Best new books for kids

This season's best new reads for third through fifth graders.

By Susan Freinkel

The Flint Heart

By Katherine Paterson and John Paterson; illustrated by John Rocco

Ages: 7 and up

Originally published in 1910, this fairy tale now appears in a new abridged version that has been updated for a modern audience. The story centers on the Flint Heart, a Stone Age talisman that hardens the hearts of its wearers, making them cruel and power-hungry. Lost for 5,000 years, the charm "starts bubbling away with wickedness" when it is unearthed by a kindly farmer. The moment he pockets it, the farmer turns mean — he snarls and shouts and hits his oldest son, Charlie. To rid their father of the evil charm, Charlie and his sister turn for help to a cast of magical creatures, including pixies and, bizarrely, a hot water bottle. The illustrations have a modern animated look (yes, a film is in the works), but the writing retains that wonderfully arch tone of Victorian classics like Winnie-the-Pooh.

Bottom line: The Flint Heart is a wonderfully wacky yarn made for reading aloud, one chapter at a time.

Liesl & Po

By Lauren Oliver

Ages: 8 and up

Locked away by her conniving stepmother since her father’s death, Liesl lives in a tiny attic room. Her only companions are mice and shadows. Then one day Po — a ghost from the Other Side  — comes to help Liesl take her father’s ashes home. The two become friends and Po helps her escape. They soon collide with Will, an alchemist’s apprentice who sets them all on a dangerous course when he mixes up the box containing the ashes of Liesl's father with one holding "the Most Powerful Magic in the World." Part fairy-tale, part adventure story, Liesl and Po ($11.19) shows how generosity can conquer greed and how friendship can brighten even the darkest of places.

Bottom line: Older elementary schoolers and young tweens will appreciate the fairy-tale elements and clearly drawn lines between good and evil.

Wildwood

By Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellison

Ages: 9 and up

"I have no idea what’s going on but I’m not insane . . . So if you’re going to come along, you’re going to have to believe this stuff too." So declares Prue, the gutsy 12-year-old heroine of this adventure fantasy, the first in a projected trilogy. It's not hard to believe the richly imagined world conjured here in a Portland, Oregon forest known to locals as the Impassable Wilderness. When a flock of crows snatch Prue’s baby brother, she and goofy classmate Curtis must venture into that fearsome Wilderness to rescue him. There they encounter a world where animals talk, plants feel, postmen carry double-barreled rifles, and a terrible power struggle is taking place. Two other pleasures of the book: Ellison's elegant illustrations and Meloy's vocabulary-stretching language.

Bottom line: Wildwood is a great read for fans of such classic fantasies as The Chronicles of Narnia or Alice in Wonderland.

Wonderstruck

By Brian Selznick

Ages: 9 and up

Selznick alternates text and exquisite pencil drawings to tell two distinct stories that eventually entwine to become one. The book opens in 1977 with Ben, a 12-year-old Minnesota boy grieving his mother's death — he doesn’t know his father — when a freak lightening strike renders him deaf. Stumbling onto clues that suggest his father lives in New York City, Ben sets out to find him. Just as you’re getting hooked on Ben's tale, you're plunged back in time 50 years into the illustrated story of Rose, a lonely deaf girl who runs away to New York in search of her favorite Broadway star. Through the twin tales and their climactic intersection, Selznick explores an array of themes: family, friendship, memory, and the magic of museums.

Bottom line: The prose and pictures in Wonderstruck keep the story accessible, but the coming-of-age theme makes this best for older tweens.
 

Apothecary

By Maile Meloy, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr

Ages: 10 and up

Imagine a cross between Harry Potter and Nancy Drew. That blend of magic and mystery propel this fast-paced novel set in the 1950s cold-war era. Janie Scott is an American teen forced to abruptly move from Los Angeles to London with her parents. There she meets a mysterious apothecary and his son Benjamin, who intrigues her by his willingness to stand up to authority and dreams of someday becoming a spy. When Russian spies kidnap Ben’s father, he and Janie are soon plunged into a real espionage adventure. The two find an ancient book, the Pharmacopoeia, which contains magical spells and potions they must use to save Ben’s father and prevent impending nuclear disaster.

Bottom line: The suspense and fast-pacing make The Apothecary, a compelling and easy read for middle-schoolers, though some may be put off by the romantic bits between Janie and Benjamin.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale

By Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright; illustrated by Barry Moser

Ages: 10 and up

Skilley is a stray tomcat with an embarrassing secret: He doesn’t like to eat mice. But eager to escape the hardships of street life, he takes a gig as chief mouser at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Tavern. He soon strikes a deal with the resident mice — he’ll only pretend to catch them if they’ll supply him with cheese. The unlikely partners then unite to deal with a variety of other challenges. The book is filled with endearing characters, like the brainy mouse Pip, who speaks in hundred-dollar words, and a few famous authors, including Charles Dickens, who frequent the pub. The Chesire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale ($11.53) abounds with nods to Dickens, starting with the opening lines: "He was the best of Toms. He was the worst of Toms."

Bottom Line: Kids probably won't get the literary references, but this beautifully illustrated tale of two species is so fun that it doesn't matter.
 

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and has written for the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and other national publications.