The Best Children's Books of 2016
The Horn Book Magazine’s choices for the best books of 2016. The list includes picture books, fiction, poetry and nonfiction titles for children and teens. Here are this year’s Fanfare selections.
Information after each book title includes author, publisher and recommended reading level. The levels include Preschool (Preschool-K); Primary (Grades K-3); Intermediate (Grades 3-6); Middle School (Grades 6-9); and High School (Grades 9-12). To sign up for The Horn Book’s free monthly e-newsletter for parents or find reviews of the books below, visit www.hbook.com.
Thunder Boy Jr.
Written by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales; Little, Brown (Preschool, Primary)
Thunder Boy Smith Jr. loves his father, but he wants his own name. As he considers several alternatives, illustrations show Dad in the background, guiding and supporting him — and, eventually, giving him a new moniker that allows the boy his own identity but brings the two even closer. Dynamic art and text combine to tell a tender and humorous story.
Leave Me Alone!
Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol; Roaring Brook (Primary)
All a grumpy grandmother wants is some peace and quiet to do her knitting. Brosgol’s expressive cartoon illustrations depict her quest for solitude, going from her crowded village to the woods to the moon and beyond. Clever interplay between the matter-of-fact text and the increasingly outlandish situations makes for a perfectly paced twist on familiar folklore tropes.
The Airport Book
Written and illustrated by Lisa Brown; Porter/Roaring Brook (Primary)
Brown takes readers through the basics of airplane travel as a family flies to visit grandparents. Multiple storylines thread through pages bustling with activity, making this a rewarding book to read again and again, discovering new and fascinating details each time. Will the little girl be reunited with her stuffed monkey? What’s inside the oddly shaped package? And…is that Amelia Earhart?
Du Iz Tak?
Written and illustrated by Carson Ellis; Candlewick (Primary)
Don’t be surprised if you don’t understand the book’s title at first: it’s written in an invented Bug language. “Du iz tak?” asks a nattily dressed dragonfly, pointing to a sprouting plant. Something exciting is growing, but what? Decoding the details in the tidy, elegant illustrations becomes a game for readers as they begin to speak Bug. A “scrivadelly” challenge indeed.
We Found a Hat
Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen; Candlewick (Preschool, Primary)
Three acts. Two tortoises. One hat. Unsurprisingly (see I Want My Hat Back, rev. 11/11, and This Is Not My Hat, rev. 9/12), the protagonists have strong feelings about hat ownership. But unlike the previous books, this desert sunset–tinged volume hints at something new: the possibility that hats, like companionship, can be shared.
Frank and Lucky Get Schooled
Written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins; Greenwillow (Primary)
A boy and his dog learn everything together, from fractions (“how much of the bed is Lucky’s, and how much is Frank’s?”) to history (versions of what really happened can differ, especially about that time Lucky ate a whole birthday cake). A droll paean to friendship and growing up, imbued with Perkins’s unique style and sensibility.
Best Frints in the Whole Universe
Written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis; Porter/Roaring Brook (Preschool)
Yelfred and Omek live on planet Boborp, “where teef are long and tempers are short.” Although they’ve been “best frints since they were little blobbies,” they have their fair share of disputes — just like here on planet Earth. Bold-hued illustrations featuring simple shapes and pop art–like textures enhance this boisterous read-aloud for the youngest listeners.
School’s First Day of School
Written by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson; Porter/Roaring Brook (Primary)
A first-day-of-school book with a twist: the story is told from the school’s perspective. The newly built Frederick Douglass Elementary is unsure what to expect, but it survives the day’s (mostly humorous) ups-and-downs to hope that all the kids come back tomorrow. The warm, relatable text is matched by friendly, spacious illustrations depicting a vibrant and diverse community.
Written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes; Houghton (Preschool, Primary)
The story begins in the pictures, with a series of beautifully detailed, wordless scratchboard-and-watercolor illustrations showing a mother and child out for a walk on a blustery late-fall day. Returning home, the child looks sad: Mom, a pilot, is leaving for work. Then the text starts: a dreamlike invocation that beckons the snow, forestalling Mom’s trip and granting the girl’s wish.
Freedom in Congo Square
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie; Little Bee (Primary, Intermediate)
Weatherford’s stark rhyming couplets move through the days of the week in perfect step with Christie’s expressionistic, angular figure art to convey the labor and horrors of enslaved life — then the jubilation of Sunday, a mandated time of rest in New Orleans: “They rejoiced as if they had no cares; / half day, half free in Congo Square.” An exquisite historical picture book.
