published in the News and Observer, NOVEMBER 16, 2019
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This year’s books seem to reflect the changes in our world. Talented authors who have published books for today’s children are concerned about the environment, immigration and violence, and thus, this year’s books show diversity of color, viewpoints and moods.
Each year for 23 years, I have awarded Wilde Awards for the best in children’s literature and young adult fiction. What’s the best way to pick just a few representative titles of this year’s best books? Believe me, it’s difficult. Here are five fabulous books in six categories, from books for babies to young adults. Within each category, books are arranged in order from those for younger to older readers.
EARLY PICTURE BOOKS (0-5)
Books for the young encourage interaction, show simple problems, satisfactory resolutions and role models to admire.
▪ “This is Baby,” Jimmy Fallon (Feiwel and Friends): The late-night host does it again! This time he uses playful rhyming schemes to reveal the joy of babies from noses to toes.
▪ “Astro Girl,“ Ken Wilson-Max (Candlewick): Astrid loves the stars. Not only is she suited up for space travel, her loving papa swings her as if she’s circling Earth and throws her in the air as if she’s in zero gravity. Does her mother give the same kind of support? The ending reveals all!
▪ “One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller,” Kate Read (Peachtree): This fabulous book — a mash-up of mystery and counting — pits a “famished” fox who stalks “three plump eggs” with “five snug eggs.” Will he be successful? A wild ride keeps readers on the edge of their seat until the final twist.
▪ “Small in the City,” Sydney Smith (Neal Porter Books): In a perfect balance of words and images, a small boy travels through the city by bus and speaks of being small. Who is he speaking to? Himself? Ultimately, visual cues make it clear he is speaking to his lost cat. Final pictures stimulate children’s imagination and point to a happy resolution.
▪ “The Scarecrow,” Beth Ferry (HarperCollins): Strong rhythms and a brisk meter avoid sentimentality in the story of a lonely scarecrow who nurtures a crow by holding near his “heart of hay.” Illustrations by the Fan Brothers increase the story’s power.
OLDER PICTURE BOOKS (AGES 5-10)
These books have more sophistication in writing and thought, deal with more complex issues and are perfect for sharing and generating family conversations.
“Going Down Home with Daddy,” Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter. (Peachtree): Strong similes and imagery set an emotional tone as Lil Alan and his family travel to a family reunion. They leave “when the sky is still dark with sleep,” and Lil Alan smiles until he sees his hands “as empty as the road in front of us.” He has nothing to mark the celebration until finally stories from the past lead to him finding and sharing symbols of home, family, and dreams.
▪ “Home in the Woods,” Eliza Wheeler (Penguin): Six-year-old Marvel’s father “lives with the angels,” so the family of seven moves into a rundown tar-paper shack. Right away they see the riches of root cellar, dark soil, jewel-like berries, and the comfort of working together. Issues of poverty and struggle are present, but family love is the stronger theme.
▪ “Lubna and the Pebble,” Wendy Meddour (Dial): Lubna finds a pebble on the beach, the night they “arrived,” before “she fell asleep in Daddy’s salty arms” and woke to find she’d landed in a “World of Tents.” In this emotive refugee story, the author is rooted in the child’s perspective and focused on the hope this pebble-friend brings. She writes sensitively about Lubna’s past fears, present worries, and ability to find peace.
▪ “The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable,” Oliver Jeffers (Philomel): This fable’s anti-hero is Fausto who believes the world belongs to him and tells each thing, “You are mine!” When he decides to own the sea, he has some surprises. This great conversation starter about the power of greed has poignant pictures that have as much to discuss as the words.
▪ “What is Given from the Heart,” Patricia McKissack (Schwartz & Wade): The author’s last book speaks to how kindness transcends poverty as a young boy escapes his own sadness and feelings of scarcity to help another child who is less fortunate.
PICTURE THESE NONFICTIONS (AGES 2-10)
For young and old, these books inspire curiosity and intriguing discussions.
▪ “Who Am I? A Peek-Through-Pages Book of Endangered Animals,” Tim Flach (Abrams; ages 1-3): A short description accompanies just a small view of part of an endangered animal. Guessing fun precedes gorgeous photographs and more information revealed by a page turn.
▪ “Our House is On Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call To Save the Planet,” Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane; ages 5-8): Dramatic illustrations accent the biography of the young girl who is uniting young people all over the world. Greta felt alone and invisible until she learned of global warming and her sad days and outrage turned to activism.
▪ “The President Sang Amazing Grace: A Book About Finding Grace After Unspeakable Tragedy,” Zoe Mulford (Henry Holt; ages 8 to adult): This emotional picture book should be read before sharing with young ones. The book is based on a song by the author, which was motivated by President Barack Obama’s response to the 2015 shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Painfully, the book recalls the murders. In counterpoint, pictures, and words showing the gentleness, healing, and grace the President brought.
