From the Shelf
Shelf Awareness's Best Children's & Teen Books of 2019
This year has brought us some truly outstanding children's and teen books! Here are our top titles for 2019; scroll down to read our reviews of these impressive books. (Shelf Awareness's Best Adult Books will be announced December 3.)
Camp Tiger by Susan Choi, illus. by John Rocco (Putnam)
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal (Roaring Brook Press)
Small in the City by Sydney Smith (Neal Porter/Holiday House)
Moth by Isabel Thomas, illus. by Daniel Egnéus (Bloomsbury)
The Moose of Ewenki by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, trans. by Helen Mixter, illus. by Jiu Er (Greystone Kids)
The Fisherman & the Whale by Jessica Lanan (Simon & Schuster)
Middle Grade Books
Stargazing by Jen Wang (First Second/Macmillan)
Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan (Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum)
The Line Tender by Kate Allen (Dutton)
New Kid by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins)
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow)
Young Adult Books
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray)
Lovely War by Julie Berry (Viking)
Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir by Nikki Grimes (Wordsong/Boyds Mill)
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking)
The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce by Angie Manfredi, editor (Amulet Books/Abrams)
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray)
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster)
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Children's & Young Adult
by Susan Choi , illust. by John Rocco
In her picture book debut, adult author Susan Choi (Trust Exercise, winner of this year's National Book Award for Fiction) teams up with Caldecott Honor recipient John Rocco (Blackout; Noah Builds an Ark) to create a moving story about a young boy finding his independent spirit.
The boy hopes his family's summer camping trip will last forever because he feels apprehensive about starting first grade. At the campsite, the family finds a petite, well-mannered tiger who requests his own tent and becomes the boy's boon companion. With the beast at his side, the boy gains the courage to stand on his own. Camp Tiger (a Summer 2019 Kids' Indie Next List title) lies at the intersection of Life of Pi and Calvin and Hobbes. Rocco's illustrations shine against white backgrounds, and the tiger roars to life in show-stopping spreads; its haunting eyes stare directly at readers through flecks of campfire embers. Like the hero, children ages four to eight will likely take courage from the tiger long after the adventure ends. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
by Kevin Noble Maillard , illust. by Juana Martinez-Neal
While Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story is recommended for audiences ages three to six, it's undoubtedly a book that will last on shelves well into readers' double digits. Kevin Noble Maillard--co-editor of Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World, Syracuse University law professor and a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band--has effectively written two books for multiple age groups.
The first two-thirds is an affecting picture book that features family and friends gathering, creating and enjoying fry bread together. Glorious double-page spreads introduced by pithy, resonating phrases define the Native American staple. Caldecott honoree and Pura Belpré-awarded illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal's (Alma and How She Got Her Name) artistry revels in the faces. Then comes book two, which augments the simple, sincere verses with illuminating edification for older readers. Remarkable in balancing the shared delights of extended family with heavy ancestral legacy, Maillard both celebrates and bears witness to his community. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Small in the City
by Sydney Smith
At first, there's no reason to suspect that the narrator isn't addressing the reader: "I know what it's like to be small in the city." But after several pages of what sound like his calls for sympathy, it becomes clear that the boy isn't being self-referential: "But I know you. You'll be all right." As the boy proceeds to share some tips with the unidentified "you," he's depicted hanging up flyers publicizing a cat's disappearance. Smith's images do most of the talking, ranging from modest vignettes of city life to showstoppers including a fractured illustration of the downcast boy's funhouse-like reflection in a mirrored-glass skyscraper.
Small in the City, the first book written and illustrated by Sydney Smith (illustrator of Sidewalk Flowers and Town Is by the Sea), has proved to be a 2019 favorite. Smith received the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award in illustration for young people's literature from the Canadian Council for the Arts, and the title was also chosen as a 2019 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Book. Too naturalistic to conclude with the expected child-pet reunion, Small in the City instead closes with a final, wordless illustration showing paw prints in the snow near red flowers--a promise of relief from winter, relief from sorrow. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
by Isabel Thomas , illust. by Daniel Egnéus
Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus's Moth, about the transformation of the peppered moth (Biston betularia), is endowed with such a sense of wonder, the evolution story is elevated almost to the realm of myth.
