Picture book of the day: Honeybee by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann is a buzz-worthy masterpiece

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, illustrated by Eric Rohmann, written by Candace Fleming, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442850.

Wow. Just wow. Just look at those details in those oil paintings. Study how the great Caldecott winning artist Eric Rohmann brings the reader up close and personal with the hard-working and extremely fuzzy honeybee. Think about the care he put into each illustration–all those minute details, all that fuzz, those eyes, that tongue, that antennae, those stripes. The vivid and exceptional non-fiction account Honeybee chronicles the short yet eventful life of one “Apis Mellifera” and tucks the spectator into the very center of the insect’s home. Apis and the other bees emerge from the pages as larger than life beings–the giant dimensions of this book allow budding apiarists (or those simply curious about the insect) to fully appreciate them. Rohmann’s approach is pure cinema: long shots, up close shots (at one point readers stand eye to eye with the lead bee). Just look at the pre-credit (pre-title page) sequence. In the first two moments, Apis emerges from her solitary cell–seemingly alone. And then Rohmann pulls back to show readers the full picture (several bees surround her). You can practically hear the buzzing.

Candace Fleming’s brilliant text gives the journey a driving immediacy that captivates with each and every page turn. She walks the reader through the honeybee’s busy days: emerging, chewing “through the wax cap of her solitary cell” and then eating pollen, cleaning the hive’s nursery, inspecting “the grub-like larvae” and so on. All the while Fleming teases the reader with the idea that soon this industrious bee will take flight. She spends each spread describing what Apis must do next and then asks is she ready for flying? Nope, not yet. This is non-fiction picture book writing at its very best–alive with details, bouncy and energetic, perfect for storytimes.

When the honeybee finally does take flight, the book offers a thrilling, panoramic vision, going even more widescreen than before, with a fold out page that whisks us out of the hive and into a field perfect for honeybees such as our Apis. I love the fourth wall breaking side glance she gives the reader as she approaches a flower. The book of course ends with the inevitable, a moment of sadness. Bees don’t live very long after all. Yet there is hope; the cycle of life continues (and will hopefully continue–we need honeybees).

The back matter is exceptional. A striking and informative anatomical drawing of the honeybee. Facts about bees. Honeybee of course would make a great double feature with their previous effort, the dynamic Sibert Honor winning Giant Squid. Honeybee is a must for nature fans and for those who love terrific art and vibrant writing. It’s a masterpiece.

Picture books of the day: celebrating how the arts can transform lives in 3 terrific works

As someone who loves books (obviously), music, film, and, well, the arts in general, I always appreciate it when talented picture book creators pay tribute to the transcendent nature of the arts. Three books (two award winners from 2019 and one upcoming 2020 title) offer vibrant illustrations and dynamic prose when zeroing in on what makes artistic expression so valuable.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln, illustrated by Rafael López, written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481487405 (released in 2019). 

A few weeks ago I attended the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia. At Midwinter the highlight for all us youth librarians is attending the Monday morning announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This event is epic with many excited librarians, educators and publishers shouting hurrays for books and people who managed to wow a bunch of awards committees. Dancing Hands deservedly received the 2020 Pura Belpré Best Illustrator Award for the great López who triumphs with this visually striking (he used a wide variety of materials) non-fiction picture book about how art can heal. Engle’s urgent compelling text whisks readers back to the mid-19th century when young Teresa must flee Venezuela for the war-torn United States. A talented piano player, she ends up soothing a grieving President Lincoln with her skilled playing. López does a fantastic job conveying a vast array of moods–somber wartime scenes, the girl’s nervousness when entering the room where she will play. The book reaches a near-euphoric high when she performs for the President and ebullient images swirl from the instrument, filling the double page spread with colorful wonder.

Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Andrea J. Loney, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-1524718527 (released in 2019).

