2004 Holiday Gift Guide








crime fiction


art & culture









The Blue Ribbon Day
by Katie Couric
illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Published by Doubleday
28 pages, 2004

When did being one of the best known television news anchors in the world become a desired trait for potential authors of bestselling books for children? One might suppose that this happened when parents -- rather than children -- began buying picture books. Despite all the possibilities for cynicism -- another celebrity author writing kid's books? -- Couric's latest effort, The Blue Ribbon Day, is an enjoyable book for young children. Part of this is Couric's snappy prose, but Marjorie Priceman's bright and energetic illustrations are part of the equation. Young readers that enjoyed Couric's first children's book, The Brand New Kid, will be glad to see some familiar characters in The Blue Ribbon Day, namely Ellie McSnelly and Carrie O'Toole. This time the girls try out for the soccer team but, when only one of them makes the team, they have to deal with the disappointment. -- Sienna Powers

Gross Universe: Your Guide to All Disgusting Things Under the Sun
by Jeff Szpirglas
illustrated by Michael Cho
Published by Maple Tree Press
64 pages, 2004

Children fall into two categories: those that find disgusting things incredibly fun and those that find disgusting things too disgusting to contemplate. It would be a gross (heh, heh) generalization to say that the former category is generally made up of boys, while girls tend to fall into the latter, making another case for nurture over nature. Either way, if you have a kid that loves gross things, you already know about it and are probably already planning on buying a copy of Gross Universe by Jeff Szpirglas. "Face it," Szpirglas writes in a brief introduction, "I'm gross. You're gross. And the world we live in? Definitely gross. It's best just to learn as much about it as you can. That way you can disgust your family with these facts at the dinner table." Szpirglas takes his readers on a tour of mostly fairly commonplace things that are unexpectedly gross. Gross things about teardrops and bloodshot eyes, the bacteria that make teeth rot, where stunk stench comes from, situations where urine can be useful and so on. The information is intelligently -- and interestingly -- imparted and Michael Cho's colorful and quirky illustrations add just the right touch. A terrific addition to your little gross-out's holiday haul.

Hidden Depths: Amazing Underwater Discoveries
by Tina Holdcroft
Published by Annick Press
32 pages, 2004

Since water covers two-thirds of our planet it shouldn't be a surprise that there are a lot of secrets hiding in the depths. With jaunty words and humorous illustrations, Tina Holdcroft looks at 10 of these hidden secrets in Hidden Depths: Amazing Underwater Discoveries. Sunken spacecrafts and cities, a terrifying ancient fish, the lost lighthouse at Alexandria and more are looked at in a cheerful, cartoonish style that crackles with excitement and fun.

Leon's Song
by Stephanie Simpson McLellan
illustrated by Diana Bonder
Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
32 pages, 2004

The children's picture book is an artform that invites various types of approach. It's not uncommon to see books aimed at small children that offer up very little in the way of story, but dazzle with brilliant artwork and just a few carefully chosen words. While that type can be wonderful, there's something just a little more special about a 32-page book that not only delivers gorgeous artwork, but manages also a fairly involved story with characters you can care about and even some plot. Leon's Song is like that. Stephanie Simpson McLellan's full-sized tale of an old frog named Leon and his rediscovery of himself is harnessed alongside world class illustrations by award-winning artist Dianna Bonder. Together they've created a tiny epic worthy of the most enthusiastic little readers.

Monsieur Saguette and His Baguette
by Frank Asch
Published by Kids Can Press
32 pages, 2004

It all begins when Monsieur Saguette makes himself a pot of hot carrot soup then discovers he has no bread to go with it. "What a nuisance!" he exclaims, then takes himself off to the bakery to get a baguette to go with his soup. Procuring the bread is no difficulty. However, getting his bread safely home again turns out to be a challenge. First he meets a little girl who is crying because her cat has lodged himself in a tree. Monsieur Saguette craftily holds his baguette so that the cat can climb down to safety. As he continues on his way home, he sees that an alligator that has escaped from the zoo is about to consume a baby. Monsieur Saguette heroically lodges his baguette between the alligator's jaws, the baby is whisked away and the alligator, neutralized, can be taken back to the zoo. As he continues his walk more things happen. All things that Monsieur Saguette can fortunately stop due the intelligent wielding of his baguette. He finally does make it home -- the baguette miraculously intact -- and finally gets to enjoy his soup and bread. The author and illustrator of more than 60 books for children, Frank Aschs' drawings here are loose and charming. With its mildly adventurous story and comforting repetition, Monsieur Saguette and His Baguette is the type of book young children enjoy hearing again and again.

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog
by Mo Willems
Published by Hyperion
40 pages, 2004

If Mo Willems seems to do a very good job of telling a story without a lot of words, he comes by the ability honestly. Willems spent nine years as a scriptwriter and animator on Sesame Street and has over 100 short films and television half-hours to his credit and has done a lot of other things in mediums that rely heavily on visual clues and not so much, necessarily, on dialog. The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog follows Willems' very successful literary debut, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!Both books feature primitively charming illustrations, drawn by Willems, that would appeal to especially young children. This time out, Pigeon, as the title suggests, finds a hot dog and, before he has a chance to take even a bite, a duckling appears and tries to finagle the hot dog from our hero.

