My Favorite Children's Books This Year

2018 is coming to a close, and what a year it has been. I started it out with a visit to Hollins University for its graduate programs in January. In March I found out I was accepted into the Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating MFA, and in late spring I returned to visit the campus for an assistantship interview, which I found out I received in early June. The rest of June and July was for my first semester in graduate school, where I made friends in my program and learned a lot about the children’s book industry. And from August up until December was my first semester spent as a graduate assistant with Hollins University’s Office of Orientation and Student Programs. It’s been a busy year, but I can’t believe that it’s practically over. I still remember driving down to southwest Virginia with my dad for that first 5 hour drive.

So in the spirit of my Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating MFA (which I absolutely love, in case you didn’t notice), I thought I’d share with you all some of my favorite children’s books that I’ve read this year. Here’s a list of ten reads I recommend, in no particular order.

  1. The House That Once Was, written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Lane Smith: As part of the MFA, everyone in the program must take an English course on picture book illustrators in their first semester. One of my assignments for this class was to give a presentation on an influential children’s book illustrator in the 20th century, and I just so happened to pick Lane Smith. I remember seeing his illustrations in books like The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! in elementary school. His style, which began with oils and dramatic lighting, has evolved to fuse traditional painting techniques and digital collaging. His latest illustrations in this book by Julie Fogliano are just amazing, very vivid and colorful, with tons of patterns for the eyes to feast on. If this book doesn’t receive the Caldecott Medal for this year, I will be shocked, the illustrations are that incredible.

  2. Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano: A visiting speaker who works for a book development company came and visited us this past summer to talk about writing in a different voice. She actually graduated from our program and works with authors and editors to publish middle grade and YA novels. She talked about meeting a young Hispanic girl who liked witches and baking and wanted to read a book with those elements, and thus this middle grade novel was born. Young Leo and her large family own a bakery in Texas, but when she finds out that the women in her family are brujas- witches of Mexican ancestry, sugar-filled chaos ensues. This book is the first in a series, with the second book set to be published early next year.

  3. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: In sixth grade, I read this story in play format, but didn’t know it was actually a chapter book until this past summer, when a lot of my classmates referred to it. This book, published in the early 1960s, has relevant themes for today’s tech-obsessed youth. The protagonist, a boy named Milo, is constantly bored and has no motivation whatsoever. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room as a package, he travels through it and comes across many colorful characters in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I find this book’s themes regarding the joy of learning and education is something children of today will find useful.

  4. Secrets of the Mountain, written by Libby Walden and illustrated by Richard Jones: Another beautiful picture book, this one a sort of good-night tale set in a mountainous ecosystem. I found Richard Jones on Instagram, and his illustrations are very beautiful. A visit to his website allowed me to see more of his work, including published books, which is how I found this lovely picture book. If you’re like me and you love woodland animals and their picturesque landscape homes, definitely flip through the pages of Secrets of the Mountains.

  5. Hour of the Bees, by Lindsay Eager: I found this novel on the recommended shelf in my local hometown’s library, under the middle-grade section. Like Love Sugar Magic, Hour of the Bees has a young Mexican-American protagonist, and there is plenty of magic involved. Carolina and her family must care for her ailing grandfather on his dilapidated sheep ranch in rural New Mexico. I did a video report for this novel in my online fall course on spirituality in children’s books, and I’ve already convinced a handful of people to read it.

  6. Imelda and the Goblin King, written and illustrated by Briony May Smith: I bought this picture book used and I find it adds to the old-world charm. Briony May Smith and I share a similar illustration technique, so naturally I gravitate toward the illustrations in this book. It’s about a young girl who lives in a Germanic fairy forest and spends her days frolicking about with the magical creatures, until one afternoon the goblin king shows up and spoils their fun. I thought this was a cute and fun picture book with plenty of colors and details on the pages to keep readers interested.

  7. I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: This YA novel was part of our reading list for my online course this fall. It’s been around since the early 2000s but I didn’t know it existed until I had to read it. Ed, a crass cab driver in an Australian city, is our main character. Through a strange series of events, he receives playing cards with instructions written for him to complete various missions, which involve him helping average, everyday people that live near him. The novel is written in first-person, which leaves a lot of room for great voice, pacing, dialogue, and perspective. Ed admits that he can’t help but notice attractive women, and the author goes into detail with his viewpoint. Some of my classmates had a hard time sympathizing with Ed because of this, but I will let you decide whether or not Ed is redeemable should you read this.

  8. Watership Down, by Richard Adams: I have heard about this novel numerous times, so this spring when I was looking for something new to read, I decided to go for it. Its about a warren of rabbits who live in the English countryside and must make the journey to a hew home when humans destroy their old one. The protagonists are a pair of brothers, and there are plenty of side characters to support them. Adams has fashioned a believable rabbit world, complete with a rabbit language, or Lapine, and rabbit history and mythology (they even believe in a death god). There is a fair share of violence and danger, which makes me question the audience, what child would comfortably read about rabbits fighting tooth and nail and dying graphic deaths? Yet I read this novel this year, and I only wish I had read it sooner, there is so much to garner from this vibrant rabbit world.

  9. Raymie Nightingale, by Kate Dicamillo: Kate Dicamillo is one of my favorite authors of all time. I love Because of Winn Dixie, its up there on my list of best middle grade novels. Her writing has a nostalgic warmness to it, almost as if she is summoning Harper Lee and her use of childlike innocence in To Kill A Mockingbird. Raymie Nightingale is about three girls who are set to compete in a summer beauty pageant in Southern Florida, circa 1970s. They inevitably become best friends when they meet in a baton-twirling class and learn more about themselves and each other. And I just found out that one of the girls, Louisiana, has her own book called Louisiana’s Way Home out now.

  10. This Moose Belongs to Me, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers: So this picture book was actually something I read in the fall of 2017 for my last semester in my undergrad illustration major. I did a written picture book report on Oliver Jeffers and found this gem, about a little boy and his pet moose. Moose happen to be my favorite animal, so it’s no surprise this book made the list, plus the story is funny and the illustrations are a delightful mish-mosh of natural photography and simple but charming illustrated characters.

This past year I’ve read at least one book a week, and I hope to keep that streak going for the next. Here’s looking to another summer at Hollins University for my Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating MFA and to many more books. Happy reading and happy 2019 everyone!