For 30 years Susie Wilde has been reviewing children’s books for various media (including her monthly column in this section), hosting workshops for teachers and would-be writers of children’s books, working with students in classrooms, libraries and community centers. For the past 20 years, she has presented her Wilde Awards, which recognizes the diversity of voice, characters and plots in 2016’s best picture books and novels. The list is a good place to start when you’re considering books as gifts this holiday season. Here is a sample of her suggestions.
The 20th annual Wilde Awards recognizes the diversity of voice, characters and plots in 2016’s best picture books and novels.
Picture books, young readers
“123 Dream,” Kim Krans (Random House, ages 1-3): Plants and animals weave in and out of numbers from 1-20.
“5 Little Ducks,” Denise Fleming (Simon and Schuster, ages 0-2): Large clear illustrations, animals to name, and embedded days of the week renew the classic song.
“Goodnight Everyone,” Chris Haughton (Candlewick, ages 0-3): A wakeful little bear settles into sleep amid yawning friends, soft colors and a lulling text.
“We Found a Hat,” Jon Klassen (Candlewick, ages 2-4): The satisfying end a picture book trilogy as two turtles come upon a hat they can’t share. The text is simple, but complex feelings leave lots of room for discussion.
“When Spring Comes,” Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, ages 2-5): Laura Dronzek’s rich vibrant colors pair perfectly with her husband’s thoughtful, lyrical picture of spring.
Most intriguing illustrations
“They All Saw a Cat,” Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, ages 3-6): Creatively imagined artistic renderings show creatures’ differing perspectives of a cat – from a blurry fish’s view to the forest of hair seen by a flea.
“Look Up!” Jung Jin-Ho (Holiday House, ages 3-6): A young girl in a wheelchair lives high above the street and longs for relationship. Few words and minimal colors accent the stunning perspectives.
“A Child of Books,” Oliver Jeffers (Candlewick, ages 5-8): Intriguing images and a poetic text accent the magic of invention as the heroine floats “across a sea of words” over “mountains of make-believe” into the “forests of fairy tales” where “imagination is free.”
Best new characters
“Thunderboy Jr”, Sherman Alexie (Little Brown, ages 3-6): The author blends his lyrical words, strong rhythms, Native American sensibilities, humor, and warmth in the story of a young boy who wishes his name were different.
“The Pros and Cons of Being a Frog,” Sue deGennaro (Simon and Schuster, ages 4-6): Unusual illustrations and curious conflicts express the relationship of two quirky friends – one who loves costumes and the other adores numbers.
“Swatch, The Girl Who Loved Color,” Julia Denos (Balzer and Bray, ages 5-8): This fable stars a young color captor who learns how inspiring freedom can be. Energetic hues and vibrant words dance across pages.
“The Quickest Kid in Clarksville,” Pat Zietlow Miller (Chronicle, ages 5-8): Sassy Alta prides herself on running like hometown champion Wilma Rudolph. Especially competing with Charmaine who struts “hard enough to shame a rooster.” The strong voice reflects the power of young heroines whose pride yields to collaboration.
“Henry Wants More”, Linda Ashman (Random House ages 2-5): Toddler Henry is endlessly busy. His father lifts him overhead, grandmother plays songs, big sister teaches finger plays and big brother pulls Henry in a wagon. At the end of each activity, Henry utters the universal toddler words, “MORE!” or “AGAIN!” These appear in large red letters, complete with exclamation points, measuring his ebullience.
“Nanette’s Baguette,” Mo Willems (Hyperion, ages 3-6): Nanette’s is off to fetch the family baguette for the first time…can she resists its warm, wonderful smell? Willems shows his perfect pacing, mastery of rhythm and rhyme, wordplay and emotions of children.
“A Hat for Mrs. Goldman,” Michelle Edwards (Schwartz and Wade, ages 4-8): Generous Mrs. Goldman has always kept Sophie’s keppie (head) covered with knitted hats. She’s taught Sophia about knitting and good deeds and Sophie puts those into action to return the favor. Her awkward path is ultimately warming.
