe she will win! And yet, first place goes to another girl, and Callie is crushed. On the way home, her parents are appropriately supportive, telling her that what matters is that she tried her best, although her friends emphasize how disappointed she must feel. Callie keeps quiet, though, and the next day, she puts her skates back on, and goes back out on the ice, once again skating just for fun. This book deals with several important issues in a nice, gentle way -- peer pressure, learning to be resilient and deal with failure, and also learning to appreciate and enjoy things just for what they are, not for what they can get you. A nice parable for parents and kids dealing with competitive sports and other intense, passionate interests. Recommended! (B+)

Written by Susan Cooper
Illustrated by Jane Browne
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2002)

A nice story about a quiet boy who shows compassion for a small animal, this quick picture book deftly addresses numerous psychologically weighty subjects, and though it may be a bit dark for some young readers, its ultimate message is hopeful and life-affirming. It was written by fantasy writer Susan Cooper, author of the "Dark Is Rising" series; she doesn't shy away from the shadow side of human nature, and thus we are presented with a young boy named Joe who hasn't yet learned to swim, and who is mocked by and feels inferior to his older brother and sister. One day, a small frog falls into the family pool, prompting Joe's siblings and parents to freak out and harass the poor animal. When they are unable to capture it, they go inside for a snack, and the more sensitive young Joe rescues the frog, setting it free, while also learning to swim after observing the amphibian's graceful breast-stroke. This book might not be for everyone, particularly for parents who don't want to acknowledge (or exacerbate) inter-family tensions, or who are uncomfortable with the alienation represented in Joe's relationship to the rest of his family. Also, small children may find the frog's panic to be upsetting. However, the book's core messages of empathy, mercy and self-reliance are powerful and positive, and give this a little more emotional wallop than your average picture book. Definitely worth checking out.

"Sing, Sophie!"
Written by Gayle Anne Dodds
Illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger
(Candlewick, 1999)

Yee-haww...!!! Though sadly out of print, this cowgirl comedy is worth tracking down, as it has a lively text and provides plenty of opportunity for parents and caregivers to sing as badly as they want. Little Sophie Adams has a song inside her that's just got to come out -- too bad no one in her family wants to hear it! They keep shoo-ing her from place to place, telling her to stop her "caterwauling" and give them some peace and quiet. She dutifully moves along, muttering folksy oaths ("Oh, fiddle-faddle!") and coming up with ever-more silly verses. Good story, with nice, fun artwork... And, of course, Sophie is eventually vindicated: her family eventually comes around and find they really can't live without her songs after all, then Sophie gets to yodel all she wants. Cute. It's nice, too, that although this is a "country" book, the author avoids hillbilly stereotypes and always uses proper grammar. (Thank you, Ms. Dodds!)

"Splash, Joshua, Splash!"
Written by Malachy Doyle
Illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max
(Bloomsbury, 2004)

Absolutely wonderful. Bursting with energy and joyfulness, this book tells the story of a little boy (perhaps three or four years old?) named Joshua, who loves to play in water. Lively, strongly rhythmic writing propels readers into the whirlwind of Joshua's activities, especially a rambunctious trip to a public pool, where Joshua takes his grandmother down the "gigantic slide" time and time again. This is a fun book, and fun to read because of the strong, fluid writing style, which is perfectly complimented by the bold, dynamic, colorful artwork. An instant hit, the kind of book that prompts little ones to say "again!" again and again. Yay. Recommended!

"David's Drawings"
Written by Catheryn Falwell
Illustrated by Catheryn Falwell
(Lee & Low Books, 2001)

A shy young boy (with a gift for art) goes to school one day and finds friendship when he cheerfully lets the other kids in his class share a picture he drew of a bare tree in winter. They decorate it with leaves, grass, clouds, stars, people and animals, a visual brightening-up that's mirrored in David's life, as his new friends invite him to play with them at recess. When he goes, home, though, David sees the grey tree again, and recreates his original picture, showing that he can still be true to himself while making friends and accomodating their needs. This is a sweet little story -- a consistent favorite with my daughter -- that makes its point without being too heavy-handed. Nice multiculturalism, too, reflected in all the kids in the class. Initially I wasn't fond of the artwork, but now I like the whole package. Nice book... definitely recommended!

Pretty much any book by -- Bob Graham

"What Joe Saw"
Written by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines
(Greenwillow, 1994)

A nice book written in praise of children who are a little bit different than others... In this case, Joe is a quiet, thoughtful boy who dawdles around behind the group while the other kids tromp forwards on a school field trip... Because he's always holding the group up, they begin to tease him, calling him "Slowpoke Joe" until the teacher tells them to stop. What they don't realize is that Joe is taking time to see special things that the other kids are too impatient to notice -- the first robin of spring, a line of ants marching into their hill, a frog hiding in the reeds. Joe isn't totally on another planet -- when the other kids stop and feed the ducks, he sees them too -- he's just absorped by things he's into. Finally, at the end, when one of the popular kids has to stay behind to tie his shoe, someone sees what Joe sees: a pair of little ducklings, freshly hatched from their eggs. This is a nice, gentle book, ideal for any parents who were ever teased for being ugly or weird (or whatever) to read to their kids to let them know it's okay to be "different."

