Looking Back at 2020 Fiction
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Throughout the COVID pandemic, reading fiction has played an important role in entertaining, inspiring, informing, and grounding us. As we have done for many years, we recommended to each other our “you-must-read-this” favorites, and we had lots of them. As a result, deciding on only twenty books that the two of us could agree upon for our notable fiction of 2020 list was a challenge.
Before the Ever After. Jacqueline Woodson. (2020). Nancy Paulsen.
Through titled poems in this novel-in-verse, twelve-year-old ZJ, son of legendary football tight end Zachariah Johnson, negotiates a world of hurt, confusion, and loss after his father is diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a debilitating condition caused by repetitive blows to the head. Following his dad’s forced retirement and progressive deterioration, ZJ recalls how his guitar playing stirs his father’s memories. (Gr 6 Up)
Clap When You Land. Elizabeth Acevedo. (2020). HarperTeen.
In alternating free verse, Camino Rios (from the Dominican Republic) and Yahaira Rios (from New York City) tell how they learn they are sisters after the death of the father they adore in a plane crash. Although their differences are many, the girls come together at his funeral in the Dominican Republic and discover that, if they can learn to trust each other, they’ll be able do more than survive an uncertain future. (Gr 9-12)
Echo Mountain. Lauren Wolk. (2020). Dutton.
Twelve-year-old Ellie loves living in the Maine wilderness after her family loses their home in town during the Great Depression. After a tree fells her father, leaving him in a coma, she is blamed for it. An unlikely friendship leads Ellie to the “hag” of Echo Mountain, who teaches her the art of healing, and she finds herself harnessing her courage to save not one, but two lives, unearthing secrets that have stay buried far too long. (Gr 6-8)
Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away. Megan Medina. Illus. by Sonia Sánchez. (2020). Candlewick.
On the last day, when Evelyn Del Rey and her family are moving away, she and her major amiga, número uno best friend, Daniela, find an empty box in which they play imaginative games one last time. As the moving truck rumbles away, they seal promises to keep in touch with sparkly stickers on their cheeks. Digital artwork in bold, warm colors captures this special friendship perfectly. (PreK-Gr 2)
Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story). Daniel Nayeri. (2020). Levine Querido.
In Nayeri’s autobiographical novel, twelve-year old Daniel, in the style of Persian storyteller Scheherazade, weaves a patchwork of tales that he tells his fifth-grade classmates in Edmond, Oklahoma. With a sketchy memory and a lively imagination, Daniel mixes vignettes of childhood in Iran (where his name was Khosrou), experiences as a refugee following his Muslim mother’s conversion to Christianity, and the ongoing confusion of life as an immigrant in the U.S. (Gr 6 Up)
Fighting Words. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (2020). Dial.
Ten-year-old Della and her sixteen-year-old sister, Suki, escape from their mother’s boyfriend, Clifton, one night. Because Mama has been in prison for five years, they are placed in foster care. The “hard things” leading up to this point in their lives are unveiled, bit by bit. To keep Clifton behind bars, Della and Suki finally accept that they aren’t to blame for his actions and must courageously tell of his abuse. (Gr 6-8)
Hike. Pete Oswald. (2020). Candlewick.
Oswald’s artwork in this almost wordless picture book invites young children to join a father and son on a daylong adventure. They hike forest trails, view wildlife, and plant a conifer seedling (and take a selfie with it) before heading down the mountain. Back home, the pajama-clad pair share a snack of milk and cookies and doze off while looking at the family album with snapshots of earlier generations planting seedlings. (PreK-Gr 2)
If You Come to Earth. Sophie Blackall. (2020). Chronicle.
Young Quinn writes a letter to a potential visitor from Outer Space listing a wealth of things about the geography, languages, flora and fauna, and people of planet Earth. Quinn adds that right now “we are here together on this beautiful planet” and concludes by inviting the visitor to stay in his room. Blackall’s richly detailed ink-and-watercolor illustrations joyfully portray the planet we share. (PreK-Gr 2)
Jacob’s Fantastic Flight. Philip Waechter. Trans. by Elisabeth Lauffer. (2020). Blue Dot Kids.
From infancy, Jacob could fly. On a family vacation to the Mediterranean coast, Jacob opts to fly on his own while his parents travel by plane. The gently humorous text and artwork of this German import details Jacob’s fantastic flight in which he joins a flock of birds flying to Africa and orchestrates the rescue of a tiny bird ensnared by a notorious birdcatcher before meeting up with his parents by the sea. (PreK-Gr 2)
Kent State. Deborah Wiles. (2020). Scholastic.
