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!
Laurel Symonds, associate marketing manager, Albert Whitman & Company
Pax by Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen has stuck with me since I read it nearly a year ago. Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency and I were chatting over coffee about being recent transplants to Chicago, and she highly recommended her recent read, Pax. I’ve always had great respect for Balzer + Bray’s list, so I got my hands on an advance copy and devoured it. Heartbreaking yet affirming, the story of Peter and his pet fox separated in a war-torn country and its themes of friendship, loss, and loyalty could be just the book we need right now, and the bittersweet ending felt just right. Plus, Jon Klassen’s gorgeous illustrations and deckled edges make Pax a beautiful package, inside and out.
Kate Sullivan, sales manager, Random House Children’s Books
Tomi Ungerer’s Rufus: The Bat Who Loved Colors had been a favorite of mine since childhood, and out of print for years. Imagine my delight when I saw it on display at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. It was as lovely as I remembered – the story of a bat who discovers color and decides to stay up during the day to experience more of it. Sweet, briefly dramatic and sad, and ultimately as wonderful as it was the first time it was read to me. Some stories never get old.
Elayne Becker, junior associate editor, Tor Teen
Ruta Sepetys’s novels always leave me speechless. I finished her latest one, Salt to the Sea, on a nighttime flight and just sat there, staring blankly at the seat in front of me, awed. The book was beautiful. Devastating. Important. What I admire so much is not just Ruta’s characters, her prose, and her ability to evoke the past with such vibrancy and care; it’s her decision to highlight moments in history that are not often spoken of or studied, her determination to give voices to the people that are so often denied voices in our textbooks and our cultural awareness. These are the kinds of books I’d love to see more of in the YA world. In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next novel; anything she writes, I will buy.
Annie Berger, editor, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Fire
I read The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz and totally fell in love. I’d heard good buzz about it from coworkers, so as I was leaving a Barnes & Noble one night I impulsively picked it up. It sat on my table for weeks. I’ve never been a huge fan of historical, or diary formats, and this had both, so I kept putting it off. But one night I started the first page, and I was hooked. The voice! As a diehard Anne of Green Gables fan I recognized Anne immediately in Joan’s voice. It was heartbreaking, authentic, funny, and beautifully done. I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a new classic.
Julie Matysik, editorial director, Running Press Kids
A colleague recommended that I read Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s Book Scavenger, and I found it to be one book that I couldn’t put down. Bertman’s ability to weave codes and cyphers into a well-paced and engaging story, with relatable characters and a good dose of mystery, is incredible. Emily’s real-life struggles to adapt to yet another new city and new school ground this story in reality, while the puzzles and forward-moving plot engage the reader to uncover the truth about Griswold’s latest game. I loved the diversity of the characters, the atmospheric setting, and the creativity that went into constructing this story. I cannot wait to read the second book!
Heather Job, publicity assistant, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group
One book that I loved this year was The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. Some people at work got ARCs, and I found one either in a “take” pile or left unattended and added it to the horde of books I keep under my desk for emergency subway reading. I grabbed it at random one day from the pile and was hooked – folky fantasy, dangerous and tricky magic, adorable dragons. It has everything. And now I push it at people whenever I get the chance. (Like now!)
Christine Engels, commercial operations coordinator, Candlewick Press
This year I participated in a gift exchange with some strangers on the Internet: all we knew of each other was what we’d shared on social media. I didn’t expect much. Then I received a book in the mail: Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor. Somehow this girl I’d never met waded through my online presence and picked up on two great loves of my life: Edward Hopper and picture books. This book is at once as familiar as the Hopper works I have thumbtacked to walls around my life and as pleasantly surprising as discovering a new story by your favorite author. Wendell Minor’s illustrations are the best kind of homage: at a glance you think them Hopper originals, but closer inspection shows they are instead the scenes as Edward Hopper probably saw them. Each manages to quietly convey what was so special about that particular half-in-shadow building or windswept lawn that impelled Hopper to capture it in paint. Even better that so many of the scenes put the reader just behind the painter, peering over his shoulder, in on the lonely secret he will turn into a wistful ode to solitude. Reading this book is like passing by the only other person in the park on an autumn evening walk: neither of you speak but your eyes meet with a smile as you both drink in the colors of the changing leaves and still-green grass.
