31 Days, 31 Lists: Day 31 – The Best Picture Books of 2016
And that, as they say, is that. A noble experiment runs its natural course. For those of you who followed along every day, I thank you. It’s been a thrill, an exhausting exhausting thrill, to bring you a different list of great 2016 books every day in December. Now we find ourselves on the cusp of a new year with many more books bobbing on the horizon, hankering for our attention. Before we throw ourselves into their midst, we can at least celebrate some of the picture books in 2016 that got us through what, for many of us, was a tricky year. I’m not so naive as to believe that picture books are the great unifier that will save us all. That said, I am not so cynical as to believe that the books you feed into a child’s brain at a young age don’t have some kind of an impact in the long run. Let us then take this moment to honor those books that have the potential to make this world a better place.
Today’s list is a bit on the long side. Just the same, I assure you that I read at least ten times as many picture books this year as you’ll see here. I didn’t read everything but I bet I got close to 90% of picture books published for the American market and that ain’t shabby. You’ll find a good strong number of smaller publishers on this list as well. To my mind, no list of best books can be taken seriously unless it includes at least one independent publisher. Too often we’ll see lists that are the same 5-6 publishers. Let’s raise a hat to the little guys in the coming year!
To 2017 and all it entails!
The Best Picture Books of 2016
The Airport Book by Lisa Brown
It’s oddly gratifying to find so many people adoring this book as much as I have. It’s the best airport book I’ve ever encountered. Pair it with The Alphabet From the Sky for the world’s most perfect on board picture book reading experience.
All Aboard for the Bobo Road by Stephen Davies, ill. Christopher Corr
Set in Burkina Faso, this West African counting book makes for a stellar readaloud and is pretty much one of the brightest, cheeriest, picture books of the year.
The Alphabet From the Sky by Benedikt Grob and Joseph Lee
Clever beyond measure and more fun than aerial photography has any right to be.
Animal Talk: Mexican Folk Art Animal Sounds in English and Spanish by Cynthia Weill, ill. Rubi Fuentes and Efraiin Broa
Beautiful art, and pretty much any book that includes animals sounds is going to be greatly needed in your library. If you’ve a bilingual English/Spanish storytime coming up, I think I’ve found the best book to read.
Animals by Ingela P. Arrhenius
Be wary. Be warned. This book is gigantic and will not fit on your library shelves. That said, it’s a perfect book for big preschool readalouds. These animals really pop off the page and your inner designer will be well soothed by the layouts.
At Night by Helga Bansch
A book that is the very definition of subtle. I haven’t seen a book that rewarded turning it upside down quite as well as this since Ann Jonas’s Round Trip. Betcha bottom dollar this went under your radar this year.
The Battle of the Vegetables by Matthieu Sylvander, ill. Perceval Barrier
As evidenced in my book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (co-written with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta) I have an odd weakness for books in which the protagonist gets eaten. This book sates that need admirably.
The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield
Initially this book didn’t do anything for me. But as the year wore on its subtlety and message spoke to something deep inside. It sort of reminds me of a much happier, sweeter version of The Bear That Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes
While I do sympathize with all the travelers in this book that find their flights cancelled do to unexpected snow, it’s very gratifying to see this little girl get her mom back, if only for a day. Extra points for the female pilot.
Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis
Pair with Du Iz Tak for a genuine gibberish storytime. And don’t tell me that it wouldn’t be the most fun storytime ever.
Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre
You already know of my penchant for photography, but Sayre’s art with a lens could convert anybody willing to pick this title up.
Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, ill. Laura Ellen Anderson
Sometimes you don’t have to bop a reader upside the back of the head to get them to understand a message. I like what this book has to say and I think it would do everyone a bit of a service to listen closer.
Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus
It was only after I read it for the 14th time that I noticed the reoccurring characters. Or the fact that it helps kids learn how to count by twos. I noticed it was gorgeous the first time I read it, though.
The Branch by Mireille Messier, ill. Pierre Pratt
A clever solution to a difficult problem can make for a great book. Example A.
Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein, ill. Julia Rothman
A book that upsets expectations in the best way possible. Don’t let the artsy style fool you. This one’s a hilarious readaloud (particularly the last page).
Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? by Dan Richards, ill. Jeff Newman
I brought this in to my child’s daycare and was later told that it was a classroom favorite. Blink and you might have missed it in 2016. Go back and find it, if you can.
City Shapes by Diana Murray, ill. Bryan Collier
I’m not always charmed by Mr. Collier’s work, but this one knocks it out of the proverbial park. Loved it!
Come Home, Angus by Patrick Downes, ill. Boris Kulikov
A book of running away from home for the helicopter parent generation. Kulikov’s one of those artists that will never win the biggie awards like the Caldecott since he’s been around for so long, but I dare say he outdoes himself with this one.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Bagram Ibatoulline
Deeply evocative in both text and image. Informative too. A can’t miss book.
Cricket Song by Anne Hunter
A very clever method of showing how the time of day can be different in two parts of the world at the same moment.
Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Elizabeth Zunon
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
My favorite Carson Ellis book. Period.
Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell, Every Color by Erin Eitter Kono
Campbell could illustrate the daily growth of his toenails and I’d be interested. So a kid villain with self-esteem issues in school? Hard to resist, to say the least.
Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Julia Sarcone-Roach
I don’t own a dog but I give any book that convincingly gets into one’s head a lot of credit. This book is funny and makes for a great readaloud.
Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, ill. Justin K. Thompson
Strangely poignant. They say 2016 is the year of the fox. I don’t think they’re wrong.
Fish by Liam Francis Walsh
Initially when I came up with the 31 Days, 31 Lists idea I was going to do a list of wordless books. Problem was, I could hardly think of any at all. This was one of the few. And honestly, if that list had only been this book, it would have been worth it in the end.
Friend or Foe? by John Sobol, ill. Dasha Tolstikova
It’s like a picture book version of that old short story The Lady or the Tiger. A perfect picture book designed for a LOT of discussion.
Grandpa’s Hal-La-Loo-Ya Hambone! by Joe Hayes, ill. Antonio Castro L.
Tall tales are so rare these days that when one does come around you’re liable to miss it. Did you miss this hilarious tale? I’m more than a little partial to it, and so I suggest you find it tout suite.
A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, ill. G. Brian Karas
Yay! Marjorie Ingall included this one on her list of The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2016 and as the author of the post Famous Illustrators’ Depictions of Knitting Ranked in Order of Competency I can say with confidence that G. Brian Karas actually cares how a person is supposed to hold knitting needles. Bravo, sir.
Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow
I mean, if that cover doesn’t make you smile . . .
Hill & Hole Are Best Friends by Kyle Mewburn, ill. Vasanti Unka
I like the story but I like the unnerving last line of this book best of all.
Home at Last by Vera B. Williams, ill. Chris Raschka
The book that shows an adoptive gay couple as human beings and not symbols. Daring beyond measure.
How to Track a Truck by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. John Rocco
I dare say it’s even better than its predecessor. Plus one of the trucks is named “Barp” and that never fails to get a laugh.
A Hungry Lion by Lucy Ruth Cummins
A distinctly British sense of humor. A distinctly American book.
Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead
If I Was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, ill. Kieran Rynhart
Coming to you straight from New Zealand! Philosophical and quirky in the best way possible. The title pretty much says it all.
It’s Not Easy Being Number Three by Drew Dernavich
It’s also not easy being a math book (even a counting book) in this day and age. I give Dernavich extra points for daring to do something with numbers.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna
Kids read it on one level. Adults on another. Whichever you are, it hits home.
Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol
Maybe the funniest picture book of 2016. Certainly the biggest surprise hit and debut.
Lion Lessons by Jon Agee
Yeah, well. I just like getting a glimpse into how Agee’s mind works sometimes. This one’s a pip.
The Liszts by Kyo Maclear, ill. Julia Sarda
Absurdity, taken in picture book sized doses, is good for the soul.
Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China by Barbara McClintock
Let Me Finish by Minh Le, ill. Isabel Roxas
Pairs shockingly well with Leave Me Alone, but you already knew that, didn’t you?
Little Elliot, Big Fun by Mike Curato
The BEST Little Elliot so far. Heck, the best depiction of old timey Coney Island I’ve ever seen in a picture book. It’s like 1928’s Harold Lloyd film Speedy, amiright?
Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith
Because once in a while it’s nice to see the baddy get outsmarted and humiliated simultaneously.
Lotus and Feather by Ji-li Jiang, ill. Julie Downing
I came this close to missing this book entirely this year. Don’t make the same mistake I did. It’s an honestly touching book of environmentalism with a special little twist.
Malaika’s Costume by Nadia L. Hohn, ill. Irene Luxbacher
Certainly it’s the first time I’ve seen a picture book about a kid having to deal with an absentee family member who’s gone to another country to earn money for her family back home. I love picture books with realistic depictions of economic struggles. This one tackles the subject with heart and hope.
Margarash by Mark Riddle, ill. Tim Miller
So weird. So wonderfully blissfully weird.
Maya by Mahak Jain, ill. Elly MacKay
There’s a core of sadness that needs to be overcome in this book, and Jain handles that transition expertly. Add in MacKay’s startlingly gorgeous art and you’ve a mini gem.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez
Still one of the most beautiful books of the year.
Melena’s Jubilee: The Story of a Fresh Start by Zetta Elliott, ill. Aaron Boyd
Shoot! I forgot to put this one on my Message Books list. Forgiveness is always such a tricky subject to cover in a picture book. Elliott displays that virtue with skill.
Monday Is Wash Day by MaryAnn Sundby, ill. Tessa Blackham
Of all the books I failed to review in 2016, this may be the book I regret the most. A picture book about a 1948 washday doesn’t sound too terribly exciting, but Sundby and Blackham transcend both setting and time period. It’s sublime.
Monsters Go Night-Night by Aaron Zenz
Three words: The potty joke. You have to see it to truly appreciate it.
My Favorite Pets by Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Harry Bliss
Birdsall + Bliss? Need I say more?
My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison
Someday Ms. Harrison should do a wordless picture book. Her animals’ facial expressions are utterly beyond compare. She wrings emotions from the animal kingdom like few others.
Newspaper Hats by Phil Cummings, ill. Owen Swan
Next to You: A Book of Adorableness by Lori Haskins Houran, ill. Sydney Hanson
Proof positive that big-eyed cuties can pack a wallop in laughs if they want to.
The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers
I know it’s gorgeous but it took me a little time to fully appreciate some of the work the Fan Brothers put into this book. I like it a lot now. Particularly the color transition.
Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke
I don’t quite know why but my 2-year-old things that this is the finest thing since sliced bread. And, to be frank, I agree with him completely. Revenge of the “baddies”!
Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz, ill. Eda Kaban
Gets better every time you read it. Which is a good thing since I’ve read it to my truck-obsessed two-year-old approximately 175 times by this point. It holds up.
One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. by Brendan Wenzel
Delicious on the tongue. Satisfying to the soul.
Oscar Loves by Britta Teckentrup
Initially I was going to split this list into books for older readers and younger readers. Then I saw how big it was and just sort of lumped everything together. That said, if you need something gorgeous and exceedingly simple for a younger child, this is the book you need to find. Stat.
Paul and Antoinette by Kerascoet
A sibling book that rings horrendously true. The odd couple with little piggies.
Pond by Jim LaMarche
A book that honors its readers’ brains, hearts, and souls. And I mean that sincerely.
Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen
Beware the quiet ones. So sayeth this book.
Quick, Little Monkey! by Sarah L. Thomson, ill. Lita Judge
Only a monster could look into those eyes and tell this book it couldn’t be on a Best of the Year list. Probably should have ended up on my science and nature list too, come to think of it.
Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, ill. Jonathan Bean
I spoke to a friend the other day who reminded me why I’d liked this book so much in the first place. I’ve heard the objections but I’d maintain that it far exceeds expectations. More beautiful than it has any right to be.
Rescue Squad No. 9 by Mike Austin
A picture book that honestly keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead
Stead at his best.
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson
The Shady Tree by Demi
My favorite Demi in years. She’s back, baby.
Shy by Deborah Freedman
A simultaneous mystery and ode to introverts all in one lovely little package.
Skypig by Jan L. Coates, ill. Suzanne Del Rizzo
It’s amazing what they can do with clay these days.
