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It’s been, well, an unusual year, which found many of us indoors, sheltering in place to avoid a raging pandemic. That’s the inarguable bad news; one bit of good news is that, to avoid cabin fever, many people turned—or returned—to reading. Happily, there was no shortage of excellent books published in 2020 to satisfy that yen. This was especially true of books for young readers. Again, that’s the good news; the subsequent bad news is that it made my annual job of selecting the best of the best of the batch well-nigh Herculean. My original goal was to select the top 10 best of the best from among the more than 20 candidates on my initial list. When that proved too difficult, I fastened on choosing the dozen best, and when that proved impossible, I moved to a baker’s dozen. When even that didn’t work, I allowed myself—as you will see below—the relative luxury of 14. Here they are, arranged in alphabetical order by author.
Kacen Callender’s National Book Award–winning King and the Dragonflies is first, a beautiful story that spoke directly to my heart. It’s brilliantly imagined and realized with unforgettable characters—King, Sandy, and, at a remove, Khalid—who come alive on the page. The evolving relationship between King and Sandy is beautifully done, as is King’s gradual coming to terms with Khalid’s death.
Then there’s Monica Hesse’s They Went Left. I’ve had the privilege of reviewing all of Hesse’s books for Booklist and have starred each one of them. One of her best, this Holocaust novel is no exception, a harrowing survival story that is powerful in its reminder that it deals with a subject that must never be forgotten.
Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Deserves Better is next. While Darius may, in fact, deserve better, he certainly couldn’t ask for better treatment than this lighthearted sequel to Darius the Great Is Not Okay, in which he not only comes out, but he also finds a first boyfriend as well as a dream job at a tea shop. Delicious and refreshing.
In The Bridge, Bill Konigsberg brings wisdom and insight to a shattering subject: suicide. His work of experimental fiction serves the topic well as he offers four different versions of the fates of Aaron and Tillie, the teens contemplating suicide on the eponymous spot. Not to be missed.
In Nina LaCour’s Watch over Me, the Printz Award–winning author brings her talent to bear in this Northern California–set ghost story that transcends genre in its character-driven work of literary fiction.
Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe is a superb debut by a Lipan Apache author who writes of an Apache girl named Elatsoe, who seeks to bring the murderer of her cousin to justice in a story of magic enriched by Native folklore and tales. Hats off to Arthur Levine’s new imprint Levine Querido for publishing it.
Again Again., by E. Lockhart, is another work of exceptional, richly imagined experimental fiction. This one follows the life of a girl, Adelaide, and her related experiences in multiple worlds.
Next is Burn, by Patrick Ness. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when a farmer and his daughter hire a dragon to help out at the farm—and not just any dragon but a sentient, talking one. But he’s not the only dragon to deal with; there’s another who is bent on human destruction. And if that weren’t bad enough, there’s a would-be assassin bent on another kind of destruction in this delightful story.
Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish is the first graphic novel, I believe, that I’ve included on my list, but how could I resist this beautifully illustrated, semi-autobiographical story about a young, closeted boy and his mother, who tell each other stories that gradually bring them closer together until the boy is finally able to tell her his closely guarded secret?
The Way Back, by Gavriel Savit, is a page-turning historical fantasy—shortlisted for the National Book Award—about a boy and girl from a tiny shtetl who seek to defeat Death. But be careful; Death is a wily one, as are the various demons they encounter. Wonderfully imagined, the scene of Death with a hangover is worth the price of admission.
In All the Days Past, All the Days to Come., Mildred Taylor completes her monumental saga of the Logan Family of Mississippi that began with her first novel, Song of the Trees (1975), and continued through such landmark books as the Newbery Medal–winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys follows transgender Yadriel, who lives with his Latinx family in an East Los Angeles cemetery. He’s not yet a full-fledged brujo, but he has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. In an effort to find his vanished cousin, Miguel, he accidentally summons the spirit of a teenaged boy named Julian, and the two gradually fall in love. Spectral and superb.
Deborah Wiles’ Kent State resonantly evokes the tragic 1970 shooting of four Kent State University students protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Wiles tells her dramatic story in multiple voices, offering various versions of what happened on that day—May 4th—and the three days preceding. She challenges her readers to find parallels between then and now in this important book.
And lastly, Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Punching the Air. In this novel in verse, the co-authors write with power about the horrific experiences in prison of unjustly incarcerated teenage Amal. This is a searing indictment of the American justice system and the so-called rehabilitation offered during prison life. Essential reading.
So there you have it, Change to “my dozen (plus two!) selections for the best books for young readers of 2020”.
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