The Kids Are All Right

9 Examples of Innovative Storytelling in Children’s Books

Hi Kid Lit friends!

I have been thinking about innovative storytelling lately, admiring the various ways authors choose to tell a story. This list of nine picture book and middle grade titles represents books I think have used a non-traditional ways to tell a story and how their risk-taking paid off gloriously in the end!

house of dreams coverSponsored by Candlewick Press

This affecting biography on L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, is the first for young readers to include revelations about her last days and to encompass the complexity of a brilliant and sometimes troubled life. For many years, not a great deal was known. Her childhood was spent with strict, undemonstrative grandparents, and her reflections on writing, her lifelong struggles with anxiety and depression, her “year of mad passion,” and her difficult married life remained locked away, buried deep within her unpublished personal journals. Through this revealing and deeply moving biography, kindred spirits of all ages who, like Maud, never gave up “the substance of things hoped for” will be captivated anew by the words of this remarkable woman.

Picture Books

Alfie by Thyra Heder is one of my favorite children’s books. It is a story about six-year-old Nia who gets a turtle for her birthday. She names him Alfie, and Nia introduces him to all of her stuffed animals, draws him pictures, and tells him jokes. But Alfie doesn’t do much and Nia starts to forget he is there, until a year later when he disappears on Nia’s seventh birthday. The story then takes an unexpected turn with glorious results.

Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan brought the reality of slavery alive to my two daughters (ages eight and ten) in a very vivid way. This book uses a real appraisement of property at the house of Mrs. Fairchilds in July 1828. The property in the appraisement listed included a handmill, a bay mare, hogs, steers, cattle, and cotton, as well as eleven slaves, all given a monetary value. The author, who came across this slave-related document, took the appraisement and gave a voice to each of the slaves and had them tell their stories. Not only did he describe what he imagined their work to be, but he voiced their dreams. This is a powerful book, and an eye-opening way to bring the slaves alive as human beings to this generation of readers.

I think The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak is both brilliant and annoying. As a parent, reading this book over and over to my kids (who requested it every night for months) was tiresome given the way it made them incredibly silly for the next six hours when they were supposed to go to sleep. As a writer, I think this book is absolutely brilliant and why has no one thought to do anything like this before?

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris is one of the most amazing nonfiction books I have ever read. It gives lots of background information about the Statue of Liberty – the typical facts like height, her color, who sent her to the United States and when – but mostly the book is about the Statue’s right foot and how it represents the United States’ powerful message of acceptance.

Middle Grade Books

I read Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes a month ago, but it is one of those rare books that had kept me thinking about it. Told in alternating time lines, it begins with Jerome as a ghost, looking at his dead body on the ground. He was shot by the police while on the playground playing with a toy gun. In death, Jerome observes the grief of his family and is visited by other Ghost Boys. When alive, the reader sees only his perspective in those fateful days leading up to his death. This book is powerful and beautiful and gripping, and the narrative structure is brilliant. It made me see the Black Lives Matter movement in a whole new way.

I loved The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez since reading an advanced reader’s copy last year. It tells a story that is traditional in middle grade literature: a new kid moves to a new place and tries to fit in at a new school. On Day One, twelve-year-old Malú inadvertently upsets Posada Middle School’s queen bee, violates the school’s dress code with her punk rock look, and disappoints her college-professor mom in the process. Her dad, who now lives a thousand miles away, says things will get better as long as she remembers the first rule of punk: be yourself. This book is the first I’ve seen that includes collage art and the inclusion of zines, which makes an already amazing story even more special.

You probably already know that I love See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng because I talk about it all the time. 11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Alex’s story is uniquely told entirely through recordings, which Alex does on his iPod. He hopes his recordings will help extraterrestrials learn more about Earth.