For the record, I was going to try to work in the phrase “when pigs fly” into my description here but I wasn’t able to do that. 50 points if you find a way and put it into my comment section.
Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, ill. Becca Stadtlander
The perfect goodnight book. Ideal for the farm obsessed amongst us.
The Sleeping Gypsy by Mordicai Gerstein
I really loved this one. Particularly since I could see a nice pairing with that picture book bio The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau from a couple years ago.
Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, ill. Ron Husband
Such a cool too-little-known story. Glad it’s getting some attention now.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, ill. Nizar Ali Badr
A remarkable Syrian illustrator (not a refugee) tells a story of those who flee with compassion wrought from stones. Deeply compelling. Maybe the loveliest picture book of the year. If your library doesn’t own a copy, complain loudly.
The Storm by Akiko Miyakoshi
Loved it. Mind you, it’s hard to write about this one while refraining from also gushing about Miyakoshi’s 2017 title The Way Home in the Night which you will ADORE . . . but I digress.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk
I’m always gratified when someone else loves this book as much as I do. The story within a story within a story motif really works wonders.
Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
A picture book for the Cartoon Network generation.
Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land by John Coy, ill. Wing Young Huie
Very very necessary right now. Spread this book around as much as you can.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
If I had an armful of Caldecott Medals I’d just pour them onto this book.
This is My Book by Mark Pett (and no one else)
A stylistic departure for Pett pays off large dividends.
This Is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter
I’m so grateful for this book. It single-handedly managed to amuse my daughter with independent ideas for play for about 3 weeks straight. Plus I keep singing the title to the tune of Flo Rida’s “My House”.
The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara, ill. Sara Kahn
Making tragedy personal to children when the setting is too big and huge for even adults to comprehend takes real effort and skill. Charara managed it here. Bringing the international, local.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales
Circles within circles within circles. Oh just give it all the awards, won’t you?
Tinyville Town Gets to Work by Brian Biggs
The only book that could get small children excited about city planners. But what about the toads, Brian? WHAT ABOUT THE TOADS?!?
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead
Shoots for something unexpected. Meets that goal and then some.
The Water Princess by Susan Verde, ill. Peter H. Reynolds
Lead to a lot of good conversations in my family about water. We live next to Lake Michigan and one of the biggest businesses in town is selling water. The idea that it wouldn’t be plentiful and fresh is a concept unknown to the kids in my town. This book drills the notion home.
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen
How you get emotion out of a lack of facial expressions I’ll never know. It takes skill. It takes guts. It takes a Klassen.
What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts
In case you missed it, it’s the probably the best tactile picture book to come out . . . ever? Yeah. Ever.
Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux
Dares to fool you into thinking it’s a seek-and-find book of the regular sort. By the time you catch on it’s too late. You’ve learned something. Gotcha!
The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, ill. Sydney Smith
It’s actually just as good as everyone says. Sorry, guys. I’m going with the bandwagon on this one.
Who Broke the Teapot? by Bill Slavin
Who fell down on the job on reviewing this book professionally? The American review journals. Who wants to remedy this problem? Me. That’s who.
Who Wants a Tortoise? by Dave Keane, ill. K.G. Campbell
Please see previous statement on Campbell and books. Please also note the agonized expressions on this tortoise. How does he do that?
Why Am I Here? by Constance Orbeck-Nilssen, ill. Akin Duzakin
Yeah, okay, fine. I like philosophical picture books. So sue me. This one has a greater goal than just asking questions about the universe, though.
Words by Christoph Niemann
Can a 351-page book be a “picture book”? It can now! I liked it from the start but it stole my heart when it included the word “Brobdingnagian”. *sigh*
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato
Also known as the Most-Read-at-Weddings picture book of 2016.
You Belong Here by M.H. Clark, ill. Isabelle Arsenault
Rhyming beauty. A perfect way to close out this and all the other lists.
Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can see everything I read and loved in 2016:
December 1 – Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Adaptations
December 3 – Nursery Rhymes
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – Calde-Nots
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Picture Books
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – International Imports
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Older Picture Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Graphic Novels
December 21 – Poetry
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Titles
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Novel Reprints
December 30 – Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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