“A Small Thing ... But Big,” Tony Johnston (Roaring Brook, ages 4-7): The calming dialogue between an anxious young girl and an elderly man at the park is quiet in tone, but peals with emotional strength. Every brave act from the girl draws stranger’s lovely refrain, “a small thing, but big.”
Two collections of illustrated collections serve children’s core knowledge: “The Land of Stories: A Treasure of Classic Fairy tales Chris Colfer (Little Brown, ages 3-7) has 24 early nursery tales and 13 rhymes. “Gris Grimly’s Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Balzer and Bray, ages 6 and up) illustrates retellings of 40 tales.
Picture books, older children
“Ida, Always,” Caron Levis (Atheneum, ages 6 and up): A tenderly-told story about two loving polar bear friends, inspired by real bears who lived in New York’s Central Park Zoo. Death is handled with grace and gentleness.
“Cry, Heart, But Never Break,” Glenn Ringtved (Enchanted Lion, ages 7 and up): When Death figure visits four sorrowing children whose grandmother is dying, he is wise and his heart is beautiful as a sunset and “beats with a great love of life.” Emotional art and tender words explain how death is necessary for new life.
“The Storyteller,” Evan Turk (Atheneum, ages 8 and up): In a desert setting, a storyteller begins a Scheherazade-like tale for a thirsty boy. The fables are linked in celebrating the life-giving forces of water and storytelling. The artist-illustrator uses color as symbolically as words.
“The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,” Michelle Cuevas (Dial, ages 5-8): High above the ocean lives a man who watches for “a glint of glass” so he can deliver messages from bottles that are as dear as “the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.” Erin Stead’s art and sea imagery enrich the layers of this tale.
“Playing From the Heart,” Peter Reynolds (Candlewick, ages 8 to adult): In another creativity fable, piano-passionate Raj improves in piano technique, but loses enthusiasm when his father hires a teacher. Flash-forward in time and Raj is called to his father’s bedside. The ailing man’s request for “the song without a name” frees Raj to play from the heart.
“Frank and Lucky Get Schooled,” Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow, ages 8 and up): Frank and his dog Lucky learn chemistry, math, history and more from the world. The book is astounding in its expression of the connection of and passion for learning.
“Freedom Over Me,” Ashley Bryan (Atheneum, ages 9 and up): Mrs. Mary Fairchilds’ is selling off slaves, her actions cold and calculated. A poignant contrast Bryan reveals the shattered past and future dreams of 11 slaves, identified by age and the price. Stunning art increases the power of their narratives.
Picture books, nonfiction
“Animals By The Numbers: A Book of Animal Infographics,” Steve Jenkins (HMH, ages 6 and up): Math, animal and information lovers will be thrilled by visually-engaging graphs and charts that measure everything from the length of animals lives to their horns.
“The Blobfish Book,”Jessica Olien (Balzer & Bray, ages 5-8): The author-illustrator blends fiction and nonfiction, photographs and cartoons, as a take-over blobfish liberally edits the book with red markings, photobombs and continual commentary.
“Fabulous Frogs,” Martin Jenkins (Candlewick, ages 3-6): Jenkins’ simple text pairs with Tim Hopgood’s excellent illustrations to intrigue young children with facts about frogs’ size, appearance, habits and habitats.
“Giant Squid,” Candace Fleming (Roaring Brook, ages 4-8): Eric Rohmann’s dark illustrations mimic the author’s detailing of “strange and fearsome” creatures that lurk in the “sunless sea, deep, deep in the cold, cold dark.” Strong sensory maintain a mysterious quality in this compelling nonfiction.
“Glow Animals With Their Own Nightlights,” W.H. Beck (Houghton, ages 4-8): Text is highlighted by spooky, strange illustrations of bioluminescent sea creatures.
