Some of the Best Children’s Books of 2022

Here are my favorite children’s books published in 2022. “Best” is always subjective with books, especially when no one can read them all, but these are the books that thrilled, delighted, and touched us this year – the ones that fully engaged us, or made us laugh, or taught us something wonderful and new. I hope you find something here that makes you happy. (And if you’re still looking for more, why not check out my 2021 list or any of my other guides?)

Picture Books

Mouse’s Wood: A Year in Nature, Alice Melvin [Amazon | Bookshop]

An exquisitely beautiful treasure with detailed flaps and fold-outs, this book takes readers on a journey through the seasons

To my mind, Alice Melvin is the master of flap books. Her book The High Street is one of my favorite children’s books of all time, with its many lift-the-flap storefronts and charming details, and Mouse’s Wood is an equally delightful showcase of Melvin’s skill. Oversized and exquisitely illustrated, it’s a year-long tour through a charming animal village, as Mouse visits friends one by one. (You can follow Mouse’s progress with the lovely map included at the front.) The rhyming text is simple and cozy, just four lines per page, and that’s just as well, because you’ll want to savor the images and explore behind the flaps. My children loved inspecting all the details inside each animal house: What has the rabbit been cooking? What does the hedgehog keep by its bed? And of course we had to discuss which house we would want, if we could have one (there might have to be a fight over the fox’s caravan). The aesthetic here exudes hygge and is, to me, wonderfully reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox: lots of animals in stylish sweaters and stripes. But all that aside, the first time we read this book, I couldn’t get over it – what a beautiful, lovely work of art, and quite possibly the most gorgeous book of 2022. This is one to buy for yourself or to give as an impressive gift.

Kat Hats, Daniel Pinkwater and Aaron Renier [Amazon | Bookshop]

A charmingly bonkers, truly original book book about cats trained to serve as hats

If you’re familiar with any of Daniel Pinkwater’s other books (The Big Orange SplotPickle Creature), you might have some idea of what to expect from this truly unusual and funny book. And if you’re new to Pinkwater, buckle up! It’s a ride! In Kat Hats, Matt Katz trains cats to serve as super-fluffy, living headgear, guaranteed to keep the wearer warm even in the most perilously cold conditions. And when Chickarina the witch gets stranded on the Witch’s Spitz mountain (in the dead of winter, eating a gigantic popsicle), there’s only one cat who can rescue her from a dangerous case of brain freeze: Thermal Herman 6 7/8ths. This book won’t be for steadfastly traditional readers – it’s even more bonkers than it sounds – but the way it totally commits to its wild vision is extremely charming. (And my children immediately asked me to read it a second time.) I love this book, and I’m so happy that people are writing and illustrating truly original books like this one.

The World Belonged to Us, Jacqueline Woodson and Leo Espinosa [Amazon | Bookshop]

A joyful paean to summertime – and to the importance of independence and freedom for children

If you’re ever craving that delicious, endless-summer feeling from childhood, open up this book and soak it in. With its bright, retro illustrations of a Brooklyn “not so long ago,” it’s a pitch-perfect evocation of childhood delight, of the wonderful adventures and communities children create with each other when adults give them space and time. There are box forts, jumping ropes, fire hydrant sprinklers, ice cream van chases, skinned knees, and kick the can, and you can practically hear the happy noise bursting from the pages. This is the kind of book that makes you want to go outside and play. (And the moment I finished reading it for the first time, my 5-year-old cried, “What a sweet book!” It really is!)

Animal Land Where There Are No People, Sybil and Katharine Corbet [50 Watts Books]

A collaboration between a 4-year-old and her mother, this book is a gem of surreal nonsense, a riotously funny and wondrous delight

One of the best children’s books ever written was dreamed up by a Scottish 4-year-old in 1896. Sybil liked to imagine a place she called Animal Land, full of curious beasts with nonsense names and bizarre habits and predilections. The Wuss, for example, “turns its back and eats Snakes,” while the Boddles, thrillingly, “screams and eats candles and soap.” Animal Land Where There Are No People was published the following year, in 1897, after Sybil’s mother had the brilliant foresight to write down her daughter’s words and create a series of genius illustrations to go with them – surreal and grotesque, psychedelic and strange. Few books have ever delighted me as much as this masterpiece of a collaboration between a toddler and her mother. Every time I read it, I’m flooded with joy and wonder and delight.

Sato the Rabbit: A Sea of Tea, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop]

Gorgeous, clever, and transcendently surreal, this magical book feels like a blissful dream

This third and final installment of Sato the Rabbit is every bit as extraordinary and delightful as the previous two. Here, Sato embarks on more peaceful adventures, each one a surreal pleasure: walking inside a giant raspberry, forking down a luscious slice of sky, scooping up stars to bathe in, and creating a portal into springtime (just to name a few). Every mini-story is cleverly imagined, beautifully illustrated, and exquisitely soothing. Sato’s world is one of creative exploration and sensory pleasures. If I could live inside a children’s book series, I might well choose this one.

