Each year, the kids and I spend December winnowing our list. Not the one for Santa; the one that has book titles on it. Figuring out which books were our favorites of the year is hard work.

This year, we found an abundance of gems both in the tweens-and-teens novel category and in nonfiction for young readers. Curiously, even most of the picture books we liked the best were fact-based biographies.

For those lucky young readers who suddenly find themselves with a shiny new bookstore gift card, here are some suggestions for what to read next: The Miami Herald’s Best Kids’ Books of the Year.


“Owney the Mail-pouch Pooch,” by Mona Kerby, illustrated by Lynne Barasch (ages 4 to 8). Kerby restores to fame the canine hero of the title, a real dog who traveled the rails guarding the mail at the end of the 19th Century. Barasch’s watercolors bring this historical dog to endearing life.

“Knucklehead,” by Jon Scieszka (ages 7-12). The author of many wacky and beloved picture books reveals the source of his kooky ideas: his Michigan childhood as the second of six boys. Destined to be the No. 1 choice of elementary school kids assigned to read an autobiography.

“A River of Words,” by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (ages 7-up). This visually stunning biography explores the life of William Carlos Williams, explaining how he worked his passion for poetry into his busy life as a small-town doctor. Just beautiful.

“The Trouble Begins at 8,” by Sid Fleischman (ages 10 and up). Any kid struggling to understand why Huckleberry Finn is still a staple of high school reading lists 125 years after its publication would benefit from this biography of Mark Twain, the writer who “changed literature forever.” Blending information with colorful detail, the Newbery winner Fleischman crafts a spirited portrait which will help kids understand and appreciate Twain’s elevated place in American letters.

“We Are the Ship,” by Kadir Nelson (ages 8 and up). A glorious tribute to the Negro League, written in the folksy vernacular of a fictional player. The artwork could hang on museum walls.

“What To Do About Alice?” by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham (ages 5-10). With Malia and Sasha Obama about to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., this picture book biography about Teddy Roosevelt’s wild child is as timely as it is lively.


“Airman,” by Eoin Colfer (ages 10 and up). A tiny island kingdom off the Irish coast is the setting for this epic action-adventure story starring Conor Broekhart, whose very life depends on learning to fly. An homage to both the 19th century science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and the superheroes of Marvel and DC comics, this is Colfer’s best book yet.

“The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,” by E. Lockhart (ages 12 and up). High-school sophomore Frankie challenges paternalism,” by secretly infiltrating her boarding school’s all-male society. Sophisticated hijinx ensue but the best part of this is watching intelligent Frankie think her way through the questions she has about power and position.

“Graceling,” by Kristin Cashore (ages 12 and up). This riveting fantasy is a coming-of-age story about Kasta, who lives in a kingdom where people born with different colored eyes have been “graced” with special talents. Kasta’s grace is for killing – making her a useful tool for her despotic king – or is it? Kasta must find a way to put her talents to good use. A delicious romance with the silver-and-gold-eyed Po adds to this incredibly well-done first novel.

“The Possibilities of Sainthood,” by Donna Freitas (ages 11 and up). This romantic comedy stars Antonia Lucia Labella, Catholic schoolgirl and daughter of Italian immigrants. Her quest has two, not mutually exclusive, goals: She wants a kiss from heartthrob Andrew Rotellini, and she’s been writing the Vatican for six years, petitioning to become the first living patron saint. Hilarious and sweet.

“Six Innings,” by James Preller (ages 8-12). The group portrait of the members of a Little League baseball team takes place over the six innings of a championship game. Perceptive and funny, sketches introduce us to the players while the nail-biting action keeps the pages turning. Kids will be nodding in agreement at the truths laid bare.

“What I Saw and How I Lied,” by Judy Blundell (ages 12 and up). This incredibly well-crafted story is set in 1940s Florida and delightfully blends mystery, history and a girl’s first crush in a compelling story about family secrets. Winner of the 2008 National Book Award.

Picture books

“A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever,” by Marla Frazee (ages 3-7). Sure they do. Even though it isn’t the week Grandma and Grandpa had planned for Eamon and James. The words tell one story; Frazee’s sublime illustrations contradict them on every page.

“How to Heal a Broken Wing,” by Bob Graham (ages 4 to 8). In a busy city, a young boy notices the bird lying hurt on the ground and nurses it back to flight. A beautiful book with a gentle heart and a very kid-empowering message.

“Sergio Makes a Splash!,” by Edel Rodriguez (ages 3-6). A witty parable about a penguin afraid to take the plunge, Sergio’s story is rendered in just three colors – a 1950s turquoise, tangerine and a deep midnight blue, giving it a retro feel and sharp graphic appeal.

“Swing!,” by Rufus Butler Seder (ages 3 and up). This follow-up to last year’s Gallop! uses “scanimation” technology to make the illustrations move – mimicking the effect of a kinetoscope. As concept books go (there’s no story here) this is more than just original – it is impossibly cool. Readers watch kids hit a baseball, spin on ice skates, and pedal their bicycles as they turn the pages.

“Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,” by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury (ages 0-up). A heartfelt paean to the beauty of all kinds of babies by the Australian writer Mem Fox, with illustrations by the legendary Helen Oxenbury. Can you say “classic?” This could easily become the book your kids give their own kids.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.