“Octopuses One to Ten,” Ellen Jackson (Beach Lane, ages 3-6): An ostensible counting book allows the author to view ten different facets of this intriguing creature. Engaging writing is enhanced by Robin Page’s collages.
“Plants Can’t Sit Still,” Rebecca Hirsh (Millbrook, ages 3-6): Vivid verbs and mood-strong illustrations make for a dramatic view of plants and a book with read-aloud verve.
Picture books, biographies
“Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer,” Diane Stanley (Simon and Schuster, ages 6-10): Despite her mother’s manipulations, the mores of 19th century society and an early death, this imaginative, inquisitive young woman studied math and science and became the world’s first computer programmer. Stanley’s lively writing represents Lovelace well.
“I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark,” Debbie Levy (Simon and Schuster, ages 6-10): Growing prejudice of ethnicity and gender, Ginsburg fought society, standard roles to becoming a member of the Supreme Court. Smooth makes legality and her decisions understandable.
“Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service,” Annette Bay Pimentel (Charlesbridge, ages 6-9): Similes, metaphors, and sensory descriptions make the biography of Tie Sing sing. Sing, a early 20th Century Chinese-American made his way among countrymen who pronounced Chinese names “like they’d swallowed river gravel” because dreams “as big as the country he loved,” aided him in becoming the best trail cook in California and helping to make national parks a reality.
“Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Burgeois,” Amy Novesky (Abrams, ages 6-9): Text and illustrations are as image-rich as dreamy descriptions of the sculptor’s childhood.
“A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of the Snowy Day,” Andrea Davis Pinkney (Penguin, ages 8 and up): A moving biography of a young Jewish boy who fled Poland’s prejudice and grew up to right similar wrongs by representing African-Americans in his illustrations. This is a poetic look at Keats’ life, racism past and present, and lauding of his singular imagery.
“Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White,” Melissa Sweet (Houghton, ages 8-12): Writer-illustrator Sweet merges photos, drawings, quotes from letters, journals and books into a heavily-illustrated engaging biography.
Holiday picture books
“The Christmas Story,” Robert Sabuda (Candlewick, all ages): The traditional tale has spectacular paper engineering.
“The Christmas Boot,” Lisa Wheeler (Dial, ages 5-8): When a lonely impoverished woman finds a magical boot and her wishes come true in the extreme. When a jolly red-suited stranger comes to reclaim his footwear, excesses vanish, but her deepest desires are fulfilled.
“Dogman,” Dav Pilkey (Graphix, ages 7-10): What would happen if the creators of “Captain Underpants” collaborated on a new series? Hilarity of word and illustration in a graphic novel that stars a canine crimefighter tracking a felonious feline.
“Inspector Flytrap,” Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell (Amulet, ages 6-9): What could be zanier than a carnivorous plant detective and an assistant of an always-hungry goat assistant? Ridiculous humor peppered with wacky pictures.
“Sam the Man & the Chicken Plan,” Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum, ages 6-9): Sam is an inventive character who lives in a warm family in a diverse neighborhood. Small realistic incidents are amusing, relatable, and will ready early readers ready for more in this new series.
“Waylon: One More Thing,”Sara Pennypacker (Hyperion, ages 6-9): Waylon is the “scienciest” fourth-grader. He’s also an empath who suffers as his middle school sister goes goth and his class divides into factions.
“Weekends with Max and Dad,” Linda Urban (HMH, ages 7-9): Max and his father adjust during the first three weekends they spend together after Max’s father has moved out. Imagination, humor and warmth dominate, but the author doesn’t shy away from the struggles.
Returning heroes: Kate Dicamillo, “Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln?” (Candlewick); Shannon Hale, “The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation” (Candlewick), Abby Hanlon, “Dory and the Real True Friend” (Puffin)
“All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook,” Leslie Connor (HarperCollins, ages 9-12): Perry is an 11-year-old whose unspoiled innocence comes from being tenderly raised in a co-ed correctional facility. When an insensitive ruthless district attorney gets Perry removed from his home, the irony is painful. As Perry’s mother burns with fury at legalities separating her from her son, Perry seeks the truth behind his mother’s imprisonment. The poignant story unites themes of truth, justice, family and home.
