The PEN America Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee Recommends Children’s Books for Our Moment: A Reading List
With so much put on hold—including going to school, playing with friends, after-school activities, visits with grandparents, and even weekly trips to the library; not to mention the fear of catching a scary disease that is transmitted in invisible ways—the COVID-19 crisis has upended children’s lives. Families reading books together can create a sense of comfort and perspective, whether it involves re-reading family favorites or taking a fresh look at some of the books on this list, compiled by members of the PEN America Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee (CYAB). These books describe upended lives, resiliency, and stories of children and others who rise above. In addition, there’s a new book here that’s available for free online and presents facts about the coronavirus in a child-friendly way.
—Amy Nathan, CYAB member, [email protected]
Teri Daniels recommends In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings is one of my go-to gift books for children ages three to six. Die-cut hearts and bold pictures draw children in, while witty lines about 10 emotions draw children out. This gorgeous book can be a gateway to meaningful conversations, especially in times of change.
Teri Daniels has authored books for children, articles and essays for adults, and corporate newsletters for a consulting firm.
Naomi Danis recommends Free Lunch by Rex Ogle, Gravity by Sarah Deming, The Long Ride by Marina Budhos, and Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed
Free Lunch is Rex Ogle’s memoir of being signed up by his out-of-work mom for his middle school’s free meal program. A compelling, visceral, and heartfelt story about the struggles of growing up in poverty, his story includes memorable figures such as a lunch lady he has to confront everyday and a teacher who takes one look at his secondhand clothes and decides he’s trouble.
The Long Ride, Marina Budhos’s middle-grade novel, tells the story of three mixed-race best girlfriends in the 1970s who always felt like outsiders at their mostly white neighborhood school in Queens, New York. When they enter the seventh grade, they learn that they are going to be bussed as part of an experiment to integrate a new school in a black neighborhood, where they think maybe they will finally fit in.
Yes No Maybe So, by co-authors Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, is a cross-cultural love story set in contemporary Atlanta. The book tells the story of what happens when introverted Jamie Goldberg reconnects with his childhood friend, Maya Rehman, while they are both volunteering for a state senate candidate’s election campaign. As the two teens struggle with believing that they can make a difference in the world, they also find themselves increasingly drawn to each other.
Over the last few weeks, so many of us have been trying to figure out how to talk with children of all ages in caring ways about the virus. Many of us have been searching for the words to deal with our own anxieties and trying to do the same in an honest, but calm way for children. Candlewick Press has released a free download of this book, which gives us not only the words to share with children of various ages, but also art that will draw children into the text and help them learn and cope with the virus in as reassuring and factual a way as possible. This book also helped me cope. You can download the book here.
Robie H. Harris writes fiction and nonfiction books for infants, young children, and older children including It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health.
Susan Kuklin recommends Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” by Deborah Heiligman and Bringing Down A President: The Watergate Scandal by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy
Susan Kuklin writes and photographs nonfiction YA books, including We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults and In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann recommends Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
During the last few months of isolation, I have been looking to other times when communities have fought overwhelming odds to survive. For the residents of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia), their nearly three years under siege during World War II were followed by a decade of tyranny and terror under Stalin’s regime. The composer Dimitri Shostakovich was evacuated from Leningrad early on during the siege, and his Symphony No. 7 was his message of love and resistance to those left behind. Anderson’s vivid and powerful narrative, geared toward teen readers, captures the essence of Shostakovich’s work and the ways in which art sustains life and community, even under the most difficult circumstances.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of two YA historical novels, Gringolandia and Surviving Santiago; the YA novel Rogue; and Moonwalking, a new historical novel due out in 2021, co-authored with Zetta Elliott. She also translates children’s books from Portuguese and Spanish to English and is the co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee.
Amy Nathan recommends Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and Janet Joly, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, and Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper
Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and Janet Joly helped me when I was a fifth grader to see that something positive could have happened during the horrors of World War II, which I was beginning to learn about then. It tells of 20 French children who were sent to live at a Catholic school in the mountains, far away from their families and the danger of their Nazi-occupied hometowns. These children went to inventive and heroic lengths to protect 10 Jewish refugee children, refusing to betray them even when tempted with chocolate and oranges.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, with illustrations by Dom Lee, tells the story of a boy and his Japanese American family, who were forced during World War II to leave their home and become prisoners in a desert detention camp, surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers. When the boy’s father sets out to build a baseball field in the desert, playing in the camp’s baseball league gives him a way to survive and blossom.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper, a picture book with soft, dreamlike illustrations, can help children (and adults, too) cope with the sadness of being unable to visit grandparents and others during this time of social distancing. In this book, Max learns that the moon he can see is the same moon that shines on his grandpa’s house, and this story will help young readers feel more connected to the loved ones that they are unable to visit now.
Amy Nathan is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books for young people and adults, including her most recent, A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, a picture book co-authored with Sharon Langley, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
Krystyna Poray Goddu recommends Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg and Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor
Serafina’s Promise, a quiet compelling novel told in verse and set in rural, poverty-ridden Haiti, is narrated by 11-year-old Serafina, who experiences a series of disasters, starting with the death of her baby brother, followed by a flood that displaces her close-knit family and then—even more devastatingly—the 2010 earthquake. With each tragedy playing a part in thwarting Serafina’s dreams to go to school and become a doctor, Berg makes Haiti’s traumatic history personally significant to Serafina and ends with these inspiring words: “Life is hard / but no matter what happens / we beat the drum / and we dance again.”
Keeping Safe the Stars brings to life the murky territory of morality during a time of uncertainty. When their grandfather and sole guardian is hospitalized, 13-year-old Pride and her younger siblings must make decisions that allow them to survive independently without arousing suspicions from the well-meaning adults in their rural Minnesota community. Set in the summer of 1974, during President Nixon’s impeachment trial, the suspenseful story explores how questions of survival, loyalty, and love play out during times of crisis.
Krystyna Poray Goddu is the author of several books of children’s nonfiction, including A Girl Called Vincent: The Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and with her cousin Krystyna Mihulka, Krysia: A Polish Girl’s Stolen Childhood During World War II.
Fatima Shaik recommends Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield
Honey, I Love, by author Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, is a picture book told in verse that reminds us about the lovely aspects of everyday life. Told in a child’s voice, the narrator expresses love for her cousin’s drawl, playing under a water hose, riding in a car, and the sound of laughter among others. This book was first published in 1978 and has been republished with new illustrations. Many of the scenes are not socially distanced, but children can still laugh, play, and love in their shuttered environments—and maybe now (especially now), they should.
Paul Zelinsky recommends Hello, Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall