It’s snowy outside my window here in Minnesota and that’s putting me in the mood for the holidays! I know, I know. We still have Thanksgiving to celebrate and I need to hold my horses. However, today also marks the first of my 2020 holiday gift-giving lists, which are going to look a little different this year for several reasons:
First, with the spike in COVID infections around the country/world, I’ve decided to post my lists earlier this year as I’m guessing online sales will be unusually high and shipping delays might impact us. So instead of waiting until after Thanksgiving, I’m starting today and hope you’ll forgive a bit of rushing-the-seasons.
Second — Independent bookstores, children’s authors, and illustrators have all had a rough year. Therefore, this year I’m focusing solely on books rather than all the non-electronic categories I usually include in the hopes that you’ll consider giving the gift of a good story, and especially that you’ll order early from a local, independent bookseller or via bookshop.org which is the online hub for independent bookstores. We need these indie stores to thrive! If you’re looking for other suggestions, you can access previous years’ gift lists via the tab at the top of the blog. I can’t guarantee the links will all still work.
Third, as you know, all year long I have been unable to access anywhere near the volume of 2020 titles from my library that I normally would to bring you my recommendations. Thus, for the first time I’m going to be recommending some books I have not read. In order to try to steer you well, I’ve gone with authors I trust to bring us a great story and read copious reviews! You can always access the thousands of titles I have read and reviewed over the past decade via my fiction lists, subject lists, or the archived posts.
With all that said, today I’ve got some amazing fiction choices focusing on ages 1-13. Next week I’m planning to bring you nonfiction gems for kids and grown-ups. Finally, at the end of the month I’ll have a list of children’s books that make perfect gifts for the adults on your list.
(And can I just apologize for the wonky formatting on my blog these days! WordPress has made some changes which are not working for me, so I need to do some major repairs but I’m not sure when I’ll get to figuring it all out.)
Clap Hands, by Helen Oxenbury
re-issued in 1999 by Little Simon
I always, always highlight Oxenbury’s brilliant, happy books full of pudgy, diverse babies.
Helen is one of the queens of children’s literature for good reason. This is a book that’s perfect for the tiniest of all readers, even shy of their first birthday.
Baby Goes to Market, by Atinuke and Angela Brooksbank
Walker Books; 2019
I adore Nigerian-author Atinuke’s many stories, and her gregarious, vibrant books starring this bright-eyed baby are simply smashing!
This one includes a bit of counting for readers old enough to enjoy that. Ages 18 months and up.
Wake Up Let’s Play, by Marit Törnqvist
Floris Books; 2020
One of Sweden’s beloved illustrators, Törnqvist presents two friends and their enormously imaginative, active playtimes together, throughout the seasons.
Awash with sun and fun. Ages 15 months and up.
Cat & Mouse, by Britta Teckentrup
Prestel Junior; 2019
I am a huge fan of Britta Teckentrup’s sophisticated design and artwork, a true gift to both children and their grown-ups.
Follow cat and mouse on a thrilling chase atop a chair, in a box, out a window, through a hole before arriving at a surprise ending. Enthralling for ages 2 and up.
Christmas Parade, by Sandra Boynton
Little Simon; 2020
“First comes the elephant marching along,
with a BOOM-biddy BOOM-biddy steady and strong.”
If you are familiar with Boynton’s oeuvre you know you’re in store for a rollicking good time and a story that begs to be read over and over.
A parade of joyful animals and their instruments is just the ticket for a jolly, bouncy read. Ages 15 months and up.
My Favorite Color, by Aaron Becker
Discover colors in their eternally-fascinating range of shades and tints in this gorgeous, wonder-filled catalogue…
…perfect for browsing through with baby, yet supremely likely to be nabbed by older siblings or the adults in the room. Ages 18 months and up.
Chirri & Chirra Under the Sea, written and illustrated by Kaya Doi
Enchanted Lion; 2020
Many of you have fallen in love with the Chirri & Chirra books. Here’s their latest adventure, bicycling among colorful corals and sampling such lovely sea treats as parfait à la conch and marine soda jelly topped with pearl cream.
Off the charts delightful. Ages 3 and up.
Pirate Stew, story by Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Chris Riddell
Quill Tree Books: on sale December 1, 2020
A rollicking, rhythmic tale of the mayhem that mounts when a whole slew of pirates shows up as babysitters for one wide-eyed brother and sister.
Saucy, silly, enormously entertaining from an author-illustrator dream team! Ages 4 and up.
If You Come to Earth, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Chronicle Books; 2020
Addressed to a visitor from outer space, this luscious book brims with Blackall’s ravishing artwork as she introduces Earth and her residents in all our delightful diversity.
Gobs to pore over, a scattering of surprising people to spy, several honest glances at Earth’s troubles, and lots of big thoughts to think about. Ages 6 and up.
The Barnabus Project, by The Brothers Fan
Tundra Books; 2020
Everything the Fan brothers put their hands to stuns me with its lavish detail and care. This small drama of resistance, courage, and camaraderie is utterly captivating.
Barnabus, a Failed Project in a world of Perfect Pets is a hero for the ages in this magnificent break-out escapade that will be enjoyed by a wide age-range, ages 6 and up.