The 2020 Caldecott committee wisely chose this as a Caldecott Honor title. Rudy Gutierrez’s acrylic paintings electrify and dazzle, explode off the page. The story involves a young boy who can play a mean bass solo and wow his peers. However, when carrying the heavy cumbersome instrument across town, from school to home, he endures ridicule and scorn from a bunch of nasty people (and one breathtakingly stylized dog). He also has to zip through the rain. An out of order elevator serves as one last sigh-inducing “you have to be kidding me” punch to the gut. However, when he finally arrives home (after climbing many stairs), he finds four older musicians (his grandfather and three others) waiting for him to play music with them. Loney’s storytime-friendly text mostly consists of engaging musical sound effects–an oof here, a grrrrrrr! there, some plunk plunks. Gutierrez’s images dance, flow and soar across the pages. I love how he experiments with space as the boy journeys home. His paintings pulsate with a jittery energy–you can get lost in them. The book ends on a note of much-needed pure euphoria. Also, I must add how I love the endpapers. At the start we see a stylized modern art view of the boy’s orchestra that begins the book. At the end Guiterrez shows the kids playing with his grandfather’s quintet. Totally terrific.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113, to be released: April 7, 2020.

I just talked about two books that received some 2020 awards love. Here’s an upcoming release that I hope earns some awards love in January 2021 when the next batch of award winners are announced. This heartfelt and tender new book about the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks covers a large portion of her early life and does so in a way that is clear and easy to understand for young readers. In 1950, the Chicago-based Brooks became the first Black person to win the Pulitzer, and Exquisite deftly chronicles what led the author to that crowning moment. A book about a great poet should offer strong writing, and Slade truly delivers with her concise, poetic text. Meanwhile, the fabulous illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera fills each of her acrylic paintings with beautiful sights and memorable emotion. Cabrera often adds a surreal spin to the words. For example, on the page that talks about how Brooks went to college and devoured countless poetry books there, Cabrera shows her legs walking on mountains of books. Visually, Cabrera keeps returning to the colorful clouds mentioned in the poem “Clouds” that Brooks wrote when she was only 15 (the book wisely includes it in its entirety in the back matter). Swirling pinks, blues, and whites fill the sky. And for those concerned with made-up dialogue in non-fiction picture book biographies, the back matter assures us that every quote can be traced back to an original source. This is a beautiful tribute to a great poet. Side note: I was able to see Brooks read twice, and she was amazing both times. This book truly captures her talent and spirit.

And the Oscar goes to…Hair Love? (that would be awesome)…some spoilers about the film

Hair Love, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, written by Matthew A. Cherry, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525553366.

Recently when Issa Rae and John Cho announced the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, a title familiar to picture book lovers popped up in the Best Animated Short category: Hair Love. Written by filmmaker/author/former NFL football player Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by the fabulous Vashti Harrison, the book Hair Love delights as a dad comically struggles to help his daughter Zuri achieve the hairstyle she wants with the help an online vlogger. We learn that she wants to look great for her mom who returns home at the end. From where we don’t know. Business trip? A visit to family or friends? High school reunion? Mom wears a scarf over her head. The book struck me as a sweet, cozy father-daughter bonding story. I didn’t notice any sadness bubbling under its colorful, bouncy surface.

I discovered that the short film could be found on YouTube. Of course I was curious to watch it (I would post a link here but I don’t want to violate any copyright laws). Financed in part by a megasuccessful Kickstarter campaign, and released by Sony Animation, the movie played before The Angry Birds 2 feature this past year. I didn’t make the trek to see that film in the theater so I missed Hair Love when it played on the big screen.

I put the film on expecting a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book. Sort of like one of those great animated Weston Woods adaptations that remain faithful to the text while adding some inventive spins to the illustrations. However, I soon discovered that the movie version of Hair Love veers into a surprisingly different direction and has an emotional ending that serves as a punch to the gut (the movie earns its tears honestly).

The movie starts off capturing the book’s funny spirit: little girl wakes up, needs to fix her hair that resists fixing while her cat watches with deadpan expressions. Dad steps in to help, but finds the process, oh, a bit challenging. But those familiar with the book start noticing significant differences from the book. Cherry’s text is gone. Most of the action is wordless, accompanied by sound effects and music cues. We only hear the voice of an online hairstyle vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae) who turns out to be Zuri’s mom. Zuri and dad finally succeed while watching one of the helpful videos. We expect mom to come home at this point, but instead Zuri and father head out to see mom. I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just say, it adds a whole other layer of meaning to the story. When I returned to the book after watching the movie I looked at everything from a new POV thanks to the viewing experience.

