The Best Books for Young Readers of 2020

A selection of books from the 2020 list of Best Books 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: 

Young Adult

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.  

Graphic

Our 2020 Graphic Novel picks are apropos to the time, and highlight how intergenerational stories, our old stories, carry us forward and bring us together. From Banned Book Club (Kim Hyun Sook, Ryan Estrada & illustrator 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.

Middle Grade

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!

Picturebooks

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.

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.)

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