Best Books of 2020 for Young Readers
This has been a difficult year for children — especially those living in communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and persistent racial and economic injustice.
That’s why the power of stories to help us see new and better worlds is more important than ever before.
In choosing its sixth annual list of the Best Books for Young Readers, Penn GSE’s Humanizing Stories team found authors and illustrators who told stories of love, joy, loss, strength, and resilience, and told them in a way that spoke to kids who have often been excluded from the whitewashed world of children’s publishing.
In 2015, Penn GSE professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an expert in children’s literature, created her first Best Books for Young Readers list. She wanted to showcase authors and illustrators who were dealing with issues like gender, race, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic class in ways that were real and empathetic.
In the ensuing years, Thomas’ Humanizing Stories research team, the Superfriends, joined the effort by reviewing books throughout the year and weighing in on the annual list. This year, the Superfriends, guided by Rabani Garg and Christopher R. Rogers, offer examples of the children’s literature they say we all need as we enter a still uncertain new year: books that move us beyond cycles of systemic harm and marginalization. These books, by their very existence, offer a hopeful vision of a more inclusive and just future world.
Here is what the Superfriends have to say about this year’s selections:
The YA category is burgeoning with diverse literature, both in terms of the stories it tells and who is telling the story. Our picks in the Young Adult section include books that highlight intersectionalities within which young adults’ experiences are nested. Books like How It All Blew Up (Arvin Ahmadi) offer a nuanced look at intersectional identity through a narrative that is both heart wrenching and hilarious. In Samira Ahmed’s book Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, we found a resonance in her protagonist’s questions: “Who has the right to tell their story?” and “What does it mean to listen to people on their own terms and see them in the way that they want to be seen and represented?” In Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, Rebekah Taussig asks readers to see disability as both complex and ordinary.
- All Boys Aren’t Blue (George M Johnson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- Clap When You Land (Elizabeth Acevedo; Thorndike Striving Reader)
- How It All Blew Up (Arvin Ahmadi; Viking Books for Young Readers)
- Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know (Samira Ahmed; Soho Teen)
- Punching the Air (Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam; Balzer + Bray)
- Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body (Rebekah Taussig; HarperOne)
- The Night Watchman (Louise Erdrich; Harper)
- The Black Kids (Christina Hammonds Reed; Simon & Schuster)
- Super Fake Love Song (David Yoon; G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
- The Chaos Curse (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #3) (Sayantani DasGupta; Scholastic Press)
- Woven in Moonlight (Isabel Ibañez; Page Street Kids)
Our 2020 Graphic Novel picks are apropos to the time, and highlight the how intergenerational stories- our old stories, carry us forward and bring us together. From Banned Book Club (Kim Hyun Sook, Ryan Estrada & illust. Hyung-Ju Ko), a tribute to young people’s activism and resistance to You Brought Me The Ocean (Alex Sánchez), a book about rebelling against conformity, this year’s graphic novel picks surprise and delight.
- Banned Book Club (Kim Hyun Sook & Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Hyung-Ju Ko; Iron Circus Comics)
- Class Act (Jerry Craft; Quill Tree Books)
- Displacement (Kiku Hughes; First Second)
- Dragon Hoops (Gene Luen Yang; First Second)
- Flamer (Mike Curato; Henry Holt and Co. [BYR])
- Lift (Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
- Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel (Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff; Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)
- The Magic Fish (Trung Le Nguyen; Random House Graphic)
- Twins (Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright; Graphix)
- You Brought Me the Ocean (Alex Sánchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh; DC Comics)
This year’s Middle Grades selections bring underrepresented histories and stories to the shelf while tackling thorny conversations across multiple forms of difference. We loved the humorous and heartfelt story of Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Jessica Kim), featuring a protagonist who must amass courage and claim self-definition to pursue her dream of being a stand-up comedian. We enjoyed an independently published bilingual text, Mya Pagán and Laura Rexach’s Ellas, which highlights the sorely underrepresented (her)story of Puerto Rican women changemakers in a current moment where women-and-femme-led resistance on the island has never been stronger. We’re excited by the landscape of stories for older children and teens!
- Any Day with You (Mae Respicio; Wendy Lamb Books)
- Ellas: Historias de mujeres puertorriqueñas (Laura Rexach, illustrated by Mya Pagán; Editorial Destellos) (Bilingüe)
- Efrén Divided (Ernesto Cisneros; Quill Tree Books)
- From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Janae Marks; Katherine Tegen Books)
- Rick (Alex Gino; Scholastic Press)
- Say Her Name (Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Loveis Wise; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
- Show Me a Sign (Ann Clare Lezotte; Scholastic Press)
- Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Jessica Kim; Kokila)
- The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth (Cheryl Willis & Wade Hudson, editors; Crown Books for Young Readers)
- Ways to Make Sunshine (Renée Watson, illustrated by Nina Mata; Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
The Picturebooks we selected illustrate the values and cultural traditions of resistance that we must hold dear while documenting the loving ways we must strive to create beauty in the everyday. The Paper Kingdom (Helena Ku Rhee) weaves together brilliant illustrations with a fantastical tale of a young child making beauty from constraint as they hang with working parents for an evening shift. My Rainbow (Deshanna Neal & Trinity Neal) focuses on a mother (Deshanna) who seeks to honor that her autistic, trans daughter Trinity knows herself best and with mom’s help, a beautiful rainbow wig is the right magic to reflect her true vision for herself.
- Black Is a Rainbow Color (Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes; Roaring Book Press)
- Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away (Meg Medina, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez; Candlewick)
- Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon (Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur; Kokila)
- My Rainbow (Deshanna Neal & Trinity Neal, illustrated by Art Twink; Kokila)
- Nibi is Water (Joanne Robertson; Second Story Press)
- Okapi Tale (Jacob Kramer, illustrated by K-Fai Steele; Enchanted Lion Books)
- The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Tina Cho, illustrated by Jess X. Snow; Kokila)
- The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora; Schwartz & Wade)
- The Paper Kingdom (Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion; Random House Books for Young Readers)
- Tiara’s Hat Parade (Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell; Albert Whitman & Company)
- We Are Water Protectors (Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade; Roaring Book Press)
- Your Name Is a Song (Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe; Innovation Press)
Penn GSE students and Humanizing Stories research team members Nadya Eades and Mara Imms-Donnelly assisted Rabani Garg and Christopher R. Rogers in compiling the list. We also thank Dr. Marilisa Jimenez Garcia (Lehigh University) and NCTE member and educator Cody Miller for providing feedback on titles. (Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas recused herself from our selection process this year, due to her service on the 2020 National Book Awards Young People’s Literature judges’ panel.)