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams, Tiger Tateishi [50 Watts Books]

This surreal delight about a dreaming tiger features beautiful, surprising illustrations

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams was originally published in Japan in 1984, but fortunately the brilliant 50 Watts Books reissued it in 2022. The story is lovely and simple – a tiger wanders through the land of dreams – and the illustrations complex and special. Both lulling and visually arresting, these images are full of surreal pleasures: Escher-style stair mazes, Magritte-like apple forms, and miraculous transformations galore, all set in a hazy landscape worthy of Dalí. If you have a careful and attentive eye, you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of surprising, delightful details. As soon as I finished reading this one to my children, they ripped it from my hands and spent time poring over the pictures, noticing odd and impossible phenomena. A gorgeous work of art.

Farmhouse, Sophie Blackall [Amazon | Bookshop]

A thoughtful, sensitive work of art

As with her remarkable, masterful Hello Lighthouse [Amazon | Bookshop], Sophie Blackall’s Farmhouse is a stunning work of art – gentle, sensitive, and exquisitely beautiful to behold. As she explains at the back of the book, Blackall purchased a plot of land that also housed an abandoned, decaying farmhouse, still full of remnants from the last tenants. Inspired by this evocative ruin, she salvaged what she could from the building, then used these scraps (and some research) to imagine the lives of the family who lived there. The text here unspools in one long, rhyming sentence, gently pulling the reader through time: births, traditions, daily rituals, growing up, and departures. By the end, it’s difficult to read the touching, bittersweet text without a catch in your voice. And what an incredible project! To think that Blackall carefully soaked layers of old wallpaper to peel them apart, then used those layers to create the art for this book – what a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.

The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense, Jon Scieszka and Julia Rothman [Amazon | Bookshop]

These clever, kaleidoscopic revisions of nursery rhymes are utterly delightful – and might make you want to make some Dada nursery rhymes yourself

The Real Dada Mother Goose is a rare and special book, a book so fun that it might inspire you to toss it aside and try creative revision yourself. Here, Scieszka has rewritten six nursery rhymes in sublime Dada fashion. “Jack Be Nimble” as a multiple choice test, “Old Mother Hubbard” backwards, “Hey Diddle Diddle” as a joke, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with anagrams mixed in – and so many more iterations, each one wildly creative, silly, and joyful. So often we’re told that writing is painful and hard work, and although, yes, this is pretty true most of the time, isn’t it a gift to remember how pleasurable it can be when the point is simply to play? And if you’re inspired to rewrite some nursery rhymes after reading this wonderful book, Scieszka has a handy guide at the back of the book, so you, too, can try Morse code, or hieroglyphics, or computer translation telephone. (And if you’re in the mood for more playful revision, try another one by Jon Scieszka, with Mac Barnett: the hilarious Battle Bunny [Amazon | Bookshop].)

Emile and the Field, Kevin Young and Chioma Ebinama [Amazon | Bookshop]

This gorgeous book joyfully celebrates common green spaces and the necessity of preserving the wild

This sublimely beautiful book has the feel of a long-loved classic. Emile loves a field – the flowers, the animals, the changing of the seasons – and it feels like his special place. He loves it so much, in fact, that it hurts a bit to think of other people using the space… until his dad explains to him, gently and touchingly, how common love can protect and preserve a special place. There’s magic in this idea, that we are stewards of the earth and cannot truly own or possess it, and this book pulses with that magic. In text and image, it’s poetry – a profoundly moving hymn to nature.

My Parents Won’t Stop Talking!, Emma Huntsinger and Tillie Walden [Amazon | Bookshop]

A child’s frustration with her sociable parents is taken to hilarious extremes

Molly is eager to go to the park, but as soon as her moms step outside, they’re waylaid by the Credenzas, the chatty neighbors from across the street. And of course – of course! – the adults are not only oblivious to the children’s frustration, but they’re talking about mind-numbingly boring things, like oil changes, soil quality, and garlic presses. Soon, it’s more than Molly can bear, and she has a spectacularly ridiculous breakdown that will leave children in stitches. This is not only a great book about a common childhood frustration, but it’s wonderfully funny, too. Molly’s catalog of increasingly goofy adult names got me first, before we all cracked up at her complete break with reality. And if you like this hyperventilating, exaggerated humor, check out another very funny book with a similar feel: Blanket: A Journey to Extreme Coziness [Amazon | Bookshop].

The Great Zapfino, Mac Barnett and Marla Frazee [Amazon | Bookshop]

Superbly conceived and executed, this book about a circus performer has a big payoff

While The Great Zapfino won’t have you rolling in the aisles like some of Mac Barnett’s other books, its concept and execution are superb, its payoff deeply satisfying. Here, circus performer the Great Zapfino chooses to leave the big top rather than perform a death-defying ten-story leap – and instead he goes to find a more regular job. It’s hard to say more without giving away this gem of a plot, so I’ll stop there. But if you’re looking for a funny book, yes, there’s one big joke here – and it’s a good one. 