“The Best Man,” Richard Peck (Dial, ages 9-12): 12-year-old Archer Magill bookends his story with two weddings. In between is strong storytelling that shows an eccentric family, three beloved male role models, and a boy who is a bit slow on the social uptake. Peck excels on pacing, refrains and the balance of humor, wit and stunning characterizations.
“The Inquisitor’s Tale,” Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, ages 9-12): Ten 13th century travelers meet at an inn and recount tales of three gifted young heroes- a peasant girl with visions, a Jewish boy and a strong young monk of African descent. The lively adventurous tale meshes humor and darkness, prejudices and beliefs, legend and truth in a structure reminiscent of the Canterbury Tales.
“It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel,” Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion, ages 9-12): 11-year-old Zomorod (Cindy) Yousefzadeh negotiate the disparities of her Persian home and the 1978 California culture in which she lives. Racism and insensitivity remain subtle until Khomeini takes American hostages. History, humor and heartache combine seamlessly.
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day,” John David Anderson (HarperCollins, ages 8-11): This light read strengthens and deepens as three sixth-graders leave frivolity behind to honor their teacher, Ms. Bixby, who must start cancer treatment. Amid humor and adventure, the boys’ situations and collaborative power become clear as does the reason for their devotion to this life-changing teacher.
“Raymie Nightingale,” Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, ages 10-12): 10-year-old Raymie becomes part of the “three rancheros” who are competing for the title of Little Miss Central Florida. DiCamillo again excels at quirky, colorful characters and the mix of harsh truths and magical realism.
“Unbound: A Novel in Verse,” Anne E. Burg (Scholastic, ages 9-12): Heartbreakingly beautiful versified voice reveals the intelligence of Grace who, promises to “keep her eyes down” and mouth shut when she’s taken to the Big House. Learning her mother and brothers will be taken to auction means beginning a new life in the Great Dismal Swamp.
“When Mischief Came to Town,” Katrina Nannestad (HMH, ages 8-11): Rascally Inge Maria arrives on the quiet island of Bornholm in Denmark in 1911 to live with her strict grandmother and wreaks havoc while fighting gender stereotypes and winning the hearts of the island’s inhabitants. The book has a lovely old-fashioned feel and strong, deep undertones.
“The Wild Robot,” Peter Brown (Little Brown, ages 8-10): The fantastical blossoms in the natural world when a robot, ROZZUM unit 7134 (Roz), crashes on a small island. First seen as a monster to the animal inhabitants, Roz becomes a friend. Strong themes of adaptation and survival of fittest are handled with a light touch. Be prepared for a tearful ending.
“Wolf Hollow,” Lauren Wolk (Dutton, ages 9-12): 11-year-old Annabelle. Annabelle lives on a quiet Pennsylvania farm with loving parents until she faces the menace of bully Betty Glengarry. Simultaneously, World War II prejudices transform her peaceful town into one that is suspicious and ugly. When the town’s cruelty turns on a homeless, kindly World War I veteran, Annabelle’s innocence fades and she’s determined to make a stand.
“Anna and the Swallow Man,” Gavriel Savit (Knopf, ages 13 and up): Seven-year-old Anna’s father, a linguistic professor, never returns from a meeting with the Nazis who are swarming Krakow. Days pass before Anna, left alone, meets an enigmatic stranger who know as many languages as she, more perhaps, for he seems to speak swallow. The Swallow Man leads Anna on a meandering journey through Poland teaching rules of survival in a country overrun by wolves (Nazis) and bears (Russians). Savit’s lyrical language and thought-provoking writing contrast with the stark setting. His convincing characters are startlingly real in a haunting book with a mysterious, metaphoric, mythic tone.
