We asked staffers at children’s publishing houses to tell us about their favorite children’s or YA book they read this year, and what they loved about it. Our only proviso: it couldn’t be a book that their company had published. Happy reading!
Joann Hill, creative director, Disney-Hyperion
I bought a bunch of books for my teen daughter last Christmas, including To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. She mostly ignored them, so to encourage her further, I started reading Jenny Han’s novel. I made assumptions that it would be predictable and sappy but instead I found it explored deep ideas about romantic and family relationships and what it means to find what you want to do instead of what people expect of you. What is the difference between cheeriness and happiness? I am not the target audience but I found myself thinking about all the characters a lot, and this 50-something working mom bought the next two books in succession.
Jordana Kulak, publicity coordinator, Scholastic
When I was 17, a friend gave me her paperback copy of Looking for Alaska by John Green. Full disclosure: I left for college soon after and, although I brought the book with me, I never finished it. Seven years later, I borrowed the book from the library and sat down to read it. This time, I finished it in that one sitting. John Green masterfully creates complexity in characters and weaves stories and emotion together seamlessly. He does this in such a way that every aspect feels so fully real, that it leaves me wanting to Google search “Culver Creek” and “Alaska Young accident.” Piecing together each part of Alaska’s past and discovering the handprints she leaves on her friends was an emotional experience I so rarely experience while reading. The stories of each character and how they discover their firsts—first love, first friends, first loss—all told through Miles’s perspective is a viewpoint that’s so valuable to so many teens out there, and one that I, as a 23-year-old, am so glad to have rediscovered.
Emily Daluga, assistant editor, Abrams Children’s Books
It’s rare to find a book that keeps me on my toes in the way that Rory Power’s Wilder Girls did. I’d seen the book getting a lot of buzz online, but when I saw the actual book on the shelves, I very shallowly picked it up because it’s got the most striking cover. And then as soon as I read the first page, I wanted to drop everything else in my life and just dive into this world. The voice is immediate and the world is so eerie and terrifying, in exactly the ways you want for this kind of book. But I think the greatest strength of the book is the girls themselves, who each feel modern and messy and flawed in a way that feels so real. Along with this, the shocking scenes and bold writing made this the kind of book that’s haunted me long after I read the final page.
Jamie Tan, senior publicist, Candlewick Press
I loved Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly. The adventure draws you in, the pacing is perfection, and the vivid imagery! I still can’t get the soul-laden whenbo trees out of my mind, and Lalani is possibly my favorite girl power figure in middle grade this year. I’m so delighted to see Filipino representation in kidlit, and I’m enjoying this partially on behalf of my child self who would have gobbled it up. I’d take sequel after sequel of this folklore/narrative combo.
Patricia Stockland, publisher, Capstone
The Line Tender by Kate Allen hit me in the heart. The characters and setting are so well developed, but what really spoke to me was the authenticity of the relationships, the emotions therein, and the reality that life is inherently flawed and heartbreaking, but also hopeful and worthy of hope. It made me laugh and cry. It made me nostalgic for the ages of its protagonists and the time period in which they live. And it made me hopeful in the face of our current challenges that we will be all right if we can remain connected to those we love.
Michelle Nagler, v-p and associate publishing director, Random House Children’s Books
At the end of the summer, I borrowed Shana Corey’s dog-eared paperback of Frindle to read aloud to my eight- and 11-year-old children. I hadn’t read it in years, and I was delighted all over again by how Andrew Clements packs such thought-provoking themes into a potent, hilarious punch of a novel. My kids laughed out loud, and we had deep discussions for weeks about trends, language, and how teachers sometimes know more than they let on. With Andrew’s passing last month, I’m saddened and so grateful for the stories he gave us all.
Brittany Lowe, sales coordinator, Special Markets, Scholastic
I cannot express how much I loved Mommy’s Khimar, a picture book by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn. It was a random discovery during a book browse, and I was immediately drawn to the beautiful imagery featuring not only brown people, but Muslim women. It’s so innocent, and refreshing, and it’s mostly about a little girl just enjoying dressing up in Mommy’s colorful headscarves. Her imagination takes her away, and I think that is something all little girls can relate to! On a personal note, the book includes a small scene that touched me directly. When the little girl’s grandma visits after a church service, she notes that her grandma doesn’t wear a khimar like her mommy. As a convert to Islam, I saw myself and my mother in this very brief scene, and I look forward to sharing that with my future children. When we read it together, we can say, “Look! They’re just like us!” It’s beautiful how the littlest strides in representation can mean so much to people and families.
