Top Trends in SLJ's Starred Books | The 2024 Stars Issue

Conservation, intergenerational bonds, joy, concepts of home, and other standout themes in this year’s standout titles.

From debuts by new voices to the latest work by beloved authors, our starred 2024 books thus far offer something for everyone.

There are stories of intergenerational bonds, with a particularly keen focus on family history and cultural practices. Nature also emerges as a major theme.

There are tales set across the globe, exploring a range of cultural traditions and heritages.

Home—what it is, and where it might be—is another theme.

These are just some trends that come to the fore among this year’s SLJ starred reviews.

Aspects of social-emotional learning also appear in several starred titles, illuminating the power of understanding and honoring one’s own self, as well as the value in slowing down in a fast-paced world. And perhaps one of the most welcome themes this year? Joy.

Here’s a closer look at prominent topics, settings, and throughlines in this year’s outstanding books.


Rooted in nature

Being alive means acknowledging our dependence on and engagement with the natural world. By witnessing the sun and stars, feeding ourselves, and breathing, we maintain a crucial relationship to nature.

Gardening figures in several starred titles for younger readers. A young boy and his older sister admire flowers and trees in Jack Wong’s picture book All That Grows (Groundwood), channeling that wonder into tending their own garden. A garden launches the life cycle of an Ethiopian textile in the rhyming story The Gabi That Girma Wore by Fasika Adefris and Sara Holly Ackerman, illustrated by Netsanet Tesfay (Little, Brown). It starts by describing cotton seeds and the soil keeping them safe; the resulting plant is harvested, transformed into thread, and woven into a gabi for Girma.

For the child in Memory Garden by Zohreh Ghahremani, illustrated by Susie Ghahremani (Holt/Godwin), the garden is a reminder of the love and memories shared with her Nana. The plants and soil are important, but sown deeper are connections to their Persian heritage. Similarly, a garden allows Mama and her child to connect with their Chinese heritage in A Garden Called Home by Jessica J. Lee, illustrated by Elaine Chen (Tundra).

Conservation is a strong theme as well. The City Sings Green & Other Poems About Welcoming Wildlife by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Ginnie Hsu (HarperCollins/Clarion), introduces budding nature lovers to protective actions taken in unexpected places, such as Chicago residents’ voluntary efforts to shut off their lights to reduce light pollution and help migratory birds. In the picture book The Ocean Gardener by Clara Anganuzzi (Tiger Tales), Alya and her mother become caretakers for a coral reef surrounding their tiny island home; while the titular Angela in Angela’s Glacier by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (Holiday House/Neal Porter), comes to appreciate how a local glacier shows how she herself has grown and changed—and learns to be conscious of climate change. On the opposite end of the temperature scale, Cactus Queen: Minerva Hoyt Establishes Joshua Tree National Park by Lori Alexander, illustrated by Jenn Ely (Astra/Calkins Creek), describes how Hoyt’s dismay at the destruction of desert flora and fauna drove her to establish a beloved national park.

[Also read: Exploring SLJ’s 2023 Starred Books | The 2023 Stars Issue]

The message of caring for the environment grows more urgent for older readers. The middle grade adaptation of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (Macmillan/Godwin) reminds us how humans have changed the face of the planet and its inhabitants—witnessed firsthand through the loss of species, decreasing access to safe water, and other consequences. Such observation skills go hand in hand with comprehending the vast importance of America’s lakes in The Great Lakes: Our Freshwater Treasure by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (Knopf), also for middle graders. Indeed, water conservation is crucial not just for human survival but for the survival of all living species. For teen readers, the effects of climate change are central in Dinesh Thiru’s novel Into the Sunken City (HarperTeen), where nature takes back its power on the planet, creating an underwater dystopia.

Global diverse perspectives

This year’s best children’s literature provides a breadth of international and culturally diverse stories, past and present. Love, Lah Lah by Nailah Blackman, illustrated by Jade Orlando (Knopf), takes readers to Trinidad and Tobago at the height of Carnival, inviting them to shake and shimmy. The middle grade novel Daughters of the Lamp by Nedda Lewers (Putnam) follows Sahara, who travels to a family wedding in Egypt and discovers wonder and adventure in her parents’ home country. Métis identity takes center stage in Métis Like Me by Tasha Hilderman, illustrated by Risa Hugo (Tundra); while Jewish identity is at the forefront of several titles this season, including middle grade titles Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton) and Zevi Takes the Spotlight by Carol Matas (Orca), as well as the picture book Afikoman, Where’d You Go? A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure by Rebecca Gardyn Levington, illustrated by Noa Kelner (Penguin/Rocky Pond).

