One of my favorite parts of being a reviews editor is compiling our annual best books lists. It’s a chance not only to surface superb titles, but also to take stock, to reexamine the ideas that matter to us...and to get a sense of where we’re going. Here are a few titles from our lists of the Best Picture Books of 2023 and Best Middle-Grade Books of 2023 that offer a snapshot of the year’s trends:
Picture books that instill courage in little ones have long been kid-lit staples, but this year I’ve noticed authors taking a slightly different approach. These selections reassure children who feel different that they’re OK just as they are—it’s the rest of the world that needs to change its assumptions. Vashti Harrison’s Big (Little, Brown, May 2) follows a Black girl who learns to reject the fatphobic labels that others thrust upon her. Parents and educators may recognize themselves in the well-meaning but ignorant adults who chastise the child; hopefully they’ll emerge more willing to question their own biases. Maya Tatsukawa’s Mole Is Not Alone (Henry Holt, Oct. 3) centers on a protagonist who frets about an upcoming party; a conclusion where Mole enjoys quiet one-on-one time with a new friend makes clear that introverts need not transform themselves into social butterflies in order to have fun.
Many young people grow up never seeing their families represented in media. Laudably, several of this year’s middle-grade novels demonstrate that happy families are not all alike (sorry, Tolstoy). In Chrystal D. Giles’ Not an Easy Win (Random House, Feb. 28), a Black 12-year-old named Lawrence, his sister, and their mother move in with Grandma. Giles sensitively handles painful topics, such as Lawrence’s father’s incarceration, while setting her protagonist on an uplifting yet wholly believable path to triumph. Set in 1980s New York City, Ami Polonsky’s World Made of Glass (Little, Brown, Jan. 17) features a young girl named Iris whose father is dying of AIDS. Though her parents are divorced, they’re still a tight-knit unit, and Iris also forges a firm bond with her father’s boyfriend. While these protagonists confront strife both at home and in the outside world, their families, however imperfect, remain loving sources of support.
Counternarratives to whitewashed accounts of U.S. history continue to come under fire from censors, but I’m heartened that authors are nevertheless speaking truth to power. Two of my favorite nonfiction picture books, Kwame Alexander’s An American Story (Little, Brown, Jan. 3), illustrated by Dare Coulter, and Jennifer Thermes’ A Place Called America: A Story of the Land and People (Abrams, Aug. 15), offer unflinching yet age-appropriate views of U.S. history. Middle-grade authors are also exploring history in nuanced ways. In Mitali Perkins’ tender, thought-provoking novel Hope in the Valley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 11), set in 1980s Silicon Valley, readers will find a Bengali American girl balancing insights about history with realizations about the present, while Daniel James Brown’s potent Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II (Viking, Nov. 14), adapted for young readers by Liz Hudson, will leave young people determined to know more about painful chapters in U.S. history. Book banners may claim that they’re protecting kids from difficult realities, but these creators are demonstrating that it’s not only possible to give children an honest depiction of history—it’s vital for a full understanding of our present.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.