The Passion of Dolssa
Written by Julie Berry; Viking (Middle School, High School)
Berry relates the tale of two indomitable female protagonists in 1241 France: teenage matchmaker and tavern-keeper Botille; and Dolssa, the Catholic mystic and accused heretic Botille rescues and hides. Complex historical and religious details of Inquisition-era France are woven into a meticulously researched, captivating tale.
To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party
Written by Skila Brown; Candlewick (Middle School, High School)
Nineteen-year-old Donner Party member Mary Ann Graves narrates the doomed nineteenth-century expedition, from its optimistic beginnings through its day-to-day struggles to the horrific events that we remember today. Through varied, emotionally resonant verse, Brown imbues the figures of this real-life tragedy with a compelling and relatable humanity.
Makoons [Birchbark House]
Written and illustrated by Louise Erdrich; Harper/HarperCollins (Intermediate)
Makoons (Chickadee’s twin) has a vision of prosperity for his Ojibwe family on the Great Plains, but also hardship: “We cannot save them all.” This foreshadowing weighs on Makoons, but it doesn’t weigh down the story — nor does it prevent the irascible boys from getting up to their typical and entertaining mischief, even as they make their own important contributions to their community.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
Written by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly; Dutton (Intermediate, Middle School)
In this story of how stories are told (think Canterbury Tales), with illustrations that mimic an illuminated manuscript, an unnamed narrator in medieval France gathers information from an inn’s patrons about a trio of notorious children: a Christian peasant girl and two boys, one Jewish, one “Saracen.” Gidwitz’s sober exploration of theological questions still finds room for a good dragon fart joke.
The Lie Tree
Written by Frances Hardinge; Amulet/Abrams (Middle School, High School)
In Victorian England, Faith Sunderley secretly investigates the suspicious death of her naturalist father with the aid of his most unusual specimen: a tree that feeds on people’s lies. Blending historical fiction and magical realism, Hardinge masterfully contrasts the mind-expanding scientific discoveries of the era with its suffocating gender roles in a novel that’s thought-provoking, surprising, and empowering.
Full of Beans
Written by Jennifer L. Holm; Random (Intermediate)
In Depression-era Key West, resourceful Beans Curry collects empty cans (twenty for a dime…er, nickel. Adults are “lying liars”), enjoys the latest Hollywood movies — and sometimes abets rum runners. Meanwhile, New Dealers are remaking his dilapidated island into a tourist destination. Vivid descriptions, morally fraught situations, and Beans’s inimitable voice result in memorable historical fiction.
When the Sea Turned to Silver
Written and illustrated by Grace Lin; Little, Brown (Intermediate, Middle School)
In this companion to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (rev. 9/09) and Starry River of the Sky (rev. 11/12), Pinmei’s storyteller grandmother, Amah, is jailed by the Tiger Emperor. Pinmei and her friend Yishan journey to rescue Amah, all the while making friends, battling foes, and telling stories — which, along with sumptuous, rich-hued illustrations, are interspersed throughout the main narrative.
Juana & Lucas
Written and illustrated by Juana Medina; Candlewick (Primary)
Juana, who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, has no interest in learning “the English,” but the prospect of a trip to Spaceland in “the U.S. of A.” changes that. With this series opener—sprinkled throughout with Spanish words and phrases, and with copious friendly illustrations — Juana takes her place among such early chapter-book heroines as Ramona and Clementine.
Burn Baby Burn
Written by Meg Medina; Candlewick (High School)
The events of Nora López’s summer after high school graduation are closely tied to those of New York’s summer of 1977, with its oppressive heat wave, widespread blackout, and constant fear of the “Son of Sam” serial killer. The details — and the disco — make Nora’s world and her struggles with family and finances come to life.
A Tangle of Gold [Colors of Madeleine]
Written by Jaclyn Moriarty; Levine/Scholastic (Middle School, High School)
This conclusion to the Colors of Madeleine trilogy is as dazzling and effervescent as fans could hope for. Alter egos are revealed, families are united, love stories gracefully unfold — throughout the Kingdom of Cello and beyond. The tying up of Moriarty’s perfectly plotted loose ends is thrilling and beyond satisfying.
The Best Man
Written by Richard Peck; Dial (Intermediate, Middle School)
Two weddings bookend Archer’s coming-of-age tale, the first one a slapstick farce, the second a bring-out-the-hankies affirmation of marriage. Gay marriage, no less. Archer is a vulnerable and believable boy hero, and all of Peck’s favorite themes are on display here — family, manhood, independence, the importance of role models — deployed with a master’s comic touch.
