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The Best Kids’ Books of 2019

recommended by Bianca Schulze

101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up by Bianca Schulze

101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up
by Bianca Schulze

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While not every book is for every child,  for every child there is a book, says Bianca Schulze, editor and founder of The Children's Book Review and the author of 101 Books To Read Before You Grow Up. She recommends her pick of the best kids' books of 2019, all books that will make you 'feel' something.

Interview by Sophie Roell

101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up by Bianca Schulze

101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up
by Bianca Schulze

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Before we get to the best children’s books of 2019 that you’ve selected for us, I wanted to ask about your background: when did you set up The Children’s Book Review?

It’s been 11 years. I was working as a children’s bookseller in a cute little bookstore in Washington, D.C. and I just needed another outlet besides coming home from the bookstore and telling my husband about all the kids’ books. So, I started blogging and it blossomed from there. I also had my own inspiration to be a writer. They say that to be a writer, you need to be a reader, and I totally believe that. So now I have two of my own books. My first one is already out, and my second will come out in April.

What are they about?

My first book is called 101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up. It’s basically a hotlist of 101 books to read. It’s a little journal too, so kids can read a book and then write down who their favourite characters were, and give it from one to five stars and rate whether they liked it. If they did like it, there are more recommendations.

My second book is called Don’t Wake the Dragon. It’s an interactive picture book and the illustrator is British, Samara Hardy. I haven’t met her in person, but she does super cute illustrations. So I’m excited about that.

In terms of the best kids’ books of 2019 that you’ve chosen for us, how did you make your selection?

For me, I just love a book that makes me feel something. It doesn’t matter if it’s laugh-out-loud or heartbreaking or provides an Aha! moment, it just has to move me in some way. I also feel it’s really important to select books that represent inclusivity, so that everybody can see themselves represented in a book—or so that you can see people that aren’t like you in a book, so that you can discover empathy and understanding and realize that while somebody may have a different background or look different or sound different to you, or maybe they don’t even speak your language, they have feelings, just like you. I always love books that can fit all of that into one, somehow.

I loved your quote that you have on The Children’s Book Review: “Not every book is for every child, but for every child, there is a book.” Here I am asking you to give me a ‘Best of 2019’ list but, actually, we have to think very carefully about what an individual child is into. Did you find that when you were a bookseller?

Yes, and I feel that’s also how I tackle The Children’s Book Review, because if I shared just the books that resonated with my interests, that’s going to have some limitations on what I might recommend. Not everybody has the same background as me, or feels the same way about particular topics. So, I try to take that approach with everything I put on The Children’s Book Reviewthere truly is a book out there for every reader if only you take the time to discover their interests and passions. I feel that if you’re a reader you’re going to have a greater life. I totally believe that. I just love matching books with people. As a bookseller, it was always a great feeling when either a kid came with their parent, or just the parent came in, and you were able to troubleshoot and find something that resonated with them.

“I feel that if you’re a reader you’re going to have a greater life”

But I also think it’s important to know that even if you think you’ve found the right book, if you’re halfway through it, or even a quarter of the way through it, and it doesn’t resonate, it’s okay to put it down. You don’t have to finish it. Think about why you didn’t enjoy it and then take those thoughts back to the bookseller or to your librarian and say, ‘This is why I didn’t like it’ and then find the next best book. There is always a book for somebody.

Let’s talk about the ones that made your best kids’ books of 2019 list. Let’s start with Because by Mo Willems and illustrated by Amber Ren. Mo Willems is often very funny, but I gather from some people’s reviews that this book is a bit different.

It’s a bit of a profound story and it gives an understanding of just what hard work and perseverance can actually achieve for you. Also, how a moment in time can maybe be disappointing, but could actually turn into a lifetime of enjoyment. So, in the case of Because, had one little girl never made it to the orchestra concert, she may not have had a lifetime of music, which becomes a deep passion for her. For me, I love the overall feeling of knowing that one moment can change your life, depending on what you put into that moment and what you choose to take out of the moment.

Then, on top of that, the illustrations are so lovely and it’s so well written and enjoyable. I read it to my four-year-old and my seven-year-old and each of them were equally captivated. I’m sure my 4-year old didn’t take away as much as my seven-year-old, but both of them really enjoyed it.

Do want to tell me a bit what the book is about without maybe giving it away?

There’s a musical background to it, starting with Ludwig (van Beethoven) writing his music. One man wrote beautiful music, that inspired the next man to create his own music, and that then inspired a group of musicians to start an orchestra, which then inspired other people to study music and then it led to a concert, where a little girl sat in a seat watching and listening. That moment inspired her for a lifelong love of music and then, at the end of the story, she encourages another child to enter the world of music.

It’s almost like “This is the House that Jack Built”: it shows you the simple stepping stones of how one person’s actions can inspire another and so on.

