Holiday Gift Guide: Books for Kids & Teens

It's that time of year when two great book events converge - best books lists come out and it's gift giving season. Specialists from across the Denver Public Library have put together our list of the best books to share with your kids this year. Great stuff from baby books to the zombie apocalypse, pop-ups to poetry, it's all here. Enjoy!

Books for the Very Youngest:

Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight by Caspar Babypants and Kate Endle.
Some of baby's favorite animals are illuminated by different light sources, like a raccoon snacking by the campfire, in this beautiful and creative board book.

Go, Baby, Go! by Marilyn Janovitz.
Colorful illustrations and bouncy, fast-paced rhymes will engage your baby in this fun to read-aloud board book.

At the Park, At the Farm, and At the Beach by Salina Yoon.
Playful, brightly colored depictions of some of children's favorite familiar objects make this new series of die-cut board books a stand-out.

The "Giant Pop-Out" series by Chronicle Books.
This series of oversize, photographic pop-out books gives young children clues about the pop-out surprise that is coming. What has wheels, and a siren, and is red? Fire truck! With very sturdy pages, these books will stand up to many readings by little hands. The series includes titles: Bugs, Farm, Food, Ocean, Pets, Safari, Shapes and Vehicles.

Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers:

Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Holly Meade.
This lovely picturebook takes a slice of life on Noah's Ark to tell a lyrical bedtime story. As night falls, the ark pitches in the waves, and the animals are restless. But at night, Naamah, Noah's wife, sings everyone to sleep, animals, and people too. The book takes the familiar root of the Noah story, but does not re-tell it, leaving families to tell the version of the flood that they like best.

Mine! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Patrice Barton.
A toddler gleefully regales his infant and canine companions with a one note narrative, "Mine. Mine. Mine.", as he collects all the toys in a room. When the baby claims the last toy for herself and the dog joins in, chaos ensues! The illustrations of this nearly wordless tale are all from a kids-eye view and perfectly capture the characters emotions. While great for toddlers and preschoolers, older kids with younger siblings will enjoy this story as well.

Mitchell’s License by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Tony Fucile.
Mitchell, a rambunctious preschooler, expertly avoids bedtime by hopping onto Dad's shoulders, aka his very own car. Need to back-up? Shift into reverse by tugging Dad’s ears. Need to beep the horn? Give Dad’s nose a whack! A fun bedtime romp for both kids and their playful, patient parents.

I Spy with My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs.
Look through the book’s eye spy hole and you will see something white. Your clue? It lives in the Arctic. What is it? A polar bear. This fun guessing game story gives color clues that describe various animals. Great for younger kids.

Worms for Lunch? by Leonid Gore.
A curious little worm wants to know, "Who would ever want to eat a worm?" He asks an eclectic group of animals what they like to eat. The monkey likes bananas and the bunny likes carrots. Is there anyone who eats worms? When he finally finds someone who does, it is time for little worm to get out of there! Bright pictures and die cut pages make this an engaging guessing game for young readers.

Red Sled by Lita Judge.
What happens when some forest animals get their paws on a child’s red sled? Joyriding for sure. How many animals can fit at one time? This beautifully illustrated book lets the pictures tell the story with a few descriptive sounds thrown in for fun.

Rescue: Pop-up Emergency Vehicles by Matthew Reinhart.
This beginner pop-up book is a perfect choice for little kids, with sturdy pages and a paperback, low-cost binding. Each spread introduces a new community helper and either a pop-up or pull-out vehicle to play with.

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes.
Gorgeous illustrations show the many ways that spirals occur in the natural world, from hibernating animals to unfurling ferns to galaxies.

Press Here by Hervé Tullet.
Start by pressing the yellow dot on the cover and watch how this interactive book adds dots, changes their color and moves them around when the readers tilts and shakes the book by following the directions on each page. What can the reader make those crazy dots do next? This is a brilliantly creative, low-tech book.

Books for the Early Grades:

A Butterfly is Patient by Diana Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long.
From the end pages to the double page spreads, Long’s watercolors tracing the life cycle of butterflies are a visual delight. Aston’s weaving of brief poetic text, along with slightly longer scientific explanations, make this book work for a wide-range of readers.

Say Hello to Zorro! by Carter Goodrich.
Mr. Bud is a dog who knows what he likes. He keeps his family on a very strict schedule. So Mr. Bud is not a happy pooch when Zorro shows up. A new dog was definitely not part of the plan. It turns out that Zorro is not thrilled with Mr. Bud either. Friendship does not seem likely, until the dogs discover that they like the same schedule. Soon they are best buddies and the family is still following a strict schedule. Delightfully expressive illustrations highlight this tale of friendship.

