Best children’s books of 2018
A baby monkey with a knack for detective work, a mysterious green creature that takes up residence in an Australian farmhouse, and a 9-year-old stuck in a Russian-style summer camp are among the chief attractions of an exciting year in children’s literature.
There’s also a book-length poem about feeling different from your classmates by National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson, and a wise and witty take on finding your first friends by Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo. Newcomer Daniel Haack has penned a much-needed LGBT fairy tale about a prince who finds love with a dashing knight, and Chicago authors Keir Graff and Chris Rylander bring the city to life in two smart and endearing middle-grade novels.
A visually dazzling picture book about a Mexican immigrant’s love affair with her local library, a deft fable about a wall that divides but cannot protect, a funny story of a girl who receives a chicken for her birthday, and the tale of one very bad cat round out the field.
“Bob” by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, illustrated by Nicholas Gannon, Feiwel and Friends, 208 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12
At age 10, Livy returns to Australia with absolutely no recollection of the little green creature who has been waiting for her in the closet since her last visit five years earlier. Livy is Bob’s only friend, and Livy comes to realize that it’s up to her to help him find his way home. A magical tale, told in two fresh voices — that of our heroine and her favorite little green monster — “Bob” delights from start to finish.
“Baby Monkey, Private Eye” by Brian Selznick and David Serlin, illustrated by Brian Selznick, Scholastic, 192 pages, $16.99, ages 4-8
Rendered in Brian Selznick’s beloved style, full of cross-hatched depth, “Baby Monkey” is an irresistible early reader that can just as easily be read to the little ones as a picture book.
A big-eyed scamp ensconced in a vintage office befitting an old-time private eye, Baby Monkey meets colorful clients and solves mysteries large and small. The pictures tell most of the story, the words are strikingly simple and few, and the silliness will have the kids in stitches.
“I Got a Chicken for My Birthday” by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Sarah Horne, Carolrhoda, 32 pages, $17.99, ages 5-8
Our heroine asked for tickets to an amusement park for her birthday. Abuela Lola sent a chicken instead. Now our heroine has to feed the chicken, who turns out to be a very picky eater with a long shopping list, a tool belt and an elaborate plan.The heroine’s indignant voice is pitch-perfect and the illustrations fully capture the wonder and wackiness. Funny, silly and surprisingly meaningful by turns, this is one chicken story you won’t soon forget.
“The Wall in the Middle of the Book” by Jon Agee, Dial Books for Young Readers, 48 pages, $17.99, ages 4 and up.
This is one smart picture book about a brick wall, a bevy of fierce beasts and a knight congratulating himself on being on the other side, where he is safe. The beasts do indeed look scary, but as the knight climbs a ladder toward the top of the wall, we can’t help but notice threats on his side as well. Striking illustrations of big bulky creatures with highly expressive faces enhance a resonant fable about the dangers of seeing the world in terms of us and them.
“Who Will Bell the Cat?” by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Christopher Cyr, Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95, ages 4-8
The kindly mice are adorable with their bulging eyes, soft fur and big rounded ears. But it’s when Marmalade, the evil barn cat, emerges from the shadows — yellow eyes aglow, each razor-sharp tooth and claw illuminated — that this tale of mice trying to subdue their oppressor really comes to life. The mice in this absorbing tale, beautifully told with striking art, hatch plan after plan to bell the cat, but justice comes only when a new creature arrives on the scene.
“The Phantom Tower” by Keir Graff, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 288 pages, $16.99, ages 8-12
Like another charming 2018 middle-grade novel, “The Legend of Greg” by Chris Rylander, “The Phantom Tower” has genuine roots in Chicago — not just a few landmarks thrown in for color. Here, 12-year-old identical twins move into the haunted Brunhild Tower on the North Side, and discover a phantom second tower where time has stopped. Exciting action, a creepy curse and well-drawn characters make for supremely cozy reading on a cold winter’s night.
“Be Prepared” by Vera Brosgol, First Second, 256 pages, $12.99, ages 10-14
Vera Brosgol’s addictive graphic novel about a 9-year-old from a Russian immigrant family, determined to fit in despite economic and cultural barriers, is full of hope and pain, adventure and love. Vera decides that a camp for kids of Russian descent is where she’ll fit in, but when she gets stuck in a tent with cliquey older girls, her confidence wavers. Beautifully drawn in a distinctive olive and avocado palette, this book deftly captures the pain of homesickness and power of friendship.
“Good Rosie!” by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss, Candlewick, 32 pages, $16.99, ages 5-8
Part picture book, part chapter book, part graphic novel, this story of a small dog in search of her first friends is wise, endearing and full of hard-won insights. Rosie, a wistful Jack Russell terrier, wants to get to know other dogs, but she finds the dog park intimidating. DiCamillo endows the dogs with pitch-perfect voices, and Bliss’ watercolors tell their own vivid story. Rosie has to overcome her fears — and find a way to assert herself — but when she does, she is richly rewarded.
“The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez, Nancy Paulsen, 32 pages, $18.99, ages 5-8
Jacqueline Woodson, a National Book Award winner, explores the uncertainty that comes from feeling different in a poem that’s at once funny and heartbreaking, soaring and intimate. A little girl with brown skin and black, curly hair, feels different from her classmates, who in turn feel different for reasons of their own. Woodson’s powerful voice and Lopez’s exuberant paint and watercolor illustrations take us to places near and far, and bring us back home, stronger than before.
“Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis, Little Bee, 40 pages, $17.99, ages 4-8
The prince, deftly drawn by Stevie Lewis, is charming and sincere. Potential brides love him. There’s only one problem: Our hero is looking for “something different” in a life partner. When the prince rides off to battle a dragon, he meets a knight who is brave and resourceful, and love blossoms. This much-needed LGBT fairy tale hits just the right notes; it’s at once matter-of-fact and alive to the magic of true love.
“Dreamers” by Yuyi Morales, Neal Porter, 40 pages, $18.99, ages 4-8
A mother and her baby boy cross a bridge “outstretched like the universe” and enter the United States from Mexico. In this dazzling mixed-media account of what comes next, photographs and embroidery, paint and ink conjure the dislocation and hope of the new immigrants. Every word of the story feels urgent and necessary as we venture into the library that brings mother and son the language, stories and knowledge they need to put down roots.