The best books and YA novels of 2018 for younger readers

(published in the News and Observer, December 9, 2018) (

Last week, I kicked off my annual Wilde Awards, the 22nd annual edition, with my list of favorite books of 2018 for children and young readers.

This week, I look at longer books for older readers.

Like the Wilde Awards picture book winners, where I found books reflecting today’s society, I found novels with more characters of color. These characters model, both historical and present day, broaden the visions of all children. They answer questions that adults should consider when seeking novels that matter.

▪ Will it engage readers?

▪ Is it unique? Does it offer a different perspective?

▪ Will the book lead to meaningful discussion or understanding?

▪ Does it have strong characters, compelling tension and a resolution that will lead to meaningful understanding, or inspire questioning.

Here is my list of favorites.

Early Novels

▪ “Dear Sister,” Alison McGhee (Atheneum): There are more illustrations and lots more attitude than words in this short novel about a boy who is not pleased with the arrival of his new sister, but grows into understanding, love and caring by book’s end.

▪ “Fairy Mom and Me,” Sophie Kinsella, read by Cassandra Morris (Delacorte): The well-known adult author perfectly represents the enthusiasm of Ella Brooks whose mother, with a wiggle of her bottom and the word “Marshmallow,” turns into a fairy. Ella has to deal with her mom’s magical missteps as well as a snoopy mean girl next door.

▪ “Polly Diamond and the Magic Book,” Alice Kuipers (Chronicle, ages 5-8): Polly’s life is crazy with a little sister and another baby coming any day…and that’s before she receives a book that writes back to her and grants her every wish.

▪ New in established series: 

Tedd Arnold’s “Fly Guy and the Alienzz” (Scholastic)

Aaron Blabey’s “Alien VS Badguys” (Scholastic)

Mac Barnett’s “The Terrible Twos Last Laugh” (Abrams)

Peter Brown’s “The Wild Robot Escapes” (Little Brown)

Debbi Ichiko Florence’s “Jasmine Toguchi: Flamingo Keeper” (FSG)

Bea Garcia’s “Tale of a Scaredy Dog” (Dial)

Dean & Shannon Hale’s “The Princess in Black and the Science Fair Scare” (Candlewick)

Abby Halon’s “Dory Head in the Clouds”

Sara Pennypacker’s “Waylon! Even More Awesome” (Hyperion)

Dav Pilkey’s “Dogman Lord of the Fleas” (Graphix)

Linda Urban’s “Road Trip with Max and Mom” (HMH)

Ursula Vernon, “Little Red Rodent Hood” (Dial)

Middle Grade (Ages 9-12)

▪ “Amal Unbound,” Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulson Books): In one moment intelligent Amal is transformed from a bright 12-year-old Pakistani student determined to be a teacher right into indentured servitude. The book reveals the cruelty of the politics through the strength and wit of the main character.

▪ “Betty Before X,” Ilyashah Shabazz and Renee Watson (FSG): The daughter of Macolm X pairs with skilled Watson for a quick-moving, easy-reading, slightly-fictionalized biography of her mother, Dr. Betty Shabazz. Focusing on her coming of age, the upbeat book reveals not just her harsh realities, but gives context of to the beginnings of black power in the 1940’s.

▪ “Finding Langston,” Lesa Cline-Ransome (Holiday House): His mother’s death, moving to Chicago and his shut-down father are all hard for 11-year-old Langston. And that’s before bullies target him. Safety and solace come in discovering and seeing connections with the work of his namesake, Langston Hughes, in 1946 a library that isn’t just for whites.

▪ “Front Desk,” Kelly Yang (Scholastic): Has there ever been a character who can meet the resilience of Mia Tang? Mia moves with her parents from China to California and almost immediately aids them in managing a motel by taking over the front desk. By turns humorous and horrifying, 5th grader Mia ‘s optimism defeats 1980’s racism.

▪ “Harbor Me,” Jacqueline Woodson (Dial): What happens when six kids are sent to a room for a weekly chat unaccompanied by adults? Awkwardness that yields to intimacy, honesty, compassion and closeness. Woodson’s spare writing examines issues without a heavy-hand as these children reveal the pain of deportation, racial profiling and having a jailed parent.

▪ “The Last,” Katherine Applegate (Harper): Byx, the youngest dairne in her pack, may possible be the last. The first in the new Endling series launches with her quest to find a moving island where dairnes might still exist. Action and adventure, magic, imaginative world-building and fascinating characters who light up the dark-toned tale.

▪ ”The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl,” Stacy McAnulty (Random): Lucy’s “supercomputer” brain arrived when she was struck at 8 by lightning. At 12, her germaphobia and OCD make her far less gifted at friendship. Still, her caring and brilliance come through when she solves problems with two buddies at an animal shelter.

▪ “Merci Suarez Changes Gears,” Meg Medina (Candlewick): Merci doesn’t fit in with kids at her Florida private school and a mean girl makes it worse. But life is harder still when her beloved grandfather begins to act strange and no one in her family will tell her what’s going on. Medina’s humor, warmth and wisdom work well in her first middle grade book.

▪ “The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle,”Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen): Mason his cheer despite living with his grieving uncle and grandmother, his disabilities, large size, constant sweat, bullies and a police lieutenant who keeps asking him about the accidental death of his best friend. The strong voice and warm tone make you root for the hero.

▪ New in established series: 

William Alexander’s “A Festival of Ghosts” (McElderry)

Kwame Alexander’s “Rebound” (Houghton)

Emma Donoghue’s “The Lotterys More or Less” (Scholastic)

Tim Federle’s “Nate Expectations” (S&S)

Gennifer Chodenko’s “Al Capone Throw Me a Curve” (Random)