The Woods by Paul Hoppe.
This cumulative story tells what happens when a boy loses his rabbit before bedtime and must enter the woods to find it again. Every bear, giant, or three-headed dragon seems pretty scary until the boy finds out how he can help them. Cartoonish illustrations and little jokes make this a sure-fire bedtime winner.

Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell.
This picture book biography celebrates imagination and curiosity as it links Jane Goodall’s childhood connections with animals and nature to her adult work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. While primarily illustrated in muted watercolor, McDonnell seamlessly incorporates photos and even some sketches Goodall made as a child.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.
This non-fiction picturebook tells about winter life over and under the snow. It describes the small animals who live in the subnivean zone and the larger animals who find shelter and hibernate above the snow. The premise of a child and her father cross-country skiing through the woods and examining this winter world works well. The color palette and word choices are just right, leaving you ready for a hot cocoa.

Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee.
Book-ended by characters gazing at the night sky, this quiet, contemplative book invites readers to immerse themselves in the world of stars. Whether they’re using their imagination to create a magic wand or sledding in the snow, the characters find stars everywhere. Frazee’s detailed illustrations capture kids in a variety of settings and moods, from gleeful adventure to lonely sadness. There’s lots to talk about and explore here with a group of kids or one-on-one.

Blackout by John Rocco.
Everyone in the family is too busy doing their own thing to spend time together--until the lights go out. The blackout brings the family--and the whole diverse neighborhood-- together, if only for a while, and reminds the central family that their moments together can be just as fun as computer games and talking on the phone.

Do You Know Which Ones Will Grow? by Susan A. Shea.
A chick grows into a chicken, so will a cupcake grow into a cake? With lots of little questions to think about, comparisons to make, rhyming text, and fun fold-out pages, this book really has it all for kids just figuring out life.

Twosomes: Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom by Marilyn Singer.
This collection of two line love poems by animals is sweet, funny, and has a lot of word play. Here is a love poem about earthworms: We’re perfect together. I guarantee/that I dig you and you dig me. Hearts are also incorporated into all of the illustrations. Can you find them?

EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken by Sally Warner.
EllRay is the smallest kid in his 3rd grade class, even counting the girls. Lately, he’s also become the target of class bullies, Jared and Stanley. There’s also the problem of his latest progress report. The one that said, “Behavior: Needs Improvement.” With a trip to Disneyland at stake, can EllRay stay out of trouble for one week? A great, humorous beginning chapter book and start to a wonderful new series.

I Broke My Trunk! by Mo Willems.
Gerald is telling his friend Piggie the sad story of how he broke his trunk. Lifting Rhinos and grand pianos at the same time is heavy work, but not the cause of Gerald’s problem. How did he do it? The answer is a surprise to Piggie and maybe the reader too.

Books for 3rd - 5th Grades:

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George.
Princess Celie lives in a castle with a mind of its own, and, every Tuesday, the castle changes something - maybe a new turret this week, or the kitchen has moved. Only Celie seems able to keep up with the changes and understand the castle’s whims. When the king and queen are ambushed away from home and their fate is unknown, Celie and her siblings must use her knowledge of the castle to survive and keep peace in their kingdom.

True (...Sort of) by Katherine Hannigan.
Dellie has always had an irrepressible spirit, boundless energy, and sense of fun. Unfortunately, many things she sees as fun get her into trouble. After being told over and over again that she is "bad," one day Dellie begins to think she really is bad and she loses her buoyancy. She slouches, she picks fights, she makes her mother cry. When the mysterious new girl in school absorbs Dellie's attention, she realizes that by watching and making a new friend, maybe she can stay out of trouble. Thus begins a beautiful friendship and the healing of Dellie's issues. This book is absolutely heartbreaking and equally full of love and joy.

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke.
When Zita and her friend are exploring they find a strange device. It has a big red button, which Zita can’t help but push. Next thing she knows, her friend is swept away by aliens. What’s a girl to do? She follows of course. Picking up a motley crew of space riff raff along the way, Zita battles aliens and prophecies of doom trying to save her friend. Graphic novel.

Ghost Hunt 2: More Chilling Tales of the Unknown by Jason Hawes.
This is a collection of stories based on the actual cases of the Atlantic Paranormal Society. They claim to have helped hundreds of people with paranormal experiences. This collection includes a ghost who loves dogs, a strange haunting in a revolutionary home and a trip to Alcatraz. More spooky than scary, these are a fun read for kids who are interested in “real” hauntings. The book includes a section on using the technology and tips for kids who are interested in ghost hunting themselves.

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy.
Do you have a bike? I bet most people would say yes. Did you know that the invention of the bike changed lives? I bet most people would say no. Yet the invention of the bicycle opened the world up for a lot of people. Interestingly enough, women benefited tremendously from bicycles. Before the bike, people were severely limited by the cost and difficulty of travel. This kept many women isolated and stuck at home. But bikes removed this restriction. Suddenly people could move around easily. Bicycles were cheap to maintain and easy to store. But freedom was not the only benefit of bikes. Bikes changed attitudes, fashion and conventions. With the use of photos, cartoons and other primary sources, Wheels of Change explores the women’s movement through the story of the bicycle.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson.
Nelson tells the story of America through the eyes of African Americans, particularly through the eyes of a grandmother telling the story of her own family members who were slaves and her experiences through the election of our first African American president. Accessible language and Nelson’s always breath-taking illustrations make this a truly special book for families to share.

Hound Dog’s Haiku: and Other Poems for Dog Lovers by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Mary Azarian.
Rosen’s text and Azarian’s woodcut illustrations team up to capture the energy and spirit of 20 different dog breeds. Each featured dog gets a full 2-page spread and end notes include additional information about each breed.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.
This book features dual stories that take place in 1927, with Rose Kincaid, a deaf daughter of a famous actress in silent film, and Ben, who lives in Minnesota in 1975. Rose’s story is told in pictures, Ben’s mostly in words. Ben has just lost his mother and has never known his father, but he has discovered a clue about who he might be in his mother’s things. This clue leads him to the Natural History Museum in NY where he finds a wolf diorama that takes place on the lake where he lives in MN. Can that be a coincidence? He also sees an old lady who visits the diorama every day. Who is she? The beautiful illustrations make this book an interesting “read.”

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang.
Lucy is positive sixth grade is going to be her best year ever. Her annoying, perfect older sister is finally heading off to college leaving her with a bedroom all to herself and Lucy’s destined to be captain of the basketball team. Everything comes crashing down when her father announces her great aunt, Yi Po, is arriving from China and will share Lucy’s room during her months-long visit. And on top of everything else, her parents insist she attend Chinese school which conflicts with basketball practice. A tender, humorous look at family and friendship.

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.
It begins in the dark of night, when Kate, Michael, and Emma are spirited away from their parents because they are destined for something amazing and must be protected. The protection takes the form of a series of odious orphanages, and thus the classic-feeling fantasy begins. Bad orphanages, magical events, dwarves, giants, an evil witch with a horrible plan - all of these old friends are arranged in such a way to create a gripping and original new adventure. What really stands out is Stephens' writing - the emotional balance is perfect; the relationships and choices the children make are gut-wrenchingly real. This novel is fantastic.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu.
Hazel lives in the world of imagination and is not so good at navigating a world of hard facts, rules, and a new social scene when she has to leave her progressive school to attend the local public school. The saving grace in Hazel's life is her best friend Jack, who lives next door, also attends public school, and understands her perfectly. When a magical shard of glass, full of malcontent, gets into Jack's eye during a snowball fight, Hazel's world falls apart. Jack will no longer spend time with her and then he completely disappears, lured away by the Snow Queen. Here is where the sad and familiar story becomes fantastical. Hazel sets out on a quest into the woods, battling familiar fairy tale scenarios and characters, to rescue Jack. Along the way, she learns about her own strength and the validity of imagination.

Books for Middle School:

Sidekicks by Jack Ferraiolo.
Scott Hutchinson is an ordinary middleschooler by day and Bright Boy, the sidekick to superhero crime fighter Phantom Justice by night. He’s incognito at school but when an embarrassing incident occurs with his spandex uniform and gets televised, he hears everyone laughing at him. Thankfully, nobody at school knows who he is, until he and his nemesis sidekick Monkeywrench, unmask each other in a fight one night. The worst part? It’s a girl from his school.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candance Fleming.
Crisp prose combined with plenty of photos, maps, and other primary sources make for an engaging read. Chapters alternate between the search for Earhart’s missing plane and a more traditional chronological biography. This technique pulls the reader along for the ride through Earhart’s life in all its messy complexity.