Book of Questions, Pablo Neruda and Paloma Valdivia [Amazon | Bookshop]

For kids of all ages and adults, too, a truly special book of poetry filled with masterful illustrations

Featuring selections in both English and Spanish from Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions, this stunning picture book is worth savoring. To read Neruda’s poetry with children is often a wonderful treat, and the poems here are particularly special. Each spread features just a few of Neruda’s beautiful and philosophical questions about nature, life, language, and dreams. Children might want to offer answers to some of these questions, but as often as not, they seem provocative but mysterious and unanswerable – inspiration, perhaps, for coming up with your own questions. (As Chilean illustrator Paloma Valdivia notes at the end, “there are no answers, only more questions arising from Neruda’s questions.”) Valdivia’s illustrations, too, are masterworks, filled with mystery and symbolism – in other words, perfect companions to Neruda’s poetry. Every time I look at Valdivia’s pictures, I notice something new and beautiful. A truly special book.

Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play among Figures of Speech, Ted Kooser, Connie Wanek, and Richard Jones [Amazon | Bookshop]

Sophisticated, beautiful, and clever, these poems reward close reading but will delight and entertain the casual reader, too

We’re lucky if we get one good book of new children’s poetry a year, but here it is! While Michael Rosen’s poems are firework crowd-pleasers, the sorts of poems that make you roll in the aisle, these poems are a bit more subtle, clever and beautiful and awe-inspiring instead of clever and flat-out hilarious. But yes: there are still a couple of laughs. And yes: these poems are definitely entertaining! Some are delightfully philosophical, like “Meteor Shower,” which compares the universe to a ball being batted around by a playful cat, or “The World Without Me,” which imagines a second world – and an alternate reality – in the reflection of a puddle. And some are so off-the-wall clever that they’ll make you laugh (“June Afternoon” and “Cow Pie” and perhaps “Barn,” too). But either way, there’s hardly a dud in this book. Each one is a poem you could teach, a poem that could spark your imagination and give you a peek into the possibilities poetry opens up. In other words, each one is a conversation starter. (Although it’s a picture book, children 8 or 9 and up will get the most from this one.)

Mina, Matthew Forsythe [Amazon | Bookshop]

For kids who relish the idea of adults messing up, this tale delivers some big laughs

This offbeat tale of a “weird dad” and his long-suffering daughter had my children shrieking with laughter. Here’s the idea: Mina’s dad, who is both optimistic and shockingly unobservant (a dangerous combination), impulsively brings home an animal that he claims is a squirrel, but Mina isn’t so sure about that. He insists that there’s nothing to worry about… but is there? The illustrations are dreamlike, awash in a kaleidoscope of color, and the text is a perfect deadpan. If you read this book just right, playing up the contrast between Mina’s simmering suspicion and her dad’s cheery calm – even in the face of extreme danger! – and you can get kids screaming. Don’t all children love to laugh at a clueless parent?

Endlessly Ever After, Laurel Snyder and Dan Santat [Amazon | Bookshop]

A fun choose-your-own-adventure book that mixes and matches fairy tale plot lines

Suitable and enjoyable even for preschoolers, this choose-your-own-adventure picture book is a real delight. Here, the reader gets to make choices for Rosie, who is on her way to visit grandma, of course – and the first choice is as simple as choosing which coat to wear. Depending on your decisions, Rosie might find herself in “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “The Three Little Pigs,” or “Hansel and Gretel” (and there might also be a goose somewhere). It’s often unclear what the “right” choice is, in fact, and that ambiguity gives each read-through an exciting unpredictability. A really engaging book to read and re-read (and re-read again). 

Lizzy and the Cloud, The Fan Brothers [Amazon | Bookshop]

A whimsical and touching picture book about loving and letting go

In this gorgeously illustrated picture book, Lizzy purchases a cloud to keep as a pet. As her cloud grows, she tends to it lovingly, all according to its instruction manual – until it becomes clear that her cloud needs something different altogether: freedom. It’s touching but not overly sad, whimsical and stylish (with a few lovely nods to Magritte) – a visually arresting book, beautifully executed. 

Picture Book Non-Fiction

What a Shell Can Tell, Helen Scales and Sonia Pulido [Amazon | Bookshop]

Thrillingly informative, this book makes you look at shells with renewed interest and appreciation

Large in size and scope, this impressive book about shells is not only beautiful to look at but delightfully informative. What, it asks, can you tell about a shell just by looking at it? What does its texture tell you, its shape, its coloring – and can you determine how old the creature inside it was when it died? It’s enough to make you look at the beach in a whole new – and very exciting – way. My children and I read this one with our shell collection at our side so that we could put the book’s lessons into practice right away. All of us were thrilled with the activity. Highly recommended – a brilliant science book.