I highly recommend both the book and the movie. They complement each other. It’s interesting that the movie does not mention the book (unless I missed the credit). Cherry wrote and co-directed the film. Harrison receives a character designer credit.

The Oscars happen on Sunday, February 9. It would be cool if Cherry gets to take the stage and accept an Oscar for this moving animated short that is also a terrific, affirming picture book.

Picture book of the day: new old friends return in the rollicking and tasty Vamos! Let’s Go Eat

¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328557049, to be released: March 24, 2020, ARC reviewed.

Last year I went gaga over Raúl the Third’s delightfully surreal ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, which I described as a visually inventive cross between Richard Scarry and R. Crumb. I’m happy to report that he has followed up with a sequel that is just as boisterous, just as rollicking, just as cool. I mean, we are talking supercool. Holding these books in my hand make me feel a kazillion times cooler than I ever hope of being. What amazes me about this new offering is it feels like I’m revisiting familiar old friends: Little Lobo, Kooky Dooky, El Toro, all of the animal supporting characters populating the ever-busy pages. As Little Lobo scrambles about trying to find food for los luchadores, he zips and travels through arrestingly rendered cityscapes packed with intricate comical details. Just looking at the food trucks alone invites giggles galore–puns both verbal and visual tickle the eye and the funny bone. I love this book’s unflagging madcap energy, the mix of Spanish and English words, Little Lobo’s indefatigable optimism even when facing a dauntless task. The colors sing and dance. This is a book on its own happily strange wavelength with characters defying gravity when they smell scrumptious smells. Bubbling with energy and good vibes, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat feels like a full course meal and dessert all wrapped up in one tasty package. Yum!

Picture books of the day: warming up a cold winter with some upcoming books celebrating sunny times outside

This past weekend in Chicago we had a sudden drop in temperature. My weather app told me that it “feels like -15” degrees at one point. Yeeks! Fortunately I had a pile of books (ARCs of upcoming picture books) at home that celebrate the warmth and fun of the summer months and/or being outside. These titles made me sigh with anticipation. I am now eagerly awaiting balmy sunny conditions that cannot arrive soon enough. Until then, I now serve up a quick look at these most enjoyable titles.

The most summery of the titles is the charming Summer Song (illustrated by Laura Droznek, written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books: An imprint of HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0062866134, to be released: April 7, 2020), the fourth and final book in their series that celebrates the seasons. (The other titles include When Spring Comes, In the Middle of the Fall, and Winter Is Here–I could easily see planning a whole storytime around reading them in chronological order.) This actually might be my favorite of the quartet thanks to the vibrant colors (especially the emphasized greens) that carry the book. Droznek is at the top of her game here with her acrylic paintings that show children chasing fireflies, flowers that look like little suns, and animals listening to the sound of the wind blowing through a field. Henkes’ expert poetic text has a serene musical quality to it; he discovers new ways of describing the sounds, smells, and feel of the season. This artistic pair highlight a wide variety of seasonal delights. Everything from running through a sprinkler to spotting a dragonfly to a dog happily rolling around in the grass. And I love how it leads to fall, with autumn taking over the endpapers, compelling readers to rush to find their copies of In the Middle of the Fall.

The first thing to applaud about Pete Oswald‘s mesmerizing and wordless Hike (published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201574, to be released: March 17, 2020) is its inventive cover. Father and child scale the title of the book as if it were a challenging mountain–the H lies on its side and forms the base. Inside each letter appears a moment from their eventful outdoor excursion. Oswald chronicles their day from sunrise to sunset, deftly mixing eye-popping double page spreads that convey wonder with visual snippets that capture little moments such as a cat playfully interfering with the child getting dressed for the adventure. This is picture book as cinema with overhead shots, changes in perspective, rapidly presented images that suggest quick edits, and slow atmospheric panoramic long takes. Oswald masterfully throws in some quiet drama (the child needs dad’s help crossing a log serving as a bridge), wonder (eyeing that beautiful waterfall), and humor (a snowball fight at the mountain’s peak–wait! there’s snow in this book!!! Ah, it’s all good.). Hike takes readers on an evocative journey; you feel as if you too have climbed the mountain. It’s also a beautiful parent-child book.

