Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 Thus Far (Mid-Year Summary)
Thusly is the deal. Since taking a job in Evanston, I’m not the big time reader I used to be. I just don’t devour the books as quickly as I once did, nor do I have access to a committee that would discuss a wide range of children’s literature. As such, I’ve decided that the only area where I can reasonably concentrate my efforts is on picture books. So every day at lunchtime I dutifully grab 5-7 picture books and read through them. Even at this rate, this is my To Be Read shelf:
Yet I’ve been lucky enough to see books that are so good that I just want to share them with you today. After all, not sharing their titles feels like hoarding to me. Here then are all the 2016 picture books that I’ve read so far and that I think are truly extraordinary. Don’t see something you love? Just assume it’s in that To Be Read pile somewhere.
This list does not include reprints, board books, folktales, nonfiction, or easy books at this time.
Oh. And remember when I said I don’t envy this year’s Caldecott committee because we have WAY too many strong books? Here’s a taste of what I mean (though obviously these aren’t all eligible):
Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 (Thus Far)
ABC: The Alphabet From the Sky by Benedikt Grob & Joey Lee
Yep. It’s an alphabet book based entirely on aerial photography. Crazy thing is, it works. And it’s exceedingly clever. Best of all, if you nitpick any of the chosen letters, they have alternatives in the back of the book. Oddly mesmerizing too.
The Airport Book by Lisa Brown
I already reviewed this one so no surprises here. Just nice to see the rest of the country catching up with my wuv.
Animals by Ingela P. Arrhenius
It’s French, can’t you tell? It’s also gigantic. Coming in at a whopping 13.4 x 18.1 inches it’ll be a nightmare for libraries and a boon to preschools and daycares everywhere. It’s also privy to exceedingly clever typography. When you get it, check out how the animals and their descriptive words match one another.
Armstrong by Torben Kuhlmann
For those of us enamored of Lindbergh, Kuhlmann’s follow-up couldn’t come fast enough. If you run any Calde-not contests this year, better include this one.
The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, ill. Sophie Casson
It’s a Van Gogh book! It’s a bullying book! Well now you can have both. I don’t usually go for this kind of thing, but Peacock handles the subject of casual childhood cruelty with aplomb.
An Artist’s Alphabet by Norman Messenger
Again with the alphabet books. Still, you’ll almost never find one like this. Not only does it have animals, fruits, insects, and other natural phenomena in the shapes of the capital letters, but the lower-case as well. Plus it’s purdy.
The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield
This one has a slow burn. You read it once and it’s good. Then you think about it for a long time and come back to it again and again and again. It’s about leaving home, seeing the world, and taking what you’ve learned back to the people who supported you in the beginning.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes
There’s a whiff of Caldecott around this one. It’s a very simple story of a girl who wishes her pilot mom could just stay home this once. Better not look at the cover. It’s a spoiler alert of what happens next.
Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis
Because everybody could use more frints. That and the fact that it’s Portis and she really lets go and has fun with this one.
Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre
Nope. We still don’t know what to do with Sayre’s photo picture books. Nonfiction or fiction? Poetry or picture books? The choices are infinite. The books are exquisite.
Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, ill. Laura Ellen Anderson
Further proof that you can write a book about rejecting gender stereotypes in a smart, new way. This is William’s Doll for a new generation. Little wonder it came from James Howe. Plus I love that it’s the girl in the book that does the reinforcing of stereotypes. In my experience that is often the case.
A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noah Z. Jones
It used to be that picture books would confront the notion of economic disparity regularly. Not so these days though there are always exceptions to the rule. Boelts already won my love with her Happy Like Soccer. This continues the thread.
Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus
Every. Single. Brick. Cyrus can account for every single one. It rhymes. It builds. It’s alluring to the construction obsessed and the not-so-construction obsessed. Two thumbs way way up over here.
Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein, ill. Julia Rothman
I probably shouldn’t confess this but I always look at Phaidon books with a bit of skepticism. When I get one I have to ask myself, “Is is artsy for grown-ups or fun for kids?” The answer to this book was, “Yes.” Everyone can find something to love here. It upsets expectations wildly. However, a friend rightly pointed out that it is DEFINITELY a book for a certain economic strata. FYI.
Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? by Dan Richards, ill. Jeff Newman
I gave this book to my child’s preschool teacher and the woman went crazy for it. She just thinks it’s the cleverest thing this side of the sun. She isn’t wrong. Plus you get the extra added bonus of seeing more Jeff Newman art. I love that guy.
Christmas for Greta and Gracie by Yasmeen Ismail
If you know me then you know I’m not going to put a holiday book on this list unless it is truly extraordinary. Ismail, who has consistently done amazing work, really goes above and beyond with this one. Younger siblings everywhere will adore it.
City Shapes by Diana Murray, ill. Bryan Collier
I come to Collier with an open mind most of the time. I like his art but I don’t like it every time. Fortunately he’s in top notch form here. Nothing like a good old-fashioned concept book.
Come Home, Angus by Patrick Downes, ill. Boris Kulikov
Another one where I read it the first time and merely liked it. Came back to it later and was struck by the intelligence of the writing and, of course, Kulikov’s fabulous art.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Bagram Ibatoulline
Yep. Reviewed it already. So glad that I did. Talk about a timely subject. Them coyotes is everywhere!
Creation by Cynthia Rylant
Not usually my kind of thing. I might normally eschew this kind of book as too artsy for my tastes. Yet reading it just now I was struck by the beauty of the thick thick paints. Pair it with Miracle Man for kicks.
Cricket Song by Anne Hunter
Despite the fact that it has a cute fox on the cover this is more of a look at time passing and distance than anything else. A truly lovely bedtime book.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, ill. By Charlotte Pardi
Alternate Title: Every single country in the world talks about death in picture books better than America. Well, it’s true. And this may be the most sensitive of them this year. An import worth importing.
Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Elizabeth Zunon
Shoot. I still adore this. I reviewed it here and I’d re-review it all over again if it meant getting you to notice it. Raise a questionable glass to spiky relatives everywhere!
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Sometimes I wonder if I just like some books because I didn’t like others. I feel really quite guilty that I haven’t reviewed this one yet. Its made up language is so simple and so fun to read. The plot, such as it is, is easy to follow. I just adore it (though I do wonder if that stickbug died midway through the tale).
Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell
A great book, sure enough, but I’m giving it extra points for suggesting that super-villainy is genetic. Plus the antagonist is a girl with a purple eye-patch. Extra points for that one.
Elliot by Julie Pearson, ill. Manon Gauthier
Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one, and I accept that. Still, I feel that used in the right context, this book does something that no other book does. Confused? Read my review and all will be clear. Just don’t pick it up expected a cute fuzzy bunny story.
Every Color by Erin Eitter Kono
A polar bear searching for color? Haven’t we seen that plot before? Sorta. The difference is simply that this book does it better.
Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Julia Sarcone‐Roach
They’ll sell this book to you based entirely on its casual diversity. That is a factor, but the storyline and writing and art are the additional standouts that give it a leg up.
Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, ill. Justin K. Thompson
As Travis pointed out earlier, 2016 is the year of the fox. Much of what I like about this title, aside from the art which is stellar, is the fact that it’s a book with a purpose above and beyond telling a good story. Fox family reunification makes for a good story too, though.
From Wolf to Woof!: The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott
Sometimes these books straddle the picture book and nonfiction line. But with its story of a boy bonding with a wolf (that shot of his hand on its head is worth the price of admission alone) I’d say it counts. Man does a good dog, too.
Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow
I love that kid’s expression. Like he really and truly has no clue where the pachyderm is looming.
Hill & Hole Are Best Friends by Kyle Mewburn, ill. Vasanti Unka
There’s an odd little melancholy to this book about being satisfied with your lot. The ending hints at what the future may hold without insisting upon it. It’s a book and a metaphor all at once.
How to Track a Truck by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. John Rocco
The book I didn’t even know I was waiting for until it arrived. Lots to love here. If you enjoyed How to Train a Train, then you won’t be disappointed. Rocco is in his element.
A Hungry Lion by Lucy Ruth Cummins
A show of hands. How many of you just assumed that this was a British import? Yep. Well, it isn’t. It does, however, have a lovely twist ending.
Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead
Another one of those books that may or may not be for kids. In the end, the title of this book is about “Picture Books” and there is always the odd child that will become enamored of the title. It is pretty gorgeous.
