“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” — C.S. Lewis
I love children’s novels. At their very best, they equip the young and old alike to — as G.K. Chesterton once said — slay the dragons in our lives. The year 2016 has certainly had its fair share of dragons but it’s also given rise to a number of exceptional new works of children’s literature that would make wonderful Christmas gifts for family and friends.
Here are a few of 2016’s best children’s novels that are sure to fill you and your loved ones with a sense of childlike joy and wonder; any of them will help you with your own dragon-slaying.
Outlaws of Time by N.D. Wilson
The first volume in a new trilogy, Outlaws of Time is thrilling story about a young boy named Samuel Miracle who meets a time-traveling guide and sets off on a series of adventures to repair a broken and fragmented timeline. It’s a fast-paced story with deep ties to the myths of the American Southwest, and it’s sure to delight fans of Rick Riordan and Brandon Mull. Most noteworthy, however, is N.D. Wilson’s trademark fascination with the magic of everyday existence.
His lively prose, memorable characters, and enthralling reimagining of famous scenes from the Wild West all work together to enchant his readers with the natural world — to help them see with fresh eyes the beauty of the setting sun, to hear anew the song of the babbling brook, and to fall in love again with the story we call “life.”
As I’ve said before, “Outlaws of Time is a feast — a banquet of the highest order — for your imagination and affections” that thoroughly rejects escapist fantasies. It’s Wilson at his most Chestertonian, and it’s an immensely satisfying departure from the teen angst and comic book villains that so frequently characterize the genre.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Peter Brown’s tale of a robot named Roz who wakes up to find herself stranded on an island filled with woodland creatures feels like a book from a bygone era in the best possible way. It most noticeably hearkens back to Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man, the literary source for Brad Bird’s iconic film, The Iron Giant (1999). Also, the quirkiness with which Brown imbues his characters, as well as his predilection for breaking the fourth wall, are reminiscent of the very best of Roald Dahl.
Unlike so many of the Atomic Age sci-fi stories from which it draws inspiration, The Wild Robot is more interested in the relationship between nature and technology than man and machine. However, it still manages to explore some very human themes including the necessity of friendship and the nature of love. So don’t let the early chapters’ lighthearted tone fool you; The Wild Robot packs quite an emotional punch.
In addition to penning the story, Brown also created some beautiful illustrations sprinkled throughout this book. His Klassen-like minimalism bears witness to The Wild Robot‘s deceptively thoughtful simplicity. And finally, the book’s comprised of very short (1-2 page) chapters that make it the perfect bedtime reading.
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk’s debut children’s novel, is a heart-wrenching and poignant coming-of-age story set in a small Pennsylvania farm town in 1943. The protagonist is an almost twelve-year-old girl named Annabelle whose encounters with a school bully and a mysterious vagrant change her life forever.
Wolf Hollow, which derives its title from an eponymous fictional valley in the narrative where farmers once dug pits to trap and kill wolves, is by far the most emotionally mature of the books featured on this list. Unflinching and often unsettling in its depictions of verbal and physical bullying and wartime atrocities, Wolf Hollow is more suitable for readers ages 10 and up. That caveat notwithstanding, Wolk’s work is an absolute masterpiece that will likely linger on in your mind long after you’ve reached its devastating conclusion.
Wolk’s adroit use of first-person prose establishes a remarkable bond between reader and protagonist. Her narration is realistically representative and befitting of the endearing vigor, curiosity, and vitality of a preteen child. Ultimately, Wolf Hollow is a well-crafted and insightful debut that insists words and actions matter — that “what we say and do,” as Annabelle puts it, can change the course of our lives forever.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeir
A surefire contender for a 2017 Eisner, Raina Telgemeir’s Ghosts follows a young girl named Caterina who moves with her family to a new town in Northern California, leaving her friends and old way of life behind, so that her terminally ill little sister Maya can breath better in the coastal air. As Caterina struggles to fit into her new school and make new friends, she hears rumors that there are ghosts in the city and she must learn to see suffering, loss, and death from a different perspective.
Its weighty premise notwithstanding — and it does offer up some genuinely affecting and touching moments — Ghosts is both a fun and funny story. Telgemeir’s art is also lovely. Her characters speak with their eyes as much as their words, and the book’s color palette is dominated by blues, purples, and grays that fill its panels with a ghostly atmosphere.
There’s a remarkable economy to Ghosts as it hurtles toward a climatic Día de Muertos celebration and it’s saturated with an infectious optimism that sees death as the start of a different kind of life.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
It’s fairly common for “boy and his dog” stories — or, in this case, “boy and his fox” stories — to alternate between human and animal characters. One thing that helps Pax stand out in the crowded genre of human-animal companionship tales is that Pennypacker does a thoroughly fantastic job of interweaving two equally compelling narrative threads in her book.
In other words, Pax‘s human drama — which is centered around Peter, a young boy who has been separated from his family and his pet fox due to a war that’s ravaging the countryside — demands just as much emotional investment and has just as much heart as the story of the titular fox who journeys to find his long-lost master.
My wife recently read Pax to her fourth graders. They sat entranced by its haunting figurative language and mysterious (possibly apocalyptic) wartime setting, and begged her to keep reading for just a few more minutes. And, as if Pennypacker’s beautiful prose and taut narrative weren’t enough, Pax holds yet another treat for its readers. The novel is illustrated by Jon Klassen, whose signature black and white drawings intensify the grimy, dingy feel of the novel’s war imagery. With interesting, well-developed characters and plenty of heart to spare, Pax is a novel that you don’t want to miss.