UI books gift guide now works for smartphones

If you're the shopper who downloads coupons while standing in line or composes Christmas lists on your smart phone, here's another handy tool.

The next time you're book-shopping for that special teen or child in your life, you can download the free annual gift guide from the University of Illinois Center for Children's Books on your mobile phone.

A PDF of the guide has been available electronically for nine years, but this year's version is formatted to work more easily on smart phones, said Debra Stevenson, who compiles the guide each year.

New entries on the guide — which is updated annually but includes books issued for the past three years — include promising historical fiction, expansive picture books and some "twists on the classics," Stevenson said.

Prime example: "Little Vampire Women," by Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina, in which Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are, yes, vampires. It's funny but has its share of horror as well, Stevenson says.

There's also "Jane," April Lindner's modern retelling of "Jane Eyre"; "This Dark Endeavor," Kenneth Oppel's prequel to "Frankenstein"; and "The Odyssey," told in graphic novel form by Gareth Hinds.

The list is at http://bccb.lis.illinois.edu/GB2/2012GB2.html

Other highlights on the list, for young and old(er):

— "And Then It's Spring," by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, for ages 4 to 6. It's a beautiful, sparsely written story about a young boy and a collection of critters waiting for spring, and the art carries the tale, Stevenson said. Stead won a Caldecott award several years ago for "A Sick Day for Amos McGee," and Stevenson said this could be the best-illustrated book of the year.

— "Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team," by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno, for ages 5 to 9. This "fabulous picture book" features an Italian-American family's touring team before and after World War II.

— "Alvin Ho: Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances," by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, for grades 2-4. It's the third offering in a series about shy Alvin, who in this book struggles to come to terms with the mortality of his aging grandfather.

"One of my favorite series," said Stevenson, who is reminded of the "Ramona Quimby" books. "It allows kids to get near that really scary subject of death and losing someone you love, but it's also a really funny book."

— "Grave Mercy," by Robin LaFevers, for grades 9-12. The first novel in a series features Ismae, a daughter of Death, who infiltrates Brittany court politics and the convent of St. Mortain to take down French-allied nobles while cultivating her own identity.

"She's the most likable assassin nun you would care to meet," Stevenson said.

— "Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World's Most Dangerous Weapon," by Steve Sheinkin, for grades 7 to 12. A true-life spy tale about the creation of the atom bomb and the people behind it, including workers at Los Alamos who were reporting back to the Soviets and a U.S. baseball player who spied on the Germans.

"It is insanely cool," Stevenson said. "There's enough science that you learn some science, but if you're not a science geek it's not off-putting."

— "Code Name Verity," by Elizabeth Wein, for grades 9 to 12. This suspenseful tale, full of plot twists, features two young British women from very different backgrounds who join the Women's Air Auxiliary during World War II. One becomes a pilot and one winds up being captured as a spy.

"This is not a kind of adventurous romp about wartime. It's really heart-rending at times. It's also an amazing portrait of a close female friendship," she said. "Both of these women are doing things they would never have expected they would be doing. Finding somebody else to be a comrade through all of this is important."

Women did work as pilots ferrying planes from their manufacturers to air bases during the war, though they weren't involved in combat, and others parachuted behind enemy lines as part of special operations units, Stevenson said.

The book is a favorite among reviewers and has been the subject of "award fuss," Stevenson said. "Grown-ups like this a lot."

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