2020 Favorite Books for Young Readers

It’s that wonderful time of the year again When I get to look back at my year of reading and  take my favorites — also hurry and cram a whole bunch of  titles that I missed into the months of December and January. This is also the first year that,  Owing to my ongoing hand illness/healing, I get to create this list entirely with voice-to-text software (yay?)  so please forgive any run-on sentences or  disjointed thinking.

2020 Trends: The middle grade fiction game this year was strong!  After the last few years of “meh” writing for this age group, I’m really excited about this year’s contenders. I will be totally happy with any of them winning the Newbery Award tomorrow morning. 

On the other side of things, it looks like young adult fiction has had something of decline? I know that publishing houses are severely cutting back their YA imprints — so perhaps that explains things? Much of the best writing for young adults this year was in the graphic novel format, which is fine by me. I loves me a good graphic novel.  

Meanwhile, the picture book and nonfiction titles continue unabated with fabulous quality work. We’re truly in a Golden Age of nonfiction for kids. 

THE USUAL CAVEATS: This list is long but still nothing close to a comprehensive survey of 2020 publishing. “Where’s ______?” you may ask. “That book was awesome!” Well, I can’t read everything, folks. No matter how hard I try.

Also, not every book on this list is for you. Please do not come at me with complaints about how you didn’t like Book X or Y. (Although I’m more than happy to hear about the stuff you enjoyed, and more than willing to send similar books your way).

Books with a ** contain material that might not be suitable for all ages. Parents, please read it first if you have sensitive kids.

With all that in mind, fire up yer library cards and let ‘em rip! There be some mighty good reads here!

PICTURE BOOKS

Pretty Much All Your Childhood Camping Nostalgia in One Book: The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann

Best Magical Elevator Since Charlie’s Great Glass One: Lift by Minh Lê, illus. Dan Santat

Sweetest Friendship Story: My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illus. Jillian Tamaki

Probably the Best (Unintentional) Book About the 2020 Quarantine: Outside In by Deborah Underwood, illus. Cindy Derby

The Great Migration, Told in Powerful Poetry: Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illus. James E. Ransome

Most Shimmering Watercolors, Most Prescient Message: We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illus. Michaela Goade

This is on the list because I just love me a good maple sugaring-off story: Bear Goes Sugaring by Maxwell Eaton III

Whimsy, Dialed to 11: In a Jar by Deborah Marcero

World cultures are best taught with gorgeous illustration: Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman, illus. Archana Sreenivasan

Luscious Language, and Best use of Die-Cut Illustration: My Friend Earth by Patricia MacLachlan, illus. Francesca Sanna

Most Necessary: I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illus. Gordon C. James

I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying! Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away by Meg Medina

Best Book for Finding Tiny Details: If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

Masterclass in fine-detailed illustration: In the Woods by David Elliott, illus. Rob Dunlavey

This would have been my favorite book if it existed when I was a kid: Margaret’s Unicorn by Briony May Smith

Best Reprint from My Childhood: I’ll Fix Anthony by Judith Viorst, illus. Arnold Lobel

Yummy Food as Community Builder: Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki

Funniest Picture Book: Unstoppable by Adam Rex, illus. Laura Park

The one with the pictures your kids won’t stop looking at: Sandcastle by Einat Tsarfati

Best book about gentrification and the housing crisis (also Best Dad in a Picture Book): The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl 

Best Book for Preschoolers: A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis 

Best Original Ghost Story: The Haunted Lake by P.J. Lynch

Best Reboot/Fanfic Fix of a Fairy Tale: The Little Mermaid by Jerry Pinkney

I just want to swim and sunbathe in these illustrations: Prairie Days by Patricia MacLachlan, illus. Micha Archer

Best Book for Peacemaking: You Matter by Christian Robinson

Illustrations So Vibrant, You Need Sunglasses to See ‘Em: Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton

Like Dropping into a Mug of Sunshine: Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration by Samara Cole Doyon, illus. Kaylani Juanita

