Holiday Gift Guide: Books for Kids & Teens

As the year begins to draw to a close and the holiday season swings into full gear, children's librarians from around the Denver Public Library system are putting together lists of their very favorite books for kids and teens, published in 2012. These books are sure to dazzle and delight, educate and engage, and make for happy readers throughout the year.

Books for the Very Youngest:

Do Cows Meow? by Selena Yoon.  Baby's favorite animals are featured in brilliant colors with giant flaps that lift and teach animal sounds.

Cradle Me by Debby Slier.  Babies love to look at photographs of other babies. This board book features Native American babies from different tribes wrapped up on the traditional cradle boards of their tribes. It's a lovely introduction to the diversity of America for the whole family.

Hippopposites by Janik Coat.  This unique book of opposites features red hippos demonstrating what the opposites mean. Light and dark, clear and blurry, small and large hippos will teach new concepts to baby while delighting mom and dad.

Trains Go by Steve Light.  Full of the sounds that trains make and illustrations that really convey speed and motion, this introduction to different kinds of trains will delight the youngest conductors-in-training.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by Jane Cabrera.  All over the world, in different settings from the forest to the seas, from the polar region to the city, and beyond, baby animals and their parents wonder about the stars in this version of the classic song.

Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers:

Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff.  Baby bear has much to learn as he explores the colors in his world with his Mama. He is warmed by yellow sun, splashed by a brown trout, and tickled by orange butterflies. The vibrant watercolor and linoleum block prints and the rich vocabulary will charm both children and adults.

Mary's Song by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn.  In this wonderful book with amazing illustrations, we are taken back to the Nativity and see what it was like through Mary’s eyes. All Mary wants to do is have a silent moment with her newborn, but the stable can be a noisy place. Once quiet falls, Mary cradles her son while singing her mother-song.

Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky.  Moose is a character in an alphabet book impatiently waiting for his star turn on the “M” page. What happens when they decide to go with Mouse instead? It’s not possible to read this hilarious picture book without laughing out loud.

Oh, No! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann.  Trouble starts when Frog falls in a pit. His animal friends try to help him out as a hungry tiger hovers nearby. With exuberant rhythmic phrases and jungle-colored illustrations, this suspenseful story is a perfect read-aloud to engage young children.

Demolition by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock.  How does a building get demolished to make room for a playground? What big machinery is used in the process? With engaging rhymes and non-repetitive onomatopoeia on every page, readers can keep busy along with the vehicles.

Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale.  Poems and vignettes of children creating simple structures are paralleled with complementary 20th and 21st century structures in this picture book celebration of architecture. The illustrations will inspire young architects to dream big.

Books for the Early Grades:

Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta, illustrated by Ed Young.  Creeping through the night while everyone sleeps, Ninja is on a mission to find a treasure. But as he is about to get his hands on it, the lights flip on and he is caught by his mother. All the little ninjas at heart will love this story and the wonderful cut paper artwork.

The Santa Trap by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene.  Bradley Bartelby is a really bad kid, so every year Santa only gives him a pair of socks. Finally, when Bradley has had enough, he spends all year devising a perfect plan to trap Santa and demand more presents. This darkly funny Christmas tale will be a favorite for years to come.

We March by Shane Evans.  Brief text and gorgeous illustrations depict the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This intimate depiction shows the march from a child’s perspective, starting with one small family and growing into a massive crowd.

Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Meilo So.  Twenty-three poems illustrated in appropriately loosely-flowing, atmospheric watercolors include life both outside and inside the ocean. The paintings accompanying these poems make this collection a true stand-out.

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Evil Penguin Plan by Maxwell Eaton.  Ace and Bub are two beaver brothers. Ace wants to surf and Bub wants to nap. But when some penguins steal Ace's surfboard, the two brothers are sucked into a nefarious penguin plot to freeze the entire ocean! Silly antics are the name of the game in this fun new series of graphic novels.

Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont.  Lulu loves animals of every kind. She can’t believe her teacher, Mrs. Holiday, doesn’t. When Lulu brings in a companion for the class guinea pig, chaos ensues and Mrs. Holiday makes a new rule about animals in school. But when some duck eggs are in trouble in the park during a field trip, Lulu can't help but step in. This short novel for young readers is full of giggles.

Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld.  This beautifully written and illustrated collection of poems follows the changing seasons and introduces children to natural processes like bulbs sprouting in spring and dandelions turning to seed. The text evokes the feel of each season with concise and observant free verse while the illustrations feature luscious collage, paint, woodcuts, and other mixed media wonders.

Birds of a Feather by Francisco Pittau, illustrated by Bernadette Gervais.  This large-format introduction to bird species features giant flaps, silhouettes, guessing games, pop-ups, and lots of facts. Children will return again and again to their favorite pages and the whole family will enjoy this gorgeous educational book.

Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno.  The Acerra family had twelve sons who all played baseball together from the time they were children, through World War II, and into adulthood. The story of their camaraderie and positive attitude as a family is as inspiring as their baseball records. Told in a fast-moving and friendly way for the youngest readers and paired with colorful, retro illustrations, this is a book for the whole family to read together.

Books for 3rd - 5th Grades:

Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryant Obed, illustrated by Barbara McClintock.  From the first skim of ice on a bucket to a fully frozen lake, a rural family describes the pleasures of winter ice on their farm. The main attraction of winter is the building of a large, homemade ice rink that the whole neighborhood can enjoy, with hockey, figure skating, and clowning around. This small, old-fashioned book is full of beautiful line illustrations and just looks like a gift to be treasured.

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones.  The young orphan Earwig is adopted by a witch and a mandrake who intend to make her their slave, but Earwig just may be a witch herself and learns spells to turn the tables on them. Humorous and subversive text paired with busy and amusing illustrations make this a great novel for boys and girls just reading novels on their own.

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.  Rendi has run away from home and is stranded in the Village of Clear Sky. With nowhere to go, he becomes the chore boy at the inn. There, he meets some interesting characters and learns the history of the village and other stories through storytelling. The wonderful Chinese folktales told by these characters throughout the book intertwine with the main plot line at the end of the story. The author's beautiful illustrations in a classical Chinese style add to the feeling that this is a treasury of tales.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage.  Eleven years ago during a hurricane, Miss Moses Lobeau was washed ashore in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC. Even though she found a home with the Colonel and Miss Lana, Moses has been trying to find her "upstream mother," sending messages in a bottle to see if someday she’ll get a response. One day a detective shows up in Tupelo Landing investigating a murder. Along with her best friend Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, the kids create a detective agency hoping to solve the murder mystery first. With quirky Southern characters and lots of heart, this is one of our favorite books of the year.

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Sharon Messenger.  Twelve-year-old Sophie is a telepathic elf hidden in the human world to protect some secret knowledge that was put in her head by an unknown source. She doesn't know this though. When she is whisked away to the magical world to learn about her true abilities, Sophie is torn between the knowledge she is acquiring and helping the human family she left behind, who are in terrible danger.

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle.  Fefa can’t read. She has word blindness (dyslexia). Her teacher refuses to teach her. He says Fefa is hopeless. But Fefa’s mom knows better. She knows how smart her daughter is. She decides to try to teach her in another way. She gives her a blank book and tells her to treat it like a garden and plant the words like seeds. As Fefa uses the book, things get better. Then one night, her family is threatened and Fefa’s hard work saves the day. This book binds together the history of Cuba and the everyday struggles of families everywhere.

Giants, Beware! by Jorge Aguirre.  After spunky, tomboy Claudette discovers that her village is being terrorized by a giant, she enlists the reluctant help of her younger brother Gaston, an aspiring pastry chef, and best friend Marie, an aspiring princess, on a quest to slay the giant. Full-color, overly dramatic illustrations capture the fun in this graphic novel.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos by Jason Chin.  With fantastic detail and excellent examples, Chin traces the entire evolution of one island in this non-fiction picture book. From a volcano rising from the sea floor to finches adapting to a changing climate to the migration of animals coming and going, Chin makes each element of his story so easy to grasp for young readers. Chin’s gorgeous paintings and innovative layouts are used to their best effect in this latest work.

The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins.  Beetles are found in every climate around the world and are so numerous, 1 out of every 4 living creatures is a beetle. This book examines different beetle species and their distinctive characteristics and includes silhouettes of "actual size" beetles. The amazing, jewel-toned, cut-paper illustrations make this a truly special gift book.