Anglerfish: The Seadevil of the Deep, Elaine M. Alexander and Fiona Fogg [Amazon | Bookshop]

This fascinating book is surprising and exciting in all the right ways – a fantastic book about a deeply strange fish

Is it too much to say that anglerfish are iconic? Certainly they’re amongst the most intriguing of the deep sea creatures, and fortunately this superbly written and incredibly interesting book does its subject justice. The illustrations simultaneously capture the frightening appearance of anglerfish and somehow make them cute – this is quite a feat! – and the text is compelling, following the anglerfish through its strange and wonderful lifecycle. My children and I learned an enormous amount here, and several of the facts are (thrillingly) almost too weird to believe. And if you’re eager for even more detail about these facts, there’s extra information at the back – and it’s beautifully illustrated and compelling, too. A top-notch biology book. 

Blue, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and Daniel Minter [Amazon | Bookshop]

An engrossing, poetic, and probing history of the color blue

This gorgeously illustrated exploration of the color blue brilliantly brings to life both the wonder and the horror of the color’s history. Rare in nature, blue proved tricky to find and manufacture, and this scarcity, along with its beauty, made it wildly desirable for royalty and the wealthy alike. The book explores not only how humans found blue in nature – in lapis lazuli, in plants, and in snails, for example – but how the craving for the color led to slavery and exploitation. It’s a poetically written, quick history for children that’s strikingly honest and detailed – and gorgeously illustrated in bright, jewel-like washes of color, too. 

Time Capsule, Lauren Redniss [Amazon | Bookshop]

A two-for-one picture book: a simple story about a girl and her time capsule and a fascinating mini-history of time capsules themselves

The plot of this book is simple but stimulating: a girl gathers materials, both concrete and abstract, for a time capsule. She puts in a marble, a tooth, a toy, a ticket, and also a nightmare and a dream. My children were already talking about what they’d put in a time capsule, and how they could manage to put a nightmare in one, before we even finished the simple story. My own favorite part of the book, though, is the extensive material at the back. It’s jammed with fascinating details about how the phrase “time capsule” was coined, how long humans have been making them, how many you can find in Washington, D.C. alone, and all sorts of notable time capsules (including one for appliances and, of course, the Voyager Golden Records). You really get two books out of this: a lovely story for younger children and a history that’s fascinating even for grown-ups.

A History of Underwear With Professor Chicken, Hannah Holt and Korwin Briggs [Amazon | Bookshop]

Packed with educational content, this history of underwear will be popular with kids because of its cleverly silly illustrations

This tour through the history of underpants is so enjoyable and silly that my kids kept asking me in disbelief, “Is this true?” Yes, it’s nonfiction, but having Professor Chicken as both the narrator and the underwear model makes the historical lessons go down smoothly. And somehow it’s perfect that a chicken is modeling bullet bras, union suits, stays and farthingales, xinyi, fundoshi, ancient leather loincloths – a vast array of underclothing from many different cultures and time periods. And it’s refreshingly non-judgmental and matter-of-fact (the book points out that leather underwear is quite hot and corsets painful, but – fair enough?). After all, “you get to pick the underwear that works for you.” The back matter has some really useful material for possible assignments, asking readers to do some detective work about prehistoric underwear and then about their own clothing: What is it made of? Where was it manufactured? And what can you do with your old clothing? 

Middle-Grade Fiction and Non-Fiction

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat [Amazon | Bookshop]

This compelling, masterfully written adventure novel is a suspenseful treat – and a exploration of the dangers of colonialism

This brilliant book is suspenseful and grippingly written from start to finish, a fantastic adventure tale with real stakes. By day, Sai has an interesting and prestigious job as an apprentice to a revered and talented mapmaker, but at night, she secretly returns to a life of deprivation alongside criminals and pick-pockets. Although Sai has grand ambitions, in Mangkon’s intensely class- and status-conscious society, her background would almost surely ruin any prospects of a better life. So when she and her boss find an opportunity to go to sea in search of the fabled Sunderlands, an unexplored and supposed home to dragons, she leaps at the chance. To survive at sea, however, she must keep her origins a secret, form alliances, and make difficult decisions that will have profound ramifications not only for herself but for the entire world. One of the book’s primary interests is colonialism and its consequences, and while that might sound dry or pedantic, here it’s beautifully done: moving, thought-provoking, and full of empathy. And make no mistake, the story is thrilling. There are stowaways, storms, shipwrecks, alliances and double-crossings, fights, and some miraculous and lovely resolutions worthy of Victorian fiction. (And, wonderfully, many strong and impressive female captains and warriors.) This one is a delightful page-turner for kids and adults alike. 

