Smithsonian Notable Books for Children 2009

Our annual list of children’s books highlights the most fascinating titles published in the past year

Childrens books
Smithsonian magazine's 2009 Notable Books for Children. Candlewick Press / Little, Brown Books for Young Readers / Lee & Low Books, Inc. / Holiday House, Inc.

This year’s titles range across cultures, into the past and toward the future. Their creators have relied on humor to touch our hearts; documentary accounts to bring history alive; biography to convey the true meaning of courage; poetic language to demonstrate the power of the written word—and the artist’s brush or camera to create ravishing illustrations.

The age categories listed below are, of necessity, arbitrary. Adjust any choices to the interests and reading level of the individual child. For example, a book that may prove too demanding for a youngster to read on her or his own may constitute a perfect read-aloud.

For the Youngest Readers
(Ages 1-6)

It’s a Secret! by John Burningham
Britain’s acclaimed author-illustrator casts a new and irresistible spell as he answers the age-old question: “Where do cats go at night?” All children deserve an entire shelf full of Burningham’s brilliant creations. Enthralling for all ages.

Mommy, Where Are You? by Leonid Gore
An enchantingly original variation on the lift-the-flap book melds simple yet vivid text and a reassuring denouement.

The Snow Day by Komako Sakai
The Japanese illustrator’s evocation of the hushed and swirling moment when the flakes begin to fall is atmospheric and compressed as a verse by Basho.

Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson
On a hot day on the farm, clouds are gathering. A spirited tale, rooted in a sense of togetherness, that fairly begs for many a re-reading. A marvelous addition for every family bookshelf.

Red Ted and the Lost Thieves by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Joel Stewart
A bear, a crocodile and a cat set out across town to find their way back to the place where journeys under a lucky star will lead: home.

Budgie & Boo by David McPhail
The distinguished author has created a paean to friendship and its constancy, morning, noon and night.

Piglet and Granny by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Stephen Michael King
What’s a piglet to do when long-awaited Granny hasn’t yet swung open the squeaky garden gate? A picture-perfect portrayal of a bond between generations.

Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue by Mark Podwal
A lyrical evocation of Prague’s synagogue—“older than any other”—recounts its rich and varied history.

Mule Train Mail by Craig Brown
The Wild West meets the modern world in this surprising nod to a living tradition: mule-train mail delivery from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the town of Supai far below.

The Missing Chick by Valeri Gorbachev
There’s always one in every crowd: an errant youngster has the entire town turned inside out and searching high and low.

Dinosaur Woods by George McClements
Witty and warm-hearted, with snappy dialogue aplenty, a tale of forest creatures who band together to save their home. Kids will likely request this again and again.

Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins
Imbuing classics from “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” to “The Musicians of Bremen” with fresh energy, Cousins creates an indispensable compendium for the youngest readers.

Lost and Found: Three Dog Stories by Jim LaMarche
Faithful companions who help us find our way in the world—and into a trio of happy endings.

What Lincoln Said by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
The president’s eloquent words form the basis of a window on the life and times of the farm boy from Illinois who would enter the White House on the eve of the Civil War.

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
Relayed in adroitly compressed text and accompanied by magnificent illustration, Floca conveys the story of one great leap for mankind to a new generation of readers.

Night Lights by Susan Gal
Counting the ways that darkness is illumined, the illustrator-author also ushers in the stuff of dreams. A perfect bedtime book.

An Eye for Color: The  Story of Josef Albers by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Julia Breckenreid
A picture biography of the influential abstract painter illuminates an artistic vision that constituted one of the wellsprings of 20th-century art.

Hands of the Rainforest written and photographed by Rachel Crandell
The Embera of Panama continue to rely on traditional skills and artisanry to maintain their culture.  Crandell documents the ways in which day-to-day existence depends on a deep and ancient knowledge of the tropical forest.

For Middle Readers
(Ages 6-10)

Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery
A dog marooned by the Iraq war sets out on an incredible journey across the sands to find the Marines who had shown him the only kindness he had ever known. For anyone who wants to believe that compassion, loyalty and courage transcend all barriers, this book will restore your faith.

