Shelf Awareness's Best Children's & Teen Books of 2020
This challenging year has given us a number of outstanding children's and young adult titles. Here are our top picks for 2020; scroll down to read our reviews of these splendid books. (Shelf Awareness's Best Adult Books will be announced December 1.)
The Old Truck by Jarrett Pumphrey, Jerome Pumphrey (Norton Young Readers)
Every Color of Light: A Book About the Sky by Hiroshi Osada, trans. by David Boyd, illus. by Ryôji Arai (Enchanted Lion Books)
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illus. by Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook Press)
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illus. by Sydney Smith (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House)
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, illus. by Bryan Collier (Orchard Books/Scholastic)
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, illus. by Eric Rohmann (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House)
Chapter and Middle Grade Books
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, illus. by Jon Klassen (Algonquin Young Readers)
All Thirteen: The Incredible Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick Press)
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic Press)
The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb/Random House)
Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley (Candlewick Press)
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (Scholastic Press)
Young Adult Books
Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry (Algonquin Young Readers)
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (Balzer + Bray)
Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth (Levine Querido)
A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, edited by Patrice Caldwell (Viking)
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi (Balzer & Bray)
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel & Friends)
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, illus. by Rovina Cai (Levine Querido)
Children's & Young Adult
The Old Truck
by Jerome Pumphrey, Jarrett Pumphrey
Inspired by the strong women in the creators' lives and brought to life by more than 250 individually crafted stamps, The Old Truck is a quietly powerful ode to hard work and perseverance.
A Black farming family--mother, father, daughter--cheerfully toils through the seasons, loading their red truck with produce even as the vehicle grows older--"And older./ And older still," until it settles into the weeds by the barn. Time passes. Now a grown woman, the next-generation farmer hauls the old truck out and works to repair it. Finally, she's rewarded with a satisfying "VROOOOOOOM!!"
The Old Truck invites close and frequent reading. Keen-eyed children will catch small details: the way the barn gradually fades from red to brown and the foliage and crops change with the seasons. Debut author/illustrators and brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey use a natural, earthy palette to express the simple joys of self-sufficiency and a connection to the land. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Norton Young Readers,
hardcover, 48p., ages 3-5, 9781324005193
Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky
by Hiroshi Osada, trans. by David Boyd, illus. by Ryôji Arai
Rainstorms will never look the same again after a mesmerizing trip through the forest with Japanese poet Hiroshi Osada as the guide. Combined with the marvel of Ryôji Arai's dazzling illustrations of nature, Every Color of Light is a refreshing sensory wonderland in picture-book format.
There is a calm on the forest floor when the rain starts. As the storm intensifies, Arai's illustrations grow darker, the lines stronger and Osada's words gain urgency: "The wind whips/ The rain slants." Then percussive onomatopoeia couples with bold colors that flash as powerfully as the lightning strike they represent. Mindfulness, spectacle and awe emanate from every page of this breathtaking collaboration. Arai's forceful use of color and line tell as much of the story as David Boyd's melodic translation of Osada's punctuation-less text, loaded with illuminating figurative language. All three contributors express a respect for nature's strength, resilience and beauty. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Enchanted Lion Books,
hardcover, 38p., ages 4-6, 9781592702916
We Are Water Protectors
by Carole Lindstrom, illus. by Michaela Goade
Flowing words by Carole Lindstrom and lush art by Michaela Goade appear in immaculate synchronicity in We Are Water Protectors. A young girl, instructed by her wise Nokomis--grandmother--acts as the story's guide, creating a beckoning entry for even young children to become conscious of the plight of Mother Earth.
Like their brave protagonist, Lindstrom (Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle) and Goade (Encounter), too, are Indigenous water protectors: Lindstrom is Anishinaabe/Métis, Goade identifies as Tlingit. Both their ancestral identities are intimately woven into their collaboration, with Ojibwe, Tlingit and Lakota words imbedded in the text and a glossary at book's end. Goade further incorporates Lindstrom's Ojibwe culture into her illustrations by including Anishinaabe/Ojibwe clan symbols and floral designs throughout. Every double-page spread is a richly hued, intricately detailed visual feast. Author and artist press for action with a thoughtful final-page pledge urging early awareness and inviting readers--from all backgrounds--to be stewards of our shared planet. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Roaring Brook Press,
hardcover, 40p., ages 3-6, 9781250203557
I Talk Like a River
by Jordan Scott, illus. by Sydney Smith
In this moving account, a boy navigates "a bad speech day" with the help of his father and a visit to his "favorite place in the world."