A book that reminds me of the Laura Droznek’s/Kevin Henkes’ seasonal books mentioned above is the absolutely lovely Green on Green (illustrated by Felicita Sala, written by Dianne White, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN: 978-1481462785, to be released March 17, 2020). With bouncy spare text that emphasizes the colors of nature, White guides readers from season to season (starting with the yellows–and yellows on green–of spring). Throughout we see a loving family enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company. Sala’s vibrant illustrations (rendered in watercolor, gouache, and colored pencils) fill each double page spread with transcendent joy. Birds fly, a child splashes in a blue wave, a family picnics under the sun. Each indelible image makes a strong impression. Although fall and winter inevitably arrive, the feelings of warmth linger in cozy moments celebrating family and community. Spring then returns and a newborn child arrives, and the wonder all starts again. Simply sublime.

Finally, another book that has a child protagonist interacting with nature is Under the Lilacs (illustrated and written by E. B. Goodale, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-0358153931, to be released: March 3, 2020). This story has a startling start: the title page contains a note from a girl named Kate telling her mother and older sister that she has decided to run away. A flip of the page reveals the opening line: “Sometimes I want to run away.” We are outside looking in at the child unhappily staring out the window. On the next two pages we see Kate desperately trying to keep her mother from teaching a student the flute, and then failing to interact with her sister who is too busy dramatically singing to herself in a mirror to engage. So Kate decides to take off. Not too far. To the backyard. By herself, if you please. With the lilacs and the strawberries. And she will build her own house. If this sounds like an overly serious misery fest, it’s not. Goodale handles the material with a surprisingly light touch that respects Kate’s emotions while reassuring readers that nothing scary or bad will happen. Her illustrations (using monoprinting, ink and digital collage) have a soothing, sometimes quietly humorous quality to them. When mom and sister (and the flute student) join Kate in her cool new space under the lilacs, a feeling of happiness radiates from the pages.

Sneak peek: 20 upcoming 2020 books bound to become storytime favorites

I have checked out several Advanced Reading Copies of books coming out in 2020. Also, I have looked at sites announcing upcoming releases. I am always on the look out for fun interactive picture books to read in my various storytimes. Here are 20 that look like surefire storytime winners with a quick sentence or two explaining why I think so. I have seen 16 of them in ARC form; if I have not seen the book I put that in the write-up.

Brick by Brick, illustrated and written by Heidi Woodward Sheffield, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0525517306, to be released: May 5, 2020.

Inventive art and a lyrical bilingual (Spanish/English) text shine in this loving story about a construction worker father and his imaginative child. And it all leads to a terrific, satisfying ending.

Brown Baby Lullaby, illustrated by AG Ford, written by Tameka Fryer Brown, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374307523, to be released: January 14, 2020.

A warm, comforting book that will work splendidly in a Jammie Time storytime. Cozy, charming illustrations, a text that sings.

The Button Book, illustrated by Bethan Woollvin, written by Sally Nicholls, published by Tundra, ISBN: 9780735267152, to be released: January 14, 2020.

Raise your hand if you know a child who loves buttons. I thought so. This silly romp offers buttons galore and the chance to make all kinds of goofy sounds.

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots, illustrated and written by Michael Rex, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1984816269, to be released: February 11, 2020.

Rex does an outstanding job making the whole facts vs. opinions concept easy for younger children to understand. And that’s a fact. Or is that my opinion? I need a robot to help me out! Excellent fun…and some highly opinionated adults, ahem, might want to check it out too.

A Girl Like Me, illustrated by Nina Crews, written by Angela Johnson, published by Millbrook, ISBN: 978-1541557772, to be released: February 4, 2020.

