Fanfare 2020 Annotations

Welcome to Fanfare, our choices of the best books of 2020. When The Horn Book’s tiny office went from wall-to-wall books, ARCs, effin’ jeez, and piles and piles of still more books to fully remote, there was a lot of uncertainty. Overnight, our digital tag line — It’s virtually a whole new Horn Book — became the necessary new normal (the how of it being another story). Through it all, we had books to see us through; and the titles on our annual Fanfare list — thirty in all, our best of the best — offer comfort, hope, inspiration, laughter, escapism, realism, community, sustenance, challenge, warmth, and more. With this holiday season like no other, wear a mask, support an indie, and share our Fanfare recommendations with people you love.

Elissa Gershowitz
Executive Editor

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Picture Books

I Am Every Good Thing
written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James; Paulsen/Penguin
(Preschool, Primary)

“I am a roaring flame of creativity. / I am a lightning round of questions, and / a star-filled sky of solutions.” Barnes’s powerful first-person present-tense text affirms the limitless possibilities of Black boys’ lives, while James’s vibrant oil-paint illustrations harmoniously depict Black boys in motion, in contemplation, and in full vitality. Beautiful and necessary. Review 9/20.

In the Woods
written by David Elliott, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey; Candlewick

Fifteen thoughtful, pithy poems — some funny, some elegiac — capture the essence of the forest and its inhabitants. Expansive watercolor and mixed-media spreads are absolutely immersive in their realism. Spread by spread, readers can take in the whole scene from afar and be rewarded anew by looking closely. Review 3/20.

A Girl like Me
written by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Nina Crews; Millbrook
(Preschool, Primary)

It seems not even the sky’s the limit for the imaginative, adventurous, inventive girls depicted in Crews’s innovative, exuberant photo collages, paired with Johnson’s upbeat, encouraging text. They fly, stand atop tall buildings, and dive deep into oceans; but, most importantly, they resist others’ warnings, denials, and chastisements about “a girl like you.” Review 3/20.

Black Is a Rainbow Color
written by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes; Roaring Brook

“My color is black.” A lyrical, metaphor-rich text uses familiar motifs and allusions to Black artistic contributions to highlight what black is. Heavy lines, strong colors, and soft touches of collage in the striking illustrations create a mosaic of a thriving culture. A wealth of back matter further enhances this treasure trove of positivity. Review 1/20.

The Camping Trip
written and illustrated by Jennifer K. Mann; Candlewick

Ernestine’s first camping trip, with her aunt and cousin, brings joy and thrills — but bedtime brings homesickness. “Let’s go look at the stars,” suggests her aunt, which does the trick. First-person, present-tense narration combines with superbly paced panel art for a warmhearted (and welcome)story about an African American family enjoying nature together. Review 5/20.

written and illustrated by Pete Oswald; Candlewick
(Preschool, Primary)

In this heartwarming wordless ode to nature and tradition, a brown-skinned father and child embark on an eventful daylong hike, the culmination of which connects them to previous generations. Gorgeous textured, earth-toned illustrations carry the narrative, with varied perspectives highlighting action or offering moments for reflection. Review 3/20.

A New Green Day
written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis; Porter/Holiday

In this exuberant celebration of a summer day, readers engage with propulsive page-turns to solve simple nature riddles. “Morning lays me on your pillow, an invitation square and warm. Come out and play!” Hand-stamped lettering, leaf prints, sumi ink, vine charcoal, and digital color produce art that is tantalizingly evocative; summertime encapsulated. Review 5/20.

The Old Truck
written and illustrated by Jarrett ­Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey; Norton
(Preschool, Primary)

A hard-working truck and a young girl grow older, in parallel, on the family farm. The child, as an adult, becomes the “new farmer” and rehabilitates the long-broken-down vehicle. An African American farming family is depicted in the Pumphreys’ retro, earth-toned illustrations — technically masterful, uncluttered, and infused with cheer and playfulness. Review 3/20.

I Talk like a River
written by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith; Porter/Holiday

A boy who struggles with stuttering narrates this profound and empowering picture book. One day, the boy’s father takes him for a walk by a river and tells him that his speech is like the river — sometimes “churning, whirling, and crashing,” sometimes calm. Smith’s illustrations are a tour de force, showing both the boy’s internal emotions and the stunning beauty of the natural world — notably in a spectacular gatefold of the boy standing in the river’s embrace. Review 11/20.