As Brave As You
Written by Jason Reynolds; Dlouhy/Atheneum (Intermediate, Middle School)
Two brothers from Brooklyn spend the summer in rural Virginia with grandparents they hardly know, with tragicomic results. Reynolds’s middle-grade debut combines authentic characters, poignant relationships, a vividly evoked setting, and a healing storyline to explore human frailties and strengths.
The Sun Is Also a Star
Written by Nicola Yoon; Delacorte (High School)
On the day her family is scheduled to be deported back to Jamaica, levelheaded New Yorker Natasha crosses paths with Korean American Daniel, a hopeless romantic. Despite Natasha’s better judgment — and with time running out to help her family — they fall for each other. In this breathless yet multifaceted tale of destiny, everything is connected.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life
Written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan; Dlouhy/Atheneum (Intermediate)
An 1828 appraisal of ten slaves (“One Negro Woman named Peggy: $150.00”) inspired Bryan to create a brief fictional autobiography for each person, pairing it with his or her dreams of freedom. The visual contrast between the strong, spare portraits of the enslaved people and the extravagant, rainbow-hued glories of their dreams is dramatically effective, and the revealed bonds between the individuals add narrative interest — and heart.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
Written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo; Candlewick (Primary, Intermediate)
Harlem 1958, Art Kane’s iconic photograph of fifty-seven jazz musicians, inspired Orgill’s collection of twenty-one poems, with impressionistic, improvisational-seeming yet tightly controlled (kind of like jazz itself) acrylic and pastel illustrations by Vallejo. The volume sings and swings; a perfectly placed gatefold shows the actual photo.
Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
Written by Candace Fleming; Porter/Roaring Brook (Middle School)
While giving the legendary showman his considerable due, it’s in the book’s subtitle that we find its real subject: how the West of popular culture takes so much artistic license with history as to constitute an almost wholly imaginary land. Buffalo Bill extended to himself the same liberties, making Fleming’s challenge to find historical truth as entertaining as — and more enlightening than — a detective story.
Written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Porter/Roaring Brook (Primary)
A cadenced text and creepily realistic illustrations gradually reveal the elusive giant squid. Bit by bit, we are given fascinating information about its tentacles, large lidless eyes, and “parrot-like” beak. Suspense builds with each page-turn until a four-panel foldout stops the action, showing the complete beast until — in a flash — it’s gone.
I Am Pan!
Written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein; Roaring Brook (Primary, Intermediate)
In comic-panel illustrations and snappy speech-bubble text, Gerstein captures the spirit of rascally Pan, ancient Greek god of (among other things) “noise and confusion.” Gerstein’s tellings of Pan’s mythological exploits — inventing and inciting “panic,” falling in love with the moon, helping Zeus defeat the monster Typhon — are gleefully pandemoniac.
March: Book Three
Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell; Top Shelf (Middle School, High School)
In the concluding volume of a trilogy that traces the civil rights movement through iconic activist John Lewis’s eyes, events build toward a crescendo of Bloody Sunday and, finally, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This powerful graphic novel uses a relentless cascade of words and images to underscore both the brutality of the period and the high stakes of the struggle.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
Written and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe; Little, Brown (Primary, Intermediate)
Steptoe’s picture-book biography captures the spirit of the visionary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Brooklyn-raised painter of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who invigorated the 1980s art world. Striking collage-like illustrations, painted on found surfaces, pay reverent homage to Basquiat’s style, techniques, and motifs, as well as to the challenges in his life.
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White
Written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet; Houghton (Intermediate, Middle School)
A visual feast of a biography, with illustrations, collage, archival photographs and correspondence, pencil sketches, and other thoughtful design elements combining beautifully with Sweet’s easy-to-follow text. It’s a loving tribute both to the creative process and to one terrific writer.
Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird [Scientists in the Field]
Written by Pamela S. Turner, photos by Andy Comins, with art by Guido De Filippo; Houghton (Intermediate, Middle School)
Turner (The Frog Scientist, rev. 9/09) focuses on the super-smart New Caledonian crow, one of the few non-human species that makes and uses tools. An accessible, welcoming text moves effortlessly from amusing accounts of crow antics to sophisticated scientific explanations; arresting photographs highlight the crows’ lively personalities and remarkable intelligence.