Camping with the President by Ginger Wadsworth, illustrated by Karen Dugan
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt sent the Secret Service packing and dismissed the press when he joined naturalist John Muir for four days of roughing it in Yosemite. The president returned home determined to create the national park system.

Tumtum & Nutmeg by Emily Bearn, illustrations by Nick Price From inside a broom cupboard, two intrepid mice take on the world and protect their human charges. Old-fashioned stories in the best sense of the word.

Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian
With his signature whimsy and wordplay, the author takes a jaunty excursion into a long, long lost world.

Lin Yi’s Lantern by Brenda Williams, illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe
As the Moon Festival approaches in China, one small boy makes a brave choice and finds that his generosity is repaid in away he least expected.

African Tales retold by Gcina Mhlophe, illustrated by Rachel Griffin
From Namibia to Ethiopia and beyond, magic and healing, kindness and resourcefulness abound: the collected stories merit many a re-reading.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen
The author brings his comic timing and passion for Florida’s wilderness to the suspenseful tale of two kids who decide to investigate after an undeniably unpopular biology teacher disappears after a field trip to a swamp.

Cezanne and the Apple Boy by Laurence Anholt
In his artful introduction to Impressionist painting and his affecting portrayal of a father and son, Anholt pays homage to the power of individual vision. For aspiring young artists everywhere.

Peaceful Heroes by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sen Addy
From Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to lesser-known figures—including Ginetta Sagan, a founder of Amnesty International—individuals have risked their lives to forge a better world. The profiles in courage inspire action and light the way into the future.

Classic Animal Stories chosen by Sally Grindley
From Aesop’s Fables to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, this splendid anthology limns all the wonders of the wild creatures’ world.

Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul, illustrated by Frank Morrison
The NBA superstar offers an empowering remembrance of his childhood, when he was told: “You’re too small to play basketball.” He was, however, far too busy working toward his dream to listen to the naysayers. For every child who has faced seemingly insuperable obstacles.

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock
When an eight-year-old boy arrives with his mother and sister in the United States from a refugee camp in Sudan, life seems dauntingly unmoored—until he devises an ingenious solution for connecting with his classmates and making his way toward friendship.

Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
As she is about to turn 11, a girl called Lucky hopes that life will become more interesting in the small town that she calls home—Hard Pan. But diversion isn’t always as simple as it seems, in this appealing sequel to the Newbery-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky.

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix
A little-known story of resistance pays homage to those who risked all to create a secret sanctuary in wartime Paris.

Wild Times at the Bed & Biscuit by Joan Carris, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
The next installment in the quiet exploits of the best fictional vet around. Grampa Bender rescues wild creatures from a cranky muskrat to a wounded Canada goose, nursing them back to health at his animal boardinghouse. A clever chapter book for elementary-school ages or an admirable read-aloud for pre-school children.

January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco
Polacco’s extraordinary evocation of a little-known chapter in American history, the tale of a daring rescue on the Underground Railroad, speaks to heroism at its most profound.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence
The celebrated British illustrator has created an heirloom edition of one of the greatest adventure sagas ever told.

My name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock. Eerdmans, William B.
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix. Holiday House, Inc.
Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. Candlewick Press
Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
January's Sparrow by Patricia Polacco. Penguin Group (USA)
Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds. Lee & Low Books, Inc.
Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence. Candlewick Press
It's a Secret! by John Burningham. Candlewick Press

Raspberries! by Jay O’Callahan, illustrated by Will Moses
Kindness has its own reward, as Simon learns after his bakery is forced to close down. A large-hearted stand-out, accompanied by a CD of the story, recorded by the author.

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams and Deborah Beale, pictures by Greg Swearingen
Two siblings believe that a summer spent on their elderly uncle’s farm is going to be dull as all get-out—until they spot the dragon in the barn. A yarn invested with a great deal of charm from two master storytellers.

Nasreen’s Secret School: a True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter
At this moment, teachers in that war-torn land are placing their lives in the balance to give girls a future. Winter’s account affirms the transformative power of education and the healing strength of a grandmother’s love.

Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins
For dino-obsessed children on your list, an interactive excursion to the giants of prehistory.

Breakfast in the Rainforest written and photographed by Richard Sobol
The world-class photographer trekked into wilds of Uganda to document the lives of a band of critically endangered mountain gorillas and the rangers committed to protecting them.

