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U. of I. children's books guide offers help to holiday book shoppers


Phil Ciciora, News Editor

Deborah Stevenson
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University of Illinois photo
Deborah Stevenson, the editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books at Illinois, compiles an annual Guide Book to Gift Books, available by download.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Even in an age dominated by iPods and other “must-have” electronic gizmos du jour everyone loves buying children’s books during the holidays. But beyond the tried and true classics (“The Little Engine that Could,” “Harry Potter,” anything by Dr. Seuss), what else is out there?

Whether you’re looking for a picture book, an age-appropriate nonfiction title or a page-turning thriller, let the 2008 edition of the Guide Book to Gift Books, now available as a downloadable PDF file be your book-buying guide.

Published to coincide with the winter gift-giving season, the 25-page annual guide is produced by Deborah Stevenson, the editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

The guide provides short descriptions of more than 300 of the best and most recent books published in four age groups: picture books for infants, toddlers and preschoolers; books for primary-grade readers (6- to 8-year-olds); books for middle-grade readers (9- to 11-year-olds); and young adult titles (12- to 18-year-olds).

Stevenson and her colleagues compiled the guide from their full book reviews of the past year, adding more than 100 new books to the 2008 edition.

Among Stevenson’s favorite books for 2008:

For pre-schoolers: “I like ‘Beep Beep’ and ‘Choo Choo,’ by Petr Horácek, which are two board books about a car trip and a train ride, respectively. Both make clever use of design: ‘Beep Beep’ has die-cut holes for the windows of a house and ‘Choo Choo’ uses them to form the entrance and exit of a tunnel.”

For picture-book lovers: “I really like ‘The Chicken of the Family,’ by Mary Amato, for its lively, absurd story and illustrations.”

For middle-school readers: “Rachel Vail’s ‘Lucky’ is a story that’s very topical given the current economic conditions. It’s about a teenage girl whose mother loses her job, and the effect that has on her family and her comfortable lifestyle. I would compare Vail’s style to Judy Blume – in fact, she might even be her successor.”

For nonfiction readers: “Ann Hodgman’s ‘The House of a Million Pets’ really stands out. It’s an account of the author’s experiences of sharing her home with pets ranging from the usual – dogs and cats – to the decidedly unusual – prairie dogs and pygmy mice. I’m also impressed with Jack Prelutsky’s ‘Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry,’ a humorous, creative book that encourages and inspires children to write simple poems.”

Just how many children’s books do Stevenson and her colleagues at the Bulletin, which reviews children’s books for librarians and educators, read each year?

“We review about 900 books, and we read about 500 more on the way to deciding what’s worth reviewing,” she said.

There is also some overlap reading of books for the Bulletin’s annual “Blue Ribbon List” and for starred reviews, “and we’re also reading outside of our Bulletin jobs.”

“So we probably read about 1,500 titles a year of the new books. But that includes picture books, which don’t take us that long!”

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books began publishing the Guide Book to Gift Books: An Annotated List of Books for Youth in the winter of 2002.

The Bulletin is affiliated with the Center for Children’s Books, a research collection of about 16,000 books for young readers. Both the Bulletin and the Center are part of Illinois and its Graduate School of Library and Information Science, which is consistently ranked the No. 1 library school program in the nation.