It all begins "with a little moth... waking up from a long winter's sleep." The moth flies away, joining other moths trying "not to get eaten." Most have "speckled, freckled wings," although there are a small number born with "wings as dark as charcoal." As the sun rises, the salt and pepper moths blend into the trees, but the charcoal ones stand out. Thomas's poetic yet pragmatic text asks, "Who was the best hidden? Who would survive?"
Egnéus's stunning visuals feel soft and organic, yet also intricate and precise. Creative use of color, light and shadow, in addition to intriguing textures and bold shapes, make each spread fascinating to behold. Moth is a deeply fulfilling look at the ups and downs of natural selection. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI
The Moose of Ewenki
by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane , trans. by Helen Mixter , illust. by Jiu Er
From the Reindeer Ewenki people of remote, mountainous Inner Mongolia comes a glorious tale about an aging hunter and the baby moose that follows him home. During an all-night hunting trip, Gree Shek kills a moose, not knowing she had calved out of season. Too young to be afraid, the baby trusts that Gree Shek and his loyal dog will be his protectors. Gree Shek names him Xiao Han ("Little Moose") and raises him with the Ewenki's reindeer herds.
Gerelchimeg Blackcrane's extraordinary narrative is gorgeously paired with Chinese sculptor/painter Jiu Er's exquisitely detailed illustrations, which rely on a simple palette of browns, greens and pinks to create resonating depth. An exceptionally affecting commemoration of unusual bonds, Blackcrane's formidable U.S. picture book debut should engender increased demand for Western access to more of his dozens of titles. Fair warning: tissues are an absolute must. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
The Fisherman & the Whale
by Jessica Lanan
In this wordless picture book, handsome watercolor and gouache paintings tell a story of deep connection between animals and humans.
A boy and his dad are working on a fishing boat when the boy notices a whale on the horizon. In a series of underwater scenes, readers see that the large mammal has become entangled in nets and ropes. The boy insists that his reluctant father help the whale. Jessica Lanan's double-page spread shows, on the left, the fisherman's eye reflecting the whale's image and, on the right, the whale's eye reflecting the humans. The connection is made, and the man jumps into the cold water to courageously cut the ropes. The highly dramatic paintings of The Fisherman & the Whale employ a palette of blues, browns and grays that are sure to stimulate a range of emotions and encourage readers to return again and again. --Melinda Greenblatt, freelance book reviewer
by Jen Wang
When Moon Lin moves next door to Christine Hong, Christine is hesitant to meet this girl who, rumor has it, "beats people up." But Moon proves herself to be "confident," "funny" and the most "not Asian" Chinese-American Christine has ever met. Christine and Moon quickly become best friends, but when Christine's grades start slipping, she distances herself. A shocking medical discovery makes Christine realize how much Moon actually means to her.
Author-illustrator Jen Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker) brings events from her childhood into a bittersweet story about friendship and self-identity. Wang gives her characters distinct voices while also allowing the art to create expressive, thoughtful moments. Colorist Lark Pien adds more nuance to the illustrations, using a muted palette to express the sameness Christine has witnessed her whole life, or depicting the spirited Moon in a vibrant green shirt. These deliberate choices lead to a dynamic story that is both hopeful and emotionally affective. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace
by Ashley Bryan
For four decades, Newbery Honoree and Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Ashley Bryan (Freedom over Me; Can't Scare Me) kept his military experiences in World War II a secret. When at 19, the U.S. Army drafted him, Bryan encountered something entirely foreign to him: segregation. "While I had experienced prejudice in my lifetime... I had never experienced segregation before." Infinite Hope is Bryan's account of the war and the people, art and determination that carried him through. Sketches and paintings he mailed home enrich this autobiography and show the depth of its subject. Juxtaposing the historical photographs with Bryan's work contributes to readers' understanding of both the artist's perspective and his wartime experiences.
Infinite Hope is a must for every library, public and personal. Whether readers enjoy history, literature or art, this book captures the intersection of them all in the life of a man who has made a lasting impression on the world. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
The Line Tender
by Kate Allen
In debut author Kate Allen's The Line Tender (a Spring 2019 Kids' Indie Next Great Reads title), 12-year-old Lucy Everhart is driven by two tragedies to complete two projects. The first is creating a natural field guide for school credit, and the second is reinitiating a scientific proposal created by her marine biologist mother shortly before her death.
