It’s time for some transportive, stay-at-home reading!!
Little by little my librarians are valiantly making their way through the process of prepping and distributing the tremendous backlog of 2020 titles that made their debut in the middle of a global pandemic. Hats off to them! Today I’ve got a over a dozen titles that are definitely worth the wait.
There are chapter books, graphic novels and one vintage gem; fantasies, mysteries, and historical fiction; absurd adventures and poignant stories for a wide range of ages. I’ve listed them in order of age accessibility. I truly believe there is at least one gem in this list for the readers in your life, so dig in!
Sophie Takes to the Sky, written by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Briony May Smith
Rose’s Dress of Dreams, written by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst
both originally published in Great Britain; US edition 2020 by Kane Miller
Looking for a stocking stuffer for a young reader? These pint-sized volumes are as tasty as a peppermint stick!
Written by Katherine Woodfine, an author I’ve come to know through her fun Sinclair’s mystery series, these are fictionalized, sweet-as-plum-pudding accounts of historical, famous women . Sophie follows the childhood of Sophie Blanchard, one of the first female aeronauts, while Rose observes Rose Bertin, one of the world’s first fashion designers.
Charming reads formatted in a superbly welcoming style, accompanied by colorful, cheery illustration work, all packaged in a slim, glossy, 5×7 paperback. I’ve linked them to the Usborne Books site, which is the best place to purchase them. Ages 5-9
A Piglet Called Truffle, by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon
first published in the UK; US edition 2020 by Walker Books
I love this new series that has made the leap across the pond to us featuring a little gal named Jasmine Green who is a big time animal lover.
Jasmine basically lives my ideal life in a sturdy English farmhouse with an Aga stove and miles of green space, farm animals, and mucky mud. Her mom’s a vet and Jasmine has picked up plenty of great animal care tips from her.
In this first episode of the series that know-how comes in handy when Jasmine finagles her way into adopting a piglet runt. Her parents warn her that when it outgrows its darling smallness it’ll have to go. Jasmine is one step ahead of them, though, as she trains her beloved pig to do something useful…and that usefulness pays off big time when a small emergency happens over Christmas break.
Oodles of charm, perfect illustration work, lots of bracing outdoor air, and a big scoop of rugged independence all on tap here. Read it aloud to ages 5 and up or hand it to animal-loving readers at about a 2nd grade level. If my kids were small, I’d just go ahead and get the whole series!
Fabio the World’s Greatest Flamingo Detective: Mystery on the Ostrich Express
written by Laura James, illustrated by Emily Fox
originally published in Great Britain; U.S. edition 2020 by Bloomsbury Publishing
110 highly illustrated pages
This is the second of the Fabio mysteries I’ve read and once again Laura James hits the sweet spot for young, sturdy readers. A juicy adventure ensues when jewel thieves strike during a train trip from Lake Laloozee to the Coral Coast where Fabio and his giraffe sidekick, Gilbert, are heading on vacation.
Find out how the astute Fabio foils their dastardly plans. Large print, day-glo colors, and plentiful artwork all snazzle up this treat for confident readers ages 7-10.
Ways to Make Sunshine, by Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata
published in 2020 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
I quickly fell in love with the young heroine of this story, Ryan Hart, a fourth-grader from Portland navigating the ups and downs of life with a kind heart and stalwart determination. The fact that I was able to read this book in the midst of the election ballot counting tells you a great deal about its storytelling power and immersive capacity!
On the one hand, this is an old-fashioned kind of story, one in which our heroine doesn’t face magical forces, epic tragedy, or uncanny mystery, but simply the ordinary concerns of life. On the other hand, particular elements of the story set it apart as extraordinary. First, because Ryan is Black and there are far too few stories like this starring Black characters. Renée Watson effortlessly incorporates Black culture into this story making it magnificently relatable for young Black girls and an important window for others of us. Besides that, Ryan’s family encounters some economic hardships after her postal worker father is laid off. These concerns are of course common among children, but are infrequently addressed in their stories.
I hope many of you will give this a spin, and I dearly hope Watson will give us a sequel. Ages 8-12 are the sweet spot.
Skunk and Badger, by Amy Timberlake, with pictures by Jon Klassen
published in 2020 by Algonquin Young Readers
Some books have a cover that sets us up perfectly for what’s inside, and this is one of them. Do you catch a whiff of Wind in the Willows? An essence of quirk? An aroma of polite Victorian brownstone? A glimmer of curiosity?
That’s what I gleaned from the cover and the inside gloriously fulfilled those expectations. Badger lives alone in his Aunt Lula’s charming brownstone, free of charge, where he engages in Important Rock Work and keeps entirely, fastidiously, to himself. One day, however, Skunk shows up on the doorstep with his small red suitcase tied up with twine. This annoying animal says Aunt Lula has given him permission to join Badger in the residence! Skunk! Who jabbers and lounges and cooks up delicious but very messy breakfasts and utterly confounds any and all Important Rock Work!