Miss Little’s Gift by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Jim Burke
In a second-grade classroom in 1950s Iowa—decades before a condition we now know as ADHD was recognized—a perceptive teacher saw that one child needed individual tutoring before he could learn to read. The author’s recollection of his own childhood experience is a tribute to teachers everywhere.

The Anne Frank Case by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
In 1958, Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Nazi hunter, learned that Neo-Nazis were perpetrating the idea that the Anne Frank story was a hoax. Thus began his five-year search for the Gestapo officer who arrested the Frank family, testifying to Wiesenthal’s determination to honor a young girl’s memory.

Stories from the Billabong retold by James Vance Marshall, illustrated by Frances Firebrace
From Australia, how the great Mother Snake created the world and the Kangaroo got his pouch: Aboriginal legends, memorably recast.

First Come the Zebra by Lynne Barasch
Against the backdrop of the annual migration of wildlife to Kenya, and recent violence in that country, a Maasai boy and a Kikuyu child bridge the differences that cast a shadow over both their lives.

Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Johanna Wright
Open the creaky gate to a disheveled homestead, where a slightly obstreperous witch is badly in need of rescue from a resourceful girl who arrives to put things right. Umansky’s delightful novel, shot through with magic potions and featuring a heroic cat, is this year’s most transporting creation for middle readers.

Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber, illustrated by Scott Mack
In a Kenyan orphanage on the border with Somalia, a  boy encounters a traveling librarian who delivers books by camel train—and suddenly, a life of possibility emerges.

Three outstanding titles mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday:
Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure by A. J. Wood and Clint Twist
A sumptuously illustrated introduction to the scientific imagination, based on Darwin’s diaries and later works.

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman
Transfixed by the mysteries of the natural world, Darwin set off aboard the Beagle in 1831. This account offers a page-turning survey of the voyage that instigated an intellectual revolution.

What Mr. Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom
Whimsical and accessible, the writer-illustrator team presents complex ideas with their characteristic verve.

Mission to the Moon by Alan Dyer
Information-packed text and more than 200 photographs from NASA archives relay the race into space with immediacy and depth.

Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley
This picture-biography surveys the contributions of Edna Lewis, the pioneering chef, who celebrated regional American cooking well before it was fashionable. Includes recipes.

Stars Above Us by Geoffrey Norman, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
The night sky shines brightly for a father and his young daughter—even when distances created by his deployment separate them. A touching narrative for any child who has awaited a parent’s return.

Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge
In 1871, a young artist joined an expedition of scientists setting out to explore the West. The monumental canvasses based on his travels would become iconic images that are now part of our nation’s heritage.

In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by JaeMe Bereal
With only her dreams and her genius to guide her, a young girl set out from Florida in the 1890s for New York City. There, she would become a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton by Rebecca Bond
In the 19th century, two venturesome brothers in the grip of a magnificent obsession—documenting British birds and their nests—carved out a pioneering niche in wildlife photography.

Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds
On the Edenic island of Bali, farmers have grown rice in harmony with their land for 1,000 years—practices that show promise for rice cultivation worldwide. Reynolds sends us on a compelling odyssey to one of the world’s great intact cultures.

Wildlife Gardening by Martyn Cox
How to do everything from attracting bees to creating an owl’s nest from an old boot: creating a refuge in your own backyard amounts to the ultimate in hands-on family fun.

Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A daughter pays tribute to her father’s undaunted courage—on and off the playing field—in this quietly moving vignette from her childhood.

Whaling Season: A Year in the life of an Arctic Whale Scientist, written and photographed by Peter Lourie; Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places, written and photographed by Donna M. Jackson
Both these titles, the latest in a series exploring the work of field scientists, vividly convey the thrill of research conducted everywhere from the edge of the ice to the top of great redwoods.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
David. Joseph. Franklin. Ezell—college students who changed history when they took seats at the whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Poetic story telling and energetic illustrations illuminate a transformative moment in America.

Erika-San by Allen Say
When a young Japanese-American woman goes in search of her grandparents’ traditions, she locates her future on a Japanese island where the old ways continue to hold sway.