Wiles’ free verse novel invites readers to join in a conversation about the four days of anti-Vietnam protest on the Kent State University campus in May 1970 in which four students were killed by National Guard troops. The voices of two former Kent State students arguing opposing positions are joined by those of others including National Guard members, students, administrators, townspeople, and government officials. Well-researched and timely. (Gr 9 Up)
King and the Dragonflies. Kacen Callender. (2020). Scholastic.
Black twelve-year-old Kingston grieves after the unexpected death of his older brother, Khalid, believing he has returned to the bayou as a dragonfly. Khalid had earlier admonished King to stay away from childhood friend Sandy, a gay, white boy, who was being physically abused by his father, the sheriff. Initially shunning Sandy, King later helps him hide. After the boys’ reunion turns into something more than friendship, King must reconcile his dead brother’s homophobic feelings against the reality of his own life. (Gr 6-8)
Leaving Lymon (Finding Langston Trilogy #2). Lesa Cline-Ransome. (2020). Holiday House. (Gr 3 Up)
In 1946, Lymon, raised by his grandparents in Mississippi, is sent to Chicago to live with his mother after Grandpops, who taught him to play the guitar, dies. After stealing from his abusive stepfather, Lymon is placed in a boys’ home where he meets someone who transforms his life through re-introducing him to music. Being Clem, the final book of this engaging trilogy, which began with Finding Langston (2018), will be published in August 2021. (Gr 3 Up)
The List of Things That Will Not Change. Rebecca Stead. (2020). Wendy Lamb.
When eight-year-old Bea’s parents divorce, they give her a notebook with a list of things that will not change. At the top is that her parents will always love her and that they are still a family but in a different way. At age ten, with a therapist helping her handle her worrying habit, Bea has a lot on her mind now that Dad is marrying his boyfriend. (Gr 6-8)
Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us. Lauren Castillo. (2020). Alfred A. Knopf.
At first there was just Hedgehog and Mutty (a toy dog) living happily all alone on a teeny-tiny island until the Terrible Storm carried off Mutty. As she sets out to find her lost friend, Hedgehog meets Mole, Owl, Beaver, Hen, Chick One and Chick Two, and Annika Mae Flores, a girl new to the neighborhood, who has rescued Mutty. This charming friendship story ends with the promise of more adventures to come. (PreK-Gr 2)
A Polar Bear in the Snow. Mac Barnett. Illus. by Shawn Harris. (2020). Candlewick.
A polar bear awakening in the snow is gradually revealed against a background of textured white paper. Through a simple, lyrical text with the refrain “Where is he going?” and white and gray cut-paper-and-ink illustrations, readers follow his journey across the snow to the sea, shown in shades of turquoise, where he playfully swims. When the illustrations return to white and gray, readers are left to speculate where the polar bear will go next on his Arctic adventure. (PreK-Gr 2)
Skunk and Badger (Skunk and Badger #1). Amy Timberlake. Illus. by Jon Klassen. (2020). Algonquin.
Badger, a rock scientist preoccupied with doing “Important Rock Work,” finds his quiet, orderly routine upset by the arrival of loquacious Skunk, who identifies himself as Badger’s new roommate (thanks to the invitation of Aunt Lulu, the owner of the house). Readers can look forward to more ups and down as a friendship develops between this decidedly odd couple. (Gr 3-5)
Ways to Make Sunshine (Ryan Hart #1). Renée Watson. Illus. by Nina Mata. (2020). Bloomsbury.
Watson’s new middle grade series introduces an African American girl named Ryan (which she explains means “king”), who lives in Portland, Oregon. Living up to her parents’ “Be who we named you to be” is not always easy. In episodic chapters, Ryan finds “ways to make sunshine” as she confronts personal doubts and faces changes in her family and friendships. Book two, Ways to Grow Love, will be published in April. (Gr 3-5)
We Are Not Free. Traci Chee. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
More than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast were forced into incarceration camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fourteen young people, who grew up together in Japan Town, San Francisco, take turns relating their experiences between 1942 and 1945 through intertwining grim narratives of suspension of civil rights, governmental control, family life violence, and survival in sub-human conditions. An afternote describes how the author’s family history informed her writing of this historical novel. (Gr 6 Up)
We Are Not from Here. Jenny Torres Sanchez. (2020). Philomel.
Running for their lives, teens Pequeña, Pulga, and Chico begin a perilous journey north from their hometown of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. They walk and walk and jump on and off the network of freight trains known as La Bestia in Mexico with hope that they will reach the Mexican-U.S. border alive. An author’s note provides a context for this painfully realistic and timely narrative of the plight of migrants to the U.S. (Gr 9 Up)
When You Trap a Tiger. Tae Keller. (2020). Random House.
