Books Too Good to Miss
Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
As reviewers, one of the tasks we undertake each January is the weeding of our crowded bookshelves to make room for new releases. As life-long book lovers, we add some books to our personal collections, and put some aside for the grandchild or special friend whom we know will love them too. As advocates of reading, we’ll send the others to schools and libraries, but before we do, here is our list of books published in 2020 that are too good to miss—books we would love to see in the hands of all children and teachers.
Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies. Deborah Hopkinson. Illus. by Meilo So. (2020). Chronicle.
Readers follow a shy, young girl who leads her class through the creation of a monarch butterfly garden. Alternating sections of informational text with illustrations, maps, and charts provide scientific background. At the end of the year, the girl realizes that she and the emerging butterflies have transformed into something new. Back matter includes a quick guide to making a monarch way station and more monarch resources. (PreK-Gr 2)
Catherine’s War. Julia Billet. Trans. by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Illus. by Claire Fauvel. (2020). HarperAlley.
This graphic novel adaptation of Billet’s novel based on her mother’s wartime experience tells the story of Rachel Cohen, a Jewish girl who had to change her identity and live under the name Catherine Colin during the German occupation of France in the 1940s. Using the camera she always carries with her, she creates a record of her experiences as one of the hidden children of World War II. (Gr 6-8)
Deeplight. Frances Hardinge. (2020). Amulet.
While scavenging for godware (remnants of the Undersea gods who once terrorized islanders) with best friend, Jelt, fourteen-year-old Hark finds a still pulsing god-heart. As he learns more about the nature of the gods from an old priest and sees power-hungry Jelt using the healing powers of the god-heart to transform himself into a monster, Hark must decide what to do. Hardinge’s beautifully-crafted fantasy is dark and suspenseful. (Gr 9-12)
Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z. Irene Latham & Charles Waters. Illus. by Mehrdokht Amini. (2020). Carolrhoda.
This wisdom-packed dictionary nurtures readers with reflective thoughts and positive actions from Acceptance and Ally for A to Zest for Z. Each double-page entry includes a poem, an inspirational quote, an anecdote from one of the poets, a “try it” activity, and a richly-colored illustration created with acrylic paint, digital painting, collage, and photography. Back matter includes an author’s note, sources of quotes, recommended reading, poetry resources, and an index of poetic forms. (Gr 3 Up)
The Enigma Game. Elizabeth Wein. (2020). Hyperion.
In November of 1940, fifteen-year-old Louisa Adair, an orphaned survivor of the London Blitz, takes a job caring for elderly Jane Warner (actually Johanna von Arnim, a German opera diva) at a pub in Windyedge, Scotland. When Louisa finds an enigma machine smuggled into Scotland by a German pilot, she and Jane, along with a pilot and a volunteer driver from the nearby RAF base, become involved in a code-breaking conspiracy that might help win the war. (Gr 6 Up)
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Cozbi A. Cabrera. (2020). Abrams.
With lovely free verse and acrylic paintings, this picture book celebrates the life of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Growing up in Chicago, she began writing poetry at the age of seven. Brooks’ poetry reflects on her childhood dreams, “real life” challenges of poverty and racial injustice, and the joy of sharing of stories through her poetry and prose. Back matter includes an author’s note, timeline, sources for quotes, and a bibliography. (Gr 3 Up)
Fox & Rabbit (Fox & Rabbit #1). Beth Ferry. Illus. by Gergely Dudás. (2020). Amulet.
Meet Fox (who likes to try new things but fears heights) and Rabbit (who likes being prepared but is afraid of everything else). In five linked stories, they support each other in conquering their fears while having adventures. The fun of reading the expressive panels, both the wordless ones and those with lively wordplay, of this graphic novel series for emerging readers continues in Fox and Rabbit Make Believe (2020) and Fox and Rabbit Celebrate (out April 2021).
How We Got to the Moon: The People. Technology, and the Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure. John Rocco. (2020). Crown.
This well-researched book tells the story behind our country’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. Rocco’s engaging text (with illustrations, diagrams, and profiles of scientists, engineers, and others) is organized in seven parts beginning with the Cold War Space Race competition between the United States and Soviet Union in 1957 and ending with the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969. Back matter includes an epilogue, notes on the Apollo piloted missions (Apollo 7 in 1968 to Apollo 17 in 1972), and sources. (Gr 6 Up)
I Want to Sleep Under the Stars! (Unlimited Squirrels #3). Mo Willems. (2020). Hyperion. (PreK-Gr 2)
All Zoom Squirrel wants to do is sleep under the stars for the first time, but when Zip Squirrel enlists the help of other squirrel friends to facilitate this, their noisy exuberance keeps Zoomy awake instead. Special features of Willems’ wildly imaginative, cartoony beginning reader include “emote-acorns” (happy, mad, surprised, and six more), a joke, quiz, news feature, fancy words, and facts about stars. (PreK-Gr 2)
Kenny & the Book of Beasts (Kenny & the Dragon #2). Tony DiTerlizzi. (2020). Simon & Schuster.