Would you say the book is for kids from ages 4-8, is that the best way to describe it?

Yes. Most of the time picture books are for a pre-reader, but they’re also great for older readers tackling new topics. So if you were introducing a new topic to an older reader in a chapter book format with no pictures, it might feel overwhelming. So, I feel picture books are still great for the older readers, but ultimately, I would say the age range for Because is 4 to 8.

Let’s talk about When Sadness is at your Door, by Eva Eland. Is this book also for the 4-8 age range?

Yes, and even three-year-olds would enjoy this one. I love the simplicity of the illustrations, combined with the simplicity of the words—and yet this book also has a really profound effect on you. It reminds you that it’s okay to feel sad and that if you actually take the time to sit with your feelings, then you have the time to release them and set them free. It doesn’t mean that they’ll never come back, and you may feel sad again tomorrow, but by sitting with your feelings and acknowledging them, then you can actually take the time to feel better. It’s so simply put and so accessible for kids.

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I think social and emotional intelligence is so important; we shouldn’t just gloss over feelings. It’s so easy to send a kid to their room and say, “You need to go calm down,” but if you take a moment to read this book with them, and let them know that actually sitting with your feelings and getting to know your feelings is helpful, I think the world will be a better place.

In the book, it’s not a specific event that triggers the sadness is it? It’s just a kind of melancholy that arrives.

There is no specific trigger. The story starts with, “Sometimes sadness arrives unexpectedly” and there’s this green blob guy at the door. Then the kid invites the sadness in, and they interact, and by the end sadness goes out the door. It’s just so simple and sweet, but really effective.

Let’s talk about book no. 3 on your list of best kids’ books of 2019. This is Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. This is, again, a picture book, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Tell me why you loved this one.

First of all, the cover totally drew me in. Juana Martinez-Neal’s illustrations are always so warm and inviting and made me want to read it straight away. What I love about this book is that while it’s specifically a Native American family story, it really could be any family that is connecting and bonding over a tradition and over food. The text is brief and delightfully bubbles along, it’s poetic. Between the pictures and the words, you can imagine all the scrumptious food smells and the joy of the togetherness.

It’s a reminder of the importance of family and of acceptance and of tradition. The characters mix food and it’s messy and it splashes around. When you get to the end, there’s a recipe for making fry bread, too. So you could make your own fry bread and there’s a description of what it is.

And what is it exactly?

It’s a simple flat dough bread that is fried or deep fried. The recipe in the book includes water, cornmeal, cold water, instant yeast, raw sugar, sea salt flour and unrefined coconut oil. You can eat it with either sweet or savoury toppings, from jam to beans. It’s one of those recipes that you can just apply to whatever you’re having. Everybody, no matter who you are, can bond over a delicious meal that you’ve worked on together.

The final words of the book are important. It says, “Fry Bread is Us: We are still here, elder and young, friend and neighbor. We strengthen each other, to learn, change, and survive.” And so just through making that bread, we discover the process is obviously bigger than just family. The book beautifully bridges the gap between the traditional and modern Native American identity. It is just so warm and fuzzy, but in such a simple and delicious way.

So now we’re at the fourth and fifth books on your list of best kids’ books of 2019. They’re for a slightly older age group, 8-11. Would you call that the tween age group?

Yes, these books are perfect for tween readers. My daughter is 13 and she read the book about Coyote Sunrise and absolutely loved it. So, while the main age would be tween, teenagers would still enjoy it, too.

Okay. So let’s talk about that one first. It’s called The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, who is the girl who is the main character, and it’s by Dan Gemeinhart.

What I loved about Coyote Sunrise was, first of all, just her as a character. She’s so confident and outgoing and sassy and smart and she loves to read. If you think of Hermione in the Harry Potter books, she’s different to her, but she’s one of those characters that you want your kids, if they could, to be like. She knows who she is and she knows what she wants and she goes for it. I loved that.

In the book, you learn as you go along that her mother and two sisters have died in a car accident. That’s not in the story, but happens before. Since then, her and her dad have been living on a big, bright, yellow school bus, just driving around the United States from one campground to another. The dad is running from facing his fears—he should have read When Sadness is at Your Door.

“It’s important to know that even if you think you’ve found the right book, if you’re halfway through it, or even a quarter of the way through it, and it doesn’t resonate, it’s okay to put it down”

So, they’re moving around and it’s beautiful, they’re having a great time, but she starts to realize that she’s losing the memory of who her mother and her sisters were, and she doesn’t want to. They learn that a special memory box that she planted with her mom and her sisters, a few days before they died, is in a playground that is going to get pulled down. She knows she can’t get her dad to go back to the home, but she doesn’t want the memory box to get lost. She wants to go back and get it. So she has to trick her dad into driving back. Along the way, they pick up extra passengers, who also have places that they need to get to—they’re a diverse set of characters with different cultural backgrounds, and all really unique.

