Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
The winner of WORLD’s 2014 Children’s Book of the Year award is The Warden and the Wolf King, by Andrew Peterson. It’s just been published by Rabbit Room Press—and the story behind the book exhibits many of the ups and downs of today’s publishing world.
Singer-songwriter Peterson in 2008 published On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, the first volume in what became the Wingfeather saga. The series tracks the quest of Janner, Kalmar, and Leeli Igiby as they uncover their destiny by means of a secret map, a tragic history, and a nameless villain. In the first volume Peterson introduced a complex world teeming with strange (sometimes terrifying) creatures, pitched battles, fraught conflicts, great hardship, and humor to leaven the tension.
Waterbrook Press published the first two volumes of what Peterson planned as a five-volume series, with Sea of Darkness followed by North! or Be Eaten. Sales were decent, but by 2009 uncertainty in the publishing business led Waterbrook to decline further installments. Rabbit Room Press in Nashville produced the third volume, The Monster in the Hollows. Peterson then condensed his remaining material to one final book and launched a funding campaign on the Kickstarter website “so we could go out in style,” with illustrations by Joe Sutphin, footnotes, and a gold-embossed hard cover. The Warden and the Wolf King project became the most successful fiction campaign in Kickstarter’s history.
Peterson’s original inspiration for the series came one night in 2004, after he “got out my old sketchpad and pencils from high school, when I wanted to be an illustrator, and started drawing.” An imagined world took shape on the page: “That got my wheels turning, and the next thing you know I saw Janner Igiby standing there near his cottage, which was perched precariously on the edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.” With creation myths and invented history filling in the background, the story began its meandering journey forward: “I knew certain parts of the ending, but I had no idea how to get there. … The story happened along the way.”
The Warden and the Wolf King is long for a children’s book, 519 pages, but its characters draw in readers and keep them involved. The narrative flows in a conversational yet elegant style that’s perfect for reading aloud, and it rises to an unpredictable conclusion that both satisfies and inspires. Says Peterson, “Good stories seem to be a major way God speaks to our hearts, and my prayer during the writing of this story was that someone out there would feel truly spoken to, that they would perhaps be able to believe a little easier that they are more precious than they could imagine.”
Our selection committee of WORLD writers had four runners-up and four more books that deserve honorable mentions. The runners-up:
• The Night Gardener: A Scary Story by Jonathan Auxier (Amulet, 2014). The tale of two Irish orphans and their encounter with a parasitic tree, a ruined house, and the family therein begins with the opening lines from Paradise Lost and ends with a rescue from self-centeredness and lies.
• The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell (HarperCollins, 2014). When a blacksmith’s son and an enchanted princess awake in a broken castle, they must untangle the knots of bitterness that keep them imprisoned—and uncover the power of forgiveness. (Caution: the novel contains two instances of medieval-style profanity.)
• The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). The Bell family’s passion for basketball is surpassed only by their love for each other, but conflicts abound on and off the court. This exuberant verse novel is an ode to filial exasperation, smooth moves, and love stronger than death.
• The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, by Jane Kelley (Feiwel & Friends, 2013). Zeno the African grey parrot has lost his home; Alya the leukemia-stricken girl is losing hope. They’ll eventually find each other, after some challenging experiences that stretch them both, and a little help from friends.
Our honorable mentions go to Almost Super, by Marion Jensen; Curiosity, by Gary Blackwood; I Kill the Mockingbird, by Paul Acampora; and Zane and the Hurricane, by Rodman Philbrick.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Andrew Peterson on WORLD Radio’s Listening In: