We asked staffers at children’s publishing houses to tell us about their favorite children’s or YA book they read this year, frontlist or backlist, and what they loved about it. Our only condition: it couldn’t be a book that their company had published. Happy reading!
Jamie Tan, senior publicist, Candlewick Press
I’ve been craving the kind of books that I would devour in high school: floppy backlist paperbacks that are easy to hold in one hand while snacking with the other, with stories that I want to reread again and again. I’ve had Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food & Love, edited by Caroline Tung Richmond and Elsie Chapman, on my TBR for ages because of the stellar lineup of contributors, and when I saw the gorgeous paperback cover I knew I had to buy it. This is the comfort read I needed this year. I have such a fondness for the characters, salivated over the food, and immediately reread it once I finished it. This collection hits all of the right spots, and I’m planning on delving in for my fourth reread over the holiday break. Pro tip: read this book with a meal or snack, it’s impossible to read it without becoming ravenous!
Stephanie Jones, global brand marketing assistant, Scholastic
It's been several years since a new book has been able to break into my top five favorite books of all time, and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn rocketed there. The character development is genuine and believable, the details and history involved are intricate and fascinating, and there’s a plot twist at the end that was entirely unexpected but still made sense. It was a staff pick recommendation from my local bookstore, Astoria Bookshop. The story gets going right from the start, and I couldn’t put it down!
Emily Daluga, assistant editor, Abrams
I think a lot of people know about Nina LaCour’s brilliance by now, but I’ve especially appreciated it in her latest novel, Watch Over Me, which I admittedly first picked up because the cover was so striking. With everything feeling so out of my hands right now, it was so nice to read a book that made me feel held while I was reading, both because of LaCour’s lovely prose and Mila’s entrancing voice and story of survival. It’s one of those books that is haunting in all the best ways and makes you want to linger in its pages long after you finish reading.
Kat Brzozowski, senior editor, Feiwel and Friends
My favorite children’s book of 2020 is The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I received this as a gift before the birth of my son Sky in April, and it’s by far his favorite book. Every morning, he crawls over to the bookshelf to pull down The Honeybee. Since we read this to Sky many times a day, I have it memorized by now, and the words often run through my head while I’m in bed (“A field, a tree, climb it and see...”). The clever rhymes, winning illustrations, and pitch-perfect use of language are just as appealing to me as they are to Sky. We even dressed him as a bee for Halloween because he loves this book so much!
Whitney Leopard, senior editor, Random House Graphic
Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright is a book I fell in love with immediately. I heard about the book in a graphic novel newsletter and I knew that I just had to get a copy since I am a twin myself. The book did not disappoint. Varian’s writing is fantastic and the emotions are genuine on the page. Shannon’s art is spectacular and made me want to read the book over and over. I loved this book! It’s perfect for anyone who is looking for a great sibling story (even if you’re not a twin).
Sydney Tillman, publicist, Scholastic
Graphic novels have been essential to my happiness and sanity in 2020. I am not a reader who enjoys rereading books, but every so often a special book comes along, and reading it one, two, three times is never enough. The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is that rare book. I received an ARC in early March—right before the pandemic hit hard in New York City—so it is safe to say this book carried me through this year. It is a stunning story within a story about family, identity, and the power of stories. Each time I come to the book’s end with tears in my eyes and am completely awestruck over Trung’s illustrations and the way he expertly weaves in well-known fairy tales. It’s a book that will nourish your soul, and it is one I will forever return to when I need comfort.
Jessica Handelman, senior creative director, HMH Books & Media
One of my favorite reads this year was From Ed’s to Ned’s by Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. My daughters, who are five and three, are big fans of Cummins’s Stumpkin, so post-Halloween I picked up one of her newest titles. We all love the rhythm of the text; the absurdity of the adventure (kids flying on paper airplanes!); trying to keep track of all the characters (who is who, where did they go?!); and the joyfulness of the adventure, especially this year when it has been so tricky for my daughters to see their friends. Also, my girls really want bunk beds, so we spent extra time on the bed scene, which caused them to fiercely campaign for the same set-up at home as in the story. They noticed the variety of sleeping arrangements (the hay and sheep bed!). And then of course, who doesn’t love a late-breaking blast off to the moon? Since we have not been able to travel lately, this book allows us to imagine a wide variety of fun and silly ways to get around.
Kathy Dunn, executive publicist, Random House Children’s Books
One of the books that I read and loved this year was Christina Hammonds Reed’s The Black Kids. I had heard a lot of other authors recommending the book in virtual events, and their glowing praise made me want to read it myself. And I was so glad that I did. Ashley and her friends are slightly younger than I was in 1992, so the book definitely brought me back to that timeframe but allowed me to truly see what Los Angeles looked like during and after the riots and how it affected the lives of so many generations of people. The book was powerful and beautifully written, with memorable characters and a gorgeous cover. I definitely recommend that everyone read it.
