My Favorite Picture Books and Middle Grade of 2020

The year 2020 was a great year for books. I reviewed many of them here in previous columns, but it was impossible to share them all. I am going to highlight some of the best picture books and novels that I have yet to share.

DERRICK BARNES and GORDON C. JAMES’ “I AM EVERY GOOD THING” is one of the best books I read this year and maybe one of the best picture books I have read in a long time. Barnes and James won a multitude of awards (including the Newbery Medal) with “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” their last picture book, and they did not disappoint with the follow up.

The last few years have offered a great deal of self-esteem themed picture books with many notable titles — including “Crown” and “I Am Enough,” to name a few — but “I Am Every Good Thing” somehow feels uniquely fresh. Even the best picture book encouraging self-confidence runs the risk of relying on cliches or overwrought phrases. The power here lies in the mundane, in the personal aspects of what the narrator (in this case, a young Black boy) believes he is good at, as well as in the boldness and confidence of the broader proclamations. I read this book as part of a library program designed to encourage children to think about what makes them special. While I was not the target audience, I found myself reading and rereading passages of this book because it made me feel good about myself. The best picture books are universal, offering something for every reader.

James’ illustrations are similar to those in “Crown,” and they excel here for similar reasons. The oil paint portraits feel as grand as the bold proclamations the narrator makes throughout. James paints the children in the book as they see themselves or how they wish others would see them.

Another picture book I loved in the latter part of 2020 was the FAN BROTHERS’ “THE BARNABUS PROJECT,” which follows a group of misfit pets (or “failed experiments”) as they try to break out of the Perfect Pets secret lab. Barnabus, a hybrid mouse-elephant, acts as the leader in this epic escape story that begins in an underground lab where perfectly cute, fluffy and well-behaved pets are created.

Barnabus and the other failed experiments sit alone under bell jars until they are recycled into something cuter. The lush illustrations lend a weight to this (very cute) escape story, making Barnabus’ experience feel both real and grave. The Fan Brothers (Terry, Eric and Devin) create adorably strange neighbors for Barnabus as well, including birdlike creatures with long legs and puffball bodies, a box turtle with a fuzzy body and a tiny monster with the stripes, wings and antennae of a bumblebee. The full-page spreads showing the underground pipes connecting the laboratory to the pet shop up above, as well as the breakout scene, are layered, complex, and beautiful. This is one to own.

JERRY CRAFT’s 2019 debut graphic novel, “The New Kid,” won a multitude of awards, including the Newbery Medal for the best children’s book. I enjoyed the fun, funny and insightful book well enough, but I have to admit that I loved the 2020 companion even more. “CLASS ACT” picks up where its predecessor left off, with protagonist Jordan navigating his second year as one of the few Black students at a prestigious, all-white private school. This time around, we get to hear from his new friend Drew, a darker-skinned boy at Riverdale on a scholarship, as well as their wealthy white friend Liam. Drew in particular struggles with what it means to be Black and poor when most of his friends are not. His grandmother’s words echo in his brain (“You have to work twice as hard to be just as good”) as he works to make good grades, navigate friendships and figure out who he wants to be. If “Class Act” were not a graphic novel, it would read much differently. Though the subject matter is often serious, the accessibility and humor of Craft’s illustrations gives it the feel of a (really great) sketchbook over a weighty memoir. Each chapter illustration borrows from a popular comic or graphic novel (some favorites include Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Shannon Hale’s “Real Friends”), and the award-winning author/illustrator includes directional cues when it may be difficult to know which way to read.

The last middle-grade novel I loved this year was KELLY J. BAPTIST’s “ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO.” This book, which began as a short story for the middle-grade anthology “Flying Lessons and Other Stories,” follows preteen Isaiah, a sweet kid who is faced with serious challenges as he and his family endure homelessness, wrestle with grief and battle substance abuse. His writing and the notebooks his dad left behind serve as a buoy that keep him from going adrift. He spends Saturdays in the library, writing poems and reading his dad’s stories, all of which are about Isaiah the superhero. The actual Isaiah may not be sure if he is a superhero, but his dad’s love for him gives him the confidence to keep going when it seems as if life has turned against him. I love Isaiah as a character — he is sweet, a good friend, a good son and a good big brother. The circumstances mean he has to be stronger than a kid should have to be, but Baptist still lets him be a kid. Finally — though I may be biased here — I appreciate that the library is an oasis for Isaiah, a place where he can get lost in books and in his writing. This is an excellent debut novel about growing up, loss, the power of words and the importance of community.