It’s time to make your 2020 reading list! This is our fifth year to round up all the year’s best-of lists of children’s books, all in one convenient place for you, so you can have quick access to dozens of ideas when you’re at the bookstore or library.
I should add that this is my favorite post to write every year. It takes days for me to read through the best children’s book lists from so many outstanding publications and pull out all the highlights for you, and the whole time, I always feel so inspired. There are just so many wonderful kids books that come out each year—from picture books to early chapter books, to the YA novels I love to read myself.
Please note that some of the 2019 lists include the best books of 2018.
(Then again, I’m still working my way through some of the awesome books of 2015, so who’s to judge?)
As always, keep an eye out for best new children’s books on our site throughout the year. We’re always reading and sharing our favorites.
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Quick Links to all the Best Children’s Books Lists of 2019
Be sure to keep reading to see our favorite books from each list.
The 2019 ALA Book Awards
The 2019 National Book Awards
The New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2019
Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Books of 2019
Amazon Editors’ Best Children’s Books of 2019
NPR Best Children’s Books of 2019
Brain Pickings’ Favorite Children’s Books of 2019
Brightly Editors’ Favorite Children’s Books of 2019
Notable Children’s Books for a Global Society 2019 (PDF link)
The 2019 ALA Book Awards
The American Library Association (ALA) hands out the biggest awards in children’s publishing every year, but they also partner with more niche groups, like the American Indian Library Association, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Association of Jewish Libraries to recognize important books in those categories too.
From the ALA’s full list, these are the most notable awards, and be sure to click through each category to see all the runner-up honor books for the year too.
Newbery Medal, for excellence in writing
This year’s winner is Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. It won for its humorous but masterful depiction of the complex relationships in an intergenerational Cuban-American family, and I think young readers will love Merci, the fun and spunky main character.
I can’t let this category pass without also mentioning The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, one of the Newbery Honor book selections. I’m reading this out loud to my 9-year-old right now, and we’re totally hooked on this fascinating medieval adventure.
Caldecott Medal, for outstanding illustration
Sophie Blackall, who makes this roundup of best children’s books every year, wins the Caldecott Medal again this year with her sweeping illustrations in Hello Lighthouse. (She won in 2016 with Finding Winnie, a story about the inspiration behind Winnie the Pooh.) This book beautifully contrasts the varying natural elements outside the lighthouse with homey, comfortable scenes of life inside.
I am also a big fan of this year’s Caldecott Honor book Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora, which uses stunning paper collage to convey the sense of community through a big bowl of red stew.
Pura Belpré awards, for Hispanic authors and illustrators
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but seeing as you can barely see the cover for all the award medals gracing the cover of The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo…maybe you can. This is a compelling YA novel told in verse about a Dominican teen who processes the challenges of coming of age by writing poetry. And she has a lot to say. For readers who love a strong, powerful, female lead, this is the book to read.
The winner for best illustration is one of our favorites: Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers. In it, a new immigrant mother and son struggle until they find a library, and books that give them the confidence they need to dream and succeed in their new country. It’s based on Yuyi’s own story of immigrating to the United States with her infant son which makes it all the more poignant.
Coretta Scott King awards, for African-American authors and illustrators
This year’s winner for best illustrated book goes to Ekua Holmes for The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer. Often the winners in this category are for books about the Black experience, but this book is about the human experience, starting with the Big Bang and taking us through the story of how life came to be. It’s a marriage of science and beauty, with paper collage illustrations made from hand-marbled paper. It’s simply stunning.
The Coretta Scott King writing award of 2019 goes to A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield. It’s a well-researched book about the week-long riot that followed the murder of a Black teen, killed by a rock-throwing white man after the boy unintentionally swam too close to the “whites-only” beach. It’s an undersold and important story, making this educational read for middle-school age kids and older an essential one.
The Stonewall Book Awards, for LGBTQ+ topics
2019’s best children’s book in the Stonewall Book Awards is Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, which the publisher describes as “a jubilant picture of self-love and a radiant celebration of individuality.” After Julian spots some women dressed in fabulous mermaid costumes on the NYC subway, it sparks his passion to create his own costume. It’s an empowering story about not fitting in prescribed boxes. Plus, we love everything about the Coney Island Mermaid Parade,
The YA award this year goes to Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender, which follows the harrowing but inspiring story of 12-year-old Caroline, a girl marked by bad luck. She meets a new friend, who she develops a crush on, and together they set out to find out why Caroline’s mom has abandoned her…in the middle of a hurricane.
The 2019 National Book Award
The National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is a highly respected award, given to a literary book generally suited to the reading levels of our older teens. Or, you know, us. Because we love YA books too.