"Hannah's Collections"
Written by Marthe Jocelyn
Illustrated by Marthe Jocelyn
(Dutton, 2000)

A cute book that celebrates the mania to collect and classify. Hannah is big girl -- maybe seven or eight years old (?) -- who has a show and tell project at school, which is to bring in "a collection" to show the other kids. The trouble is, Hannah is a total collector nerd and has to many collections to choose from... The photo-collage artwork really helps this book click -- real pictures of buttons, barrettes, earrings, and popsicle sticks, etc. give you a concrete impression of Hannah's stuff, and you can grow as attached to it as she is. If you want to encourage a budding packrat, this is a fun, playful book that rings true in every way. Plus, Hannah has such cool stuff! (A)

"Violet's Music"
Written by Angela Johnson
Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith
(Dial Books, 2004)

One of the finest books about young people developing their love of music... The heroine here is a girl named Violet, who discovers her musical inclinations while still in the nursery crib in the delivery ward. She spend her entire childhood trying to meet up with like-minded children, but never finds anyone with the same passion... That is, until one day in the park when she meets three other teenagers and forms a band with them. There are several nice touches to this book... The first is the general gist of the plot -- music, yay! I also liked some of the little touches, such as how the author gives equal importance to other interests: when she goes into kindergarten, Violet notes that different kids excel at different things -- some like painting, others read books, etc. I also like how the book never defines what kind of music Violet and her friends play, leaving it to readers to fill in the blanks themselves. Nice artwork, too, full of vibrancy and good cheer. Highly recommended! (A-)

Written by Elisa Kleven
Illustrated by Elisa Kleven
(Tricycle Press, 1989)

Elisa Kleven's first children's book, in which we are introduced to her lively, detail-packed graphic style, as well as to the recurrent character, Ernst the blue crocodile. Ernst is a dreamy, freespirited little boy who lives in a world of willful imagination and endless possibilities... On one special day he asks fanciful questions all day long and goes to sleep and dreams of oceans of fudge and flying to the stars, then wakes up the next morning to have a wonderful birthday... The book introduces Kleven's trademark style, full of kooky curlicues, zillions of dots of color and delightfully distracting details... The story is a little daffy (I like other Kleven books better, this is still good...) but it's also quite charming, especially if you like dreamy kids. One slight problem arises in the reintroduction of the Ernst character a few years later in the book, The Puddle Pail (and later still in 2006's The Wishing Ball...) It's a wonderful book, and it's fun to see Ernst again, except that there's a continuity issue with the introduction of Ernst's older brother, Sol, who was nowhere to been seen in this first story. Was Sol away at summer camp? Military school? Boy Scouts? And why do I get the feeling that I'm the only one worrying about this stuff? Anyway, this is a sweet story, and a nice introduction to a character who later stars in two great books. Worth checking out. (B)

"The Puddle Pail"
Written by Elisa Kleven
Illustrated by Elisa Kleven
(Dutton, 1997)

A sweet story about a young boy with an artistic imagination (Ernst the blue crocodile, who we'd met earlier in Kleven's first book, Ernst...) Ernst goes for a walk with his older, more literal-minded brother, Sol, who is into collecting stuff like feathers and rocks and sea shells. Sol encourages Ernst to start a collection, too, but Ernst wants to collect magical things, like clouds or stars. He finally decides to gather up a bunch of puddles, because he can see so many other things inside their reflections -- a puddle can have flowers or clouds houses in it, as well as being all watery and wet. Ernst gathers different "kinds" of puddles together in one pail, and later uses them to stir his watercolors to life, when he wants to paint the things he saw. A lovely, allegorical celebration of artistic vision, creative thinking as well as the fun of doing things you like, even if other people think they're silly. Nice relationship btween the two brothers, too: Sol doesn't really get what Ernst is up to, but he isn't mean about it, and tries to encourage the younger boy to enjoy himself. Also, more of Kleven's delightfully detailed, kaleidoscopically colorful artwork, with plenty of stuff going on in the margins to capture the eyes of readers of all ages. This is one of my favorite Elisa Kleven books... Highly recommended! (Reissued by Tricycle Press in March '07.) (A+)

"My Hippie Grandmother"
Written by Reeve Lindberg
Illustrated by Abby Carter
(Candlewick, 2003)