A girl joins them on the bus who says she’s been kicked out of her house because she’s gay. It’s such a small part of the book, but it’s impactful. It turns out that she is actually a minor and has run away because of her parents’ response. She wasn’t actually kicked out. So that creates an important piece of drama for the story arc.

There’s never a dull moment. There’s adventure, there’s inclusivity and there’s so much storytelling. Ultimately, it’s a reminder that every single person has their own special story and their own special things going on. You can’t run away from those things, and the sooner that you face them head-on, the sooner things will improve and get better.

I just loved Coyote’s determination and the adventure and the message of acceptance.

I like the fact that she’s eccentric and her father’s eccentric, because as a child, everyone feels a bit weird and different. This book really celebrates eccentricity, because they live on a bus and her dad looks a real mess.

There’s a scene where they’re in a campground and she makes a friend for, literally, a couple of hours. The girl’s mom is asking Coyote questions and divulges how her mom and her sisters have died and then she points to the bus. And the mom asks, ‘Is that your dad?’ Then, when Coyote asks the girl to come to her school bus to see her books (they both enjoy reading), the mom says no. I felt, in that moment, that it’s so easy to judge somebody that’s scruffier than you. But Rodeo, her dad, is living the life he needs to live in that moment. He’s a great guy and yet this mother judged him based on one look. I feel the younger you learn that message, not to pass judgment based on one glance or two sentences, the better things will be.

We’re now at the last book on your list of best children’s books of 2019, which is Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, who is also the illustrator. What age range is it for?

Eight and up. You could even do seven and up, depending on reading ability. At the beginning of Pie in the Sky, I wasn’t sure where it was going, but by the end I was sobbing. I realize that I’ve really picked some deep books here!

It’s about two brothers. It never says exactly what country they’re from—I know the author was born in Indonesia, but grew up in Singapore—but they come to Australia. They don’t speak English, but they have to integrate. You learn that the reason they’ve come to Australia is because their parents had a wish for them to have a better life. But you know throughout that their Papa is not there.

The brothers’ relationship is really funny. It reminded me of Judy Blume’s books Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing with the older brother and Fudge. They have this typical relationship that goes backwards and forwards, they fight, they call each other boogers, they tease each other, but you can tell there’s a little bit of a sadness there.

“There truly is a book out there for every reader, if only you take the time to discover their interests and passions”

The older brother particularly struggles, while his younger brother seems to be picking up English a lot more easily and making friends. The older brother just wants his Papa to be there. They come from a family of bakers, and baking becomes a really important part of how he gets through his days. Some super funny things happen but, ultimately, he starts to learn English through cookbooks that he gets from the library.

His mom gets more and more frustrated with him, because they’re not supposed to bake when she’s not home, and a lot of drama starts unfolding. The reader begins to realize that the baking is him fighting his grief, because his dad is not coming, but has passed away. They are living the dream that his dad had, and he’s been struggling with that. Once his mom realizes that, she becomes a lot more accepting of the baking and they bond over it. It brings them all together.

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What I also thought about this book was that if you were an immigrant, then the story would really resonate with you. But if you’re not an immigrant, you’d also understand that these boys were having the same struggles that you have—plus the language barrier. Again, everybody’s just like you, everybody’s just like me, and the more we’re accepting and helpful the better off we’ll all be. If we could have helped this boy to learn English more quickly, he would have had a much easier time and made friends more quickly. Everybody would have been eating and enjoying cakes together a lot sooner, rather than waiting until the end.

It’s highly illustrated throughout, which I like. The illustrations really help to highlight the more impactful moments. When they first arrive in Australia, everybody that’s speaking English has an alien head. Then, as he’s integrating, everybody who is speaking English has a regular head and he sees himself with an alien head. He’s gone from feeling self-assured to feeling like an alien on a foreign planet. And then, as it gets to the end, the alien heads disappear. It’s really unique and a really great book that bridges the gap between a regular chapter book and a graphic novel.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Bianca Schulze

Bianca Schulze is the founder and editor of The Children's Book Review, a resource devoted to children's literature and literacy. Bianca is also the bestselling author of 101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up (an Amazon "Book of the Month" in 2016) and the forthcoming picture book Don't Wake the Dragon (2020). She is a reader, reviewer, mother, and children's book lover. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Bianca now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

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Bianca Schulze

Bianca Schulze is the founder and editor of The Children's Book Review, a resource devoted to children's literature and literacy. Bianca is also the bestselling author of 101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up (an Amazon "Book of the Month" in 2016) and the forthcoming picture book Don't Wake the Dragon (2020). She is a reader, reviewer, mother, and children's book lover. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Bianca now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.