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, Tae Keller [Amazon | Bookshop]

This book about extraterrestrial life and bullying is also a moving argument to reject cynicism in favor of openness and awe

Mallory has become popular and has left her old friends behind, but when the unusual and exuberant alien-enthusiast Jennifer moves in across the street from her, she has a choice to make: befriend Jennifer and risk looking weird, or gang up on Jennifer with her mean-girl friends and teach her about the pecking order? (Spoiler alert: Mallory makes the wrong choice.) This book about bullying – about what it does to all people who are a part of it – is spiced up with a search for extraterrestrial life and a suspenseful mystery, but these additions aren’t mere window-dressing. Instead, they beautifully reinforce the themes and ideas in the book, which are profoundly empathic and thoughtful. Yes, this is a book about bullying and the secrets of the universe, but it’s also a persuasive argument against cynicism and despair and an encouragement to embrace feeling, authenticity, openness, and wonder. Keller’s research for her novel was personal, too: as an adult, she reached out to the people who had bullied her in school. What she discovered was illuminating and transformative, and it’s part of what makes this book so touching to read. 

Ain’t Burned All the Bright, Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin [Amazon | Bookshop]

A masterful marriage of art and poetry that brilliantly showcases how exciting and powerful these art forms are 

A hefty, gorgeous work of art, this book pairs the poetry of Reynolds with the mixed-media collages of Griffin to express the pain and tumult of 2020. The poem describes a few moments in the life of a Black family during the pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. Breath and breathing are central themes here, and the poem is ingeniously divided into three breaths, each section so propulsive that it’s easy to speed right through, driven from one beautiful page of poetry and art to the next. But take a moment to savor the powerful pairing of word and image. It’s so skillfully done that it feels both inspirational and accessible – kids might well be tempted to pull out their own scissors and sketchbooks, to create a collage book or zine with their own poetry. It also feels profoundly heartfelt and real, a testament to the power poetry still has to advocate for change and social justice. Put another way, it makes art and poetry feel not only relevant and exciting (as they are), but socially important and incredibly potent when paired. These are powers worth chasing.

The House of Shells, Efua Traoré [Book Depository]

A suspenseful and exciting ghost story set in Nigeria and filled with magic from Yoruba folktales

Efua Traoré’s wonderful Children of the Quicksands [Amazon | Bookshop] was one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2021, and in her new book, The House of Shells, she again uses Yoruba mythology and folktales to create a suspenseful, page-turning read. Following her mother’s remarriage, Kuki has just moved from Lagos to Lekki, where she finds herself lonely, lost, and relentlessly bullied into doing a classmate’s homework. But one day, while exploring, she finds a beautiful abandoned mansion and there meets a mysterious girl, Enilo. Kuki and Enilo turn out to have a lot in common, and soon the girls become fast friends. But why does Enilo refuse to be seen by Kuki’s parents? Does she have a home or family of her own? And why is Kuki’s aunt so insistent that Kuki beware of the Abiku, evil spirits that live inside children and cause them to die around their thirteenth birthday? Traoré is so good at crafting danger-filled, suspenseful plots, and kids who like ghost stories and haunted mansions will find a lot to enjoy here. I myself lose track of time while I’m reading her books – they come to life so vividly in my mind, and I race through the chapters just to find out what happens. These books are such pleasures.

We Are Wolves, Katrina Nannestad [Amazon | Bookshop]

A suspenseful tale of survival about the Wolfskinder, orphaned children who lived in the woods following the evacuation of East Prussia at the close of WWII

We Are Wolves shines a light on some lesser-known stories from World War II: those of the Wolfskinder. As the Russian army stormed into East Prussia at the close of the war, many civilians fled, and children orphaned or lost during this evacuation often found themselves fighting for survival in the woods or making the dangerous journey to Lithuania. Here, 11-year-old Leisl leaves home with her mother, grandparents, and two younger siblings, including baby Mia, but soon the children are separated from the adults and Leisl has to honor her mother’s wish that Leisl keep the other two children with her at any cost. What follows is an often grim tale of survival. The children eat slugs and raw eggs, have tussles and make alliances with other Wolfskinder, and begin to shed their illusions about Germany’s role in the war. (Prior to the evacuation, Leisl believed the government propaganda.) The cruelty of adults and other children here is at times staggering, heartbreaking, and infuriating, and the story is a suspenseful one, filled with real losses, joys, and many difficult decisions – a fascinating peek into this incredible part of Germany’s and Lithuania’s shared history. 

Our Sister, Again, Sophie Cameron [Amazon | Book Depository]

With echoes of Black Mirror and Frankenstein, this philosophical science fiction is a suspenseful conversation-starter

In a bid to heal her family after her 15-year-old sister dies of cancer, Isla unknowingly signs her mom up to be part of a top-secret artificial intelligence trial. Second Chances promises to recreate Flora as an AI so realistic that virtually no one will be able to tell that it’s a robot. While Flora’s grief-stricken mother jumps at the chance to have her daughter back again, Isla’s dad is so opposed to the idea that their family splits up. And after AI Flora arrives, it briefly feels like old times – until someone starts leaving threatening messages and Flora begins asking questions of her own. Soon Isla wonders: Is this truly Flora, or might this AI be someone else? Our Sister, Again engages deeply with profound philosophical questions: What is personhood? Can we ever truly replicate someone’s consciousness? What makes you who you are (is it memory, appearance, mannerisms, genetics)? And what responsibility do we have to our digital creations? Should they be afforded rights and protection? It might seem like the stuff of far-out science fiction, but these issues are of immediate importance (companies are already creating chatbots of deceased loved ones). Cameron teases out so many intricacies of this debate that you could spend ages discussing this fascinating book. And even better: it’s suspenseful and sophisticated, ripe for comparison to Black Mirror and Frankenstein. Our Sister, Again might work not only as a YA book, too, but as an exciting introduction to contemporary philosophical debates. But if that doesn’t thrill you (as it does me), don’t let that put you off! It’s an exciting and engaging plot, full stop.

