This list has been a long time in coming. Not only have I spent an entire year reading a whole lot of children’s literature and keeping a running list of books that I especially liked, but it’s taken me close to three weeks to narrow that list down and to write a paragraph for each of my favorites. To be honest, I’m frustrated and disappointed that my list wasn’t finished and ready to go online right on New Year’s Day. But it’s done now, so here it is. For the picture books and the children’s novels, (aka middle-grade fiction) I’ve also included a list of runners-up. Since many of these books have shown up on my blog previously, I’ve put hyperlinks to the older post on the title. Finally, before I get to the list itself, here is a link to my 2014 list and here is a link to my 2015 list.
Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol
This story starts with a folk-tale feel, as an old lady with lots of grandchildren struggles to get her knitting done. The titular line is what she yells as she leaves the village to go knit in the peace of the woods. And then when she leaves the forest with the annoying bears to go knit in the peace of the mountainside. And then when she leaves the mountainside with the annoying mountain goats to go knit on the moon. And then once more when she leaves the moon with the annoying little green moon-men to go knit in the peace of the void beyond the wormhole. At the end of the story, she completes all her knitting and returns home to give the new sweaters to her grandchildren. It’s a fun, funny story that’s both traditional (in format and setting) and original, (how many picture books about little old villager ladies involve wormholes) and makes for a fun read-aloud.It may not be a likely Caldecott contender like some of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for a light-hearted read-aloud, this is an especially good one.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, pictures by Bagram Ibatoulline
There are positive things I could say about the educational value of this book or about the descriptive, yet elegantly concise text. But what makes this book outstanding is the artwork. The word beautiful doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s very realistic, it makes very effective use of shadows, (even though it mostly takes place in the dark anyway) and perhaps most importantly, the variety of the angles of perspective make each double-page spread as eye-catching and intriguing as the last.
Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin and Rob Dunlavey
This book is a palindrome! Well, not exactly, because you still have to keep the letters within the words in their original order. But the word order is the same backwards and forwards. Granted, it doesn’t use full sentences, which means that probably wasn’t an extremely difficult feat of grammatical talent. But it’s still clever, especially since the plot also comes full circle. It’s about a young owl who flies away from his nest to explore, then returns home. The three words of the title are the exact middle of the book, and the corresponding illustration shows Owl looking at his reflection in the water. This would make a great storytime book for very young children, although the illustrations are dark and subdued because it’s nighttime.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes
Here is one of the top two on my Caldecott wish list. (Don’t ask me to choose between them.) I love everything about this book: the style of the artwork, the beautiful simplicity of the text, the little details that you’ll only notice if you move through the book slowly, the calm and hopeful mood… This is not so much a book for library storytimes as it is a book to check out, (or buy) take home, and read again and again and again and again. I hope that a generation or two from now, this book will be considered a classic and will still be read and enjoyed by many.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie
This book about the one exciting part of New Orleans slaves’ lives is technically nonfiction and poetry as well as a picture book. It’s a good book no matter which of those directions you approach it from, and as with any picture book, it’s the interplay of art and text that makes it a good book. But for me, the art is what pushes this book from “good” to “one of the best of the year.” I have to admit that I have a bit of a bias towards realistic-looking art, but the stylized artwork in this book is good enough that it immediately captured my attention and high regard anyway. I’m anticipating a Coretta Scott King Award in the near future for this book, and I suspect it’s a strong Caldecott contender, too.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
This is the other book that would like to see win the Caldecott, and I think there’s a good chance of that. As a cat encounters various other animals, the artistic style, color scheme, and even the features of the cat change to demonstrate others’ perception of the cat. For instance, on the dog’s double-page, the cat looks scrawny and a little mean, while the mouse sees the cat as a scary, ferocious monster and the flea sees an expanse of fur. The text is simple, short, and repetitive, making it the type of book that even very young children can enjoy. However, older children and adults will be able to appreciate the creativity of the art.
Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems
It may be a little vague and unhelpful to describe a book as “playful”, but there really isn’t any better word to describe Mo Willems’ most recent contribution to children’s literature. A young frog named Nanette has been sent out to get a baguette. She gives into temptation and eats the baguette on the way home and must woefully admit to her mom what she has done. The twist ending when (spoiler!) mom eats the replacement baguette will have preschoolers giggling, but the most fun part of this book is how Willems repeatedly uses words ending with the ‘et’ sounds. Even children who don’t yet understand rhyme will pick up on that pattern and enjoy it. In fact, this is a great book for teaching children about rhymes and sounds within words.
More Picture Books
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith
Spot, the Cat by Henry Cole
Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book! By Julie Falatko, pictures by Tim Miller
Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober
Shh! Bears Sleeping by David Martin, pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson
Ralph and the Rocket Ship by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Henry Cole
The plot of this book is perhaps just a little cliche, but it’s one that its target audience will enjoy. Ralph loves rocket ships and wishes he had one, but his parents say that a rocket ship is too big. They’d rather he play with his toy truck and toy tractor, but those vehicles can’t fly to the stars or the moon. Ralph thinks about his problem and then comes up with a brilliant idea. He can make his own rocket ship! So he builds one out of a cardboard box, and all ends well. This book includes dialogue and sentences as long as fifteen words, but it also has a controlled vocabulary, large font, and a high picture-to-text ratio. Therefore, it’s not a particularly difficult read and is age-appropriate for some preschoolers, many kindergarteners, and most first-graders.
Up by Joe Cepeda
It isn’t easy to put together a good story using a controlled vocabulary suitable for a beginning reader, especially when the target audience is absolute beginners who aren’t ready for words of more than four letters or sentences of more than four words. A lot of books at that level aren’t really stories with a plot, or at best, they have very simple plots. This one is an exception. Despite its brevity and controlled vocabulary, this book is a fun fantasy about a boy who uses a pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one windy day. Obviously, the details are in the pictures, which are also distinctive. I’ve asked Google what the term is for the stylized, sketch-like edges in these pictures, but I can’t find such a term and I’m starting to think that there’s no official name for it. So I’m calling it sketch edges. The artwork in this book is made distinctive by its use of sketch edges.
The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat
This book is one of two that is kicking off the new Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series. The book begins and ends with a couple pages of Gerald (the elephant) and Piggie talking about the book. The main storyline, however, is about a different group of animals. Four friends have three cookies, but they want “equal cookies for all”. Unfortunately, Hippo breaks things when he is nervous. Now there are six half-cookies for four friends. After Hippo continues breaking the cookies, there are twelve quarter-cookies, and everyone gets three pieces. This is a fun book about sharing and math, and I would especially suggest it for children who are just beginning to read full sentences. But best of all, it’s very, very funny.
The Thank You Book by Mo Willems
The bad news is that Mo Willems’ extremely popular Elephant and Piggie series will no longer be adding new books. (At least not as we’ve known them up to now. See The Cookie Fiasco listed above.) The good news is that this final book is a particularly good one. Piggie sets out to thank everyone important to her, but Gerald is sure that she will forget someone– and she does! But, of course, since this is an Elephant and Piggie book after all, it ends on a sweet note. This book and all of the others preceding it are great for beginning readers around the age of five or six, but will also entertain children of a wide range of ages.
Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet by Nick Bruel
It’s no wonder that the Bad Kitty series is wildly popular among children in the five-to-eight age range. They’re satisfyingly thick chapter books with silly plots, lots of large pictures, and a manageable amount of text. The writing is at approximately a second-grade reading level, although they’re also great for above-average readers a bit younger than that, or as a book for a parent and child to read together. In this particular book, Kitty is sick and isn’t even eating her food. Once her human has undertaken the monumental task of getting her to the vet, she is given a checkup and then given a sedative while (spoiler!) the vet removes a bad tooth. While sleeping, Kitty dreams that she has died and will only be allowed into Pussycat Paradise if she can prove that she’s capable of being nice to Puppy.
