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Best books of 2016 to give -- and receive: Children's and middle-grade favorites

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The Thread's favorite kid's books of 2016
The Thread's favorite kid's books of 2016
Book covers courtesy of publishers

This week, The Thread is sharing some of our favorite books of the year. We're starting small, with our favorite books for young readers.

Children's books

"Du Iz Tak?" by Carson Ellis

Age 4 to 8

Sometimes the most magical place is your own backyard. Here, Carson Ellis drops readers into the dazzling, miniature world of damselflies, beetles and pill bugs, as they investigate a mysterious new plant just beginning to sprout. The whole book is written in an invented language — "Ma nazoot!" — that's so clever and charming, the message comes right through. Ellis's enchanting, folksy illustrations will be familiar to fans of last year's "Home" and the "Wildwood Chronicles" series. 

Du Iz Tak?  Du Iz Tak?

"We Found a Hat" by Jon Klassen

Age 4 to 8

If you haven't already fallen in love with Jon Klassen's previous two hat-centric adventures, "I Want My Hat Back" and "This Is Not My Hat," scoop up this whole trilogy. In "We Found a Hat," the final book in the series, two turtles stumble across a lone hat in the desert. It looks good on both of them — but there is only one hat, and two of them. Klassen packs a sneaky amount of humor and warmth into this deceptively simple story. 

We Found a Hat  We Found a Hat

"Thunder Boy Jr." by Sherman Alexie

Age 2 to 5

Sherman Alexie's funny father-son story is a "read it again" goodnight book. Thunder Boy, Jr. doesn't want to be a junior anymore — even though he loves his dad, he wants a name of his own. He pitches his dad on several newer, cooler options, like Touch the Clouds, but he doesn't bite. Together, Big Thunder and Little Thunder must settle on the perfect new name. 

Thunder Boy Jr  Thunder Boy Jr

"A Child of Books" by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston

Age 4 and up

Oliver Jeffers is on a roll: You probably know him, and his kinetic illustrations, from "The Day the Crayons Quit." In this new collaboration with Sam Winston, Jeffers has created a loving ode to the power of books and stories. "A Child of Books" follows a little girl who sails her raft across a sea of words. Those words in the waves will be familiar to older readers — the waters are made up of quotes from nursery rhymes, lullabies and children's classics like "The Wind in the Willows." On the shore, she meets a boy, who climbs aboard for more adventures in the ocean of stories. The whole book is a love letter to reading, which adults will find just as magical as children. 

A Child of Books  A Child of Books

"The Bear and the Piano" by David Litchfield

Age 4 to 7

David Litchfield wrings a big story out of a little bear with a piano. When a bear cub finds a strange big box in the woods, he's confused. He touches the keys, and it sounds terrible. Eventually, though, the bear learns to master the music. When a girl and her father stumble across his woodland performances, they bring him to the city. But in the grandeur of a giant concert hall, the bear misses his home. Litchfield crafts a story of balancing big dreams with staying true to one's roots. 

The Bear and the Piano  The Bear and the Piano

"Have You Seen Elephant?" by David Barrow

Age 3 to 6

David Barrow's book is a delightful round of hide-and-go-seek. A young boy is playing the game with an elephant, who tells him right at the beginning: "I must warn you though. I'm very good." What follows is a silly, ridiculous read as the elephant finds increasingly absurd and obvious places to hide. Young readers will shout along, calling out the elephant from his "hiding" spots. 

Have You Seen Elephant?  Have You Seen Elephant?

"A Poem for Peter" by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Age 7 to 10

If you grew up reading Ezra Jack Keats's "The Snowy Day," this is the perfect companion.  Keats's groundbreaking children's book from 1962 followed Peter, a young African-American boy, as he explored a city blanketed with snow. It was one of the first widely-published children's books to feature a diverse character. Author Andrea Davis Pinkney used to fall asleep with that book every night. In "A Poem for Peter," she tells Keats's story, and how he came to write "The Snowy Day." 

A Poem for Peter  A Poem for Peter

"The Night Gardener" by Terry and Eric Fan

Age 4 to 8

The illustrations in "Night Gardener" are absolutely entrancing — and the story is too. The book is set in an old, failing town, where the grim buildings match the people's moods. One morning, William wakes up to find the tree outside his window has been shaped into a magical owl. Curious about who is behind the night-time transformations, William sneaks out and discovers the Night Gardener at work. The young boy begins helping the Night Gardener transform the city's trees into fantastical topiaries, and bringing the city back to life. As the book continues, the illustrations become more intricate and alive with color, transforming along with the plot.