The Lock-Eater, Zack Loran Clark [Amazon | Bookshop]

A warm-hearted fantasy, with heavy world-building and a philosophical bent

In this kind and generous fantasy adventure, orphan Melanie Gate has a special skill: the ability to open any lock or door merely by wishing. One night, a mysterious automaton comes knocking at the orphanage, seeking an apprentice for a witch, and Melanie is chosen for the job. But it soon becomes clear that the automaton wasn’t telling the truth, and Melanie finds herself in a lot of danger. The world-building in this novel is pretty impressive for middle grade fiction, but the book is also remarkable for the philosophical issues it raises. How can you behave ethically, when so often ethical decisions are messy, complicated, or imperfect? How can you determine what’s real? And what is a person, exactly? Many of the most touching parts of the book deal with the right to be whatever person you aspire to be, whatever gender, profession, sexual orientation, or style feels right and authentic. Books that start out in an orphanage often depict the orphanage as a grim place best left behind, but for Melanie the orphanage is a chosen family, a supportive place where children are given only placeholder names, ready to be cast off when they discover who they truly want to be. A lovely, exciting book with a terrific heart.

Cress Watercress, Gregory Maguire and David Litchfield [Amazon | Bookshop]

Delightful, charismatic, and sometimes sad, this novel about new beginnings after tragedy is perfect to read aloud together

After Cress’s beloved father disappears one night, she sometimes wonders whether he might not reappear someday. But as her mother assures her, when rabbits go missing at night, they don’t return. Cress’s mother instead relocates the family to a small room in a noisy tree, where Cress has to adjust to a new reality: an owl landlord who threatens to evict them; rowdy squirrel neighbors; a cruel, egotistical skunk who wants Cress to be her servant; and persistent threats from both a fox and a snake (brilliantly named the Final Drainpipe). Cress struggles with grief and depression in the wake of her tremendous losses – at times her sadness threatens to overwhelm her – and fights to gain some independence from her mother, to make her own way in the world, whatever the dangers. But despite Cress’s confusion and sadness, this book is filled with beauty, too, and kindness, and the wondrous feeling of discovering who you are – or who you are becoming. I was thoroughly charmed by the cast of characters and their evocative names, like Lady Agatha Cabbage, Nasty Nasturtium, Fricassee Sunday, and Tunk the bear. It’s touching and thoughtful, gorgeously written, and illustrated beautifully in color – a lovely book to read aloud together (and I think particularly suited for the 7-10s). 

The Mab, Matt Brown and Eloise Williams (eds.) and Max Low [Amazon]

A beautiful and very entertaining dual-language adaptation of The Mabinogi

What a fantastic labor of love this book is: eleven stories from The Mabinogi adapted by a variety of talented writers and illustrated with bright and beautiful illustrations – and presented in both English and Welsh. Wondrous things happen in these stories: a woman is created from a mass of flowers, a cauldron brings the dead back to life, and with a clap of thunder all but four people vanish from the landscape of Wales. (There’s also plenty here to delight fans of King Arthur.) Even on top of the mythic and fairy tale magic, these stories are compelling and often quite funny, too – a really terrific way to introduce children to some of the oldest stories in Britain.

A Rover’s Story, Jasmine Warga [Amazon | Bookshop]

This tearjerker of a novel about a fictional rover’s epic trip to Mars will get kids inspired about space exploration

That humans have put rovers on Mars, and that we can experience the planet through the data and images sent back to us – it’s almost too marvelous and astounding to wrap one’s mind around. But putting that deep stuff aside, let’s also take note: These Mars rovers are so wildly charismatic that it’s a challenge not to anthropomorphize them (at least a little). How lucky we are, then, to spend time with the narrator of Warga’s touching epic, Resilience, a fictional rover that’s a composite of the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers. If you’re a stickler for realism, perhaps look elsewhere, because Resilience is irresistibly drawn to humans and human emotions; he’s a robot with hopes, dreams, and fears. As he develops an intense bond with two of his creators, Raina and Xander, Resilience wonders: Will I disappoint them? Will I miss them when I go to Mars? And will I get to come home, once my mission is completed? With his drone sidekick, Fly, he sets off toward Mars, determined to rescue the stalled rover Courage and to find a fossil, or perhaps salt – something that would justify the cost of bringing him back to Earth. I’ll warn you that there’s a bit of heartbreak in this novel, but it’s also beautifully bittersweet and charming, the kind of story that will make kids curious to know more about these rovers and to follow their progress. Warga is so right: what a sublime and epic adventure these robots are on – it’s the stuff of dreams. (For more fantastic Mars stories, try the jaw-dropping graphic novel The Mars Challenge [Amazon | Bookshop] and for younger readers, Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover [Amazon | Bookshop].