The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Princess Magnolia and her unicorn Frimplepants are meeting Princess Sneezewort for brunch, but while they’re on their way, the need arises for them to switch to their secret identities to solve a monster problem. The monsters turn out to be nothing but bunnies, and the Princess in Black doesn’t believe they’re dangerous. But they turn out to be a bigger challenge than she had anticipated. This is the third book in a series that is loved my many a six- or seven- year old girl, and for good reason. Who can resist a monster-battling ninja princess? Especially when her adventures are funny, illustrated in full color, and written in easy-to-read large text? I like to recommend this series for kids who are transitioning from readers to “real” chapter books.
Balto of the Blue Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne
For slightly older kids who are comfortable with longer books, the Magic Tree House series is an excellent one to try. The series relates the adventures of siblings Jack and Annie, who can travel throughout history (and mythology) in a tree house belonging to Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legends. They’re actually very intellectual considering how young their audience is, which is one of the things that parents, librarians, educators, and kids love so much about them. In this book, Jack and Annie travel to Alaska in 1925 and travel by dogsled to deliver medicine needed to save the people of Nome. Balto, a dog who plays a prominent role in the book, really lived and really delivered life-saving medicine to Nome in 1925.
Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke
Very loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk, this graphic novel is about a teenage boy who ends up with a magical garden in his backyard after allowing his autistic, non-verbal sister Maddy to trade the family car for some magic beans. But that’s only the beginning of the trouble. Jack can’t tell Maddy no, which repeatedly causes problems that get Jack in trouble with his mother. The plants in the garden are alive, and Jack, Maddie, and the cute girl next door spend all their time fighting with the garden and its creatures, including a dragon and a giant snail. The book ends with the appearance of a new, especially dangerous creature, and the promise of more books to come. This is an exciting adventure for graphic novel fans whose interests fall somewhere between realistic fiction and superhero comics.
The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks
I think that what I like most about this book is the world-building. Even though we as readers don’t know anything initially about the history, social or political hierarchy, or ethnic groups of the world where this story takes place, we can still follow both the political aspects of the story, and the budding friendship between two young people whose lives are completely different. Despite the politics that dominate the plot, this is also a high-action adventure. The art itself also deserves some praise, especially for the architectural details that bring the nameless city alive on the page. I can see it appealing to readers as young as fourth or fifth grade, but this is also a graphic novel with appeal factors for teens.
Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrations by Rebecca Mock
It’s 1860 in New York, and twelve-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra have gotten involved with a gang. After getting in trouble with the police, they leave New York to start a new life. The plan is that they will go to New Orleans to respond to a newspaper ad from a man looking for his own children who happen to fit Alex and Cleo’s description. (As long as Cleo disguises herself as a boy) Things start going wrong when they run into another pair with the same idea. Alex and Cleo get separated, each accompanied by one of the other set of imposters. Over the course of their journey and their encounters with pirates, they discover that the pocket-watch and knife that they inherited from their long-lost parents are somehow the key to a treasure. I found this book to be distinctive as a graphic novel in terms of the complexity of its plot, not to mention the historical setting.
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
The last in a trilogy about the author’s experiences in the civil rights movement, this nonfiction graphic novel is notable both in terms of its subject matter and its unusual use of the graphic novel format. But besides being unusual, it’s a fantastic example of how expressive the graphic novel format can be. Facial expressions, font, and shapes of the word bubbles can say a lot, while the use of perspective can determine the mood. With its variety of angles and distances, as well as a variety of panel shapes and sizes, this book is dramatic and visually appealing even though it’s all black and white. Recommended for teens (as well as adults) or older children with some background knowledge of the civil rights era.