Crews’ innovative photographs mix beautifully with Johnson’s inspirational words in this vibrant ode to girl power. Transcendent.

Hat Tricks, illustrated and written by Satoshi Kitamura, published by Peachtree, ISBN: 9781682631508, to be released: March 1, 2020.

I cannot wait to hear a group of preschoolers yell “Abracadabra, katakurico” and then squeal with delight when they see which unexpected animal pops out next from rabbit’s hat.

I Got the School Spirit, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Connie Schofield-Morrison, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1547602612, to be released: July 7, 2020.

This promises to be a rollicking follow-up to I Got the Rhythm by the same talented team. I have not seen it yet but as a fan of the first book I am positive this will be one that will have kids cheering.

My Best Friend, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534427228, to be released: March 3, 2020.

Beautiful and unique illustrations join forces with always surprising words in a book that will definitely be mentioned in every “what will win the 2021 Caledecott Award” conversation.

Nesting, illustrated and written by Henry Cole, published by Katherine Tegen Books, ISBN: 978-0062885920, to be released: March 3, 2020.

Henry Cole does not receive enough acclaim for the beautiful art he creates. This realistic, highly detailed nature book looks at a robin couple taking care of their newborn offspring.

Old Rock (is not boring), illustrated and written by Deb Pilutti, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0525518181, to be released: February 4, 2020.

If the stone from Brendan Wenzel’s fabulous A Stone Sat Still had a feistier, rock and roll cousin it would resemble the rock starring in this funny yet informative book. Yes, it’s a history lesson of sorts, but also a witty allegory about sitting down with your elders and learning about their eventful past.

Roy Digs Dirt, illustrated and written by David Shannon, published by The Blue Sky Press (an imprint of Scholastic), ISBN: 978-1338251012, released on January 7, 2020.

The great David Shannon loves chronicling naughty behavior, introducing readers to such characters as the canine Fergus, the hammer-happy Mr. Nogginbody, and, of course, David. The pooch Roy happily joins Shannon’s mischievous world.

Smart George, illustrated and written by Jules Feiffer, published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0062790996, to be released: June 2, 2020.

I love doing the 1999 Bark, George in storytime (in fact I just read it my big preschool last week). Now 20 years later Feiffer finally honors readers with a sequel which has George dreaming about numbers. I have not seen this yet and wonder if there will be any allusions to The Phantom Tollbooth, the mathematical classic Feiffer illustrated back in the early ’60s.

Smashy Town, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, written by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha, published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0062910370, to be released: May 19, 2020.

Another sequel to a 1999 book! Put on your hard hats and your earplugs, this sequel to Trashy Town will definitely have preschool crowds shouting out the sound effect noises. If you look up the term “audience participation” I wouldn’t be surprised if a picture of this book’s cover appeared next to the definition.

Snail Crossing, illustrated and written by Corey R. Tabor, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062878007, to be released: February 4, 2020.

I love surprise endings, and this dangerously funny romp serves up two twists on its final pages. It’s funny but also suspenseful–you fear for the snail’s safety but happy to be along for the ride.

Spacebot, illustrated and written by Mike Twohy, published by A Paula Wiseman Book (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534444362, to be released: March 31, 2020.

A strange, cosmic wonder from an ace picture book creator working at the top of his game. Delightful illustrations, lots of action, and a fun conclusion will most likely lead to kids yelling “read it again! read it again!”.

That’s Life!, illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld, written by Ame Dyckman, published by Little, Brown and Company, to be released: March 31, 2020.

A lot of picture books try to dish out life advice, but feel adult-driven. This allegorical charmer will intrigue the preschool and younger elementary set thanks to Dyckman’s clever approach and Doerrfeld’s depiction of Life as a fluffy mischievous playmate who can cause trouble.

We Will Rock Our Classmates, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney-Hyperion, to be released: July 7, 2020.

Penelope, the dinosaur star of We Don’t Eat Are Classmates, returns in what promises to be a rockin’ and noisy new favorite. I’m also willing to bet (I haven’t seen it yet) that Higgins will mix in some (not overly cloying) sweetness, too.

