It’s the end of the year, so obviously it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months. Like, How many books did I say I’d read? How many did I actually read? Why didn’t I invent one of these ideas instead of sit on my butt reading with freezing arms? Or maybe something a tad deeper. That’s where words of the year help: those thoughtful terms released by notable dictionaries that elucidate some of society’s greatest concerns and/or triumphs. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately, and realized kids probably don’t get much chance to learn or explore these words. So I figured that winter break could be a fabulous time to use books to introduce kids to the words that have a finger on the cultural zeitgeist.
Using three major dictionaries as my inspiration, I’ve curated the following list of books for young people: picture books, middle grade, and young adult novels. Maybe you can provide your youngster with some healthy fodder for understanding the cultural pinpoints of this past year, or give them a boost into how and what to think about in the coming year.
Full disclosure: I work at Dictionary.com, but am writing this from my own perspective and motivation. As someone who read dictionaries as a kid and has an unwavering fondness for words in general, I think it’s a blessing to have so many institutions taking account of each year’s impact, and putting that into linguistic and everlasting form.
Oxford English Dictionary: Climate Emergency
The Lonely Polar Bear by Khoa Le
Enchanting illustrations bring this gentle tale about a lost polar bear to life. In this picture book, children get a charming and simple introduction to climate change through the woes of the distraught polar bear.
The Problem of the Hot World by Pam Bonsper and Dick Rink
This picture book takes readers into the climate emergency unfolding before five animal friends who try to figure out why there is no water and everything is burning up or disappearing.
The Last Wild by Piers Torday
A middle grade book that tackles a post-apocalyptic scenario where animals have died out, until a 12-year-old boy discovers they haven’t all disappeared. In fact, they need his help to survive and thrive. It’s a whimsical tale that can ensnare a young reader and reveal the all-too-possible costs of climate change.
Bob by Wendy Maas and Rebecca Stead
I had to include this one because I love it so, even though it isn’t explicitly about the climate crisis. It’s about a young girl and her imaginary friend she left at her grandmother’s home and only discovers is actually real many years later. This middle grade book speaks about friendship, trust, and mother’s love. But it also hooks onto the importance of restoring nature’s balance.
The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani
Oh my, a young adult novel set in Japan following irreparable nuclear disaster. A generation of children born frail and withering. A scenario eerily reminiscent of the nuclear bomb and Fukushima plant disasters. And somehow, this novel bursts with hope and inspiration, a touchstone to remind us that even in the most desolate circumstances, humanity can still move forward.
Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers
Jeffers crafts a luminous picture book to introduce his young child to the miraculous wonder of the world—the far reaches of the stars to day-to-day lives of everyone who shares the earth. I love this as a primer for getting my little one thinking about his place on this planet and how it intermingles with all other living beings.
What’s My Superpower? by Aviaq Johnston
What greater existential crisis can a little child go through than wondering if they belong, if they are special, if they have really matter? This picture book unleashes those worries through the eyes of Nalvana, who struggles with these questions, until she finally learns how radiant her own superpower is.
Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata
Another source of existential struggle for children can come from how they handle the knowledge of being adopted. Kadohata writes a quietly powerful middle grade novel about a young boy who has to grapple with his own identity when his parents decide to adopt another child, this time from Kazakhstan. The novel also sheds light on troubling issues with international adoption agencies, but focuses squarely on the personal growth and eventual enlightenment of the main character.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
The global refugee crisis is just one of the great existential crises of our time—for revealing how damaged humanity is across the globe and how damaging current foreign policies have been, as well as for the trauma it wreaks on those who are forced to flee into uncertain circumstances at best. Warga’s middle grade verse novel tells of a young Syrian girl’s need for belonging as she sees one home dismantled and the current one in the U.S. fueled with prejudice and fear.
I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi
I adored this young adult novel that gives the world possibly only a week left to exist. As a result, the lives of three teens are set onto soul-searching journeys. It’s a heartbreaking work about moving through the pain of questioning your validity of existence in order to find inner peace and value.
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff and Kaylani Juanita
This heartfelt picture book introduces us to a transgender young protagonist who wants to make sure everything is just right for his new younger sibling. When the question of the baby’s gender comes up, Aidan realizes it’s his love that will matter most, not whether he has a sister or brother, and with fruitful communication, all things can be made right.
The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera
Another picture book that celebrates difference, this one tells of a young Indian boy’s curiosity with the red dot worn by Hindu women, the bindi. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our children will be who they are, and we should encourage and embrace them for that (no matter what that is), as the mother in this book does.
Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker
I love the earnestness of middle grade novels. They speak to that age of discovery, curiosity, and discomfort. This book about a trans girl captures those elements, ties them up into a cyber mystery, and presents them with delightful and poignant explorations into her experience living her true gender for the first time.
The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag
For a change of readerly pace, try this middle grade graphic novel about being yourself. Thirteen-year-old Aster desires to be a witch when that’s only reserved for girls. He is faced with a crisis when a threat is looming and he knows he can help, if only he embraces the witch that he is.
I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver
Speaking most closely to the theme of they is this young adult novel. Ben is a nonbinary teen who is thrown out of their parents’ home and moves in with their estranged older sister. Naturally uplifting even in the starkest moments of heartache, this is a novel worth extending to anyone in need of comfort while looking for how to be happy with themselves.
Which books would you recommend—to little ones or young adults—that speak to the themes of these pertinent Words of the Year? Jump onto Twitter and let us know!