What happens when such opposites land in one another’s lives? Charming, eccentric, warmhearted, sophisticated — this is the first in a series to come that is well suited to reading aloud or for handing to capable readers ages 8 to 100. Jon Klassen’s artwork is an absolute dream.
The Mystwick School of Musicraft, by Jessica Khoury, illustrated by Federica Frenna
published in 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Imagine a world in which music carries tremendous magical powers, where brass trios play spells that move locomotives along tracks, and pianists weave magical ribbons of sound that waft diners’ meals to their tables at sidewalk cafes. That’s the world in this mostly-sunny, high-energy, fantasy.
Amelia dreams of achieving the exalted status of Maestro in order to strengthen a feeling of closeness to her mother who died when she was very young. To do that, she has to get into the elite Mystwick School of Musicraft. Problems start and snowball, however, when her audition goes horribly wrong, she is mistakenly invited to attend the school anyway, elects to masquerade there as someone else, and winds up imperiling the entire school as the result of a musical spell gone wrong.
With its many charming (pun intended!) similarities to Hogwarts, this amiable fantasy will tickle the imaginations of readers ages 8 and up, especially those with a love of musicianship. The Audible version features “magical” music performed by NJSO youth orchestras, a fun addition to the story.
The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont
orig. published in 1957; reprinted in 2017 by Penguin Classics
This classic, marvelously absurd tale is cram full of enough wordplay to rival The Phantom Tollbooth.
It’s about an island where the letter O has been banned by a man named Black who landed there on a treasure hunt. When his henchmen don’t turn up the jewels despite their vigorous ransacking of the place, Black issues an edict eradicating the unlucky letter O. This creates a great deal of consternation, or that would be “cnsternatin” in the new world order where shoe becomes she and woe becomes we.
Through a series of extraordinary adventures and valiant undertakings, a gamut of characters manage to find the true treasure and give these rotten fellows the old heave ho. Ridiculousness abounds along the way in this truly eccentric encounter! Delightful for ages 8 through adult, though it takes a skilled reader to cope with the many “wrds” lacking o’s.
The Triumphant Tale of Pippa North, by Temre Beltz
published in 2020 by HarperCollins
Here’s a fantasy packed with all the necessary ingredients — magicians, witches, heroes, and quests — augmented by heaps of wry humor, mountains of heart, oodles of charm and delight. It’s a great choice for readers ready for a dash of bracing tension but not too much darkness.
Pippa is a young girl chosen most unexpectedly to attend the prestigious Triumphant Academy, a destiny that comes with an assurance of a happily-ever-after life. Because this requires her to leave home and family behind, however, she really does not want any part of it. Meanwhile Oliver is a young lad who has failed to be awarded his Magician’s hat for ever so long. These two wind up joining forces through a convoluted series of wishes and falsehood, fairies and nefarious schemes in an all-out effort to save the kingdom.
Read it aloud to ages 7 and up; independent readers need the capability to appreciate satirical asides by the narrator which in this case is the book itself.
Class Act, by Jerry Craft
published in 2020 by Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins
Last year one of my favorite books, New Kid, won the Newbery Medal, the first time a graphic novel has achieved that honor. This year a sequel came out and — hurray! It’s equally as good!
Class Act picks up the story of Jordan Banks, now age 13, and his new friends at RAD, a high-falutin’ private school where he and a handful of others are the few students of color in a world awash in White privilege and microagressions. This second book fleshes out two side characters — Drew and Liam — a bit more than sticking mainly to Jordan’s perspective. Jerry Craft manages to pen a story that simultaneously addresses ordinary middle-grade concerns of friendships, identity, and capability, along with the unique challenges of race, even in a sphere where well-meaning White adults believe they are effectively making progress at diversity and anti-racism.
Craft does this with warmth, understanding, good humor, and candor. One of his goals in writing is to provide contemporary stories with Black characters that subvert the stereotypical tropes of poverty, crime, hopelessness, and family dysfunction, instead providing the kinds of books he wanted to read as a kid, warmhearted, true-to-life stories featuring Black boys that are fun to read. He accomplishes this magnificently. These are outstanding graphic novels for a wide range of ages, 8 to adult. Read New Kid first if you haven’t already.
Brightstorm: A Sky-Ship Adventure, by Vashti Hardy, illustrated by George Ermos
first American edition 2020 by Norton Young Readers
I love a good steampunk adventure and this one turned out to be quite good. If you’ve read Philip Reeve’s Larklight, this has some similarities. (If you haven’t read it, you are missing out!)
Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm contrive to join Harriet Culpepper and her crew aboard the sky-ship Aurora in an epic race to be the first to reach South Polaris. Everyone on board wants to arrive before the pompous and downright nasty Eudora Vane, but for the Brightstorm twins there’s even more at stake as they seek answers to the mysterious death of their father on his last, ill-fated expedition, and attempt to clear his name of charges of sabotage.