Erika Turner, editorial project manager, HMH/Versify
One of my favorite reads this year was Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins. It’s a cozy romance that reminds me of a high school version of The Real Housewives, but with queer girls and royal titles on top of impossible wealth. What’s not to love about that? Plus, I love a good Scottish setting. I heard about it at a queer YA book club, and the second I picked it up, I couldn’t stop reading. It was funny, sweet, and deliciously dramatic, with just the right amount of stolen glances and unnecessary bar fights. Truly just a great, fast-paced read.
Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director, Walker Books US
I have always been drawn to books about families in which the kids must take charge in place of absent, hapless, or infirm adults, and I was treated to two brilliant examples this year: All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker and Mud by Emily Thomas. Each provided the bonus of a romantic setting I would love to inhabit: SoHo, New York, in the ’80s (Greene Street) and an old Thames Barge (Mud). It is a particular gift to turn the harrowing reality of parentlessness into tales of adventure, resourcefulness, comedy, and community. It speaks of grace and forgiveness and imparts a hope that we can all use: families can be found.
Traci Todd, children’s publishing director, Workman Publishing
Over the summer, in a small bookstore in northern Maine, I spied a thin red volume with an illustration of a Black child on the cover. It was Hezekiah Horton by Ellen Tarry. I’d never heard of Tarry, but soon learned that she is thought to be the first Black American children’s book author. Hezekiah Horton was first published in 1942, at a time when positive depictions of Black children in literature were few and far between. But Tarry’s warm text and Oliver Harrington’s expressive black, white, and red illustrations are more than affirming—they’re pure pleasure. I’ve since collected all of Ellen Tarry’s books for children. What a find!
Anna Bernard, publicist, Bloomsbury Children’s Books
This year, I grabbed Anna-Marie McLemore’s When the Moon Was Ours from the assorted giveaway shelf, and I’m so glad I took it before someone else did. I was immediately drawn in by Anna-Marie’s writing; their use of language to craft a contemporary folktale is beautiful, strange, and enthralling. The relationships between all the queer characters are also so nuanced and compelling. Don’t ask me for a copy, though: I put it back on the shelf when I was done, and it was immediately snatched up.
Morgan Maple, publicity assistant, Little, Brown
In Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson writes eloquently with raw emotion that rings off the pages like a bell. She has devoted her life’s work to advocating for survivors and creating dialogue around these tough issues for anyone affected by sexual violence and harassment. Her experience through verse had me filled with rage, crying quiet tears, and leaving the book feeling empowered in solidarity. After I turned the last page I sat silently taking it all in and thanking Laurie for giving these unimaginable experiences a voice.
Molly Cusick, editor, Sourcebooks
This year I adored Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid. Julián is obsessed with mermaids and wants to be one, but will he be in trouble with his abuela for the way he wants to express himself? No! Abuela takes Julián to Coney Island’s annual Mermaid Parade, where he sees gorgeous mermaids “like you, mijo,” and joins in the fun. It’s a beautiful story of the importance of been seen, affirmed, and loved just as we are. It has an important message without being preachy, and the illustrations really bring to life this beloved New York tradition.
Kait Feldmann, editor, Orchard Books
I read PW’s review for Clever Little Witch, written by Mượn Thị Văn and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, and immediately placed a pre-order, it sounded so delightful! Apparently I was so excited that I ordered and paid for it twice without realizing it, so I figured I’d give one away. This book is truly a gift—Hyewon’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of character, and Mượn’s sinister-sweet sibling story made me cackle and coo. Who can resist a whimsical misadventure with a witchy twist? Not me! Forget about gifting one—I’m keeping both copies.
Hannah Allaman, assistant editor, Disney-Hyperion
I discovered The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta face out at Books of Wonder and was so immediately struck by Leilani Bustamante’s gorgeous artwork that I snatched it up before I’d even fully registered what I was doing. Lucky for me, I’d stumbled upon a book as thrillingly dangerous as it was beautiful, one that I’d devour in a single sitting on a plane ride to Charleston for YALLFest. My favorite stories are the ones that defy categorization, that are unlike anything else I’ve ever read, and this Italian-inspired fantasy is simply unforgettable. Teo and Cielo are electric characters whose transformation magic is unique, and the story’s thoughtful exploration of gender and identity is exactly what I’m craving in genre fiction. This is some of the most ambitious, inviting, and captivating storytelling that I encountered in 2019. Thank God its sequel, The Storm of Life, comes out next month!