The author's grandmother was not a hippie -- although her parents were, in fact, the esteemed Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindberg -- but the cultural divide is easily bridged in this well-written, lighthearted, playful celebration of the life-embracing aspects of hippie culture. A little girl loves hanging out with her fun-loving grandmother, who drives a purple bus, grows organic food, pickets city hall at lunchtime and sings folk songs on the banjo. Her grandmother smiles beatifically and encourages the girl to believe she can do anything she wants to in life, and naturally one of the girl's goals is to grow up just like her Nana. It's a sweet story, laced with wry humor but also respectful of an often-mocked subculture. The artwork is fun, too, as is the writing, which is unusually strong, particularly in the effective, consistent rhyme pattern. Recommended... even if you don't like flowery garlands or the Grateful Dead. (A)

"The Puddle"
Written by David McPhail
Drawn by David McPhail
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998)

A simple, delightful fantasy tale about a small child who asks to go out and play in the rain and has a series of adventures with talking animals -- a turtle, an alligator, etc., -- while sailing a toy boat in a puddle. Not all the animals are nice -- a frog who steals the boat can be seen as a playground bully -- but the tone of the book is light and fanciful, and the story ends well. The text flows beautifully and the story is charming. The real highlight, though, is McPhail's artwork, gentle, elegant watercolors that are reminiscent of Ernest H. Shepard's classic illustrations for A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh books. This one's a winner -- probably one of our permanent Top Ten!

"Stella To Earth!"
Written by Simon Puttock
Illustrated by Philip Hopman
(Clarion, 2005)

A lovely, lively father-daughter book, about an energetic, imaginative young girl named Stella, who dreams of being a space explorer and blasts off for distant planets every night, just before she goes to bed. While she brushes her teeth, puts on her PJs and lands on cratered moons, her dad calls upstairs: "Earth To Stella! Don't forget to wash behind your ears!" One night, though, communication from the home planet is disrupted, and Stella zips back across the galaxy to find dear old, tired dad crashed out on the couch. After she rouses him, they both set off to see the latest planet she's found (and on the way we briefly glimpse the various toys and bedclothes that made up the backdrop for her spacecapades... Stella's a great role model: her room is packed with scientific paraphernalia and such -- and if you're a fan of Spaceman Spiff, you'll dig Stella's universe, too! (A)

"Where Is Ben?"
Written by Marisabina Russo
Illustrated by Marisabina Russo
(Greenwillow, 1990)

A really sweet little story about a game of hide-and-seek that takes place while a mellow mom is trying to bake an apple pie. Her boy, Ben, keeps calling "Mama, come find me!" as she peels the apples, gets the oven ready, etc. A lovely picture of a playful parent-child relationship, with Russo's trademark artwork... A nice book with no dark side to it, and a story that little kids will really enjoy reading... Recommended! (A)

"A Wet And Sandy Day"
Written by Joanne Ryder
Illustrated by Donald Carrick
(Harper & Row, 1977)

A young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, goes out to the nearby beach for a swim, and when a sudden summer rain scares the other beachgoers away, she stays to exult in the moment, letting the warm rain tickle and drench her, while listening to the rain and the waves. A nice, unpretentious celebration of nature and individuality... also a nice, simple picturebook useful for little kids who are learning about "the beach." Not the greatest book ever, but it's got a very sweet feel to it. Recommended.

Written by Ann Herbert Scott
Illustrated by Glo Coalson
(North-South Books, 1994)

I love this book, too. But it's my daughter who really got her mind blown by it... When we first started going out in the stroller all the time, she would wave and say "hi" to everyone, and the post office was a frequent destination (so that Daddy could pick up all his mail for the world-famous website...) Thus, imagine her delight and astonishment when we brought home this charming story of a little girl named Margarita who goes to the post office with her mommy and tries to get the other patrons to say hello to her, only to meet with their indiffernce and lack of awareness. Margarita gets really bummed out that no one notices her (until, of course, somebody does, and she is ecstatic...) and the author's ability to get into the little child's frame of mind is quite lovely... My girl went crazy for this book -- it completely captured her own experience, and she asked for it me to read Hi! to her again and again... -- over a dozen times in a row -- the first time she ever had such a strong reaction to a book. Great story, and the artwork perfectly supports the text. Margarita emerges as one of the most delightful, enthusiastic characters you'll come across inside a picturebook for some time to come. Like many great children's books, this one is, sadly, out of print. It's worth tracking down a copy, though -- you'll be glad you did.

