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'Love' and other best children's and young adult books to read

Sometimes love is in the simplest and most poignant of details. In "Love" (Putnam, ages 3-7) Matt de la Peña and Loren Long brilliantly bring those details to life in a series of moments captured as if in a photo album. Readers looking for Valentine's Day fare won't find pink hearts or pastel candies here; this quiet read is a sweet companion to more exuberant and romantic takes on love. Long's poetic, richly colored illustrations manage to be personal and universal at the same time. His skies are particularly beautiful — big and full of light or stars. Children are seen experiencing the richness of love through the sights, sounds and smells of life itself. De la Peña points out the ambient experience of love in hearing music or playing in hydrants on city streets, sharing reassuring moments with a grandparent, grieving when love seems to be lost or astray, and finally, settling into the surety of being surrounded by love, with all its risks and rewards, even when about to fly from the nest.

Kathie Meizner

Go ahead and judge "Between the Lines" (Simon & Schuster, ages 4 to 8) by its wonderful cover. Rightfully front and center is the picture book's subject — football player turned artist Ernie Barnes — handsomely wrought by illustrator Bryan Collier. Barnes is flanked by a football scene on one side and by Collier's version of "Sugar Shack," Barnes' most famous painting, on the other. The jacket-cover borders provide another nice preview of what's inside; they look and feel slightly rough, like the wooden fence-posts that Barnes used to frame his paintings. Author Sandra Neil Wallace, a former ESPN reporter, tells this story with details that will resonate with children, such as how young Ernie loved whenever it rained near his North Carolina home; he would find a stick and draw lines through "the slippery soil." Wallace and Collier show how Barnes got recruited into the world of football but kept pursuing his artistic dreams. Collier has his own distinctive style, mixing collage with warm watercolors, and the book also features several reprints of Barnes' paintings. Young readers will be able to see for themselves how deftly Barnes captured both football and ordinary life - in all their movement, power and beauty.

Abby McGanney Nolan

The pressure is building for rising senior Saaket "Scott" Ferdowsi in "Down and Across" (Viking, age 12 and up), a lively first novel by Arvin Ahmadi. Scott's successful immigrant father wants him to plan college around a "safe-enough" field like engineering or medicine, but the lackadaisical 16-year-old fears disappointing his dad with yet another failure. So when his parents set off for a month-long trip to Iran, Scott ditches his "virtuous science-y" summer internship in Philadelphia for a bus ticket to Washington. He hopes to learn more about "grit," that quality of tenacity that has always eluded him, from a foremost expert, who teaches at Georgetown. The setting offers a tantalizing glimpse of the nation's capital through teen eyes — a refreshing change from New York City, the usual haunt of young people with big questions, from beleaguered Holden in "The Catcher in the Rye" to Natasha and Daniel in "The Sun Is Also a Star." Scott is soon swept up in the schemes of college student Fiora, a quirky cruciverbalist (aka a crossword puzzle ace) bent on helping him find adventure. But even as Scott settles into a hostel, meets Fiora's friends and crashes a diplomatic party, he begins to realize that Fiora's dark struggles surpass his own. Although the book's female characters sometimes seem less developed than their male counterparts, this humorous, deeply human coming-of-age story will connect with teens who, like Scott, may wonder if a well-lived life is "less about grit and more about the journey."

Mary Quattlebaum