Snow White by Matt Phelan
Retellings of well-known fairy tales have been pretty popular in children’s and teen’s literature for a number of years now, but this one stands out as an especially good one. That’s partly because of the quality of the artwork. My favorite detail is the use of colors. Most of the drawings are black and white, or in some cases, sepia -toned. So the few colored objects- blood, the apple, the blue of the glass window, and the few full-colored pages depicting the happy ending– really stand out as being significant and even poignant. But the other fun thing about this book is the setting. Snow White is a story that isn’t typically moved away from its original Germanic setting, but here, it’s placed in the twenties. (1928 New York City, to be specific, just at the dawn of the Great Depression) The stepmother is a Broadway star rather than literal royalty, the woods are transformed to Hooverville, and the dwarves are replaced with a band of street urchins. This graphic novel has appeal factors both for children and teens. It has very little text and will be manageable for even a very reluctant reader.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Just by virtue of its author/artist, this is an extremely popular middle-grade book. Telgemeier’s bright art and realistic stories appeal strongly to avid readers and reluctant readers alike and are unintimidating for even young readers. This one is a bit different from her previous books in that it’s not purely realistic fiction. In the town that the protagonist Cat and her family move to, ghosts are real. Cat is confused and upset that everyone else actually likes the ghosts, but as the Day of the Dead celebration approaches, her perspective towards death and ghosts changes. I considered not putting this book on my list, because even though I enjoyed it and appreciated its candid discussion of terminal illness, it has some issues with historical and cultural accuracy. Specifically, it depicts the “ancient” ghosts at the old mission as being Mexican and speaking Spanish, even though most of the people buried in mission cemeteries were native people of the area. There would have been Spanish people buried there as well, so I think we can explain away that apparent inconsistency. But even then, the omission of any acknowledgment of the history of the missions and the mass deaths of native people that occurred as Spanish people settled the area. Really, this book is surprisingly uninformative about any California history, considering that it’s a book about ghosts and the observance of a traditional holiday. I decided to include this book on my list anyway, but I felt compelled to acknowledge that there’s a valid case to be made against it.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
Eleven-year-old Perry has never known any home other than the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility… that is, prison. But when the new district attorney finds out about this arrangement, he removes Perry and takes him home as a foster child. Although the district attorney happens to be Perry’s best friend’s stepfather, Perry is unhappy being separated from his mother, who is in prison for accidental manslaughter. This book contains a lot of the schoolwork/ friendship/ mean kids at school themes typical of middle-grade fiction, but Perry’s personality and backstory are distinctive enough to make the book feel innovative and even informative. It also has an element of mystery, because Perry is trying to figure out the details of the event that put his mother in prison. I think that Perry’s story be a great prompt for some very interesting discussions (or internal monologues) among kids between fourth and eighth grade, not only about incarceration and unique living situations, but also about the sometimes subtle differences between right and wrong, or between good people and bad people.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
The writing style in DiCamillo’s newest book is unique, so much so that this book can’t be fully enjoyed until you settle into the rhythm and the tone. It has short paragraphs, dry humor, eccentric characters with distinctive mannerisms, and straight-forward, simple language that somehow manages to convey just as much detail, emotion, and commentary on the human experience as a book with a more flowery or elaborate writing style. All of those things are good things, or at worst, neutral, but I still have very mixed feelings about this book because of them. It’s making my list because the story is interesting and memorable, which obviously means that it qualifies as “good”. I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed DiCamillo’s previous work, and it has appeal factors that just might be the thing to hook a reluctant reader. But frankly, this isn’t one of my Newbery hopes, even though I know that quite a lot of people are rooting for it.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly
Part adventure, part fantasy, and part thoroughly-researched historical fiction, this middle-grade novel is one of the most entertaining and intellectual children’s books of the year. I think it would by my second Newbery wish. (After Wolf Hollow, listed in the young adult category below) It’s the year 1242, and a group of travelers who cross paths in an inn start telling what they know about the three children who are the subject of all the talk in France. The collection-of-tales format is a bit reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while most of the events are drawn from French legends, folklore, and historical events. I picked up pretty quickly on the fact that Jeanne, one of the three protagonists, was modeled after Joan of Arc, but before reading the author’s note, (which I found far more interesting than many author’s notes) I didn’t realize just how much this book is grounded in facts and in legends that are just as old as those facts. I don’t have time or space to enumerate all the things I love about the book, which is just one more reason that I recommend that you read it for yourselves.
