You can walk into a bookstore and, in a relatively short time, determine the worth of a 32-page picture book.
But do you choose a longer book? Which ones will parents savor sharing? Which will teachers relish reading aloud? What books will independent younger readers want to read and re-read?
For 21 years, I’ve bestowed the Wilde Awards to books I pore through all year.
Younger readers are different from those who dive into picture books. They’re a demanding audience. They’ll quickly give up on a book that doesn’t have an intriguing character, compelling conflicts and engaging writing.
As a result, the books that achieve this combination produce marvelous literature.
As with picture books, I consider these questions when deciding which books should get my stamp of approval.
▪ Will the book lead to meaningful discussion or understanding?
▪ Will it engage the reader?
▪ Is it evocative?
▪ Is it unique?
▪ Is it made to be shared?
▪ And finally, does it have strong characters, compelling tension and a satisfying resolution?
Below you’ll find recommendations for the 2017 Wilde Award-winning books as well as series additions that will satisfy. Next month I’ll share the final installment of awards for children’s audio books: wonderful titles that also are extraordinary listens.
Early Novels (Ages 4-8)
▪ “Barkus,” Patricia MacLachlan (Chronicle).
Five short chapters begin a series about Nicky’s adventures with her extraordinary dog, Barkus.
▪ “The Bad Guys,” Aaron Blabey (Scholastic).
This Australian import is an early introduction to graphic novels. It’s filled with humor and antics of the animal villains (Misters Wolf, Snake, Piranha and Shark) who feel misunderstood.
▪ “Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol: The Haunted House Next Door,” Andres Miedoso (Little Simon).
Andres Miedoso has nothing to fear from moving to a new town into a haunted house because he lives next door to Desmond, “the coolest bravest kid in the world.” Loads of humor, lots of illustrations and a little bit of spine-tingling in this first novel.
▪ “Jada Jones, Rock Star” and “Jada Jones, Class Act,” Kelly Starling-Lyons (Penguin).
These short chapter books launch a series that features an African-American heroine who’s sassy, science-smart and searching for friendship.
▪ “Princess Cora and the Crocodile,” Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick).
Micromanaged Princess Cora does her best to satisfy her parents’ demands. She wishes constantly for a dog and a little freedom. A fairy godmother, a toothy crocodile and a bit of magic merge once-upon-a-time tropes with a little girl who longs for an ordinary life.
▪ New in popular series: Tom Angleberger’s “The Goat Who Chewed Too Much” (Amulet); Nick Bruel’s “Bad Kitty Takes the Test” (Square Fish); Kate DiCamillo’s “Eugenia Lincoln and the Unexpected Playdate” (Candlewick); Frances O’Roark Dowell’s “Sam the Man & the Rutabaga Plan” (Atheneum); Stephanie Greene’s “Princess Posey and the First Grade Play” (Putnam); Shannon Hale’s “The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate” (Candlewick); John Himmelman’s “Bunjitsu Bunny VS Bunjitsu Bunny” (Holt); Ryan Howard’s “Trophy Night” (Scholastic); and Mary Pope Osborne’s “A Big Day for Baseball” (Random House).
Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)
▪ “Beyond the Bright Sea,” Lauren Wolk (Dutton).
Conflict and tenderness are strong in 12-year-old Crow’s life. She was only hours old when discovered by two inhabitants of an isolated Massachusetts island and has been loved fiercely by them ever since. When Crow wonders about her beginnings, her guardians aid her in piecing together her fragmented past. Truths about lepers, a vicious villain and a treasure lead to Crow’s sense of self and belonging.
▪ “Clayton Byrd Goes Underground,” Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad).
Clayton dreams of being a blues man like his beloved grandfather, but life changes quickly when Cool Papa Byrd dies. Clayton’s unsympathetic mother leaves him without support for his grief or the records and guitars promised him. A unique view of a subtle deep sorrowing.
▪ “The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora,” Pablo Cartaya (Viking).
Arturo, raised by an adoring grandmother, finds his close-knit Cuban-American family threatened by a greedy developer. Strong in imagery, rich with well-woven Spanish, the story has a perfect balance of humor and heartbreak.
▪ “Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus,” Dusti Bowling (Sterling).
Thirteen-year-old Aven, born without arms, is resilient, resourceful and ready to solve a mystery in her new home at a failing theme park. She discovers clues with friends as unique and challenged as she. Aven is differently-gifted with wit and optimism that shine more strongly her being differently-abled.
▪ “Making Bombs for Hitler,” Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Scholastic).
Lida Ferezuk, a 10-year-old Ukranian, poses as a “useful” 13-year-old in a Nazi camp so she can survive and find a younger sister, her only living family member. It’s difficult to believe her mother’s maxim, “You can make beauty anywhere,” amid brutality, horror and hardships. Lida’s caring, courage and intelligence provide relief in this heart-rendering survival story based on millions of Soviet youth captured for slave labor during World War II.
▪ “Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids,” Elisa Brent Weissman (Atheneum).
The subtitle says it all. Twenty-five beloved authors and illustrators tell engaging tales about their creative beginnings.
▪ “Pele, the King of Soccer,” Eddy Simon Simon (First Second).
The graphic format is just right for the biography of the very active Brazilian soccer star.
▪ “Real Friends,” Shannon Hale (First Second).
The popular author pens a graphic memoir about her childhood. Young Shannon learns about true friends and kindness amid a mean girl culture. Female middle-schoolers will identify with the heroine and the situations she faces.
▪ “Refugee,” Alan Gratz (Scholastic).
Three first-person narratives recount heroic escapes by children from 1938 Germany, 1994 Cuba and 2015 Aleppo. The time periods, cultures and threats may be different, but there’s commonality in tension, courage, responsibility and family love.
▪ “The Secret of Nightingale Wood,” Lucy Strange (Scholastic).
An emotionally powerful story of 12-year-old Henrietta, who is determined to mend her family and rescue her mother from madness after her brother’s death. She achieves this despite hindrances, including the absurd dictates of supposed healers in post-World War I Britain. The beautiful writing shows the literary passion of the author as well as the heroine.
▪ “Stars Beneath Our Feet,” David Barclay Moore (Knopf).
Twelve-year-old Lolly finds comfort in constructing Lego structures after his brother is murdered by a gang. Lolly travels an uneven path to healing while adults around him offer support. Gradually, Lolly becomes more empathic than angry and more collaborative than competitive because of a friendship with a Rose, an autistic girl who shares his passion for creating.
▪ “Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves,” Kate T. Parker (Workman).
A professional photographer collects 200 stunning images and poignant quotations to represent powerful young women.
▪ “Superstar,” Mandy Davis (Harper).
Lester Musselbaum loves science, especially the study of space, but he isn’t a fan of rules. Entering public school in fifth grade isn’t easy after years of homeschooling, especially for a boy on the autistic spectrum. Science and compassion aid Lester’s adaptations and growth.
▪ “Wishtree,” Katherine Applegate (Feiwel & Friends).
Red, a wise and caring oak tree, reaches beyond her usual limits to ease the pain caused by human prejudices. Wit, humor and lots of potential for discussion make this a great family read.
▪ New in popular series: John Claude Bemis’ “Lord of Monsters” (Hyperion); Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s “The War I Finally Won” (Dial); Jennifer Holm’s “Swing It Sunny” (Scholastic); Jennifer Holmes’ “BabyMouse Tales from the Locker: Lights, Camera, Middle School” (Random House); Gail Carson Levine’s “The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre” (HarperCollins), Kate Mitford’s “Ghosts of Greenglass House” (Clarion); Jason Reynold’s “Patina” (Atheneum); Philip Reeves’ “Black Light Express” (Capstone); Dana Simpson’s “Unicorn Crossing” (Andrews McMeel); and Ursula Vernon’s “Hamster Princess: Giant Trouble” (Dial).
▪ “Allegedly,” Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen).
At the age of 6, Mary was jailed for killing an infant. At 16, she’s pregnant and is no longer unwilling to keep silent and maintain her mother’s deception. The complex portrait of this conflicted, smart teen has a taut and emotionally wrenching a tense plot.
▪ “Disappeared,” Francisco X. Stork (Scholastic).
The frightening world of Juarez, Mexico, is revealed in the alternating chapters of two siblings. While Sara seeks her best friend who has vanished without a trace, Emiliano struggles to escape the web of the drug trade. Tensions tangle and culminate in their perilous escape to freedom.
▪ “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue,” Mackenzi Lee (Katherine Tegen).
In this 18th century romance, debauched Henry Montague trysts with boys and girls as he cavorts around the continent with his best friend, Percy. There’s humor, adventure and mystery in this fast-moving novel. These don’t cloak the darker themes of racial and gender prejudice.
▪ “Genuine Fraud,” E. Lockhart (Delacorte).
An unreliable, unlikeable narrator stars in this book, but you can’t put it down. Lockhart creates another story with twists, psychological complexities and fast pacing. Chapters progress backward revealing more and more of Jule’s relationship with her best friend Imogen, her background and her character. Gradually, Jule’s motivations become clearer and darker.
▪ “Goodbye Days,” Jeff Zentner (Crown).
Grief-stricken Carver Briggs, who feels responsible for the deaths of his three best friends, seeks a way to make amends and find peace. Zentner proves his understanding of the weight of responsibility, dialogue that deepens characters, and the interplay of humor and heartbreak.
