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Children's Books of the Year

These stories of magic, mystery, and providence are best read through the eyes of a child

Children's Books of the Year

(Matt Rose)

Matt Rose
Matt Rose

Circus Mirandus is WORLD’s 2016 Children’s Novel of the Year. Out of the Woods is our Picture Book of the Year. Those are the picks of two WORLD committees that sifted through dozens of books and engaged in spirited debates.

Later in this special section we display books that made the shortlist in each category, chart some top nonfiction books for ages 10-15, discuss depictions of slavery in children’s books and audio dramas, and profile John R. Erickson, author of the long-running and hugely popular Hank the Cowdog series.

But first, here’s information about two delightful books, starting with Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015, 292 pages). Some plot: Micah’s Grandpa Ephraim, who raised Micah from toddlerhood, has developed such a debilitating cough that his sister Gertrudis has come to take charge of the sickroom. If Grandpa dies, Micah will have to move to Arizona with Great-Aunt Gertrudis, his only remaining relative, who seems as humorous and sympathetic as a dead fish.

The boy fears this grim turn of events is “reality,” after an idyllic childhood embellished by Grandpa’s tales of the magical traveling show he visited as a boy. But what if the stories are true? Grandpa believes in them. He’s even written a letter to someone called the Lightbender, care of “Circus Mirandus”: “You promised me a miracle.” When a self-important parrot named Chintzy delivers a discouraging reply, Micah determines to banish all doubt, find Circus Mirandus, appeal to the Lightbender, and see that Grandpa gets his miracle.

A world infused by “magic” is a classic theme of children’s literature, but the magic is seldom accounted for—it’s just there, somehow, without context. Circus Mirandus is different—a traveling show that’s invisible to most. You have to believe it to see it, runs the tagline, reminiscent of John 7:17, where Jesus implies that only those willing to believe will know. In Circus Mirandus, magic is explicitly linked with faith.

Circus Mirandus has an old-fashioned sensibility that recognizes the painful consequences of wrong choices, but also offers a picture of heaven and hope.

Is this Christian faith? The author leaves that open, but Christian readers will pick up on details like the Bible in Grandpa Ephraim’s nightstand drawer. Also, the magic is not his to command but belongs to a greater power—greater even than the Lightbender’s. Circus Mirandus itself bears some resemblance to the kingdom of heaven, which exists alongside everyday reality and can be seen only by faith. The author rests much of this ability to “see” with children—a detail which, in less capable hands, could slide into sentimentality. But who first said we must enter the kingdom as a little child?

Though told in gentle, luminous prose, the story scrapes some hard edges. A cruel bait-and-switch robbed Gertrudis of her childlike faith. Now she not only refuses to believe but attempts to stamp out Micah’s faith and break his connection with Grandpa Ephraim. In one scene, Micah’s anger boils over into rage: “I hate you!” But Gertrudis isn’t the villain; that distinction belongs to another character whose consuming selfishness leads to an act of violence that may disturb younger readers.

Yet hope prevails: “Grandpa Ephraim and Micah aren’t the type to despair,” remarked the author in an interview with School Library Journal. In an age leaning toward disappointment and cynicism, these characters strike a refreshing note of optimism and good cheer.

Our five-member committee voted unanimously for Circus Mirandus. It has an old-fashioned sensibility that recognizes the painful consequences of wrong choices, but also offers a picture of heaven and hope. We appreciated its themes of building and repairing relationships. The book stayed with us long after reading it: We think it will linger in young readers’ minds, too.

WORLD’S SECOND ANNUAL PICTURE BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD goes to Rebecca Bond’s Out of the Woods (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 40 pages). The subtitle—A True Story of an Unforgettable Event—helps explain why the committee loved it. It’s a story set in 1914 Ontario at a hotel owned by the protagonist’s mother. Cooks, maids, and hired men do the manual labor required to run such an establishment. In sepia-toned pen-and-ink illustrations we see the dining hall full of men eating, the upstairs rooms where travelers stay, and the one-room bunkhouse for trappers, miners, and lumberjacks. A dense forest surrounds the hotel.

One day, though, smoke wafts overhead as a forest fire consumes the dry trees. All the people at the hotel seek refuge in the lake “as the fire came closer and closer.” And then the surprising thing: The forest animals—moose, foxes, rabbits, bobcats, wolves, deer, elk, possums—all take refuge in the same lake. “Wolves stood beside deer, foxes beside rabbits. And people and moose stood close enough to touch.”

When it was safe to leave the lake, the animals and people went back to their ordinary lives. Miraculously, the hotel didn’t burn down.

Although the author doesn’t note it, we appreciated how Out of the Woods shows God’s kindness in providing a refuge and way of escape for both people and creatures.

Our committee loved this well-told true story about the author’s grandfather. The illustrations reminded us of photographs from the period. Although the author doesn’t note it, we appreciated how the story shows God’s kindness in providing a refuge and way of escape for both people and creatures. The book leads easily into discussions about God’s care for all His creatures (“not a sparrow falls ...”) and His very personal care for us His children. We also noted the book’s strong boy appeal. Although some on the committee had other favorites, this was a strong consensus choice.

