Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
As a child of an impetuous, flighty mother and a beloved, passive father, Willa Drake learns not to make waves. She seems to float through life. But then she receives a phone call from a stranger asking her to come care for her son’s former girlfriend, who is recovering from a gunshot wound, and her young daughter. Willa barely knows the girlfriend, but upends her life to answer the call. There she discovers a sticky web of relationships that turn out not to be burdensome, but a source of life. Those who love Anne Tyler’s intimate, rich-in-detail stories will enjoy this one.
In 1936 an F5 tornado roared through Tupelo, Miss., leveling half the town, killing hundreds, and injuring thousands—but no one kept track of African-American deaths and injuries. Gwin tells the fictional story through two families—one white, one black—joined by a terrible past event. In the tornado, both families lose a baby—though eventually the white teenager, Jo, finds one she believes is her brother. Gwin describes the storm’s aftermath with evocative detail. As her characters struggle to find food, medical care, and shelter, they have to face past and present injustices, along with deeply rooted prejudices.
The Great Alone
A Vietnam War POW suffering from PTSD discovers he’s inherited a homestead in Alaska from a fellow vet. He drags his wife and daughter to this wild, isolated area, hoping it will be the new start he needs. They soon learn they don’t have the necessary skills or tools to survive. Neighbors teach them how to eke out a living—but it’s soon apparent that father Ernt hasn’t left his demons behind. While daughter Leni and wife Cora fashion a life and community in this barren outpost, it’s a tenuous one—and events overtake and upend everything. A gripping story with some profanities.
Fraser’s expansive biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder won accolades in 2017 when it came out. It’s a meticulous history of the Ingalls and Wilder families set against larger political and economic forces. It contrasts the myth of the pioneering life against the reality, in which terrible droughts, fires, locusts, and debt made farming the prairie nearly impossible for small landholders like Charles Ingalls and Manly Wilder. Though the Wilders achieved some stability late in life, it came from Laura’s writing, not from farming. The book does drag in parts, especially in later chapters focusing on Rose Wilder Lane’s peripatetic doings.
In One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both (Zondervan, 2018), Jennifer Fulwiler crafts a memoir about learning what’s important in today’s culture. She and her husband were both atheists working in the tech industry when they met. They married, and along the way became Catholic. The memoir focuses on Fulwiler’s struggle to reconcile her callings as both mother and writer: She struggles to find time to write, copes with a growing family, and decides to homeschool. Fulwiler is an engaging writer who’s willing to share (and perhaps overshare) messy parts of her life. At one point she remembers the fleeting nature of life: “I needed to start making my big life choices with that perspective in mind.” —S.O.