Monkey with a Tool Belt Blasts Off, written and illustrated by Chris Monroe
Carolrhoda Books; 2020
It’s time for another episode in the busy lives of Chico Bon Bon — a monkey whose toolbelt is always chock full of just the right tools for the job — and his pal Clark, an elephant.
This time they’re off to to fix the Moon Malt machine at the Superstar Space Station. Prepare for a raspberry-pink surprise, jolly snacks and good vibes! Love this whole series by an author from Duluth, Minnesota! Yeah! Ages 4 and up.
In My Garden, written by Charlotte Zolotow in 1960; illustrated by Philip Stead in 2020;
Neal Porter Books
Mosey through the year with one little gal and learn her favorite part of the garden and favorite thing to do in each season.
Philip Stead’s gorgeous, homely, nostalgic artwork quietly celebrates the joy of outdoor play, affection for growing things, and tranquility stemming from contentment. Just feel the peace settle over your soul like an eiderdown quilt whether you’re 3 or 93.
Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Knopf Books for Young Readers; 2020
I’m dying to get my hands on this first book in a series coming to us from one of my favorite author/illustrators, Lauren Castillo. Her work always beats with such a warm, humane, comforting heart.
The story revolves around Hedgehog, whose life on an island becomes unbearably lonely when his only companion, Mutty, is blown away in a wind storm! As he sets forth bravely to find him, Hedgehog encounters a roster of new friends. Assuredly full of joy and love, for ages 6 and up.
A Piglet Called Truffle, by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon
Walker Books; 2020
Jasmine’s mom is a rural, English vet and Jasmine has picked up plenty of animal know-how from her along the way. This comes in mighty handy when she adopts a piglet of her very own. Although she’s told it’ll have to go once it’s full grown, Jasmine trains her beloved pig to do something useful…and that usefulness pays off when a small emergency happens over Christmas break. My fuller review of this little gem is coming soon! For animal-lovers ages 6 and up.
A Long Road on a Short Day, by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Clarion Books; 2020
I make a point to read everything that Gary Schmidt writes, so I can’t wait to read this latest piece. It’s a gentle story steeped in rural life in what looks to be the 1800s.
Samuel’s mama is longing for “a brown-eyed cow to give us milk for the baby.” So Samuel and his papa set off on a trek around the neighborly countryside to see if they can trade one thing after another and wind up with a cow. It’s said to be a gem of a dad-and-son story and I am 100% sure that’s just the beginning of it. Ages 7 and up.
Mr. Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets, written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith
Peachtree Publishing; 2019
283 heavily-illustrated pages
Mr. Penguin advertises as “Adventurer and Penguin,” available for hire to solve any mysteries one might have. He thus finds himself embroiled in Indiana Jones type affairs, that is if Indiana was a somewhat reluctant adventurer with a weakness for fish fingers whose sidekick, a kung fu wielding spider in a bowler hat, exhibits the lion’s share of moxie and brains.This episode finds him surviving airplane crashes on jagged, frozen mountainsides, foiling a diabolical mad scientist, and — like Indy — confronting a roomful of snakes. “Why did it have to be snakes?” Humorous, danger-riddled action for ages 8 and up.
All’s Happy that Ends Happy, by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press; 2020
Ahhhh. This is the final book in a series that I love so very much, coming to us from Sweden via the wonderful people at Gecko Press. You have to read the whole series in order. The first is My Happy Life, reviewed here. For those of you whose daughters have become fast friends with Dani and her BFF Ella, you will not want to miss their closing chapter. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m guessing I’ll cry when I turn the final page. Ages 8 and up.
Skunk & Badger, by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Algonquin Young Readers; 2020
I’ve got a longer review of this coming soon as well. It’s a delightful, warmhearted, eccentric tale that’ll charm the socks off of you, and it’s the first of a series you probably want to get started on. Starring a fastidious, introverted Badger whose joy in life is Geological Work and an affable Skunk whose companionship is not exactly welcome, it’s a beautifully-packaged friendship-across-the-divide story, just right for ages 8 to 100.
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz
published in 2019 by Algonquin Young Readers
A fantasy threaded through with copious wry humor.
Clementine is heir to the throne of the notorious Dark Lords, a wretched lot who regularly perform dastardly deeds keeping the population in fearful thrall. Recently, though, her father, the current Dark Lord, fell prey to the curse of an equally despicable Whittle-Witch. Clementine must find a cure for her father while feigning his on-going wellness, lest the local peasants discover their overlord’s weakness.
Only thing is, in the process of shoring up her malevolent family’s power, Clementine discovers unsettling things. Like, she’d rather create beauty than pain; and these odious hedgewitches and villagers she’s supposed to oppress are pretty great people. For all its humor, the novel also explores poignant ideas of identity and sacrificial love. Ages 9 and up.
Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park
published in 2020 by Clarion Books
An eye-opening, charming look at the American West through Asian eyes.