Runners-up (novels)

by Janie B. Cheaney & Betsy Farquhar

Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel

Megan Morrison

What more could a beautiful maiden want? A secure home, constant praise, literally everything she wishes for, all supplied by her beloved Witch. But when a boy named Jack invades her tower and plants the subversive idea that Witch may be lying, Rapunzel wraps up her expansive hair and escapes the tower to prove him wrong. This series opener makes a substantial addition to the popular subgenre of fairy tale reboots as it plumbs old storylines for universal applications. Themes of self-discovery, forgiveness, compassion, and integrity may challenge younger readers, but most will enjoy the engaging characters, humorous touches, and nonstop action.

A Pocket Full of Murder

R.J. Anderson

Isaveth Breck’s family has fallen on hard times—and it gets worse when authorities accuse her father of murder. With the help of Quiz, a streetwise boy, Isaveth sets out to crack the case. This classic mystery takes place in an alternative pseudo-Victorian world of nefarious bureaucrats, energy-producing magic spells, and despised religious minorities. Headstrong Isaveth and daring Quiz will draw even reluctant readers into plotty twists and turns. Religious and political angles add interest and depth, and the story gets in its digs at political figures who think they know what’s better for the people than the people themselves.

The Sign of the Cat

Lynne Jonell

Duncan is far from average: He can speak cat. Despite his mother’s desperate attempts to keep him in the shadows, Duncan plunges into the adventure of a lifetime when his talent comes to light. Cats large and small, wild and domestic, play a prominent role in aiding Duncan’s rise to heroism as he learns his family history and daringly rescues a damsel in distress. Skillful world-building and strong characterization distinguish this fantasy novel for middle-graders. Readers who enjoy swashbuckling tales along with a cat or two will find this story (great for family read-alouds) hard to put down.

The Way Home Looks Now

Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Baseball unites cultures, family members, and teammates in this story of a Taiwanese family struggling with the loss of an older son followed by a mother’s depression. Peter tries to reach his mother through their shared love of baseball, but it’s his father’s quiet (and underappreciated) leadership that eventually makes the difference. The sports theme lifts the novel from weightiness, while Shang handles the cultural conflicts of first- and second-generation immigrants delicately, using them to sketch the father-son relationship. As Peter grows to appreciate his father, the reader sees a strong picture of a man who sacrificially loves and serves his family.

Honorable mentions

In The Seventh Most Important Thing (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) by Shelley Pearsall, Arthur brings his anger under control by collecting “junk” for a folk artist who sculpts beauty from broken things. Binny in Secret (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015) by Hilary McKay continues the adventures of high-spirited Binny as she adjusts to an unwelcome move, confronts bullies, and makes a true friend. In The Fog Diver (HarperCollins, 2015) by Joel Ross, a crew of misfits protects their adopted grandmother in this dystopian fantasy with humorous touches.

Mechanical dragons and an unlikely friendship make Fires of Invention (Shadow Mountain, 2015) by J. Scott Savage an absorbing fantasy with a steampunk edge. Night on Fire (Albert Whitman & Company, 2015) by Ronald Kidd follows two girls, one white and one African-American, as they witness a church’s faith rising to the occasion during the 1961 Freedom Rides. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015) is not eligible for official consideration, but author Janie B. Cheaney does bring early Hollywood to life as she comes to understand herself and her father’s involvement in World War I. —B.F.

Runners up (picture books)

By Pamela Palmer, Betsy Farquhar, Christina Darnell, & Megan Saben

Bernice Gets Carried Away

Hannah E. Harrison

Bernice heads off to a birthday party with high expectations, but then things go horribly wrong. The other animals get a rose on their cake, but not Bernice. Events go from bad to worse until the little cat gets carried away with self-pity, grabs all the balloons, and sails into the sky. From that lofty perspective she sees the world—and her situation—with new eyes. Harrison uses the weather and a shifting color palette to reflect Bernice’s changing mood. The winsomely expressive animals pull readers into this instructive and relatable tale for anyone who’s had a bad day.

Water Is Water

Miranda Paul

This nonfiction picture book depicts the water cycle, seasons, and the importance of water in our lives. Lyrical text describes the state of water: “Misty. Twisty. Where is the town?” The illustration accompanying “Fog is fog unless …” shows a brother and sister in their school bus, houses encased in fog, and a tree losing its golden leaves. The next page, “it falls down,” shows the children getting off the bus at school in the rain. The book celebrates the intricacies and wonders of the created world. An appendix includes additional facts about water (including one mention of “millions of years”).

