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Ten Children’s Books That Pleasantly Surprised Me in 2023

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I love a book that isn’t what I expected but in a good way.

A book might surprise me with a plot twist or a different writing style. It could be that the characters aren’t what I thought they would be.

Whatever the surprise, these are the top 10 books that surprised me in some way this year.

Title image for Top Ten Children's books that surprised me in 2023

Top Surprising Reads of 2023

Sweep: The story of a girl and her monster


Jonathan Auxier

The Surprise: The combination of magical fantasy with historical fiction gave this book a unique feel that I haven’t encountered for a while. The elements were woven together seemlessly in a story that feels realistic despite the fantasy.

My Summary: Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is one of the many orphans who survive on the streets of London by climbing chimneys under the management of a chimney sweep. She was taught this trade by a kind older man who raised her, but now that he has disappeared she is under the care of a brutal sweep.

Everything changes for Nan the day she gets stuck in a deadly chimney fire. Rather than dying, she wakes up in the attic to find a mysterious creature made from ash and coal. He has saved her from the fire and together they will escape Nan’s current life and find new hope.

I absolutely love this book. It’s a tough one because there is sadness, not only in the historical realities of this time period but also in the death of more than one beloved character. That said, it is also a story full of hope, love, and determination to be the change the world needs.

The way elements of magic and fantasy are woven into this historical fiction book feels unique and magical. The Golem – the mysterious creature of ash and coal- is a character who brings creativity and delight to this story. The kids in my book club loved Charlie (the Golem) and it was fun to discuss his character in our book club.

There is much to learn about this time period if you want to dig in deeper, though the author’s note provides plenty of background information for the reader who would like to separate truth from fiction.

Highly recommend this middle-grade book with the caution that there is some sadness. Even with that, this was a favorite title of many students in my 11-13 year old online book club.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads | Homeschool Study Info

Scary Stories for Young Foxes

Scary Story for Young Foxes

Christian McKay Heidicker

The Surprise: The ultimate surprise for me was just how scary this book is. There are strange illnesses, creepy humans, terrifying foxes, and somewhat gruesome descriptions.

And as a child reader, I would have loved it.

But it has been a long time since I dove into the horror genre for kids, so it was a little jarring and surprising to read.

The biggest surprise is one that I don’t want to give away, but I will say that I did not expect the appearance of Beatrix Potter and I certainly didn’t expect her to be what she was.

My Summary: Mia and Uly, two young fox kits, have been separated from their families. They very quickly realize that the world is full of monsters and unspeakable creatures. As the kits wander together through the fields and the woods, they have to fight for their lives from a scary witch trying to take their skins, a disease that will turn them into zombies, a ghost hunting them in the snow, and so much more.

This book was not at all what I expected. It was much scarier than I anticipated for a children’s book, but I have to admit that many kids (like myself at that age) love horror stories. This book fits the bill if your child is looking for something scary. Some of the descriptions are quite gruesome, even for me.

The creative way that the character’s stories are woven together is brilliant and the appearance of Beatrix Pottery is a delightful wickedness. The story contains quite a bit of mystery and it kept me guessing about how things were going to come together.

Without a doubt, this story was unexpected. I would be very cautious about handing this book to a sensitive kid. If your child enjoys scary stories and creepy tales, then this will be a great and unexpected read for them!

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads

Long Distance

Long Distance

Whitney Gardner

The Surprise: I didn’t see the plot twist coming in this book and it was a fun one. The foreshadowing and clues in the story kept me guessing, but I never quite figured out what was wrong until the reveal.

It was nice to see a plot twist on the “summer camp” storyline in books for middle grades.

My Summary: Vega is miserable now that her family has moved from her hometown of Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. She left her best friend and hasn’t made any friends in the new city. In an attempt to help her meet new people, her dads send her to a summer camp. But something about this camp doesn’t seem right which means Vega must team up with the other campers to figure out what is going on.

I enjoyed this fun twist in a middle school friendship book. I didn’t see the plot twist coming, though there were plenty of clues. Of course, all of these clues are a great opportunity to discuss foreshadowing in a story as you read. The illustrations are simple but the book had plenty of unique layouts and design techniques to discuss in my online graphic novel book club.

