Nine picks for books to buy the kids

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      A week or so ago, Dolly Parton announced that soon Canadian rug rats will be able to benefit from her Dollywood Foundation charity just like their American counterparts. The buxom singer and actor, who was in Canada performing for three nights at Orillia’s Casino Rama, told CBC Arts that she will donate a book a month for five years to each child whose community signs on to her Imagination Library. She added that she got the idea to start the program from the inspirational kids’ classic The Little Engine That Could. “I’m a little engine that did, honey!” Parton pointed out. This anecdote merely scratches the surface of the power that children’s literature can deploy; share the joy this season with the books below, eight outstanding works of fiction and a bonus nonfictioner at the end. Note that age ranges are courtesy of the publishers, and may be very approximate.

      Fox Walked Alone (Written and illustrated by Barbara Reid. Scholastic Canada, 30 pp, $19.99, hardcover) What Toronto artist Barbara Reid can do with Plasticine has to be seen to be believed. This gentle story of how Fox gets onto Noah’s ark runs on genial doggerel (foxerel?), but the enduring charm comes not from the rhymes and adventure but the full-page pictures. They are remarkable, and will lead to lots of “How did she do that?” and, I hope, messy home projects. Ages 3 to 8

      One Winter Night (By Jennifer Lloyd, with illustrations by Lynn Ray. Simply Read Books, 32 pp, $19.95, hardcover) Jennifer Lloyd is a kindergarten teacher, and in the best way, it shows. This predictive counting story brings us from 10 graceful mice down to one as a zooful of predators threatens their midnight skating high jinks. Every page contains Lynn Ray’s adorable, meticulous drawings of Canadian winter imagery, and paired with local Robin Mitchell’s perfect page design result in a homegrown delight. Ages 3 to 5

      Nothing will stand in the way of a little girl’s desire for something more than just a basic black dress, in Marj Toews’s dazzling Black-and-White Blanche.

      Black-and-White Blanche (By Marj Toews, with illustrations by Dianna Bonder. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 30 pp, $19.99, hardcover) Poor Blanche just wants a pink dress, something her papa has forbidden. If Queen Victoria wears black, everyone should wear black, he figures. But Blanche has spunk; nothing will get in the way of her heart’s desire. B.C. painter Dianna Bonder’s illustrations bring this simple story to dazzling life, as always. Ages 5 to 8

      Blue Moon Mountain (By Geraldine McCaughrean, with illustrations by Nicki Palin and Tomislav Tomic. Simply Read Books, 30 pp, $19.95, hardcover) Geraldine McCaughrean is hot right now thanks to Peter Pan in Scarlet, the “official” follow-up to J.M. Barrie’s 1911 classic. But McCaughrean, the author of 130 books according to her Web site, is always up to something, here reissuing a 1994 story about a marvellous girl who travels on a blue moonbeam to a land of mythical creatures, where she sees beauty, not terror. We can see the beauty too, in this updated version’s lavish, exquisite illustrations—and bonus entries on the creatures at the end, to boot. Ages 5 and up

      The Strictest School in the World (By Howard Whitehouse, with illustrations by Bill Slavin. Kids Can Press, 256 pp, $18.95, hardcover) This is a completely charming and madcap novel, and I enjoyed every silly page of it. It’s 1894, and though 14-year-old Emmaline can’t avoid attending St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies, she doesn’t have to like it. The school turns out to be worse than she’d imagined (not just snitches and mean matrons, but pterodactyls!), and soon her 12-year-old friend Robert “Rubberbones” Burns is heading a mismatched team coming to her rescue. Emmaline thinks too much, and Rubberbones thinks too little. Throw in flying machines, gypsies real and costumed, an eccentric aunt, and delightfully detailed illustrations, and you’ll be counting down the days, like me, till the sequel, The Faceless Fiend. Ages 9 to 12

      The Cassandra Virus (By K.V. Johansen. Orca Book Publishers, 153 pp, $8.95, softcover) What if you were smart enough to write the code for a supercomputer, but dumb enough to set it loose on the Net to replicate? Jordan O’Blenis, 13, does just that, and it’s not long before he’s got the local university’s evilish administrator (he’d be played in the Disney film by Tim Conway) trying to figure out how to a) stop Jordan or b) sell the code to a shadowy government agency. The writing here is energetic and direct, and the computer trickery and other adventures are fresh and urgent; there’s even some moral complexity to chew over. Ages 9 to 12

      What Happened This Summer (By Paul Yee. Tradewind Books, 178 pp, $12.95, softcover) Paul Yee is the perfect person to write the nine stories that make up What Happened This Summer. His research into Chinese Canadian history and his interest in ghost stories and family drama combine in these tales about a group too rarely heard from. (The collection even ends with a spooky urban legend.) Astronaut kids, disoriented immigrants, orphans living with an aunt and uncle—these teenagers are even less sure of their identity than most. Are they happy in Canada? Lucky to be here? Should they move back to Hong Kong? What’s everyone else doing? Yee cleverly links the stories by name-dropping characters from one to the next so that we get less of a sense of a caring community than a striving and status-conscious incubator for success at any cost. Ages 14 and up

      The Quirky Girls’ Guide to Rest Stops and Road Trips (By Karen Rivers. Polestar, 289 pp, $10.95, softcover) Poor Harmony Haley. First she was given that name by author Karen Rivers. Then Rivers made her clumsy, self-conscious, and manic. Now, in Harmony’s third and final book (maybe), she’s on a road trip with the most evil best friend ever, on the trail of a boyfriend who couldn’t care less, and back home her dad’s new girlfriend is about to give birth to a child named Galaxy. Could things get any worse? Rest assured they do, with many scrapes, black eyes, and bruises to the body and soul before Harmony figures this whole life thing out. Rivers is so funny and—despite the lame social skills she bequeaths Harmony—loving that really any teen girl you know needs all three of these books right now. OMG! Ages 14 to 17

      You Can’t Read This (By Val Ross. Tundra Books, 140 pp, $26.99, hardcover) Veteran reporter Val Ross comes up with a lot of reasons not to read, though she clearly believes in the power of the written word. In her historical survey of all the impediments that have stood between readers and their texts, Ross manages the neat trick of making reading and history seem covert, challenging, and cool. Codes, censorship, politics, poverty, and fear have all kept book covers closed, but persistence and curiosity have won out. Ross’s historical anecdotes bring the past to life, and everyone from Johann Gutenberg to Alan Turing is given a place in the procession that has led from clerks tallying grain back in the mists of prehistory to clerks tallying cereal boxes at Costco in our own print-saturated times. Now that’s progress. Ages 11 and up