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13 littlke blue envelopes

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

HarperCollins; September 2006; 352 pp.;$8.99 PA


Core Audience: Teen girls ages 14+ 

Strengths: Coming of age novel with a strong female lead and an offbeat, mysterious premise 

When 17 year-old Ginny Blackstone receives an illustrated blue envelope with $1,000 cash and directions to buy a backpack and a plane ticket, it isn’t the unusual request that surprises her. Nor is it the list of rules:

  • 1) Bring only what fits in the backpack
  • 2) No phrase books, guidebooks or foreign language aids
  • 3) No extra money
  • 4) No electronic crutches—no cell phone, laptop, no music, no camera. No calling home, and no e-mail.

None of that catches her off-guard because her aunt Peg, who sent the blue envelope, has a reputation for being artistic and a little unpredictable. She’s been abroad for several years, and she has always promised to be there for Ginny as she grows up— a kind of guiding light. This is just the kind of thing she would do. 

What does surprise her is that this happens after her aunt is dead. 

When Ginny follows the directions and shows up as requested at the 4th Noodle restaurant in New York with a full backpack and her ticket to London, she is handed a package with twelve more envelopes and the adventure of a lifetime. Retracing her aunt’s final trip through Europe, and staying with her contacts and friends, Ginny embarks on a journey to uncover the missing period of her aunt’s life, and on the way discover herself in the process. Ginny Blackstone will never be the same. 

Maureen Johnson has written one of the most original teen novels I’ve read in a long time. In a field crowded with heavy stories about abuse, cancer, and other depressing stuff on one end, and morally questionable series titles full of bad behavior and shopping on the other, Ginny Blackstone’s adventure is a breath of fresh air. Although Ginny does have to come to terms with Peg’s death during the course of the story, the focus here is on living; on grabbing life by the horns and not letting go. At once a coming of age novel and a celebration of taking a blind leap, this novel is a great example of the fact that teen fiction doesn’t need to be full of the worst of human behavior to be compelling to its reader. Ginny’s adventure reminds me of nothing so much as a beloved childhood favorite, E.L. Koningsburg’s FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. The mystery, the adventure, the offbeat unpredictability, and the authenticity of voice are all here. We should all hope to have such a spirited adventure one day.  

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Bonus: Check out author Maureen Johnson’s entertaining author page and check out her 13 travel tips among other fun stuff

Rated: 8.75

Order this book from your local independent bookstore 


Tarde de invierno 2

Tarde de invierno/Winter Afternoon by Jorge Elias Lujan, illustrated by Mandana Sadat

Groundwood Books; September 2006; 32 pp.;$16.95 HC


Core Audience: Children ages 2-6; Bilingual book lovers

Strengths: Lovely jewel-like illustrations, evocative story about the endlessness of waiting

A little girl says goodbye, and then waits at the window for her mother to return. While she waits, she entertains herself with different views and observations of the wintry day outside. This book perfectly captures what happens to time when we are hopefully longing for something to happen. Each moment becomes its own universe full of detail, like the patterns of frost on the windowpane, and the subtle sounds of the surrounding environment.

Mandana Sadat’s rich illustrations make good use of positive and negative space, leaving plenty of white on each page to draw they eye to the details of the artwork which explore interesting abstract perspectives and unexpected shifts in scale. The book is deeply evocative and poetic, and the art and the language perfectly complement each other without being redundant. With text in both Spanish and English together on the same page, this book is one of those rare gems that encourage new observations with each re-reading. The ending of the book is deeply satisfying, as the waiting comes to a fruitful end.

This book is published by a smaller press, so you may have to work harder to find it, but I promise you it is worth it. It will become a treasured favorite.

Rated: 9.5

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Many thanks to the excellent bloggers at KIDS LIT, CHICKEN SPAGHETTI, BOOKSHELVES OF DOOM, JEN ROBINSON’S BOOK PAGE, and A FUSE 8 PRODUCTION for their kind words on the pixie stix project this week. One of the things I like about working with children’s books is that there are so many excellent people in the industry with thoughtful things to say. Rock on, bloggers!