This year, the big win went to a non-fiction book that looks like required reading.
This year’s winner is notably a history book: 1919: The Year that Changed America by Martin W. Sandler. It’s an interesting choice — we usually see YA novels here — but I love the reminder that our kids will find plenty to engage them in a well-told non-fiction book. Each chapter covers a different “world-shaking” event from 1919, including the Race Riots of Chicago, the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and the start of Prohibition. At the end of each chapter, there’s a “One Hundred Years Later” section that shows the progress we’ve made (or, have yet to make) on that particular issue. If you have a history buff in your home, this is a great addition to your library.
The other four National Book Award finalists, however, are all fiction, including Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds, the author of other acclaimed books we love including All-American Boys and Miles Morales: Spider Man. His 2019 collection of linked short stories are all told within 10 city blocks ,as kids walk home from school, and it’s getting tons of critical acclaim this year.
The New York Times Notable Children’s Books of 2019
Among the New York Times list of best children’s books each year, we tend to find thoughtful books with stunning art, but nothing so obscure that you won’t find them at your local bookstore or library.
From The NY Times best children’s book list, I see a few of our favorite authors and illustrators, like Christian Robinson’s Another (which is appearing on almost all the lists this year) and Kwame Alexander’s Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The list also includes Lucy Knisley’s sweet You Are New, which we loved this year — it would make a great baby shower gift, or a gift for a child getting ready to welcome a new sibling.
I’m making my own to-read list from the NYT picks for the YA category, including some compelling graphic novels. New Kid by Jerry Craft tells the story of 7th grader starting at a fancy new private school where he will be one of just a few African-American kids.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis also looks mesmerizing. It’s set in 16th century England (…or is it?) and is inspired by the rivalry between Mary Tudor and her sister Elizabeth.
As for the best YA novels of 2019, I can’t wait to pick up Frankly in Love by David Yoon, in which a Korean-American teen secretly dates a white girl against his parents wishes. The magical forest world of My Jasper June by Laurale Snyder looks like a heart-breaking page-turner. And for fans of Rick Riordan‘s mythogy-based novels, definitely pick up a copy of Kwame Mbalia’s incredible Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the launch of the new Tristan Strong series based on African folklore and myth.
Publishers Weekly: Best Children’s Books of 2019
Publisher’s Weekly sets a standard in the publishing and bookselling industry because of their careful reviews. If a book makes their best-of list, it’s a very good book. The Publisher’s Weekly best-of list is divided into picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books. (Psst…don’t miss their top 10 books for adults, too.)
Publisher’s Weekly Best Picture Books
In the Publisher’s Weekly best picture books category this year, I’m seeing some beautiful books about nature and relationships that I wanted to highlight. Birdsong by Julie Flett is one of my personal favorites of the year, thanks to its slow pace and tender focus on kids’ relationships with elderly friends and relatives.
Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond is just what it sounds like, all highlighted by incredible watercolor illustrations.
River by Elisha Cooper follows a 300-mile journey down river on a canoe, and it gives kids a thirst for solitude and introspection that you can only find on the water.
Contrasting all these nature themes is Small in the City by Sydney Smith, which I had to mention because it’s on so many lists this year. Its pages are full of love for the big city, and beautifully depicts how even the smallest citizens can find their place there.
Publisher’s Weekly Best Middle Grade Books
I love the long list of strong female protagonists featured in this year’s best middle-grade books list, and that includes the science-loving, 12-year-old Lucy Everhart ofThe Line Tender by Kate Allen. She has to navigate tragedy and new love in a New England setting, and her journey has earned positive reviews and “starred picks” from many publications, including Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.
The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu features a pair of twin sisters who are separated, possibly forever, by a dark secret, and their story shows the incredible power of girls — and in particular, sisters.
A new novel-in-verse, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, tells the story of a young Syrian refugee in Cincinnati who experiences unexpected persecution in her new home while she longs for those she left behind. Timely and resonant.
And I can’t wait to start Greystone Secrets: The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This mystery is about three siblings who discover another set of three siblings with a startling resemblance to themselves. Then their mother disappears, and they have to figure out who they really are, with plenty of plot twists along the way. If you like it, good news: it’s the first in an upcoming series.
Publisher’s Weekly Best YA Books
There are some really strong titles in PW’s YA category this year, including a rare fantasy recommendation with Angel Mage by Garth Nix. It’s described as an inclusive and fun take on the Three Musketeers story, and I know some kids who will devour it.
I plan to read The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee soon. It’s the story of a Chinese-American girl in 1890s Atlanta, who secretly writes a column for the newspaper, challenging society’s prejudices.
Sarah Deming’s Gravity also highlights a strong female hero in more ways than one; this gritty story involves a 12-year-old girl from Brooklyn training for the Olympics in boxing.
