The events of this year—a global pandemic, a reckoning with racist violence and oppression, a tumultuous presidential election—have touched everyone’s lives, children and teenagers included. And there are few resources more powerful than books to impart lessons on how to make sense of a divided and often dangerous world. The best young adult, middle grade and children’s books published this year tell stories of resolving conflict, finding unity and overcoming adversity. From a picture book following a young Black Muslim girl who learns to stand up for herself when her name is mispronounced to Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s guide to dismantling racism, these books affirm the experiences of many young readers while bringing a new point of view to others.
Here, the best children’s and YA books of the year, selected by TIME and TIME for Kids, and listed in order of publisher recommended age, from youngest to oldest. Also read TIME’s lists of the 10 best fiction books, nonfiction books, podcasts, songs and video games of 2020.
I Am Every Good Thing, Derrick Barnes, Illustrated By Gordon C. James
In I Am Every Good Thing, a young Black boy affirms his existence in the world with confidence and pride. He is portrayed as a different boy on every page, painted into scenes of snowball fights, tight hugs and scraped knees, always rendered as joyful and strong. The showstopper of a picture book, an essential celebration of Black boyhood, comes from the award-winning author and illustrator duo behind Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.
If You Come to Earth, Sophie Blackall
It took two-time Caldecott medalist Sophie Blackall seven years to complete the whimsical watercolor and Chinese ink pages of If You Come to Earth, a picture book written as a user’s manual for outer-space visitors on everything they need to know about our planet. From identifying the “green and brown stuff” as land and the “blue stuff” as water to the fact that we put on clothes every morning, If You Come to Earth offers quirky declarations of some of the things we know—while recognizing that there are many things we don’t. It’s a helpful primer on the facts and mysteries of the world.
Your Name Is a Song, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Illustrated by Luisa Uribe
A young Black Muslim girl leaves her first day of school feeling defeated because nobody can pronounce her name. So on the walk home, her Ummi offers a lesson on the musicality, rhythm and magic of names from around the world. Illustrated with an uplifting palate of oranges, yellows and greens, Your Name Is A Song is hearty encouragement for kids who endure these mispronunciations themselves and a lesson in empathy for readers of all ages.
The List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead
When Bea’s parents divorced, they gave her a gift to help manage her anxiety: a green notebook where she can write down things that will always stay the same. Bea’s parents supply the first item on the list: Despite their breakup, they will always love each other, and they will always love Bea. But two years later, when Bea’s dad announces that he is marrying his boyfriend, things start changing at an unprecedented rate. This tender middle-grade novel takes on tough topics like mental health, homophobia and divorce without overwhelming or talking down to young readers.
Wink, Rob Harrell
As a 7th-grader with a rare type of eye cancer, Ross Maloy deals with vision loss, bullies who make fun of the hat he wears to protect his eyes from the sun, friends who don’t know what to say to him after his diagnosis and an annoying goopy eye ointment. In this irreverent story, based on author Rob Harrell’s own experience with the same type of cancer, a young boy manages ordinary middle school issues while also coming to grips with his own vulnerability. Using his trademark humor and spot illustrations to provide levity, Harrell treats all of Ross’s experiences with the respect that they deserve.
When Stars Are Scattered, Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
Eleven-year-old Omar Mohamed lives in a Kenyan refugee camp with his younger brother Hassan, who has special needs. When the book begins, they’ve been there for seven years—ever since their father was killed in Somalia’s civil war and the boys were separated from their mother while fleeing the violence—and it’s another seven years before they’re able to leave and make lives for themselves outside the camp. To create the graphic memoir, Mohamed, now a U.S. citizen, shared his story with Victoria Jamieson, the author and illustrator behind the Newbery Honor-winning book Roller Girl. A deep sense of loss permeates every page, but When Stars Are Scattered, a finalist for the National Book Award, is also punctuated with plenty of joy.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
In this “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, star YA author Jason Reynolds helps break down the history of racism for young readers. Like the original, the book traces the origins of anti-Black ideas and violence. But the authors make it clear that Stamped is not purely a history book—because any book about racism is inevitably tied to the present day. Their collaboration is ideal for young readers: it’s thorough and educational (even adults will find lessons here), but its tone is fresh and conversational.
We Are Not Free, Traci Chee
In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 14 second-generation Japanese-American teenagers learn to rely on each other as their lives are upended. The group grew up together in San Francisco, but now they and their families are being forced out of their homes and into incarceration camps. Author Traci Chee captures the heartbreak, confusion and fears these characters experience in her novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Each chapter of We Are Not Free follows one of the 14 teens as they navigate prejudice and dislocation. Chee embodies these perspectives in distinct ways—one character’s journey is written completely in verse—to create a moving portrait of young people coming together in the face of crushing adversity.
Apple: Skin to the Core, Eric Gansworth
In his stirring memoir-in-verse, poet Eric Gansworth explains that the term “apple” is a slur in Native communities. “Red on the outside, white on the inside, forever locked away from both worlds, separated by the thinnest membrane,” he writes. In Apple: Skin to the Core, Gansworth continually returns to the term, working to reclaim it as he unveils his family history and charts an intricate web of intersecting identities. He covers everything from his grandfather’s harrowing experience at a government boarding school to his own complex childhood as an enrolled Onondaga raised at the Tuscarora Nation. Throughout, Gansworth centers his raw and moving personal story in a larger discussion about community, identity and language.
Punching the Air, Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
The powerful novel-in-verse from author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam follows the journey of a 16-year-old who is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. In prison, Amal Shahid, a budding poet and artist, must confront his despair and disappointments with the biased criminal justice system in the U.S. On the day of his conviction, Amal explains that he’s memorized his inmate number, his crime and his time. On the same day, he’s forgotten “my school ID number/ my top three colleges/ my class schedule.” His thoughts, arranged in free verse, never seem disconnected. And they culminate in a moving examination of what it means to be Black in America.
Read the rest of TIME’s best-of 2020 coverage:
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