Ebony Elizabeth Thomas often starts her classes by telling students, “books travel where we do not.” As an assistant professor of literacy at Penn GSE, Thomas believes that is especially true for children’s books, which can introduce children to people, cultures, and ideas on the page long before children can make the connection in person.
Thomas researches how race, class, and gender are portrayed in children’s literature, and how those portrayals affect children. Every day, Thomas and her team tweet book recommendations from their @healingfictions account.
After reviewing those recommendations and more, Thomas has selected the top children’s books for 2016. Her lists of the top picture books, young adult fiction, middle grade fiction, and comic and graphic novels highlight the best storytelling of the year that deals with issues like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and socioeconomic class in ways that are real and empathetic.
“Now more than ever, stories that provide mirrors, windows, and doors into the human experience are important for young readers,” Thomas said. “Stories shape the imagination, and make us more empathetic to one another.”
From slavery to freedom to Civil Rights, African American historical picturebooks from established authors Carole Boston Weatherford and Jabari Asim, as well as author-illustrator Ashley Bryan, are featured in our Penn GSE picks this year. Milo’s Museum invites young readers to imagine creating their own cultural institutions, and They All Saw a Cat encourages them to consider diverse perspectives. The quiet contemplative winter invocation of Joyce Sidman’s Before Morning is the perfect reflection of our tense times, and the retro feel of the classic folktale retellings in Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red and Duncan Tonatiuh’s The Princess and the Warrior round out our list.
Middle Grade Fiction
This year, we introduce our first-ever best middle grades booklist, which features two much-anticipated sequels — Makoons, the latest book in Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, and Booked, the follow-up to Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award winner The Crossover. Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn transports the reader back to late 1970’s New York (note this pick is for more mature middle grade readers). Mike Jung takes us to a contemporary suburb that we all know. Perhaps the most unique book on the list is Christine Kendall’s debut Riding Chance, set at an equestrian club in contemporary Philadelphia.
Young Adult Fiction
Romance and history, thrills and intrigue are part and parcel of this year’s list of books for teen and young adult readers. It opens with Gabby Rivera’s outstanding debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath featuring a queer Latinx teen navigating love and intersectionality, closes with Outrun the Moon, Stacey Lee’s breathtaking glimpse into Chinatown before and during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and traverses history (Ashes), mental illness (The Memory of Light), psychopathy (My Sister Rosa) and love during a time of deportation (The Sun is Also a Star) in between.
Comic & Graphic Novels
Our comics and graphic novel picks abound with sequels, finales, and established writers and cartoonists. From the epic 2016 National Book Award winner March, the final book of the story of Congressman John Lewis as a young man during the Civil Rights movement, to Rolling Blackouts, a documentary portrayal of conditions in today’s Middle East, these picks are relevant for today’s fractured times. Yet the fantastic is also represented well here in picks for younger readers (PrinceLess, Mighty Jack), those in the middle (Bessie Stringfield, PaperGirls), and those who are not so young (Vision, Saga).
Penn GSE students Sherea Mosley and Rabani Garg assisted Thomas in reviewing children’s books throughout the course of 2016 and compiling this list.
Share your favorites with @HealingFictions and @PennGSE using #PennGSEBestBooks!