A lot has happened since Kenny and the Dragon (2008) left off, but Grahame the dragon is still Kenny Rabbit’s best friend. When one of Grahame’s old friends, Dante the manticore, arrives in town, Kenny feels pushed out of the friendship, but they must still work together to defeat a witch, rescue another friend, and unlock a book. The Tales of Kenny Rabbit, a boxed set of the two books, was published in 2020. (Gr 3-5)
Lake (See to Learn #2). Kate Moss Gamblin. Illus. by Karen Patkau. (2020). Groundwood. The series of “Do you see” questions in Moss Gamblin’s simple, lyrical text guides young readers in carefully observing eye-catching digital illustrations as a child and an adult share activities such as fishing, swimming, canoeing, and watching the animals that live in or visit a lake throughout the year. Moss Gamblin includes a note on using the See to Learn books to initiate conversations about the treasures of the natural world. (PreK-Gr 2).
Lift. Minh Lê. Illus. by Dan Stantat. (2021). Disney Hyperion.
Iris, who loves pushing the elevator buttons in her apartment building, gets angry when her younger brother starts pushing the buttons, too. Recovering a button panel discarded in a trash can by a repairman fixing an out-of-order elevator, Iris tapes it next to her bedroom closet. Pushing this button magically opens the door to other worlds—and Iris decides to share her fantasy adventures with her brother. (PreK-Gr 2)
Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel. Jason Reynolds. Illus. by Danica Novgorodoff. (2020). Caitlyn Dlouhy.
These are the rules: No Crying. No Snitching. Seek Revenge. Will takes his murdered brother Shawn’s gun with him in the elevator, which stops at each floor where a different ghost victim of gun violence from Shawn’s life joins him. By the time he reaches the ground floor, has Will changed his plan to follow the rules? This graphic novel, based on Reynolds’ 2018 Newbery Honor-winning novel in verse, is beautifully crafted and thought provoking. (Gr 9-12)
Me and the World: An Infographic Exploration. Mireia Trius. Illus. by Joana Casals. (2020). Chronicle.
This engaging book explores a plethora of information and data on topics such as common names, types of families, populations of countries, most visited cities, sports, and breeds of dogs. Entries are presented in a variety of digitally-rendered infographic formats: charts, graphs, maps, labeled illustrations, and more. Trius includes sources with web links for facts in the book. (Gr 3-5)
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Frank Morrison. (2020). Atheneum.
Expressive oil paintings and rhyming couplets celebrate the life of African American Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), who as a pastor’s child sang in her church’s choir and recorded her first gospel album at age fourteen. The Queen of Soul had a long career as a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist. She proudly sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. Back matter includes an author’s note and a list of Franklin’s biggest hits. (Gr 3 Up)
See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog. David LaRochelle. Illus. by Mike Wohnoutka. (2020). Candlewick.
An argument between the book and Max the Dog begins as the book’s “See the cat” statement is countered by Max’s response “I am not a cat. I am a dog.” The hilarity of their interaction continues until Max successfully wins the argument when he responds to the book’s threat to have the pictured purple hippo sit on him by saying he’ll leave the book. The book acquiesces, “See the dog take a nap.” Max replies, “Thank you, book.” (PreK-Gr 2)
Snapdragon. Kat Leyh. (2020). First Second.
In this middle-grade graphic novel, while searching for her missing dog, Snap, a black tween, finds that the town witch, Jacks, has been caring for the injured dog. Snap makes a deal to help Jacks in her preparation of roadkill skeletons to sell online in exchange for learning to care for the orphaned baby opossums she has rescued. Assisting Jacks, Snap wonders if the old woman really does have magical powers and uncovers a family secret that changes everything. (Gr 3-5)
Snow Birds. Kirsten Hall. Illus. by Jenni Desmond. (2020). Abrams.
Double-spread pairings of expressive poems and mixed media illustrations create a celebration of birds with adaptations and behaviors for surviving long, cold winters. The repetition of calls and songs of the birds such as the “Fee-bee! Fee-bee!” of the black-capped chickadee and the “Tea-kettle! Tea-kettle!” of the Carolina Wren invites the reading aloud of the poems. Endnotes provide basic information on each of the seventeen featured species. (PreK-Gr 2).
Swashby and the Sea. Beth Ferry. Illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The serene life of retired Captain Swashby, who lives in a small house on a small beach, is disturbed when a young girl and her grandmother move into the empty house next door. He wants solitude, but the sea seems to know just what he really needs—friends—and sets about to see that he gets them in this charming and playful picture book (PreK-Gr 2).
There Must Be More Than That! Shinsuke Yoshitake. (2020). Chronicle.
When a young girl’s brother declares “Our future is doomed” and relates all the terrible things that grown-ups have told his friend are going to happen, Grandma tells her that no one really knows what will happen in the future. There will be bad things, but also many good things. “There are so many possible futures!” Reassured, the girl begins imaginative explorations of the possibilities and also learns there will always be many choices for her to make. (PreK-Gr 2)
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
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These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).