The boy wakes each morning with "the sounds of words all around," but some are too difficult to say. One especially unbearable day, his teacher insists that he answer a question. Fortunately, after school, his dad suggests a trip to the river which moves the way the boy speaks--"bubbling, churning, whirling, and crashing" before it finds its "smooth and glistening" calm. By tying the experience of stuttering to nature, award-winning poet and stutterer Jordan Scott skillfully allows the protagonist to feel part of a grander design, and the hurt caused by a mouth that "isn't working" can be put into perspective. Sydney Smith's (Small in the City) astonishing art illuminates what is written, the impressionistic paintings bringing readers close to the boy's pain and allowing them to experience, seemingly firsthand, his solace, too. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
Neal Porter Books,
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780823445592
All Because You Matter
by Tami Charles, illus. by Bryan Collier
For her third picture book, All Because You Matter, Tami Charles (Freedom Soup) collaborates with Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner and four-time Caldecott Honoree Bryan Collier. A story that identifies the importance of Black ancestors as well as our present and future selves, All Because You Matter tackles topics such as bullying, racial profiling and the discovery of one's identity.
Charles's graceful text and Collier's evocative illustrations work together to make conversations about these topics easier to have with children. The lyrical text describes the emotional relationship of BIPOC parents to their children; the repeated calls to the ancestors and use of the word "matter" drive home the idea that Black children are born with purpose and hope. Collier's signature watercolor and collage images use white (but most certainly not blank) space powerfully, and his repeated use of a single flower petal shape builds "a blossoming effect in all backgrounds." Like a garden, the ancestors bloom in this book, telling Black children "you matter." --Kharissa Kenner
hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9781338574852
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera
by Candace Fleming, illus. by Eric Rohmann
Orbus Pictus Award-winners Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann (Giant Squid; Strongheart) crack open the world of the honeybee by following one Apis mellifera through her short lifespan. The detail and whimsy of the honeybee's biography beautifully portray her as a vital part of Earth's ecosphere, setting up the exquisite insect to be appreciated by young readers for her hard work and enormous contributions.
Rohmann's striking, life-like oil paintings accompany Fleming's intriguing text. The meticulous detail and large-scale, bug's-eye view emphasize both the honeybee's delicacy and her great importance. Minute features like the veins in her wings and the pollen in her hair are sure to mesmerize young audiences. In contrast, an equally beautiful gatefold reminds readers how tiny she is in the world we inhabit. This dazzling picture book includes an essay and additional facts in the back matter, culminating in a phenomenal portrait of a tiny but indispensable component of nature. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Neal Porter Books,
hardcover, 40p., ages 6-9, 9780823442850
Skunk and Badger
by Amy Timberlake, illus. by Jon Klassen
Things start out badly for accidental roommates Skunk and Badger and only get worse in this sweet Indie Next List pick featuring an all-new literary theme--badger meets skunk, badger loses skunk, badger gets skunk back. Amy Timberlake writes with whimsical humor reminiscent of A.A. Milne and Arnold Lobel, which is reinforced by Jon Klassen's splendid illustrations; they build a world that is both authentic and fantastically original.
Skunk and Badger--like so many of their literary odd-couple predecessors--take a while to truly connect. In fact, thanks to an excruciating pileup of prejudice and miscommunication, the two overcome the biggest bumps in their road to friendship only as book one in the proposed trilogy comes to a close. Luckily, Edgar Award winner and Newbery Honoree Timberlake (One Came Home) and Caldecott and Greenaway medal-winner Klassen (This Is Not My Hat; Sam and Dave Dig a Hole) have no intention of letting this hard-won friendship fade away. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Algonquin Young Readers,
hardcover, 136p., ages 8-12, 9781643750057
All Thirteen: The Incredible Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team
by Christina Soontornvat
In 2018, the world held its breath while a large international team gathered in Thailand to save a boys' soccer team trapped in a flooding cave; Christina Soontornvat (A Wish in the Dark) thrillingly recounts this harrowing tale.
