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Against the grain

Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd

Against the grain

(Krieg Barrie)

Many Bible-readers know Proverbs 22:6, which reads, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” So do many publishers of children’s books, and they may not have the best interests of your child at heart.

In the Young Adult section of your local bookstore, paranormal romance and dystopian fiction have given way to what we might call girl-power fantasy, in which female characters behave as ruthlessly as men in quasi-medieval Game of Thrones scenarios. Girls have seized the action-hero role in Middle Grade (MG) fantasy as well, but MG novels aren’t as likely to have “blood” in the title. 

The most striking trend in nonfiction this year is militant political activism—all from the left; none from the right. Liberal causes naturally appeal to the young, but there’s a gap for conservative writers to fill.

This year has seen a heightened interest in refugees and immigration, reflecting recent news events. Diversity remains a high priority, as more Muslim/Middle Eastern voices join African-American, Hispanic, and Asian authors and main characters. Diversity is a positive when it increases cultural understanding and sympathy. More problematic are agenda-driven LGBT themes. Gay and lesbian main characters appear more often in YA, but in MG fiction the number of same-sex parents is increasing. Transgender characters are still relatively few, but expect to see more as gender confusion among teens increases in the real world.

On a more heartening note, Christian authors like Jonathan Auxier, Mitali Perkins, Nikki Grimes, and John Hendrix continue to produce books that are both spiritually edifying and well-reviewed by secular media. Also, this year an unusual number of sympathetically portrayed Down syndrome characters played important roles in lauded MG novels like Inkling, Sweep (both reviewed in this issue), and Ebb & Flow.

Some notable sequels from previous Book of the Year winners caught our attention. The Penderwicks series (winner, 2015) came to a satisfying conclusion with The Penderwicks at Last. The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden continued the noble family tradition of last year’s winner, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. Sunny and Lu followed Ghost (honorable mention, 2017) to round out Jason Reynolds’ Track series, and Rebound carried on the vivid basketball action of The Crossover (honorable mention, 2014).

Most encouraging, this year’s crops of excellent picture books and excellent children’s novels were so rich that we couldn’t decide on a single winner in either category, so in both we picked two. Together with The Faithful Spy, our nonfiction winner, they form a fabulous five featuring warmth, drama, suspense, humor, and heart.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine based in Missouri. She writes novels for young adults, is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series, and reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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  • theedwards6
    Posted: Fri, 02/15/2019 06:23 pm

    I recently read Sweep (and it's an amazing book!), but I cannot think of which character in the book has Down Syndrome.  Can you help me out? Thanks!

    Sharon Edwards

  •  Alan in Seattle's picture
    Alan in Seattle
    Posted: Sat, 02/16/2019 10:59 pm

    I just looked at Janie B. Cheaney's comments on trends in children's books along with her thoughts on the current crop of this year's books; however, I couldn't find the list of books of the year. I'm reading the digital edition of World magazine, so is there a link that I somehow missed?

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Mon, 02/18/2019 11:16 am

    Thank for your question, Alan in Seattle. Each Children’s Book of the Year category has its own article in the issue:

    • Picture books of the year

    • Children's novels of the year

    • Children's nonfiction book of the year

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Mon, 02/18/2019 01:33 pm

    Thank you, thank you! I'm a volunteer librarian at my church, and I use World's annual issue to consider adding books to our library. You've given me much from which to select.