Puffling Patrol by Ted Lewin and Betsy Lewin.  Every August, an island off the coast of Iceland sees the migration of mature puffins out to sea, leaving their young behind. It is up to a team of children to make sure some confused baby pufflings make it out to sea rather than being injured in town. The book is especially good at delving into the details of what children can do to help their world.

Books for Middle School:

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are two scrappy orphans who work for Venetian puppeteer and con-man Grisini. When their paths cross with upper-class Clara Wintermute, a lonely rich girl living in the shadow of her dead siblings, each child’s life is to be irrevocably changed. When first Clara and then Grisini disappear, the orphans must escape London to a mysterious house in the countryside where they encounter a deep magic. This intricately plotted title is jam-packed with creepiness, suspense, action, and redemption.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.  7th-grader Georges faces lots of challenges, what with his dad being out of work, moving from his awesome house, and dealing with bullies at school. Things start looking up when Georges meets his new home-schooled neighbors Safer and Candy and joins their Spy Club. Soon Georges and Safer are tracking a mysterious neighbor via lobbycam stakeouts. Is their neighbor really a murderer? And why is Georges’ mom working so many double-shifts at the hospital these days? Stead unravels these parallel plots with taut pacing and prose.

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds.  Beautiful Beatrice grew up in a loving family, but her luck changed when her father, a knight, was executed for treason and her mother abandoned her. Luc’s drunken father endlessly berated him because he was born with only one ear. Fortunately fate led both children to live with a kind old fisherman and his sister in a small fishing village. After a long stretch of happiness with their new, makeshift family, Luc is captured by pirates and sold as a slave in North Africa. Beatrice refuses to give up hope for Luc’s return and uncovers secrets from his past that might help save him. Full of rich historical details and many changes of fortune, this epic tale will keep readers engaged from start to finish.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.  Painfuly shy, 12-year-old Marlee learns to speak for herself and for justice when she comes face to face with racism after her only friend is outed as “passing” for white at school in 1950's Arkansas. As a historical novel, this is an outstanding window into a time period, just after Little Rock's famous integration, that most readers will never have seen and it vividly brings to life for young readers the complicated politics of the time. Pitting husband against wife and neighbor against neighbor, Kristin Levine highlights how confusing it can be to decide when it is time to speak up and why one might choose to just go along quietly.

Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall.  When Odilia and her four sisters find a dead man in the Rio Grande, it sets them on an epic journey through both mystical and present-day Mexico and Mexican culture. The girls are lovingly guided by La Llorona and Tonantzin, and must fight for their lives against mythical beasts such as lechuzas and chupacabras. Lyrical and fast-moving, loaded with plot twists and often-hilarious dialogue, this culturally authentic title is a welcome addition to the body of Latino-centered middle-grade fiction.

The Mighty Mars Rovers: The Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch.  Filled with the personal stories of the hopes and dreams of scientists, evocative archival photos, speculative renderings of space, and fascinating details about engineering and robots, this is a fantastic volume to rev up the imaginations of young readers and introduce them to our first Mars rover mission in 2004. Particularly helpful is the back matter that ties this first rover mission to the one that has launched this year.

The Fairy Ring, Or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure.  When Frances told her cousin, Elsie, that she saw fairies in their backyard, Elsie decided they should borrow a camera and photograph the phenomenon. The girls took the photographs so their parents would stop teasing them about the fairies but the photographs were so realistic, they quickly became national news. Many years later, Elsie revealed that the fairies in the photographs were really pictures she had painted. The famous photos are included so the reader can see how they fooled the world.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close.  Chuck Close candidly answers questions posed by students about his life and artwork. Fourteen of his images are cut into thirds allowing readers to flip and mix-and-match the pages, thereby seeing his art in a whole new way. This is a truly original book for art lovers.

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery.  From book jacket and endpapers to interviews and author notes, this is a beautifully and thoughtfully crafted book. Opening with a prologue from Temple Grandin herself, it is obvious that the author has a great respect for her subject and took care to tell about Grandin’s life in a well-rounded way, not smoothing over bumps in her personality or putting Grandin on a pedestal in spite of her many talents and accomplishments. The friendly and detailed telling is immediately accessible to children and makes the reader want to know more.

