What a wonderful year for children’s books. Once again, a roster of standout titles became the stories we could turn to as adults looking for great reading for ourselves, in addition to being the books we are eager to hand to the young readers in our lives. If you were perusing our Best Books of 2020 list and wondering where the books for middle grade readers and younger may have been, never fret. They’re here!
Find below an incredible treasure trove of the best children’s books of 2020. There’s something here for every kind of reader.
The Best Children’s Books of 2020
Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack
I loved the first book about Anya, Ivan, and their dragon friend Håkon—and I might love this sequel even more.The characters are wonderful and endearing, and on top of that there is a male bisexual character who actually gets to have a male love interest and it’s reciprocal. The adventure itself is engaging and described perfectly: vivid, imaginative, and almost cinematic. I also appreciate that Anya is Jewish, as I still find it rare to see my own holidays and traditions represented in books. This adventure tale deftly balances its screwball humor with darker moments.
The Arabic Quilt by Aya Khalil and Anait Semirdzhyan
This beautifully illustrated picture book follows Egyptian Kanzi at her new school, where she worries about fitting in. She finds comfort in Teita’s Arabic quilt, and with the help of her teacher, she shares her love for her language and culture with fellow classmates. A powerful and moving story with stunning illustrations that highlights the importance of all languages.
Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu
Sami is a boy who has his life torn apart by the civil war in Syria. Now he and his family find themselves on the run in a desperate attempt to make it to the UK. On the way he witnesses trauma, heartache, madness and also hope and love. Essential reading for middle grade students and anyone hoping to gain insight into the plight of refugees.
Class Act by Jerry Craft
I absolutely inhaled this companion graphic novel to Craft’s Newbery-winning New Kid. Class Act digs even deeper into what it’s like to be one of the handful of nonwhite kids at a fancy school—not just the micro- and macroaggressions those students are hit with on the daily, but also the ways they have to decide whom to trust and reserve judgment about. This time, instead of just visiting the McMansions of their classmates, Jordan and Drew cautiously invite their white friend Liam back to their neighborhood. While careful not to draw a false equivalence between racism and assuming the worst about wealthy people, Craft does make a great point about giving sincere and kind friends the benefit of the doubt.
—Sarah Hannah Gómez
Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed
This middle grade novel packs a powerful punch as it explores Wonder Woman as a tween. In the book, Diana wishes to train with the rest of the Amazons in Themiscyra, as she truly looks up to them and their powers. Diana also hopes her mother, Queen Hippolyta, will let her learn how to fight in the festival in Themiscyra, one that discovers and explores their diverse cultures. But, when a visitor—a boy—arrives in the area to warn them of some imminent danger, it’s up to Diana to help save the day with her best friend, Princess Sakina. This book is perfect for those seeking pure girl power and a touching story. And the good news? It’s the first in a series of Diana middle grade novels to come.
—Aurora Lydia Dominguez
Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe
This middle grade fantasy was pitched to me as a read-alike for Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I’m happy to report that assessment is accurate. I imagine most children can identify with Eva, on the cusp of turning 13 and constantly fretting about her spotty magical powers. She’s determined to earn the rank of Novice Witch but constantly doubtful she’ll pass the test. But Eva is one of the most determined young witches out there and hatches a plan to help the town of Auteri through “semi-magical fixes.” I loved her, and I loved the charming, whimsical world Abe has sketched for this planned series. It’s a feel-good read for just about any age, truth be told.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
In this middle grade novel, Zoe Washington has just turned 12 and inadvertently started a penpal relationship with the biological father she’s never met, Marcus. Marcus is in prison for murder, but as Zoe gets to know him for the first time (under the supervision of her grandma, but unbeknownst to her mother), she begins to learn about the inequalities of the justice system and she becomes determined to clear his name. This is a timely and age-appropriate novel that deftly tackles big issues, and it never wavers from Zoe’s big-hearted perspective.
Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
This adorably spooky book about best friends Lucely and Syd who accidentally awaken a graveyard full of dangerous spirits is the perfect mixture of ghosts, magic, friendship, and fun. As if that wasn’t enough, Lucely has to save the firefly spirits of her family’s ancestors AND rustle up more tourists for her dad’s ghost tour before they lose their house. This book is just the right amount of spooky for middle grade readers and mixes supernatural shenanigans with so much heart and humor that you just can’t help but love it.
Gustavo, the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago
As the title suggests, Gustavo is a shy ghost, but he desperately wants to make friends. Only there’s another problem: no one can see him! This whimsical, heartfelt picture book follows our translucent hero as he tries to overcome his struggles in time to plan a party for the Day of the Dead. Each page is vibrantly illustrated and full of color, with plenty of charming details for readers to discover on a second, third, or 15th read.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
In this #OwnVoices picture book, a child with a stutter struggles to respond to a teacher’s prompt in class to describe his favorite place. His father picks him up early from school, and takes him to the river, where the two explore the riverbank, and his father tells him he talks like a river. When the child returns to school, he explains that his favorite place is the river, and describes how his voice is like the river. This picture book is stunning. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the prose is lyrical and beautiful. I wish I’d had a book like this as a child.
If You Come by Earth by Sophie Blackall
Sophie Blackall’s picture books are always gorgeous to look at—my favorite spread in this book is the library, which has diverse representation, and contains multiple wordless stories within. There is no real narrative, other than a child named Quinn pens a letter to visitors from space. Through it, we are given basic facts about the world (types of animals and homes, for instance, and what makes people unique). Enjoy the lovely art and the overall message about kindness.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Addie is autistic in a world where many people don’t understand or care to understand her challenges. Living in Scotland, she discovers that the village she lives in executed witches many hundreds of years ago. She embarks on a mission to get the local government to build a memorial for them, a task that will test her patience and will. A Kind of Spark is an #OwnVoices novel that will change the way you view those on the autism spectrum. It’s a powerful story about being yourself and standing unflinching in the face of adversity.
Magic on the Map: Escape from Camp California by Courtney Sheinmel & Bianca Turetsky and Steve Lewis
With many young readers stuck at home this year, it’s the perfect time to dive into this chapter book series about the twins Finn and Molly and their magical RV camper. In this book, the twins are magically transported to California where they must help refugees from the wildfires before the camper lets them return to their home in Ohio. This is one of the less glamorous state stories in the series. But Finn and Molly’s humorous sibling dynamic lightens the mood. And it felt like a great way to begin discussions about the environment and current events with young readers, while potentially learning about a new state.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
Maya and the Rising Dark is a thrilling middle grade read! Maya lives in the South Side of Chicago, where strange occurrences take place in her modern world. Together, Maya and her companions set out to rescue her father when he disappears. In her adventures, she discovers a world where she witnesses sinister shadows and negative energy in dreams. It’s indeed a riveting story for both young and older readers.
—Cathleen Perez Brenycz
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert
You know an author has immense talent when they can dip in and out of writing for different ages without missing a beat. Colbert’s debut middle grade follows 13-year-old Alberta, who has been the only Black girl in her seaside town for years. When the bed and breakfast across the street is purchase by new owners and one of the inhabitants will be a 12-year-old Black girl, she’s eager to make fast friends with Edie. But it won’t be that easy, as the girls are very different. Thanks to a discovery of old journals in the attic of the bed and breakfast, though, the girls uncover a wealth of secrets from the past that bring them together.
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Thirteen-year-old Hanna loses her Chinese mother and must grow into a young woman amidst the adversity she faces in De Smet, where her white father has decided to set up a textiles shop. The story takes place in Dakota Territory in the 1880s contemporaneous with Laura Ingalls Wilder. In this version of Little House on the Prairie, however, the protagonist confronts prejudice in school and in her town, an unfortunate situation which she meets with courage, kindness, and resourcefulness. Great historical fiction from an untold and unusual perspective.
—Jean Kuo Lee
Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley
Jen is not at all thrilled when her mom moves her from the city to a farm in the country in order to live with her new boyfriend. Jen’s assigned chores and has to learn how to acclimate with a new family, which include two step-sisters who only visit on weekends. Knisley’s artwork captures the excitement, angst, and humor of farm living, and beautifully portrays the small moments that turn strangers into family.
Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar and Khoa Le
This gorgeous picture book layers two stories in one. The first is contemporary: a young girl moves to a new country to live with her aunt and uncle, but she doesn’t speak the language and struggles to make friends. Her aunt tells her a story she was told as a child about a group of refugees who come to a new country’s shore seeking to settle. The country’s king doesn’t want them to settle there, and since they speak different languages and can’t understand one another, he shows his refusal by filling a cup with milk. The refugees respond by adding sugar to the milk, which dissolves and makes the milk sweeter, symbolizing that accepting people into the country can only make the country sweeter. Emboldened by the story, the girl makes more of an effort to communicate. She smiles at people, makes eye contact, and soon she makes friends. The folktale comes from the author’s Zoroastrian upbringing as a Parsi child in India. Not only is the story beautiful, and the illustrations gorgeous, but the design of the book is amazing too. The thickness and slightly grainy texture of the pages, the sturdiness of the cover, the layers of color in the art, all make it a luxurious reading experience. I wish more picture books were this well made!
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
This was my most anticipated book of 2020 and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. Set in 1946, the story—inspired by a similar plot line from the 1940s Adventures of Superman radio show—centers around Chinese American siblings Roberta and Tommy Lee, whose family has been targeted by the bigoted Klan of the Fiery Cross. Superman is there to help, of course, but he’s also busy coming to grips with his own extraterrestrial origins. This action-packed, thoughtful, gorgeously illustrated comic tackles complex and scary issues in a way kids can understand without talking down to them, gives the Lee kids a chance to shine and be heroes without disappearing in Superman’s shadow, and reinforces the too-often-forgotten fact that the world’s most iconic superhero is an immigrant and a refugee—something just as relevant now as it was in 1946.
Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry and Juana Martinez-Neal
I picked up Swashby and the Sea because I will read anything Juana Martinez-Neal has had her hands on, and I was not disappointed. Curmudgeonly Swashby can’t stand his new neighbors, an active little girl and her grandmother, but every time he tries to draw a note in the sand asking them to quiet down or go away, the sea comes in and erases bits and pieces of the messages until they look inviting and friendly instead (for example, NO TRESPASSING becomes SING). And his little neighbor is only too happy to oblige. Not only is it a lovely story about bonding and a great chance to practice your letters, but what makes the little girl inside me happiest is that Swashby’s neighbor has rich, brown skin, wild curls, and huge glasses. No Big Racial Issues, no stereotypes, just a regular book about a regular girl who happens to be brown that everybody will love to read.
—Sarah Hannah Gómez
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade
In this #OwnVoices picture book inspired by Standing Rock, a young girl learns from her elders about the black snake that threatens to come to their land and poison their water. She has been taught that water is sacred and is an integral part of life, and takes a stand to be a water protector, fighting for the Earth, the animals, and her people. The prose of the book is artfully crafted and the gorgeous artwork, with its watercolor-like brushstrokes, complements it perfectly. It is a favorite of mine (and my son’s), and is a great way to introduce topics like Standing Rock, Indigenous-led movements, and the issue of clean water.
We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly
This moving book follows a family in January 1986 on the precipice of so much—siblings Bird, Fitch, and Cash are all in the same grade, and Mom and Dad have a rocky relationship, which comes out again and again in unsettling ways. It impacts each of the kids, and the only way that the siblings are hanging on is through their shared science teacher who applied for the Teacher in Space program but didn’t get accepted. This slice-of-life book is aching and hard, and when the Challenger launches, all of the pain built up in each of the siblings explodes. Readers who want feelings-heavy books will be enraptured with this one. All of the characters are compelling, complex, and sympathetic, and they all experience those really painful moments of what it is to be in 7th grade.
When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten
Thanks to the stunning cover, this was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. It actually surpassed them! When Life Gives You Mangos follows 12-year-old Clara, who has lost her memories of the previous summer. When this summer, a new girl arrives in her village, Clara knows that things are about to change. This is a beautiful novel about friendship, family, community, and grief.