2017 Wilde Awards for the best books for young readers and young adults

(published in the Raleigh News and Observer, December 20, 2017)


You can walk into a bookstore and, in a relatively short time, determine the worth of a 32-page picture book.

But do you choose a longer book? Which ones will parents savor sharing? Which will teachers relish reading aloud? What books will independent younger readers want to read and re-read? They’re a demanding audience. They’ll quickly give up on a book that doesn’t have an intriguing character, compelling conflicts and engaging writing. As a result, the books that achieve this combination produce marvelous literature.

For 21 years, I’ve bestowed the Wilde Awards to books I pore through all year. As with picture books, I consider these questions when deciding which books should get my stamp of approval.

▪ Will the book lead to meaningful discussion or understanding?

▪ Will it engage the reader?

▪ Is it evocative?

▪ Is it unique?

  •  Is it made to be shared?▪ And finally, does it have strong characters, compelling tension and a satisfying resolution?Below you’ll find recommendations for the 2017 Wilde Award-winning books as well as series additions that will satisfy. Next month I’ll share the final installment of awards for children’s audio books: wonderful titles that also are extraordinary listens.

Early Novels (Ages 4-8)

▪ “Barkus,” Patricia MacLachlan (Chronicle).

Five short chapters begin a series about Nicky’s adventures with her extraordinary dog, Barkus.




▪ “The Bad Guys,” Aaron Blabey (Scholastic).

This Australian import is an early introduction to graphic novels. It’s filled with humor and antics of the animal villains (Misters Wolf, Snake, Piranha and Shark) who feel misunderstood.


The Bad Guys (The Bad Guys #1)


▪ “Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol: The Haunted House Next Door,” Andres Miedoso (Little Simon).

Andres Miedoso has nothing to fear from moving to a new town into a haunted house because he lives next door to Desmond, “the coolest bravest kid in the world.” Loads of humor, lots of illustrations and a little bit of spine-tingling in this first novel.


The Haunted House Next Door (Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol)


▪ “Jada Jones, Rock Star” and “Jada Jones, Class Act,” Kelly Starling-Lyons (Penguin).

These short chapter books launch a series that features an African-American heroine who’s sassy, science-smart and searching for friendship.


Rock Star #1 (Jada Jones)


▪  “Princess Cora and the Crocodile,” Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick).

Micromanaged Princess Cora does her best to satisfy her parents’ demands. She wishes constantly for a dog and a little freedom. A fairy godmother, a toothy crocodile and a bit of magic merge once-upon-a-time tropes with a little girl who longs for an ordinary life.


Princess Cora and the Crocodile


▪ New in popular series: Tom Angleberger’s “The Goat Who Chewed Too Much” (Amulet); Nick Bruel’s “Bad Kitty Takes the Test” (Square Fish); Kate DiCamillo’s “Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Package” (Candlewick); Frances O’Roark Dowell’s “Sam the Man & the Rutabaga Plan” (Atheneum); Stephanie Greene’s “Princess Posey and the First Grade Play” (Putnam); Shannon Hale’s “The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate” (Candlewick); John Himmelman’s “Bunjitsu Bunny VS Bunjitsu Bunny” (Holt); Ryan Howard’s “Trophy Night” (Scholastic); and Mary Pope Osborne’s “A Big Day for Baseball” (Random House).

Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

▪ “Beyond the Bright Sea,” Lauren Wolk (Dutton).

Conflict and tenderness are strong in 12-year-old Crow’s life. She was only hours old when discovered by two inhabitants of an isolated Massachusetts island and has been loved fiercely by them ever since. When Crow wonders about her beginnings, her guardians aid her in piecing together her fragmented past. Truths about lepers, a vicious villain and a treasure lead to Crow’s sense of self and belonging.


Beyond the Bright Sea


▪ “Clayton Byrd Goes Underground,” Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad).

Clayton dreams of being a blues man like his beloved grandfather, but life changes quickly when Cool Papa Byrd dies. Clayton’s unsympathetic mother leaves him without support for his grief or the records and guitars promised him. A unique view of a subtle deep sorrowing.


Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

▪ “The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora,” Pablo Cartaya (Viking).

Arturo, raised by an adoring grandmother, finds his close-knit Cuban-American family threatened by a greedy developer. Strong in imagery, rich with well-woven Spanish, the story has a perfect balance of humor and heartbreak.


The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora


▪ “Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus,” Dusti Bowling (Sterling).

Thirteen-year-old Aven, born without arms, is resilient, resourceful and ready to solve a mystery in her new home at a failing theme park. She discovers clues with friends as unique and challenged as she. Aven is differently-gifted with wit and optimism that shine more strongly her being differently-abled.


Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus


▪ “Making Bombs for Hitler,” Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Scholastic).

Lida Ferezuk, a 10-year-old Ukranian, poses as a “useful” 13-year-old in a Nazi camp so she can survive and find a younger sister, her only living family member. It’s difficult to believe her mother’s maxim, “You can make beauty anywhere,” amid brutality, horror and hardships. Lida’s caring, courage and intelligence provide relief in this heart-rendering survival story based on millions of Soviet youth captured for slave labor during World War II.


Making Bombs for Hitler


▪ “Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids,” Elisa Brent Weissman (Atheneum).

The subtitle says it all. Twenty-five beloved authors and illustrators tell engaging tales about their creative beginnings.


Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids


▪ “Pele, the King of Soccer,” Eddy Simon Simon (First Second).

The graphic format is just right for the biography of the very active Brazilian soccer star.


Pelé: The King of Soccer


▪ “Real Friends,” Shannon Hale (First Second).

The popular author pens a graphic memoir about her childhood. Young Shannon learns about true friends and kindness amid a mean girl culture. Female middle-schoolers will identify with the heroine and the situations she faces.


Real Friends


▪ “Refugee,” Alan Gratz (Scholastic).

Three first-person narratives recount heroic escapes by children from 1938 Germany, 1994 Cuba and 2015 Aleppo. The time periods, cultures and threats may be different, but there’s commonality in tension, courage, responsibility and family love.




▪ “The Secret of Nightingale Wood,” Lucy Strange (Scholastic).

An emotionally powerful story of 12-year-old Henrietta, who is determined to mend her family and rescue her mother from madness after her brother’s death. She achieves this despite hindrances, including the absurd dictates of supposed healers in post-World War I Britain. The beautiful writing shows the literary passion of the author as well as the heroine.


The Secret of Nightingale Wood


▪ “Stars Beneath Our Feet,” David Barclay Moore (Knopf).

Twelve-year-old Lolly finds comfort in constructing Lego structures after his brother is murdered by a gang. Lolly travels an uneven path to healing while adults around him offer support. Gradually, Lolly becomes more empathic than angry and more collaborative than competitive because of a friendship with a Rose, an autistic girl who shares his passion for creating.


The Stars Beneath Our Feet


▪ “Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves,” Kate T. Parker (Workman).

A professional photographer collects 200 stunning images and poignant quotations to represent powerful young women.


Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves


▪ “Superstar,” Mandy Davis (Harper).

Lester Musselbaum loves science, especially the study of space, but he isn’t a fan of rules. Entering public school in fifth grade isn’t easy after years of homeschooling, especially for a boy on the autistic spectrum. Science and compassion aid Lester’s adaptations and growth.