The children’s literature scholar Deborah Stevenson once wrote that “to define children’s literature we need, at bare minimum, to define a child and to define literature, and then to define what combination of their meeting counts as the genre.” This year’s best middle grade and chapter books each contain their own compelling answers to these questions as they center child protagonists and privilege the child reader’s perspective in works that range from lighthearted to weighty and from grounded to fantastical. With young readers fortified by these books, the future looks bright indeed.
10. Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia
Sixteen well-known and up-and-coming authors offer humor, honesty and, yes, plenty of joy.
9. The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
Day portrays depression with sensitivity, and her depiction of Maisie’s deepening understanding of her Native American heritage is just as well done.
8. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna
In this fast-paced fantasy adventure, Kiki struggles with the disconnect between who she believes herself to be and who she thinks she needs to be.
7. Leonard (My Life as a Cat) by Carlie Sorosiak
This witty, inventive tale of an interstellar visitor trapped in the body of a cat is a wonderful reminder of all the things humans often take for granted, from cheese to thumbs to friendship.
6. Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
In her first novel in verse, LaRocca showcases the best of what verse can do, telling a story that is spare and direct and rings with truth.
5. Amber & Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Julia Iredale
Schlitz transports readers back in time to ancient Greece in this ambitious illustrated novel written in verse and prose.
4. Legacy by Nikki Grimes
Grimes stakes a claim for women in the pantheon of Harlem Renaissance poets in this tour de force of a poetry collection. Her poems follow a complex form that enables them to be shaped by the words of the women she honors.
3. Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu
The three illustrated stories in this chapter book connect in ways that will reward multiple readings, and their gentle morals linger with a satisfying combination of inevitability and surprise.
2. Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza
Hamza’s debut features a fresh and funny protagonist, a sensitive exploration of loss and grief and homages to some of the most classic titles in children’s literature.
1. The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
A young girl’s love of storytelling forms the heart of this bittersweet science fiction tale that demonstrates how our oldest and most cherished stories continue to grow with us.