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Book Lists

2020 Best of the Best List

Kristin Rearden’s STEM Picks:

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, by Helaine Becker    

This is a must-have STEM biography! Although it’s listed as a K-2 book, detailed end notes and historical connections make this book perfect for older students as well. With the recurring text of “Count on me” interspersed throughout the text, Becker conveys Johnson’s challenges and achievements, culminating in Johnson’s epic calculations that led to the safe return of Apollo 13. Watercolor images are sometimes captioned to provide supplemental facts. End notes contain additional information about Johnson and a list of sources.

How to Code a Sandcastle, by Josh Funk

This book engages readers in a fictional story about a young girl and her robot who complete a design project for building a sandcastle on the beach. Examples of how to use coding logic statements, such as If-Then and looping codes for repeated steps, are embedded in the text, making this one of the few books with computer logic content. Incorporating coding in a manner that is accessible to primary students through a story format is a promising development in elementary trade books.

A Place to Start a Family: Poems About Creatures That Build, by David L. Harrison

Harrison uses succinct poetry to present the unique ways in which various animals build functional structures for catching food or raising young. Termites, spiders, storks, and beavers are just a few of the animals included, and illustrations from cut-paper reliefs boldly depict the animals and their surroundings. End notes include further information about each of the builders, and a final page includes coral as an example of animal builders that use their own chemicals to build reefs.

Kristin Rearden is a clinical professor of science education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She has served on the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) Outstanding Science Trade Book committee and the NSTA Best STEM Book committee. Her research interests include the integration of high-quality trade books in science curricula.

Julie Danielson’s Picks for Children’s Picture Books

I Talk Like a Riverby Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith

A young boy feels the shame of stuttering and the facial contortions—and stares from classmates—that result. His father, recognizing his son’s “bad speech day,” takes him to a place where they can be quiet. At the river, the two watch the water, churning yet “calm … beyond the rapids.” Pulling his son close, the boy’s father points to the water. “That’s how you speak,” he tells him, giving his son an empowering metaphor to embrace. Illustrator Sydney Smith dazzles with a masterful use of thick brushstrokes that capture the boy’s interior world. Without ever providing pat answers or resorting to sentimentality, the story, told from the author’s own experience, reverently acknowledges the boy’s hardship.

All Because You Matterby Tami Charles and illustrated by Bryan Collier

 A lyrical and affirming love letter of a picture book to Black children everywhere, this contemporary lullaby is about love, hope, pride, history, and how Black Lives Matter. “Did you know that you were born from queens, chiefs, legends?” Charles writes. “That strength, power, and beauty lie within you?” Collier’s dynamic illustrations in his distinctive collage technique are spectacular.

Honeybee:  The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann

Fleming and Rohmann bring readers on a journey through a life that lasts 35 days—a honeybee, who emerges from a nest before we even get to the title page spread. She grows; nurses; tends to the queen; assists in building honeycombs and storing nectar that eventually ripens into honey; guards the nest; learns to fly (on the twenty-fifth day of her life, no less) in a dramatic and exhilarating double gatefold spread; and transfers pollen. On the penultimate spread, we witness her demise, but on the final page we meet a brand-new honeybee, pushing her way into life just as our protagonist did at the book’s start. With lyricism and reverence, Fleming makes this story sing. Rohmann’s dramatic, stunning, up-close portraits of the bee at work are spectacular.

Julie Danielson conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. Julie received her Master’s in Information Sciences, with a focus on children’s librarianship, and she is currently a Lecturer for The University of Tennessee’s School of Information Sciences, her alma mater. She has juried for the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art Award and the BolognaRagazzi Awards for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, and she recently chaired the 2020 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. She reviews and writes about picture books for KirkusBookPage, the Horn Book, and Tennessee’s Chapter 16Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and the late Peter D. Sieruta, was published by Candlewick Press in 2014.

Susan Groenke’s Children’s Picture Book Picks

The Voice that Won the Vote: How One Woman’s Words Made Historyby Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

This year we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. In August of 1920, women’s suffrage in America came down to the vote in Tennessee. If the Tennessee legislature approved the 19th amendment it would be ratified, giving all American women the right to vote. The historic moment came down to a single vote and the voter who tipped the scale toward equality did so because of a powerful letter his mother, Febb Burn, had written him urging him to “Vote for suffrage and don’t forget to be a good boy.” The Voice That Won the Vote is the story of Febb, her son Harry, and the letter that gave all American women a voice.