▪ “The Hate U Give,” Angie Thomas (HarperCollins).
Gifted Starr comes from a poor gang-ridden neighborhood but attends a mostly white private school. Differences between these worlds widen when Starr witnesses the murder of her childhood friend by a white policeman. Emotionally intense moments are relieved by the rich characterizations, humor and the warmth of Starr’s unique and caring family.
▪ “I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” Erika L. Sanchez (Knopf).
Julia has always been unfavorably compared to her perfect sister, Olga, who fulfills all of her parents’ expectations. When Olga dies in an accident, Julia is swamped by grief, her mother’s many judgments and the knowledge that Olga may not have been so perfect. Mystery, first love and grief make for a powerful combination as does the wit and grit of the heroine.
▪ “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life,” Benjamin Alire Sanez (Clarion).
At 17, Sal’s tranquil life is disturbed by external and internal forces. Saenz returns to the theme of finding self in a rocky world with the same emotion-enriched relationships and lyricism of his previous books.
▪ “Landscape with Invisible Hands,” M.T. Anderson (Candlewick).
Adam Costello’s life turned upside down when the vuvv took over the Earth. His father has left, his mother is unemployed and he suffers from a debilitating (and often disgusting) gastrointestinal disease. This fast-moving, compelling read is loaded with sarcastic wit and stunning irreverent details. Its views of the disparity of wealth and power and social injustice are uncomfortably familiar.
▪ “A List of Cages,” Robin Roe (Hyperion).
Alternating first-person chapters of the two protagonists form sharp contrasts. Adam, 18, is kind and confident, while 14-year-old Julian, Adam’s former foster brother, would do anything to avoid human contact. Tenderness counteracts cruelty in this difficult, realistic story of abuse.
▪ “Midnight at the Electric,” Jodi Lynn Anderson (Harper).
Three first-person narrations blend into a lyrical symphony of connected stories. Seventeen-year-old Adri, orphaned and bound for Mars in 2065, finds connections after discovering Cat’s journal from the Dust Bowl era and letters written by Lenore after her brother’s death in WWI. This compelling read has evocative writing, intriguing parallels and three unforgettable heroines.
▪ “Miles Morales, Spider Man,” Jason Reynolds (Marvel).
Issues of racial identity and self-exploration deepen the adventures of this 16-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican, who juggles girls, his elite school and crime fighting.
▪ “Piecing Me Together,” Renee Watson (Bloomsbury, ages 12 and up).
Sixteen-year-old Jade, from a poor neighborhood in Portland, has a scholarship to a prestigious white-kids high school. A smart and talented artist, Jade is seen as a poor kid rather than the bright, resilient, determined young woman she is. The author’s rounded characters, her honesty and fresh voice make the complexities of racial stresses poignant and powerful.
▪ “Satellite,” Nick Lake (Knopf, ages 11 and up).
Leo, Orion and Libra have been born and live aboard Moon 2. Leo, an exquisite storyteller, relates his curiosity about Earth, the ugly truths he learns when landing on Earth and his longing for home. Lake’s prose has immense power, whether written in text speak, descriptions or emotional responses so carefully rendered that they take your breath away.
▪ “Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team,” Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook).
Once again Sheinkin proves his prowess at turning history into story and transforming figures from the past into identifiable characters. He smoothly connects the plight of Indian youth sent to boarding schools, the development of football, the ugliness of prejudice and the will of one amazing athlete all captured cinematically.
▪ “We Are Okay,” Nina LaCour (Dutton).
Marin has ignored countless calls and texts from Mabel, the best friend from her youth who had recently become her lover. Hurt and anger yield to understanding as the story unfolds to disclose Marin’s heartache in response to secrets that emerged after her beloved grandfather’s death.
▪ New in popular series: Renee Ahdieh’s “Flame in the Mist” (Speak); Victoria Aveyard’s “King’s Cage” (Harper); Catherine Egan’s “Julia’s Defiant” (Knopf); John Flanagan’s “The Caldera” (Philomel); Alwyn Hamilton’s “Traitor to the Throne” (Viking); Faith Hicks’ “The Stone Heart” (First Second); Bill Konigsberg’s “Honestly Ben” (Arthur Levine); Sarah Maas’ “Tower of Dawn” (Bloomsbury); Daniel Jose Older’s “Shadowhouse Fall” (Arthur Levine Books); Victoria Schwab’s “Our Dark Duet” (Greenwillow); Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Raven King” (Scholastic); Megan Whalen Turner’s “Thick as Thieves” (Greenwillow); Jonathan Stroud’s “The Empty Grave” (Hyperion); and Elizabeth Wein’s “The Pearl Thief” (Hyperion).
Susie Wilde is a Chapel Hill-based writer. She can be reached through her website ignitingwriting.com.