Stories That Astonish and Take Risks: Ten New Children’s Books Out in February

Whenever I get a chance to talk to young readers about books, I come away marveling: Kids are interested in so many things, and they’re interested in those things all at once! Do they want to read an illustrated book about bugs? Yes! Do they want to read a novel about monsters from Greek mythology? Also yes!

Are they bothered by stories that don’t stay neatly within the labeled categories on bookstore shelves? Not even a little bit. Kids have their own literary preferences, like all of us do, but they’re often more willing than adults might be to take risks in their reading.

And children’s book creators take risks, too. They play with genre, blurring the lines between historical fiction and fantasy, or they break away from traditional formats, retelling a Korean folktale as a graphic novel or writing a memoir as a series of poems. The new books that caught my eye this month are great reads for daring, curious readers of all ages.


Memory Garden - Ghahremani, Zohreh

Zohreh Ghahremani, Memory Garden (illustrated by Susie Ghahremani)
(recommended for ages 4-8)

After enduring a long stretch of gray winter days, I was thrilled to escape to the green world of this warm picture book, where a young girl and her grandmother are planting flowers together. As they work, Nana shares her memories of the Persian garden where she spent happy times when she was young herself.

The small moments she describes—shaking mulberries out of a tree, finding a hedgehog curled up by a stream—help readers picture Nana’s life in Iran and imagine how it might feel to immigrate to a new country. I particularly love how the bright illustrations blossom across each page, connecting the past to the present.

The Observologist: A Handbook for Mounting Very Small Scientific Expeditions - Clarkson, Giselle

Giselle Clarkson, The Observologist: A Handbook for Mounting Very Small Scientific Expeditions
(recommended for ages 7-12)

If you’ve ever met a kid who can’t walk down the block without stopping to notice a dandelion puff, a dew-spangled spiderweb, or an ant crossing the pavement, then you’ve met an observologist—someone who notices the tiny, fascinating details of the natural world. Through colorful cartoons and factoids about all kinds of small wonders from bees to bird poop, New Zealand author-illustrator Giselle Clarkson encourages us to see the world with a scientist’s eye and a sense of humor.

While the text is written with elementary school-aged kids in mind, it will also appeal to younger readers (so many pictures of creepy crawlies!) and older readers (so many good reasons to put down your device on the next family trip to the park!).

She'll Be the Sky: Poems by Women and Girls - Risbridger, Ella

Ella Risbridger (editor), She’ll Be the Sky: Poems by Women and Girls (illustrated by Anna Shepeta)
(recommended for ages 8-12)

When my first child was born, I slipped a copy of my favorite illustrated poetry anthology, Talking Like the Rain, onto her bookshelf. This year, I’m excited to add a worthy new collection to that shelf as well: She’ll Be the Sky contains poems by girls, women, and a nonbinary poet.

The pleasantly surprising selections are child-friendly but by no means only for children. Grown-up literature lovers will recognize plenty of names in this diverse collection, which includes work from Maya Angelou, Joy Harjo, Carol Ann Duffy, and Amanda Gorman, among many others. And kids will love exploring Anna Shepeta’s gorgeous full-page illustrations as they listen to poetry read aloud.

The Happy Shop - Olsen, Brittany Long

Brittany Long Olsen, The Happy Shop
(recommended for ages 8-12)

Darcy is miserable in the new country where her mom has moved for work—and things go from bad to worse when Darcy visits a mysterious shop in town and accidentally breaks one of the glass jars for sale. The jars, she discovers, are full of happy feelings to brighten people’s days: the memory of finding some money in your coat pocket, or of going out dancing with your sweetheart.

As Darcy works at the Happy Shop to pay the owners back for the jar she broke, she starts to wonder if happy feelings are the only ones that serve a purpose. Brittany Long Olsen’s debut graphic novel is a quick but satisfying read, and its warm-hearted, magical atmosphere will charm young readers.

Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II - Gidwitz, Adam

Adam Gidwitz, Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II
(recommended for ages 8-12)

Historical fiction meets spy adventure (with a smidgen of fantasy) in Adam Gidwitz’s latest middle grade outing. Max’s parents, worried about the increasing dangers for Jewish families like theirs in 1939 Germany, decide to send Max to relative safety in England. Max himself is distraught to leave his family, and his mood isn’t at all improved when two spirits, a German kobold and a Jewish dybbuk, decide to take up permanent residence on his shoulders.

Once in England, Max determines that the best way to get home to his parents is to become a spy for British intelligence, and with his constant companions making snarky asides in his ears, he sets out to do just that. This genre-bending book is the first in a duology, so be prepared to support the young reader in your life while they wait anxiously for the next installment.

Not the Worst Friend in the World - Rellihan, Anne

Anne Rellihan, Not the Worst Friend in the World
(recommended for ages 8-12)

In this superb homage to Harriet the Spy, debut author Anne Rellihan shows readers she remembers exactly what it’s like to be a kid—particularly a kid like 12-year-old Lou, who’s struggling after a fight with her former best friend. On top of that, Lou’s got a bigger mystery to solve than Harriet, her literary hero, ever did. The new kid in town, Cece Clark-Duncan, believes she might be the victim of parental kidnapping, and she asks Lou to help her prove it.

I genuinely couldn’t put this book down; not only are the mystery elements intriguing, but Lou’s voice is such a delight that readers won’t want to leave her side.

Medusa - Marsh, Katherine

Katherine Marsh, Medusa (The Myth of Monsters #1)
(recommended for ages 8-12)

Fresh off the success of her novel The Lost Year, National Book Award finalist Katherine Marsh returns with a new tale for middle grade readers. This one will be a particular hit with kids who love Greek mythology-inspired adventures: After accidentally freezing an obnoxious kid at school, Ava discovers that she’s inherited some of the powers of her infamous ancestor, the Gorgon Medusa.

Ava and her brother are soon whisked away to the Accademia del Forte, a Venetian boarding school where the young descendants of mythical monsters are taught to control their powers. But Marsh twists the tropes of magic-school tales in some interesting ways as Ava challenges the Accademia’s beliefs about what makes a monster and whose story is worth telling.

A Suffragist's Guide to the Antarctic - Lai, Yi Shun

Yi Shun Lai, A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic
(recommended for ages 12 and up)

One young adult novel—Madeleine L’Engle’s Troubling a Star—inspired my lifelong dream of traveling to Antarctica, but this young adult novel might alter my feelings about the wisdom of taking such a trip. In 1914, young suffragist Clara Ketterling-Dunbar and her male shipmates find themselves stranded on Antarctic ice floes after their expedition’s ship is wrecked. Clara is determined to show the rest of the crew that a young woman isn’t bad luck on a voyage, and that she can do more than make biscuits to help them survive.

Readers are certainly lucky to have Clara as a narrator: Her wit, bravery, and insight make her an ideal adventure guide, even in the most harrowing situations.

The Fox Maidens - Ha, Robin

Robin Ha, The Fox Maidens
(recommended for ages 13 and up)

Kai Song has already bent society’s rules to become an excellent warrior. But her position in her father’s household (and within the rigid patriarchal structures of sixteenth-century Korea) is put in jeopardy when she discovers that she is half girl, half fox demon: a descendent of the mythical Gumiho, who kills evil men to maintain her powers.

This page-turning graphic novel puts a queer, feminist spin on an ancient tale, pulling readers into its fully realized world and exploring complex questions about what we owe to the people who’ve wronged us—and the people we love.

How the Boogeyman Became a Poet - Keith Jr, Tony

Tony Keith, Jr., How the Boogeyman Became a Poet
(recommended for ages 14 and up)

In this memoir in verse, poet and spoken-word artist Tony Keith, Jr. shares his experiences growing up as a gay Black teenager through text, photographs, and photocopied drafts of his handwritten work. Keith knows how to balance the competing concerns of poetry and narrative, and his language will hook readers from page one: it’s lively, emotionally resonant, and truly welcoming to teens.

Poetry lovers might consider pairing this title with the compelling new collection Black Girl You Are Atlas, out this month from writer Renée Watson and artist Ekua Holmes.

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