Code Name Kingfisher by Liz Kessler (S. & S./Aladdin), for middle grade readers, weaves a dual time line narrative as a contemporary Jewish tween learns her family history, including her grandmother’s experience in 1942 Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Meanwhile, The Songbird and the Rambutan Tree by Lucille Abendanon (Jolly Fish) takes middle graders to World War II in Batavia, Dutch West Indies—present-day Jakarta, Indonesia—providing a rarely shared perspective on the war. The nonfiction graphic work The Girl Who Sang: A Holocaust Memoir of Hope and Survival by Estelle Nadel and Bethany Strout, illustrated by Sammy Savos (Roaring Brook), brings teens to Poland before, during, and after the Holocaust, while the nonfiction middle grade title Three Summers by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan (Farrar) centers young people dealing with the weight of war alongside hope in 1980s Bosnia. Ruth Behar’s Across So Many Seas (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen) incorporates elements of family history and wartime displacement to chronicle the lives of four generations of girls in one family; Spanish songs and their Sephardi heritage connect each girl.

Ramadan appears in several titles, including the picture books A Ramadan to Remember by Marzieh A. Ali, illustrated by Najwa Awatiff (Soaring Kite), and Ramadan Kareem by M.O. Yuksel, illustrated by Hatem Aly (HarperCollins). Those are complemented by three illustrated titles about Eid: The Most Exciting Eid by Zeba Talkhani, illustrated by Abeeha Tariq (Scholastic); EidTale: An Eid al-Fitr Adventure by Aaliya Jaleel (Abrams/Appleseed); and Sami’s Special Gift by M.O. Yuksel, illustrated by Hüseyin Sönmezayeach (Charlesbridge), showcasing the spiritual rebirth for Muslims at the end of Ramadan.

Middle graders will delight in the Nova Scotian magic of The Selkie’s Daughter by Linda Crotta Brennan (Holiday House). For YA feminist K-pop lovers, Axie Oh’s ASAP (HarperTeen) evokes the sights and sounds of Seoul, Korea, while showing the darker side of celebrity for young talent. Seventeen-year-old Jimena navigates an expired visa following her family’s legal immigration to the United States from Peru with humor and heart in Just Say Yes by Goldy Moldavsky (Holt).

Several more titles celebrate diverse Latinx culture. For little ones, A Maleta Full of Treasures by Natalia Sylvester, illustrated by Juana Medina (Dial), tells the story of a young girl and her grandmother’s visit from Peru: Dulce is delighted to learn her family’s history and Peruvian culture, much of which emerges via Abuela’s suitcase. For Mexican American tween Cruzita, unplanned mariachi lessons lead to self-discovery and cultural appreciation in Cruzita and the Mariacheros by Ashley Granillo (Lerner). And the humorous YA novel The Girl, the Ring, and the Baseball Bat by Camille Gomera-Tavarez (Levine Querido) follows three characters itching to define themselves (and maybe find love).

Intergenerational ties

For many young people, bonds with older relatives or community members are unique: they’re mentors, teachers, and trusted companions. Grandparents are frequently permissive, wise counterparts to parents. In the illustrated Gigi and Ojiji: Perfect Paper Cranes by Melissa Iwai (HarperCollins), Grandpa is an encouraging voice, helping Gigi build a challenging paper crane for the Japan Day Festival. And even though Grampy’s visit to Rica’s home isn’t the fast-paced adventure she hoped for in A Week of Shenanigans by Janet Costa Bates, illustrated by Gladys Jose (Candlewick), the duo make the best of their circumstances and enjoy a fulfilling week together.

With bold digital collage, DeAnn Wiley’s illustrated debut, Homegrown (Holt), celebrates multigenerational families, inviting readers to enjoy one Black family’s delicious pancake mornings with Granny, competitive game nights, and more. It’s a powerful reminder that the notion of a nuclear family is just one construction. Likewise, while Louder Than Hunger by John Schu (Candlewick) centers on a tween boy’s experience with anorexia, one of the biggest champions in his life and healing journey is his grandmother.

Not all grandparent relationships are easy or perfect. In Saadia Faruqi’s middle grade novel The Partition Project (HarperCollins/Quill Tree), budding journalist Maha is unenthusiastic about sharing her home—and care duties—with Dadi. But Maha discovers her grandmother’s immigration from Pakistan is an opportunity to form a bond and to facilitate a documentary about her cultural and familial history. The Color of Sound by Emily Barth Isler (Lerner) and Yours From The Tower by Sally Nicholls (Candlewick/Walker) feature tween and teen characters on the brink of growing up—and feeling hindered by their grandparents. In both stories, those relationships evolve, showing that how things are in one season isn’t how they will always be.

Leaving—and finding—home

Home can be a tenuous concept. What defines it? What happens when it suddenly changes? The middle grade graphic title The Happy Shop by Brittany Long Olsen (Oni) shows Darcy stumbling upon an opportunity to explore many emotional experiences via a shop in her new hometown. And younger readers experience the highs and lows of moving alongside family pets in Dog & Cat: Concrete Poems & Conversations by John Grandits (Carus Kids).