Christmas balls

Okay, let me just say right up front that I am a purist when it comes to Christmas books.

Every year the fall catalogs arrive from publishers packed with hundreds of brand new children’s titles for the holidays, and pretty soon my eyes start to glaze over and I need an insulin shot. Not to say that there aren’t a few gems in there, but man, they are hard to find.

This year–maybe because I’ve got a baby on the way–I’m spending a lot of time parsing the meaning of the holiday and what I want for it to be.

I want wonder.
I want genuine gestures of caring.
I want a pony. (Just kidding.)

Growing up in New England, Christmas is a nostalgic holiday, and I always find myself returning to books that evoke the best parts of it….the snow, the smell of good food, and the comfort of footie pajamas that zip up the front. For me, great books at Christmas are books that capture these qualities of familiarity, warmth, and seasonal ritual.

So here are three favorites–one new, one older, one very old– that get at the essence of what Christmas is in my neck of the woods.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday.

Sabuda Xmas

CHRISTMAS POP UP by Robert Sabuda
0439845688; Orchard Books; October 2006; $12.99 mini HC

Speaking of little gems, this petite paper wonder from the engineering genius who brought us THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, WINTERS TALE, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CHRISTMAS ALPHABET is every bit as wonderful as its larger holiday cousins, but at a size that is perfect for little hands and stockings. Each letter of the word Christmas is illustrated on a page with an elegant little white pop-up on a color ground. I love Sabuda’s work for its design brilliance, and I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of his books. His Christmas titles perfectly capture the sense of enchantment we all want at the holidays. The closest thing to modern sculpture you will find in the pages of a book.

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Bonus: Check out Mr. Sabuda’s wonderful webpage and try your hand at making your own pop-ups.

Also, catch Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart’s visit on the Today Show this week.

Stopping by the Woods

STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
0525467343; Dutton; September 2001; $16.99 HC

This beautiful children’s picture book edition of the Robert Frost poem, first published in 1978, perfectly captures the hush of snow blanketing the woods in a New England blizzard. New Hampshire illustrator Susan Jeffers’s luminous illustrations lend warmth to the poem and fill in the spare text with additional story elements, like feeding the birds and visiting family, that are comforting to young readers. It’s the perfect invitation to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of the season. The beautiful vellum cover and touches of additional color in small details of the pictures make this a seasonal book to be treasured year after year.


Twas the night

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Clement Clark Moore, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
0395643740; Houghton Mifflin; October 1992; $5.95 PA

Nothing says Christmas like the granddaddy of all holiday poems. There are many, many editions of this classic available, but this is my all-time favorite. Originally published in 1912, this book has the loveliest illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, a groundbreaking illustrator from the early part of the century, and a text design that feels like it just rolled off a letterpress. The best part? It’s so unabashedly red.


A note about editions: Houghton Mifflin just re-issued this book in 2005 with a different cover. If you really prefer the red one like me, you may have to look for it used.

Order this book from your local independent bookstore.

What the Moon Saw

What the Moon Saw, by Laura Resau

Random House; September 2006; 272 pp.; $15.95 HC


Core Audience: Girls 10-14; Readers interested in Latin American stories

Strengths: Lovely lyrical writing; Good use of magical realism

Although her name means “clear moon” in Spanish, fourteen year-old Clara Luna feels nothing but muddy and confused on the inside. She lives in a suburb of Baltimore, and although she has everything she needs—a great happy life, parents she adores, lots of cool clothes and gear—nothing in her life seems to make sense to her anymore. She finds herself sneaking out at night to float in a nearby stream and gaze at the moon. She thinks she might be going a tiny bit crazy.

Then one day, near the start of summer vacation, she gets a letter from her grandparents whom she has never met, inviting her to spend the summer with them in the remote highlands of Mexico. Her father, who came to the US as an illegal alien and who later married her Mom and became a citizen, has never been back to his tiny home village. He has also never really talked about his life before coming to the US, but something in Clara is pulling her along. She embarks on a long journey—of distance, self-discovery, and cultural awakening. What she finds in Mexico, in addition to her grandparents and a very different life, is her true self.