One June afternoon, the Wild Boars soccer team asked Coach Ek to accompany them on a hike to a local cave. Coach Ek agreed and the spirited young athletes wandered deep into the cave. Then came the unthinkable: rushing water appeared, blocking their path. Over the next 18 days, world-renowned experts, local residents and the global community joined together in a herculean effort to rescue the team.
Soontornvat does a brilliant job of balancing education with riveting scenes of rescue attempts. She introduces the famous divers and planners alongside pivotal behind-the-scenes figures, all while keeping her focus on Thailand and the soccer team. A powerful testament to community and the strength of the human spirit. --Kyla Paterno, freelance reviewer
hardcover, 288p., ages 8-12, 9781536209457
by Linda Sue Park
Narrated by a smart, clear-sighted protagonist, Prairie Lotus is a richly layered work of historical fiction set in a landscape that will be familiar to Little House on the Prairie readers.
After her Chinese Korean mother's death, 14-year-old Hanna and her white father make their way east from California, landing in 1880 in LaForge, a frontier town in the Dakota Territory. Their plan is to open a dry-goods or tailoring business, but first they have to take the measure of LaForge. Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books should appreciate Hanna's homesteading chores and similar details, but Prairie Lotus is more than a simple spin-off of a beloved classic. Hanna is a character firmly entrenched in her time who also confronts the inherent racism and sexism of the 19th-century West. As one can expect from Newbery Medal-winner Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard), Prairie Lotus's gorgeous, fluid storytelling carries readers along swiftly to a satisfying conclusion. --Emilie Coulter
Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
hardcover, 272p., ages 10-12, 9781328781505
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
In Pam Muñoz Ryan's Indie Next List title Mañanaland, the Newbery Honoree (Echo) and Pura Belpré Award winner (The Dreamer) creates a richly satisfying novel that is both contemporary and timeless. Almost 12, Maximiliano explores family history and tests his courage as he rescues a small girl from horrible conditions.
There is a cruel dictator in Abismo, from whom many have fled. In the neighboring country, several of Max's family members work to rescue the refugees--in fact, his papá is a rescuer. When Max's father briefly leaves their village, a priest shows up with a young girl who must be brought to the "next safe place"; the priest asks Max to guide the girl. Ryan's portrayal of Max's life is realistic, but there is also a hint of magic to the work. The author seamlessly weaves into Max's journey important themes about asylum seekers and the people who help them. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
hardcover, 256p., ages 9-12, 9781338157864
The List of Things that Will Not Change
by Rebecca Stead
Newbery Award-winning author Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) has a gift for inhabiting the minds and hearts of young readers. In her Indie Next List title The List of Things that Will Not Change, she explores the messy feelings that come with divorce from the perspective of Bea, a girl who bubbles over with love, rage, anxiety, shame and hopeful anticipation.
Stead understands that the kinds of things a child worries about can be unexpectedly different from what an older person might fear. Bea's narrative is, in Stead's hands, droll, poignant and always realistic, whether she's angst-ridden about the fifth-grade colonial breakfast project or trying not to scratch her eczema. Stead masterfully explores the internal life of a girl going through both extraordinary and run-of-the-mill trials in a way that tells readers they are not alone in their complicated, contradictory feelings about the world. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Wendy Lamb/Random House,
hardcover, 224p., ages 8-12, 9781101938096
by Marcella Pixley
Marcella Pixley's Trowbridge Road is a glorious celebration of the power of imagination and a heartrending cautionary tale about the danger of keeping secrets. Written with compassion and eloquence, this NBA-longlisted middle-grade novel is positively luminous.