Overall, this was a fun read for the tween years and a relatable look at the difficulty of moving and making new friends.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads | Homeschool Study Info

Emmy in the Key of Code

Emmy in the Key of Code

Aimee Lucido

The Surprise: This novel in verse was smart and creative as it wove computer coding language and music vocabulary into a story told using the free-verse poetic form. And I didn’t expect to love it so much.

I have a computer programming teen in my house and it was a surprise to learn more about coding language as I read this one.

Of course, friendship and acceptance is also part of the story, making it a great read for teens.

My Summary: Twelve-year-old Emmy’s family has moved to a new city and the upheaval leaves her feeling completely out of tune. Thankfully, she meets an unexpected friend, Abigail, in her computer coding class. As a result of their friendship, both girls grow and change as they learn to embrace their true selves.

I loved this so much about this novel in verse. The author creatively combined her love of poetry, music, and coding in this book about friendship, identity, and belonging. I enjoyed how the language of Java was combined with the language of music in the individual poems. In addition, the story is a great read for teens who need encouragement to be who they are.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads

Runaway Princess

Runaway Princess

Johan Troïanowski

The Surprise: This graphic novel contains interactive pages as you read the story. From flipping the book sideways to wandering through a maze, readers are invited to participate in the story.

This was the first time I encountered these interactive pages in a graphic novel for elementary school so it was a fun surprise. I love seeing something unique in the way a story is told.

My Summary: Robin the Princess isn’t content to stay at home. She wants to have adventures and explore the world, and in this series of adventures, she gets her wish. As she travels and explores the kingdom, she meets lots of fantastical friends along the way.

This graphic novel was a delightful read. It was full of surprising characters and unique twists. I enjoyed the way that things were not always what they appeared to be at first. In addition, there are creative, interactive pages included throughout the story. From mazes to puzzles, the readers are invited to interact with the story as they read. The activity pages were a fun addition to the book.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads

A list of surprising children's books in 2023 title image

 A Rover's Story

A Rover’s Story

Jasmine Warga

The Surprise: I didn’t anticipate falling in love with a rover but that is exactly what happened when I read this book.

Resilence, the Martian Rover, is telling his story in this creative first-person tale and I didn’t anticipate the type of character he would become. As he develops human emotions, I grew more attached to him and his wonderful crew of friends.

This was also a completely unexpected science fiction story as there is no fight for the survival of humanity or a conflict of good vs. evil, which are both typical of science fiction.

My Summary: Resilience is a Mars rover that is determined to succeed in its mission. He wants to be the first Mars rover retrieved from Mars to return to Earth. Unfortunately, he begins to develop human emotions during his testing, and now he is afraid these emotions will prevent him from doing the best job possible. It isn’t long before Resilience finds himself on Mars trying to balance his desire for success with the desire to make logical decisions.

This book was such a surprising science fiction book for kids. Watching this rover develop and identify human emotions caused me to form an unexpected emotional attachment to him. I was cheering him on and desperately wanted him to return to earth.

The supporting characters who surround Resilance include a fantastic line-up of personalities, including a fellow Rover, a drone, a satellite, a young girl, and the two hazmats (humans) that bring him online. Each member of the supporting cast of characters teaches Resilience lessons about the world while bringing their unique personality to the story.

This story is told from Resilience’s point of view as a series of “stream-of-conscious” thoughts. Occasionally his entries are interrupted by letters to him from Sophie, a student and the daughter of the rover’s creator. While he never actually receives her letters, they serve the reader well to glean information outside of Res’s database.

This was a great book to discuss with my 8-10 and 11-13-year-old book clubs. Overall the kids liked it though some found it a little bit slow-paced for their enjoyment, especially in the older age group.

This is a fantastic book for middle-grade readers, even those who aren’t typically fans of science fiction because this isn’t your typical science fiction story.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads | Homeschool Study Info

Hoops Graphic Novel

Hoops: The Graphic Novel

Matt Tavares

The Surprise: It was surprising to encounter a historical fiction graphic novel based in the recent past such as this one.

