The 15 Best Children's Books of 2013

Each of these books is beautifully written and illustrated,original, offbeat, even strange-with sassy characters perfect in their imperfection. The stories push boundaries. And they have heart. Here are some of my favorites from 2013. By Randall de Seve, REDBOOK.

That Is Not a Good Idea, by Mo Willems

Talk about offbeat! Put a sinister-seeming, soup-making fox and a plump goose together in a silent movie that's really a hilarious picture book and what do you get? From the charmingly irreverent Mo Willems--a very good idea. (My kids' school voted it their favorite picture book of the year.)

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Laszlo is afraid of the dark. But the dark--an actual character full of graphic gravitas--is not afraid of Laszlo. One night, it comes to visit and teaches Laszlo how not to be afraid. And that is what will happen if you read this clever and visually engaging book. You will giggle nervously, deliciously so, at first--then in relief at how easy it is for Laszlo, who is really you (or your kid).

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown
It didn't take long--in fact, it took the perfect amount of time--for me to release a great big "Ha!" while reading this book for the first time, alone, in my study. I just love the upright Mr. Tiger (frustrated in his uptight, hard-edged world), and the joy he feels letting his paws down in the color and curves of the country. Oh, yes, going wild now and then is "a magnificent idea"--especially when a warm welcome home awaits.

The Bear's Song, by Benjamin Chaud
A little bear is too distracted by "honey thoughts" to hibernate, so he bounds out of the den, in pursuit of a bee. His Papa bounds after him. Will Little Bear find his honey? Will Papa find his Little Bear? I won't tell you-but I urge you to follow this pair, à la Where's Waldo, through the "hustle and bustle" and flair of "the big [French] city" and its endless sweet delights.

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The Mighty Lalouche, by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Another treat for Francophiles, this historical fiction for the picture book set debunks the notion that you have to be big to be mighty. In fact, small and nimble prevail in this charming tale of humble ex-postman Lalouche, who takes up boxing to support himself and his pet finch Geneviève. Exquisite, meticulously-researched ink and cut paper dioramas, along with real French phrases, give this book its unique appeal. I like reading it with an accent, for a certain je ne sais quoi.

Doug Unplugged, by Dan Yaccarino
Doug is a robot. Every morning, his loving parents plug him in so he can learn stuff. He stores lots of facts in his little robot self. But one day Doug unplugs, and guess what? He continues learning! But now he has his own experiences. Forget about that tablet, grown-ups; buy this book instead. Share it with your kid and your kid's friends. Then send them outside for some real-life fun and (no doubt) learning.

Journey, by Aaron Becker
Talk about making your own adventure! A lonely little girl (related to Harold of the Purple Crayon, perhaps?) draws a red door on her bedroom wall and escapes into a world of wildly imaginative castles and flying machines, danger and bravery. There, extraordinary kindness and a couple of crayons produce an ending so original and satisfying you can't but shake your head and smile. This gorgeous, wordless book is a gem.

Ribbit!, by Rodrigo Folgueira, illustrated by Poly Bernatene
I'm a sucker for a surprise ending-and this book, with its expressive, porcine protagonist, delivers. It also teaches a valuable lesson about friendship and difference in a most delightful, fun-to-read-aloud way.

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Nelson Mandela, by Kadir Nelson
From its powerful wordless cover, to its stunning spreads spanning milestones in a life devoted to freedom and equality, this book moves you. When I read it last Friday, the day of Mr. Mandela's death, I cried, recalling the man whose voice, a world away, rang loud in my youth. This stirring book will keep his story alive for generations to come.

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909, by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Dedicated to "workers everywhere," this true story of Ukrainian immigrant and labor movement leader Clara Lemlich inspired my daughters and me. That this dirt poor, five-foot-tall "girl [with] grit" could ignite a revolution (in 1909) that would forever change work conditions in this country made us feel like we could do anything we set our hearts to. Lush, stitched collage illustrations balance the grim reality of this new American garment worker's experience.

Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Rosie Revere is a secret engineer, until her great-great-aunt Rose (and namesake, we presume) comes to visit and inspires her to take her gizmos and grand ideas out of hiding. What results is not only a "brilliant first flop" but also a valuable life lesson: "The only true failure can come if you quit." Told in smartly-crafted rhyme, these colorful characters, bursting with personality, are a tribute to the women (think "Rosie the Riveter") who helped the allies in World War 2.

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Bluebird, written and illustrated by Bob Staake
This poetic meditation on friendship and loss is told in a sequence of exquisite, mostly two-color geometric images, carefully arranged to evoke some very strong emotions. Words as signs identify city landmarks in the first half of the book, where a sweet bluebird brings joy to a sad and lonely little boy. But then boy and bird cross into a wordless, wild, dark forest, where tragedy strikes and grief follows.

Sophie's Squash, by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
This utterly charming story with its giggle-inducing illustrations is about friendship, pure and true: loving a friend, and caring for a friend-even if it means letting go a little and growing together. And even if your friend is a squash.

On a Beam of Light, by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
Distilled from enormous research-Jennifer Berne writes in her endnotes that she read more than 50 books on Einstein-On a Beam of Light, named for Einstein's famous "thought experiment," introduces children to (get ready) some major laws of physics.

If You Want to See A Whale, by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin Stead
Waiting is hard. Especially if you're a child. Especially if you're waiting for something amazing. But waiting really can be half the fun, and that is exactly the point of this quiet gem of a book by New York Times best-selling team Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead (And Then It's Spring). A book whose dream-like images playfully counter (like a child) its evocative verse, until its exquisite, wordless finale-the other half of the fun.

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