Keep kids reading this winter break with these new books


The holidays are nearly here … and so is the vast post-celebration zone. Keep your young reader’s mind primed during school break with these picks while underscoring the value of reading for pleasure instead of a grade. (Parenting win!)

For the picture-book set, seek out “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness” (Lee & Low, $19.95), a biography of a Tennessee man who saw promise in a colt others might have overlooked. William Key was dubbed “Doc” for his skill at caring for horses, but he became a teacher as well when he discovered that a newly born colt had a knack for communication. Doc teaches “Beautiful Jim” to point to letters, spell words and answer questions, eventually taking him on the road to showcase his skills. From the everyday racism inherent in the late 19th century to Doc’s training methods — “Kindness, kindness and more kindness, that’s the way,” he explains — this biography offers immense fodder for further discussion. Author Donna Janell Bowman grew up on a ranch outside of Austin; her well-researched telling of Doc and Jim’s story is augmented by illustrator Daniel Minter’s warm acrylic paintings. (Ages 7-12; older readers will enjoy Bowman’s detailed, fact-filled epilogue about Doc.)

Younger readers also can get in on the biography action with Jen Bryant’s “Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille” (Random House, $17.99), which details the life of the communication system’s creator. Louis lost his sight as a child, after an accident triggered an infection that blinded him. Illustrator Boris Kulikov’s paintings evoke young Louis’ isolation, with black shadowy renderings of action Louis could identify through sound but not sight. Bryant explains how Louis birthed the language of raised dots as a schoolboy in Paris, adapting a code used by soldiers on the battlefield. An informative Q&A addresses such topics as how Braille has kept pace with the digital age. (Ages 4-8)

Teddy finds two children lost in the snow and leads them to the safety of his cabin to wait out the storm. So begins Newbery-winning writer Patricia MacLachlan’s “The Poet’s Dog” (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, $14.99) a spare, sweet, luminous page-turner of a novella. In fact, Teddy is an Irish wolfhound, and he lives with Sylvan, a poet and professor. Or he did, anyway, until recently. MacLachlan unspools Teddy’s story simply and powerfully, with a concision of language appropriate for a plot that trafficks in the value of good poetry: “‘Children tell tiny truths,’ Sylvan told me once. ‘Poets try to understand them.’” (Ages 6-10)

Lincoln Jones has plenty of secrets from his fellow sixth-grade classmates. There’s his not-so-great neighborhood and even-worse apartment that he and his mom moved to after she left an abusive boyfriend. There’s what goes on at Brookside, the assisted-living facility where his mom works. And most of all there are the stories he writes in the notebook he carries around, fiction inspired by what he sees around him. To delve into “The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones” (Knopf, $16.99) is to get a peek at the secrets, ones his classmate Kandi (Kain, and yes, that’s her real name; she’s got the birth certificate to prove it) wants to know, too. This coming-of-age story from Wendelin Van Draanen, author of the Sammy Keyes mysteries, hinges on the immense likability of Lincoln, a dreamer navigating the trials of life inside and outside of middle school. (Ages 8-12)

“The Diabolic” (Simon & Schuster, $17.99) is a humanoid created for one purpose — to train as a lethal warrior and protect the wealthy’s offspring from danger. Nemesis was bred to shield Sidonia, the daughter of a senator. So when Sidonia’s father runs afoul of the emperor and Sidonia is designated as a bargaining chip, Nemesis is sent in her place. S.J. Kincaid’s “I, Claudius”-inspired novel is full of political intrigue and deft characterization, including Nemesis’ ongoing wrestling with very human emotions. Adult fans of “Westworld”-style artificial-intelligence interactions might just snag this one, too. (Ages 14 and older)

Life on the road beckons Luna, who wants to drop out of school to tour with her band. Music runs in her blood; after all, both her parents were musicians when they met and fell in love. But her mom gave up touring to raise Luna and her sister, Phoebe — and she doesn’t want to see her daughter ditch her education. So Phoebe is dispatched to Brooklyn from upstate New York to talk some sense into her sister. What follows in “Girls in the Moon” (HarperTeen, $17.99) is a richly episodic look at parenthood, romance and creativity, filtered through the prisms of both the young adults and the grown-ups. Debut novelist Janet McNally infuses her story with the complexities and ripple effects of the choices we make. (Ages 13 and older)



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