Chris Schoebinger, publishing director, Shadow Mountain
In 2019 I read Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. After hearing several colleagues mention the 1977 Newbery winner in separate conversations I decided to check it out. I immediately fell in love with Stacy, Christopher-John, Little Man and, of course, Cassie. I love how the author paints a vivid picture of the Mississippi back roads in the early 1930s and shares an important account of American history, segregation, bigotry, and racial injustice. Most importantly, I loved Cassie’s spunk. Despite her young age or the color of her skin, she refuses to sit idly by when she sees inequality. Every classroom should have this book.
Chris Duffy, senior editor, Workman Publishing
Luke Pearson is a cartoonist in complete control. I love his designs, the world he’s made in the Hilda books, and the way he tells a story with comics. The timing within every panel and every page is so perfectly executed, you are carried along with (it seems) no effort. In Hilda and the Mountain King, Hilda and her mom have parallel adventures that converge and end up resolving the series-long question of Troll-human relations. I hope there are more Hilda books coming, but I’ll read any Luke Pearson comic.
Brianna Kerry, project manager, Capstone
Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol is such a gem! We first discovered the book at our local library and it’s become a new family favorite this year. Written like a fairy tale, it follows an old grandmother who just wants to be left alone to finish her knitting. Each time she gets interrupted she yells, “Leave me alone!” As a mom I relate to trying to find a few minutes of silence and love that she eventually retreats into a wormhole. And the kids love shouting along with the grandmother each time she gets into yet another noisy situation. The art is fun and each read makes us laugh together. A delightful read that I highly recommend!
Rae Crawford, junior designer, Scholastic
Around early fall, I heard about Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, through word of mouth and picked it up at my local bookstore. First Second keeps putting out amazing YA graphic novels and this is no exception. The story brings me back to all the toxic relationships I’ve ever had, satisfying and validating all of my fears and emotions from that time. It’s funny, poetic, sarcastic, the kind of story queer adolescents deserve and anyone in a terrible relationship needs. The illustrations and the rosy, blush color throughout the novel set the tone perfectly, making it hard not to fall in love with this amazing must-buy.
Shaina Olmanson, associate editorial director, Twenty-First Century Books and Zest Books
I appreciate books that look at the conventional historical narrative and peel back the layers of deception and dissimulation. The way in which An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza, does this made it one of the most important books for me this year. I was impressed with how it deftly traverses the history of the nation from the perspective of Native people from the arrival of Europeans to now, challenging young readers to question the standard narrative while offering valuable insight into topics from the origin story of the United States to the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance. And I admired how additional information in sidebars and back matter asks readers to think critically about topics such as colonization, appropriation, and conservation.
Allison Moore, editor, Bloomsbury Children’s Books
When I listen to audiobooks, I’ll always enjoy a great story read by an engaging narrator, but I especially love listening to books with storytelling elements that are able to play with the audio format. Two highlights this year were See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng, read by the talented young Kivlighan De Montebello and cast, and Sadie by Courtney Summers, read by the arresting Rebecca Soler and cast. In See You in the Cosmos, 11-year-old space-obsessed Alex’s “Golden iPod” recordings let me see and hear the world so clearly through his perspective, feeling his wonder as he learned about new ideas and met a memorable cast of supporting players (and only slowly uncovering the parts of his life he chooses not to mention) in a grand adventure of science and family. In Sadie, I found the contrast between the podcast and Sadie’s actual journey so compelling, and the difference between her fluid interior narration and halted spoken tone equally so, offering a fresh and thought-provoking way to consider character voice. Both stories were rich and evocative, and great places to start if you want to try out audio!
Phoebe Kosman, assistant director of marketing, publicity, and events, Candlewick Press
A confession: even though I’m a constant reader of children’s books in both my professional and personal lives, because our small home is bursting with two grown-ups, two small children, a dog that doesn’t believe in personal space, and teetering obelisks of stacked library books, I very rarely buy books. One of the few exceptions I made this year was for the absolute genius Kaya Doi’s Chirri & Chirra, Underground. What is it about these two bicycle-riding, helmet-haired heroines that attracts adventure, bouquets of flowers, and gentle forest animals? I don’t know, but I could look at them riding their bikes through mole tunnels all day long.