Books for High School:

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.  Alina discovers she has magical abilities while under attack during the border wars in a land that resembles imperial Russia. Whisked off to train as a Grisha magician, Alina must play a dangerous game of balancing power and loyalty in a world that is new to her. Dark and dangerous world-building and richly layered relationships make this a captivating read and will leave readers clamouring for a sequel.

A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix.  Khmeri is a Prince of the Empire, one of ten thousand, actually. Taken from his parents as a baby, genetically modified and altered with fancy tech, Khmeri is no longer human. When Khmeri ascends to his full powers, he learns that everything he was taught to expect of the Empire isn't entirely correct. He's conscripted into the Navy where he learns how to fight, hack tech, and survive. As Khmeri learns more about how the empire really works, he's thrust into a situation he really doesn't want to be in -- or does he? The gadgets and technology in this book are really cool and imaginative.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  Verity is a secret agent captured in Nazi occupied France. To stay alive, Verity is slowly revealing her mission and details of the British war effort to her Nazi captors via writing. The longer she stretches her story out, the longer she’ll live, if she can survive the torture first. She’s trying not to reveal information about British air support because her best friend Maddie is a pilot. Then Maddie is shot down and also trapped in France. While awaiting extraction, Maddie, and the reader, are taken on an horrifyingly unforgettable exploration of the true meaning of friendship.

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King.  Astrid is searching—for herself, for somewhere for her love to go, for all sorts of answers. The folks in her small town thrive on gossip and putting people in boxes. Astrid doesn’t want a box, she wants possibilities. She sends her love to the people in passing airplanes because no one around her seems to want it. Her humanities class introduces her to the philosopher Socrates, and she imagines conversations with him about identity and morality. Astrid’s struggle to be herself is a universal one, even if her specific circumstances are unique.

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman.  High schooler Nora interns with an eccentric professor who is decoding a mysterious manuscript called the Voynich manuscript. Nora's Latin skills come in handy translating the letters and poetry of the stepdaughter of a famous alchemist who supposedly created the Lumen Dei, an alchemical device that provides a direct link to God. Both documents are supposed to have clues to the hidden Lumen Dei and how to built it again if they can solve the clues. Many unscrupulous people are also searching for these clues. One night, Nora stumbles upon the gruesome murder of her close friend Chris. Can she solve the mystery before more people die?

Never Fall Down: A Novel by Patricia McCormick.  This is the story of Arn Chorn Pond, a Cambodian teenager who comes of age as the Khmer Rouge seize power in Cambodia. McCormick writes the story in Arn’s voice-- using his colloquialisms and understanding of English as his second language-- which, while a bit jarring at first, makes the story incredibly raw and blunt as Arn uses the simplest vocabulary to describe the horrors of labor camps and the Killing Fields, his escape from Cambodia, and his eventual adoption into an American family. The reader follows Arn as he does what he must to survive, and is forced to ask himself, what would I have done?

This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers.  Sloane woke up planning to die that day. Since her sister forgot about their plan to run away from their abusive father together, and has left Sloane alone with him, Sloane sees no better option than the pills she's counting on. Then the zombies attack. Suddenly, Sloane is fighting to live, even if she's still not entirely sure that's what she wants. She makes it to the local high school with 5 other teens, each with their own stories of survival. Barricaded against the threat of death outside, they must learn to work together to figure out what to do next if they're going to make it. Yes, this is a zombie novel, but it's as much about the characters and their interactions and choices as it is about the living dead. Read it to find out if the girl who woke up wanting to die decides to keep fighting to live.

Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World's Deadliest Weapon by Steven Sheinkin.  In this account of the building of the first atomic bomb, the author does an amazing job of humanizing a massive cast of characters, from scientists to spies to generals, and really tells the story of the building of the bomb from their perspectives. While spending no small effort explaining the science of the bomb, it is these humans, and how excited they were about their discoveries and then the toll the bomb’s eventual use played on their psyches, that really makes an outstanding read. The art of spycraft also features prominently in the book and will be an excellent draw for reluctant readers.

Written by Gwen on November 26, 2012


Anonymous on November 29, 2012


Thank you for the recommendations! I borrow a lot from the library, but I also like to purchase go-to stories for my bookshelves at home. I struggle knowing which titles to buy. These lists really help me pick out books they are sure to love and you all are the experts so I know they will be great!

Lisa on November 30, 2012


Wow, what a great list - wish I had a little one to buy a book for!

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