Welcome to Publishers Weekly’s eighth Children’s Starred Reviews Annual! In these pages, you’ll find more than 300 reviews of books for children and teens published in 2020 that received a star from PW, indicating that they are titles of exceptional merit. We’ve arranged these reviews into five categories—Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, Comics, and Nonfiction—making it easy to find your new favorite read, from gripping adventures to teen rom-coms, graphic novels, and more.
Our issue also includes interviews with some of today’s top authors and illustrators, and a list of our 50 best books of 2020. Happy reading!
About Our Cover Artist
Author-illustrator Stephen Savage describes himself as a “less is more” artist. “I like simple shapes, contrasting forms, and color,” he says. But it’s no easy task to distill his eye-catching, economical style or his influences in just a few words.
“There’s a conceptual thread that runs through my editorial work and children’s books,” Savage says. In his 2019 wordless picture book Sign Off (Beach Lane), for example, the symbols from various road signs come to life. When crafting a narrative, he strives to push his initial concept further.
“It’s a challenge,” Savage says, “to create a whole story and to fall in love with the characters. There has to be warmth and emotion; it can’t just be a slick idea. I like clever stuff, but more and more I find I want it to hit your heart.”
Savage’s 2015 picture book Supertruck (Roaring Brook) received a Geisel Honor, and 2004’s Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson (Scholastic Press) was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. A 2015 Sendak Fellow, Savage has also illustrated for such publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He pulls from eclectic art forms and visual sources, including film (MGM musicals, noir, Steven Spielberg), architecture (art deco and midcentury design), vintage posters, and, yes, picture books (by Crockett Johnson, Lois Lenski, Richard McGuire, Feodor Rojankovsky, and Esphyr Slobodkina, to name a few).
For Savage, who lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Covid-19 brought a significant shift in his work routine. “I got rid of my studio of 10 years when the pandemic hit,” he explains. As a result, he has been working in his two-bedroom apartment, shared with his sixth-grade daughter and his wife, who also works.
“It’s not a sustainable situation,” Savage says. “An illustrator needs their own space.”
But the crisis has also brought inspiration and focus. Savage says of his forthcoming picture book, And Then Came Hope (Holiday House/Porter, May), “It’s my pandemic-themed book, about boats getting sick and getting better. The whole thing was hatched and finished within the last six months.” It’s the fastest he’s completed a book, he says. “This year was kind of about being a hermit and getting work done.”
Right now, Savage is finishing up another book for editor Neal Porter, Moonlight, “about light and shadow and the journey that moonlight takes across city and country.”
In addition, Savage has been teaching remote classes at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he’s taught since 2001 and where he’d received his masters in illustration. This is his first time leading a course on picture books. His daughter has moved on to reading novels, but, he says, “I love picture books. I don’t think I’ll ever graduate from them.”—E.K.