It’s Not Easy Being Number Three by Drew Dernavich
Someone earlier this year asked me to list all the extraordinary math or number picture books out in 2016. The count was pitifully small. Fortunately, Dernavich is here to save the day. Trucker hat and all (seriously, that 3 is wearing a GREAT hat.
King Baby by Kate Beaton
Just for fun, do a Google image search of this title and author. Now read all the comics she’s put up there. More than just a larf for new parents.
Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol
This may be my favorite picture book of the year. Dunno. I need to think about it for a while. A review of it should be posted on this site this week, at the very least.
Let Me Finish by Minh Le, ill. Isabel Roxas
Isn’t it nice when a friend of yours writes a book and it’s not only good, it’s one of the best of the year. Not too shabby there, Minh.
Lion Lessons by Jon Agee
One of these days Agee’s gonna lose his ability to write such good books. Any minute now . . . any minute . . .
Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith
Excellent storytelling, great art, and if you’ve ever wondered to yourself what a lion’s mane would look like in cornrows, I think I know where you can go to find an answer. I hesitate to use the word “spunky” on this girl, so I’ll just call her “intrepid” and “intelligent” instead.
Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China by Barbara McClintock
A book for VERY young eyes. I’m beginning to wonder if Ms. McClintock paints with the aid of electronic microscopes. Someday she’s going to paint a book on the head of a single grain of rice. I would read that rice.
Maya by Mahak Jain, ill. Elly MacKay
Empowering. Beautiful. Dreamlike. And I got to have a long conversation with my daughter about banyan trees, thanks to the storyline.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez
His art just makes me happy every time I see it. I’ll never get a tattoo, but if I absolutely had to have one, it might have to be of one of his images. A premiere of the book trailer here, if you’re interested.
Monday Is Wash Day by MaryAnn Sundby, ill. Tessa Blackham
Artistry, when done well and for the right reasons, yields classics. And look at th0se cut paper clothes. A steady hand needed there.
My Favorite Pets by Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Harry Bliss
Birdsall! Bliss! Hungry sheep! The story doesn’t exactly write itself, but when the final form is made clear it makes perfect sense.
My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison
I was tepid on Harrison’s first picture book, enticed by her second, and enthralled by this, her third. The cruel cuts of elementary school are keenly felt here. And the expressions on the animals’ faces? Classic.
Next to You: A Book of Adorableness by Lori Haskins Houran, ill. Sydney Hanson
Aw, yeah. I am so keeping this one the list. Read the review here to know why.
Nobody Like a Goblin by Ben Hatke
And with this book I interviewed Ben and he showed off the alternate cover. I think, after looking at it, you’ll understand why they went with this one.
Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz, ill. Eda Kaban
I have read this book roughly 500 million times to my 2-year-old son. I still like this book even after all of that. That tells me it must be pretty good. There’s always something new to see.
One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. by Brendan Wenzel
Such a brilliant readaloud! I know there’s another Wenzel book out there that I’m supposed to like more, but you never forget your first. And for me, this was the first Wenzel story I ever really loved. There will be others.
Pond by Jim LaMarche
There are at least two picture books out this year about damming up streams to make ponds. I like this one a lot. Kids really do like to hear about process sometimes. It would actually pair well with Ellen Obed’s Twelve Kinds of Ice.
Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen
I’m an adult and the surprise ending on this book caught me unawares. Plus I love a good animator-turned-illustrator. This hits all the right picture book beats. Warning: May make you hungry for sushi.
A Promise Is a Promise by Knister, ill. Eve Tharlet
Another import about death. This one has a rather hopeful bent to it, though. It’s not the kind of art I usually like, but the storytelling overcame that personal prejudice.
Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, ill. Jonathan Bean
I just got this in yesterday. Shoot. I think it’s also a Caldecott contender. Bean’s usually a sure shot in that area, but it’s Hoefler’s text that raises the book out of the morass of other picture books. I never thought I could like a contemporary cowboy book so much.
Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead
I know, I know. If I include both of the Philip C. Stead books out this year, one of the two should have to go. But not this one! It’s so cute and friendly, with that hint of melancholy Mr. Stead always takes care to include, no matter how happy the tale.