When 11-year-old June Bug meets Ziggy in the summer of 1983, they are two terribly lonely children. June Bug's father died last year from the not-yet-understood illness AIDS; Ziggy is staying with Nana Jean while his mother, a victim of domestic abuse, struggles to regain control of her life. Like in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, the interplay between the children's real and imagined worlds is seamless and as natural as the friendship between kindred souls. Those who know "what happens to a home when it becomes a holding place for... secrets" will ache for the two children as they channel their pain and confusion through their imagination and connection with people who know how to make their love stick. --Emilie Coulter
hardcover, 336p., 9781536207507
King and the Dragonflies
by Kacen Callender
Kacen Callender's middle-grade National Book Award-winning King and the Dragonflies deftly treads challenging territory in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner.
Kingston Reginald James hates his name. His parents' choice was deliberate, "so I'd remember... that I've got ancestors who used to rule their own empires." King doesn't feel like royalty--these days, he's mostly just scared. Older brother Khalid is dead at 16 and, even though King is sure that Khalid has just swapped his human form for that of a dragonfly, the family is struggling to move on. King is also afraid to admit how much he misses his friend Sandy, with whom he severed his relationship after Sandy told King he was gay; Khalid overheard and warned King to stay away because "Black people aren't allowed to be gay."
Beyond the robust roster of crucial issues (race, sexual identity, death), Callender (Hurricane Child) ultimately tells a resonating family story of tragic loss, shattering consequences and finding "a new normal" enabled by unconditional love. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
hardcover, 272p., ages 8-12, 9781338129335
Tigers, Not Daughters
by Samantha Mabry
This Indie Next List book is a lyrical contemporary YA with a dose of magical realism and an empowering portrait of grief, sisterhood and resilience.
Ever since their mother died, the four Torres sisters are desperate to get away from their crushingly needy father. Two months after a failed escape, Ana, the eldest, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, the sisters and their "disaster of a dad" still mourn. The three sisters begin seeing signs of Ana's ghost, which convince them she's returned for revenge--each has her own theory against whom. The sisters in Tigers, Not Daughters face discrete battles, yet Ana's ghost unites them and forces them to confront the grief eclipsing their powerful bond. Mabry (the National Book Award longlisted All the Wind in the World) gracefully shows their delicate paths forward as they leave behind guilt and regret and find romance and renewed strength. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Algonquin Young Readers,
hardcover, 288p., ages 12-up, 9781616208967
The Black Flamingo
by Dean Atta
In his 2019 Stonewall Award-winning verse novel, The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta (I Am Nobody's Nigger, for adults) skillfully chronicles the life of Michael, a gay, British-born Cypriot-Jamaican teen.
It is clear from the beginning that this is a not an average coming-of-age story--it's more a "coming-into-one's-own" story, with Michael declaring, "finally, I am the fairy finding my own magic." Michael's clear voice establishes him as a reliable narrator who generously guides readers through his most intimate moments. The frankness and depth of Michael's very personal reflections invite high emotional investment; his vulnerabilities and strengths refreshingly focus on the "full human being" his mother affirms him to be. Throughout, Michael explores themes of in-betweenness and connection through Atta's deft command of diverse poetry forms. The Black Flamingo's straightforward, cohesive chronology creates a smooth, compact and gripping read. --Breanna J. McDaniel, freelance reviewer
Balzer + Bray,
hardcover, 416p., ages 14-up, 9780062990297
Apple (Skin to the Core)
by Eric Gansworth
Writing in a striking combination of verse and prose, Eric Gansworth (Extra Indians) intends to take back the power of the Indigenous slur "apple" in this NBA-longlisted title.
Gansworth, a member of the Onondaga Nation, reveals in this memoir the heartbreaking struggle of a family with too little to eat and a mostly absent father whose every attempt to get ahead is undermined by structural racism. In Apple, Gansworth works to validate Native experience, forcefully reminding readers that a significant portion of the U.S. population is Indigenous--that "Indians" haven't disappeared. With Apache, Navajo and Coconino voters recently contributing to a historic voter shift in Arizona, the work being done by Gansworth and other Indigenous individuals deserves significant attention.
