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San Diego Librarian Shares His Top 12 Kids Books Of 2019

Jonathan Hunt is surrounded by his 2019 top picks for children and young-adul...

Photo by Joe Hong

Above: Jonathan Hunt is surrounded by his 2019 top picks for children and young-adult literature at his office in San Diego, Dec. 20, 2019.

Every year, Jonathan Hunt reads countless children and young adult books as the head librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education.

But as he looks back on the year and the decade, he said younger audiences have become more willing to address difficult topics.

“Whether you’re looking at picture books, or novels or graphic novels, we’re seeing an increase in edgy content, or what we may have considered controversial,” Hunt said.

One of Hunt’s favorite books from this year is called “Nine Months: Before a Baby is Born” by Jason Chin and Miranda Paul, a picture book about a family preparing for the birth of a child. He describes it as a “wonderful combination of science, art and poetry.”

Hunt said some books for young readers have tackled topics like immigration. Another one of his favorites this year is called “The Far Away Brothers” by Lauren Markham, a true story about twin brothers from El Salvador living as undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“This is a really important book in helping us, especially when we consider the heated political situation,” he said. “(The book) puts you in the shoes of somebody who’s gone through that.”

His favorite book of the year, is “Queen of the Sea” by Dylan Meconis, a graphic novel about a young woman who lives in a convent. It’s loosely based on the childhood of Queen Elizabeth and takes place in a fictional country resembling England.

But whether it’s a wordless picture book or a 400-page novel, Hunt is always looking for books that teach us about our own world or transport us into others.

“I’m just looking for something that captures a unique perspective, something that resonates and creates an emotional response in the reader,” he said. “Whether it’s something that’s provocative and makes you think, or something that makes you feel deeply.”

Video by Roland Lizarondo

Written and selected by Hunt, here's his favorite picks of 2019:

Picture Books

“Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born” by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin

A Mexican American family prepares for the birth of a new family member. In a split-screen format, the development of the baby in the mother’s womb is depicted on the left page, while the family’s preparations (building the crib, visiting the doctor, welcoming relatives) are depicted on the right side. A wonderful combination of poetry, art, and information.

“Red House, Tree House, Little Bitty Brown Mouse” by Jane Godwin, illustrated by Blanca Gomez

Employing a rhythmical cadence, this picture book invites young readers to track the mouse through its pages even as it reinforces their knowledge of colors. Perfect for a variety of situations: as a bedtime story, a class read aloud, or book an easy reader.

“Saturday” by Oge Mora

A mother who works six days a week enjoys spending Saturdays with her young daughter. One day everything goes wrong and as the mother becomes increasingly distraught, the daughter reminds her that quality time is about spending time together rather than what they actually do. A sparkling little gem of wisdom.

“Who Wet My Pants?” by Bob Shea, illustrated by Oge Mora

While passing out donuts to his scout troops, somebody notices Reuben’s accident. As a defense mechanism, he starts blaming others for his embarrassing situation, but the compassionate response of his peers enables him to eventually save face with a creative, but silly solution. Humor and compassion go hand in hand.

Middle Grade

“Monstrous” by Carlyn Beccia

Leveraging our natural curiosity for all things scary, Beccia profiles eight different monsters (werewolves, vampires, and Bigfoot, for example) with their origins in myth, legend, and reported sightings. The true pleasure of this book, however, is that it introduces quite a bit of science into the narrative, especially in the form of engaging captions and infographics.

“Pay Attention, Carter Jones” by Gary Schmidt

On his first day of middle school, when it seems that his family couldn’t be any more overwhelmed — Carter’s younger brother died several years ago and his father is absent, currently deployed in Germany — a proper English butler, a veritable Mary Poppins — shows up on their doorstep to help them cope. Schmidt masterfully combines humor and pathos.

“Queen of the Sea” by Dylan Meconis

Margaret lives a simple life in a convent on an isolated British island during the Late Middle Ages. As more and more visitors come to the island, the secrets of her heritage gradually unfold, placing her at the center of politics and intrigue that could affect the entire kingdom. It doesn’t hurt that the illustrations in this graphic novel are skillfully drawn and painted.

“Torpedoed” by Deborah Heiligman

During the bombing of London during World War II, some children are transported via ship to other parts of the British empire for safekeeping. When a German submarine torpedoes one such ship carrying more than 200 children, a suspenseful survival saga on the open ocean ensues. Heiligman’s compelling nonfiction account captures the chaos and drama of the rescue effort.

Young Adult

“Fountains of Silence” by Ruta Sepetys

This sweeping saga set during Spain in the 1950s encompasses the stories of four teenagers. The fascist dictator, Franco, enabled the kidnapping and selling of babies as a means of political retribution, a tragedy that resonates through the lives of these four characters. Full of secrets, lies, and romance, this historical novel will likely elicit deep emotions.

“Frankly in Love” by David Yoon

While Frank Li’s parents expect him to rapidly assimilate into American culture, they also expect him to date a Korean-American girl. When he falls for a white girl, he comes up with an elaborate scheme to date his friend, providing cover for his romantic inclinations. Funny and romantic, yet also dealing with issues of race and class, Yoon’s debut has staying power.

“On the Come Up” by Angie Thomas

Thomas returns to the same urban neighborhood that her outstanding debut, The Hate U Give, was set in. Brianna, an aspiring rapper, gets a taste of the big-time when her battle rap goes viral, but with a dire financial situation at home, she must make difficult choices about staying true to her vision or selling out for financial gain.

“Pumpkinheads” by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks

It’s the last night of the fall festival that high school senior Josiah has worked at four years, and his friend Deja convinces him to pursue the colleague that he has pined over for four years. As the two friends set off on a wild goose chase, Josiah comes to realize that his crush is unfounded even as his feelings for Deja blossom. A great graphic novel from a superstar team.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.


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Photo of Joe Hong

Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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