Books are magical in general, sure, but there is a special sort of magic packed in the pages of children’s books, where art and poetry and prose swirl together in the unfettered imagination of youth, where the line between fantasy and reality is a wide watercolor swath to splash about in. There is no better gift.
And year after year wonderful new offerings from contemporary authors and illustrators hold their own against beloved classics, tempting us to dive in from the bookstore shelves. Here are a few of this year’s best bets.
For a stunning bit of seasonal mischief, check out Red Sled from author-illustrator Lita Judge (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99). In the exuberant, almost wordless tale, woodland animals take a child’s sled, left outside, for a whirlwind nighttime ride. The expressive animals in Judge’s bold pencil and watercolor illustrations punctuate the still panoramas with a series of “Whoops” and “Alley-oops” that are a delight to read aloud.
Walter Wick’s award-winning Can You See What I See Series has a new addition with Can You See What I See: Toyland Express (Cartwheel Books, $13.99). Wicks’ spectacular photographs—some of which were recently on display at Canajoharie’s Arkell Museum—are accompanied by rhyming seek-and-find picture puzzles, follows an unpainted wooden train and other toys from the toymakers workshop into the grand world of the toyshop, to birthday party, to playroom, attic and beyond. As always, Wick’s puzzles engage eagle-eye readers, but the exquisitely detailed images and beautiful story are treat enough in themselves.
One of our absolute favorites for young readers and pre-readers this year for its perfect simplicity is Press Here ($14.99, Chronicle Books), from French designer Hervé Tullet, (whose minimalist Game of . . . book series is equally pure and innovative). Press Here takes the seemingly instinctual childhood urge to press buttons, and makes absolute magic with it—no batteries required. Start by pressing the yellow dot on the cover, then turn the page and follow the instructions: Tilt the book, shake the pages, tap five times. The result is an entirely print-and-paper sort of interactivity that challenges the imagination in surprisingly magical ways.
Millions of people are already in love with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, the star of the similarly titled animated short from Saturday Night Live alum Jenny Slate and author-animator Dean Fleischer. The big world of the endearing little shell with shoes and one googly eye became a viral Internet sensation, but Marcel is no passing meme. Marcel has now become the star of a quirky picture book, which was storyboarded by the authors, shot by a c cinematographer David Erickson and, finally, rendered in brilliant photorealistic oils by Amy Lind. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me (Razorbill, $18.99) is arguably even more charming and inspired than the source, and kids and adults love the awkward, imaginative shell, whose answer to his own question, “Guess why I smile all the time,” is simply, “Because it’s worth it.”
For the older set, Wonderstruck (Scholastic, $29.99) is the latest offering from Caldacott Award-winning, genre-twisting author-illustrator Brian Selznick. Like in his earlier The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the cinematic adaptation of which is currently wowing moviegoers, Selznick has revolutionized storytelling with a magical intermingling of text and pictures, which serve, not to only illustrate the story, but to be part of the storytelling itself. Wonderstruck presents the tales of two characters set 50 years apart. Ben’s story is told in words, Rose’s in pictures, and the two intertwine effortlessly and affectingly through 600 pages in what promises to be another classic from the truly visionary Selznick.
In another curious blend of illustration and story, The Myserious Benedict Society is at it again, with The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict's Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums (Little Brown, $12.99), the puzzling companion to the best-selling series from Trenton Lee Stewart and Diana Sudyka. But this one is chockablock mindbending puzzles, brainteasers and riddles that will put you to the test along with your favorite Society members.
And as a true classic, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, acclaimed author Leonard Marcus has released the beautiful The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth (Knoph, $29.99), which weaves interviews with the author and illustrator, excerpts from Juster’s notes, literary commentary and historical tidbits unobtrusively but illuminatingly throughout the beloved story. Milo’s adventures into the Lands Beyond represent youth fiction at its best, an instant and enduring classic. The anniversary edition honors the original and offers new morsels for fans of all ages to appreciate.