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I, Too, Am America

Langston Hughes, illus. by Brian Collier (Simon & Schuster)

Collier merges Hughes's 1945 poem "I, Too, Sing America" with the history of the Pullman railway porters, a job that helped build an African-American middle class in the decades following the Civil War. It's a brilliant and effective pairing, bringing provocative new dimension and context to Hughes's words about claiming a seat at America's table.

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Lemonade in Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money

Emily Jenkins, illus. by G. Brian Karas (Random/Schwartz & Wade)

The title may elicit furrowed brows, but this story of two kids and their lemonade stand (the quintessential childhood startup!) is a smart and entertaining primer on salesmanship, entrepreneurial thinking, capitalism, and an even stronger force—the bond between siblings.

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I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. (Random/Schwartz & Wade)

Nearly 50 years after King delivered his iconic speech about racial inequality and a hope for a better tomorrow, two-time Caldecott Honoree Nelson pairs King's unforgettable words with paintings that crystallize their meaning and historical weight. More focused in scope than Nelson's Heart and Soul, a PW Best Book in 2011, but no less potent.

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This Is Not My Hat

Jon Klassen (Candlewick)

It's testament to Klassen's skills as a writer and an artist that a book with the exact plot of his previous one—hat is stolen, hat is sought, hat is retrieved at costs unknown—offers a reading that's entirely different but just as delicious. This time, rather than focus on the victim, Klassen peeks into the giddy mind of a thief who thinks he's gotten away with it.

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A Home for Bird

Philip Stead (Roaring Brook/Porter)

Kindness is not a trait that lacks for representation in picture books, but when it's portrayed with the kind of quiet humor and sweetness that Stead brings to this story, it feels fresh and new. It's impossible not to cheer on Vernon the toad's dedication as he tries to find where Bird belongs—never mind that Bird is a tad, well, wooden.

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Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs

Mo Willems (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)

There's no question that Mo Willems writes for kids first; there's also no question that the older siblings, parents, grandparents, step-uncles, bus drivers, and teachers of those kids find his books just as hilarious as they do. That's certainly true of this uproarious (get it?) twist on a favorite story, in which the heroine isn't just a home-wrecker—she's prey.

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Hilda and the Midnight Giant

Luke Pearson (Nobrow)

A girl and her mother get letters from elves begging them to leave their home in the mountains, leading to a confrontation with a mysterious giant. With a nod to Miyazaki, rising talent Pearson poetically reveals the wild magic of the unseen and folkloric figures of the north.

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The Bear in the Book

Kate Banks, illus. by Georg Hallensleben (FSG/Foster)

In one of the finest examples of picture-book metafiction in recent memory, Banks and Hallensleben offer a spot-on portrait of the intimate, roundabout nature of reading with a child. The clever structure lets readers peek in as a mother and child read and discuss a book, then move into that book, fully sharing in the story. It's a superb model of the value of reading together.

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Unspoken

Henry Cole (Scholastic Press)

Cole's detailed pencil drawings are thick with emotion and danger in this wordless Civil War–era story of the Underground Railroad. A frightened eye peering from a family's barn. A bundle of food delivered in secret. A small gift left in return. These and other stirring images don't need a single syllable to convey the risks involved for both those who sought freedom and those who tried to help them along.

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Nighttime Ninja

Barbara DaCosta, illus. by Ed Young (Little, Brown)

DaCosta debuts with a bang—or, more accurately, a whisper—in this atmospheric account of a ninja's stealthy midnight journey. It's gratifying to see Caldecott Medalist Young flex his comedic muscles, and his collages are as masterful as ever. But what makes this story so outstanding is how seriously it takes the young ninja's mission, right up until the moment his secret is revealed.

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Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Ian Falconer (S&S/Atheneum)

From Cinderella to Kate Middleton, the allure of princessdom is a powerful one among girls—and, as Falconer's story notes, among some boys, too. For children (or pink-weary parents) seeking alternative sources of inspiration, look no further than Falconer's ever-iconoclastic piglet, who is determined to stand out from the crowd, channeling the likes of Anna Wintour and Martha Graham in the process.

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And Then It's Spring

Julie Fogliano, illus. by Erin Stead (Roaring Brook/Porter)

This is as good a time as any to remember that spring doesn't come without months of drab, gray waiting. First-time author Fogliano and Caldecott Medalist Stead are in perfect synch in this delicate and understated vision of those long days and weeks before the first glimpse of green. Stead doesn't let the young gardener (or readers) down: when spring finally arrives, it's glorious.

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