Our Little Kitchen
written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki; Abrams

A celebration of community, togetherness, creativity, and food, this book, set in a communal urban kitchen, exudes effervescence: “Beans from the food bank? Third week in a row! But it’s what we’ve got, we’ll use ’em somehow.” The characters — of all shapes, sizes, races, religions, abilities, and genders — radiate warmth, vibrancy, individuality, and purpose. Review 11/20.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Clap When You Land
written by Elizabeth Acevedo; Quill Tree/HarperCollins
(High School)

After their father perishes in a plane crash, newly revealed half-sisters Camino (who lives in the Dominican Republic) and Yahaira (a native New Yorker) grapple with grief, the sting of deception, and the meaning of family. Acevedo (The Poet X) again excels in this sharp and compelling verse novel centering Latinx young women. Review 7/20.

Fighting Words
written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; Dial
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Ten-year-old Della has learned to be tough from her fiercely protective older sister Suki. Placed in a new foster home, the girls’ lives are looking up — but Suki is hiding a devastating secret. Narrated with pathos (and some humor) by audacious Della, the story showcases the astonishing strength and resilience of children as it cheers the bonds of sisterhood. Review 9/20.

King and the Dragonflies
written by Kacen Callender; Scholastic
(Intermediate, Middle School)

African American twelve-year-old King, sad and mourning, believes his late brother Khalid has “left his body behind like a second skin” and become a dragonfly. Dragonfly-Khalid guides King to his former best friend, Sandy — scared, bullied, and in hiding. Sandy is gay, and so, King gradually accepts, is he. Unflinchingly honest, uncommonly sensitive, and beautifully complex. Review 1/20.

written and illustrated by Mike Curato; Godwin/Holt
(Middle School, High School)

Aiden hopes high school will provide some relief from being bullied, but meanwhile, there is summer Boy Scout camp to get through. This graphic novel, in black and white with judicious and effective splashes of an impassioned red, winningly captures the joys of camp and young love while at the same time exploring the hopes and fears of the human heart. Review 11/20.

written by Varian Johnson, illustrated by Shannon Wright; Graphix/Scholastic
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Sixth grade brings changes for African American twins Maureen (“the thinker”) and Francine (“the talker”). Francine expands her horizons by running for class president…and, for better or worse, her sister follows suit. A highly relatable middle-grade graphic novel, perfect for anyone who’s struggled with self-doubt or yearned to stand out. Review 11/20.

We Dream of Space
written by Erin Entrada Kelly; Greenwillow
(Intermediate, Middle School)

In 1986, siblings Fitch, Bird, and Cash see their lives reflected and changed by a school project devoted to the upcoming (and ill-fated) Challenger space shuttle mission. As chapters alternate between each of the kids in turn, Kelly’s acuity and empathy for family and middle-school dynamics are on full display. Review 5/20.

Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It
written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney; Little, Brown
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Three members of a Mississippi family tell their stories in a lyrical “monologue novel” with insight into the complex African American experience of Jim Crow and the long fight for voting rights. Through a mix of drama, gospel, and rhythm and blues, and with great immediacy, author Pinkney presents a compelling testimony of resilience. Review 11/20.

Kent State
written by Deborah Wiles; Scholastic
(Middle School, High School)

In somber free verse, a passionate imagined conversation among disembodied voices recalls the heart-wrenching 1970 Kent State shootings of university students by the National Guard. All the speakers bicker and lay blame but eventually sincerely wish that the murdered students “rest in peace.” The format vividly evokes the pain, confusion, and conflicting perspectives of the era, while also making timely connections. Review 5/20.

Echo Mountain
written by Lauren Wolk; Dutton
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Via poetic prose and brief, steadily paced chapters, Wolk immerses readers in the Maine woods setting where twelve-year-old Ellie’s family is forced to move during the Great Depression. Following a devastating accident that leaves her father in a coma, budding naturalist and healer Ellie makes some new and surprising friendships. An exemplary work of historical fiction. Review 7/20.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here



Sharuko: El arqueólogo Peruano Julio C. Tello / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello
written by Monica Brown, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri, translated into Spanish by Adriana Domínguez; Children’s/Lee & Low
(Primary, Intermediate)

This narratively engaging, visually spectacular picture-book biography of a groundbreaking archaeologist and educator forefronts Indigenous Peruvian science, knowledge systems, and art. Gouache and watercolor illustrations highlight panoramic Andean vistas; vignettes focus on resplendent brown faces. Notes from Brown and Chavarri affirm their commitment to perpetuating Peru’s Indigenous culture. Review 7/20.

