School’s out for summer? Time to read!

There are loads of studies and reports about how children in the USA lag far behind their peers around the globe in reading and math. Here's one fact to consider for summer vacation: kids who aren't read to or, for those able, don't read independently, fall behind in reading skills (and academics in general) compared to kids who do read or have regular storytimes.

With gobs of books on the market, it's difficult to know which ones will connect with children. Voila! That problem is erased with this quick reference guide.

For readers birth to age 2

"Who's Hiding?" by Sebastien Braun, Candlewick, 2013, 16 pages, $6.99 board book. Join in the fun game of baby discovering who is hiding behind all sorts of objects. Vibrant illustrations accompany the repeating question of "Who's hiding ..." which prompts little ones to lift the sturdy flaps and reveal the answer.

"Away We Go! A Shape-and-Seek Book" by Chiêu Anh Urban, Scholastic, 2013, 22 pages, $6.99 board book. Shapes galore adorn this fun learning book that prompts readers to find specific shapes on each double-page spread. More learning takes place with the cut-outs on every page of the featured shape. From a square on a truck and a train, an oval on a fire truck and a submarine, this colorful book is packed with fun and learning.

"Mouse's First Summer" by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Buket Erdogan, Little Simon, 2013, 34 pages, $7.99 board book. Travel with Mouse and Minka on their picnic in the park where they discover all sorts of wonderful, colorful things. There is the tasty red watermelon, tickly green grass, delicious yellow lemonade and much more.

Ages 3 and 4

"Let's Go, Hugo!" by Angela Dominguez, Dial, 2013, 36 pages, $16.99 hardcover. Hugo the bird lives in a park in Paris. Among other things he enjoys, Hugo is very fond of looking at the Eiffel Tower. When Hugo meets the spunky bird Lulu, she suggests they fly to the Eiffel Tower for a closer look. But Hugo is afraid to fly and is too embarrassed to tell Lulu. Instead, he comes up with all sorts of other activities to do, until at last it is nighttime.

That evening Hugo confesses his fear to a wise old owl who assures Hugo that everyone is afraid of something. Offering to help Hugo learn to fly, Hugo plucks up his courage and the two practice all night. But will Hugo see Lulu again? And if he does, will he be courageous enough to fly with her?

"Mary Wrightly, So Politely" by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Maria Monescillo, Harcourt, 2013, 32 pages, $16.99 hardcover. Mary Wrightly is a very polite little girl. She also never raises her voice, which sometimes causes Mary problems; it's very difficult to hear Mary when she is speaking.

One day she wants to buy a special birthday gift for her baby brother. Mary and her mother go to the store, but every time Mary sees a gift she wants, someone snatches it up ahead of her. When at last she finds the perfect stuffed toy and a woman has just taken it off the shelf, Mary has to find her louder voice to make the woman hear her and understand that the toy is for her brother!

Whimsical illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to this story of learning to stick up for yourself and politely be heard.

"Hedgehog's Magic Tricks" by Ruth Paul, Candlewick, 2013, 28 pages, $12.99 hardcover. Hedgehog loves doing magic tricks. Unfortunately, his tricks don't always go well. One day Hedgehog was performing his tricks with the help of his friends, but when things go from not-so-good to even worse, Hedgehog is filled with disappointment. Luckily, his friends recognize this and decide to work their own magic for their friend, saving the day after all.

Ages 5 and 6

"How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans" by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mark Fearing, Dial, 2013, 32 pages, $16.99 hardcover. Like most kids, Martha does not like green beans. Despite how many times her parents have told her that green beans are good for her, Martha is not a convert. But when a gang of mean green beans marches into town, and kidnaps Martha's parents, she know she had to rescue them, even it is meant the worst - eating green beans herself!

"Memoirs of a Hamster" by Devin Scillian, illustrated by Tim Bowers, Sleeping Bear Press, 2013, 32 pages, $15.99 hardcover. Seymour the hamster loves his life inside in a cage; he has everything he needs - sunflower seeds, water, a flashy wheel to run on and a girl who gives him yogurt drops.

Pearl, the cat of the house, has other ideas for Seymour. Pearl tells Seymour that if he comes out of his cage he'll find the staircase is made of sunflower seeds and the sunroom is filled with yogurt drops. Tempted by this information, Seymour makes his escape, but as Seymour soon learns, Pearl reveals her true intentions: to make Seymour into a snack!

"Pterosaur Trouble" by Daniel Loxton, illustrated by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith, Kids Can Press, 2013, 32 pages, $16.95 hardcover. The huge pterosaur soars through the air, looking for small animals to eat. He sees a small feathered dinosaur, but instinct tells him this small creature is behaving as if it is hunting him. Suddenly he is attacked by a pack of feathered dinosaurs. Will the pterosaur be able to free himself?

Magnificent illustrations add additional excitement to this fascinating book.

Ages 7 and 8

"Escape From Silver Street Farm" by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Katharine McEwen, Candlewick, 2013, 72 pages, $12.99 hardcover. The opening day of Silver Street is fast approaching, and the three kids, Meera, Gemma and Karl, who came up with the idea for the farm, couldn't be more excited. Their mentor, Flora MacDonald, has been a huge help to make their dream a reality. But now, with only one day left to finalize preparations, Flora alerts the kids that their flock of turkeys is missing and so have the sheep!

With no time to spare, they all spring into action to find out where they are and how this could have happened.

