31 Days, 31 Lists: 2018 Books with a Message
Lest we forget, the entire reason children’s books even exist is that they were meant to provide some form of moral instruction for the young and impressionable. Want to write a book for kids that’s silly and doesn’t really mean anything? It can be done but it’s actually pretty darn hard. Publishers know that those books that sell well are those that instill the values that parents with pocketbooks want in their offspring. But there’s a danger to what I deem “Message Books”. Mainly, that a goodly portion of them are just awful. Turns out, it’s really hard to be instructive without being didactic. You want to get what you’re trying to say across in a way that’s simple enough for a child to understand without essentially whacking them over the head with the message.
In 2018 people cranked up the notch on Message Books. Make no mistake, we’ve always had book that discuss feminism or equity, but they often would do so obliquely. But if 2018 is remembered for anything it will be for the year that subtlety took a hike and probably won’t be due back for a while. Here then are the Message Books of the year that tackled the challenge of instructing or informing the young with aplomb.
Forgive me for the shorter descriptions today. I hadn’t anticipated the sheer number of books out this year with a message. Obvious I didn’t think this one through. Ah well.
These are the rarities in the field.
2018 Books With a Message
Baby Feminists by Libby Babbott-Klein, ill. Jessica Walker
Yeah, I’m not on board with board books about feminists. What could a baby or toddler possibly get out of such a book? How could they even . . . even . . . uh . . . guys? Is . . . is this a book of feminists AS ADORABLE BABIES?!?
Okay, I take it all back. That’s an amazing idea. A baby or toddler would actually get a lot out of this. You guys are amazing. I’m all in.
Baby Loves Green Energy by Ruth Spiro, ill. Irene Chan
I’m very much looking forward to the sequel Baby Dislikes the Coal Industry With an Intensity That Rivals the White Hot Sun. What? That’s not a thing?
Make it a thing. I want it.
A Bubble by Geneviève Castrée and Phil Elverum
Message: Terminal Illness
I’ll level with you. I kind of put this book into this category because I had no idea where else to put it. But I couldn’t exactly say its message was “To Make Grown-Ups Cry”. Author Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with a terminal illness and as her daughter grew she wrote this book as a final goodbye. It’s stirring and probably more for adults than kids, but I don’t care. Once in a while, we should reward the books that do something unexpected.
Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan, ill. Sarah Walsh
Message: Religious Tolerance
Who doesn’t like hats? And who doesn’t like religious headpieces with a purpose behind them? Clothing board books are out there. Nice to see one with a goal.
My First Book of Feminism (For Boys) by Julie Merberg, ill. Michéle Brummer Everett
It’s all about consent, actual baby. Basically, this is a book that talks about respecting women and girls from a very young age. Pairs very well with Not My Idea, when it comes to books for young children tackling complex ideas in a simple (but not simplified) way.
Standroid & Dandroid: Sharing Does Not Compute by Michael Slack
Whew! After all these heavy handed themes, coming across a message as simple as “Sharing” feels downright revolutionary. Well, it’s hard to find good sharing books. I’d say
All Mine! by Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush, ill. Jon Davis
Message: Setting Boundaries
It sounds crazy, but I’ve actually learned a lot from the “Terrific Toddlers” series that Magination Press has been putting out this year. Each book is as instructive to small children as they are to adults, and nothing shows this off better than this book. Basically, it’s about not sharing. You heard me. When a toddler goes over to a friend and starts grabbing their stuff, the adult instinct is to have the two share. But how is that fair to the kid who had the item first? Instead, you give it back to the first kid and make it clear that they aren’t ready to share yet. The two will take turns. I’ve never seen anything that discussed supporting toddlers’ needs for ownership before. Really interesting.
All of Us by Carin Berger
It’s sad that this message needs to be drilled home so often. It’s even sadder that usually when people try to drill it home it ends up being saccharine. Berger’s simplicity of text and images bypasses that problem entirely. A good gorgeous book.
Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, ill. Jen Hill
At this point you’re going to see books that fall into what I like to designate as the Message Is In the Title category. There’s a definite advantage to going this route. Granted you’re not going to win any awards for subtlety (please see previous note about subtlety’s death in 2018) but in terms of being of use to parents and librarians, there’s a real advantage here. A patron walks up to a children’s librarian and asks for a book on kindness. Batta bing. Instant book.
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla, ill. Ken Min
Message: Sensory Issues
Sort of like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, if Alexander had a sympathetic younger sibling that was on the spectrum. The more I think about this book, the more impressed by it I am. An older brother comes home after a bad day, and who tries to comfort him the only way he knows how? His little brother Benji, going through the motions that give him comfort when his days are bad. It’s honestly touching. One of the more subtle books on today’s list.
The Book Tree by Paul Czajak, ill. Rashin Kheiriyeh
Message: Government Oppression
Literacy is outlawed when a book makes an inopportune landing on the Mayor’s head. But that’s the thing about making things go underground. Sometimes they’re liable to sprout up, bigger and louder than ever before.
Born Bad by CK Smouha, ill. Stephen Smith
If the world tells you that you’re bad, is your fate sealed? Or can you write your own story? The metaphor for establishing your own identity reads loud and clear here, but Smouha has an elegant hand and Smith equally elegant art.
Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters, ill. Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
Message: Personal Space / Race
Pairing very well with fellow picture book Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller, I was quite fond of how Latham and Waters navigated the tricky subjects in this book. A poetry book unlike any others out there today.
Captain Starfish by Davina Bell, ill. Allison Colpoys
It’s hard to say where shyness stops and anxiety begins, but I think there will be great comfort for those kids afraid of public situations, that find a true friend in Alfie.
A Card for My Father by Samantha Thornhill, ill. Morgan Clement
Message: Absent Parent / Incarcerated Parent
A kid in school is given the assignment to write a card to her father, which right there makes me want to thump her teacher good and hard. It’s Father’s Day and Flora never met her dad before he was incarcerated. This is the first in a trilogy of picture books and I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes in the future.
The Day We Lost Pet by Chuck Young, ill. Aniela Sobieski
Message: Death (Dead Pet)
Kirkus called this one “Breathtakingly original.” They weren’t wrong. I picked it up expecting the usual deceased dog storyline. Instead I encountered sentences like, “we were piles of skin laundry blending into a world of pales and fogs.” Buckle up, cowboys. This beautiful book isn’t going to make anything easy for you.
Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller
Message: Personal Space / Racism
The Message Is In the Title! And a good message it is too. Honestly, if this book can stop just one person from reaching out and sticking their hands into someone else’s hairdo, it will have already justified its existence on this globe. I think Miller is getting better and better.
The Fishing Lesson by Heinrich Böll, adapted by Bernard Friot, ill. Emile Bravo
Maybe it’s not as big a message as some of the books on today’s list, but doggone it if it isn’t necessary.
Forest Dream by Ayano Imai
I can see you looking at this cover and wondering to yourself, “How the heck could I have missed a picture book THAT incredibly gorgeous in 2018?” The world is full of mysteries. At least you’re hearing about it now, eh? This book discusses the life cycle of a forest and the interconnectedness of nature. Kind of exquisite.
Get On Your Bike by Joukje Adveld, ill. Philip Hopman, translated by Laura Watkinson
Message: Get on your bike. Duh.
Another candidate for the “Message Is In the Title” category.
Hazelnut Days by Emmanuel Bourdier, ill. ZAÜ
Message: Incarcerated Parent
The rare message book that I actually reviewed in 2018. Normally I find them incredibly hard to review at all. I loved the reveal of where the dad is, and the depth of the boy’s love and conflicting feelings.