This outstanding book, written by one of my favorite authors, gives us an opportunity to revisit the settings of the Little House books through a different lens. Park tells the story of a young, half-Chinese girl named Hanna who arrives in Dakota Territory with her white father in 1880, into a town modeled on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s De Smet. As Hanna’s father attempts to open a dry goods store in town, Hanna struggles with the unique trials of being the only Asian person most of the townspeople have ever seen. Hanna is an immensely likable character, strong yet vulnerable, smart, respectful, hardworking, bruised by the loss of her mother and the racism she encounters in the town, longing for a true friend. A fascinating account and immensely enjoyable read for ages 9 to adult.
The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 2020
An adventurous fantasy that’s also an eco-fable.
I’m going out on a limb with this one because I have never read this author before but I’m intrigued by it’s description and I do love a book with a heart for conservation.
It’s Kate’s 11th birthday and her rich, eccentric uncle surprises her by plunking a full-sized locomotive in the family yard as a present. As Kate and her little brother, Tom, investigate, the magical nature of this train comes to light and they are whisked off on a wild adventure, careening to extraordinary places and picking up an odd assortment of animals along the way — talking animals, mind you! It’s a Roald-Dahl-esque fantasyland full of whimsy and charm which nevertheless includes issues of environmental damage and climate change. Sounds like it could be a good read-aloud for ages 8 and up.
Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: Peril at Owl Park, by Marthe Jocelyn, illustrated by Isabelle Follath
Tundra Books; 2020
A most clever and Christmas-y detective story.
This is the second of the Aggie Morton series, inspired by Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. The first one, which I loved, is called The Body Under the Piano, and my review is here. I can’t wait to read this one next.
Aggie is spending the holidays in an enormous manor house in the country along with her sister, her Grannie Jane, and her fellow sleuth Hector Perot. Owl Park’s notable delights include Cousin Lucy, visitors from Ceylon, a group of traveling actors, a secret passageway, and an enormous, cursed emerald. But when Aggie and her friends discover a body instead of presents on Christmas morning, things take a deadly serious turn. Once again it’s up to Aggie and Hector to use their sleuthing skills to find the murderer
The perfect accompaniment to Christmas cocoa and cookies for ages 10 and up.
Class Act, by Jerry Craft
Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins; 2020
Middle-school Black boy experience, outstandingly conveyed.
This is the sequel to New Kid, the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal and one of my favorite 2019 books. You need to read these books in order. My review of New Kid is here.
I’ve got a lengthier review of this book coming up so what I mainly want to say is that this book is just as wonderful as the first one. Class Act picks up the story of Jordan Banks, now age 13, but spends more time on two side characters — Drew and Liam.
Jerry Craft honestly addresses ordinary middle-grade concerns along with the unique challenges of race, yet does so with tremendous warmth and good humor. His books fill a needed niche of warmhearted, true-to-life stories featuring Black boys that are fun to read. Excellent choices for ages 9 to adult.
The Time of Green Magic, by Hilary McKay
Simon & Schuster; 2020
An eery fantasy mixed with a poignant, human story.
Hilary McKay is another go-to author for me. I have been smitten again and again by her flawed, funny, deeply-human characters, and I’m looking forward to meeting another batch in this slightly-sinister contemporary fantasy.
Abigail, age 11, has her world tipped on its head when her widower father remarries, she inherits a couple of step-brothers, and her dear Granny Grace returns home to Jamaica. Abi takes refuge in her books, but eerily, the story elements begin to materialize in this new home. When those elements turn dark and threatening, the new siblings must overcome their bruises and losses, team up, and quell the danger.
From reviews I’ve read, McKay delves into the complexities of blended families and the messiness of life as much as into the fantasy itself, while bringing the story to a warm, empowering conclusion. That sounds very much like a Hilary McKay story arc to me. I’d suggest it for kids who like a dose of reality in their books. Ages 10 and up.
Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang
A triumphant graphic novel about basketball!
Gene Luen Yang is an outstanding cartoonist and just an extraordinary human being. So I’m going to recommend two graphic novels by him that would be equally appropriate for adults and middle-graders. I haven’t read either of them yet, but they are on my list!
Dragon Hoops is both documentary and memoir. Yang follows the boys’ varsity basketball team at the school where he teaches through one pivotal season, the pay-off season after decades of team-building at this Oakland, California high school. He delves into the games, the players’ lives, the history of basketball, as well as other far-ranging subjects.
Sizzling court action and deeply personal insights are on tap for ages 12 to adult.
Superman Smashes the Klan, by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
DC Comics; 2020
Inspired by the 1940s Superman radio serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a piercing story of immigrants and belonging.
Set in 1946, this is the story of teenagers Roberta and Tommy Lee who have just moved from Chinatown to Metropolis — home to Superman, of course. Tommy makes friends quickly, while Roberta feels a bit lost. One night the family awakens to find their house surrounded by the Klan of the Fiery Kross! Superman leaps into action, but his exposure to a mysterious green rock has left him weak. Can Roberta and Tommy help him smash the Klan?
Yang has rewritten an actual episode of Superman to explore racism from an Asian American vantage point. It sounds like a superb, and supremely timely read for ages 12 to adult.
Okay — that’s a bushel of books! I hope something sounds like a gift-giving match for someone in your life.
If this list is helpful, please share it with others.
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