In The Line Tender, Allen has created a landscape that, in spite of being filled with heartbreaking themes of loss, is understated and exquisitely real. Lucy, whose father is a detective and rescue diver, relates to the role of line tender: the person who holds the line on the surface while the primary diver goes underwater in scuba diving. This person, her father tells her, "uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line." Just so, Lucy tends to the important connections of her life, ensuring that the lines tethering her family, friends and even the scientific community stay firmly attached at both ends. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
by Jerry Craft
Twelve-year-old Jordan wanted to go to art school, but instead, his parents enroll him in "one of the best schools in the entire state." Although his father expresses concern about Riverdale Academy Day's glaring lack of diversity, his mother insists that with Jordan's smarts, art school "would be such a waste." Jordan's RAD adjustment is a challenge: gossips and bullies, social hierarchies and figuring out where he belongs on a campus with so few students of color. Art helps Jordan survive--his sketchbook is filled with daily experiences, his sensitive interpretations more astute than his tween years would indicate.
Award-winning author/illustrator Jerry Craft's New Kid is a stand-out 2019 title that has gotten love from many different corners of children's literature. Beyond being one of Shelf's favorite books of the year, it is a finalist for a 2019 Harvey Awards, an ABC Best Books for Young Readers "Great and Graphic" title and a Spring 2019 Kids' Indie Next Great Reads pick.
New Kid confronts (often with humor) elitism, microaggression, racism, socioeconomic disparity and white privilege while also accentuating the many assumptions we make about one another, regardless of background. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Lalani of the Distant Sea
by Erin Entrada Kelly
Newbery Medal winner Erin Entrada Kelly (Hello, Universe) makes her fantasy debut with Lalani of the Distant Sea, a Fall 2019 Kids' Indie Next title, about a young girl who makes the deadly decision to try to rescue her community.
The Sanlagitans live under Mount Kahna's "shadow of vengeance, impatience, and fear." Across the Veiled Sea, "bathed in light" and offering "all of life's good fortunes" is Mount Isa. No human has ever actually "laid eyes on her," but "the Sanlagitans are certain the mountain calls to them. They die trying to answer." Lalani, a Sanlagitan girl, has no intentions of setting off on a journey to save her home, but when she wanders into Kahna's woods, consequences, danger and magic find her. Inspired by Filipino folktales, Lalani of the Distant Sea brims with injustice, beauty, pain and wonder. Kelly's work is fluid and intentional, grounded strongly in emotional reality and overflowing with the fantastic. Absolutely bewitching. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All
by Laura Ruby
"Half-orphans" placed in the care of nuns after their mother's death, 14-year-old Frankie and her siblings eagerly await their father's biweekly visits. But then her father leaves Chicago with his new wife and takes along only her brother. Pearl watches as Frankie becomes "both more careful and more reckless," which reminds her of her own wildness before she died of the flu in 1918, World War I's final year. Pearl, even as she hopes to "become an angel," sticks with Frankie through World War II, witnessing tragedies similar to those she experienced barely three decades before.
National Book Award finalist Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All is Laura Ruby's YA follow-up to her 2015 Printz Award-winning Bone Gap. Whether flouting or flaunting their sexuality, these young women try to take control of their futures in a society bent on dictating how women should behave. With literary finesse, Laura Ruby portrays women throwing open as many doors as they can, prepared to face whatever's on the other side. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
by Julie Berry
Words like "epic," "sweeping" and "romantic" might have been designed with Julie Berry's Lovely War in mind. In this romance for the ages, parallel story lines depict a mock trial between Greek gods and the love stories of two intertwined pairs of mortals.
In the middle of World War II, Hephaestus, Greek god of fires, lays a trap for his wife, Aphrodite, goddess of love, and her not-so-secret lover, Ares, god of war. Aphrodite negotiates a private trial in which she tells "judge, jury, and executioner" Hephaestus what "real love looks like," as illustrated by imperfect mortals. Aphrodite's narrative then shifts back and forth between the world wars.
