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The best books and YA novels of 2018 for younger readers

Jacqueline Woodson’s spare writing examines issues without a heavy-hand as children reveal the pain of deportation, racial profiling, and having a jailed parent in “Harbor Me.”
Jacqueline Woodson’s spare writing examines issues without a heavy-hand as children reveal the pain of deportation, racial profiling, and having a jailed parent in “Harbor Me.” Dial

Last week, I kicked off my annual Wilde Awards, the 22nd annual edition, with my list of favorite books of 2018 for children and young readers.

This week, I look at longer books for older readers.

Like the Wilde Awards picture book winners, where I found books reflecting today’s society, I found novels with more characters of color. These characters model, both historical and present day, broaden the visions of all children.

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Of the hundreds of books I’ve chosen this year, these 22nd annual Wilde Award-winning novels, inspire wonder, thought and discussion.

They answer questions that adults should consider when seeking novels that matter.

Will it engage readers?

Is it unique? Does it offer a different perspective?

Will the book lead to meaningful discussion or understanding?

Does it have strong characters, compelling tension and a resolution that will lead to meaningful understanding, or inspire questioning.

Here is my list of favorites.

Early Novels

“Dear Sister,” Alison McGhee (Atheneum): There are more illustrations and lots more attitude than words in this short novel about a boy who is not pleased with the arrival of his new sister, but grows into understanding, love and caring by book’s end.

“Fairy Mom and Me,” Sophie Kinsella, read by Cassandra Morris (Delacorte): The well-known adult author perfectly represents the enthusiasm of Ella Brooks whose mother, with a wiggle of her bottom and the word “Marshmallow,” turns into a fairy. Ella has to deal with her mom’s magical missteps as well as a snoopy mean girl next door.

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There are more illustrations and lots more attitude than words in this short novel, “Dear Sister,” by Alison McGhee, about a boy who is not pleased with the arrival of his new sister, but grows into understanding, love and caring by book’s end. Atheneum

“Polly Diamond and the Magic Word,” Alice Kuipers (Chronicle, ages 5-8): Polly’s life is crazy with a little sister and another baby coming any day…and that’s before she receives a book that writes back to her and grants her every wish.

New in established series: Tedd Arnold’s “Fly Guy and the Alienzz” (Scholastic); Aaron Blabey’s “Alien VS Badguys” (Scholastic); Mac Barnett’s “The Terrible Twos Last Laugh” (Abrams); Peter Brown’s “The Wild Robot Escapes” (Little Brown); Debbi Ichiko Florence’s “Jasmine Toguchi: Flamingo Keeper” (FSG); Bea Garcia’s “Tale of a Scaredy Dog” (Dial); Dean & Shannon Hale’s “The Princess in Blackand the Science Fair Scare” (Candlewick); Abby Halon’s “Dory Head in the Clouds”; Sara Pennypacker’s “Waylon! Even More Awesome” (Hyperion); Dav Pilkey’s “Dogman Lord of the Fleas” (Graphix); (Dial); Linda Urban’s “Road Trip with Max” (HMH); Ursula Vernon, “Little Red Rodent Hood” (Dial).

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Debbi Ichiko Florence returns with “Jasmine Toguchi: Flamingo Keeper.” FSG

Middle Grade (Ages 9-12)

“Amal Unbound,” Aisha Saeed (Nancy Paulson Books): In one moment intelligent Amal is transformed from a bright 12-year-old Pakistani student determined to be a teacher right into indentured servitude. The book reveals the cruelty of the politics through the strength and wit of the main character.

“Betty Before X,” Ilyashah Shabazz and Renee Watson (FSG): The daughter of Macolm X pairs with skilled Watson for a quick-moving, easy-reading, slightly-fictionalized biography of her mother, Dr. Betty Shabazz. Focusing on her coming of age, the upbeat book reveals not just her harsh realities, but gives context of to the beginnings of black power in the 1940’s.

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In one moment intelligent Amal is transformed from a bright 12-year-old Pakistani student determined to be a teacher right into indentured servitude in “Amal Unbound,” by Aisha Saeed. Nancy Paulson Books

“Finding Langston,” Lesa Cline-Ransome (Holiday House): His mother’s death, moving to Chicago and his shut-down father are all hard for 11-year-old Langston. And that’s before bullies target him. Safety and solace come in discovering and seeing connections with the work of his namesake, Langston Hughes, in 1946 a library that isn’t just for whites.

“Front Desk,” Kelly Yang (Scholastic): Has there ever been a character who can meet the resilience of Mia Tang? Mia moves with her parents from China to California and almost immediately aids them in managing a motel by taking over the front desk. By turns humorous and horrifying, 5th grader Mia ‘s optimism defeats 1980’s racism.

“Harbor Me,” Jacqueline Woodson (Dial): What happens when six kids are sent to a room for a weekly chat unaccompanied by adults? Awkwardness that yields to intimacy, honesty, compassion and closeness. Woodson’s spare writing examines issues without a heavy-hand as these children reveal the pain of deportation, racial profiling and having a jailed parent.

“The Last,” Katherine Applegate (Harper): Byx, the youngest dairne in her pack, may possible be the last. The first in the new Endling series launches with her quest to find a moving island where dairnes might still exist. Action and adventure, magic, imaginative world-building and fascinating characters who light up the dark-toned tale.

”The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl,” Stacy McAnulty (Random): Lucy’s “supercomputer” brain arrived when she was struck at 8 by lightning. At 12, her germaphobia and OCD make her far less gifted at friendship. Still, her caring and brilliance come through when she solves problems with two buddies at an animal shelter.

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Kwame Alexander returns with the newest book in his series, “Rebound.” Houghton

“Merci Suarez Changes Gears,” Meg Medina (Candlewick): Merci doesn’t fit in with kids at her Florida private school and a mean girl makes it worse. But life is harder still when her beloved grandfather begins to act strange and no one in her family will tell her what’s going on. Medina’s humor, warmth and wisdom work well in her first middle grade book.

“The Truth As Told By Mason Buttle,” Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen): Mason his cheer despite living with his grieving uncle and grandmother, his disabilities, large size, constant sweat, bullies and a police lieutenant who keeps asking him about the accidental death of his best friend. The strong voice and warm tone make you root for the hero.

New in established series: William Alexander’s “A Festival of Ghosts” (McElderry); Kwame Alexander’s “Rebound” (Houghton); Emma Donoghue’s “The Lotterys More or Less” (Scholastic); Tim Federle’s “Nate Expectations” (S&S); Gennifer Chodenko’s “Al Capone Throw Me a Curve” (Random); Jennifer Holm’s “The Third Mushroom” (Random House); M.G. Leonard’s “Revenge of the Beetle Queen (Scholastic); Kate Milford’s Bluecrowne (Clarion); Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters: The Island of Monsters (HarperCollins); Sara Pennypacker’s “Waylon! Even More Awesome” (Disney-Hyperion); Jason Reynold’s “Sunny” (Atheneum); Mark Siegel’s “The Cobalt Prince” (Random House); T.R. Simon’s “Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground” (Candlewick); Sheila Turnage’s “The Law of Finders Keepers” (Penguin).

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YA Novels

“The Astonishing Color of After,” Pan, Emily X.R. (Little Brown): Taiwanese-American Leigh sees a red bird after her mother’s death and is led to reconnect with her estranged Taiwanese grandparents. Lyrical and irreverent, fantastical and real, all support readers on this evocative journey through grief and the understanding of mental illness.

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Taiwanese-American Leigh sees a red bird after her mother’s death and is led to reconnect with her estranged Taiwanese grandparents in “The Astonishing Color of After,†by Emily X. R. Pan. Little Brown

“Dread Nation,” Justina Ireland (Balzer and Bray): When the bodies rise from the Gettysburg Battlefield, it’s time for new heroes like Jane McKeene, a confident young black woman born to a white plantation mistress. Jane becomes an “Attendant,” trained in graces and weaponry to kill the “shamblers.” Plucky Jane is the perfect person viewpoint character to reveal the endurance of oppression and racism and love and loyalty. This alt-history has hard-hitting messages that are delivered with humor and emotions.