How Mamas Love Their Babies by Juniper Fitzgerald, ill. Elise Peterson
The first picture book of its kind I’ve ever seen to include sex workers, amongst other professions, as mothers. In a year when Stormy Daniels had a bestselling title, writing a picture book where ALL mothers are celebrated and granted dignity is beyond timely. It’s overdue.
Jack (Not Jackie) by Erica Silverman, ill. Holly Hatam
Odd to say, but when we talk about transgender picture books or picture books where the characters are gender fluid, nine times out of ten we’re talking about the kids that identify as girls. Where are the books about children that identify as boys then? Here’s one. I read this to my 4-year-old the other night and upon finishing it he insisted I read it again. Then my 7-year-old picked it up and started reading it. The story centers around the older sister of “Jackie” who, in time, identifies as male. Her confusion and frustration is the focus, which I thought was a clever take. Of course, because it’s through her lens, she refers to Jackie as “she” for a long time. Kirkus said, for this and other reasons that “the narrative remains rooted in a cisgender perspective” and that’s true, but I can see why the author made the choices she did. And, after all, there is pretty much almost nothing out there (even Kirkus in their “similar book” suggestions only mentioned books where the characters identify with girls). Necessary.
Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Message: Gender Fluidity / Self-Acceptance
Can you believe that I almost forgot to include it? A staple now of Drag Queen Story Hours around the country, Julián is speaking to readers on an almost unprecedented level. Nothing quite like it out there.
Love by Matt de la Pena, ill. Loren Long
The Message Is In the Title. Mind you, I say that the message is just “love” but this is the book that makes it clear just how complicated that feeling really is. In spite of the cover, it’s not all sunshine and roses on these pages. A book unafraid to grapple with serious issues, as well as lighter ones.
Mallko and Dad by Gusti
Message: Acceptance / Down syndrome
I already mentioned this in my post about 2018 Down syndrome children’s books. Since that time I’ve heard folks speculate that this is more of a book for adults. I don’t entirely disagree, but I really and truly feel that if you have a kid whose sibling is differently abled in some way, this book is far more than the sum of its parts.
Marwan’s Journey by Patricia de Arias, ill. Laura Borràs
Message: Immigration / Refugees
In previous years I’ve seen dozens of picture books dealing with refugees and immigrants. This year, almost none on the younger side. Glad I saw this one in any case. Stellar.
Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna
A book unafraid to discuss the fact that there is an odd comfort in fear. Or, at the very least, in staying within your own personal safety zone, never pushing the boundaries or moving out of your comfort zone.
Mixed: A Colorful Story by Arree Chung
Message: Love Across Borders
I met Mr. Chung at NCTE this year. Charming fellow. I was sure to tell him that the librarians at my branch were gaga for this title. It sort of reminds me of Leo Lionni’s old Little Blue and Little Yellow, only with a 21st century attitude.
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
Message: Confronting Whiteness
I’ve already discussed this book quite a lot, but if this is the first time you’re seeing it then I suggest you check out my full review of it. There is nothing else out there like it today.
The Old Man by Sarah V., ill. Claude K. Debois, translated by Daniel Hahn
Message: Empathy / Homelessness
A book that discusses homelessness (and possibly mental illness as well) without reducing the subject to a one-dimensional caricature. There’s a lot going on in this book. This is what you read to the child that walked past a homeless person and started asking questions. The book isn’t going to give them answers. Just a capacity for compassion.
One Wave At a Time: A Story About Grief and Healing by Holly Thompson, ill. Ashley Crowley
Message: Grief (dead father)
The Message Is In the (Sub)Title. One of the few grief books I saw this year that wasn’t pet-related. A book that makes it clear to kids that the unrelenting feeling of loss they have are completely normal.
Paul Writes (A Letter) by Chris Raschka
Message: Just be a decent human being, for crying out loud
I stand by that message.
Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights by Rob Sanders, ill. Jared Andrew Schorr
Message: Social Activism
A lot more kids are going to protest marches these days. Here’s the book you can read them beforehand so that they know what’s up. Has anyone actually made a picture book protest march booklist, by the way? I bet at this point you could include some really keen titles.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
Our winner, ladies and gentlemen. I want to give this book all the things. The perfect title for telling a kid how to be a good friend when another child has suffered some kind of a tragedy.
The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros, ill. Dana Wulfekotte
Less a book about solutions and more a book to help kids understand their role in the family when an older member starts losing their memories.
Rock & Roll Woods by Sherry Howard, ill. Anika A. Wolf
Message: Sensory Issues
More sensory issue titles! Clear Fork Publishing is a small operation but they did a good job with this tale of cooperation and dealing with loud/strange sounds.
The Rough Patch by Brian Lies
Message: Grief (Dead Pet)
Like I always say. If you want to tell a story about an adult, turn them into a woodland creature. This is about the death of a pet, and how we come to handle our grief. I love that the fox’s wellies have holes for his toe claws too.
Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin
Oh, beautiful!! This book was a real treat. A girl, new to Brooklyn, misses the beaches of Iran. She also misses her friend and saffron ice cream. Her acceptance of the new with the old is deftly told, and the art is just spectacular. Looking forward to more books by this author/illustrator in the future.
Seven Pablos by Jorge Luján, ill. Chiara Carrer
Message: Empathy / Socioeconomic Status
A picture book for older readers, I’d say. The book shows seven boys, all named Pablo, in various places around the world. Sometimes they’re doing well. Sometimes they’re really struggling. Linked by a common name the book doesn’t tell the reader what to think or feel. Readers won’t help but want to know more about these boys and other kids in similar situations.
Small Things by Mel Tregonning
Technically you could add this book to your comic or graphic novel section and no one would say boo about it. It is formatted like a picture book, but the wordless images inside are sophisticated. It’s a book where anxieties are depicted as little monsters, eating away at the kids. A good one for those anxious kids who need to know they’re not alone.
Sterling, Best Dog Ever by Aidan Cassie
Message – Be Yourself
Once in a while you’ve just got to put a silly, fun book on a list. I’m not usually a dog book lover, but I was very much attached to this tale of a canine so willing to please that he gives up his sense of self. Capable of an unusual poignancy, in the midst of the fun.
The Truly Brave Princesses by Dolores Brown, ill. Sonja Wimmer, text edited by Eva Burke and Rebecca Packard
Message: Celebrating Differences
Need I say more? I think it’s shown up on two other lists this month. And, spoiler alert, it’s going to get on at least one more!
Walls by Brad Holdgrafer, ill. Jay Cover
Earlier this year I wrote a post called Trump or Not? The Presidency and Current Children’s Literature where I speculated which books were and were not about our current sitting president. I wrote the post in June and this book came out in August, which means I missed it. Pity since there’s not so much as a drop of doubt in my mind that this is about Trump’s wall.
Water by Subhash Vyam with Gita Wolf from the Hindi oral narrative
While I said the topic of this is “environmentalism” I could just as well have said it was “personal responsibility in the face of great societal wrongs”. Both work equally well.
We Are All Me by Jordan Crane
The Message Is In the Title. Trippy! And cool. Very cool. And trippy.
What’s the Big Deal About Elections? by Ruby Shamir, ill. Matt Faulkner
Message: Get out the vote!
Hey, man. Whatever works. Personally, I hope that parents read this to their children and were inspired to register and vote for the first time. That would be extraordinary.
When Sophie Thinks She Can’t by Molly Bang
This book appeared on the math list as well, but let’s take a moment to appreciate what a good job it does (A) outlining what a frustrated kid who just wants to give up feels like and (B) coming up with a reasonable and believable solution to the problem.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Board Books & Pop-Ups
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 Books for Kids
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – Translated Picture Books
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
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
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists
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.
SLJ Blog Network