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.