Must-Have Young Reader Books of 2020
Light in the Forest, written & illustrated by Holly Carr
Holly Carr’s distinctive and boldly beautiful illustrations, along with her powerful message (“Do not be afraid. You are not alone.”) make this book timeless, a book to be savoured by readers of all ages. Lush, luminous and richly saturated with colour, Carr’s magnificent artwork accompanies the repeated refrain: “Do not be afraid/I am not afraid.” The book visually depicts the message that even in the darkest of times, we need to take a closer look and to see things differently, to see beyond the darkness. This is an important reminder for us all, especially now.
Mr. Beagle Goes to Rabbittown, written & illustrated by Lori Doody
Filled with wit and whimsy, this book is simple and understated and utterly charming. Tidy illustrations in bright colours are precise and cleverly detailed, and invite close inspection. The text is simple and spare but eloquently conveys the sense that while “every bunny knows every bunny” in Rabbittown, they may not recognize the ways in which they are not as welcoming to newcomers. It is a sweet and unassuming look at inclusivity and diversity.
Summer Feet, written by Sheree Fitch & illustrated by Carolyn Fisher
This playful, exuberant, joy-filled romp is a perfect evocation and celebration of the magic of summer! In her effervescent, lively, lilting word play, Sheree Fitch captures all the joys of the season. Readers will revel in the poetry that dances off the page and off the tongue while also delighting in the memories and images that her buoyant verses evoke.
Waiting Under Water, written by Riel Nason
A touching and tender middle grade exploration of one girl’s struggle to accept the changes that her life holds: she will be forced to leave everyone and everything she loves when her family moves to Ontario at the end of the summer. Hope is an earnest and believable character and the author deftly portrays her wide range of emotions, especially as she worries about going to a new school where no one knows her or her verbal tic. Nason also beautifully captures a spirit of place, of what makes this small New Brunswick town so special to Hope and to all who call it home. It is a gentle, introspective and moving story in which time and the tides work together to transform shards of glass into smooth and beautiful sea glass, and so too, time and trials help mold and shape one girl’s understanding of herself and those around her.
The Book of Selkie, written & illustrated by Briana Corr Scott
Filled with whimsy, this book is a loving, lilting ode to the sea and its myriad mysteries. The author/illustrator playfully introduces readers to the lore and legends surrounding these fabled creatures of the sea. The illustrations have an ethereal, atmospheric quality that captures the moodiness and unpredictability of the sea and its denizens. The Selkie blessing and paperdoll that are included at the end make this book feel like a true treasure.
You Were Never Here, written by Kathleen Peacock
A taut and carefully crafted mystery, this young adult novel masterfully blends elements of romance, family drama and self-acceptance into the plot to make this a nuanced and compelling read on numerous levels. The characters are skillfully drawn with a protagonist who is sympathetic, smart and likeable for both her strengths and vulnerabilities, and for her admirable self-awareness and openness to growth and self-discovery. The pacing is perfect and the small town setting is beautifully depicted. This is a book that satisfies as a multi-layered mystery but offers much more as well, including a sensitive exploration of family relationships and of the complexities of friendship.
I Talk Like a River, written by Jordan Scott & illustrated by Sydney Smith
Words and images in this book pack an incredibly powerful punch. The prose is elegant and spare, lyrical and lovely as the author quietly depicts one boy’s frustration and shame as words get mangled in his mouth. But even more beautiful is Jordan’s depiction of the bond between father and son, and how this father – so filled with love for his son – finds a way to help the boy see himself differently. Sydney Smith’s illustrations capture every heartwarming nuance. They are fuzzy and indistinct at times, and then also luminous and precise, sparkling and light infused, portraying the moods and mystery of the river in his own unique and inimitable and profoundly perfect way. This book is simply a gem in every possible way.
The Rise and Fall of Derek Cowell, written by Valerie Sherrard
A fun and witty middle-grade novel, this book features a thoroughly delightful protagonist and very astutely depicts middle-school life (and its attendant angst). Derek Cowell is not only a realistic and charming character but his relationships with his best friend, his parents and even his sisters are humourous and heartwarming. While the author very perceptively captures the drama of finding “fame” unexpectedly and then the misery of unwanted fame (when a humiliating photo of Derek gets circulated), she also thoughtfully portrays the drama and chaos of everyday family life.
When Emily Was Small, written & illustrated by Lauren Soloy
This book is an evocative glimpse into the inner life of the young Emily Carr. The poetic language and exquisite turns of phrase beautifully depict Emily’s rapturous explorations of the natural world as she reverently, lovingly investigates all the wonders of the wild places all around her. Soloy magnificently captures so much about who and how Emily Carr was, how she perceived the world around her and her heightened awareness of nature’s gifts. Her mixed-media illustrations are richly-textured, lush, vibrant and magnificently detailed. It is a truly beautiful celebration of a young girl whose profound connection to nature led her to become one of Canada’s most beloved artists.
Swift Fox All Along, written by Rebecca Thomas, illustrated by Maya McKibbon
Rebecca Thomas has created a poignant story of family and celebrating one’s heritage and finding oneself. She beautifully captures the warmth and the bond that this family shares but her portrayal of Swift Fox’s anxiety, her fears that she’ll never be able to find what makes her Mi’kmaq inside of her is truly heartwarming. Swift Fox is earnest and so genuine as she wrestles with her self-doubt and apprehensions and this is what will resonate for so many readers.
Little Red Shed, written by Adam & Jennifer Young, illustrated by Adam Young
Adam Young’s bold and brightly-hued illustrations make this book a visual treasure but the poignant message about diversity and self-acceptance is both timely and timeless. The lively, folk-art style of the artwork beautifully depicts the maritime setting and provides wonderful energy and motion. The simple verse narrative looks at the pain of being rejected for being different, the difference that one person (or whale!) can make and how being true to yourself can inspire others.
Lisa Doucet is the co-manager of Woozles Children's Bookstore in Halifax. She shares her passion for children's and young-adult books as our young readers editor and book reviewer.