For readers who like remixes, I recommend The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake. It’s a modern take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, tackling themes like suicide and mental health.
And finally, I have to mention Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, which is on so many best-of lists this year. It’s the story of a transgender, selectively non-verbal girl in a utopian world who has to convince community that there are monsters among them. Ooohhh.
Amazon Editors: Best Children’s Books of 2019
Amazon’s Best Children’s Books of 2019 list is decidedly more “commercial” than the other lists featured here, though I notice that this year, it includes more of the kinds of titles we tend to recommend. One of the great things about their editors’ best books list is that they sort their books by very narrow age brackets, helping us find perfect gifts for our kids at every developmental stage.
Amazon Editors Best Picture Books
In the picture books category, some of our favorite choices include Lupita Nyong’o’s enchanting Sulwe, illustrated by the prolific Vashti Harrison. It is Amazon’s pick for best book for kids 3-5, but I disagree that kids older than five won’t enjoy it as well. It’s a beautiful, wonder-filled expression of why we need night and day, Black and white.
Brendan Wenzel is known for deftly tackling the complicated issue of seeing things from another’s perspective, and A Stone Sat Still is no exception. This book also made Publisher’s Weekly‘s list, and is one of my own personal favorites of the year list too.
We’re always looking for great books about Native American culture, and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal (also on PW’s list this year), is a top pick for 2019 that’s worth reading in 2020. And if you haven’t had authentic fry bread, go find some now.
I’m so happy that Amazon also included Chapter Two is Missing by Josh Lieb and Kevin Cornell, because reading this book at home was one of our most delightful surprises this year. It’s interactive — definitely call the phone number in the book AND email the email address it offers — and it’s full of witty suspense that kids will adore.
Amazon Editors Best Middle Grade Books
From the Middle Grade section, my 9-year-old read The Dog Who Lost His Bark by Eoin Colfer and P. J. Lynch and said it’s one of his favorite books ever, so that’s a recommendation for you! There are parts that are sad and parts that are happy, but overall it gets two thumbs up from this dog-loving boy.
White Bird: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio follows up her success with Wonder with a graphic novel about the early life of Auggie’s grandmother. Turns out that during WWII, she was a young Jewish girl, hiding from Nazis in a French village. Wow.
I’m so thrilled for my friend Jamie Sumner’s book Roll With It to be included on Amazon’s list. It’s full of spunk, fun, and most of all, heart, and we highly recommended it back in October.
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews has been on so many best-of lists this year, for dreamily capturing that exciting time in early adolescence when a group of friends get their first taste of freedom to explore their world.
Amazon Editors Best YA Books
In the YA category, Amazon’s editors selected Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, which was also a National Book Award finalist. This is a gripping coming-of-age story about a Filipino-American teen who returns to his native country to find out the truth about his cousin’s death at the hands of Duterte during his brutal “war on drugs.” By all accounts, it’s a page-turner.
According to the description of Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera, the main character is “a self-proclaimed closeted Puerto Rican baby dyke from the Bronx.” I’m already interested! After she comes out to her family (a disaster), she moves to Portland to intern with a feminist writer who definitely doesn’t have all the answers to her problems,
I gave my teen Scythe, the first book in Neal Shusterman’s dystopian Arc of a Sythe series, and he tells me all his friends are talking about it. That’s saying something. I’m glad the series stays strong, with book 3, The Toll, making best-of lists this year, continuing the saga of a universe where humans have created immortal beings.
The highly acclaimed The Fountains of Silence by best-selling author Ruta Sepetys explores the darker sides of life in Madrid under fascist dictator Francisco Franco in the 50s. It’s all told through the eyes — and camera lens — of the teenage son of an American oil tycoon. If your kid is a history buff, they’ll love the vintage media reports and photos included in the book. Sarah Harrison Smith of the New York Times Book Review called it “as dystopian a setting asa Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.”
NPR: Best Children’s Books of 2019
This year list of NPR’s Best Children’s Books is diverse and bold, with some lighter and more fun choices than some of the heavier themes selected in the past.
Paging Broadway fans! We’ve found the best A to Z book for you yet: A is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z by John Robert Allman and Peter Emmerich. Enough said?
So many best-of lists of 2019 include the sweet and charming Truman by Jean Reidy and Lucy Ruth Cummins, a picture book exploring the ideas of bravery and devotion through a young New York City girl and her turtle, Truman.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, SK Ali, and Hatem Aly is a lovely way to help kids understand hijabs — and to empower those children who are just starting to wear them.
So many book critics this year are loving My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña, and we agree! It bursts with the young protagonist’s love for her dad and her ever-changing community, and Peña’s illustrations are wonderful as always.