For Older Readers
(Ages 10 and up)

Genius of Common Sense written and illustrated by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch
An American heroine of the first order, Jane Jacobs perceived cities as places where we thrive on interconnectedness. Her vision, eloquently explicated here, revolutionized our urban landscapes. For all ages.

Crows & Cards by Joseph Helgerson
Hilarious, touching and grounded in the American tall-tale tradition, Helgerson’s account of Zebulon Crabtree, who falls in with a riverboat gambler in 1849 St. Louis, has all the makings of a classic. Perfect as a read-aloud for somewhat younger children also.

Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness by Bruce and Carol L. Malnor, illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann; Earth Heroes: Champions of the Ocean by Fran Hodgkins, illustrated by Cris Arbo
Profiles of dedicated scientists and environmentalists shed new light on science conducted in the field.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
This novel, richly layered and satisfyingly complex, is at once a legal thriller and a love story—but most of all, a tale of an autistic protagonist finding his way forward when demanding choices must be made.

The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain
A portrayal of the researchers who put their lives on the line to solve a medical mystery constitutes a true-life tale that will inspire the next generation of medical investigators.

Lifting the Sky by Mackie d’Arge
On a tumbledown ranch in Wyoming, a teenage girl who befriends wild creatures and possesses her own kind of clairvoyance finds that a real home is at last within her grasp.

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone
In 1958, an unspoken rule was in place: astronauts must be male and must be white. The pioneers who challenged the system were pathfinders for young women who today fly jets and take off for missions in space.

Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
As a girl and her family set out on a harrowing escape from war-torn Guatemala, they rely on family and a tradition of storytelling to sustain them on their flight to freedom. Pellegrino’s powerful novel is set against the backdrop of events as they unfolded in 1980s Central America.

City Boy by Jan Michael
In Malawi, an orphaned boy, sent to the country to live with his relatives, believes that only the past has any meaning—until he begins to glimpse his future.

Heroes of the Environment by Harriet Rohmer, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin
In Mexico, a superstar wrestler campaigns to preserve habitats for sea turtles and whales. A teenage girl discovers a method for removing a toxic chemical from the Ohio River. What they hold in common is a passionate belief that one person can make a difference.

The Yggssey by Daniel Pinkwater
Wacked out, shot through with sorcery and utterly original as always, Pinkwater’s account of a girl who happens to notice that L.A.’s once-thriving ghosts seem to be vanishing amounts to a first-class page turner.

If I Had a Hammer written and photographed by David Rubel
An absorbing chronicle of Habitat for Humanity, which for a quarter century has created shelter from the ground up, everywhere from West Virginia to a Brazilian village, where children no longer sleep beneath a table when the rains begin.

Hannah’s Winter by Kieran Meehan
Witty and unpredictable, fantastical and touching, Meehan’s novel is set in present-day Japan. An ancient message uncovered in a Japanese family’s stationery shop sends two teenage sleuths on a quest for truth.

Juicy Writing: Inspiration and Techniques for Young Writers by Brigid Lowry
The author of many outstanding young adult novels, including Follow the Blue, shares her secrets and explores the rewards of creativity.

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
Samar is a typical teenager—obsessed by school, friends and boys—until an uncle arrives from India, wanting to connect her family to its rich and contradictory Sikh heritage.

Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge
A documentary account of events in Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1965—when even children marched in support of the campaign for voting rights— is amplified by unforgettable contemporary photographs.

Pharaoh’s Boat by David Weitzman
Splendid drawings and compelling narrative meld past and present, revealing the secrets of shipwrights working in the shadow of the Pyramids and recognizing the contribution of the archaeologist who excavated the 4,600-year-old vessel they crafted.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trento Lee Stewart
Four friends who have already sorted out some evildoers find that they must unravel clues in an ominous new plot against their families. Suspense of a high order.

The Man Who Flies with Birds by Carole Garbuny Vogel and Yossi Leshem
Internationally renowned ornithologist Leshem has revolutionized our understanding of migration patterns and also has worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East—reaching one bird lover at a time.

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
It’s quite a high-wire act to create a distinctive novel set in the Christmas season. But the singularly talented Richard Peck has done just that—and managed to bring back the beloved figure of eccentric, no-holds-barred Grandma Dowdel, as he returns to small-town Illinois, this time in 1958.

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