The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd
This right here is probably the most underrated and overlooked book of 2016. (At least, it is if we’re going by my opinion, which we obviously are since this is my blog) It has received some positive attention, but I haven’t seen it on other best-of-2016 lists, and I haven’t read much discussion about what it has to say about destiny, human connection, and what it means to be extraordinary. I admit that I have a soft spot for books in which the protagonist uncovers family history, and that I find something particularly appealing about the old-fashioned small-town setting and Lloyd’s brand of magical realism. This book was written specifically for people with my specific reading preferences. So that’s certainly why I’m giving this book more credit than the general public or the children’s literature community. But I stand by my opinion that it’s a very good book, and that you absolutely need to read it if phrases like “Destiny Dream”, “Boneyard Brew”, and “Darlin’ Daisy” sound good and if you believe in hidden treasures, magic flowers, and the powers of baked goods.
The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari
Twelve-year-old Charlie misses his mom and wishes he could have her back, but he knows that she’s gone forever, and that his life without her is a world where you can’t count on anything except math. But his sister Imogen claims that there is a way to reunite with their mother. But one day, Charlie discovers a portal in Imogen’s room that does indeed lead to a parallel world in which Mom is alive. But something doesn’t feel right, and Charlie gradually realizes that the time they spend with Mom is draining their energy and their memories. The book concludes with an exciting rescue mission in which Charlie and his friend Elliott must brave the sinister place that had previously seemed so comfortable in order to recover Imogen and another friend named Frank. This is a book about bravery, love, and loss, that has sad parts, heartwarming parts, scary parts, magical parts, realistic parts, and even a part that feels like science fiction. Essentially, it has something for everyone, and an awful lot for readers who like speculative fiction with real-world themes.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Here’s another very popular book that leads to mixed opinions for me. It’s beautifully written and rich with meaning, metaphors, and motifs. But I just can’t talk myself into liking the way it ends. (And I don’t mean it doesn’t make me happy; I mean that it doesn’t tie up enough loose endings to have any effective message or to leave the reader with any afterthoughts other than annoyance at an unsatisfying ending.) I also don’t love the ambiguity of the setting, although I can accept that this might actually be a positive aspect for some readers. So my overall stance on this book is that it is high quality literature, but not quite my type. And I’m still not okay with that ending. As such, I’m including it on this list, but it’s not one that I would be excited to see win major awards.
The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart
When I heard that Stewart (author of The Mysterious Benedict Society) was coming out with a new book this year, I knew it was one I didn’t want to miss. The Secret Keepers did not disappoint. It’s a complex mystery as well as an exciting adventure with science fiction/ fantasy aspects, featuring a boy who finds a special watch, which is being sought by the sinister and mysterious authorities of his sort-of-but-not-really dystopian city. (It’s 501 pages, by the way, and not a line of that is unnecessary or redundant. I did say it’s complex.) It is worth acknowledging that this is a book with a very specific and narrow target audience. It’s a good book for those kinds of precocious kids who can spend hours on end completely engrossed in a book, who are such avid and skilled readers that nothing is really a challenge for them, and who prefer the fantastical to the realistic.