Wheels, illustrated by Brian Lovelock, written by Sally Sutton, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536211085, to be released: June 2, 2020.

The team behind Roadwork, Demolition, and Construction (three of my favorite preschool storytime books) team up again–whoo hoo! I haven’t seen it yet but I am guessing that there will be action and sound effects galore that will encourage audience participation.

When My Brother Gets Home, illustrated and written by Tom Lichtenheld, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328498052, to be released: March 3, 2020.

Tom Lichtenheld remains one of the most consistently fab artists working in the picture book world today. Here a young kid cannot wait for an older brother to return home from school and the result is a delight that will add warmth to storytimes about families.

The Yawns Are Coming!, illustrated and written by Christopher Eliopoulos, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1984816306, to be released: April 28, 2020.

Oh my heavens the Yawns cause quite a ruckus in this surreal giggle-inducing bedtime book. I love the characters’ expressions, the eye-catching lettering, and the wacky creatures who haphazardly guide our heroes to sleep.

My favorite 22 middle grade books (fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels) of 2019 (one of them being YA)

A little while back I posted a list of my favorite 30 picture books of 2019. Here’s another list! Whoo hoo! Although this blog primarily celebrates picture books, I sometimes do love to give a shout out to middle grade books (works of fiction, non-fiction, and graphic novels) and occasionally YA. There have been so many excellent titles this past year, from blistering satires to warmly funny comedies, from thought-provoking sci fi/fantasy to heartbreaking realistic fiction. Here are 22 books (listed alphabetically by title) that I loved. I will write a quick sentence or two about each choice.

Because of the Rabbit, written by Cynthia Lord, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545914246.

When library patrons ask me for gentle realistic fiction for 3rd-5th graders, I always recommend Cynthia Lord (especially her Newbery Honor title Rules). Rabbit is one of her very best, a beautiful story about two very different kids becoming friends after they bond over a healing wild bunny.

The Best At It, written by Maulik Pancholy, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062866417.

Actor Pancholy serves up funny, heartfelt middle grade realness with this engaging story about a gay Indian-American boy trying to excel at a variety of extra-curricular activites. Tender hilarity ensues.

Dear Sweet Pea, written by Julie Murphy, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062473073.

This breezy, homespun novel gives readers a plus-size heroine who sneakily steps in for a newspaper advice columnist. A charming story from the talent who gave us the YA novel (and Dolly Parton-fueled Netflix movie) Dumplin’.

A Good Kind of Trouble, written by Lisa Marie Ramée, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062836687.

A riveting novel about a Black girl named Shayla who prides herself on following the rules. Ramée does a beautiful job showing this engaging protagonist becoming a Black Lives Matter activist fighting racial injustice.

I Can Make This Promise, written by Christine Day, published by Heartdrum, ISBN: 978-0062871992.

Many of my favorite 2019 middle grade novels are about identity, and this is one the very best. Edie, a Suquamis/Duwamish girl, wants to learn the truth about her estranged mother and her pursuit for the truth leads to a delicate, quietly devastating ending.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, written by Jason Reynolds, published by Atheneum/Cathy Diouhy Books, ISBN: 978-1481438285.

There’s always a fire in Reynolds’ writing that crackles and pops. This collection of ten interrelated stories sprints from one intriguing scenario to the next, all the while offering surprise after surprise.

Midsummer’s Mayhem, written by Rajani LaRocca, published by Yellow Jacket, ISBN: 978-1499808889.

A fresh, funny food-packed delight that plays with a major (but unresolved) plot point from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and runs with magical notions and ideas of its very own.

New Kid, illustrated and written by Jerry Craft, published by HarperAlley, ISBN: 978-0062691194.

Jerry Craft packs his stingingly funny graphic novel with potent social commentary and visual wit as a Black seventh grader named Jordan encounters racism and microagressions at his posh, mostly white school. And although the book pokes fun at the kinds of superserious books that usually win awards, I hope this one wins a bunch–it explodes with humor and heart.

Other Words for Home, written by Jasmine Warga, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062747808.