Rachael Stein, editorial assistant, Clarion Books
One of my favorite books this year was Seven Days of You by Cecilia Vinesse. A coworker passed me the ARC she’d gotten in a mailing, and I thought it sounded cute. It was more than just cute, though. It was a completely immersive read with so much emotion. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I wished I could have grown up at this American School in Japan equivalent so I could be friends with these characters. I’m still marveling at how Vinesse made me feel nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced.
Kathy Dunn, publicist-at-large, Random House Children’s Books
I really loved Ghost by Jason Reynolds. The book has received so much great buzz and attention that I really wanted to pick it up and give it a read. I enjoy reading middle grade; I think it can be a tough market to write for, and this book just hit all of the right notes for me. It was fast-paced, uplifting, heartbreaking, and memorable all at the same time, and Ghost was one of those characters that you just want to see succeed. The secondary characters were really great as well, and I loved the relationship between Ghost and his teammates, as well as Coach. I am excited that this is the first book in a trilogy – can’t wait to find out more about Ghost and his life.
Tara Sonin, digital marketing manager and publicity specialist, HMH
My good friend Gaby Salpeter used to work at Books of Wonder, and to mix things up, she would always force a few goodies into my bag I hadn’t heard of. She raved about Up to This Pointe by Jennifer Longo, but I was doubtful: first, it was contemporary, which isn’t a genre I naturally gravitate toward (it has to really shine to get me to like it). Second, the synopsis was unique, but I couldn’t entirely connect with it: seemingly out of nowhere, Harper, a talented ballerina, abandons her best friend Kate and a guy she is falling for... to winter-over in Antarctica – drawn to the legacy of her ancestor, the explorer Robert Scott, who died never reaching the South Pole. She is lost, and alone, and literally surrounded by darkness. Throughout non-linear interludes that stretch back in time, we eventually learn why she left, what she is really searching for, and the cost of starting over.
Needless to say, Gaby was right and I was wrong: I devoured this book from the first page. The character’s voice just ripped into my ribcage, seized my heart, and kept me close the whole way through. Up to This Pointe transcends its synopsis: it is about best friends who realize that they are traveling two different roads; about needing to leave the one place that has always kept you safe; mourning the thing you thought you loved most in the world because, in order to thrive, you have to give it up; about believing you are worthy of love even when you fail; and, of course, surviving in the darkness of Antarctica, where everything is cold, bitter, and bleak, except the one thing you need to survive: your inner light.
Nancy Mercado, editorial director, Scholastic Press
A book that has given me breath with its ferocious and hilarious voice and steady, beating heart is debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I heard about it where one hears about all the great books... on Twitter. Juliet Takes a Breath is the kind of book you read with a pencil so you can underline your favorite passages, it’s a book that I wish I’d had as a teenager, and it’s an invigorating dose of fresh air. An essential #postelectionread!
Hannah Campbell, assistant editor, Grosset & Dunlap/PSS!
It’s not new, but my favorite children’s book I read this year was One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Delphine and her sisters are such rich characters, and Williams-Garcia does an amazing job of blending the concerns of childhood with a growing awareness of the adult world. I’m ashamed to say that I probably learned more about the work of the Black Panthers through this story than I did from any moment of my formal education, but the story never feels like a history lesson. The characters are complicated people, and the dialogue is hilarious at times, and ultra-tense at others. I know I would have loved this book as a kid, and hope that the whole series continues to reach readers of all ages.
Tricia Ryzner, publishing coordinator, Algonquin Books and Algonquin Young Readers
The best YA book I read this year was This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills. This is the kind of book that inspires you to live better, be better. It’s one of those books that make you want a career in publishing. In Mills’s realistic fiction tale, the heroine is unlike any other. She’s witty, hilarious, empathetic, and utterly flawed. This book makes you laugh out loud, swoon, and cry all in the same chapter. I knew of Emma Mills from her first book, First & Then, but hadn’t read it yet. I received This Adventure Ends through the YPG program and fell in love. Then I passed it along to all of my friends, publishing industry folk and otherwise.
Steve Geck, editorial director, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and Fire
A picture book I rediscovered this year was The Lotus Seed written by Sherry Garland and illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi. Published in 1993, it’s the moving story of a girl who escapes from Vietnam with a lotus seed. Years pass and the girl is now a grandmother. The lotus seed is thought to be lost, but instead blooms into a beautiful plant and reminds the grandchildren of their grandmother’s original home. This story of an immigrant remains timely, and how great to see that the book is still in print.