In Lovely War, winner of the 2019 Southern California Independent Booksellers Association young adult fiction award, Printz Honoree Berry (The Passion of Dolssa; All the Truth That's in Me) weaves factual historical events and backdrops into an exquisitely crafted, funny and, yes, epic, novel. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir
by Nikki Grimes
In her haunting memoir in verse, award-winning author and poet Nikki Grimes shares what she believes is "the most important story" she has to tell: that of her own devastatingly difficult childhood. Grimes, author of Coretta Scott King Award-winning Bronx Masquerade, as well as Between the Lines, The Watcher, Chasing Freedom and many others, is nakedly honest in Ordinary Hazards. She works within a loosely chronological structure that begins with her birth in 1950 and moves through the years to 1966, when her mother's mental illness escalates and her beloved though mostly absent father dies.
Ordinary Hazards is a gorgeous piece of writing that also serves as powerful inspiration for any reader who has struggled and sought grace. Grimes's triumph over adversity is matched only by her skill with the written word--her memoir is accessible to poetry enthusiasts and detractors alike, and will linger after the final lines. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Shout is Laurie Halse Anderson's companion (of sorts) to her 1999 memoir and National Book Award finalist, Speak, narrated by Melinda, a high school student who stops speaking after a classmate rapes her. In the two decades since, Anderson has given book talks to teens about "rape mythology, sexual violence and consent." Young people have sought her out to "tell [her], shame-smoked raw/ voices, tears waterfalling,/ about the time" they were assaulted. Even on a movie set, she was approached by a "big square guy" who said, "I am Melinda... A lot of us working on this film/ are like her.../ it happened to us, too."
Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award in Young People's Literature and chosen as a Spring 2019 Kids' Indie Next Great Reads title, Shout is a biography, a call to action, a lesson, a fable, a warm embrace for those who hurt, a guttural scream demanding the pain stop. It's factual as it flows in lyrical verse through Anderson's life; speculative as she creates a collective noun for teens; direct as she speaks to scared librarians "on the cusp of courage." Shout is for survivors, for abusers and assaulters, for consenting young people, for gatekeepers unwilling to let sex through. Immensely powerful, Shout is for everyone. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce
by Angie Manfredi, editor
More than 30 writers, models, activists, artists and speakers contributed pieces to The (Other) F Word, an ode to fatness and love, and a provocative and enlightening collection of personal essays, prose, poetry and artwork edited by Angie Manfredi. The contributors are queer, cis, disabled, non-disabled, BIPOC (black/Indigenous/people of color), white, younger, older. Some are working to "move the needle of representation in media and entertainment." Others are focused on public perception, personal identity and body positivity. All share one message, though: to become our best selves, we all must rethink our ideas about beauty and worthiness.
Essay titles and contributor bios are almost as empowering as the pieces themselves--readers will be buoyed by titles like "From Your Fat Future" and "Does this poem make me look fat?" An appendix of "FAT FASHION resources" rounds out this upbeat, forward-thinking compilation. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas
High school junior Brianna "Bri" Jackson is an aspiring MC working toward her dream of rap superstardom. When Bri enters the Ring for her first rap battle, she annihilates her competition. Her victory is short-lived, though, when she's assaulted the next day by the security guards at her school. While the video of Bri's performance in the Ring should be going viral, a video of her assault gains traction instead.
Coretta Scott King and Printz honoree Angie Thomas's second novel, On the Come Up, seems to be garnering as many accolades as her first, The Hate You Give: it's a Spring 2019 Kids' Indie Next Great Reads title, and was shortlisted for the U.K. and Ireland's Books Are My Bag Reader Award. Thomas's work is multifaceted and unusual; intimate details of life in an underserved and impoverished community are combined with the unjust social and physical brutalities those communities face at the hands of presumed protectors. This book gazes directly at the deeply emotional, moral challenges teens like Bri face when they are trying to come up. --Breanna J. McDaniel, freelance reviewer
Love from A to Z
by S.K. Ali
Two Muslim teens, Adam and Zayneb, have each, independently, spent years writing journals inspired by an ancient book called The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence. In an odd and marvelous case of serendipity, the two meet on their way to Doha, Qatar. Adam, 18, has stopped going to classes at his university in London after receiving a life-changing piece of news. Now he's going home to Doha to--maybe--share his news with his sister and his dad. Zayneb, also 18, is visiting her aunt in Doha after getting suspended from her Indiana high school for confronting an Islamophobic teacher.
In Love from A to Z, S.K. Ali (Saints and Misfits) once again takes an unflinching and moving look at the intricacies of life as a Muslim teen in an imperfect, multi-cultural world. Beautiful. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor