31 Days, 31 Lists: Day Thirteen – 2017 Picture Books With a Message
Let’s have some fun defining our terms. What exactly do I mean when I say “books with a message”? Basically, I’m talking about books that wear their hearts on their sleeves. We all know that in their earliest form, when people were initially coming up with the idea of making literature for children, the primary purpose was to instruct the little buggers. It took a while to come up with the notion of purely entertaining them. How much harder it is to balance the two. Picture books have never abandoned the idea of instructing young readers, but there’s a vast difference between books that bash you over the skull with their message and the ones that do it with skill and style.
Today, I’m looking at a wide variety of “message” books. Some discuss death and loss. Others social issues like poverty, inequality, or pervasive fear. Still others just inform readers on important topics in an interesting way. Determining what books belong on this list is entirely subjective, so you may agree or disagree with the choices here, but one thing’s for certain. They all do a darned good job. You’re going to see a lot of small publishers on the list today. Give them your time and attention. Today’s list is a good example of how those little guys fill in a lot of the gaps left by the bigger companies.
2017 Picture Books With a Message
Aunt Fanny’s Star by Brigitte Weninger, ill. Feridun Oral
One of these years I’m just gonna cave and make a 31 Days Death Books lists once and for all. Not this year, but soon. 2017 (and read into this what you will) was a very very strong year for death and mourning. I dunno if it’s because we’re all depressed but death books abounded, and got really rather good in the process. Case in point, this quiet, understated, rather lovely tale of a family helping an elderly relative move on.
Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper
You know, the more I read this book, consider this book, look this book over, think about this book, and come back to this book, the more I realize that it may be one of the best of the whole entire year. It’s not just the story, which is good in and of itself. I love the shift from the older white cat and younger black to the older black cat and younger white cat. Course I do. But Cooper is using his unique and particular style to its best advantage. He also does a darned good cat drawing. A death book, yes indeed, but also a book about life circling around and about. I laughed. I cried. It was better with cats.
Come With Me by Holly M. McGhee, ill. Pascal Lemaitre
Tell me you don’t read the title and author and find yourself saying “Come with me, Holly McGhee!” with a certain bouncy joy. One of these days I’m going to find myself at a party with Holly, something will happen on the other side of the room, we’ll go to investigate, and I’ll finally get to say to her live and in person, “Come with me, Holly McGhee!”
Sorry. I’ve the attention span of a newt. So this is a book addressing the scary times in which we live (which means it will pair nicely with Most People down below) and parental fears, but in a particularly kid-friendly way. It is timely, of course, but also the kind of book that parents, teachers, and librarians will be able to turn to when the world does something particularly scary in the future. Hand it to your favorite helicopter parent.
Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha, ill. Maja Kastelic
So this is one of those books that libraries need desperately, but that are often difficult to locate. Even when you do locate such books, they often are lacking in terms of the writing or the art. Not so here. Before this book came out, a lot us just had Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson and not much else. Now we have this book as well. Nice to get some variety.
The Fix-It Man by Dimity Powell, ill. Nicky Johnston
Yeah. So this is one book that I had no idea even was a death book until I got about halfway through. It just seems so sweet! And it is sweet in its way, but it’s also taking a serious look at how families grieve and put themselves back together. Of the books dealing with death on this list today, this is the one that concentrates the most full on the grief itself. It also suggests the fallibility of adults, which is honest with kids. And, as you can tell, I really love books that treat their young readers with respect.
Gorilla Gardener: How to Help Nature Take Over the World by John & Jana
John & Jana are les enfants terrible of picture books today. No doubt you may have encountered their previous book A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy. This book is far less confrontational but the play on words in the title (what we have here is a gorilla guerilla) is fairly cute. The idea behind this book is that nature should be encouraged to show up anywhere and everywhere. Seeds should be sewn! Vegetables should crop up in the weirdest places! It actually shows you how to construct little seed bombs that you can throw and deliver to potential new garden spaces. I just love that crazy plan.
I Like, I Don’t Like by Anna Baccelliere, ill. Ale + Ale
This one you may have seen before. It’s a socially conscious examination of privilege for the middle class American child. You’ll have a kid on the one hand saying they like shoes, and then on the opposite page a kid forced to shine them for a living saying they don’t like them at all. We don’t have a lot of books that examine the different ways in which kids around the world are forced to work or earn a living. This one is very simple, which means the impetus is up to the adults reading this book with kids. Be ready for some questions then. The ones kids didn’t know they needed to ask before.
Letters to a Prisoner by Jacques Goldstyn
See this foot? See how it’s managing to give a swift kick to my shin over and over again? I’m kicking myself over the fact that this book got left off of my Wordless Picture Book list for this year. Ah well. At least I can make it up to it by putting it here. In this book a man becomes a political prisoner (which means this book pairs well with the Rooster one below) and his cause is taken up around the world, ultimately freeing him and returning him to his family. You don’t need to have an in-depth working knowledge of repressive regimes to comprehend this story. Just an ability to read sequential art.
Maddie the Mitzvah Clown by Karen Rostoker-Gruber, ill. Christina Grove
I’m all about the female empowerment, but I am PARTICULARLY into that empowerment when it involves girls finding their strength and voice through humor. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when this little number from Apples & Honey Press rolled across my desk one day. Maddie suffers from shyness but discovers that by becoming a clown at her Grandma’s senior center she’s able to become another person entirely. I think Kirkus said it best when they wrote, “A different way to give back to the community (and help oneself), this cheery outing should not be confined to its Jewish context.”
Malaika’s Winter Carnival by Nadia L. Hohn, ill. Irene Luxbacher
Not the first Malaika book by any means, but there’s a complexity to this sequel that was slightly lacking in the original. In the first Malaika book (Malaika’s Costume from 2016) our heroine missed her mother, who was working somewhere in Canada while her daughter continued to dwell in the Caribbean with her grandmother. Well, now Malaika’s been whisked away from the Caribbean to freezing cold Canada. She misses her grandma, her mom got married to someone new, and now she suddenly has a sister. Add in the language barrier and this girl is not happy. When she discovers that the annual winter Carnival is nothing like the Carnival back home, things go south. And yes, the book has a happy ending with acceptance and understanding, but it also acknowledges Malaika’s really legitimate anger and frustration with her life changes. Hope I see more in this series.
Most People by Michael Leannah, ill. Jennifer E. Morris
I dunno, man. I think a lot of adults would actually benefit from this book. The premise is that when you look at the world today you hear about a LOT of bad people. The news is chock full of them, it would seem. But when it all comes down to it, those folks are in the minority. Generally speaking, most people are decent, hardworking, stand up and cheer folks. They say that kids today feel more anxiety than previous generations. For those children that fret about the world in which they live, this book may serve as a balm. There’s really not much of anything else like it out there.
My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo
In this particular case the “message” that I think the book is conveying is information about the current Syrian Refugee crisis. And though this book was initially released way back in March, I’m afraid it just isn’t any less timely here in December. The art, rendered in paint, Plasticine, and polymer clay, conveys the story of a boy that must abandon his pigeons when his family flees to a refugee camp. Once there, he begins to heal thanks to the presence of the birds he finds. SLJ said it was one of those rare “hopeful yet realistic refugee tales”. We don’t have much of those to spare, I’m afraid.
The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy, ill. Eugene Yelchin
Considering the fact that Ms. Deedy once said that this book is based in large part on discussing how a brutal regime breaks its prisoners, I figure it fits the “Message” mold pretty darn well. After all, how do you destroy the soul of a prisoner? Take their freedom. Take away their family. Remove all light. Deny food and drink. And yet this rooster keeps singing and, in time, inspires others to sing as well. Required reading for a crazed era.
Rosie and Crayon by Deborah Marcero
I think I’ve mentioned this beauty a couple times before. Let’s just say that grief doesn’t have to based on missing someone human, eh?
Shelter by Céline Claire, ill. Qin Leng
Oh! This was a lovely surprise to discover. I don’t know that I’d put it on any lists aside from today’s, but there’s a lot to unpack here. To a large extent, this is a story about fear (again) which is a rather popular topic. It’s probably a rather fitting Christmas title, though the holiday is never named. In this story strangers ask for shelter and are turned away. But when a different family is unexpectedly ejected from their home, they find grace and help coming from the very people they previously rejected.
Still a Family by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, ill. Jo-Shin Lee
Because we have nothing on this topic. At least my library doesn’t. Nothing recent. And considering the sheer number of people in shelters at the moment, to say nothing of the sheer number of kids, and the fact that they often break families up, I think there’s a lot at work here that kids need to see. Don’t just squirrel this away into the Parenting section of your children’s room either. Put it with the regular picture books. Let average kids see kids that live in shelters. Talk about what that means. Don’t hide this book.
Tell Me About Sex, Grandma by Anastasia Higginbotham
Okay. Pause a moment and consider the expression on the top half of Grandma’s face here. That look. That expression. That raised eyebrow. If there is a face that I identify the most with in the 2017 books, it is this one. I am one with Grandma. Never mind that this is also what I would consider to be the BEST book to discuss sex with small children since Robie Harris. Higginbotham, who came to prominence when she published Death Is Stupid last year (which is, coincidentally, your required reading for the day), has a gift for taking difficult subjects and rendering them both simple and deeply honest. She has this enormous respect for young children and that comes through with each of her books. She cuts the b.s. This is just the second in what I hope will be a long line of great books to come.
The Watcher: Inspired by Psalm 121 by Nikki Grimes, ill. Bryan Collier
I’ve had a devil of a time figuring out what posts to put this book upon. Poetry, maybe? Not quite sure. A lot of the “Message” books on my list are about grace and forgiveness, and this book is no exception. On first glance it appears to be one of those standard bully narratives. That is, until you see the bully (an African-American girl wearing glasses) and then find out why she’s angry in the first place. I appreciate a book where the hero doesn’t go on their emotional journey alone. The redemption arc for that little girl is the key to this book’s success. Working in a favorite psalm doesn’t hurt matters much either.
What What What? by Arata Tendo, ill. Ryoji Arai
I already talked about this book on the translated list, but in case you missed it, here’s the gist. Child abuse is hard to depict in picture books. And proactive protagonists that take their flaws (in this case, asking too many questions and persistence) and make them a force of unmitigated good . . . that’s gravy. You gotta read this.
Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney
Some books exist almost entirely to spark conversations among students. This book shows refugees from a variety of different situations, though none are gruesome. Broader than My Beautiful Birds, the photographs are an important part of the story. I think it’s easy for kids to dismiss stories in books as fictional all the time. But to see the faces of the actual kids living this reality . . . that’s hard to ignore. A great idea for a book.
Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:
December 1 – Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Wordless Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – CaldeNotts
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Picture Books
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – Translated Picture Books
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Comics for Kids
December 21 – Older Funny Books
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Fiction Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade 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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