Tales of Ancient Worlds: Adventures in Archaeology, Stefan Milosavljevich and Sam Caldwell [Amazon | Bookshop]

With fascinating and compelling archaeological stories on every page, this book is a delight for children and adults alike

Everyone in our household – including our little 5-year-old – loved this book. Many non-fiction books of this type feature so many disconnected snippets of trivia that it’s difficult or tedious to read them straight through, but Tales of Ancient Worlds has a real narrative feel. Every archaeological find reads like a mystery story: How did archaeologists discover the site? What did they excavate there, what questions did the artifacts provoke, and what conclusions could archaeologists draw from what they found (and why)? And what do we still not know? Reading this book together made us feel like we were traveling through time (or made us desperately wish we could). Riveting and inspiring.

How to Build a Human in Seven Evolutionary Steps, Pamela S. Turner and John Gurche [Amazon | Bookshop]

A conversational and immensely interesting look at human evolution that makes you fully appreciate how wondrous our evolutionary journey has been

If you’ve got questions about how humans evolved, this casual, chatty, and often humorous book probably has the answers you’re looking for. Wonderfully in-depth, it examines evolution in seven steps: walking upright, making and using tools, developing larger heads, migrating and adapting to the environment, cooking with fire, talking, and developing narratives. But despite this tidy organization, the book never feels rote or boring. Instead, it’s filled with incredible, mind-blowing details – and Turner is careful to stop and explore them. What was it like, for example, when humans encountered Neanderthals or Denisovans? (As Turner puts it, “when we left Africa, our world was like Tolkien’s Middle-earth with its Orcs, Ents, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and humans.”) And what evidence can we look to to understand this experience? Wonderful, too, are the illustrations and the photographs, including many photos of skulls and fascinating objects like the Makapansgat Pebble. It’s such a pleasurable way to learn so much. Reading it takes you to another place and time. You imagine, you marvel. 

Graphic Novels

Frizzy, Claribel A. Ortega and Rose Bousamra [Amazon | Bookshop]

An immensely wise and readable graphic novel about unlearning hurtful beauty standards and embracing what feels right and authentic

Wise books with big messages aren’t always the most fun, so let’s put this at the beginning: Frizzy is a great read. Deftly written and illustrated, it’s a page-turning delight, with charismatic characters, compelling dialogue, and emotional depth. And, on top of all of that, it has some real wisdom to impart to its readers. Marlene and her mom head to the beauty salon every weekend to have their hair straightened. It’s a tradition in her mother’s Dominican family – “good hair” is imperative – and although Marlene hates the salon, disobeying her mother terrifies her. Is there a way, she wonders, to keep her natural curls and still be happy? Is having straight hair what makes you beautiful, what makes you look “professional”? Fortunately, Marlene’s Tía Ruby has some advice. It’s emotional reading, watching Marlene and her mother unlearn the ideas they’ve grown up with, the ideas that are all around them. And disentangling yourself from these kinds of ideas – about how we should look or act to qualify as “worthy” – is the work of a lifetime. We should all be so lucky as to have someone like Marlene’s Tía Ruby in our lives, but to watch this story unfold is a real gift. 

Little Monarchs, Jonathan Case [Amazon | Bookshop]

A phenomenal, knock-your-socks-off dystopian graphic novel that mixes science with edge-of-your-seat suspense

This is one of the finest middle grade graphic novels I’ve read, so sophisticated and suspenseful that it might as well be a book for adults, too. But while I often let my second-grader read all the middle grade graphic novels she likes, I’ll be saving this for her until she’s in the fourth or fifth grade. Why? Because this masterful book feels a bit like The Walking Dead lite for kids: gripping, page-turning, scary, and stressful (but in a good way, if you’re into that!). The premise is that midway through the 21st century, a change in the sun caused all mammals to develop “sun sickness”: if exposed to sunlight for more than a few moments, mammals would die within hours. A few clusters of humans survived, including one group of scientists who were working deep underground at the time of the disaster. Decades later, a child of one of those scientists, Flora, has developed a vaccine made from the scraped-off scales of monarch butterflies. But the vaccine has a short shelf-life and is only effective for 36 hours. Ten-year-old Elvie has been left in Flora’s care after her own parents traveled south, hoping to reach the spot monarchs fly to in the winter. Elvie’s parents never came back, and Flora and Elvie are hoping to follow them to Mexico (and to develop a more effective vaccine). Because they alone have the vaccine, they can be out during the day, but at night they have to hide from marauders… This has all the thrills of a zombie movie, a page-turner for kids and adults alike. The suspense is top-notch, and the characters here are fantastic — the relationship between Elvie and Flora is a thing of beauty. There’s also plenty of science mixed in — Flora gives Elvie some rigorous assignments, and we get to read Elvie’s lively, charismatic journal entries — but with surprises and twists like these, you might not even notice.

