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Best Children's Books of 2019

We've come to the end of another wonderful year of children's books. Here is a list of my favorites. If I can make a suggestion - if you find yourself in a reading rut, pick up a children's book. I've found that they help to put things in perspective in a graceful way and remind you of the beauty and innocence of childhood. Enjoy!

PICTURE BOOKS

Just Because written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Just Because pairs one of my absolute favorite children’s book authors with one of my absolute favorite illustrators. The result is a beautiful, silly - in my experience, realistic - portrait of bedtime. As a father puts his daughter to bed she begins to ask many, many, many questions - and the answers to each get sillier and sillier. Mac Barnett’s wonderful imagination comes to life in such a beautiful and whimsical way when paired with Isabelle Arsenault’s stunning illustrations. To top it all off, my daughter (she’s three) was laughing and laughing as we went through the story. I’ll read this book to her any time she wants if I can always hear her laugh that way.


Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré written by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar

This book tells the story of Pura Belpré, a storyteller, puppeteer, and New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian. She was a champion of bilingual literature and this book celebrates that. Her story is told in both English and Spanish, which is fitting as she was hired to be a bilingual assistant at the library. The entire book is a celebration of both Belpré’s life and the joy of storytelling, down to the beautiful and exuberant illustrations by Paola Escobar.

In 1996, the Pura Belpré Award was established to celebrate a Latinx writer and illustrator who best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latinx experience. 


Saturday written and illustrated by Oge Mora

So often children’s books do not deal with the real, everyday challenges of being a parent. In Saturday, Oge More boldly tells the story of a daughter’s disappointment and a mother’s frustration. Ava and her mother look forward to Saturdays because it is the one day of the week they get to spend together. This specific Saturday, nothing goes to plan - the park is noisy and crowded, a bus splashes their new hair after a trip to the salon, and Ava’s mom forgets the tickets to a puppet show back at their apartment. As frustration builds, Ava’s mother finally gets so upset that she breaks down. After taking a breath, Ava calmly reminds her mother that the special thing about Saturdays is that they are together. It is lovely, and honest, and a powerful reminder as a parent that our children cherish time spent together most of all.

 

Between Us & Abuela: A Family Story from the Border written by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Sara Palacios

Maria and Juan live in California and their grandmother lives across the border in Mexico. The two children work together to create a beautiful Christmas gift to take to their grandmother at the border crossing, but once they get there they are not allowed to pass anything through the border fence. Maria devises a plan to get their gift to their abuela, and the agents monitoring the border soften at the sight of two children connecting with the people on both sides of the fence. This hopeful and emotionally moving story is a great way to talk through current issues like immigration and the border with your children. 


Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods is one of my favorite new children’s books. It was written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, a Minneapolis-based writer and artist who went to school at UW-Stout. This is her second book and it is exquisite. Beyond the fact that her illustrations are absolutely stunning, Wheeler tells the story of her grandmother’s childhood growing up during the Great Depression in the northwoods of Wisconsin. After her father dies, Marvel, her six brothers and sisters, and her mother are forced to move into a tar paper shack in the middle of the woods. At first glance, it’s difficult for the family to imagine that this shack could ever be home, but through the seasons, they work tirelessly to not just survive, but thrive in their home in the woods. This is a lovely story of family and the true meaning of home. 


MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus AND Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Aven is 13 years old when her family moves from Kansas to Arizona, after her parents take a job running a failing western-themed amusement park, Stagecoach Pass. She is not happy about leaving all of her friends to move to the desert. Aven was born without arms, and she feels nervous about finding a place to fit into her new school. Eventually she meets some friends who have their own struggles with being different. Together they work to solve a big mystery at Stagecoach Pass. Aven is a hilarious kid, and while she works hard to project confidence, she struggles not to feel insecure at her new school. This book provides parents with a fantastic resource to talk about friendship, confidence, and acceptance. And if you fall in love with Aven, Connor, and Zion make sure you check out the new sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus. In the sequel, Aven goes to high school - a scary transition for every kid. It’s a treat to follow Aven and her friends as they both struggle and thrive in their new environment.


Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome 

Lesa Cline-Ransome’s beautiful middle grade novel, Finding Langson, stole my heart. Langston is eleven when his mother dies. In the aftermath, as a fulfillment of one of his mother’s wishes, he and his father move to Chicago from Alabama. It is 1946. Langston struggles to fit into his new urban environment. His father, still devastated from the loss of his mother, feels far away, and so does his home in Alabama. On his way home from school, where bullies have taken to teasing him for the way that he talks and dresses, he stumbles upon a library. There, he discovers a collection of poems by Langston Hughes. The collection makes him feel connected to his home in Alabama, his mother, and himself. This is a slim novel, perfect for reading together as a family, or solo. I loved every minute of it.


Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Jasmine Warga's Other Words for Home is a beautiful middle grade novel in verse. Jude, a smart, brave, vibrant girl from Syria moves with her mother to her uncle's home in Cincinnati, leaving her father and brother behind - both in dangerous and uncertain situations. While she navigates a new school, a new family, and a new culture, she is constantly pulled to her memories of home and concern for her family in Syria - a place misunderstood by her American classmates. As she begins to enjoy some of the freedoms that her new home provides - like trying out for her school play - she worries that she’ll lose her connection to her home. I loved the bravery of this book. Warga writes a strong, female, Muslim protagonist and beautifully confronts the complexities of the hijab in Muslim culture, as well as Islamophobia. Vital reading for children and parents - even better when read together.


Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk follows the story of ten-year old Mia and her parents who have recently immigrated from China to the United States. After struggling to find work, Mia’s parents finally get a too-good-to-be-true job as the front desk managers and caretakers of a motel. The job includes lodging and Mia is immediately excited at the prospect of working at the front desk and meeting all kinds of different people as they come through the lobby. Mia is a strong, resourceful girl who bravely stands up to the institutionalized racism she and her friends experience in their day-to-day lives. She is determined to become a writer despite her mother’s insistence that her English will never be as good as her classmates’. This book is both heartbreaking and heartwarming and I absolutely loved it.

 

YOUNG ADULT BOOK


With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Emoni is a senior at her charter high school in Philadelphia. She is a teen mom, raised by her grandmother, working as much as she can to support her family while working toward graduation and potentially college. She is also a magical cook. While Emoni is navigating the feasibility of becoming a chef, a complicated relationship with her daughter's father, the realities of financially providing for her family, her absent Puerto Rican father, and her own struggles to succeed in school, she is also dealing with the more commonplace challenges of being a teenager, like the new boy in school and the crush she is working so hard to ignore. I loved With the Fire on High; The characters are rich and textured and Elizabeth Acevedo does not shy away from difficult topics. Emoni is a role model for every person everywhere, no matter the color of their skin or their own personal challenges. She deals with the same feelings of insecurity and uncertainty as every high school senior moving forward into the next phase of her life - while shedding light and giving a voice to a group of people that is often left voiceless - and she does so with magic, spice, and maturity.