Immigration is inextricably linked to the physical, emotional, and mental journeys that accompany finding a new home. The middle grade graphic memoir The Circuit (HarperCollins/Clarion) follows author Francisco Jiménez as he and his family leave Mexico by foot to find a more stable life in California; for younger readers, Mei Yu’s graphic novel Lost & Found (Union Square Kids & Co.) fictionalizes her experiences moving with her family from China to Canada, documenting the ups and downs of making a home in a new country and culture.

Embracing our truest selves

Social and emotional intelligence shine this year. There’s 13-year-old Elio in Aida Salazar’s Ultraviolet (Scholastic), learning to be true to his sensitive self while butting against expectations of machismo placed upon him. Middle grader Lina navigates the intersections of identity, self-esteem, and social media in Kelly Yang’s novel Finally Heard (S. & S.)

Younger readers will cheer as Humpty Dumpty’s nephew, Humphrey, learns to come out of his shell in The Egg Incident by Ziggy Hanaor, illustrated by Daisy Wynter (Cicada); while Olivette exalts all of her unique contours and complex emotions in Olivette Is You by Nico Tortorella, illustrated by Melissa Kashiwagi (Random), the message of embracing what it is to break free of boxes and labels will resonate with adult readers, too. Toddlers explore courage in Let’s Be Brave by Leah Osakwe, illustrated by Becky Paige (Tiger Tales), opening the door for talking about unexpressed fear and anxiety, also portrayed in Forever and Always by Brittany J. Thurman, illustrated by Shamar Knight-Justice (Greenwillow).

And sometimes, we simply need to slow down. Whether it’s through the lens of young children befriending a woolly caterpillar and watching it transform in Katie Arthur’s Our Woolly Bear (Owlkids) or the magic of simple pleasures and mindful living in The Sun Never Hurries by Roxane Turcotte, illustrated by Lucie Crovatto (Pajama Pr.), young readers recognize faster is not always better—or always possible. This carries through in Kengo Kurimoto’s meditative graphic novel Wildful (Groundwood), as Poppy and her dog experience the healing power of nature.

Then there’s the power of activism. Mani Semilla Finds Her Quetzal Voice by Anna Lapera (Levine Querido) shows how when a young person finds something that ignites their spirit, they flourish, like tween Mani. Teens fight for their future against systems of oppression in Shut Up, This Is Serious by Carolina Ixta (HarperCollins/Quill Tree), and are encouraged to find their voice and the truth in Tiffany Jewell’s nonfiction Everything I Learned About Racism I Learned in School (HarperCollins/Versify).


The poet Mary Oliver wrote that “joy is not made to be a crumb,” and several starred books allow for expansive joy. Henrique Coser Moreira’s wordless The First Day of May (Levine Querido) is a celebration of springtime, with comic book–style art animating the season; For Our Daughters by Mel Nyoko, illustrated by Joelle Avelino (Random House Studio), is a warm ode to individuality; and glee infuses Scripps Spelling Bee winner Zaila Avant-garde’s story about language, Words Are Magic!, illustrated by Felicia Whaley (Random).

Young readers can delight in the humorous foibles of a rabbit in Oops! Rabbit by Jo Ham (Candlewick); the story time–ready kangaroo in You’re Going to Love This Book! by Jory John, illustrated by Olivier Tallec (Farrar); and the odd-couple relationship between two very different critters in both Duck and Moose: Duck Moves In! and Duck and Moose: Moose Blasts Off! by Kirk Reedstrom (Disney-Hyperion). Also, who could overlook the joy in a delightfully illustrated joke book like Rob Hodgson’s Knock Knock: Who’s There? (Magic Cat) or deny the fun of betting on who would win a race between a dog and a strawberry in—you guessed it—the picture book Dog vs. Strawberry by Nelly Buchet, illustrated by Andrea Zuill (Random House Studio)?

With vibrant poetry complemented by collage art from Ekua Holmes, Renée Watson sends a love letter about triumph and resilience to her younger self—and to Black girls everywhere—in Black Girl You Are Atlas (Penguin/Kokila), for tweens and up. Joy is central to the stories in several other books, including the YA graphic novel Karate Prom by Kyle Starks (First Second), which features a prom surprise of ninjas. And in the YA rom-com This Day Changes Everything by Edward Underhill (Wednesday Bks.), two teenagers from different schools at the Macy’s Day Parade end up spending one night on a whirlwind adventure across New York City.

Finally, it is through community—and the trials and triumphs of shared identity and experiences—where joy can be actively cultivated. The Door Is Open: Stories of Celebration and Community by 11 Desi Voices, edited by Hena Khan (Little, Brown), shows the resilience of South Asian teens in a New Jersey town in the face of racism. It’s a testament to the power of collaboration and community by some of today’s best middle grade writers.

What are some of your favorite 2024 starred titles? Chime in on Facebook or tag us on Instagram or X.

Kelly Jensen is an editor at Book Riot, a former librarian, and the author of several YA books.

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