The Night Gardener  The Night Gardener

The Thread's favorite middle grade reads of 2016
The Thread's favorite middle grade reads of 2016
Book covers courtesy of publishers

Middle grade

"Raymie Nightingale" by Kate DiCamillo

Age 10 to 12

Minnesota author Kate DiCamillo, who has two Newbery Medals to her name, returned this year with a story close to her own roots. "Raymie Nightingale" is a Florida fairytale, of sorts. It takes place in the 1970s, near where DiCamillo grew up. The book follows ten-year-old Raymie, whose father has just run away with the dental hygienist. She's convinced he'll come home again if she can take first place in the Miss Central Florida Tire beauty pageant. As she trains and trains and learns to twirl a baton, she befriends two other pageant hopefuls, equally lost in their own family dramas. It's a story of unexpected friendship, with depth, heart and humor. 

Raymie Nightingale  Raymie Nightingale

"The Wild Robot" by Peter Brown

Age 8 to 11

Roz the robot wakes up alone on a wooded island. She doesn't remember how she got there or why. Robots are good at lots of things, but can Roz survive in the wilderness? Just as Roz begins to befriend the island animals, her past — and original purpose — come back to haunt her. Peter Brown's lively tale of adventure and technology is accompanied by spare and charming illustrations. You've never seen a robot story like this.

The Wild Robot  The Wild Robot

"Pax" by Sara Pennypacker

Age 8 to 12

Add "Pax" to the shelf of childhood classics about a child and a wild pet. It isn't afraid to be complicated, or to delve into tough topics like war and loss, as the best classics aren't. "Pax" tells the story of Peter and his fox, who have been inseparable since Peter saved him as a baby. When Peter's father enlists in the military, however, Peter must return Pax to the woods and go to live with his grandfather. When their separation becomes too much, Peter runs to the wild to find his friend. If the illustrations in this lovely story of a boy and his fox look familiar, it's because Jon Klassen, of "I Want My Hat Back" fame, is behind them. 

Pax  Pax

"Ghost" by Jason Reynolds

Age 10 to 12

For readers (even reluctant ones) who loved Kwame Alexander's "The Crossover," Jason Reynolds's "Ghost" manages the same trick of mixing sports with a nuanced story. Ghost is the fastest kid on his middle school track team, but track feels like one of the only things going right in his life. If he and the other kids on his team can keep it together, they have a shot at the Junior Olympics. Cheering them on is Coach, a man who blew his own shot at success but is determined not to let Ghost and his teammates make the same mistakes. The book is a powerful story of trust and transformation. 

Ghost  Ghost

"The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

Age 10 to 14

Kelly Barnhill's fantasy adventure takes place on the edge of a town with a terrible secret. Every year, the town elders order that a baby be left in the woods to satisfy the witch who lives there. They do this, they claim, to keep the witch from attacking. But nobody told the witch that: Xan has no interest in attacking anybody, and can't understand why people keep leaving babies. She ferries them to new homes on the other side of the woods, until one year, one of the babies accidentally drinks the moonlight. The baby, Luna, becomes so powerful, Xan decides to raise her as her own. As Luna nears her thirteenth birthday, her magic grows, and the tensions between the town and the witch they think they know threatens to come to a head. It's a new magical staple for the bookshelf.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon  The Girl Who Drank the Moon

"When the Sea Turned to Silver" by Grace Lin

Age 9 to 12

This fantasy takes its inspiration from Chinese folklore: The book follows young Pinmei, whose beloved grandmother, known for her storytelling powers, is stolen away by the Emperor's soldiers. Determined to get her back, Pinmei sets out to find the Luminous Stone, which she knows the Emperor covets. If she can find the stone — which she has only heard about in stories — maybe she can exchange it for her grandmother's freedom. This adventure book can be read alone, but is also a companion to Grace Lin's "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" and "Starry River of the Sky." Together, the books make a thrilling trilogy. 

When the Sea Turned to Silver  When the Sea Turned to Silver

"Ghosts" by Raina Telgemeier

Age 8 to 12

Raina Telgemeier is a beloved figure in the world of middle grade graphic novels, and for good reason: Her books capture the emotional truths of pre-adolesence with genuine grace and humor. In her latest, and potentially best-yet, Telgemeier weaves a story with sorrow at its edges. Cat and her family move to northern California because the ocean air is supposed to be better for her younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Cat resents having to leave her friends behind, and wants nothing to do with her new town, which is rumored to be filled with ghosts. Maya, however, is determined to meet one of these ghosts, and Cat must decide whether or not to help her.

Ghosts  Ghosts

"The Secret Keepers" by Trenton Lee Stewart

Age 10 to 13

Whether you're a fan of "Narnia" or "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," here's a new magical tale with plenty of twists. Magic is never all wonder and light, and there's plenty of shadows to be found here. Trenton Lee Stewart introduces readers to Reuben, the new kid in town who stumbles across an antique pocket watch with enthralling, and dangerous, powers. He must race to solve the mystery of the watch before it falls into the wrong hands, which could destroy his city and new-found friends. It's a compulsive, can't-put-it-down, chase-the-clues story. 

The Secret Keepers  The Secret Keepers