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For kids: Maira Kalman's 'Thomas Jefferson' and more

"Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything" by Maira Kalman (Nancy Paulsen Books, January 2014). Credit: Nancy Paulsen Books

Maira Kalman's whimsical picture-book style, with its humorous asides and details chosen seemingly at random, may not seem suited to such an earnest subject as presidential biography. "Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything" (Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin, $17.99, ages 5-8) reminds us how often we confuse earnestness with seriousness, especially in children's books. (This is, in fact, Kalman's second presidential biography, after "Looking at Lincoln" in 2012.)

Kalman arranges this book as a virtual visit to Jefferson's home, Monticello, now a museum. Her tendency to digress is on full display: Noting the third president's collection of American Indian artifacts, she comments that one tribal shield "could give you nightmares. (Ugh. Nightmares. Why do we have them?)" But so is her ability to let the mind soar with the possibilities of an idea: Her observation about Jefferson's design for his bed, built to be accessed from two different rooms, paints a vivid picture of his energetic nature. She doesn't shy away from the contradictions about the third president: "The man who said of slavery, 'this abomination must end,' was the owner of about 150 slaves." She opens his farm book with "a list of his slaves and the supplies they were given. Our hearts are broken." Her conclusion: "If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello."

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's picture-book collaborations ("Room on the Broom," "The Gruffalo") are always beloved, the irrepressible rhymes inseparable from the bounce-off-the-page illustrations. This time their antics take on an epic quality. In "Superworm" (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, $16.99, ages 4-8), a hero of almost Beowulfian proportions is confronted with a villain of comparable stature, Wizard Lizard. Lizard's minion is a black crow; the villagers under Superworm's protection are the gentler insects and smaller creatures. A great battle ensues. Will balance be restored to the world? Of course it will!

In "Paul Meets Bernadette" by Rosy Lamb (Candlewick Press, $14, ages 3-7), Paul the goldfish swims round and round, enclosed in his tiny glass bowl. One day, he's joined by another goldfish ("Bernadette dropped in" -- the very words make a little splash). Bernadette doesn't just swim round; she looks out at the world beyond the glass walls. Here the illustrations open up to show what the fish see. Wide-eyed Paul is Bernadette's willing pupil, as she points out things he has never noticed: for example, the curve of a banana ("a boat!" she explains, knowledgeably). The teapot with its curved spout is "an elephant," she says, warning: "But you must not disturb her when she is feeding her babies" (pouring tea into matching teacups). How happy Paul is; one of the joys of companionship is that it opens new worlds.

In Laurie Halse Anderson's novel, "The Impossible Knife of Memory" (Viking, $18.99, ages 12 and up), a girl and her father move back to his hometown for her senior year of high school. Hayley has learned to cope with her single father's combat flashbacks and his post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple tours of duty. She is accustomed to watching him carefully for signs of a bad period coming. On her return home from school one afternoon, "Dad's pickup was parked in the driveway. I put my hand on the hood: stone cold. I checked the odometer: no extra miles since I left that morning. He hadn't gone to work again." Is he just having a drink, or drinking? Is he using again? Hayley has learned to keep people at a distance, either to protect them from Andy's fits of rage or to protect him from being discovered in a bad state. But settling in her grandmother's house allows the world dangerously close. There are adults at her high school who knew the old Andy and take an interest. Then there is a boy who doesn't seem to take her "no" for an answer.

Not many young-adult novels are published in translation, but Wolfgang Herrndorf's "Why We Took the Car," translated by Tim Mohr (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 14 and up) makes the jump easily from German to English, largely because of the wonderful Russian immigrant teenager (Tschick, a shortening of a universally unpronounceable last name) whose nutty, soulful energy intrudes on our hero's humdrum suburban existence. What nerd doesn't need a serious jolt to shake him off his path to inevitable social disaster? A road trip never fails to deliver the unexpected, or to reorder one's priorities.


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