A bounty of books to spark adventures for young readers

Friendship, culture, and travel enliven the best picture books of 2019. And tweens will be pulled into our entertaining middle-grade picks.

Illustration by Sarah Jacoby courtesy of Chronicle Books
An illustration from "Rabbit and the Motorbike" by Kate Hoefler and Sarah Jacoby

For ages 3-9 

These fall picture books are perfect for gift-giving, family read-alouds, and sharing with a friend.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
“The Love Letter” written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, HarperCollins, 40 pp.

The Love Letter (ages 4-8), written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated in lovely muted colors by Lucy Ruth Cummins, is a joyful celebration of friendship. Hedgehog, Bunny, and Squirrel, three unlikely chums, each receive a mysterious letter telling them “You are a joy, a light, a secret hope.” The power of this simple thought carries these three through their day, feeling cheerful or helpful or carefree. And, in the end, loved. A perfect picture book to be treasured and read many times. 

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, Roaring Brook Press, 48 pp.

In Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (ages 3-6), written by Kevin Noble Maillard and exuberantly illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal in acrylic, pencil, and graphite, even the endpapers tell a story. Children of all sizes and descriptions assemble fry bread ingredients, shape the dough, drop it in the sizzling skillet, and delight in the taste. The author’s note reminds us “They are communions ... because bread is not meant to be cooked for one.” Like so many dishes and their tales handed down through generations in many cultures, this simple yet powerful story reminds us of the importance of shared traditions.

Courtesy of Chronicle Books
“Rabbit and the Motorbike” written by Kate Hoefler and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby, Chronicle, 48 pp.

In Kate Hoefler’s new picture book, Rabbit and the Motorbike (ages 4-7), Rabbit and Dog have such a sweet, lovely friendship. Rabbit is not brave but his friend is an adventurer who regales Rabbit with stories. But when Dog dies, his motorcycle sits as a sad reminder until Rabbit slowly conquers his fears. Illustrated by Sarah Jacoby with gorgeous watercolor and mixed-media spreads, this touching story beautifully handles grief and sadness. A tender, breathtaking picture book that you’ll read again and again.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist” written by Julie Leung and illustrated by Chris Sasaki, Schwartz & Wade, 40 pp.

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist is a picture book biography of Tyrus Wong, the creative force behind Disney’s “Bambi.” Written by Julie Leung and illustrated by Chris Sasaki, this should appeal to young readers (ages 6-9) as well as those curious about Disney animation, little-known history, and the struggles faced by immigrants. The author’s note and family photographs in the back tell of Wong’s hardships and his successes: “His story reminds us that immigrants ... leave an essential mark on the masterpiece that is this nation.”

Courtesy of Albert Whitman & Company
“A Race Around the World” written by Caroline Starr Rose and illustrated by Alexandra Bye, Albert Whitman & Company, 32pp.

Some may know the name Nellie Bly, but have you heard of her around-the-world adventure and the parallel journey of another reporter, Elizabeth Bisland? The story of two daring women is well told in A Race Around the World (ages 4-8) by Caroline Starr Rose, illustrated by Alexandra Bye. In 1889 Bly, a reporter for the New York World newspaper, defied her editor who believed this was something only a man should undertake. The two women suffered weather delays and communication disruptions, but both completed the trip. An exciting story to inspire young adventurers.

For ages 8-14

While they usually prefer to choose their own reading material, tweens might not mind a nudge in the direction of one of these noteworthy books. 

Courtesy of Scholastic
“Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963” by Sharon Robinson, Scholastic, 240 pp.

The daughter of baseball great Jackie Robinson gives us Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 (ages 8-14). Sharon Robinson shares her vivid memories, including learning about the Birmingham church bombing and hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. As the young teen navigated the often awkward social arena of first dances and best friends, she was always proud of her father: “[F]or a lot of people, he provided inspiration. To do the impossible. To reach for equality.” Enhanced by photos and more, Robinson’s appealing memoir is perfect for readers curious about civil rights and about being 13 in this pivotal year in United States history. 

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“The Class” by Frances O’Roark Dowell, Atheneum, 320 pp.

Frances O’Roark Dowell’s newest novel, The Class (ages 9-13), is told by 20 sixth-graders as they navigate a new school year. Readers will encounter a budding artist, a class geek, a vegan, and a former goody two-shoes-turned-schemer. Adding to the complexities of middle-school angst, there’s a mystery. Who’s swiping – or maybe borrowing – the teacher’s treasures? Perhaps the moral of this story is that you really never know what others, not your best friend or your biggest bully, are struggling with. But Dowell isn’t one to preach. She’s too busy making us laugh in this funny, thoughtful book that’s perfect for book clubs, read-alouds, and class discussions.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Crumbled!” by Lisa Harkrader, Yellow Jacket, 224 pp.

Lisa Harkrader’s Crumbled! (ages 7-10) is funny, fast-paced, and about dung. Or to be precise, dung farmers in the Middle Ages. Young Nobbin Swill’s family has been cleaning the royal latrines for generations, but he’s faced with a dilemma. Should he return the royal seal ring he found, or sell it and escape the family business? Then the prince’s assistant directs him to nab the jewelry thief who’s also kidnapped Hansel and Gretel, and Option 3 lands in the lad’s lap. Grown-ups will chuckle at the clever asides (investigating the theft of a gingerbread shingle, Nobbin sympathizes, “People would eat you out of house and home. Truly.”) and youngsters will love the rollicking adventure. Happily, the next in this series, Croaked, releases in 2020. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Beverly, Right Here” by Kate DiCamillo, Candlewick, 256 pp.

Kate DiCamillo’s newest novel, Beverly, Right Here (ages 10 and up), features Beverly Tapinski, who first appeared in DiCamillo’s award-winning Raymie Nightingale. She’s now 14, her beloved dog has died, and her mother has never cared about anybody but herself. So Beverly takes off to a Florida beach town where she finds a job busing tables. An older widow with a penchant for tuna melts and bingo welcomes her, and teaches her about kindness. Readers are in for a treat of a story filled with eccentric characters as well as twists and turns, and a big dose of heart.

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