Full of lush, poetic writing, and an authentic adolescent voice, this novel will be a wonderful exploration for any girl who feels out of place in her own skin. I particularly loved the relationship between Clara and her grandmother, as the narrative alternated between the present and the past once Clara reaches Mexico. This intergenerational perspective sheds light on Clara’s emotional turmoil, and links the women together in a chain of strength and history. Although a great piece of writing about the Latina experience, this novel should not be recommended only to Latina readers. Every girl will find something that resonates in this novel about life, family, adventure, and self-discovery.

Rated: 8.75

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365 Penguins

365 Penguins, by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet

Harry Abrams; November 2006; 48 pp; $17.95 HC


Core Audience: Children 4-8; Lovers of retro and modern design; Penguin huggers

Strengths: Beautiful bold artwork, great concept, hysterical writing, large trim size

Imagine one day that the mailman shows up and delivers to you a penguin with a note attached that says “I’m number 1”. It would beg the obvious question, “Number 1 of what?” The answer is 1 out of 365.

Penguins that is.

So begins the hysterical tale of one family who must figure out what to do when a penguin a day is delivered to their house for a whole year. The first one is cute, and then the next few are interesting, but it’s not long before the whole house descends into smelly chaos. Where to put them? What to feed them? How to keep track of them? It’s an organizational nightmare.

Combining bold illustration with counting, rhyming, and plenty of visual play, this book is a treat from start to finish. Joëlle Jolivet’s artwork makes good use of the penguins’ naturally graphic physique, and the restrained palette of black, orange, and white with punches of blue give the whole book an appealing retro flair. Kids will love the exuberance of the illustrations and the math puzzles among the silly slapstick. The over-sized trim size of the book (14.3 x 11.3) will prevent you from putting it in all but the biggest bookshelf, but that’s not such a hardship since it will look just as good on your coffee table.

Listen to Daniel Pinkwater’s review of this book on NPR from 12/16/06

Rated: 9.25

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Celebrate Hanukkah

Celebrate Hanukkah, by Deborah Helligman

National Geographic; October 2006; 32 pp.; $15.95 HC


Core Audience: Children ages 4-8

Strengths: Excellent information, beautiful photography, great resource section

There are many books about Hanukkah on the market, but you will not find another one that does such a beautiful job of conveying the incredible diversity and richness of this celebration by people all over the world. Full of spectacular full-bleed photography and an elegant typographic design, this book is an excellent introduction for all children to the celebration of Hanukkah.

Deborah Helligman’s accessible text does a great job of highlighting the key ideas of the celebration, from the rituals, to the food, the games, and the stories. The beautiful photography draws readers in, and conveys a wonderful sense of energy and excitement. At the back of the book, there are great resources, including facts about the holiday, a recipe for making latkes, information about lighting the menorah and playing dreidel, as well as maps, websites, a glossary, and notes on the meaning and message of Hanukkah by Rabbi Shira Stern, who consulted on the book.

As good as contents of the book are, (and they are very good), what makes the book exceptional is the amazing photography and thoughtful design. Showing people and celebrations in Uganda, Peru, India, Ghana, Israel, America, Poland, and Italy, this book goes beyond the holiday to show the incredible diversity of Judaism around the world. At a time when our world is in need of a little understanding about cultures and practices different than our own, this book delivers the goods. Amen.

This book is part of National Geographic’s excellent Holidays Around the World Series, which also has books on Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr, Thanksgiving, and Diwali.

Rated 9.0

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Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrated by Carson Ellis

Little, Brown & Co; March 2007; 485 pp; $16.99 HC


Core Audience: Boys and girls, ages 8-12; lovers of classic storytelling in the gothic tradition of Joan Aiken

Strengths: Great, adventurous writing full of fun mystery and intrigue

This is one of those rare books that have all of the classic elements that make a timelessly great story. Like the first time I read a story by Joan Aiken, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, or Roald Dahl, it felt like this book was written just for me, in the most delicious and savory way. This is the first book from newcomer Trenton Lee Stewart, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

When 11 year-old Reynie Muldoon’s attention is captured one morning by an ad in the paper asking “Are You a Gifted Child looking for Special Opportunities?” he is intrigued. Who would write an ad like this to children, rather than their parents, he thinks. There’s no doubt that Reynie is smart enough, and he is definitely in the market for a Special Opportunity. So off he goes to answer the ad, precisely following all directions.