More Children’s Novels
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby
Summerlost by Ally Condie
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin
Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock
The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh
The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner
Novels in Verse
Booked by Kwame Alexander
Fans of Alexander’s Newbery winner Crossover from two years ago will also like Alexander’s more recent book about Nick Hall, an eighth grade boy who loves soccer, knows way too many obscure words thanks to his linguist father, and has a crush on a girl named April. Nick and his best friend Coby are on different soccer teams, but both teams have been invited to compete in the Dallas Cup. But before then, Nick’s life falls apart when his parents announce that they’re separating. The variety of subplots (bullies, school assignments, a medical emergency, etc.) gives this book appeal factors for readers who aren’t particularly interested in sports stories. This book ideal for kids close to Nick’s age or a little younger, but some readers outside of that age range will also like it.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
This book could fall into multiple categories; it’s a picture book, it’s poetry, and it’s sort of both historical fiction and nonfiction. It’s short enough that I suppose it’s a stretch to call it a novel in verse, but I really do think that it deserves credit for its verse. Inspired by an 1828 document listing eleven slaves for sale, Bryan hypothesizes about their relationships to each other, their skills and duties, and their dreams for the future.
Unbound by Ann E. Burg
This is another one about slavery, set a few decades later. Grace has been summoned to work in the big house, which brings a whole new set of responsibilities and dangers. Grace struggles to keep her mouth shut about the injustices and cruelty that the slaves face, and after she gets in trouble for vocalizing her “rightiness voice”, she and her family must run away into the swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp is a real place in Virginia and North Carolina where some (perhaps many) runaway slaves did hide. This book is about the hardships of slavery and the moral dilemmas that arise when one doesn’t have the freedom to do what they know is right, but it’s also a look into a historical facet that isn’t often discussed.
Moo by Sharon Creech
I have to admit that I actually haven’t been much of a fan of Creech’s works in the past. There’s something I used to find unappealing in her writing style and the way the format of her verse varies. But I didn’t mind it in this book. In fact, I really enjoyed immersing myself in the story of a friendship developing between the city kids who have just moved to rural Maine, the scary Mrs. Falala, and her belligerent cow Zora. The plot is pretty predictable, but it’s a sweet story with excellent characterization, so it’s worth a read.
Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee
Like several of my favorite YA books of 2016, this one is geared towards the younger side of that demographic. I initially considered it a children’s book because the protagonist is eleven and it’s not a very long book. But the emotional depth and the intellectual aspect of the themes and motifs put it more in the realm of middle-school books. Don’t get me wrong, a nine- or ten-year-old could certainly handle this book and enjoy it, (as long as he or she is okay with tear-jerkers) but I can’t quite bring myself to call it children’s literature. It’s about death, grief, love, and connections. And although it’s almost realistic fiction, it has speculative and spiritual elements, which gives it a magic touch that’s more poignant than actual fantasy stories.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager
This is another one with a preteen protagonist, and it’s another one that’s almost but not quite realistic fiction. (I would describe it as magical realism, a subgenre that has lately become very common in YA novels.) Carol is not at all happy to be spending her summer on an isolated ranch, helping her parents move her cantankerous grandfather into assisted living against his will. But she does come to enjoy her grandfather’s stories about a magic tree, the bees who keep it alive, and the adventurous young woman who brought it all to an end. Over the course of the book, Carol learns a lot about the history of her family, which is largely defined by an ongoing conflict between the need to honor and rely upon one’s roots and the need to branch out and see what else is out there. It’s fitting and clever that the tree is a significant “character” in the plot.
The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
When it comes to YA literature, most of the books that I love most are books that have intellectual or philosophical themes, books that keep the reader thinking about the point of the story long after they’ve finished it. This isn’t one of those. I certainly could find things to say about The Gallery’s discussion of social issues, about power and how dangerous it is in the wrong hands, or about the theme of secrecy, lies, and cover-ups. I also love that it is set in the 1920’s, a time period that I think is under-represented in literature for young people. But the real reason I like this book is simply that it’s exciting and fascinating. It tells the story of a spunky twelve-year old named Martha O’Doyle as she begins working alongside her mother as an employee of J. Archer Sewell. The wealthy newspaper magnate’s mysterious wife is an invalid, suffering from an illness of the mind. But Martha begins to suspect that Mrs. Sewell is being confined against her will and is attempting to convey secret messages. When Martha resolves to help her, mystery and adventure lies in store.
Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo
Of the books I’m listing here, this is one of the few that hasn’t really attracted a lot of attention and critical acclaim. The reviews were positive and it has good ratings on amazon and goodreads, but it hasn’t shown up on review journals’ Best of the Year lists, and only one of the six review journals that matter most gave it a starred review. (I spent way too much time verifying that.) But I found it interesting, meaningful, and well-written enough that it stuck in my mind as a best-of-the-year contender from when it came out in January until now. I might be biased because I relate so much to Harper, the main character– not just because she loves ballet, and not just because she feels like a failure for not being a better dancer, but because of personality traits and emotions. Although, unlike Harper, I didn’t cope with life’s disappointments by running away to Antarctica. The novel alternates between “before” chapters in San Francisco and “after” chapters in Antarctica, describing Harper’s literal and metaphorical journey to find a sense of identity and purpose after falling short of her uncompromisable Plan-with-a-capital-P. (Note: I also tend to be biased towards books with Star Wars references. Not gonna lie, this book had me wrapped around its finger as soon as I saw that it involved both ballet and Star Wars.)
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
It’s 1977 in New York, and Nora is a senior in high school. But school isn’t one of the first things on her mind, not when there’s a serial killer out there somewhere and a cute new guy at work and family problems at home. Nora’s brother Hector is aggressive and cruel, (not to mention that he’s probably caught up in illegal activities) and their mother is powerless to control either her son or her family’s finances. Nora is looking forward to moving out on her own, but first she has to navigate through this hot, violent summer. This novel is realistic fiction, and it uses a real time and place and real events to discuss the uncertainties, dangers, and emotions of real life, but it also has suspense and intrigue characteristic of a mystery or adventure. Serial killers and borderline-criminal siblings can do that to a story. (By the way, no, the serial killer and the brother do not turn out to be the same person.) Already having been put on the National Book Award longlist, this book also might be a major contender for the Printz and/or Pura Belpre.
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
This is a story about lies and secrets, about hiding and being trapped, about blame and trust, about right and wrong. It’s a story where every seemingly random scene or anecdote is important, where every character is a major character, and where the action doesn’t have to slow down to make room for beautiful writing. It’s a book where the heroine is brave, kind-hearted, and innocent (but yet very realistic and believable) and faces difficult and dangerous dilemmas. In short, this novel is literature at its finest. If I had to choose just one book to name as the best of 2016, this would be it. It’s 1943, and Annabelle is a twelve-year-old in a small, rural Pennsylvania town. Her quiet life is turned upside down when Betty Glenberry comes to town. Betty bullies Annabelle and demonstrates such callous cruelty that, after a thrown rock injures a classmate, Annabelle immediately suspects Betty. But Betty accuses Toby, an eccentric World War I veteran who is friends with Annabelle’s family. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent, but evidence is stacking up against him, and she can only defend and protect him by breaking rules and keeping dangerous secrets. I would strongly recommend this book to preteens, teens, and adults.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
This teen romance is one of the most popular young adult books of the year; I think it’s safe to say that it’s the most popular contemporary realistic fiction young adult book of the year. Even if you, like me, feel that contemporary realistic fiction teen romances are usually more or less the same, this one is worth a little more attention. Jamaican-born Natasha is about to be deported, and Daniel, a Korean American boy born and raised in New York, is about to interview for a recommendation for admission to Yale. For her, it’s the worst day ever. For him, it’s just another episode in the ongoing family drama of high expectations. But when they cross paths, it becomes a very important moment in both of their lives. Daniel is immediately smitten while Natasha takes some convincing, but by the end of the day, they are officially in love. The voice and perspective jumps between Natasha, Daniel, and an omniscient narrator who offers background information about secondary characters, relevant historical or scientific trivia, and details about the series of events that made this particular day turn out the way it did. Most plot summaries I’ve seen make this book sound like a fairly stereotypical pairing of Natasha’s scientific and factual mindset and Daniel’s romanticized ideals. That’s definitely a major aspect of the plot, but there’s so much more to this book. It’s also about family dynamics, race relations, and the costs and benefits of following your dreams. Perhaps most of all, it’s a creative reminder that there are an infinite number of possible futures, and every small choice or minor event plays a role in determining which one will happen.
Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong by Lesa Cline- Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome
This beautiful picture-book biography describes the childhood and early career of the iconic jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Although the book acknowledges the poverty and petty crimes that played such a large role in Armstrong’s early life, it focuses on his lifelong love for music and has a cheerful tone. The text is just stylized enough to have a musical quality; Booklist describes it as snappy and The Horn Book compares the “short bursts of text” to jazz riffs. And then there are the illustrations. Colorful, bright, and happy, they complement the text and set the mood. I recommend this book for elementary-school-aged children, although it will be a light read for children at the older side of that range.
The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by Terry and Eric Fan
Astronaut Chris Hadfield looks back at one historic weekend in his childhood. At first, this looks like a fairly typical picture book about a boy who likes to play astronaut, but who is afraid of the dark. But then he watches the first moon landing on television and gets to see actual astronauts in outer space, and after this, his dreams overcome his fears. I enjoyed the playful and humorous tone of the beginning of the book, as well as the lovely ink and graphite illustrations, but what really sold me on this book is that it’s a true story. Chris isn’t just a protagonist created to teach kids a feel-good message; he’s an actual person who actually achieved his dreams.
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Yes, this is a Best Book of 2016 in two different categories. In addition to being a great graphic novel, it’s a quality nonfiction book about historically significant events. There are lots of wonderful historical fiction books about the Civil Rights movement, but this book gives a different– and 100 % factual– perspective, since the primary author was involved in organizing significant events in the movement. One benefit of the graphic novel format is that this book is accessible to a wide range of ages. My library actually has it in the adult collection, but this book has usually been classified as a YA book and even won the National Book Award for Young People’s literature. Many middle-graders could also read and appreciate this book. Regardless of age, most readers will learn a lot about the famous Freedom Summer of 1964, and about the politics and disagreements within the Civil Rights movement.
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Most of us are familiar with the controversy and animosity surrounding the desegregation of schools in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ve heard about Brown vs. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine, and we understand that segregation was a widespread issue. But this book begins before all of that. This book starts with the story of Sarah Roberts, a girl who started school in Boston in 1847, years before the Civil War. Sarah initially attended a school that wasn’t supposed to teach black students, and it didn’t take long before she was forced to switch to a school much farther away, with an inferior curriculum and only one book. That wasn’t what her parents wanted for her. It took two years for the case to go to court, and the Roberts’ and their lawyers lost in the end. The last few pages skip ahead to Linda Brown, an eight-year-old girl in the same situation a century later, who won her case and effectively ended segregation in schools. This may be a picture book, (a beautifully illustrated one, by the way) and it may be relatively short, but it’s an excellent way to introduce these topics to children in first through third grade.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson
This National Book Award semi-finalist wasn’t on my radar until then and hasn’t received a lot of attention aside from that, but it is an excellent book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s an essential read for anyone with a particular interest in WWII Japan and a beneficial read for everyone. Sachiko Yasui, the central figure and primary informant for this book, was only six years old when she experienced the explosion that demolished her home and killed the four children that she’d been playing with moments before. Her story isn’t so much about the military events of WWII as it is about growing up in a country, community, and family that is rebuilding itself and looking for hope while still struggling with the long-term effects of the war. The atomic bomb continued to kill people long after the day it fell on Nagasaki; effects of radiation such as many types of cancer continued to show up years after the war was over. Sachiko lost most of her family to the atomic bombing, and she herself experienced emotional hardships and later, thyroid cancer that wasn’t resolved until she was an adult. But this book isn’t all about radiation sickness and loss; it’s also about people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller who inspired Sachiko, and about hope and regrowth. This book can be appreciated by preteens, teens, and adults alike.