We asked staffers at children’s publishing houses to tell us about their favorite children’s book they read this year (new or backlist), and how they discovered it. Our only proviso: it couldn’t be a book that their company had published. See their responses, and happy reading!
Liz Bicknell, Candlewick Press
I nominate The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks, winner of the Carnegie Medal this June. I attended the Carnegie ceremony in London, thought the novel sounded amazing, bought a copy, read it on the plane home, decided to make an offer – was fairly sure no one else in the States would get there ahead of me – and BOOM! Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda had already snagged it; deal news was published less than 24 hours after the Carnegie ceremony. I was probably still sitting on the plane in a cloud of anticipatory self-congratulation. The Bunker Diary is a brilliant and disturbing book that I can’t wait to read a second time, even with the Carolrhoda logo on the spine. Great work, Kevin Brooks, and darn you, Andrew Karre!
Emma Ledbetter, Atheneum Books for Young Readers
I was touched by Patricia MacLachlan’s The Iridescence of Birds, illustrated by Hadley Hooper: the one long, lovely sentence that carries you through the book – and the open question that ties the story together at the end. The perfect final page that leaves you kind of breathless, and makes an unspoken “Would it be a surprise if I became an artist, too?” follow naturally. Hooper’s illustrations pay sweet tribute to her subject, but they’re stunning and distinct on their own, making you feel acutely the magic behind things like painted plates, red rugs, and the iridescence of birds. I left MoMA’s Matisse cut-outs exhibit feeling quiet awe, and after picking up this beautiful picture book in the gift shop, I felt the same way.
David Levithan, Scholastic
I found out about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle because Penguin rather insidiously send out bound manuscripts... to seemingly everyone I know. But mine must have been lost in the mail. So I had to grovel for an ARC, and while some ARCs end up not being worth the grovel time, this one justified all the humiliation of my pleading. I think the one thing that unifies all of my favorite YA books is they are the works of writers who are writing whatever they damn well want, because that is the way the story demands. Caution meets wind, and the author inadvertently writes a masterpiece. Grasshopper Jungle is a messy, repetitive, horny, ridiculous novel with a main character who will strain your sympathies about as far as they can go. And I love it for all of these qualities, and for the exuberance of its daring.
Anne Hoppe, Clarion Books
Cece Bell’s El Deafo was thrust into my hands in the Abrams booth at ALA Annual. I’d heard, vaguely, that Ms. Bell was working on a graphic novel memoir about hearing loss, but nothing had prepared me for how funny, warm, honest, and accessible the result would be. Filled with skillfully chosen particulars and affectionately recalled detail, El Deafo is both a specific tale of a unique character in an unusual situation and an immediately universal story about the complexities of growing up. It wears its smart, careful construction lightly: it does not set out to impress us. Instead, this book feels like your best friend. Few things make me as happy as falling unabashedly in love with a book. It doesn’t happen every year, but this year Cece Bell published El Deafo, and I love it with all my heart.
Brittany Pearlman, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group
The third book in Maggie Steifvater’s Raven Cycle quartet, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, absolutely blew my mind. With every book in this series, Maggie’s writing exceeds my expectations and reaches a whole new beautiful and imaginative level. The complexity of her prose combined with the sheer wonder of this world, plus the added bonus of some of the best characterizations I’ve ever read, make this book my favorite of 2014. There’s a line in the book where the main character, Blue, reflects about herself and her four male companions (the Raven Boys): “We were all a little bit in love with each other”; and that’s exactly how I feel about every one of the characters. The magical realism and fantasy make the story truly enchanting, but it’s always grounded in character so that you feel completely immersed. Ever since my friend recommended the first one, I have been hooked.
Morgan Dubin, Abrams Books for Young Readers
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton is incredibly strange and beautiful throughout, and in the best of ways. Ava (a 16-year-old born with wings) serves as narrator, but the story spans multiple generations. This tale examines the meaning of love and considers the conflicting aspects of loving and being loved. “Love, as most know, follows its own timeline. Disregarding our intentions or well-rehearsed plans.” There is sprawling and timeless magical realism reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I truly couldn’t put the book down after it was sent to me from a friend at Candlewick Press. I feel so thankful that this gem of a novel was placed in my hands, because I’m not sure I would have found it otherwise.
