The Kids' Books That Helped 2020 Go By — And A Few To Look Forward To
I've never been able to find a good way to display Christmas cards; I am not a "hang them around the door frame" kind of person (it grates on my minimalist sensibility), so last year I put out a big bowl in our dining room and put them all in there (to be fair, I took the idea from a friend — I'm not that quick). It keeps them neat and tidy, and my kids love going through them all year long. As we've added to the bowl this year, I've spent some time perusing last year's cards.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year's messages were full of hopes and wishes for adventure, joy, happiness, and travel, all those things we anticipate a new year will bring. This year's batch is much more subdued. The wishes are less grand, the family newsletters report more grief, the hopes for next year are far more simple.
Yes, what a difference a year makes.
My hopes for next year are different, too. They are quieter, simpler, more cautious, and I find I am surrounding myself with books that offer me a quiet hope and a profound story; books that lift me up when I am down, and books that speak to hardship and change, but where change and hardship are not the end of the story. Here are just a few of the most meaningful books my kids and I have shared this year, and a few we are really looking forward to.
Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away by Newbery-winner Meg Medina may have come out in September, but it's a book I can't put down as we enter 2021. Daniela and Evelyn are the closest of friends and live just one building apart, so close to each other that they can string a clothesline between their bedrooms. But Evelyn is moving away. This story of the girls' last day together is a heartbreaker, but seeing the two girls squeeze every last moment of joy from that day of grief is a reminder that simple and powerful bond of friendship is worth the heartache of separation.
I am a huge fan of longer form (and classically illustrated) children's books like The House on East 88th Street and Crictor, so when I came across Amy Timberlake's Skunk and Badger — another September book — I almost cried happy tears. From the very beginning, I was entranced. "The first time Badger saw Skunk, he thought, puny, and shut the front door." But door-shutting does not deter the animal on the stoop, and Badger is stuck with Skunk, who ends up being Badger's new roommate in Aunt Lulu's brownstone where Badger lives (for free). And now Aunt Lulu, who never visits but writes copious letters, has sent him Skunk. Suffice it to say Badger, who is already grumpy and set in his ways, does not welcome Skunk with open arms, and a relationship in the style of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon is forged. Gloriously complemented by Jon Klassen's meticulous illustrations, Skunk and Badger has the feel of a bygone era while telling a completely modern (and delightful) story of how hard change can be, and how worth it change is.
Alone by Megan E. Freeman is a very rare thing: a survival story, in verse, about a girl. Twelve-year-old Maddie wakes up to find that her entire town has been evacuated, and she is all by herself except for a dog and some books. No power, no water, no internet, Maddie has been left behind and faces an uncertain three-year apocalyptic struggle full of looters, weather, and profound loneliness. This exciting story of tenacity, determination, and ingenuity is hard to put down, and thank heavens nothing happens to the dog (I wouldn't want to worry anyone). (January 12)
Gina, the Girl Who Broke the World by Judd Winick is the seventh in his Hilo series. Hilo is a robot boy who falls to earth and knows nothing about himself, but soon befriends regular kids, including Gina. Hilo and his sister Izzy were made by the evil Razorwark, and throughout the series they and their friends battle Razorwark and his Mega Robot Monsters. A complex and emotional graphic novel series, this latest installment picks up after a major shift for Hilo and his friends, and Gina is struggling with the changes they are all going through, not to mention coming to terms with her own power and responsibility and finding out how to put one foot in front of the other after bad things happen. (February 2)
Throughout this difficult year, books have brought great joy and meaning into our house, whether by offering adventure (The Last Mirror on the Left by Lamar Giles), inspiration (Primer by Jennifer Muro), confidence (I am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes), humor (Big Nate by Lincoln Pierce) or comfort (If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall). My kids and I have read classics together (Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh), found new favorites (Class Act by Jerry Craft), been enchanted (In a Jar by Deborah Marcero), explored the past (Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri), learned about other people (When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed), and learned about ourselves (My Big Book of Feelings by Russell Ginns). We've used books to explore and explain, to escape and return. This year more than ever, books have brought us together when everything else seemed to be falling apart.
Yes, the Christmas cards may be different this year, and yes, we may be different this year and for years to come, but somehow books find a way to reach us, no matter how different or difficult our lives (or the world) may be. And that is certainly something to look forward to in the new year.
Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.