In the summer before seventh grade, Lily travels with her sister and widowed mother to Washington to be with their dying Korean grandmother, Halmoni. On their way there, Lily sees a magical tiger and soon deduces that Halmoni has bottled up sad stories laced with mythology. Lily barters stories with the magical tiger for Halmoni’s healing and learns you must be careful what you ask for. (Gr 6-8)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Although our access to new releases has been curtailed somewhat during the COVID pandemic, as we have done in previous years, we have made the identification of outstanding trade books with curriculum connections a priority in looking back at the bounty of nonfiction published in 2020. Here are our best-of-the-year picks.
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball. Jen Bryant. Illus. by Frank Morrison. (2020). Abrams.
A lyrical text and stunning oil paintings tell the life story of African American Elgin Baylor (1934- ), whose unique style on the basketball court influenced how others played and helped popularized the game. And when Baylor did not suit up and sat down before the crowd one night in 1959 in protest of racial discrimination, the fans, the press, and the NBA commissioners noticed. Elgin Baylor changed basketball and helped change things off the court, too. (Gr 3-5)
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. Christina Soontornvat. (2020). Candlewick.
On June 21, 2018, a hike through the cave system at Tham Luang Nng Non Forest Park in northern Thailand by twelve young soccer players and their coach turned disastrous when they were trapped by flood waters. Soontornvat’s clear, detailed account of the eighteen-day ordeal of the boys and the work of an international team of rescuers includes photographs, diagrams, maps, and text inserts on related topics. (Gr 6-8)
The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan. Amy Alznauer. Illus. by Daniel Miyares. (2020). Candlewick.
In 1887, Ramanujan was born in South India. Alznauer’s expressive narrative and Miyares’s ink-wash illustrations show how this inquisitive boy viewed the world through the lens of mathematics. Ramanujan experimented with numbers until they made sense to him and devised explanations for their properties, asking questions and creating new ways of looking at mathematical patterns. Today, this number theorist is celebrated for his original, conceptual contributions to math and science. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. Amra El-Rayess (with Laura L. Sullivan). (2020). Bloomsbury.
Amara, a sixteen-year-old Muslim was living in Bihać, Bosnia, with her beloved family and an abandoned cat she called Maci (cat) when the Bosnian War broke out in 1991. This survival memoir recounts the horrors of the Bosnian genocide and how the cat she never named gave Amara hope for the future. In the back matter, El-Rayess provides information about Bosnia and Herzegovina today, talks about writing this memoir, and lists resources. (Gr 9-12)
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust. Uri Shulevitz. (2020). Farrar Straus Giroux.
In this captivating memoir, celebrated children’s book author-illustrator Uri Shulevitz, whose Jewish family fled Warsaw after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 when Uri was four years old, chronicles their ten years as refugees in war-torn Europe before settling in Paris in 1946 and then immigrating to Israel in 1949. Shulevitz’s black-and-white drawings and family photographs help illustrate the importance of family and a love of drawing in his survival. (Gr 3-5)
Condor Comeback (Scientists in the Field). Sy Montgomery. Photos by Tianne Strombeck. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
When the last wild California condor was captured in 1987 and joined the only twenty-six condors in captivity, the species was critically endangered. Montgomery introduces readers to the California condor and reports on the ongoing efforts of researchers and volunteers in zoos and wildlife refuges that have brought the majestic vulture back from the brink of extinction and led to its reintroduction to the wild. (Gr 6-8)
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals. Katy S. Duffield. Illus. by Mike Orodán. (2020). Beach Lane.
Around the world, structures built for human travel impede the safe movement of wild animals. Double-page spreads with exquisite illustrations, a simple lyrical narrative, and text blocks with related facts present twelve examples of how people have also created crossings that help animals traverse their habitats, including an underpass beneath a highway used by Florida panthers and rope bridges suspended above a road in Costa Rico for monkeys. (PreK-Gr2)
The Fabled Life of Aesop. Ian Lendler. Illus. by Pamela Zagarenski. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Lendler tells the life story of the “fabled” Aesop, a slave born in ancient Greece who told entertaining and instructive stories with hidden “codes” teaching survival skills in an unjust world, followed by retellings of thirteen of Aesop’s fables which have lasted through centuries. Zagarenski’s illustrations— watercolor paintings and mixed media collage art for the biographical section and acrylic paintings on wood panels for the section of fables— are beautifully-crafted. (Gr 3-5)
Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Story. Duncan Tonatiuh. (2020). Abrams.
With his signature style Mixtec codex-inspired, digitally collaged artwork, Tonatiuh retells the story of how Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, travels through the nine regions of Mictlán (the underworld) during the fifth sun to retrieve the sacred bones needed to create humankind. Back matter includes an author’s note providing background on the myth, a glossary (with pronunciation guide), and a selected bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Grow: Secrets of Our DNA. Nicola Davies. Illus. by Emily Sutton. (2020). Candlewick.