Jody Mosley, associate publisher, Abrams
My favorite kids’ book in 2020 was Girl by Blake Nelson, a YA coming-of-age novel that came out in 1994. It brought me right back to feeling like a teenager in the early 1990s—the energy, the angst, the flannel, and the urge to rebel against... something, anything! It is so skillfully written and true to what it felt like to be a girl in high school. And I was tickled to know that it was originally excerpted in Sassy magazine.
Jonah Newman, assistant editor, Scholastic
My favorite book of 2020 was Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang. Yang has always been a master of the comics medium, but he outdoes himself in his latest graphic novel, a riveting, seamless blend of personal memoir, high school sports documentary, and basketball history. There are a lot of moving parts, but they all feel connected and resonant, like a symphony. There’s also plenty of humor and page-turning sports action. I almost never have a physical reaction to reading a book, but I gasped audibly—multiple times—during the climactic state championship game.
Kristen Pettit, executive editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books
I fell completely in love with The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott and its neuroatypical heroine Agatha. In this middle grade fantasy, set in a quasi-medieval Scotland, Agatha’s people have written her off, judged her as little more than useless. Yet, in spite of her seeming weaknesses, she uses her extraordinary inherent sense of both human beings and animals to become a hero and save her people from a threat they did not anticipate. Elliott imbues all of his characters in this story with believable flaws and prejudices, which they overcome while discovering and appreciating the strength in each other. Elliott’s rendering of Agatha is never pandering, and he doesn’t lean on tropes. The world building is vivid, and the take-home, for readers, is vital. I would hand this to absolutely any astute reader—and I bought it for my own kids.
Carol Hinz, editorial director, Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
This year I was struck by Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, adapted from Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an incredibly accessible and compelling presentation of the history of racist ideas in America. I really appreciated the respect shown for the reader, both in terms of clearly and accurately describing ideas and truths that the history curriculum has too often left out and in terms of recognizing the emotional impact of these truths. Stamped is a powerful read for a wide range of readers, and I’m also interested to see how it might influence the voice and approach other authors take in future works of nonfiction for young people. Because sometimes we all need a reminder to pause and a chance to take a breath and collect our thoughts before continuing on.
Harriet Low, editorial associate, HMH Books for Young Readers
The graphic novel I have been recommending far and wide this year is Snapdragon by Kat Leyh. It has absolutely everything I want in middle grade fiction: irrepressible, idiosyncratic characters, nuanced relationships, and a genuinely fresh take on what it means to give your gifts the chance to blossom. The atmospheric art is ideal for autumn or anytime, and portrays subtle emotional beats that are a lovely balance to the story’s magic and mayhem. Snap it up!
Jordana Kulak, publicity coordinator, Scholastic
Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson is the book I keep thinking about, months after finishing. I was at an independent bookstore on the Upper West Side of NYC for a picture book author event when I found Monday’s Not Coming in a discount box. It turned out to be my favorite (of many) impulsive book purchases of 2020. The brilliance of Monday’s Not Coming is that it isn’t just a cheap thrill. Claudia’s voice sticks with you, and Monday’s story opens your eyes and turns you into an activist. The novel demands to be read—it will haunt you, but it will also make you ask questions about the world and demand the answers. Tiffany Jackson is a true master of storytelling.
Caroline Osborn, subsidiary rights manager, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
I absolutely devoured Who I Was with Her by Nita Tyndall. Corinne’s secret girlfriend dies in a tragic accident, and her lonely grief destroyed my heart. The writing is lyrical but straightforward, and the short chapters pack an emotional punch. With a bisexual protagonist and an asexual side character, this story features LGBTQIA+ folks who typically get less representation, and Tyndall handles their stories of considering labels and coming out with such care, tenderness, and complexity. I discovered this book because the author participated in a virtual bookstore appearance with one of my house’s authors. Nita Tyndall is an enormous talent, and I can’t wait to get my hands on whatever they write next!
Meredith Mundy, editorial director, preschool, Abrams
Unanimously selected by the members of my book club, When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed was this year’s big “wow” for me. I loved everything about it—the illustrations, the writing, the characters, the unsparing look at what a refugee actually goes through day by day, year by year. Some chapters were completely heartbreaking; others were hilarious. There were many unforgettable characters, and a surprising amount of suspense as we wait to learn who among them might find their way out of the refugee camp so their lives can truly begin.
Lindsay Matvick, publicity manager, Lerner Publishing Group
The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate was extremely memorable for me this year as my second-grade daughter read the entire book aloud to me in only two days. We were both entranced by the story and she couldn’t wait to read more. If I had let her, we would have finished the book in one day. A book that can captivate a young reader (and mother) like this is a definite winner in my book! Bravo!
Doris Allen, senior sales support associate, HarperCollins Children’s Books
I really enjoyed Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. I love this book because of the poignant, powerful text and striking art. I love how the story spans centuries and teaches Black children about certain parts of their history that are often unspoken.