Play Ball!
by Carol Matas
Published by Key Porter Books
128 pages, 2004

Readers that met Rosie Lepidus in last year's Gotcha!: Rosie in New York City will be pleased to see her back in Play Ball! Carol Matas' latest historical adventure. This time 11-year-old Rosie and her family have just moved to Chicago. Rosie is having a hard time making friends and fitting in. The story is set in 1910, but it seems that some things never change. What Rosie really wants to do is play baseball, something her brothers have no doubt she can do, but that everyone else thinks is pretty bizarre. Author Matas has written over 30 books for young adults, but is best known for her Holocaust novels which include Lisa and Jesper. Her subject matter here is quite different, but fans will recognize her intelligent style and subtle wit. -- Monica Stark

Saving Samantha: A True Story
by Robbyn Smith van Frankenhuyzen
illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen
Published by Sleeping Bear Press
48 pages, 2004

One day when Robbyn is out walking her dog, Myles, she comes across a very young fox stuck in a leghold trap. Robbyn frees the fox and takes it home, setting its broken leg and putting it in a small cage in the kitchen. Robbyn calls the young fox Samantha and, before very long, Sam is hobbling around the kitchen exploring every corner, while Myles the dog watches like a concerned uncle. The young fox grows and heals and her world widens. Gradually, she spends less and less time at Robbyn's farm and more time in the nearby countryside. She disappears for longer and longer stretches of time until months pass and she doesn't return at all. In the winter, Robbyn sees Samantha at a distance with her new mate and, in the spring, with a litter of kits of her own. Saving Samantha is intricately and carefully told. In just 40 pages, husband-and-wife author and illustrators Robbyn Smith van Frankenhuyzen and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen manage to tell, in words and pictures, a surprisingly rich tale that satisfies on every level. The young rescued animal. The successful integration with the family. The gradual reintroduction to the wild. The wild animal's return to the life she was intended for. Saving Samantha is a gentle story of nature and its place in the human world, illustrated with beautiful wildlife art. -- Monica Stark

Smoke: A Wolf's Story
by Melanie Jane Banner
Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
159 pages, 2004

Twelve-year-old Zan finds an abandoned puppy and brings him home. His parents forbid him keeping the pup. Zan keeps the pup anyway, names the young canine Smoke and hides him in his room. Obviously, this is not the best plan, especially when said dog grows up to a be a wolf. When Zan's parents find out that there's a nearly full-grown wolf living in their house they are so not amused and want Smoke gone instantly. Zan is afraid of what might happen to his beloved pet and runs away, taking Smoke with him. Alone on the streets of London, Zan and Smoke protect each other but it's a losing battle: wolves and boys with homes aren't meant to live on the streets. I won't give away author Banner's exciting conclusion, except to say that it's a satisfying one. And the right one: there are places that are appropriate for wolves and private homes aren't among them. Yet Zan's part in this isn't trivialized, nor is the relationship between the young human and his canine ward.

Tooga: The Story of A Polar Bear
by Shirley Woods
Illustrated by Muriel Wood
Published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside
96 pages, 2004

Stories told from an animal's perspective can either be wonderfully engaging or rapidly tiresome. Shirley Woods manages to pull it off beautifully in Tooga: The Story of A Polar Bear. To read it is to realize that this particular book couldn't be told from any other place. The animals here don't talk to one another: they don't have spoken conversations. Rather they interact as you'd expect bears to interact and their observations of the world around them aren't out of keeping with what we expect from bearish behavior. As the story opens, a female polar bear named Ursa is looking for a suitable place to hole up in order to give birth. The title's Tooga and his sister Apoon are born shortly thereafter, and we follow the little ursine family through the first two years of the young bears' lives. At two, Tooga is separated from his mother and sister, something that -- since he's a bear -- doesn't concern him too much. What's of more concern is when he's trapped on an ice flow and carried south to an area more populated by humans. Tooga has a few near misses but eventually finds his way back to roughly the same area he grew up in. This isn't a particularly exciting story: Woods hasn't embellished much beyond fact. For all of that, though, it's an interesting tale. Young environmentalists will enjoy it. -- Monica Stark

Who Are You?: Why You Look, Feel and Act the Way You Do
by Sylvia Funston
Published by Maple Tree Press
64 pages, 2004

Anyone who has spent any time around kids knows that the world revolves around them. It's just how they're made and it's the way it's supposed to be: the focus of their young worlds have been demonstrated to be... them. That being the case Who Are You? should be a great hit with nine-to-13-years olds because it's all about... them. Who Are You? looks at handwriting, dreams, intelligence, eating and a lot of other things, all in relation to how these things effect -- and are affected by -- the young reader. Author Funston is a science writer who here successfully takes many disparate facts and makes them personal. A fun and educational book.


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2004 Holiday Gift Guide