"What James Likes Best"
Written by Amy Schwartz
Illustrated by Amy Schwartz
(Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 2003)

A sweet book with a unique rhythm, telling four little stories about four little adventures that a little toddler-aged boy named James has with his mommy and daddy... They take the bus to visit a friend with twins; they take a taxi over to grandma's house and play all day with Grandma and Auntie; they rent a car and go to the county fair; and finally they walk next door for a playdate with Angela, a nice girl with fun toys. In each episode, James notices little things, and narrates the action in a simple, stripped down fashion, and when each story is done, he looks back and tries to decide what the most fun thing that day was: the green snake, the cotton candy, or the miniature steam train? Schwartz hits just the right notes to make this believable and times each tale perfectly: you'll be drawn in each time you read it, and small children will hear their own voices reflected in James's innocent observations. Nicely done! (B+)

"Emmett's Pig"
Written by Mary Stolz
Illustrated by Garth Williams
(Harper Collins, 1959)

A sweet story about a city kid who loves pigs and desperately wants to own a real one (for some kids, it's ponies, for Emmett, it's pigs...) His parents explain that they can't have a pig in their apartment, and they also can't move to a farm, but they come up with a compromise when they take their son out to a farm where the owners have set a piglet aside for Emmett to own. After he goes back home, the boy writes letters to his pig and sends money for treats, and dreams of the day when he can go back to visit the pig again. Of course, the story sidesteps the realities of animal husbandry, but if you don't dwell on that aspect, this is a lovely book. Although it's an early reader/chapter book, the plot is very clear and direct, as is the text. The lovely artwork from Garth Williams helps a lot as well. A nice look at the kinds of passions and fixations little kids can have, and creative, loving ways to address them. Recommended!

"Suki's Kimono"
Written by Chieri Uegaki
Illustrated by Stphane Jorisch
(Kids Can Press, 2003)

A young Japanese-American girl (well, Japanese-Canadian, actually...) wants to go to the first day of school wearing a formal, traditional kimono that her grandmother bought her. Her sisters mock Suki and warn her that the other kids will tease her and think she's weird. Suki wears the kimono anyway, and though a lot of kids do make fun of her, the children in her homeroom class are won over when Suki explains why the kimono means so much to her and shows them a Japanese folk dance that she learned at a summertime cultural festival. This book wears its multi-cultural message on its sleeve, but the obviousness of it doesn't make a dent in the sweet, charming story (which is buoyed by gorgeous, captivating artwork)... All the messages here -- embracing one's cultural roots, willing to not be "cool", and following your own individual interests and a reverence for things that are old or old-fashioned -- all ring true for me. Maybe for you as well? At any rate, Suki can hang out at our house any time... I like that kid! (A)

"Is Susan Here?"
Written by Janice May Udry
Illustrated by Karen Gundersheimer
(Harper Collins, 1962/1993)

A playful, imaginative little girl spends the whole day pretending to be different animals -- a tiger, a chicken, a monkey, a bear -- and saying "Where is Susan?" to her parents. They play along, and let the "animals" do all of Susan's chores until, at last, at bedtime, Susan returns. A cute story about fantasy and play, which shows how parents can join in the fun, too. Maybe not the most magical or technically skillful of children's books, but a good story that rings true and radiates warmth and love. Worth checking out! (B+)

"Sand Castle"
Written by Brenda Shannon Yee
Illustrated by Thea Kliros
(Greenwillow, 1999)

Five young children (ages 5-8?) meet on the beach and build an enormous sand castle, complete with a moat, a wall, a canal to the water and a big road leading to the gate. Each kid builds their own part, and by cooperating, they are able to make something bigger than any of them could have made alone. Then, when the day was done, and their parents called them to go home, what next? Well, they stomped the castle into oblivion, of course! This is a very nice book about sharing and cooperation, with nice, realistic pictures. The only part I didn't like was how the first girl, Jen, who started the project, greets all the other children by saying this is "my castle," even though they've all been working on it together for a while. Minor point, though, in an otherwise nice book.

"Knuffle Bunny - A Cautionary Tale"
Written by Mo Willems
Illustrated by Mo Willems
(Hyperion, 2004)

We LOVE this book!! This is a wonderful story that explores the difficulties of communication with a pre-verbal child. A little girl named Trixie starts to cry when she loses her stuffed animal and grows frustrated when she can't explain to her father what has happened. Her father, who hadn't noticed that the bunny was missing, tries to calm her down by talking about other things, which frustrates the little girl even more. The psychology of the book is very realistic and simple: this is exactly the kind of thing that happens to small children before they can talk, and the book written as much for the parents as it is for the kids. (My child points and smiles with satisfaction at the panel where the father realizes the mistake he's made, and Trixie has an I-told-you-so look on her face. For my part, I try not to lose things... ever! :-) It's also nice that the book is set in an urban environment (Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY)... A book that shows a walk to the laundromat may be a welcome change of pace for parents who live in cities and wonder when the heck they are ever going to get the chance to see a bunch of barnyard animals... In short, the appeal of this book is in understanding and validating the experience of children at a time in their lives when their voices are hard to hear. Highly recommended. (A++)

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