"The Adventures of Joe Schmo: Wyatt Burp Rides Again" by Greg Trine, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer, Harcourt, 2012, 106 pages, $12.99 hardcover. Fourth-grade crime fighter Jo Schmo is having a problem. Her superhero powers have helped rid the streets of San Francisco of evil crime-doers, but Jo, along with her sidekick slobbering dog, Ramond, and her grandpa, are itching to use their talents to solve more crimes. Since present-day San Francisco is in good shape, Jo invents a time machine to take her back to the Gold Rush era to track down the outlaw Wyatt Burp and his Hole in the Head Gang. Soon enough Jo has problems back in the present; when she returns, two nasty girls are determined to ruin Jo Schmo for good. Will Jo be able to handle the whole mess, past and present?

"The Big Bad Wolf Goes on Vacation" by Delphine Perret, Sterling, 2013, 66 pages, $12.95 hardcover. Bernard, who happens to be the Big Bad Wolf, is close friends with Louis. As a matter of fact, he lives in the closet in Louis's room. When the Big Bad Wolf finds out that Louis and his grandpa are going on vacation to the beach, the wolf begs to go with them. Of course Louis is game, and it turns out his grandpa is, too, with the proviso that the Big Bad Wolf behaves ...

Get ready for a wild and funny vacation; this one is a winner!

Ages 9 and 10

"Explore! The Most Dangerous Journeys of All Time" by Deborah Kespert, illustrations/photographs various sources, Thames & Hudson, 2013, 96 pages, $17.95 hardcover. Prepare to be amazed with these real-life adventures of some of the most daring explorers from around the world from the past and our present.

Learn the where, why and how these men and women faced the challenges of the unknown. Travel across dangerous sea passages, the North and South poles, scorching deserts and unknown lands and more. Other bonuses are specific dangers, survival tips and profiles of indigenous peoples the explorers encountered.

"Odessa Again" by Dana Reinhardt, illustrated by Susan Reagan, Wendy Lamb Books, 2013, 195 pages, $15.99 hardcover. The life of fourth-grader Odessa Green-Light has been in a state of flux. Her parents divorced, everyone moved to another house, and now Odessa's father is going to marry Jennifer (which Odessa is determined to change). After a fight with her younger brother, angry Odessa retreats to her attic bedroom, pounds her feet on the floor, and suddenly falls through the floor only to land back in her own room. What she discovers is that she has traveled back in time 24 hours. She also discovers she has the ability to do this again and again.

With this newfound ability Odessa can "fix" all sorts of things like mistakes, embarrassing moments, and maybe even her situation with her mom and dad.

A wonderful, often funny story, "Odessa Again" carries strong themes of family, friends and the constant guarantee of life changes.

"Paperboy" by Vince Vawter, Delacourt, 2013, 225 pages, $16.99 hardcover. An 11-year-old boy throws a baseball like nobody else in Memphis, yet he struggles so hard to speak without stuttering that he can't even say his own name. When he accidentally throws a fastball and hits his best friend, Rat, in the mouth, he tells Rat he will take over his paper route for the month of July so Rat can visit his grandparents on their farm.

The throwing part of the paper route would be easy, but the communication with customers and money collection would be really difficult. But as the boy learns, "The paper route was where I met all the new people in my life and where all the bad stuff happened. And some good stuff too."

Beautifully written, this heartfelt story set in the 1959 segregated South is unforgettable.

Ages 11, 12 and older

"Vote" by Gary Paulsen, Wendy Lamb Books, 2013, 131 pages, $12.99 hardcover. Fourteen-year-old Kevin Spencer finally has a date with the most beautiful, perfect girl in the world, Tina. When the super-handsome and suave Cash Devine transfers to Kevin's school, all of the girls (including Tina) can't help but notice him. To make matters worse for Kevin, Cash is running for class president, garnering even more attention. That's when Kevin makes his decision to run for class president, too.

Kevin is up against stiff competition. Cash's campaign manager is the wicked-smart and ultra-organized Katie Knowles. To arrange a successful campaign that ensures victory, Kevin has to get cracking. Initially overwhelmed, Kevin turns his hat around, surrounds himself with a quirky but lovable advisors, and mounts his strategy to win.

"The Lucy Variations" by Sara Zarr, Little Brown, 2013, 307 pages, $18 hardcover. Sixteen-year-old Lucy Beck-Moreau has a life many would envy. She is a heavily promoted concert pianist who plays in venues around the world. That was in the years leading up to age 14 when certain circumstances made her decide to quit just before a very important performance.

Now, Lucy's younger pianist brother, Gus, is in the limelight and is expected to follow in Lucy's previous footpath. When Gus gets a new piano teacher, he not only is an excellent teacher for Gus but gently tries to interest Lucy into playing again, but this time just for her; the way she wants to play.

Strong believable characters, situations and plot line are meticulously executed. A beautiful exploration of finding one's identity and discovering joy in the everyday beauty of life, "The Lucy Variations" excels.

"Prisoner B-3087" by Alan Gratz, Scholastic, 2013, 260 pages, $16.99 hardcover. Yanek stated it plainly: "If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more ... played more ... hugged my parents and told them I loved them." At the time Yanek Gruener was a 10-year-old Jewish boy in 1930s Poland. The Nazis had closed in and cracked down on the Jews, and in three short years, Yanek's parents and everyone he loved had been deported to concentration camps and were likely dead, while Yanek evaded capture. At 13, he was all alone.

The Nazis finally caught Yanek. He suffered through 10 different concentration camps where he and the others were worked to exhaustion, starved and tortured. Surviving didn't guarantee life; some were killed for sport. Even in his darkest hours when Yanek thought it impossible to take one more step, live one more minute, his uncle's words sustained him: ". . . we have only one purpose now: survive. Survive at all costs, Yanek. We cannot let these monsters tear us from the pages of the world."

Based on the true story of Ruth and Jack Gruener, this novel is at once astonishing, harrowing and ultimately a story of profound courage and hope.

www.greatestbooksforkids.com

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