“Beware That Girl”, Teresa Toten (Delacorte, ages 13 and up): Kate O’Brien, a scholarship senior at a wealthy Manhattan school, will do anything to get to Harvard, including being friends with popular, wealthy Olivia Sumner, who seems more a mark than BFF. Complexity builds when a gorgeous new school administrator seeks an alliance with each of the girls for unclear reasons. Twists and turns abound in this fast-moving psychological thriller.
“Burn Baby Burn,” Meg Medina (Candlewick, ages 13 and up): 17-year-old Nora Lopez’s home has communication problems. Her mother speaks little English and doesn’t discipline Nora’s abusive brother Hector.Frustrations and worries escalate in the tensions of 1977’s blackouts, lootings and the Son of Sam murders. Overly responsible Nora come to terms with independence, love, and keeping family secrets.
“The Great American Whatever,” Tim Federle (Simon and Schuster, ages 13 and up): 16-year-old Quinn Roberts lost his smart sassy voice and script-writing gift with his movie-making sister’s death. Federle’s first YA brims with a winning blend of humor, darkness, smart dialogues and well-chosen imagery.
“Julia Vanishes,” Catherine Egan (Knopf, ages 13 and up): Spira City is a dangerous place. Serial killers and nocturnal beasts roam the streets at night and anyone can be drowned for being a witch. 16-year-old orphan, Julia, earns her keep with cons and thieves because of her amazing gift to “go unseen.” Collecting clues in the secretive house of a powerful, enigmatic woman puts Julia in peculiar, puzzling situations. Lyrical writing provides as much escape as book’s mystery and tension.
“The Lie Tree,” Frances Hardinge (Amulet, ages 14 and up): 14-year-old Faith Sunderly’s intelligence and curiosity have been constrained by her stern father, self-consumed mother and 19th century gender mores. She explodes into being when she discovers a magical truth-telling plant might solve her father’s murder. Science, mystery, history, fantasy combine with beautiful writing in this gripping, haunting novel.
“Rebel of the Sands,” Alwyn Hamilton (Viking, ages 12 and up): Wild West and the Arabian Nights mesh in the Amani’s world where djinn and mythical beasts are not just characters in the stories her murdered mother once told. Adventure, humor, romance, and a huge cast of realistic and magical characters bode well for this series start.
“The Serpent King,” Jeff Zentner (Crown, ages 14 and up): The impending separation of three graduating seniors who have mutually supported each other’s coming of age in a narrow rural town thrusts all three characters into self-examination and finding independence. Readers see the strengths of each and the constancy of their enduring affection woven into the powerful alternating viewpoints and heartbreaking ending.
“Still Life with Tornado,” A.S. King (Dutton, ages 13 and up): Sarah, always renewed by art, can no longer draw or attend school. Encountering versions of herself at different ages further complicates her confusion. King skillfully transitions between realities as Sarah’s tamped-down traumas remake her world.
“The Sun is Also a Star,” Nicola Yoon (Delacorte, ages 12 and up): Natasha, an illegal Jamaican teen is full of raw and seething emotions that only increase as she learns she may have only one day left her New York home before being deported. Korean-American Daniel, usually calm, is stirred by an unexplainable, instant attraction to Natasha. In one day, their relationship changes from rebuff to love and then heartbreak. Alternating chapters add internal views of the many characters’ past, present and futures.
“Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age In Palestine,” Ibtisam Barakat (FSG, ages 11 and up): This engrossing memoir continues “Tasting the Sky.” Lyricism and painful detailing continues as does the tenseness of 1970’s occupied West Ban and the strongly motivated heroine.
“Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story,” Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda, ages 11 and up): A readable narrative brings alive Sachiko’s life and family as well as historical settings and personages that provide context.
“We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Adolf Hitler,” Russell Freedman (Clarion, ages 11 and up): Poignant photographs and powerful writing tell the story of young Hans and Sophie Scholl, who formed a student resistance movement against Hitler’s cruelty. The author integrates a contextual setting that makes this nonfiction even more tragic and inspiring.