Soar over icy continents, run with thought-wolves, escape from quicksand, and dine with kings in an adventurous romp that sets us up nicely for a sequel. Ages 9 and up; younger for read-aloud.
A Wish in the Dark, by Christina Soontornvat
published in 2020 by Candlewick
One of the most intriguing plots and enjoyable middle-grade reads this year for me is this clever spin on Les Miserables set in a fantastical Thailand.
The book nestles perfectly into 2020 with the many important conversations we’ve been having as a society. Just what kind of “law and order” is meant by politicians who campaign on that platform? Which laws and what form of order do they enforce and which do they ignore? What is the difference between “law” and justice? What do grace, mercy, restoration, blessing, and love have to do with that? Les Miserables is a powerful story exploring these ideas and revealing the varying heart motivations among us. This story likewise emphasizes these themes as we follow an orphan named Pong who escapes from a prison and the warden’s daughter, fixated on law-keeping and reputation, who pursues him.
An absorbing setting, compelling characters, and a thought-provoking plot combine to create a superb read for ages 10 through adult. I would turn right around and read it again. Excellent choice for a book club as there is so much to discuss. Note that a beloved character perishes in a fire which could traumatize some readers, especially those impacted by fires in the American West recently.
text by Julia Billet, art by Claire Fauvel, translation by Ivanka Hahnenberger
originally published in France; Engish edition 2020 by HarperCollins
It’s 1942. Just outside of Paris, Rachel Cohen is living at the Sèvres Children’s Home having been placed there by her parents as Hitler’s war ravages Europe. The home is an extraordinary shelter, led by courageous men and women who conduct the children’s schooling according to an unusually progressive educational philosophy. As Rachel is allowed to follow her own passions, she discovers the joy and artistry of photography.
That’s the one thing she’ll take with her as dangers increase to the point where she and other students are forced to change their names, claim a new faith, and flee from one hiding place to another across the whole of France. Based on a true story, this graphic novel tells Rachel’s gripping saga of heartbreaking losses, yet dear memories as well, photographed by her mind and her camera. The profound courage and kindness of those who sheltered Jews during WWII at their own tremendous risk, and the traumas for those who survived the Holocaust, need telling again and again.
For, according to numerous surveys, adults in the U.S. are woefully uninformed about the Holocaust. In a survey of those ages 18-39, almost one-quarter “believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated or weren’t sure.” One in 10 believes the Jews caused the Holocaust. One in 8 says they have never even heard of it. (Read more here.) Recommended for ages 11 through adult. Includes b&w photos of the real Sèvres Children’s Home and a Q&A providing greater historical background for readers.
The Prettiest, by Brigit Young
published in 2020 by Roaring Brook Press
When a list starts circulating at school ranking the 50 prettiest 8th-grade girls, it fuels fissures, triggers damage, and foments ugliness among the entire class in life-changing ways. For the quiet, unassuming girl who is ranked #1, the unwanted new attention and crude remarks are devastating, while for the seemingly-confident popularity queen who is suddenly demoted, and for those left off the list entirely, the impacts are soul-crushing.
Unlikely alliances and friendships are formed in an effort to discover the author of the list. Their initial goal is revenge, but much sweeter, richer outcomes emerge instead in this spot-on honest, revelatory, and compelling read.
Addressing the assault on girls’ identity and dignity from this kind of objectification is critically important. These rankings circulate everywhere from schools to church youth groups, and Young calls it what it is – sexual harassment. I loved the deep consideration her characters give to the questions that emerge for them, the recognition of their own mixed motives and responses, and the empowering appreciation for the complexities of their personhood. It would make for some great book club discussions. Ages 12 to adult.
The Blackbird Girls, by Anne Blankman
published in 2020 by Viking
Valentina and Oksana are two 12-year-old girls living in Pripyat, Ukraine, a town perched on the very doorstep of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant which exploded in 1986 spewing death and destruction not only in their town but as far away as Sweden where detectors first warned Western scientists of the disaster. This book tells their story, of the confusion and terror among residents, the damage suffered by their fathers who both worked at the power plant, and the girls’ evacuation to far-off Leningrad (now St Petersburg) as they await answers and prepare for a new normal. Interwoven with their account is another young girl’s tale of her harrowing escape as a Ukrainian Jew during WWII.
It’s a riveting story full of Soviet-era detail spotlighting a government that denied the severity of the emergency even as its citizens sickened and died – a classic Cold War-era scenario with some tragic echoes in current events making this book more relevant than the author could have guessed while writing it.
Besides the obvious themes of grief, loss, struggle and courage, we find anti-Semitism and physical abuse playing important roles in the story. Despite the painful, dark realities in these girls’ lives, a strong current of perseverance, religious faith, and the tremendous healing power of love and kindness carry us through. An Author’s note provides more historical detail about the Chernobyl disaster as well as resources for those experiencing abuse. It’s a powerful, immersive, and emotional read I’d recommend for ages 13 through adult.
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