Three new books offer some great reading for youngsters:
• Author Ellen Bryan Obed offers a joyful ode to winter -- especially the thrill of ice skating -- in "Twelve Kinds of Ice" (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, ages 7-12). Written in an elegant yet accessible style and featuring exquisite drawings by artist Barbara McClintock, the 64-page "Twelve Kinds of Ice" is a tiny gem of a book.
Growing up on a six-acre farm in Waterville, Maine, Ms. Obed had plenty of time to observe the seasons as a child. For her family, winter was a particularly special time, a time when they could don their skates, either for figure skating or for hockey. Each year, the family created its own backyard ice rink, complete with a shed that served as a locker room and "bleachers" -- wood timbers perched on piles of snow -- for the annual ice skating show.
But ice is not a singular thing, a fact that Ms. Obed learned in childhood and which she shares with readers in the 20 short chapters of "Twelve Kinds of Ice." For example, she writes that the "first ice came on the sheep pails in the barn -- a skin of ice so thin that it broke when we touched it."
Next comes the thicker "second ice. ... We would pick it out of the pails like panes of glass. ... Then we would drop it on the hard ground to watch it splinter into a hundred pieces."
As the cold weather began to take hold, the ice got harder, and that meant the start of winter fun for Ms. Obed and her family and friends. They slid on "field ice" and skated on "stream ice." But all of that was merely a prelude to the time when it finally was cold enough for her family to create its own "garden ice," the backyard rink that would be the focus of winterlong spills and chills.
When the spring thaw finally set in each year, it shut down the skating season but didn't really end the ice season. As Ms. Obed writes, there was always "dream ice" that "came in our sleep ... [and] never melted."
Ms. Obed perfectly captures the intimate knowledge that children gain when they can spend time experiencing the outdoors. Young readers will particularly enjoy the way she and her friends truly reveled being outdoors on the ice, as they "sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, raced together."
• Laura Amy Schlitz presents an intricate fantasy shot through with love and loss in "Splendors and Glooms" (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 9-12).
Ms. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal -- given annually by the American Library Association to the best written children's book -- for "Good Masters, Sweet Ladies," a witty, carefully researched set of portraits from a medieval village.
In "Splendors and Glooms," she moves forward to the Victorian era, telling a tale focused on villainous puppeteer Grisini, his rival -- a witch named Cassandra -- and the three children who are caught in their web of hatred and powerful magic.
Two of the children, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, are orphans who are apprenticed to Grisini and help him put on his puppet shows. He mistreats them, yet they know of no other life, and Parsefall actually has a talent and fascination for puppetry. The third child is Clara Wintermute, the child of a wealthy doctor and the only survivor among her siblings after a cholera epidemic.
Clara's parents may be rich, but they are despondent over the deaths. Because of their never-ending grief, Clara's life is filled with sorrow; yet she is still a child, and she jumps at the chance of having a puppet show for her birthday.
After the show, however, Grisini uses his magic to turn Clara into a puppet. Having no clue what has happened to their only child, Clara's parents despair of ever finding her. Meanwhile, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, who finally understand the evil extent of Grisini's magic, attempt to break away from him by fleeing from London to the English countryside and the home of Cassandra.
Yet Cassandra has her own evil plans for the children, and so it is eventually up to Lizzie Rose, Parsefall and Clara to put things right.
"Splendors and Glooms" is a page-turner that will captivate young fantasy fans. Ms. Schlitz's writing is rich in emotional detail. She knows exactly how to hook the reader and masterfully creates a totally believable world of magic.
• William Alexander hit the jackpot when his first novel, "Goblin Secrets" (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 8-12), won the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
Mr. Alexander's success wasn't surprising, as "Goblin Secrets" -- despite its less-than-attractive cover -- is a rip-roaring novel that should readily appeal to young fantasy lovers.
The main character is orphan Rownie, who lives in a city called Zombay and is part of a hodge-podge household headed by a witch named Graba. She shows her witchcraft in many ways: She has mechanical legs, she uses pigeons as her magic -- often evil -- messengers, and she is constantly changing the location of her house.
Acting is mostly outlawed in Zombay, which is why Rownie's older brother, Rowan, an actor, has disappeared without a trace. Rowan once worked with a troupe of goblins who are exempted from the anti-acting ordinance, so when Rownie is offered a chance to be part of the troupe, he joins up immediately, risking maiming, recapture and worse from Graba.
Mr. Alexander has created a totally believable magical world while still connecting with real-world emotions such as grief, desperation and joy. Fortunately, fans won't have long to wait for another novel set in the world of "Goblin Secrets." Mr. Alexander's second book, "Ghoulish Song," will be published in March.books
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.