The exceptional elements of this memoir abound. Gansworth's own art adds dimension to an already evocative narrative and his black-and-white illustrations and personal photos feature his family as well as significant apple imagery. With dramatic textual imagery, nuanced storytelling and evocative illustrations, Apple is a stirring depiction of Indigenous life. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
hardcover, 352p., ages 12-up, 9781646140138
A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope
by Patrice Caldwell, editor
Sixteen authors, including volume editor Patrice Caldwell, serve up absolutely stunning science fiction and fantasy in this collection of short stories, the title of which is borrowed from the evergreen work of Octavia Butler.
Young Black women and gender-nonconforming folks are the heroes of each tale in A Phoenix First Must Burn. They are witches, mutants, shapeshifters, vampires and goddesses, all learning, loving and growing. Every one of the authors has developed a protagonist who grows into their full self, all with a focus on liberation beholden to the book's claim of being "Beyoncé's Lemonade for a teen audience." The talented authors paint a vibrant visual album with their words, intentionally setting their characters in locales that are alternately exotic or seemingly mundane but always exciting. Proud, resilient, loving and hopeful, this book gives nuance and voice to a spectrum of truly wondrous Black experiences. --Breanna J. McDaniel, author and reviewer
hardcover, 368p., 9781984835659
Punching the Air
by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi (American Street) and activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five tells the unforgettable story of Amal Shahid, a teenager incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Zoboi and Salaam masterfully join forces in this mesmerizing Indie Next List novel-in-verse. The poems--sharp, uninhibited and full of metaphors and sensory language--quickly establish Amal's voice, laying bare the anger, despair, hope and talent it holds.
While Zoboi and Salaam create a young protagonist who is truly exceptional, they simultaneously show that his situation is far from exceptional in the U.S. Amal's interactions in jail show the disproportionate impact of police brutality, mass incarceration and biased legal systems on Black young men. Amal's experience of abuse by the system, as well as his peers', incites raw outrage, but his artistic self-expression offers a subtle yet significant kind of hope. --Sylvia Al-Mateen, freelance reviewer and editor
Balzer + Bray,
hardcover, 400p., ages 12-up, 9780062996480
Dark and Deepest Red
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore's fifth novel, the National Book Award-longlisted Dark and Deepest Red, is an artful, spellbinding YA reimagining of "The Red Shoes."
Lala moved to Strasbourg because of a law that forces the Romani out of their homes: "Whoever harms a Gypsy commits no crime." Then "la fièvre de la danse" takes over, making hundreds of people dance maniacally. Lala knows it is only a matter of time before the stares of the city turn to her, fear in their eyes, "witchcraft" on their tongues. Rosella lives in present-day Briar Meadow, where, every October, a "strangeness" called the "glimmer" settles onto the town. For generations, Rosella's Mexican American family have been shoemakers, known for their red shoes; this year's glimmer has ensnared their shoes and Rosella's pair makes her dance as if possessed.
McLemore's (Blanca & Roja) vision and skill inspire awe in this gorgeously rendered novel that masterfully evokes the vastness of human experience. Dark and Deepest Red's settings and plotting captivate, but it is the devoted and deep character development that makes this novel so enthralling. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Feiwel & Friends,
hardcover, 320p., ages 13-up, 9781250162748
by Darcie Little Badger, illus. by Rovina Cai
Darcie Little Badger's creative and meticulously plotted YA debut, Elatsoe, is a supernatural murder mystery that takes place in a United States that has Fairy Ring Transportation Centers, endless fields of scarecrows with human eyes and a rich history of Lipan Apache ghost whisperers.
Little Badger excellently balances humor and horror in this inventive mystery/alternate history/fantasy. Ellie is a very likable protagonist whose Lipan heritage and ethnicity is not just twined with the story, it is the story: her gift comes from her Six-Great Grandmother; she's vocal about the contemporary mistreatment of Indigenous people; and she has a pretty ingenious way of dispelling vampires. Each chapter begins with graceful, almost ethereal black-and-white illustrations by And the Ocean Was Our Sky artist Rovina Cai, adding to the evanescent vibe of the book, a Lipan Apache Sookie Stackhouse for the teen set. One hopes Ellie will appear in many more books to come. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
hardcover, 368p., ages 12-up, 9781646140053