Lauren Donovan, senior director of publicity, Scholastic
It feels somewhat silly to name a juggernaut like Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, but isn’t this how our industry thrives, with legions of new parents “discovering” books as they build their baby’s library? I had heard of the title, mostly as a sales success in publishing circles, but hadn’t actually read it until my daughter was born this summer. What a text! The plucky rhyme, the color-coded sounds for readers to chirp, and a dramatic display of bad manners and their consequences. My favorite spread shows all the animals turning their cute behinds on the Dump’s muddy plight, with the wry aside, “but nobody heard (or nobody cared).” I love the saltiness of these animals! Along with the good heartedness of Blue, we get this small, subversive moment showing that not every character in a children’s book has to be generous and kind. Even the Dump knows he didn’t suddenly make a ton of friends, reflecting: “You helped me and they helped you.” This story has all the interpersonal melodrama of a Real Housewives reunion episode, and I only hope someday my daughter loves it as much as I do.
Katie Smith, sales and marketing assistant, Charlesbridge
My favorite book of the year is From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks. This delightful novel has it all: baking, friendship, mystery, and a call for social justice. Marks’s descriptions are a love letter to Boston, from Beacon Hill to Davis Square. Zoe’s love for her friends and family and determination to find truth and justice capture the best of middle grade. I first saw an ARC of the book while interning for the Horn Book in August 2019 and came across the book again through the Libby app in July. I immediately checked out the book and dug in over the Fourth of July weekend.
Charles Kochman, editorial director, Abrams ComicArts
I was going through some boxes in the back of my closet the other week and came across my dog-eared copy of The Arizona Kid, a YA novel by Ron Koertge. The book came out in 1988, and I remembered that I loved it but couldn’t recall exactly why, so I read a few pages, then a few more. Two hours later I was done and the reasons why I saved the book came tumbling back to me: It’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. The first-person narrative immediately pulls the reader in, and feels completely natural, without ever betraying the hand of its adult writer. We feel Billy as a stranger in a strange land, and can relate to that time in our lives when summer break held great promise. Coming-of-age novels can easily date, but this one is different. Koertge has such a fresh voice, and his writing is matter of fact, but the subjects of sex and loss are handled beautifully. I recommend finding a copy and giving this one a shot. And if you’ve already read it back in the day, like me, it’s worth revisiting through older eyes and a 2020 lens to remind you of how special innocence and awakening is. The world may have changed, but adolescence and the journey to becoming an adult are timeless in the hands of a gifted storyteller like Ron Koertge.
Cassandra Pelham Fulton, editorial director, Graphix
I’m a new parent of an infant who has trouble sleeping, so this year I spent a lot of time reading library ebooks in the middle of the night as a way to get through the books that have been on my physical bookshelf for years. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is one that I’ve always wanted to read, as it was a National Book Award finalist, and I love jellyfish. I adored this story because it featured a charmingly offbeat main character to whom I could relate, and I found comfort in the unexpected way she processed grief after a friend’s death, just as I was processing my own. Ali Benjamin’s prose is lovely and I didn’t want this book to end, and yet I couldn’t read it fast enough.
Brooke Shearouse, publicity manager, Abrams
I first heard about Stand Up, Yumi Chung! when I attended the Indies Introduce event at Winter Institute back in January (I still can’t believe that was this year!). I loved the excerpt that author Jessica Kim read, and I knew I would add it to my TBR pile. It’s my perfect kind of read: a heartwarming middle grade story featuring a hilarious main character with big dreams. I laughed, gasped, and held my breath as Yumi navigated a case of mistaken identity, intensely difficult tutoring sessions leading up to a big test, and the struggles of her family’s restaurant. I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone who is looking for a hopeful and funny read, especially amid trying times.
Arthur A. Levine, president and publisher, Levine Querido
Starting with the pandemic I went on a binge, reading every gay-themed book I saw mentioned on lists and in reviews. Mike Curato’s Flamer was one of the absolute best of these, using his incredible gifts at both writing and illustrating to let loose a river of truth and poignancy from a story of camp trauma.
Andrea Spooner, v-p, editorial director, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
I noticed a blurb celebrating accolades for the gorgeous We Will Live in This Forest Again, written and illustrated by Gianna Marino, in a newsletter from the author-artist’s agency, East West Literary. The title and cover of this book about wildfire, told from the point of view of the animals, caught my eye for its exemplary way of conveying a story about wildfire through the palette and gestures of non-anthropomorphized animals. The tension and danger suggested from their backward glances, and the eerie beauty from the glow of the off-camera flame, is powerfully countered by the determined optimism of the title. The interior is a brilliant study of employing a subtly evolving palette to tell a story of danger, destruction, escape, and renewal. I find myself almost brought to tears every time I page through the dramatic and poignant visuals. In a year when we all need hope, and when we all feel like we’ve been through one—or many—fires of a different sort, the book almost feels like a metaphor for life in 2020.