A very moving free verse novel about a girl who needs to leave Syria for the United States. Ultimately hopeful, Warga’s story is a humanist account at its most humane.

Our Castle by the Sea, written by Lucy Strange, published by Chicken House, ISBN: 978-1338353853.

Don’t let the seemingly old-fashioned cover and title fool you, this is a rather rip-roaring World War II drama about a girl named Pet living in a lighthouse. She’s a quiet girl about to tap into her inner-bravery when war turns her world upside down.

Patron Saints of Nothing, written by Randy Ribay, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525554912.

This YA novel about a Filipino-American teen named Jay wondering what happened to his beloved cousin, murdered in the Philippines, might be my favorite of the year (adult, YA, middle grade). It packs an emotional wallop as Jay struggles with a family mystery and his own searing feelings of guilt.

Pie in the Sky, illustrated and written by Remy Lai, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250314093.

After his father dies, Jingwen moves with his mother and pesky younger brother move from Indonesia to Australia. Remy Lai employs some extremely clever graphic novel flourishes to depict how and why he finds the move and learning a new language a challenge.

Queen of the Sea, illustrated and written by Dylan Meconis, published by Walker, ISBN: 978-1536204988.

Wow, how long did this rich, evocative historical graphic novel take to create? Look at those details, that lettering–this a visual tour de force work of art to explore and investigate.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, written by Dan Gemeinhart, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250196705.

There are a lot of 2019 middle grade novels about grief. But this novel (which has its share of joy and laughs) about a girl endlessly traveling with her father on a former school bus, picking up friendly strangers along the way, is the one that had me wiping the most tears at its heartfelt conclusion.

Some Places More Than Others, written by Renée Watson, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1681191089.

Renée Watson makes creating a realistic, multilayered story about family and identity look so effortless; you never see her sweat and she never wastes a single word. A girl travels from Portland, Oregon to Harlem to find out why her father and grandfather don’t get along, and she learns many lessons (life and about Black culture) along the way.

Spy Runner, written by Eugene Yelchin, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250120816.

Yelchin’s action novel about 1950s-era paranoia explodes with action and never lets up–it’s like one extended, wildly deranged chase scene. Yelchin masterfully delivers the thrills.

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to the Ruffling Feathers, by Celia C. Pérez, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0425290439.

Pérez follows up one of my all-time favorite middle grade novels (The First Rule of Punk) with this enjoyable story of four wildly different outcasts forming a surprising bond and becoming activists as a result. You will cheer them on as they fight for what’s right.

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Fight for School Equality, written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1681198521.

This riveting memoir-in-verse creates a visceral you-are-there experience as 12 Black students (including writer Boyce) start attending an integrated school in 1956 Clinton, Tennessee. Excellent backmatter rounds out a searing, powerful account.

This Was Our Pact, illustrated and written by Ryan Andrews, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626720534.

A dreamy graphic novel masterpiece about boys hoping to solve a mystery on the night of the Autumn Equinox Festival: where do those paper lanterns go? I could see the great filmmaker Miyazaki turning this into an amazing animated feature–rich, vibrant, and mysterious imagery.

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship,” written by Deborah Heiligman, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1627795548.

Heiligman spares no punches here with this no-nonsense work of non-fiction, this is one harrowing read. Skillfully researched and presented, this book uncompromisingly shows how this tragic event unfolded.

We’re Not from Here, written by Geoff Rodkey, published by Crown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1524773045.

A blistering social satire that asks the question: what if there are only a handful of us humans left and we need a bunch of bug-like aliens to allow us to stay on their planet in order to survive and they don’t want us because they think humans are, well, horribly destructive? I love how Rodkey celebrates music and lowbrow humor here–this book is hilarious, but each laugh comes with a punch.

Wildfire, written by Rodman Philbrick, published by The Blue Sky Press, ISBN: 978-1338266900.

Like Spy Runner above, this skillfully written burst of adrenaline starts with a bang and does not let up. A boy, a girl, and a very resourceful antique jeep must outrace a raging wildfire in Maine. Philbrick’s creation isn’t just mere thrills though–he touches on the horrors of a too real and prevalent situation.