Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Culture Children's Books
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
Aven, born with no arms and adopted, must move to a new place when her parents take over a failing theme park full of secrets. Without focusing primarily on Aven’s disability, author Bowling emphasizes the bonds Aven creates with two other outcasts at her school—one who is overweight and the other who has Tourette’s syndrome. Along the way Aven, who has a healthy relationship with her parents, learns to set aside her own problems to help others. Upbeat, funny, and touching, the story is about overcoming physical difficulties and being compassionate with yourself rather than becoming a victim of circumstances. (Ages 9-12)
Fish in a Tree
Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Ally has spent most of her school-aged life fooling people so they don’t know her secret: She can’t read. But the arrival of a new teacher who is determined to find a way to help her succeed shows Ally that with learning disabilities, knowledge really is power. This is a sweet and encouraging story about the importance of having education fitted to the unique challenges and strengths of particular students. By book’s end, Ally has learned that extending help to others is as important as accepting it on the journey toward health and success. (Ages 10-12)
Dandi Daley Mackall
Unlike the rest of the class, 10-year-old Laney is relieved when Lara starts going to her school, because it gives her classmates someone else to pick on. But Lara surprises everyone when she doesn’t respond to bullies the way anyone expects, and her example turns the school upside down. Full of redemptive themes, the book focuses on the choices and responses of Lara rather than her victimhood. Mackall, who tells the story as if it is Laney’s writing assignment, is also honest about the unhealthy family situations facing Laney and her classmates, but her discussion stays appropriate for younger readers. (Ages 10 and up)
Some Kind of Happiness
When 11-year-old Finley’s parents encounter marital problems, they send her to stay with her dad’s parents, whom she has never met. She is afraid they will find out about her “blue days,” which she copes with by making lists and writing stories about a magical forest called Everwood. When she arrives, though, she discovers Everwood is a real place behind her grandparents’ house. As Finley bonds with her cousins and slowly starts unraveling a family mystery, she learns that the love of family is strong and necessary, even when things are not perfect or beautiful. Note: The plot includes divorce, a tragedy, and weighty themes related to depression. (Ages 12 and up)
John Green, author of the best-selling novel The Fault in Our Stars, tackles mental illness for teens in his latest young-adult book Turtles All the Way Down (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2017). The plot revolves around 16-year-old Aza, who is trying to solve the mystery of a rich neighbor’s sudden disappearance, but falls in love with the son instead. As the story unfolds, Aza’s specific mental illness is unclear, and the story centers less on whether she overcomes it and more on how she learns to live with it.
While Green’s portrayal of Aza’s struggle is compelling and moving, parents should note that as her thoughts spiral out of control, she seeks out odd and even dangerous solutions to problems that don’t really exist. The story also includes teenage sexual intimacy—touching and kissing, although no intercourse—and increasingly explicit language throughout. —R.A.