Women Win the Vote!, by Nancy B. Kennedy and illustrated by Katy Dockrill

This book tells the story of the 19 heroes of the 19th Amendment, including pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells, who, like Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African American women to graduate from college, and founder of the National Association of Colored Women, had to fight to be included in the momentous 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. Kennedy tells how Wells, born into slavery, used her voice to expose the dangers of systemic racism across the country.

Vote for our Future!, by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by Micah Player

Every two years, on the first Tuesday of November, Stanton Elementary School closes for the day. For vacation? Nope! For repairs? No way! Stanton Elementary School closes so that it can transform itself into a polling station. People can come from all over to vote for the people who will make laws for the country. Sure, the Stanton Elementary School students might be too young to vote themselves, but that doesn’t mean they can’t encourage their parents, friends, and family to vote! After all, voting is how this country sees change–and by voting today, we can inspire tomorrow’s voters to change the future.

Susan Groenke was a Nationally Board-certified middle school and high school English/language arts teacher before pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Virginia Tech. Dr. Groenke now directs the PhD program in Children’s and Young Adult Literature at the University of Tennessee and also directs the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature on the university campus. Dr. Groenke also serves as Senior Editor of The ALAN Review.

Brooke Bianchi-Pennington’s Graphic Novel Picks

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

If you need a fun, light-hearted book to help transition to fall, Pumpkinheads has all the charm of Rowell and Hicks bundled into a story about coming to terms with change and evolving relationships. Deja and Josiah have worked at the pumpkin patch every fall for years but now face ending their last season as they go off to college. Outgoing Deja is determined to help shy Josiah finally speak to his pumpkin patch crush before he loses his last chance. In the ensuing quest, both friends learn a little bit more about what they really want from this last day together.

Are You Listening?, by Tillie Waldon

After her sci-fi work On a Sunbeam, Waldon brings her fantastical story-telling and rich world-building down to Earth with magical realism. Bea is a teen girl on the run. Lou is an adult woman who never really stopped running. When their paths cross, they end up on a magical road trip that helps both of them confront their demons through their shared connection. This book addresses serious topics such as sexual assault while showing a path toward healing through sharing with others.

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës, by Isabelle Greenberg

While Glass Town is an excellent resource for engaging students in the works of the Brontës and helping them understand the context of their work, it also stands on its own as a beautiful, imaginative story about the power of fiction. A mix of factual biography and fictitious embellishment, Glass Town explores the stories the Brontës collaborated on as children, allowing them to explore and cope with the real world and ultimately influencing their more famous works.  Told mostly from the perspective of Charlotte Bronte and one of her childhood character creations, the layers of stories have lessons to teach about growing up and coping with loss.

The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures, by Noelle Stevenson

The author of Nimona and showrunner of She-ra presents a collection of essays and comics about her young-adulthood. She speaks honestly about struggles with mental health during a period of rapid growth, creativity, and sudden success with an overall message of self-acceptance and self-care.


Brooke Bianchi-Pennington has been teaching English for ten years, eight of which have been at Hardin Valley Academy where she is currently English Department Chair. In 2019 she earned her Ph.D. in Children’s and Young Adult Literature at The University of Tennessee. She loves talking with young adults about diverse literature. When she’s not in teacher mode, Brooke enjoys biking around South Knoxville, cooking Chinese food, listening to podcasts, and playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Stacey Reece’s Multicultural Young Adult Lit Picks

Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo never disappoints! In this, her second verse novel, Acevedo highlights and celebrates strong women. The story is told through the viewpoints of two narrators – Yahaira, who lives in New York, and Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic. The story begins with Camino anxiously and excitedly awaiting the arrival of her father from New York. Tragically, the plane crashes and all passengers perish. Yahaira gets the news of the plane crash at school in New York when her mother comes to tell her. Both girls are desperate to hang on to the memory of their father; however, neither knows of the other’s existence! The girls are sisters and don’t know it. When they do realize it, they have to navigate another their feelings about each other and about the father they thought they knew.

