I am a lover of lists, so the end of the year is an exciting time for me. I want to see everyone’s favorite media in list form all month long, and I will absolutely not pressure myself to read every book on every top 10 list published by every review site, magazine, and newspaper! In preparing to write this review, I thought I would share my own lists of my favorite children’s books of 2023.
Dave Eggers has been one of my favorite writers for almost 20 years because of his wit, fast-paced yet cerebral writing. He writes books for readers of all ages and has dedicated much of his professional life to championing young authors through his work with 826 National, a network of reading and writing centers across the country. He has talked before about workshopping his books with young readers and writers to ensure that they are actually interesting to the readers he wants to reach. Though I do not fall into this demographic, I found his latest offering, The Eyes & The Impossible, to be a wildly fun read with plenty of heart. The book follows Johannes, a beautifully free and wildly fast dog who calls himself the Eyes of the park. Johannes lives in a large city park based on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and he thinks it’s the greatest place in the world. He has the wise Bison whose advice he seeks, and vice versa. He has Sonja the squirrel, Bertrand the seagull, and Angus the raccoon. Together, they help keep the park in order. Together, they avoid animal control and stay far away from humans. When Johannes discovers beautiful paintings at an art show in the park, he becomes transfixed enough to let his guard down. Thus begins a madcap adventure tale that involves escaping from humans, helping out his friends, and learning who to trust. Johannes’ narration feels unique and the story itself feels like an instant classic. Johannes is a very wise dog, but he has only partially true information about the place he lives, which gets him in trouble often. This is a heartwarming adventure story with the right combination of emotion and suspense.
Tara Dairman’s The Girl from Earth’s End was maybe the best children’s book I read this year. As is my preference, it is a pretty emotional read focused on relationships. It follows twelve-year-old Henna, a girl who lives on a remote island settlement called Earth’s End with her parents. The only other person she sees is the monthly delivery person. She spends most of her time in her garden, learning about the various and sundry qualities of the plants there and working to care for them. Soon after her papa Niall falls gravely ill, Henna hears rumors of a mysterious healing plant called nightwalker. She becomes determined to find the plant, capture its elixir and heal her papa. This journey takes her to a botanical boarding school called St. Basil’s Conservatory, where she is away from her parents for the first time ever. While at the school, she makes some important discoveries about herself, friendship, and the important things in life. The Girl From Earth’s End has all the components of a good read: strong character development, intrigue and suspense, emotional highs and lows, and believable and important family and friend relationships.
2023 brought with it many excellent picture books, yet my two favorites are by the same author/illustrator. Let me tell you, Monica Arnaldo was on a roll this year. She knocked it out of the park with Mr. S., a rollicking picture book that she wrote and illustrated. I reviewed this first-day-of-school story in my last column, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, it is a delightful read and one I think about often.
Arnaldo also partnered with author Melissa Seron Richardson for a Three Kings Day story this year. The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat is a very funny story about a young girl named Marta and her family on the early January holiday. Marta is finally old enough to have a slice of la rosca de reyes, the sweet bread dessert associated with the holiday. She worries, however, about the Niño Dios figurine that is hiding in the cake. What if she accidentally eats the tiny figurine? What if it grows like a seed in her belly and she starts sprouting hair from her ears and nose like Abuelo? Though the bread looks so delicious it makes her mouth water, Marta is determined to avoid the whole thing this year. The Last Slice is a bit strange (in the best way!) but it also feels authentically child-like. Marta is old enough to start asking questions about her family’s holiday traditions, but not old enough to understand the symbolism behind those traditions. Her literal interpretations feel like a familiar plot point for children’s media, but the story feels fresh and new.
Seron Richardson’s text is pun-filled and humorous, and Arnaldo’s illustrations only make it better. The baby figurine is seen on most pages with a wink and smirk, often lounging in a relaxed manner as if to mock Marta. Marta’s facial features are pretty simple (her eyes are circles with brown pupils and her eyebrows are simple lines) but they are especially expressive. You can see the worry in the slant of her eyebrows and the anxiety in the increased wrinkles on her forehead. For those unacquainted with Three Kings Day or its traditions, both author and illustrator include a brief description of the holiday, related symbolism, and individual notes on their associations with the holiday. This is definitely a book I will read again and again. I am looking forward to all the wonderful books that 2024 will surely bring. Until next year!