Whether you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift or simply seeking to provide an alternative to video games, children’s books are always a great way to engage both mind and imagination.
Reaching beyond the classics, the staff at Learning Liftoff has compiled this selection of recent releases, based on 2015 book awards (including Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King), 2015 bestseller lists, and reader reviews.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Age range: 3–8 Years
This book won the Caldecott Medal for excellence. “A charming, imaginative story that taps into the common childhood experience of having an imaginary friend,” writes CommonSense.org. Overlooked time and time again on a far-away island, an imaginary friend waits for his turn to be imagined by a real child. Upon journeying to the real world and a bustling city, he finds his match and is given his name: Beekle. The story is about imagination, finding friendship, and finding the right place in life. The author’s mixed-media illustrations convey a child’s view of the journey and are actually more captivating than the depth of the story.
The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt
Age range: 3–7 Years
Voted number one in the Goodreads Choice Awards as the best-illustrated children’s book, this is a funny and kid-friendly tale of misplaced crayons begging to come home to their crayon box. The colorful bunch includes Maroon (lost under sofa cushions and broken in two), Turquoise (stuck to socks in the dryer), and Pea Green (who ran away because no kid truly likes peas). “All very clever and loads of fun,” according to CommonSenseMedia.org. Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, this is a companion book to the 2013 bestseller The Day the Crayons Quit!
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant
Age range: 7–13 Years
This is a rare biography that young readers truly will enjoy. Peter Roget loved making lists of just the right words to express his thoughts. Eventually, those lists developed into one of the most universally used reference books, the thesaurus. Watercolor illustrations by Melissa Sweet combine with vintage images throughout. The notes and supplemental resources in the back of the book are likely to invite repeat investigations. This book, which revels in the joy of learning and the power of words, received Caldecott Honors as well as the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for excellence in informational books and 2015 Orbis Pictus honors for non-fiction.
Age range: 4–7 Years
Second among Goodreads voters for best-illustrated children’s book, the artwork of Jonathan Voss brings to life the story of the real bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. Turns out the original Winnie was bought at a train station by a World War I soldier and went on to become his regiment’s mascot. When the soldier was dispatched to battle in France, Winnie (short for Winnipeg) was assigned to the London Zoo, where it ended up in the hands of Christopher Robin. Who knew? “Cute, not saccharine, and pleasing to boot, this is one story-behind-the-story kids will definitely appreciate,” according to School Library Journal.
Age range: 6–11 Years
A bilingual offering with photographs by Tim O’Meara, this book received Caldecott Honors and the Pura Belpré Award for illustration among works celebrating the Latin experience. It actually celebrates the life and art of Frida Kahlo, a 20th-century Mexican artist who created 55 self-portraits among her 143 notable paintings. The artist suffered from polio, was in a horrific auto accident, and died at age 47, but this tribute lives on in a book that is short on words but long on dynamic artistry.
Age range: 8–older
As a young girl in Paris, Dounia was hidden from the Nazis by neighbors and friends when her parents were sent to concentration camps; she survived to tell the story to her grandchild, offering lessons of heroism, healing, and hope in this graphic novel. This book, illustrated by Marc Lizano, received Batchelder Award honors in the category of books originally published outside the U.S. in a language other than English. It was translated from French by Alexis Siegel.
Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland
Age range: 6–11 Years
An African-American dancer encourages a young dancer to live her stage dreams. Illustrated by Christopher Myers, the book features full-color collages that capture the beauty and drama of the Firebird ballet. This picture book is ideal for aspiring ballerinas, stressing the importance of hard work, dedication, and self-confidence.
Age range: 3–6 Years
Essentially a picture book with a country mouse/city mouse vibe, the nursery and kindergarten set will love the illustrations in this book which received Caldecott Honors. “Nana” turns out to be a cool and active grandma, taking her grandson on a tour of the big city. When the boy is overwhelmed by the city’s sights and sounds, Grandma has the solution: a special cape. It’s an excellent book to read aloud to young children.
Age range: 5–10 Years
Beautifully illustrated by Mary GrandPré, this Caldecott Honor book tells of Wassily Kandinsky, who as a young child did everything properly—from practicing the piano to studying math to the way he sat in his chair. But, when sent to art class, Kandinsky opened the paint box and began mixing his colors into vibrant combinations that he could interpret as sounds. Kandinsky went on to become a ground-breaking abstract artist, treating his colors as sounds from his noisy paint box.
Age range: 8–older
Author and illustrator CeCe Bell chronicles her loss of hearing to meningitis at age four and her subsequent experience with a powerful but cumbersome hearing aid. Humor and the creation of her own make-believe hero, “El Deafo,” help Bell deal with her day-to-day life if not her insecurities. The book, which received a Newbery Honor, offers lessons in social awareness, compassion for those with disabilities, and finding friends. CommonSenseMedia.org notes that in two scenes, adults drink wine and smoke cigarettes.
The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena: Nicely illustrated by Christian Robinson. In this book for young readers, an African-American grandma imparts her wisdom on a crosstown bus trip from church to soup kitchen.
You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang: Winner of the Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) Award for excellence in a book for beginning readers, this book boasts fun illustrations by Christopher Weyant, simple text, and a lesson about size and perspective. It’s a quick read with friendly characters and humor that parents can enjoy reading aloud and discussing.
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley: A fifth grader, faced with the impending death of his grandfather/guardian, turns to the circus as a source of faith, hope, and magic.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh: When their child is assigned to a segregated school for Mexicans instead of their local public school, a family fights back, seven years before the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell: Illustrations by Christian Robinson helped this story of performer and civil rights advocate Baker win multiple honors, including a Coretta Scott King Book Award and a Sibert Informational Book honor.
Be sure to read our other reviews of children’s books and find more gift ideas on Learning Liftoff!