“All living things grow. Plants . . . animals . . . and humans.” After exploring the diverse ways in which living things grow, Davies’ child-friendly text, complemented by Sutton’s expressive watercolor illustrations, explains how, as is true for every living thing, each human’s growth is based on the unique pattern of their instructional DNA code. (PreK-Gr 2)
Guardians of Liberty: Freedom of the Press and the Nature of News. Linda Barrett Osborne. (2020). Abrams.
Osborne chronicles key challenges to the principle of free expression of news and opinion guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution from the time of partisan newspapers during the American Revolution to President Trump’s labelling of the media he disagrees with as “enemies of the people.” The final chapter addresses the importance of individuals’ judging on their own the accuracy of news in the media. (Gr 6 Up)
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera. Candace Fleming. Illus. by Eric Rohmann. (2020). Neal Porter.
A lyrical text and realistic, close-up oil paintings tell the life story of a worker bee of the species Apis mellifera. After emerging from a cell of the honeycomb, she grows and does a series of different jobs in support of the hive until, on the twenty-fifth of her life, she flies from the hive to begin collecting nectar. Ten days later, her job as a forager is over; she drops to the ground and dies. (PreK-Gr 2)
If You Take Away the Otter. Susannah Buhrman-Deever. Illus. by Matthew Trueman. (2020). Candlewick.
Through a brief lyrical narrative accompanied by beautiful mixed-media illustrations and additional information in smaller print, young readers learn that all living things in the ocean are connected. When sea otters, which feed on sea urchins, almost disappeared through over-hunting, the population of sea urchins exploded and nearly destroyed the kelp forest ecosystem. Fortunately, after the signing of the 1911 International Fur Seal Treaty, the balance of flora and fauna slowly began to be restored. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Lion Queens of India. Jan Reynolds. (2020). Lee & Low.
Rashila Vadher and a team of female forest rangers in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in western India care for and protect the world’s last remaining wild Asiatic lions. Jan Reynolds’ brief, informative text and close-up color photographs provide an inspiring profile of the “lion queens of India” and their efforts to save the Asiatic lion from extinction. (PreK-Gr 2)
Nonsense!: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Lori Mortensen. Illus. by Chloe Bristol.
Young Edward Gorey had trouble figuring out what he wanted to do in life. While working in the art department of a publisher, this eccentric genius finally decided to write and illustrate his own stories. At first, no one was interested in his stories with their “sweet and sinister style” and unfortunate endings. This playful picture book biography of Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is illustrated in a style reminiscent of Gorey’s artwork. (Gr 3 Up)
Packs: Strength in Numbers. Hannah Salyer. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Salyer introduces packs, prides, herds and other animal groups with visually splendid double-page illustration (rendered in paint and cut paper and finished digitally). These are followed by pages of spare text with information about actions (such as hunting, nurturing, and defending) of different species exemplifying the importance of togetherness to their survival. A final double spread shows a diverse community of people engaged in outdoor activities. “All together . . .we are better!” (PreK-Gr 2)
The Radium Girls: The Scary but True Story of the Poison That Made People Glow in the Dark (Young Readers’ Edition). Kate Moore. (2020). Sourcebooks explore.
Moore tells the story of the young women working in the factories of the U.S. Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company doing the delicate job of painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials during the first half of the twentieth century. As the women began to suffer mysterious illnesses (traced to radium poisoning), they courageously fought years of legal battles against the corporations which denied that their illnesses and deaths were work-related. (Gr 9 Up)
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. Candace Fleming. (2020). Schwartz & Wade.
In this well-researched biography of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), Fleming goes beyond his celebrity as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the tragedy of his son’s kidnapping and murder to develop a full picture of this contradictory American. Lindbergh was a family man (with three secret families), an aviator, military officer, and inventor. He also was a Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semite, isolationist, and eugenics devotee. (Gr 9 Up)
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi. (2020). Little, Brown.
The conversational tone and inviting format of Jason Reynold’s “NOT a history book” adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning (2016) offers today’s young people an engaging and accessible history of racism in America. Covering key figures, organized movements, and policies of anti-black racism, segregationism, and assimilationism as well as anti-racism in the past, Reynolds and Kendi challenge the reader to think critically about their personal stance toward stamping out racism now. (Gr 6 Up).
Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery. Meeg Pincus. Illus. by Vas Imamura. (2020). Sleeping Bear.
“Where do they go?” Double spreads with an informative narrative and bright, detailed drawings showing monarch butterflies streaming through the skies of North America describe how a serendipitous team (scientists, citizens, a teacher, villagers, and others) uncovered the answer. With monarch numbers plummeting since 1976, the urgent question now is “How will monarchs survive?” Back matter includes “More About the Monarch Migration Discovery” and “How to Help the Monarchs” sections. (Gr 3-5)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).