Margot Wood, HarperCollins Children’s Books
My favorite book of 2014 was The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. After finishing the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo I was desperately seeking a new YA fantasy series to ease my book hangover, and over the course of a week I was recommended The Winner’s Curse a total of 11 times from 11 people on a variety of platforms (Twitter, at my office, at the bookstore). I finally caved and bought a hardcover copy (how could you not? the cover is so beautiful!) from my local bookstore and promptly read it in one sitting. This book stands out in the YA fantasy genre because it feels more historical than fantastical but doesn’t really adopt the tropes of either. It’s lush and romantic and a slow burn, but it is well worth the read. I absolutely cannot wait for more books in this series.
T.S. Ferguson, Harlequin Teen
Half Bad by Sally Green has obvious comparisons to the world of Harry Potter, but the story unfolds in such a uniquely compelling way that I couldn’t put it down. I loved the themes of racism, genocide, and terrorism as viewed through a fantasy lens. I picked this book up after hearing so much buzz about it in the industry and was not disappointed.
Nicholas During, New York Review Books
The only one I want to recommend is Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, which I picked up after learning about Zolotow’s death and got to this year. There’s something rather melancholy about the story in combination with Sendak’s illustrations, and, don’t ask why, I find it’s a bit of sadness that makes the best children’s books. Perhaps an intuition of a youth so quickly lost? Anyway this book made a big impression on me and I think also because the rabbit looks so much like the evil rabbit in Donnie Darko.
Eliza Berkowitz, Sterling Children’s Books
While browsing in a bookstore recently, I came upon Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and was so excited to bring it home for my five-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading her a few chapters each night, and she is enthralled with this wacky, delightful tale, especially the vivid descriptions of the fantastical candy and the unusual Oompa Loompas. It’s been so fun to revisit this cherished story as an adult, and now when our daughter starts to misbehave, we say, “Don’t be a Veruca Salt!”
Alvina Ling, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
My two favorite children’s books of 2014 are Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and El Deafo by Cece Bell. I got an ARC of the former at BEA – I was with one of my authors in the signing area next to Jackie and asked her to sign a copy for me. El Deafo I received in a mailing from the publisher. I read both in the same week while on vacation, not realizing in advance that both were middle-grade memoirs. Although quite different from one another (one is in verse, the other a graphic novel), I found both to be totally magical, powerful and beautiful in their own ways as they opened me up to two distinct voices.
Lara Starr, Chronicle Books
I decided to read one of the books on the ALA’s list of Most Frequently Challenged or Banned Books during Banned Books Week, and also to shore up my foundation in YA classics by reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and boy, am I glad I did. I fell in love with this tangled trio of unconventional friends, and as the mother of a 15-year-old son, the deep dive into the male teenage mind, though Charlie’s is uniquely troubled. The depiction of the fluidity and intricacies of high school friendships and alliances was pitch-perfect, and brought back memories of high school friends, parties, dramas, misunderstandings, and the magic of discovering who you are.
Susan Van Metre, Abrams Books for Young Readers
I reread The Glassblower’s Children by Maria Gripe, a book I remember fondly from my childhood and which New York Review of Books recently reissued. I’d recommended it to Tom Angleberger and felt curious to know if it was as good as I remembered! It is gorgeous, with arresting imagery and told in a storyteller’s voice that reminds me of Pullman. I also found it interesting that, despite its title, it is really a book about adults and adult regret. Would it be published for children today, other than as a reissue?
Rex Ogle, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
This year, I went back to books I loved as a kid, that I haven’t read in nearly three decades, and I ended up falling in love all over again with Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Reading it, I felt like I was six years old again. It was still funny, strange, and heartfelt, and then funny again at every turn. I’m buying it for my nieces and nephews for the holidays, hoping they get as much of a kick out of it as I did at their age. I’m simply amazed at how a good book can hold up decades after the first read. Well done, Louis Sachar.
Liz Herzog, Scholastic
Earlier this year, when I was visiting family in Milwaukee, I was browsing at a local independent bookstore, Boswell Book Company. I came across Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs on the Staff Picks table. As an art director and book designer, I was immediately drawn to the design and the wonderfully quirky photos. When I brought the book home and read it, I loved the way Riggs had so artfully built a rich and engaging world all from a collection of found photos. It made me think about where stories come from, and how pictures can be a powerful jumping-off point for the imagination.
