Now that holiday gift-giving is here, it's hard to put difficult or deeply educational children's books on a best-of-the-year list; this selection favors books that an affectionate grandparent might stuff in a stocking or bundle for the last night of Hanukkah.
For the picture-book crowd, "Every Friday" by Dan Yaccarino (Henry Holt, ages 3-8) celebrates a weekly ritual when a father and son spend the morning together and go out to breakfast. On the humorous side, there is "Grumpy Bird" by Jeremy Tankard (Scholastic, ages 3-5), a hilarious story about a bird that gets up on the wrong side of the bed. Parents will treasure its illustrations long after the kids have moved on. "Knuffle Bunny Too" (Hyperion, ages 4-7) continues Mo Willems' brilliant streak of insight into the struggles of children coping with the dimwittedness of well-meaning adults.
For beginning readers, Willems also has the "Elephant and Piggie" series (Hyperion). These are among the rare books, like Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad" stories (HarperTrophy, ages 4-8), that offer great stories in few words and are rewarding to the hesitant reader and the patient listener. For reading aloud, Natalie Babbitt's prose in "Jack Plank Tells Tales" (Michael di Capua, ages 9-12) is everything you could want: playful, smart, deeply in love with storytelling possibilities. For those who like to be read to, there is a stunning audio version of "The One and Only Shrek! Plus Five Other Stories," by the incomparable William Steig, read by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci (Macmillan Books for Young Listeners). The actors' subtle voices add immeasurably to what is already perfection.
J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (Arthur A. Levine) doesn't need my endorsement, but any list of the year's best children's books would be laughable without it. It's the rare Potter fan who would still be in need of this final volume in the series, though, so "The Dangerous Book for Boys" by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden (Collins, all ages) or "Daring Book for Girls" by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz (Collins, all ages) may be more imaginative presents.
For older readers, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, ages 9-12) combines visual and verbal storytelling in an imaginative, cinematic way. Sherman Alexie's "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," illustrated by Ellen Forney (Little, Brown, ages 12 and up), about an aspiring Native American cartoonist's attempt to get off the reservation, has an operatic range, from hilarious to tragic. "Bone by Bone by Bone" by Tony Johnston (Roaring Brook Press, ages 12 and up) is a fierce little gem of Southern-style storytelling. Walter Dean Myers' "What They Found: Love on 145th Street" (Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, 12 and up) tells surprising linked tales of the forms love takes in a Harlem neighborhood. Finally, a reprint of the British children's classic "Uncle" by J.P. Martin (New York Review Books, all ages), a writer who makes Roald Dahl look restrained, would make a great gift for literary eccentrics of any age.