Your Place in the Universe
written and illustrated by Jason Chin; Porter/Holiday
(Primary, Intermediate)

Chin’s exceptional science picture book compares the relative sizes of things — including a group of children, famous tall buildings, and objects in space — in increasingly large units of measurement and to scale (where possible!). Stunning watercolor and gouache art helps elucidate the complex concepts, all clearly defined in the text. Review 11/20.

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera
written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Porter/Holiday

This up-close-and-personal look at the life cycle of one worker bee delivers an epic amount of information and packs a surprising emotional punch. With each stage of growth, Fleming’s text builds anticipation, while Rohmann’s detailed honey-toned art immerses readers in the life of the hive — and, in a climactic gatefold illustration, follows Apis as she flies for the first time. Review 3/20.

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh
written by Candace Fleming; Schwartz & Wade/Random
(Middle School, High School)

With a fair-minded accounting of Lindbergh’s achievements (as an aviator and inventor) and his failings (as a racist and xenophobe), Fleming brings Lindbergh to three-dimensional life and asks us to think about what it means — to us as well as about us — to call someone a “hero.” Review 1/20.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and ­Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents
written by Kate Messner, illustrated by Adam Rex; Chronicle
(Primary, Intermediate)

Sure, George Washington was our first president, but did you know there were nine future presidents alive when his presidency began? This chronological but unique approach to presidential history invites us to consider the office as well as the — so far — men who have held it. Review 3/20.

How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure
written and illustrated by John Rocco; Crown
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Rocco provides a clear, comprehensive, enthralling account of the scientific and historical factors involved in the U.S.’s effort to send humans to the moon. Breathtaking full-color pencil, watercolor, and digital illustrations and frequent elucidating side panels support the conversational text, culminating in a thrilling minute-by-minute chronicle of the Apollo 11 mission. Review 11/20.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust
written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; Farrar
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Caldecott Medalist Shulevitz recounts his wartime childhood of displacement, discrimination, and hunger as his Jewish refugee family fled the Nazis — from Poland, to Russia, to Turkestan, and eventually Paris. Frequent expressive and lively grayscale illustrations illuminate poignant and emotional moments. Truly a portrait of an artist as a young man thrown into the maelstrom of a world gone mad. Review 11/20.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks
written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera; Abrams
(Primary, Intermediate)

This picture-book biography of the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet lives up to its title. Cabrera’s acrylic paintings burst with creativity and joy, mixing realism — even the hard times — with idiosyncratic, expressionistic moments. With Slade’s attention to detail, vigorous prose, and judicious use of Brooks’s own words, both this “exquisite” biography and its subject stand out. Review 7/20.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team
written by Christina Soontornvat; Candlewick
(Intermediate, Middle School)

Lucid prose in an immediate present tense gives a journalistic account of the difficult, complicated 2018 rescue of twelve members of a youth soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Soontornvat clearly lays out the technical and engineering challenges while keeping a tight focus on the unfolding edge-of-your-seat drama. Review 9/20.

How to Find a Bird
written by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Diana Sudyka; Beach Lane/Simon
(Preschool, Primary)

Ward’s enticing text pulls readers in with its welcoming and encouraging tone as two children demonstrate that “there are a lot of ways to find a bird.” Sudyka’s motion-filled watercolor gouache and digital illustrations manage to be both informative and beautiful, with bird names unobtrusively labeled throughout. This inspiring picture book reminds readers that “we can all be birdwatchers!” Review 7/20.

Dragon Hoops
written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien; First Second/Roaring Brook
(High School)

Yang’s latest comics-format book brilliantly combines journalism, memoir, and sports history. A math teacher at the school, he recounts the events of Bishop O’Dowd High School’s 2015 basketball season as the team attempted to win the California State Championship. While the action on the court is transfixing, portrayed in dynamic panels, the story shines just as brightly when Yang’s focus shifts to his own profound insights regarding art and storytelling. Review 5/20.

Read more by and about Fanfare authors and illustrators here

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