Maggie Tokuda-Hall, Chronicle Books
The Storm Whale by Benji Davies is one of my absolute most favorite picture books to come out this year. Davies’s illustrations are charming and evocative, and the story (about loneliness and a beached whale) could have been upsetting or sad in a pair of less talented hands. Instead, we’re given a story about unlikely friendship and emotional empathy from an otherwise distant single father, who honors his son’s vulnerability instead of punishing it. Also, the cats. Cats litter the landscape of this little sea town, and I don’t know if that place exists, but I want to go to there. I recently left a position as a children’s book buyer, and so I had heard about it in that capacity before transferring over to Chronicle. I bought a copy as soon as it came out.
Megan Barlog, HarperCollins Children’s Books
It is usually so hard to pick just one favorite book for a year, but this year I think I can easily say my favorite read was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. I first heard about this book a while back through one social media platform or another, and the title immediately grabbed me. It wasn’t until this summer, though, that I actually got around to purchasing it – and I’m so glad I did! This book takes the best elements of fairytale romps like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz and transforms them into a tale of daring adventure. The story’s narration just begs it to be read aloud, and September’s bravery is to be shared with children and adults alike. I’ll definitely be keeping this one around to read to my own children one day! (In the meantime I’ll gladly flip to passages and read it aloud to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. Seriously, the voice of this story is truly worth the read.)
Mackenzie Van Engelenhoven, Charlesbridge Publishing
No matter how much I enjoy a book, I almost never read the sequel. It’s even rarer for me to commit to a series. So maybe I had never picked up the Jacky Faber books by L.A. Meyer because I knew there were twelve of them. Twelve. That was way too much for me. I barely made it through seven Harry Potters. And I really like Harry Potter. But after reading so many lovely tributes to Mr. Meyer after he passed away this year and hearing from so many people who loved his books, I decided to give Bloody Jack, the series opener, a try. A few short months later, I had blasted through all twelve of them, including the final volume released this year, Wild Rover No More. Discovering this series was the highlight of my 2014 reading. Jacky herself has joined the ranks of Jo March and Tiffany Aching on my list of all-time favorite literary leading ladies – authentic and audacious, bold and vulnerable, equally endearing while acting with absolute courage and sniveling in fear. Her voice is so energetic and alive, and just plain funny – I found myself laughing out loud throughout every book. Jacky’s hijinks deftly walk the line between real and unbelievable (the sweet spot for adventure novels), all the while intertwining with real historical events and figures both well-known and obscure. Pirates. Boarding school. Bull fighting. Diving bells, villainous slavers, and musical revues. A perfectly matched romantic pair that just can’t seem to get the timing right. A cast of madcap, loveable rogues, headlined by a lively, flawed, and achingly real narrator who charts her own course in life. This series has everything.
Emily Meehan, Hyperion Books for Teens
A beloved memory of mine is my mother reading The Secret Garden to me as a child. And so when I found the exact edition with the cloth case and illustrations by Tasha Tudor, I gave it to my kids for Christmas last year. Re-reading it as an adult to my kids has been such an interesting experience, both because of the questions they ask and because of the themes that I didn’t understand as a child but have discovered through the lens of a bit more life experience. I still love it as much as I did as a child, in the best way: the way that love grows and changes over time.
Betsy Groban, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Okay, so Gregory Maguire and I spent our salad days as part of a small but rabid band of children’s book people in Boston in the ’70s. But despite our longstanding friendship, and my enormous respect for him as a writer, I was unprepared for how dazzled I would be by his latest, Egg & Spoon. It absolutely knocked my socks off with its expansive canvas, its warmth, wit, wisdom, and willingness to grapple with important and timely themes. I’m hardly alone in calling Egg & Spoon a masterpiece. Do yourself a favor and check it out! You’ll be glad you did.
Taylor Norman, Chronicle Books
My favorite YA book of the year was hands-down Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Chronicle’s YA Book Club chose it as one of our August titles. The thing is, the buzz around this book was all about how crazy it was; how much masturbating; what a wonderful pick for boys! Or reluctant readers! One of the reasons we chose it was just to find out what was so racy about it. But you know what? For all its apocalyptic elements, the book actually painted the most realistic portrait of teenagers I’ve read in a long time. These guys talk like guys really talk. These kids act how kids really act. There is precisely as much masturbating as every teenage girl already assumes is happening.
There are certain tics familiar to YA fiction that have come to dictate what YA sounds like – it’s a poisonous cycle, and the result is that most YA sounds the same but nothing like the actual experience of young adulthood. Smith has an incredible and rare gift for building a world that accurately depicts the one we live in, instead of one we only read about.