The Best Books for Young Readers of 2019

December 12, 2019
A selection of books from the 2019 Best Books list arranged in a suitcase

This year saw an unprecedented level of public discussion and debate about race, identity, and representation in books for children and young adults. These necessary conversations are helping push the publishing industry to print more stories that reflect our diverse world. 

But the books and authors that received the most attention in 2019 were often the ones at the center of controversy. Those flame wars left little room to highlight beautiful stories of perseverance, love, loss, and self-discovery. 

In her 2019 list of the Best Books for Young Readers, Penn GSE’s Ebony Elizabeth Thomas hopes to showcase some of these overlooked stories. In choosing the list, Thomas and her team look for authors and illustrators whose work deals with issues like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic class in ways that are real and empathetic.  

Thomas, author of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, also notes four trends that she expects will continue to shape children’s literature in 2020.

  • Serious celebrity books: Celebrities have always written books for children. But these have often missed the mark. This year, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Lupita Nyong’o, Karyn Parsons, and George Takei wrote books that authentically connect with kids and teens. 
  • Imprints and influencers championing new creators: A decade of advocacy and action to change children’s publishing made its mark in 2019. An imprint helmed by a woman of color (Namrata Tripathi’s Kolkila Books) hit its stride in its second year. An imprint led by Native women (Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Heartdrum) is set to debut in 2020. And the work of a wide range of people and organizations—from Ebony LaDelle’s marketing team at HarperCollins, to Jennifer Baker’s Minorities in Publishing podcast, to researchers studying the industry, and mentors helping writers—will keep pushing children’s lit forward.  
  • Allies leveraging their voice: Rick Riordan rose to fame with his Percy Jackson series. He’s now using his “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint to promote authors of color like Kwame Mbalia. These Black male authors are writing for Black boys at the ages when they are most likely to stop reading. Other stars of children’s lit could make a huge difference by following Riordan’s lead. 
  • Memoir: Authors and illustrators continue to prove that the best true stories don’t have to be histories. Young readers, like all of us, want stories that they can see themselves in. Memoirs, in all forms, deliver.   

Picture Books & Early Readers 

The 2010s close with a veritable garden of picture books depicting all kinds of children and all kinds of families. This year’s picks include soaring visions that inspire (The Undefeated, The Proudest Blue, Sing a Song) as well as a bit of fun from school to home (The King of Kindergarten, My Papi Has a Motorcycle). Celebrations of family and food (Freedom Soup, Fry Bread, Bilal Cooks Daal, Magic Ramen, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao) round our picks. 

Chapter Books & Middle Grade Readers  

This was the year of #BlackBoyJoy in the middle grades! More than 55 years after we met Peter in Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, we are pleased to see many different #ownvoices humanizing tales with Black boy protagonists (Look Both Ways, The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, The Usual Suspects). This is vital, as these stories are geared toward kids who often don’t see themselves in this category and, therefore, stop reading for pleasure. We are also pleased to note the work that Rick Riordan Presents is doing to diversify middle grades fantasy (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe), as well as adventures that are both magical and real (Lalani of the Distant Sea, The Bridge Home, Some Places More Than Others).   

Young Adult Readers  

YA continues to be a strong category. Five years after the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement began, we are beginning to see genre diversity as well as experimentation. This year’s picks range from highly anticipated memoirs (Shout, Ordinary Hazards) to Black girls slaying all day as the stars of their own adventures (Slay, A Dream So Dark, War Girls), to hip hop realness (Let Me Hear a Rhyme, On the Come Up). Hard-hitting tales deftly bringing global stories to life (Internment, Patron Saints of Nothing) round out this year’s list. 

Graphic Novels & Illustrated Texts 

Graphic novels and illustrated texts continue to mature into diverse formats as creators, publishers, and audiences are increasingly open to the form. From picture books intended for older readers (Infinite Hope, The Women Who Caught the Babies), to graphic retellings of harrowing history (This Place: 150 Years Retold, They  Called  Us Enemy), to queer romance (B.B. Free, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me), readers in high school and young adults will find much to appreciate here. Delights for our younger readers focused on new schools, new neighborhoods, and new ways of life (New Kid, My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich). 

What were your favorite books for young readers this year? 

Did you love a book that's not on our list? Rediscover a classic that resonates in 2019? Have a book that will make a perfect gift, no matter the holiday?  
We want to know! Tag us on Instagram or Twitter @PennGSE. Or email  


You May Be Interested In

Related Topics