The last twenty years have seen a revolution in children’s literature. Authors and illustrators have embraced YA fiction and graphic novels as forms for telling stories that feel true to life. Picture books for the first time started to reflect the wide diversity of our world.
According to Penn GSE’s Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, 2018 will be remembered as the year this publishing trend was seen in books aimed at nascent independent readers.
These breakthroughs for early independent readers are highlighted on Thomas’s list of the best books of 2018 for young readers. In choosing the list, Thomas and her team showcase authors and illustrators whose work deals with issues like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic class in ways that are real and empathetic. For the fourth annual edition of this list, Thomas added a category for anthologies.
For 2019, Thomas and her team anticipate the continued revival of chapter books beyond popular series and a wider range of middle grade stories.
Our picks this year for picture books and fare for our early readers include choices for budding leaders and activists, such as Chris Barton and Ekua Holmes’ lyrical What Do You Do With a Voice Like That?, as well as the incredible Someday Is Now by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Jade Johnson. Blue and The Stuff of Stars provide soft reflection for every reader, and Dreamers and The Day You Begin are instant classics from Pura Belpre laureate Yuyi Morales and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson. We are particularly heartened by Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which we hope every family, school, and library will include in their collections to provide children alternate stories about Thanksgiving. Mommy’s Khimar by Philadelphians Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn are of particular interest to the students we work most closely with at Penn GSE.
We continue to welcome more diverse choices for readers in grades 3 through 8! This year featured the second offering from Lambda Literary Award winning author Alex Gino, the thoroughly hilarious You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P!, and fantastic fun from Sayantani DasGupta’s The Serpent’s Secret to Zetta Elliott’s Dragons in a Bag and Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad. Our team also loved the friendship fun of Paula Chase’s So Done, and the heart-filled family tale Love Like Sky, as well as historical tales like Tonya Bolden’s Facing Frederick and Ilyasah Shabazz & Renée Watson’s collaboration Betty Before X.
National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo’s stunning debut verse novel, The Poet X, leads our picks in a category that has been strong for several years. We applaud fantasies like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, as well as stories that draw us deeply into the realities of the lives of today’s teens, like Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Hearts Unbroken, and Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming. We were stunned by Shannon Gibney’s historical saga Dream Country. And Ibi Zoboi’s retelling of a Jane Austen classic, Pride, recalls the sweetness of young romance.
This year’s graphic novels list is slimmer than in the past, as we wished to highlight choices that were truly for grades K-12. We long for more choices for younger independent readers, but Molly Brooks’ Sanity and Tallulah belongs in every upper elementary and middle grade collection. We continue to be impressed by Katie O’Neill’s enchanted fantasy series for younger readers, as well as Marguerite Abouet’s books in translation. For young adult readers, the standout was Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s stark yet heartfelt Hey, Kiddo, a National Book Award finalist.
Anthologies are a new category for our 2018 list, and we are seeing more collections that provide young readers short fare from their favorite authors. Our selections range from a call to activism (We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices), to a lamp in the darkness for teens who may not have mirrors in their everyday lives (All Out), to fantastic visions for children beyond the mainstream (A Thousand Beginnings and Endings).
Penn GSE students Kanitra Alston, James Joshua Coleman, Jacqueline R. Dawson, and Christopher Rai Rogers assisted Thomas in reviewing children’s books throughout 2018 and in compiling this list.