Although dozens of children show up to answer the ad and take a mind-boggling series of tests, only Reynie and three others—a boy an two girls—are left at the end. They have been brought together by the Mysterious Benedict Society, and they have a job to do. They are a team of pint-sized geniuses who embark on an adventure so mysterious, so devilish, so fiendishly clever and risky that only a team of misfit kids like themselves could pull it off.

This story is packed with irresistible details: a mysterious school on an island run by a sinister man, extraordinary but flawed heroes, spyglasses, secret signals, codes, drippy underground tunnels, bullies that get their comeuppance, plenty of humor, orphans, long-lost parents, acrobatics, mistaken identity, a humorous case of narcolepsy, and so much more. Young readers will get a vicarious thrill as this team of incredibly skilled smarty-pantses overcome danger and strike a blow against an evil authority. The great black and white illustrations at the start of every chapter perfectly capture the quirky gothic flavor of the story.

I loved this book from start to finish, and it is definitely a favorite pick for 2007. The story ends in such a way that I am sure more adventures are coming for The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I can’t wait!

Rated: 9.5

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Essential 12 BB

Very often I am asked (by people outside the book industry) what I consider to be the quintessential list of first board books for very young children. This is one of those questions that everyone in the book industry has a favorite answer for, and I guarantee you everyone’s answer will be different. There are many wonderful board books out there, and other lovely books like PAT THE BUNNY and HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON which do not come in board book format, and so are not on this list although I certainly recommend them.

My list is made up of some obvious classics that no child should be without, and some newer titles that I think will be beloved enough to become classics in their own right. I adore each and every one of these books, and have read them with many children.

So, that being said, here is what I would buy for baby’s first board book dozen:

BIG LITTLE by Leslie Patricelli
0763619515; Candlewick Press; September 2003; $6.95
One of the more recent books on this list, but an instant classic that takes the big little concept and turns it on its laugh-out-loud ear with unexpected pairings and bright expressive art. One of a series including QUIET LOUD and YUMMY YUCKY.

BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR WHAT DO YOU SEE? by Bill Martin, illustrated by Eric Carle
0805047905; Henry Holt; September 1996; $7.95
Originally published in 1983, this book’s beautiful bold animal illustrations and predictive structure are surefire hits with children of all ages, and the story closes with a wonderful twist that brings it all home for the young reader. Stands up to reading over and over and over.

DUCK IN A TRUCK by Jez Alborough
1929132832; Kane Miller; September 2005; $7.99
What to do when a duck in a truck gets stuck in the muck? This rollicking rhyming tale is a satisfying read full of delicious wordplay and silliness from start to finish. Children love the percussive sound of the language and duck’s sticky problem. Originally published in hardcover in 2002.

GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
0694003611; Harper; September 1991; $7.95
Written in 1947, this is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time, and with good reason. The most perfect bedtime story ever written, as little rabbit says goodnight to everything in sight in his warm and cozy bedroom. The poetry of the story is a magical call to sweet dreams and tender sleep.

GOOD NIGHT, GORILLA by Peggy Rathman
0399230033; Penguin; February 1996; $7.99
Wonderful and almost entirely wordless, children love this story about an exhausted zookeeper making his last round of the night to check on the animals. What he doesn’t know is that gorilla has taken his keys, and he and his wife are about to have some bedtime company. Young readers will enjoy telling this story back to you with each successive reading.