This magical book based on the author’s grandmother’s life, Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler, is one you don’t want to miss. It’s cozy and inspiring and full of the idea of home.
I’m seeing some chapter books on NPR’s list that I didn’t notice anywhere else, like Rat Rule 79 by Rivka Galchen and Elena Megalos which looks…amazing. Please, click through and read the description for this book. For fans of The Phantom Tollbooth or Adventuretime, this is one to pick up for sure.
We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey is a sci-fi middle grade novel all about friendship and laughter. The main character finds himself the alien on another planet, with the small task of saving humanity at hand.
The delightfully weird Curse of the Werepenguin by Allan Woodrow is all about young Bolt’s quest to reverse a curse he received (from a werepenguin, natch) so he can return to human form. Critics claim that if your kids love The Princess Bride, this will be right in their wheelhouse.
Brain Pickings: Favorite Children’s Books of 2019
We always find the most gorgeous, thoughtful books from Maria Popova of Brain Pickings throughout the year, and so their year-end roundup is always a favorite of all of ours. Most of these selections are from independent publishers that you might not see in a huge display at the bookstore, but these are books we cherish for years.
What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett and Diana Sudyka, is bio of astronomer Maria Mitchell. It’s the perfect blend of science, beauty, and girl power.
Speaking of girl power, our editor Liz is a huge fan of Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Yes, that Rebecca Solnit. As you might expect, if you know her work, this is an “empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story” and if traditional fairy tales often rub you the wrong way, you must pick this up.
Corinna Luyken is one of my favorite modern children’s book authors, and I’m frankly surprised that My Heart didn’t make it onto more lists this year, so I’m pleased that Brainpickings thought to include it on theirs. As always, this picture book is tender in surprising ways that may catch you off-guard.
The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper is another book that I’m shocked I’m not seeing on more best-of-2019 lists. A soulful poem about the Winter Solstice by Newbery Medalist Cooper (author of The Dark is Rising series) is beautifully rendered through Carson Ellis’s timeless, folksy illustrations.
Brightly: Best Children’s and YA Books of 2019
We love Brightly’s very specific book list categories that help even non-readers find books they’ll love. Here’s where I’d start from their Favorite Books of 2019 list in 2020. Psst, they suggest books for us adults too, with a list of Best Grown-Up Reads.
If your child is experiencing a big change this year, then Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! by Cori Doerrfeld (another of my favorite picture books this year) will help to process the emotions of loss and new discoveries.
In To Night Owl from Dogfish by best-selling authors Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer, Bett and Avery’s dads fall in love, hoping their daughters can find friendship with each other too. It’s a LOL novel told entirely in email and letters.
The author of the popular Big Nate series, Lincoln Peirce, is out with a new Middle Ages romp with Max and the Midknights about a young boy trying to become a knight. Perfect for middle grade readers who want humor and adventure in their stories.
The Children’s Literature & Reading Special Interest Group:
Notable 2019 Children’s Books for a Global Society
The Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) are pioneers in curating diverse books. So I have to note that some of the books on their list were published in 2018, but I’m including those that weren’t included in many of last year’s lists. I’d hate you to miss a great book just because it’s a year old!
Set in 1946, Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome tells the story of a country boy named Langston who moves with his family to Chicago and discovers that the public library welcomes Black kids. There, he discovers the poetry of someone who shares his name: Langston Hughes. It’s a highly lauded book, earning the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and more.
It’s easy for kids (and adults) to assume that refugees expected the live they would come to live in their new country, but The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb, shows the disruption and chaos that refugees actually face. An incredible book to help encourage more empathy and understanding in children.
This moving picture book, La Frontera: El viaje con papá by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illustrated by Claudia Navarro, is a harrowing and heart-filled depiction of what it’s like for Mexican families to cross the border into the United States. A perfect book to help kids understand some of what they may be hearing about on the news over the past couple of years.
The powerful novel Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adobe Tricia Nwaubani is based on the author’s interviews with Nigerian girls who survived the Boko Haram kidnappings. The incredible strength of the novel’s heroine is truly noteworthy.
Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy perfectly captures the experience of an ordinary kid living through wartime in his homeland. As he plays soccer in the crumbling streets and wonders if his medic father will come home, we see the Iraq war through the eyes of a teen living through it.
At the end of summer before school starts, a group of neighborhood kids create their own worlds in Cardboard Kingdom. The book is created and illustrated by Chad Sell, with writing from 10 different authors who all explore the power of imagination.
Related, because it’s never too late to pick up a great children’s book:
The best children’s books of 2018
The best children’s books of 2017
The best children’s books of 2016
The best children’s books of 2015