The best 2018 books for kids, teens and young adults

2018 was a fantastic year for books by and for Asian Americans, from a middle grade novel by a Newberry Award winner to an array of new picture books.
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By Lakshmi Gandhi

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Parents and loved ones of the youngest readers are in luck: 2018 was an absolutely fantastic year for children’s and young adult literature. From a middle grade novel by a Newbery Award winner to an array of stunning new picture books, there is something here for every reader on your list.

Picture Books

“Door” by JiHyeon Lee

There are no words in JiHyeon Lee’s latest picture book, “Door,” but the illustrations are so powerful that there don’t need to be.

The themes of community and discovery in “Door,” echo the ones Lee explored in her 2015 book “Pool,” in which two children find friendship while visiting a crowded local pool.

The pencil drawings at the center of “Door” evolve with Lee’s storyline, so readers follow as the black and white sketches transform into vibrant color as her main character travels through the door of the book’s title.

It is in this new world that the formerly lonely and frightened child finds friends and companionship among people who were once strangers.

“A Big Mooncake for Little Star” by Grace Lin

As Little Star watches her Mama make a mooncake, she is warned that she isn’t allowed to have any until it is completely done. Readers follow along as Mama lays the cake “onto the night sky to cool.” Like most kids, Little Star can’t resist later sneaking a bite (or two or three) when she is supposed to be in bed. Lin then skillfully uses the rapidly disappearing mooncake to teach readers about the waxing and waning phases of the moon.

“They Say Blue” by Jillian Tamaki

Illustrator Jillian Tamaki is best known for her cartoons and the award-winning graphic novel “This One Summer” (which she co-created with her cousin Mariko Tamaki.) Her first picture book “They Say Blue” explores the joy of colors and new experiences through the eyes of a small child visiting a beach. It is there that a young girl marvels that the ocean is blue at a distance, but “when I hold the water in my hands, it’s as clear as glass.” As the book goes on, Tamaki’s illustrations — which were meticulously created with acrylic and Photoshop — explore the changing seasons and the beauty around us.

Middle Grade Books

“Amal Unbound” by Aisha Saeed

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Amal, the heroine of Aisha Saeed’s powerful new middle grade novel, wants nothing more than to read and one day grow up to be like her beloved teacher at her village school in rural Pakistan.

While she tries not to show her annoyance when she is often forced to stay at home to help her mother run the household and care for her siblings, everything changes when she is forced into indentured servitude by the wealthiest landowner in the area. It’s while she is working for the influential Khan family that she begins to learn about the corruption in her village — and becomes determined to do something about it.

“Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

Kelly Yang’s startlingly timely “Front Desk” centers on young Mia Tang.

Mia knows that her home life is quite different from most kids her age. First off, she and her parents are newly arrived from China and live in a bustling motel that her parents manage. It’s Mia’s job to work the front desk while her mom and dad clean rooms. Second, her parents are using some of the hotel rooms to help hide undocumented immigrants — unbeknownst to the motel’s scary owner Mr. Yao and his snobby son Jason.

Can Mia help keep her family’s secrets while also working towards her own dreams of becoming a writer?

“You Go First” by Erin Entrada Kelly

It’s been a banner year for noted children’s book author Erin Entrada Kelly.

In February, she won the 2018 Newbery Medal for her middle grade novel “Hello Universe,” which was about a diverse group of kids whose lives intertwined. Her latest novel “You Go First” tells the story of Charlotte Lock and Ben Boxer, two unexpected friends who meet while playing online Scrabble.

Both Charlotte and Ben are currently going through a lot as Charlotte’s dad is sick and Ben’s parents are going through a divorce. Told from the viewpoints of both characters, “You Go First” describes how their online Scrabble game and burgeoning friendship is bringing some much-needed stability into their lives.

Young Adult Novels

“The Astonishing Color of After” by Emily X.R. Pan

After the tragic death by suicide of her mother, Leigh Chen Sanders begins seeing a red bird that she becomes convinced is the spirit of her mother. When the bird delivers a jade necklace, the grieving Leigh and her father travel to her late mother’s birthplace of Taipei to begin uncovering some long buried family secrets. Moving and poetic, this debut novel by Emily X.R. Pan is a coming of age story about an artistic teen who continues to discover beauty amidst intense grief.

“The War Outside” by Monica Hesse

Monica Hesse’s latest novel takes readers inside life at Texas’s Crystal City internment camp during World War II.

The residents of the Crystal City incarceration site are composed of both Japanese Americans and German Americans and each side of the camp is deeply distrustful of the other. It is there that we meet Haruko and Margot, two girls who were transported there with their families. Haruko is consumed with worry about her older brother, who is a soldier for the U.S. Army while also wondering if her father is hiding something. Meanwhile, Margot is concerned about her mother’s declining health while also upset about her father’s anti-American comments and increasing sympathy toward the Nazis.

“Girls of Paper and Fire” by Natasha Ngan

This richly detailed fantasy novel is author Natasha Ngan’s first book to be published in the United States.

The teenage Lei is a member of the paper caste — a community that is at the lowest rung of society in the fictional land of Ikhara. When guards from the ruling palace show up one day demanding that Lei come with them because she has piqued the king’s interest, the teen finds herself in a group of eight other girls who are chosen each year to serve the king.

Together, the girls find unexpected community and love while they also look for a way to fight for justice.

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