JAMBERRY by Bruce Degen
0694006513; HarperCollins; December 1994; $7.99
Starting with “One berry, Two berry, Pick me a blueberry,” and building to an absolute crescendo of rhyming brilliance, this book is an ode to anyone who has ever enjoyed a summer’s day, the company of a good friend, and a mouthful of fresh ripe berries. The delicious language in this book begs to be read aloud with enthusiasm, and I guarantee kids cannot resist dancing and singing along. Originally published in 1983.

PEEK-A-WHO? by Nina Laden
0811826023; Chronicle; February 2000; $6.95
A deceptively simple board book that makes playful use of a young child’s love of peek-a-boo. Each page has “Peek-a..” on the left, and a generous cutaway on the right that reveals only part of a hidden surprise, like the cow in “Peek a…Moo!”. Bright eye-catching illustrations and a mirror in the back (Peek-a…You!) make this one a keeper.

SO MANY BUNNIES by Rick Walton, illustrated by Paige Miglio
0688173640; HarperCollins; March 2000; $6.99
Although a lesser known title, this book is perhaps my favorite of the list. A twist on the old lady in the shoe, in this alphabet/counting book Mama Bunny has 26 children, which she tucks away for bed in every nook and cranny of her house. Starting with “1 was named Abel. He slept on the table” and continuing to “26 was named Zed. He slept on the shed”, this book’s lovely detailed illustrations and inventive rhymes make it a great bedtime read.

THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
0061074292; HarperCollins; February 1991; $6.99
Never out of print since its initial publication in 1942, this book is a reassuring testament to the power of a mother’s love. Little bunny decides to run away, but no matter what he says he will change into–a fish in a stream, a rock on a mountain, a bird in a tree–Mama rabbit knows how to find him. Perfect for very young children who are feeling separation anxiety.

THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats
0670867330; Penguin; January 1996; $6.99
The winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1963, this is one of the all-time great stories of a young boy’s adventure in the snowy city. The text is a wonderful example of writing the experience of a young child, without too much complication or explanation, and the artwork showcases Keats’ genius for design and color. This is a favorite no matter what the season or geographic location.

0375830057; Golden Books; August 2004; $5.99
Long out of print, with art by one of the great illustrators of the mid-20th century, the original artwork for this book was re-scanned from the Golden Books archives to produce this fun new edition. This book’s distinctive vertical shape is the perfect compliment to the exuberant illustrations, and the bouncy read-aloud text begs the reader’s voice to go up and down with each page. A great concept book.

0399226907; Penguin; March 1994; $10.99
No board book collection would be complete without this story of an ambitious caterpillar who eats his way through a succession of items until his stomach aches and he can go no further. Young readers love the ingenious caterpillar holes on each page, the counting format, and the transformative payoff at the end. A masterpiece of great design and book engineering.

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By Philip Reeve

Bloomsbury; Sept. 2006; 250 pp; $16.95 HC


Core Audience: Children ages 8-12

Strengths: Humor, great blend of genres

Imagine what would have happened if Jules Verne had written a Jane Austen novel for the junior set, and you start to get an inkling of what Larklight by Philip Reeve has in store. It’s a delicious blend of tongue-in-cheek Victorian propriety, comedy and swashbuckling space adventure, revolving around a rambling house called Larklight that just happens to be traveling through space.

As the novel opens, we are introduced to Arthur Mumsby and his sister Myrtle, who live with their father (a slightly forgetful professorial type), in a huge and rambling house containing not a few mysterious secrets. Not much seems to happen here at Larklight. The children fret about their boredom until one day they receive notice that they are to have a visitor. Of course, the nefarious visitor is not what he seems, and soon the siblings are off on an adventure all over the galaxy.

This novel is more evidence that Reeve, who received much critical acclaim for his Hungry City Chronicles, is an author whose imagination produces the most amazing material. He combines genres, time periods, the familiar and the fantastical into an extraordinary romp. What I loved most about it is the offhand way he manages to convince us that it is the most normal thing in the world for these two Victorian children to be living in space in the first place, as if it were no stranger than some sleepy town in the English highlands. A thoroughly original book and tons of fun!

Rated: 8.5

This review originally appeared in the 9/14/06 issue of PW Children’s Bookshelf.

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Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

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When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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