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson
How many starred reviews has it gotten? Six? Seven? Then I think we can all agree that it’s probably the best going-to-school book on the market today. Pair it with Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten for a truly inspired pairing.
The Shady Tree by Demi
Aw. This is Demi at her best. An original folktale with a cute and clever bent. Great tone as well.
Shy by Deborah Freedman
In my experience even the not-so-shy kids get a kick out of this one. Plus they’ll love going back through the book to spot Shy on the previous pages.
Skypig by Jan L. Coates, ill. Suzanne Del Rizzo
Crazycool art going on here. I think it’s all clay, but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the medium is, it fits the storyline perfectly. I always have so much fun reading the book that I forget to look up how it’s made.
Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, ill. Becca Stadtlander
An Ox-Cart Man for the 21st century!
The Storm by Akiko Miyakoshi
You can practically taste the disappointment when that storm rolls in. It didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor The Tea Party in the Woods, but it’s still a studied, smart take on a common childhood experience.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk
What else could I even possibly tell you about this? Maybe it’ll finally be Turk’s year. He’s talented enough. My review of the book can be found here.
Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
You may notice that this isn’t too dissimilar to Nobody Likes a Goblin. So I clearly have a penchant for picture books that upset fantasy expectations. Both books also look at the nature of quests.
A Toucan Can, Can You? by Danny Adlerman, ill. Various
Love it! Reviewed it recently here. The sheer array of artists makes this one a keeper. Plus it’s catchy. There is much to be said for catchy.
That’s Not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette Maclver, ill. Sarah Davis
Also a big hit in my child’s daycare. It has all the frantic energy of something like Catch That Cookie, but it also speaks to those quiet kids in a class. Good-natured, funny, and a fabulous readaloud to groups of kids.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
Yeah. I stand by everything I’ve said about this book already. One of the best of the year. Bar none.
This Is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter
At some point here I’ll show you my daughter’s dollhouse. One that was inspired by this book. She’s been working on it every night after daycare. Giselle Potter, you are a genius and I thank you.
The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara, ill. Sara Kahn
Tougher subject matter than your average picture book (and it could comfortably slot in the war and bereavement categories) there’s depth and carefully weighted words at work here.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales
I had to have folks explain to me the brilliance of the art. Once I saw it, I could never unsee it. I have heard and understand the concerns, and even agree with them. Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest books of the year. No question.
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead
Not that Philip E. Stead ever cornered the market on sweet melancholy. His wife has her own brand at hand.
The Water Princess by Susan Verde, ill. Peter H. Reynolds
Exceedingly beautiful and useful. Give it to any girl looking for princess fare. It’s not what they think they want, but few will turn it away. Plus it was hugely useful in telling my kid about how lucky we are to have water.
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen
The sweetness of this book caught me off-guard. I’m adding the image of a turtle wearing an oversized hat to my list of Possible Tattoos I’ll Never Get, But Would At Least Consider.
A Well‐Mannered Young Wolf by Jean Leroy, ill. Matthieu Maudet
The ending caught me by surprise. In the best way possible. Definitely NOT American (thank goodness).
Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux
I love how this book sets up the expectation that it’s just another seek and find story and then slowly reveals that it has a bigger point to convey.
Who Broke the Teapot? by Bill Slavin
I was recently in Stratford, Ontario and this book was in a bookstore window. Little wonder. The art is clever and the solution to the mystery (because this really is a mystery in a picture book) is great. And funny, come to think of it.
Who Wants a Tortoise? by Dave Keane, ill. K.G. Campbell
Hmm. Two Campbell books as well. The man is a master of illustrated a distressed tortoise. Plus it’s kept me from calling turtles tortoises in the recent past.
Wild Eggs: A Tale of Arctic Egg Collecting by Suzie Napayok‐Short, ill. Jonathan Wright
It’s not a good list unless I can get a book from Inhabit Media on here somewhere. And Napayok-Short’s text is just lovely. Some kids may get disappointed that they can’t collect arctic eggs of their own, of course.
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato
Yet another case of a picture book subtly reinforcing a belief or understanding. Would actually pair with the aforementioned James Howe book exceedingly well.
Yellow Time by Lauren Stringer
Baby, there is always time for yellow time. Always.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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