Lara Starr, senior publicist, Chronicle Books
I was instantly immersed in the world of Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow. The vivid characters and sense of place were expertly conveyed, as was the sense of fear, injustice, and compassion. I appreciated that the author spared no sentiment with the tragic ending, respecting her readers’ ability to handle life as well as the main character, Annabelle. Chronicle has several in-house book clubs, and this was our selection a few months ago. I’m so glad it was.
Melissa Frain, senior editor, Tor Teen
I picked up Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes a few months ago after hearing great things from friends, and I could not stop reading. This is one of those cases where I found the world so vividly drawn and well constructed, with just the right elements pulled from real history, that I sometimes felt like I was reading a historical instead of a fantasy. Add in the amazing emotional and moral complexity of the plot, some genuine surprises, and – my favorite! – a completely engrossing romance, and this was unquestionably one of my best reads of the year. I cannot wait for more.
Dinah Stevenson, v-p and publisher, Clarion Books
My favorite read of 2016 was two books. Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire was in the gift bag following the Carle Awards, which Gregory emceed. I picked up The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz at the Texas Book Festival, where Adam appeared on a panel with Karen Cushman. What elevated the experience for me was the way the books spoke to each other. Each offered multiple points of view connected by a narrator who was a character in the story; neither was primarily narrated in the first person. Each was colored by folklore and legend and tradition and magic. Both were set in the past and drew on historical realities, but neither was history.
There are obvious differences, of course. Cultural specifics – Fabergé and Baba Yaga vs. Jewish scripture and Jeanne d’Arc; humor, a larger component of Egg than of Inquisitor, with more anachronisms and wisecracks; the nature of the challenges facing the young protagonists. But for me, similarity has the last word. Both books reach an optimistic resolution: the children prevail, save the world from environmental and spiritual destruction, and go on. A double helping of hope is welcome, especially now.
Caity Anast, sales and marketing coordinator, Albert Whitman & Company
I came across The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall as a comp title for one of our own. I recommended it to my 11-year-old daughter because the description sounded like something she would enjoy. As I often like to share the story experience with her (and she and I have similar tastes), I decided to listen to The Penderwicks in the car on my commute to work. What a joy! I loved this family. I loved that they just had everyday adventures – something I could have done or my kids could do. I loved that the girls became great friends with a boy. I loved that no one had any serious, heavy teenage issues to deal with. Then I moved on to the other books in the series. I loved that they lived on a block with such great neighbors, because I do too. I was even more excited to find out that there is a fifth book coming out in the series. That’s definitely on my list for next year!
Faye Bi, senior publicist, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing and Saga Press
Though originally published back in 2009, I only discovered Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy earlier this year, based on a friend’s recommendation. Set on a subtropic, fictional Polynesian island where volcanoes are quarrelling gods, it contains everything my ethnography-loving heart could desire: detailed worldbuilding, a nuanced critique of colonialism, complex family and village relations, a mind-bending magic system, and a quiet, reluctant heroine who steps out of the shadows. Bursting out of the seams with richness, The Lost Conspiracy forced me to re-evaluate what fantasy can do, especially in 2016 when diversity has rightfully become a headlining topic in children’s publishing.
Stephanie Pando, marketing assistant, Candlewick Press
On January 26th, 2016, I scurried to finish We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. This was due to the fact that the main character, Henry, needs to make a choice by January 29th, 2016, or the world will end, and I needed to know if the human race was going to make it. Now, at the end of the year, that is up for debate, but Hutchinson’s book has never felt more relevant. This book has aliens, but it’s not about aliens. (Actually, I’m still under the belief that there might never have been aliens, but that’s another story for another time.) What this book does have is the most gut-wrenching, in-your-face look at who and what we believe in, while also asking, “Is it worth saving?” Several times, Henry asks a “hypothetical” question to his friends and family – if given the opportunity to save the world by pushing a red button, would you do it? And he’s surprised at how everyone says yes, and how easily they do, despite knowing the grief, loss, and pain they have experienced. There is hope in these pages, hope I didn’t realize I would need through this year. As 2016 comes to a close, I realize that if Henry asked me if I would push the button to save the world, as is, no questions asked, I would still definitely say yes.