This book follows the story of a girl’s basketball team in the 1970’s in the USA. It was a nice surprise to find this story because I think it is important to study our recent past as much as our distant past.

And the inequality in girls’ and boys’ sports continues to be an important topic to discuss in our modern day.

My Summary: This historical fiction takes place in 1975 in Indiana during the Wilkins Regional High School girls’ basketball team’s rookie season. The girls on the team lack all of the basics that a team sport requires – uniforms, a coach, transportation, and more. They solve their problems in creative ways during their undefeated season and they push hard to victory at the state championships. Along the way, the girls’ team begins to get the recognition and fair treatment they deserve.

This is a fantastic story about a group of young girls pursuing equity in sports. Not only is there value in knowing the history of inequity in sports, but there is a valuable lesson about staying committed to what you know is right. I appreciated that the story included the example of one of the boys on the track team organizing the boy’s track team to lend the girls their matching warm-ups. It led to a good discussion about being a part of the solution when you see a problem.

The graphics are simple and the story is easy to read. It’s a fantastic historical fiction for middle grades.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads | Homeschool Study Info

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Dusti Bowling

The Surprise: Based on the title and the cover of the book, I did not expect the story that unfolded inside. WOW! I loved this story.

I have no idea what I expected but I guess the cover foreshadowed a story set in the desert with cacti. Nothing about the setting and cacti drew me in so I didn’t read this one for a long time.

When I finally decided to give it a read, I fell in love with the characters and the theme.

My Summary: Aven Green was born without arms but she loves to embellish the story when someone asks. Now that her father has accepted a job across the country running Stagecoach Pass, a western theme park in Arizona, Aven is going to have to answer questions about her arms all over again to a new set of schoolmates. She unexpectedly makes a new friend who struggles with his own disability and together they continue to learn how to accept themselves and others.

I really enjoyed the main character in this story. She is full of humor and optimism. She has a pretty open and honest relationship with her parents who genuinely care about her well-being and feelings. They talk honestly and push her when necessary, but without controlling her. Her friendship with Connor allows the reader a realistic look at the difficulties of life with different disabilities.

I’ve selected this book for my online middle school book club because of the great characters and relatable themes that are excellent for discussion with middle school students.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads | Homeschool Study Info

Restart by Gordon Korman


Gordon Korman

The Surprise: This book surprised me because it was a kid’s version of one of my favorite books, “What Alice Forgot.”

The idea of a character getting amnesia and being allowed a “restart” in their life is such a fun idea. Watching it play out in the life of a 5th-grade bully was a really fun read.

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads

The Lost Library

The Lost Library

Rebecca Stead

The Surprise: This one has a surprising plot twist and I loved it.

In addition to the fun story told from alternating viewpoints, I didn’t anticipate such a fun plot twist.

My Summary: Evan’s hometown of Martinville hasn’t had a library since the original one burned down in a fire so when a little free library appears in his town, he grabs two of the books from inside the small door. Evan and his best friend, Rafe, discover a link between the books and the library fire from many years ago. Now Evan is determined to get answers but most of the adults, including his dad, don’t want to talk about the night of the fire so he’ll have to get answers on his own.

The story is a fun mystery with a bit of a plot twist that kids might not see coming. I love finding a mystery book for kids that isn’t too scary and this one isn’t scary at all. The story is told from alternating points of view by a ghost librarian (Al), Mortimer the cat, and Evan. It’s creatively written and the plot unfolds in perfect timing.

I enjoyed the alternating points of view and how each character’s perspective contributed to the mystery of the story. The ghosts in the story were not scary at all. Including the cat’s point of view is always a great choice for a kid’s book as they often adore an animal as a character.

Of course, as an online book club teacher for kids, I loved the library as the backdrop for the story. It was fun to see the old-style check-out cards in the back of the books make an appearance in the story. I recommend this one and hope to discuss it online with students sometime!

My Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Amazon | Goodreads

More Booklist for Kids

Winter Chapter Books for Kids

New Year Books for Kids

Mystery Books Your Kids Will Love

The Best Graphic Novels for Elementary Schoolers


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