The Best Books of 2023: Books for Children | Mint

The Best Books of 2023: Books for Children

Meghan Cox Gurdon selects the year’s best picture books, middle-grade reading and books for young adults.
Meghan Cox Gurdon selects the year’s best picture books, middle-grade reading and books for young adults.

Summary

Meghan Cox Gurdon selects the year’s best picture books, middle-grade reading and books for young adults.

It seems unfair to announce a list of best books without revealing the criteria of judgment. It is true that the vogue for identity politics that has swept into children’s literature (and the rest of our culture) wins reliable accolades elsewhere. This column remains dedicated to tales told with fizz and real feeling; to illustrations of the highest excellence; to children’s books that, whatever their specific themes or settings or characters, have a strong quality of universality.

“The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams" transports 8- to 12-year-olds to the Silk Road in the 11th century, a jostling realm of merchants and charlatans, donkeys and camels, caravanserais and spice bazaars—and the gaudiest array of hired killers ever marshaled in children’s fiction. Brilliantly written by Daniel Nayeri and beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares, this rollicking picaresque brims with drama, humor and a kind of giddy joy at the charms and weirdnesses of human nature.

“The Skull," a neat little story from author-illustrator Jon Klassen, is based in the loosest way on a Tyrolean folk tale. In pages tinged with macabre shades of bluish-gray and pinkish-red, a little girl flees through a dark forest. We don’t know why Otilla is running; it’s enough to understand that she needs shelter, so it’s a relief when she arrives at a huge old house and is received in a kind way by its sole occupant, a talking human skull. Mr. Klassen specializes in dry humor, and as Otilla and the courtly skull strike up a friendship he excels himself in this spooky, affable tale for children ages 6-10.

“The Eyes & the Impossible" is narrated by one of the most appealing heroes in recent children’s literature, a wild dog named Johannes who lives in a national park and genuinely believes that the power of his running feet makes the world turn. Johannes works in reconnaissance, keeping his animal elders informed of goings-on in the park. When humans put up a strange building, Johannes discovers art and, with it, the need for a transcendent purpose in life. Mingling rough nature with a refined sensibility, Dave Eggers’s novel for young teenagers features beguiling illustrations by Shawn Harris that situate Johannes in lesser-known landscape paintings.

“The Magicians" tells of a huntress and her mechanical dragon who pursue three magicians in and out of different locations, even in and out of the world. This cinematic story by the artist Blexbolex, presented in dynamic silkscreen-like images with text translated from the French by Karin Snelson, is like nothing children ages 9 and older will have seen before. True, there’s some familiarity in Blexbolex’s retro-seeming style of illustration, and it’s not unheard-of for magicians to shape-shift, but in other respects—the supple feel of the book in your hands, the curious whispering of its paper—“The Magicians" is sui generis.

“Bunny & Tree" relates an enchanting wordless tale of friendship between—well, the title is a giveaway. But what an intrepid bunny! And what a resourceful tree! Unfurling across 11 short sections, Balint Zsako’s elegant, richly colored story-pictures are full of gratifying surprises for readers ages 7 and older. The principal characters meet when the tree saves the bunny from a ravening wolf. Soon the pair embark on a long-distance odyssey that ought to be impossible but, in this glorious and uplifting adventure, makes perfect practical and emotional sense.

“The Tree and the River" shows in wondrous and imaginative detail the transformation of an imaginary riverine valley from a state of wilderness to one of neon-choked futuristic urbanity—and, it is implied, back again. Aaron Becker is a master of exquisite wordless fantasy, and though here he conveys perhaps a little too much eco-pessimism, there is no denying the intricate genius of his work. Each two-page illustration depicts a different point in time; attentive children 5 and older will find any number of fascinating points of change and continuity as they move from one image to the next.

“The Shade Tree" retails a traditional Korean folk tale in language of crystalline simplicity and understated artwork. A rich man guards a large tree that he owns, chasing off villagers who try to rest in its cool shade. In Suzy Lee’s delicate brush strokes, the tree resembles a great green gumdrop and the shade a shifting expanse of purple, while the human figures appear as tiny, expressive dashes of black ink. In Ms. Lee’s retelling, a canny young traveler persuades the landowner to sell him the shade—securing the right to occupy it even when the shade extends to cover the rich man’s house.

“Do You Remember?" hints at a story rather than telling one. Meditative and moving, Sydney Smith’s picture book draws children ages 4-8 into the lives of a boy and his mother. The two of them are side by side in bed, in the dark, talking about moments they remember. Text and image here combine to suggest certain big but mostly unelaborated changes in their family (death? divorce? certainly a relocation). Mr. Smith has a remarkable talent for capturing light in his paintings, so that even in depicting scenes of melancholy he brings to them a kind of redemptive luminosity.

“The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish" presents a fanciful chronicle of an imaginary scientific expedition for readers ages 3-7. In delicate, captivating illustrations, Chloe Savage presents a research vessel setting off to find a legendary marine animal. On the journey, the crew sees maritime marvels—narwhals, beluga whales, the aurora borealis—but in the great sea there’s absolutely no sign of either the pale tendrils or curious eyes of the giant Arctic jellyfish. Or is there?

“Discovering Life’s Story: Biology’s Beginnings" is a work of nonfiction for adolescent readers that has the brio of an adventure story. In this first volume of a planned quartet, Joy Hakim traces the erratic and winding development of our understanding of biology from antiquity through the late 19th century. In prose that is textured, humane and spirited, Ms. Hakim describes the movements of armies and microbes, the discoveries of anatomists and astronomers, the insights of philosophers and doctors and explorers. Abundant illustrations—maps, portraits, engravings—help keep the pace excitingly brisk.

The Best Books of 2023: Books for Children
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The Best Books of 2023: Books for Children
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