Jigsaw Jungle by Kristin Levine is coming out this Tuesday, and I admired the way the author used all sorts of communication to tell the story. Text messages, letters, receipts, phone conversations, private recordings, and notes to the reader all contribute to Claudia Dalton’s quest to find her father who has disappeared. As she gathers clues and gets closer to figuring out why out where her father went and why, a jigsaw piece appears, setting Claudia off on an unexpected treasure hunt.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo is not a graphic novel, nor is it an illustrated novel. It’s a mix of traditional storytelling with graphic novel and illustration elements, which combine to create a truly stunning book. The story begins when a squirrel gets sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and develops superhero tendencies, and it only gets stranger and more wonderful from there.


New Releases

All of these books release this Tuesday unless otherwise noted. The book descriptions are from Goodreads, but I’ll add a ❤ if I particularly loved a title.

Picture Book New Releases

❤ The 5 O’Clock Band by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Abrams)

In this companion to the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award–winning Trombone Shorty, join a scrappy young musician named Shorty on a tour of his beloved New Orleans. After letting his band down by missing rehearsal, Shorty has some serious questions about what it means to be a leader. He hits the streets of New Orleans to find some answers and soak up inspiration. Along the way he’ll meet street musicians, a favorite restaurant owner, and the famous Mardi Gras Indians. Each has some NOLA-bred wisdom to share with Shorty about being an artist, a leader, and a friend.

❤ Saving Fiona: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Baby Hippo by Thane Maynard (HMH Books for Young Readers)

On a cold January day in 2017, nearly two months before due date, Nile hippopotamus Bibi gave her keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden a big (little) surprise – a tiny newborn hippo, no bigger than a football.  The first premature hippo born and raised in captivity, baby Fiona was an underdog from the start:  she couldn’t nurse, she couldn’t stay hydrated, and she wasn’t thriving. But the staff at the zoo knew they could save her.  It would take creative thinking and teamwork. They would have to study the makeup of hippo milk for the first time ever and reach out to medical colleagues, including a team at the local Children’s Hospital with superior vein-finding skills,  to ensure that Fiona would begin to gain weight and become healthy.

❤ Look at Me! How to Attract Attention in the Animal World by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (HMH Books for Young Readers)

Have you ever noticed that certain creatures have fur, feathers, and features designed to catch your eye? Chock-full of the fascinating facts and stunning art readers have come to expect from Jenkins and Page titles, Look at Me! is a pleasure to look at and an engrossing read. Showcasing the most attention-grabbing animals on the planet gathered together, Look at Me! helps readers understand the range of ways animals try to get one another’s attention and why. From luring in prey to warning off predators, protecting themselves to attracting a mate, each animal has a remarkable display.

Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (HarperCollins)

Cece, a budding and inquisitive scientist, and her equally curious best friend, Isaac, conduct experiments to see whether Cece’s dog, Einstein, will eat his vegetables.


Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Lee Harper (HarperCollins)

But Maa and Paa aren’t so sure. What if Woolbur isn’t exactly ready for school? He’s different. He’s unusual. And his new hairdo is kooky! At school, Woolbur loves trying new things like drawing outside of the lines and eating grass. (No wonder his parents were worried!) The rest of his classmates are nervous about their first day and aren’t excited about trying anything new. Will Woolbur’s excitement help show his friends that doing something different, or unusual, or kooky is the best way to get ready for school?

Hedgehog Needs a Hug by Jen Betton (Penguin Random House)

When Hedgehog wakes up feeling down in the snout and droopy in the prickles, he knows a hug will make him feel much better. But none of his animal friends are eager to wrap their arms around Hedgehog’s prickles, and he’s too smart to fall for Fox’s sly offer. Then Hedgehog gets a surprise: Another animal in the forest is feeling exactly the same way. Luckily, both are kind and brave enough for the perfect hug.


Middle Grade New Releases

❤ Takedown by Laura Shovan (Wendy Lamb Books)

Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who wrestle, it’s inevitable. It’s also a way to stay connected to her oldest brother, Evan, who moved in with their dad. Some people object to having a girl on the team. But that’s not stopping Mikayla. She’s determined to work harder than ever, and win. Lev is determined to make it to the state championships this year. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome; they know how to work together. At the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner–a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal. Mikayla and Lev work hard together and become friends. But when they face each other, only one of them can win.

Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith, illustrated by Erica Salcedo (Bloomsbury)

When Murph Cooper begins his new school several weeks into the year, he can’t help but feel a bit out of his depth. And it’s not because he’s worried about where to sit, making friends, and fitting in. It’s because his mom has accidentally enrolled him at a school for superheroes. And unlike his fellow students, who can control the weather or fly or conjure tiny horses from thin air, Murph has no special abilities whatsoever. But Murph’s totally normal abilities might just be what the world needs. Because not far away is a great big bad guy who is half man and half wasp, and his mind is abuzz with evil plans . . . and when he comes after the best and the brightest, it’s up to Murph to be the real hero.

❤ Jigsaw Jungle by Kristin Levine (Penguin Random House)

Claudia Dalton’s father has disappeared. What began as a late night at work has spiraled into a missing persons case—one that’s left twelve-year-old Claudia questioning everything she’s ever known about her father and their family. But when she finally gets word from her dad, it turns out he isn’t missing at all. He’s just gone to “think things over” and visit an old friend, whatever that means. Feeling confused and helpless, Claudia starts to assemble a scrapbook, gathering emails, receipts, phone transcripts and more, all in a desperate attempt to figure out what’s happening with her dad. Claudia’s investigation deepens at her grandfather’s house, where she receives an envelope containing a puzzle piece and a cryptic message.

Funny Kid #2 by Matt Stanton (HarperCollins)

Max may not be the strongest, or the smartest, or the handsomest kid in his class—but he may well be the funniest! Except when Max’s classroom joke lands flat, he suddenly becomes the Un-Funny Kid! The only way to make everyone forget Max’s comedy catastrophe is for him to win the town talent quest with his very own stand-up comedy routine. Max is ready to bring comedy gold to his audition, but thanks to a heckling clown, Max can’t even remember his first joke! With the help of his best friend Hugo and their feathered pet, Duck, Max thinks he has everything he needs to come up the greatest stand-up comedy routine of all time—but will it be enough? Max will need all the advice he can get to prove that he is the kid who can make everyone laugh!

The Selkie of San Francisco by Todd Calgi Gallicano (Random House)

Sam London didn’t mean to uncover an ancient secret, but when he found out that mythical creatures are real and living in our national parks, he became the newest recruit to the Department of Mythical Wildlife. Ever since, the middle schooler has been anxiously awaiting the call for his next case . . . and it finally arrives with the brazen appearance of a selkie in San Francisco Bay.

I just started Courage by Barbara Binns (HarperCollins, 7/31/18). It is about T’Shawn, a boy who wants to join a diving team at the local swim club. But ever since T’Shawn’s dad died, his mother has been struggling to keep the family afloat, and he knows that joining would only add another bill to the pile.

Drawn Together, by Minh Le and illustrated by Dan Santat, is an absolutely gorgeous picture book and my favorite of the year so far. It is about a boy who visits his grandfather, and not only do they speak different languages but the cultural divide feels so wide until they find a shared interest to bring them together.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2/9/19) was a terrific read, and I cannot wait until this one hits the shelves. When a butler (yes, a butler!) shows up at Carter’s house saying he is ready to perform his duties, Carter is really skeptical. But his family needs the help, especially since his dad is deployed in Afghanistan. The butler turns Carter’s world upside down and he may unearth truths that Carter wants to keep hidden.


Around the web…

Six of the Best Middle Grade Books on the Immigrant Experience, via Book Riot

Which Anne of Green Gables Character Are You?, via Book Riot

Reading with Pride: The Importance of LGBTQ+ Representation in Children’s Books, via the Scholastic Reads podcast


One last thing: did you know that Book Riot is giving away $500 to the bookstore of your choice? Enter here!

I’d love to know what you are reading this week! Find me on Twitter at @KarinaYanGlaser, on Instagram at @KarinaIsReadingAndWriting, or email me at

Until next week!

Nala showing off some of her favorite picture books.

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