Most Empowering: A Girl Like Me by Angela Johnson, illus. Nina Crews

GRAPHIC NOVELS

The One EVERYONE In My Family Read. Yeah, it’s that good: Dragon Hoops by Gene Yuen Lang

**Bring a Box of Tissues and an Armful of Hope: When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Best Immigration Story: Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Witches and Cute Animals and Car Racing and Family Secrets and WOW: Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

The Book Everyone in America Needs to Read, Part 1: Drawing the Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Voting in America by Tommy Jenkins

**Powerful History, Masterfully Told: Blades of Freedom by Nathan Hale

Best Sibling Story: Twins by Varian Johnson, illus. Sharon Wright

**The Voice that Needs to be Heard: Flamer by Mike Curato

It’s Both a Tribute to and Parody of the Fantasy Genre, and it’s Laugh-out-loud funny (also Katie’s favorite book of 2020): Dungeon Critters by Natalie Riess 

Sometimes Fairytales are the best way to talk about Hard Things: The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Do You Really Need to Know Anything Else Beyond the Title? Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Yuen Lang

Sweetest Fantasy, Beautiful Design: Beetle and the Hollowbones by Aliza Layne

**Best Book on a Topic That Shouldn’t Be Taboo: Go With the Flow by Lily Williams, illus. by Karen Schneemann

Most Powerful Memoir: Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Schulevitz

NONFICTION

The Book Everyone In America Needs to Read, Part 2 (also my personal most-favorite of 2020): The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh by Candace Fleming

Eye-Popping Illustrations of Beautiful Bees: Honeybee by Candace Fleming, illus. Eric Rohmann (yep, same author as the Lindbergh biography)

Most Awwww-Inspiring: Hello, Neighbor! The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers by Matthew Cordell

Most Awe-Inspiring: The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illus. Oge Mora

Remember When U.S. Civics Could Be Fun? The Next President:The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner, illus. Adam Rex

Best Autobiography — written by a rock-climbing prodigy: How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion by Ashima Shirashi, illus. Yao Xiao 

I Still Can’t Believe How Absorbing This Story Was (even when I knew the ending!): All Thirteen: the Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soorntornvat

Most Incredible Nature Illustration: How to Find a Bird by Jennifer Ward, illus. Diana Sudyka

Totally Cosmic, Man: Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin

Truth & Beauty, Unparalleled: Exquisite: the Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illus. Cozbi A. Cabrera

Best Animal Illustration: Packs: Strength in Numbers by Hannah Salyer 

Most Intimate Look at the life of a famous person: Night Walk to the Sea: A Story About Rachel Carson, Earth’s Protector by Deborah Wiles, illus. Daniel Miyares

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

Best example of the worth of therapy for kids: The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

If you grew up loving the “Little House” books, this tribute to/reimagining of them will make you squeeeeeee: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Again, Sometimes folklore is the best way to talk about hard things (even if it means a grouchy Korean tiger comes at you): When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Southern Gothic, but truly tender story: King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callander

Dysfunctional Families, 1980s-style: We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

There’s some credibility-stretching coincidences in the plot, but I liked it anyway (also Best Crossover for Adults, Part 1): Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Most heart-wrenching immigration story: Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

A part of American history I admit I knew nothing about: Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Sexism Happens to Kids, Too: Chirp by Kate Messner

Best Abuse Survivor Story/Jumanji Mashup: A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

As An Introvert, I Felt Seen: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Best Family Saga: Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It by Andrea Davis Pinkney 

Best Sports Story: Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander

**Probably My Favorite Novel of the Year (fave protagonist, certainly): Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Best Crossover for Adults, Part 2: Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Has the Feel of a “Classic” Read-Alous: Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, illus. Jon Klassen

Best Mystery/Fantasy Mashup: Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

**This one left me gob-smacked impressed by the authorial talent on display: Kent State by Deobrah Wiles

**Is there such a thing as a Teen Celibacy Comedy? Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

**Family secrets, and the devastation left in their wake: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

I’ve been waiting 20 years for this author to finish this series, and I’m kind of bereft that it’s finally over: The Return of the Thief by Megan Whalen Turner


80s Brit Punk-meets-High Fantasy: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

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