For Young Readers

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A miscellany of titles from 2006 that deserve a salute before the year closes:

When Santa Fell to Earth, by Cornelia Funke, translated by Oliver G. Latsch (Chicken House/Scholastic, $15.99; ages 9-12). Germany's bestselling children's author takes a bunch of traditional Christmas ingredients -- elves, angels, reindeer, marzipan, snow, nutcrackers, etc. -- and tosses them together with fantasy, suspense, humor and lots of derring-do in this delightful tale of a Santa and two kids foiling a plot to steal the holiday.

Startled by His Furry Shorts, by Louise Rennison (HarperTempest, $16.99; ages 12-up). More "vair vair funny" diary confessions from English teenager Georgia Nicholson, on the "rack of love" and popping in and out of the "oven of pain" and the "cake shop of aggers" -- that is, when she's not doing a magnifico turn as MacDuff in the school production of Billy Shakespeare's "MacUseless" ("Backstage is a nightmare of tights").

The Loud Silence of Francine Green, by Karen Cushman (Clarion, $16; ages 10-14). L.A., 1949. Francine is a "pink and freckled" 13-year-old at All Saints School for Girls, who keeps her profile low and her mind on Montgomery Clift until iconoclastic Sophie Bowman arrives and cracks open a door into a world that also includes the bomb, communists and the FBI.

Larklight, by

Philip Reeve (Bloomsbury, $16.95; ages 10-up). Art Mumby and his prim sister, Myrtle, live with their father in "a shapeless, ramshackle, drafty" old house called Larklight, which is actually a spaceship, "spinning along on its remote orbit out in the deeps beyond the moon." The plot requirements of the British Victorian fantasy are so expertly channeled here by Reeve that Art and Myrtle will end up traveling to Saturn's rings and back before they can save the universe from the inevitable evil.

Spirits That Walk in Shadow, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Viking, $17.99; ages 12-up). Kim and Jaimie are freshmen college roommates. But that's where normal ends in this wildly inventive and surprisingly playful sci fi thriller. Jaimie hails from the magical world of "Outside," and Kim is depressed -- in a pretty abnormal way. Jaimie and her relatives figure out that someone, or something, is literally feeding off Kim's misery.

Jackson Jones and the Curse of the Outlaw Rose (Delacorte, $14.95; ages 8-12) completes a distinctive mystery trilogy, set in an urban community garden, by local author Mary Quattlebaum. In this one, 10-year-old Jackson and his bud Reuben take on a ghost that haunts an antique rose. In a graveyard. It's heaps of fun, but beware: It could also spark some serious interest in gardening, wildlife and an unusual strand of history.

Picture Books

Alpha Oops! The Day Z Went First, by Alethea Kontis, illustrated by Bob Kolar (Candlewick, $15.99; ages 4-8). This is perhaps the most imaginative alphabet book since Chris Van Allsburg's The Z Was Zapped. Here, though, the letter Z stands up for his rights -- "Zebra and I are SICK of this last-in-line stuff -- and demands an alphabet in reverse. A most satisfying chaos ensues as the letters get totally confused, steal extra turns and even take bathroom breaks.

Singing Shijimi Clams, by Naomi Kojima (Kane/Miller, $15.95; ages 4-8). A "mean and feisty witch" and her hungry cat bring home some clams to add to their miso soup. But before she pops them in the pot, the witch pauses. "They were asleep and snoring. Their shells were opened slightly, and their little bodies moved contentedly." The stage is set for a huge change of heart. Kojima's childlike line drawings are priceless.

The South Overlook Oaks, a debut effort by local author John Reardon (Seven Locks, $16.95; ages 6-10), is really pitched more to middle readers, although Chris Youngbluth contributes nice pencil drawings. Set on South Overlook Drive in Alexandria's verdant Beverly Hills neighborhood, it stars the street's venerable oak trees -- notably Silver Leaf Oak, the narrator -- because "Oaks are smartest, People next, and maybe Owls or Foxes in third place."

Ninety-Three in My Family, by Erica S. Perl (Abrams, $15.95; ages 4-8). Asked by his teacher how many people he lives with, our young narrator counts off 27 owls, 10 cats, 11 dogs, a pygmy hippo and eight blue speckled frogs. Oh, and Mommy and Daddy, his sister's gerbil and six goldfish. And of course, there's more, because that only adds up to 62. Mike Lester's zany illustrations are the icing on the cake of this engaging counting book by another Washington author.

-- Elizabeth Ward (

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