Sarah Bonamino, associate publicist, St. Martin’s
Like anyone else who somehow missed reading Jenny Han, as soon as I saw To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix I had to read the books. I loved her characters and really enjoyed where the story went beyond To All the Boys—can’t wait for the whole trilogy next year! But I couldn’t get enough of the story, and watching the movie for the 35th time made me feel a little ridiculous. So when I came across her Summer books (The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, and We’ll Always Have Summer) at a bookstore, I knew they’d be perfect summer reading. What I thought would be some fun beach reading quickly became an emotional rollercoaster as I devoured all three books in a little over a week. I fell in love with Belly, Jeremiah, and Conrad immediately and felt so many emotions that I thought I would be impervious to as an adult. Nope, I was 14 again dreaming about first love and happily ever afters. Han’s trilogy is a beautiful coming-of-age story that I would have stayed up to read under the covers with a flashlight after I was supposed to be in bed, sniffling my way through the ups and downs of Belly’s teenage years. I’m so glad it came into my life now so I could fall in love, have my heart shattered, and then put back together again with Belly.
Carol Hinz, editorial director, Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
I’m drawn to both nonfiction and poetry, but combining the two is no easy feat, particularly for a middle grade audience. When I read This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Debbie Levy and Jo Ann Allen Boyce, I was astonished at both the power of the nonfiction narrative and the excellence of the poems. Levy and Boyce did an amazing job of weaving in relevant background information and context while maintaining narrative momentum. I also appreciated the way the book explored the complexity of Boyce’s experiences integrating a high school in Clinton, Tenn., and included information in the back matter about what happened to the rest of the students known as the Clinton 12. This book is exceptionally crafted as well as incredibly relevant for young people, and people of all ages, today.
Maggie Lehrman, editorial director, Abrams Children’s Books
Before I get to my actual answer let me just say I could have also written this about Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemarie Valero-O’Connell, The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater, or many more! But since I’m choosing I’ll have to go with Lovely War by Julie Berry, which knocked my socks off. I’d read her Printz Honor book The Passion of Dolssa and thought it was great, so I was looking forward to reading this one—but I didn’t know I’d be clutching my heart on the subway in sympathetic agonies.
Eliza Swift, senior editor, Sourcebooks Fire and Kids
My favorite children’s book of 2019 was A Hippy-Hoppy Toad by Peggy Archer, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. My bookseller sister-in-law gifted this one to us after the author did a signing at her store, Left Bank Books. When my toddler son became obsessed with Little Blue Truck, and specifically with Little Blue’s best friend Toad, we rediscovered this in our collection. The rhyming works nicely and it has a fantastic, bouncy rhythm to it. The art is absolutely beautiful and the nature throughout pops off the page—almost as good as being in the park ourselves during these long winter days. Overall it’s such a great read-aloud and thank goodness for that... because we have read it many, many, many times.
Lily Kessinger, associate editor, HMH Books for Young Readers
Full disclosure: the animated Disney movie Mulan is a perennial favorite and inspired a lifelong auto-purchase of any book featuring the trope “heroine-disguised-as-man” (shout-out to Bloody Jack), but Sherry Thomas really made this beloved Chinese legend her own. I read The Magnolia Sword on a road trip this summer and was quite willingly transported to a winter landscape of 484 A.D. China. Fierce, thoughtful, and romantic with evocative historical elements, Thomas’s take on Mulan is swords-down my favorite read of the year, with an incredibly layered and dynamic protagonist more than worthy of her namesake.
Christine Engels, assistant editor, Candlewick Press
This year I had the pleasure of reading Skip by Molly Mendoza, a stunning graphic novel published by Nobrow. I saw this on the shelf at my local comic book shop, flipped through a few pages, and bought it immediately. The art is vivid and fun and just so gorgeous, slipping from one style to the next as the characters fall through one universe after another. The book itself is beautifully designed and produced, a true treat to hold in your hands and pore over. The way Molly Mendoza uses color and plays with panels to tell the story will take your breath away. The story is a sweet and meaningful tale of friendship and finding your faith in yourself, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that all of the main characters use they/them pronouns. I want to give this to every young artist I know to expand their understanding of the many ways to tell a story through pictures!