▪ “The Undefeated,” Kwame Alexander (Versify; ages 8-adult): This astounding picture book is based on a poem originally penned by the author and well-matched with illustrations by Kadir Nelson. It remembers people and events of history, because to “truly know who we are as a country, we have to accept and embrace all our woes and wonders.” Illustrations and words honor those who are unforgettable, those “who survived America by any means necessary. And the ones who didn’t.”
▪ “Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice,” Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner (Simon and Schuster; ages 8-12): Graphic novel format accents the tones and moods of Ginsburg’s early childhood amid prejudice, the loss of her mother who loving urged independence, and how these and other events influenced her path to the Supreme Court.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS (AGES 8-12)
A host of diverse characters, unique viewpoints and compelling voices characterize these middle grade novels.
▪ “Stargazing,” Jen Wang (:01): Wang’s blend of words and pictures in this graphic novel tells the story of two very different Chinese American girls, one conventional and the other a free spirit. Thrown together by fate, they become best friends. Their relationship endures jealousy, peer pressure, and parental prejudice.
▪ “Sal and Gabi Break the Universe,” Carlos Hernandez (Disney-Hyperion): English and Spanish mix to give a strong flavor of Cuban American culture. The mix of real and fantastical make for a compelling read as Salvador Vidon, a secret magician, teams up with witty Gabi Real to close the tear he has torn in the universe.
▪ “Line Tender,” Kate Allen (Dutton): Twelve-year-old Lucy is still grieving for her mother, a marine biologist, five years after her death when another tragedy occurs. The writing is poignant without being overwrought, and periodic drawings add punch to the tender words. It’s simple enough for older elementary-schoolers, but older children will appreciate its subtleties of characters, complexities of grief and resilience, science themes, and the caring of a strong community.
▪ “Pay Attention, Carter Jones,” Gary D.Schmidt (Clarion): The book begins with an unlikely situation. A butler shows up at the home of 12-year-old Carter Jones. This is only the first implausible occurrence in a story that’s believable as this non-magical Mary Poppins-like figure brings healing and understanding to a family of four. Repartees, tenderness and lyricism abound.
▪ “Other Words for Home,” Jasmine Warga (Balzar and Bray): This is free verse with poetry that really works. It sets a just-right emotional tone for the story of Jude, who suddenly has to leave her seaside town in Syria for her uncle’s home in Cincinnati. She and her pregnant mother settle uncomfortably, knowing there are dangers at home and prejudice to face in America. This is a story of resilience, bravery, strength and owning one’s self.
Mature themes, complex characters, sophisticated ideas describe these young adult novels.
▪ “The Revolution of Birdie Randolph,” Brandy Colbert (Little Brown): Birdie has been dominated by her overprotective mother all her life. But at 16, she has met a boy she cares about and has come to question the rules that have governed her life. Not that she knows all the rules, for they unfold surprisingly in this coming-of-age novel of dawning self-awareness, understanding, testing limits and knowing one’s own boundaries.
▪ “Spin,” Lamar Giles (Scholastic): Hip-hop and fandom combine in a gripping mystery. Celeb DJ ParSec is murdered, and her best friend Kya and adoring fan, Fuse, combine forces to discover the motivation and murderer. Alternating chapters reveal complex characters, class and family dynamics — and a building bond.
▪ “Patron Saints of Nothing,” Randy Ribay (Kokila): Seventeen-year-old Jay fondly remembers a connection he made while young when visiting with his compassionate Filipino cousin, Jun. Presently unmotivated by college and dulled by video games, Jay’s emotions flare when he learns that Jun has been murdered and was apparently selling drugs. His return to the Philippines is filled with family and political tension, determination to understand, and hard life-changing truths.
▪ “The Fountains of Silence,” Ruta Sepetys (Philomel): The cruelty of Franco’s Facist government in 1950s Spain is cloaked and curious to sensitive Daniel, an American teen tourist. This increases with his attraction to Ana, a maid in the luxurious hotel in which he’s staying. As the two fall in love, it’s difficult for Ana to maintain secrecy about her life. Love story and intrigue accent the theme of resilience in this historical novel with complex characters and well-integrated research.
▪ “The Testaments,” Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday): Marketed as an adult novel, this dystopian stand-alone fits teen readers, too. In the same setting as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one learns intertwined stories of three women whose courage and determination converge to oppose a tense, tyrannical environment of oppression and dehumanization.
Susie Wilde will talk about her winners and some other favorites Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. For more Wilde Awards winners, go to ignitingwriting.com.