This Is My Home, This Is My School

Jonathan Bean

Bean depicts the joyful chaos of homeschooling life through a child’s eyes, where the world is your art room, the kitchen is your cafeteria, and physical education is a game of soccer in the backyard with dad. Simple text and bright illustrations that bleed outside the lines convey an accurate impression of a busy, loving household. As the author says of his homeschool days: “No moment, whether at desk, dinner table, stream, play, or work, was too insignificant to be scavenged for something to learn.” Homeschoolers will appreciate this portrait of their lives.

Float

Daniel Miyares

In this wordless book a boy floats his newspaper boat in puddles until it sails down the storm drain. He rescues it with a stick, but the boat is ruined. Crushed, he returns home to his father, who comforts him, makes hot chocolate, and folds a newspaper airplane. Miyares’ mostly black-and-white illustrations convey energy and movement with just enough detail to intrigue even young children. Parents may draw parallels to our relationship with our heavenly Father who comforts us in life’s disappointments with mercies anew. The endpapers include instructions for making a newspaper boat and airplane.

Afterword

Two additional books almost made our runners-up list. Lily: The Girl Who Could See by Sally Oxley and Tim Ladwig (Oxvision, 2015) combines vibrant illustrations and an engaging text that finds a middle ground between oversimplification and complexity. It tells the story of Lilias Trotter, who sacrificed artistic fame in England to pursue her calling as a missionary in Algeria. As a print-on-demand title it may be harder to find, but families, church libraries, or other educators who are studying missions will find it worthwhile. In Lenny & Lucy (Roaring Brook, 2015), husband-wife team Philip and Erin Stead tell the story of Peter, his single father, and the loneliness of moving to a new home. The story’s simple words, breathtaking illustrations, and two-is-better-than-one theme make Lenny & Lucy valuable for kids and grown-ups alike. —Megan Saben and Chelsea Boes

Best nonfiction

by Janie B. Cheaney & Betsy Farquhar

Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World

Kathy Lowinger

Even though the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865 released her from slavery, teenage Ella Sheppard faced formidable walls of prejudice in her quest for an education. But the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group she co-founded with her mentor, opened doors of opportunity and goodwill worldwide. The author makes clear that without a firm Christian faith the group would not have flourished in spite of its many obstacles. Occasional sidebars illuminate the issues and culture of the times, while the main narrative is inspiring yet clear-eyed about the bigotry—also the kindness—these young people encountered. (Ages 12-15)

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club

Phillip Hoose

Knud Pedersen, the 13- year-old son of a Lutheran minister, was incensed by the Nazi invasion of his native Denmark in 1940, but even more so when his countrymen didn’t fight back. Taking inspiration from Britain’s prime minister, Pedersen and some of his schoolmates vowed a campaign of sabotage and intimidation. The author, who befriended Pedersen in his final years, is candid about the boys’ wounded pride and immature judgment, but their courage is beyond doubt—and they ultimately help to inspire the Danish resistance movement. Their story makes thrilling reading for anyone interested in World War II history. 

(Ages 12-15)

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune

P.J. Lynch

Much more than a Thanksgiving story, this lengthy, text-heavy picture book shines a light on early American history. Full-color illustrations beautifully reflect the narrative as teenage John Howland describes his adventures on board the Mayflower—including one near-fatal accident—and through the Pilgrims’ harsh first winter in America. The text treats their faith respectfully but doesn’t gloss over the hardships they endured or excuse their missteps with Native Americans. Though it borders on historical fiction when detailing Howland’s “thoughts” and feelings, this is nonetheless an outstanding family-friendly read. (Ages 6-12)

The Boy Who Became Buffalo Bill: Growing Up Billy Cody in Bleeding Kansas

Andrea Warren

Billy Cody’s boyhood was nearly as turbulent as the Civil War–era Kansas Territory where he grew up. Forced to help support his family when his abolitionist father went into hiding and later died, Billy preferred jobs that offered adventure on horseback, like the Pony Express or the vigilante “Redlegs.” Lively text coupled with photographs keeps the story flowing even as Warren weaves important historical issues into Billy’s story. Meticulous research, an evenhanded approach to controversies of the day, and attention to how these shaped Billy Cody into “Buffalo Bill” create a wild read worthy of its namesake. (Ages 9-12)

Afterword

As author Kevin DeYoung explains, The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden (Crossway, 2015) began as a Christmas sermon meant to showcase the Nativity in light of “the biggest story” of the Bible as a whole. Too long for a picture book, too condensed for a Bible storybook, it carves out a niche of its own.

The narrative touches on all the great biblical themes while sketching a classic plot: setting, conflict, development of the conflict, solution presented, climax, and denouement. The stylized full-color illustrations complement this approach beautifully. DeYoung likes to present contrasts (such as, “We run from God, so he comes to us”), and illustrator Don Clark pictures many side-by-side contrasts and symbolic images. The presentation is best for children who are capable of slightly abstract thinking. Some parents may find the style too informal in places (e.g., “bad guys,” “a whole bunch”), and basic concepts like sin could be more fully developed; but The Biggest Story makes a worthwhile addition to the family bookshelf. —J.B.C.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

Janie B. Cheaney

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.