Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Culture Children's Books
The Penderwicks at Last
Eleven-year-old Lydia, the youngest of the Penderwick children, takes the spotlight in this fifth and final installment of an endearing series. Wedding plans are underway for the eldest sister, Rosalind, to marry at Arundel, the grand estate where the saga began (The Penderwicks, 2005). A ruckus ensues with unruly animals, unwelcome interference from the estate’s former mistress, and an older brother aspiring to be a filmmaker. The family wedding is full of thriftiness, laughs, and delightful camaraderie. Birdsall charms again with a retro take on modern-day family dynamics, sending her beloved characters “prancing, leaping, gamboling into the future,” but leaving readers wanting an encore. (Ages 8-12)
Outlaws of Time: The Last of the Lost Boys
Alex’s world is turned upside down when he learns that Sam and Glory, the daring time-traveling characters he read about in his father’s books, are actually his parents. His disillusionment leads him into danger when Mrs. Dervish, the Vulture’s master, turns him into a powerful villain, El Terremoto. A fast-moving and sometimes confusing adventure follows, with Sam and Glory attempting to thwart a son they never knew they had. Wilson’s series finale succeeds in jarring young readers to think deeply about life and death and the effects of their decisions. (Ages 8-12)
The Journey of Little Charlie Christopher
Little Charlie Bobo’s world shatters when he witnesses his father’s accidental death. To pay his father’s outstanding debt, 12-year-old Charlie agrees to an expedition with Cap’n Buck, the cruel overseer of the plantation they farm. But Charlie soon finds himself on an international manhunt to recapture an enslaved family. Set in South Carolina in 1858 and told from the unique perspective of a poor, white sharecropper’s son—a product of the era’s Southern racism—the story shows how a widening view of the world leads Charlie to attempt a bold rescue scheme. Some readers may struggle with the book’s Southern dialect, but it is a worthy addition to historical fiction. (Ages 9-12)
Peak Marcello and his friends Ethan and Alessia set out to summit Burma’s highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi, in an effort to redeem an ill-fated climb in the Pamir Mountains. But first they must complete a four-week trek through a dangerous tropical rainforest. They also learn that their guide, the mahout Lwin, is on the run for murdering a girl. When Peak’s father, a world-famous climber, joins the team, past hurts resurface. This third installment of Smith’s climbing series assumes some knowledge from previous titles, but readers will enjoy its heavy dose of outdoor adventure and a redemptive ending. (Ages 12 and up)
In recent years, award-winning and best-selling author Jason Reynolds has attained celebrity status in the literary world. Reynolds, who was 17 when he read his first book, empathizes with kids who dislike reading. His middle-grade and young adult books offer relatable protagonists dealing with real-life brokenness.
Sunny (Atheneum, 2018), the third installment in Reynold’s Track series, features a homeschooled 13-year-old grappling with his mother’s death and dutifully running track to please his grieving father. But he hates running. A tutor and diary help him find courage to follow his passions—and forgive his father.
Long Way Down (Atheneum, 2017) is for mature teens able to handle a raw look at urban violence and some expletives. It tells of Will, 15, who witnesses his brother’s murder, but has grown up with “rules” that dictate no crying, no snitching, and revenge. An elevator ride changes everything. —M.J.