The Tryout, Christina Soontornvat and Joanna Cacao [Amazon | Bookshop]

This autobiographical graphic novel about cheerleading tryouts and what it means to belong is exhilarating, suspenseful, and immensely moving

Christina Soontornvat is one of my favorite children’s writers. She can make almost anything breathlessly compelling, from her stellar book about the rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team, All Thirteen [Amazon | Bookshop], to The Last Mapmaker, her page-turning and epic middle grade fantasy novel. The subject matter of The Tryout – Soontornvat’s own middle school cheerleading tryouts in Grangeview, Texas – might seem less grand than her other books, but this story has spectacular emotional depth. In primarily white Grangeview, Christina and her best friend Megan are often bullied and made to feel like they don’t belong. (Christina’s dad immigrated from Thailand, while Megan’s dad is from Iran.) But when Megan and Christina decide to do cheerleading tryouts, Christina has to wonder: Am I doing this to fit in, or am I doing it because I like it? And what if Megan, a talented gymnast, makes the team, but Christina doesn’t? Will Megan become popular and forget about Christina? Amidst this engrossing drama, there’s also the wonderful story of Christina’s parents, former hippies who open the first Asian restaurant in their Texas community. So many parts of this book are truly touching, comforting, and inspirational. A wise and kind book that’s a real page-turner, too.

Miss Quinces, Kat Farjardo [Amazon | Bookshop]

An enjoyable graphic novel about finding compromise and adding your own style to old traditions

Sue is a comics enthusiast with punk rock style. She longs to go to sleepaway camp with her friends, but instead she has to spend the summer with her extended family in Honduras. But what’s even worse is that they’re desperate to throw her a big, princess-style quinces – not her interest and definitely not her style. Although Sue and her mom both stubbornly insist on doing things their way, there’s a compromise in the works, and Sue herself finds a way to bring her style and her passion for comics into their summer plans. This graphic novel is a good one for kids who love Raina Telgemeier’s books and also for those passionate about zines or comics – it ends with a lovely little zine from Sue.

Swim Team, Johnnie Christmas [Amazon | Bookshop]

A suspenseful graphic novel about middle school swimming competitions that deftly weaves in the history of swimming pool segregation

When Bree moves to Florida, she’s surprised and intimidated by how much swimming is a part of the culture there. And when she’s forced to take swimming classes in middle school, she must confront her fears and self-doubt – Bree never learned to swim. Fortunately for Bree, however, her new neighbor, a former professional swimmer, is happy to teach Bree not only about swimming technique but also about swimming’s place in Black history and her teacher’s own experiences with segregated swimming pools. Exciting and heartfelt, this lovely graphic novel deftly weaves history into a suspenseful narrative about competition and new friendships. (And it might make you want to watch – or try! – some medley relays, too.)

The Well, Jake Wyatt and Choo [Amazon | Bookshop]

The heroine of this sophisticated and gorgeous graphic novel must grant the wishes of three strangers if she wants to escape a deadly curse

After taking her grandfather’s goats to sell at the market for the first time, Li-Zhen, who goes by “Lizzy,” accidentally overspends her pocket money and doesn’t have the fare to pay for the voyage back home. And so she does something terrible in desperation: she fishes three coins out of a wishing well. When the well spirit seeks its revenge and curses her, Lizzy at first believes that she can simply repay the debt. But what the well spirit wants instead is for Lizzy to grant the wishes within the coins – the wishes their owners’ made before they tossed them into the well. It’s an intriguing premise to a fairy tale, and there’s more to this adventure, too: a headstrong goat companion; wily goblins; and the leviathan, a monster Lizzy’s mother sacrificed her life to contain (and which Lizzy will have to defeat). In this world, women and girls are formidable sailors, warriors, and, witches – there’s a diverse cast of characters and good queer representation, too. While it’s recommended for ages 14+ and is more sophisticated than many middle grade graphic novels, I think plenty of middle grade readers would enjoy this one, too.

Activity Books

The Science Spell Book: Magical Experiments for Kids, Cara Florance [Amazon | Bookshop]

Beautifully and cleverly presented, this book is full of very good and not-too-difficult magic-themed science experiments

Science experiment books are a dime a dozen, and usually you can just find all the experiments online anyway — but this one is special and will likely delight many magic-obsessed children. Florance has divided her book into five intriguing sections: infusions (acids/bases), illumination (light), sorcery (magnetism and forces), alchemy (physical and chemical changes), and mimicry (biomimicry). The experiments she’s chosen for each section are not only achievable but involve real science — and she’s got plenty of explanatory text to help make the “magic” educational, too. I love books of science experiments, but your average 1000 Chemistry Experiments for Kids is nowhere near as exciting or motivating as a book that doubles as a full course in magic. Ingenious!

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