This Is My America, by Kim Johnson

What a timely novel! This story centers around Tracy, a Texas teenager whose father, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, has been on death row for seven years. Each week, Tracy writes letters to Innocence X, pleading with them to take her father’s case and prove that he’s innocent, as he has only a few months left before he’s executed. While trying to exonerate her father, Tracy’s brother Jamal is also accused of a murder he didn’t commit. When Jamal goes on the run, Tracy realizes she has not one but two men to prove innocent. This book tackles so many relevant issues in America today, including generational trauma, interracial dating, mass incarceration, flaws in the justice system, and so much more. What’s wonderful about this novel is that these issues are woven together in a way that doesn’t feel “preachy” or overwhelming. It’s a perfect book to open up all of these conversations.

We Are Not from Here, by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Although the characters are fictional, their story isn’t. Friends Pequeña, Chico, and Pulga, Guatemalan teenagers, desperately want to leave the violence of their country behind, travel to Nogales, Mexico, and then cross the border into the US. This book is not for the faint of heart; there’s a lot of violence and a sexual assault. From the beginning, the reader is invested in these characters. We empathize with them as they decide to leave everything behind, fueled by both hope and fear. We’re with them each step of the arduous and treacherous three-week journey on “La Bestia,” a series of trains that take them almost to the border. Once they arrive in Nogales, they must pay a coyote an exorbitant amount to lead them to safety in the U.S. over another three nights of grueling walking through desert and hiding during the day. It’s not all about struggles, though; we see fellow passengers, shelter owners, and members of local churches who provide them support along their journey. Torres highlights the power of kindness and compassion in the darkest moments of this novel. A powerful and poignant story.

Stacey Reece is an English teacher at West High School. The 2020-2021 school year will be her 28th as a teacher. She’s actually has a loose handle on all the virtual things, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks! She has a bachelor’s degree in English (Milligan College), a master’s degree in English (ETSU), and a doctorate in education (UT). When she’s not teaching, you can find her reading a book, talking about books, buying books, researching books to buy, and trying to get others to be her friend on Goodreads.  She also spends a great deal of time trying to corral her dogs, Ruthie and Bumpy.

Brandi Hartsell’s YA Picks

  Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian – This beautiful historical fiction novel will transport readers right back to the late 1980s in New York City. Readers will love the fully-realized characters and be simultaneously overjoyed and heartbroken by the events. This powerful story sheds a light on a distressing era in LGBTQ+ history, but reminds readers that love always wins.
It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman – This fantastic anthology is essential, often hilarious, and heartwarming. There is a dearth of YA featuring Jewish teens, and this collection offers #ownvoices short stories written by some of YA’s best authors.
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson – This fantasy stand-alone is a true delight. It features magical libraries, books that sometimes transform into monstrous beasts, a delicious love story, and a kick-ass heroine. Love. It.


Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knox County. She leads book clubs for both students and faculty/staff at her school, as well as a YA book club for adults that is affiliated with the website Forever Young Adult. She is also a member of the Volunteer State Book Award nominating committee for high school. Brandi is passionate about reading (especially YA) and loves sharing books with others.

Fighting Anti-Black Racism through Story

The Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (CCYAL) is committed to keeping the public abreast of high-quality, contemporary books published each year for children and teens.

We know the power of story—stories can affirm and challenge us; change our minds and hearts; and provide soothing balms of healing as we find ourselves in others’ words or escape present-day realities. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to share stories with the young people in our lives about our various and diverse racial and ethnic identities, and the actions we can take against anti-Black racism. We understand that the ongoing police brutality against Black men, women, and youth is not a new phenomenon, but instead is a current manifestation of long-historied, state-sanctioned racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy in this country. We urge you to read books to learn more—about our connected histories, about the present moment, and about what you can do now to change the future. As we know, the status quo is not okay.

Below, you will find a selection of recently-published titles we recommend reading with young people. Please know the CCYAL is here for our Black students, faculty, and community members: we can recommend older titles that are excellent, too, and most importantly, provide a space where you can find yourself and your humanity affirmed in the pages of a book.

Antiracism Book List


CCYAL Picks for Black History Month

Young Adult Literature:

  • Slay, by Brittney Morris tells the story of Kiera Johnson, a seventeen-year-old honors student and math tutor, but the stress of being one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy gets her down. Thank goodness when she’s home she can go online and join hundreds of thousands of Black gamers in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game she developed, called SLAY. Only, no one knows Kiera is the game developer. When another teen gamer is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, SLAY becomes a national headline and is labeled racist and exclusionary. To make it worse, an anonymous troll threatens to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.” Does Kiera reveal who she is? Can she protect the game? Will she lose herself in the process? Read the book to find out if Kiera can save the only world in which she can be her own unapologetic Black self.


Middle Grades (grades 5-8)

  • Genesis Begins Again, a 2020 Newbery Honor, by Alicia D Williams tells the, oftentimes, heart-wrenching story of 13-year old Genesis as she searches for acceptance from her family, peers, and ultimately, herself. Genesis keeps a list of reasons why she doesn’t like herself ranging from her family consistently getting evicted, her dad’s drinking problem, and her skin being “too black.” Genesis believes lightening her skin will create peace in her life even if it causes her physical pain in the process.  Genesis’ chorus teacher recognizes that Genesis is a talented singer and helps Genesis deal with her pain through singing and exposing her to famous black musicians like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James. This story will resonate with anyone who craves acceptance- especially from themselves. Grades 6 and up.


  • Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963, by Sharon Robinson, recounts the events of 1963 through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Sharon Robinson, daughter of famed baseball player and Civil Rights Activist, Jackie Robinson. Robinson’s narrative illuminates not only one of the most influential years in American history and her family’s role in the Movement, but she shares intimate stories about growing up black in a predominantly white neighborhood, living up to the name Robinson, and finding her place in the world. This middle-grade novel is simplistic in its narration and powerful in its message.


  • This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, a memoir by Jo Ann Allen Boyce with the help of co-author Debbie Levy, explores memories of what it was like to be one of the “Clinton 12,” 12 Black students who integrated Clinton High School near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1956. Told through a variety of poetic forms, with many primary source documents woven throughout, this true story captures Jo Ann Allen’s strength and her emotional journey as racist outside agitators came to Clinton, fueling a mob mentality of hatred and violence. Grades 5 and up.


  • Brave. Black. First.: 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World, written by Cheryl Hudson and illustrated by Erin K. Robinson, is a rich collection of 50 nonfiction profiles of remarkable Black women. This book was published in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and features profiles of both historic and contemporary outstanding Black women who’ve made substantial contributions in a wide variety of fields. Grades 3-8.

Picture Books (grades 1-8)

  • The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (2020), by Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Illustrated by Oge Mora is the story about Mary Walker who is a supreme example of a woman who had grit, determination, and strength. She was born into slavery in Alabama in 1848 and lived to be 121 years old. Growing up during and after the Civil War, her life was fraught with long hours of working 7 days a week. For more than four decades she sharecropped and worked additional jobs. Her lifelong dream was to learn to read and write, and it finally happened when she enrolled in a reading program in 1963. She graduated a year later at the age of 116, making her the nation’s oldest student. After this later-life accomplishment, she felt more complete and could finally read the Bible that was given her as a young girl.This stunning picturebook tells Mary’s story authentically and gracefully. The mixed medium collage paper-cut illustrations provide texture and energy, celebrating Mary’s spirit of fortitude and triumph.


  • Freedom Bird, written by Jerdine Nolen and illustrated by James E. Ransome introduces young readers to an inspirational tale about a brother and sister living through the atrocities of slavery and finding the resolve to prevail in the darkest of times. Inspired by traditional African American folktales, Freedom Bird follows John and Millicent as they struggle on a North Carolina plantation after their parents are sold. John and Millicent suffer heartbreak after heartbreak, but the siblings find hope in recalling ancestral tales of their people flying away to freedom. One day, a large mysterious bird enters John and Millicent’s lives and they believe it to be a sign of Providence. While caring for the bird over several months, the siblings are inspired to create a plan to follow their ancestors’ flight to freedom. Nolen’s lyrical prose and Ransome’s beautiful and rich illustrations bring this unforgettable and powerful tale of courage to life.


CCYAL Staff Picks for Black History Month


Below find 2019 booklists from our knowledgeable and gracious presenters at our “Best of the Best” workshop from the summer! They are categorized by Middle Grades and Young Adult Literature book lists, K-5 Booklists, and one file with all the lists combined for K-12.

Please reach out to us if you have additional questions!

Best of Best MG and YA Book Lists

Best of the Best K5 Book Lists

Best of Best ALL Book Lists