In Search of Sasquatch by Kelly Milner Halls.
Is there such a thing as Sasquatch? Almost every culture has a creature that resembles a Sasquatch. Hundreds of normal, everyday people claim to have seen them. Some have even taken pictures or movies of what looks like a giant ape man running through the forest. There are even casts of huge footprints preserved forever. The only thing missing is conclusive proof. The Sasquatch is one of the most intriguing cryptids (creatures that are not recognized by traditional science). If so many people have seen him, where is he hiding? Until we have conclusive proof, we will continue to wonder if Sasquatch is really out there.

Icefall by Matthew Kirby.
Set in the far north, this adventure story revolves around a Viking king's three children who have been hidden away in a fjord to protect them from an invading army. As winter wears on and food becomes scarce, the siblings and their protectors discover a traitor in their midst and must find ways to stay alive until help comes in the spring. With a mix of Nordic mythology and gritty survival story, this is a quick and engrossing read.

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri.
When 12 year old Cole’s mom finds out he’s been skipping school, she decides she’s had enough. She drives from Detroit to Philadelphia and drops him off with the father he’s never met. Cole is not just in a new city, but an entirely different world. His dad is one the last remaining urban cowboys, maintaining stables and providing an alternative for neighborhood kids to life on the street. Father and son struggle to connect with the horses providing a bridge. Neri was inspired to write the novel after reading a Life magazine article about the last remaining African-American cowboys in Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

There is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories by Naomi Shihb Nye.
Compacting forty stories and an introduction in 201 pages, Nye focuses on specific moments, giving the reader just enough background as is necessary for understanding. Some of the characters return in later stories, but all are complete within themselves and stand alone. Each story provides a gem of an idea and plays with it just enough to get the reader thinking and expanding on it themselves.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.
Sunny moved back to Nigeria from the U.S. with her family, and she's really feeling how different she is. She's an albino, really great at soccer (which is so not a girl thing in Nigeria), and proud of the fact that she's good at school. When her friends Orlu and Chichi (who study magic with a local elder) tell Sunny that she too has magical powers, she embarks on a journey that will put her face to face with her family's shrouded past.

Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge.
In 1980, Tracy is 12 years-old and living with her adoptive mom and her dad, a Vietnam vet, in California. Tracy’s birth mother was Vietnamese and her birth father an American soldier. One afternoon Tracy and her best friend Stargazer, the son of hippie, anti-war parents, find her Dad’s old ammo box in the garage. When they open it, they discover a set of dog tags and set into motion a series of events with a life of their own. Tracy starts remembering horrifying details from her life in Vietnam in 1974 and 1975 while her dad is struggling with PTSD issues of his own. A moving, coming of age story. Includes a detailed Q & A appendix by the author.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.
Doug Swietick is a tough-guy/softie who is just looking for balance in the world, though he certainly wouldn't put it that way. With a crummy move to a crummy new town, Doug finds his balance through art and caring new friends. First, though, he has to go through an excruciating process of learning to let down his guard. At turns painful and hilarious, this novel will not fail to touch readers.

Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith.
This fun fish-out-of-water (or aliens-out-of-water) tale begins when Scrub is sent to spend the summer with his grandma at her kooky bed and breakfast. It has a space theme, and readers discover early on that it's actually a hotel for visiting aliens and Scrub must spend his summer disguising the aliens so they will blend in on earth. But it’s not so easy keeping aliens from giving themselves away, especially when a snoopy sheriff is determined to catch Grandma doing anything suspicious so he can shut down her B&B. Throw in some basketball and a budding romance and you have the perfect quick read for reluctant readers.

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.
Sixteen-year-old Jessica’s life changed in a matter of seconds.  Her life as a runner came shattering down after she loses her leg in a tragic accident and life as she knows it will never be the same. But there’s more to life than what Jessica thinks there is. She learns this after she gets to know Rosa, a girl with cerebral palsy who is tutoring Jessica in math. Beautifully written, author Van Draanen will touch your heart with this fabulous story about friendship, hope and dreams.

Books for High School:

Ashes by Ilsa Bick.
Alex has hiked into the wilderness to spread her parents' ashes and decide what she wants to do about her inoperable brain tumor. Shockingly, an electromagnetic pulse wipes out all electronic devices, and kills billions of people. Stranded in the woods, she finds the humans who did survive seem to have morphed into flesh eating zombies. She meets Tom and Ellie who seem normal. They leave the safety of the forest to find out what’s left of life in the outside world. Can they survive? Who can Alex trust?

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.
What happens when a plane full of teen beauty pageant contestants crashes on a deserted desert island? Or is it REALLY deserted? Survival, intrigue, secrets, and evening gowns!

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
Elisa is a scared, fat, younger princess who has just been rushed into a marriage alliance with a handsome king. She also has a godstone in her belly - a powerful and dangerous thing. As Elisa and the king travel back to his kingdom, war finds them and Elisa must learn to apply her intelligence to strategy, learn how to control her godstone with prayer, but most of all, learn to accept her talents along with her flaws. Palace intrigue, a midnight kidnapping, a mysterious desert people - all of these elements combine to create a gripping, delightful, engrossing novel.

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang.
Dennis’ parents want him to grow up and be a doctor- it’s a family obsession. Because of this, he’s forbidden to play video games at home. When he gets to school, he works hard but with his new found freedom, he also indulges in video games as well. He has a crisis of faith at school and decides to pursue the career of professional gamer instead of gastroenterologist. What will he end up doing? How can he be really good at 2 things and why does he have to choose? Graphic Novel

Huntress by Malinda Lo.
The world is out of balance, and it is up to two skilled girls to make the journey to set it right. Along the way, they meet many challenges and have to decide whether their love is more important than their separate destinies.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin.
Alex’s family takes off without him to visit relatives and then the world falls apart. The massive earthquake and volcanic eruption changes everything. At first Alex finds help with neighbors, but soon sees that law and order no longer exist and heads east to catch up with family. When he meets Darla and her mother, neither have any idea of how bad it will get although things seem disastrous already. What sets this apart from the many survival stories in the future that have been published is a really kick-ass heroine who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and emotional too. The world is almost like ours which gives their dilemmas an extra kick of realism.

Desert Angel by Charlie Price.
Fourteen-year-old Angel and her mom have always lived on the outskirts of society, on the move and living with a string of abusive boyfriends. Mom's latest boyfriend, Scotty, was a particularly nasty one...a tracker, poacher, drug dealer, abuser, and, now, murderer. When Angel finds her mom’s body in a shallow grave in the desert, she knows that he is going to come after her next. Angel has to employ the tricks Scotty has taught her about hunting animals to hide from him. Unfortunately, with no skills and no money, Angel's flight puts every stranger in her path in danger as well. As Angel flees, she must learn who she is without her mother's needs, how to stand on her own, and also how to trust. It is Angel's personal growth in the midst of her terror that make this thriller a stand-out.

Divergent by Veronica Roth.
This novel is set in a dystopian Chicago where society has been divided into factions, each based on one dominant human characteristic: fearlessness or selflessness or truth or the pursuit of knowledge or peacefulness. On Beatrice’s birthday, she chooses to leave her family and her faction and join the Dauntless - the brave & reckless ones. The story follows her initiation and, while incredibly action-packed, also delves into the powerful dangers that lurk under every Utopian society.

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow.
Karl, 14 years-old and a secular Jew, finds himself suddenly kicked out of school and the target of the brutal Hitler Youth. Karl’s father, a well-connected art dealer, arranges boxing lessons for Karl with the famous Max Schmeling. Told through Karl’s first-person narration and his comics, this multi-layered novel immerses the reader in one family’s experience of Nazism in 1930s Berlin.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.
Karou has blue hair, lives in Prague, and gets sent around the world collecting teeth for her adopted father/chimera Brimstone. While trying to live a normal teenage life in the daytime, Karou’s chaotic other life gets more and more complicated as an avenging angel comes searching for Brimstone to kill him...and falls in love with Karou. It’s hard to do this stunning novel justice in a few words - it is the most unusual and gorgeous thing you will read all year.

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones.
Blink is in the wrong place at the wrong time when he sees the details of a kidnapping that soon makes the news. Now he is involved in a dangerous mystery and cover-up. Caution has placed herself in the wrong place on purpose, trying to find a reason to live after the death of her brother. When she tries to escape from an abusive drug dealer boyfriend, her path crosses with Blink's and the two work together to solve a mystery and stay alive. Set on the streets of Toronto, this gritty teen thriller is well-written and exciting with very real characters.

Written by Gwen on December 7, 2011


BobbyE on December 8, 2011


I was in awe of Naamah and the Ark at Night when a bookseller friend showed it to me a few months back. So glad you reminded me of it with your recommendation.
Also very glad to see Okay for Now on this list! I love Schmidt's ability to give depth and richness to seemingly mundane settings and characters.
Great recommendations!

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