This year’s best young adult, middle grade and children’s books expose young readers to some of today’s most complex and pressing topics. They unpack everything from dealing with a parent’s drug addiction to grappling with depression. In Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, a high schooler discovers that she can use writing to express herself. Dave Eggers’ What Can A Citizen Do? encourages children to become active members of their communities. Jessica Love beautifully captures how easy it can be to accept our differences in Julián Is a Mermaid. Here, the best books of 2018 for teens and kids, listed in order of publisher recommended age, from oldest to youngest.
Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
Tomi Adeyemi’s debut young adult novel — the first in a trilogy — is a stirring reflection on racism and the power of oppression. Inspired by West African mythology, Children of Blood and Bone follows Zélie Adebola on a mission to restore magic in Orïsha. Partnering with a princess, Zélie fights to control her own powers while trying to stop the crown prince from getting rid of magic forever, all while suppressing her own feelings for an enemy.
Buy now: Children of Blood and Bone
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo
Tenth-grade student Xiomara Batista has so much to say, but she struggles to find her voice. As her relationship with her family, her church and her own body grow more complicated, Xiomara channels her energy into poetry to make herself feel heard. Told through those poems, The Poet X — this year’s National Book Award winner for young people’s literature — vibrantly details a young person’s discovery of her own power and her growing ability to share it with those around her.
Buy now: The Poet X
Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka
In this graphic memoir, Jarrett J. Krosoczka narrates his journey as the son of an addict, desperate to understand his place in his family and the world. He lives with his grandparents, who encourage his love of art and keep him at distance from his mother, who has wandered in and out of his life since he was a young child. Hey, Kiddo, a National Book Award finalist, is an honest and emotional dive that will leave readers inspired.
Buy now: Hey, Kiddo
Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Adib Khorram
This debut novel tells the story of Darius Kellner, a high schooler who can’t find his place in America or Iran. At home in Portland, Ore., he’s struggling socially and thinks he’s a disappointment to his father. When he travels with his family to Iran — where his mother is from — he faces judgement from relatives over his depression diagnosis. Khorram captures the insecurities of being a teenager through Darius, who learns how valuable friendship can be and that sometimes leaning into what’s uncomfortable is what helps us grow.
Buy now: Darius the Great Is Not Okay
A History of Pictures for Children, David Hockney and Martin Gayford (Authors), Rose Blake (Illustrator)
Art has been around forever, but where did it come from and what does it mean? Acclaimed painter David Hockney and Martin Gayford give young readers a lively and approachable lesson on art history, starting with the conception of a picture and including a cave painting from over 17,000 years ago. As they move through time, Hockney and Gayford, with the help of Rose Blake’s illustrations, explain how art can help kids and adults alike contextualize the world around us.
Buy now: A History of Pictures for Children
Harbor Me, Jacqueline Woodson
In Harbor Me, six middle schoolers share a room once a week — A Room to Talk — where they discuss what’s going on in their lives without an adult present. This safe space allows them to freely express what’s on their minds, from racial profiling to a father’s deportation, and teaches the importance of both speaking your truth and listening to others. In her first middle grade novel since Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson, a former National Book Award winner, uses these six students’ stories to showcase how essential it is to teach kids to support one another.
Buy now: Harbor Me
Julián Is a Mermaid, Jessica Love
While on the subway with his abuela, Julián notices three mermaids. Mesmerized by their beauty, all of Julián’s thoughts are consumed by wanting to be a mermaid, too, but he is afraid of what his abuela might think. In her author-illustrator debut, Jessica Love delivers a delightful story of celebrating what makes us unique and a joyful read for anyone in need of a little love.
Buy now: Julián Is a Mermaid
Love, Matt de la Peña (Author), Loren Long (Illustrator)
What is love? To Matt de la Peña, it is experienced in the little moments of the everyday — walking outside a subway station, listening to the radio in the back of a cab, watching your grandfather as he fishes. Accompanied by Loren Long’s charming illustrations, this book, also available in Spanish, celebrates how love exists in the ordinary and why we should treasure moments, big and small, with the people in our lives.
Buy now: Love
What Can a Citizen Do? Dave Eggers (Author), Shawn Harris (Illustrator)
It’s never too early for children to learn how they can make a difference. In this island community, residents discover how they can shape laws and impact the lives of those around them. The best-selling author-illustrator team teaches young readers that being engaged and informed can turn anyone into an activist, no matter their age.
Buy now: What Can a Citizen Do?
The Rabbit Listened, Cori Doerrfeld
How should we react when something makes us sad or upset? When Taylor’s block castle is knocked down, he isn’t sure what to do. The Rabbit Listened is simple in premise, but deeply affecting with its minimalist text and illustrations, which demonstrate to young readers the necessity of empathy and grief, and how the two relate to each other.
Buy now: The Rabbit Listened
Correction, Nov. 19
The original version of this story misstated that Harbor Me was Jacqueline Woodson’s first middle grade novel. It is her first since Brown Girl Dreaming.