Children's books for the holidays, or for every day | December 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- December 6, 2013

Children's books for the holidays, or for every day

From brilliant inventions to superhero squirrels, new books offer challenges, adventure

by Debbie Duncan

New books for children and families celebrate inventors and inventions, fantasy and imagination, math and poetry, and darn good storytelling.

'Tis the season to add to your home library!

Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit up the World by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez; $17; Candlewick; ages 4-10.

Long before Tesla was a Palo Alto car company, Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla set out to prove that alternating current was the most efficient form of electricity. His biggest doubter and rival? Thomas Edison. Nevertheless, Tesla's Hall of Electricity triumphed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. He went on to harness the power of Niagara Falls for Northeast electricity. His inventions did, in fact, light up the world.

This stunning picture-book biography of the eccentric, brilliant, Silicon Valley-like inventor includes information on the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, extensive scientific notes, and a bibliography.

Locomotive by Brian Floca; $18; Jackson/Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 4 and up.

All aboard for a remarkable journey that's perfect for train enthusiasts or American history buffs. On one level it's a picture book about a mother and two children traveling on the new transcontinental railroad from Omaha to join their father in Sacramento in the summer of 1869. But really, the locomotive, or "iron horse," is the main character — the noises it makes, how it works, who makes it work, and how it completely transformed travel to California.

"Locomotive" shows the building of the transcontinental railroad; how steam powers the engine; the labor and mechanics involved in a cross-country train trip; how passengers slept, ate, and even used the train's toilet (not in a station, please); and the variety of landscapes and wildlife seen out the windows. All that, plus remarkably detailed notes and endpapers.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell; $18; Candlewick; ages 8-12.

Warning: kids who read "Flora & Ulysses," or who have this charming, comic-book-style illustrated novel read to them, may very well want their own pet superhero squirrel who types poetry, flies, and is able to rescue fathers who are attacked by evil cats. They will want their own Ulysses.

Ulysses, the superhero squirrel, knows his rescuer Flora has a big heart, a "capacious" heart. He uses big words because he is a poet, and because Kate DiCamillo respects her young audience enough to use larger-than-life vocabulary that kids can figure out, or ask their parents about. Ulysses's journey from backyard squirrel to reborn superhero, then marked-for-murder squirrel involves a colorful, quirky cast of heroes and villains, humor and heart.

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. by Greg Pincus; $17; Levine/Scholastic; ages 8-12.

Gregory has a hard time telling his math-genius family members — especially his father — that he likes writing, not math. So what does he do? Enters himself in a city-wide math competition. He also tells his best friend that his parents agreed to send him to Author's Camp with her, when really they're threatening him with Math is Magic Camp unless he gets a B in his least favorite subject.

Only a kid as clever as Gregory could figure out how to use a formula called the "Fibonacci Sequence" to write his way out of the hole he digs for himself. He gets a little help from an awesome math teacher, his good friend Kelly, his (sometimes) understanding family, and a lot of pie. (And pi.)

The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer; $18; Jackson/Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; ages 12 and up.

Fans of former Menlo Park author Nancy Farmer's 2002 National Book Award-winning masterpiece, "The House of the Scorpion," may be adults now, but I hope they revisit the clone Matt in this sequel filled with clever twists and turns.

Matt returns to Opium a reluctant drug lord, under pressure to keep up opium production even while his country is in lockdown. He also has a different, more pressing mission: to figure out how to free the zombie-like, worker-bee eejits. Even the father of Matt's friend, formerly a world-famous musician, has been turned into a mind-numbed eejit.

To succeed, Matt must use remarkable determination and wits, call on his friends' ingenuity (including that of a smart-mouthed seven-year-old fellow clone named Listen), and battle an African drug lord, an evil physician and his scientist children, among others.

Yes, there's a huge cast of characters and wildly imaginative settings and situations. In other words, another Nancy Farmer gem.

Children's book reviewer Debbie Duncan of Stanford is the author of e-book "Caller Number Nine" and a regular contributor to the Perspectives series on KQED.