“Love to Everyone,” Hilary MacKay (McElderry): This read has an old-fashioned feel and is unique in setting, structure, and story. We follow 20 years of the lives of Clarry and her older brother Peter who struggle with an emotionally-distant widowed father in early life and later are changed by the horrors of World War I.

“Orphan Monster Spy,” Matt Killeen (Viking): This fast-paced World War II novel begins with a jolt as Sarah’s mother is killed in an accident. Sarah, who is Jewish, is plunged into a chaotic world where her life is at risk every moment. Just as she is just adjusting to the life of the orphan, she is enrolled as a spy on a mission more dangerous than she imagined undertaking.

“The Poet X,” Elizabeth Acevedo (HarperTeen): Both author and heroine possess a gift for arranging words, sequencing sounds and enriching both with emotions in this rhythmic book of linked free verse poems telling the story of first-generation Dominican-American teen Xiomara (X) Barista who is grew up in Harlem with a zealous Catholic mother and “a little too much body for a young girl.” Attention from her gentle schoolmate, Aman leads X’s need to understand love, sex, and religion. Subject, tone, form and expression are diverse and poignant.

“Seafire,” Natalie C. Parker (Penguin-Random House): First in a series features Caledonia Styx who is growing into her role as leader of a fierce pirate crew of women. Non-stop action with a few emotional pauses make this a captivating read.

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Elegance of word, creativity of ideas, and spot-on emotions characterize the first book in the Numair Chronicles, “Tempests and Slaughter,” by Tamora Pierce. Random

“Tempests and Slaughter,” Tamora Pierce (Random): Elegance of word, creativity of ideas, and spot-on emotions characterize the first book in the Numair Chronicles. The first covers the coming of age of Arram Draper who has no clue as to his magical skills. A young prince and female mage support him through understanding his powers and offer great promise for future books.

“A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” Tahereh Mafi (HarperTeen): Cynical Shirin, an American-Muslim teenager has attended 12 schools and faced prejudice even before 9-11. Will caring from Ocean shatter or add to the walls she’s built? The fantasy-creating author builds a realistic novel with a strong voice, revealing much about racism and politics.

“The War Outside,” Monica Hesse (Little Brown): Crystal City, Texas, World War II internment camp for both Japanese and German families, is little known in US history, but the author reveals this shameful part of history through very real characters, Haruko and Margot who form an unlikely friendship.

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Julie Murphy returns with the next in series, “Puddin’.” Balzer & Bray

New in Series: Catherine Egan’s “Julia Unbound” (RandomHouse); John Flanagan’s “The Caldera” (Viking); Alwyn Hamilton’s “Hero at the Fall” (Viking); Carolyn Mackler’s “The Universe is Expanding and So Am I” (Bloomsbury); David Levithan, “Someday” (Knopf); Marie Lu’s Wildcard (Putnam); Julie Murphy’s “Puddin’ (Balzer & Bray); Scott Reintgen’s “Nyxia Unleashed” (Ember); Laura Ruby’s “York” (HarperCollins) ; Kevin Sands’ “Call of the Wraith” (Atheneum)

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Longer Nonfiction

“Hey, Kiddo,” Jarrett J. Krosoczak (Graphic): Krosoczak gives an honest memoir of his growing up in this monochromatic graphic novel about abandonment by his drug-addicted mother and the abuse of his maternal grandmother. Hope blooms in his drawing survival and finally meeting his father who deserted before he was born.

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Readers will be captured by this nonfiction book, “Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam,” by Elizabeth Partridge, that covers the personal, political and historical. Penguin

“Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World,” Penelope Bagieu. This graphic novel has an astounding range and expression of biographies of women from around the world.

Read Next

“Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam,” Elizabeth Partridge (Penguin): From the stunning cover, readers will be captured by this nonfiction that covers the personal, political and historical. The basis of the book and its power comes from interviews with six veterans.

Susie Wilde is a Chapel Hill-based writer. She can be reached through her website ignitingwriting.com.
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