31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Books With a Message
Don’t shoot the messenger when she tells you that not all message picture books are bad! I mean the vast majority of them are, sure. You see, the funny thing about picture books is that large swaths of adults out there view them simply as message conveyance systems. They truly believe that if the message being conveyed to kids is strong enough, the quality of the text and the art can be anywhere between subpar to downright embarrassing. I happen to disagree with this sentiment. There are, as it happens, a couple really good books with strong messages out each and every year. The trick is finding the best books with the right message.
Consider the following books then. Here, you will see that these titles are all great and cover a great many topics. More to the point, they cover them well.
Boonoonoonous Hair! by Olive Senior, ill. Laura James
[Message – Hair Love]
Never before have we had so many books promoting the beauty of Black hair on your picture book shelves. With that in mind, it could feel like this latest from Senior & James is just a drop in the ocean. You would be wrong. Often books that promote hair love are a little vague on precisely WHY a kid should love their own hair. Senior & James (who blew me away in 2014 when they created that magnificent Anna Carries Water) don’t skimp on specifics. Jamilla straight out says that she wishes she had “good hair” like the girls in her class where the hair is “long and soft and pretty”. Mama tells her kid that she’s being silly, which you expect, but then she gets specific. She points out that there is just so much that a person can DO with Jamilla’s hair. It sort of skips the whole “feel good about yourself in a vague way” message and goes right to the “here is precisely why you should feel good about yourself”. I really appreciate that.
The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, ill. George Ermos
[Message – Dead Pets]
“Funerals come at the end of something wonderful.” Yep. I’m putting a dead pet book on the list. But is it just any old dead pet book? Oh no! It is, in fact, the BEST dead pet book I’ve ever read. It’s funny and urbane and it’s a little bit heartfelt as well. It falls into the category of instructional picture books (which are all the rage these days) which I’m admittedly kind of fond of. Plus I love that last scene with the lobster.
Feminist Baby: He’s a Feminist Too by Loryn Brantz
[Message – Feminism]
Yeah, I know. It’s a great big word on a little tiny board book. You know why it works, though? It works because you cannot get away from the fact that Brantz’s babies are hugely appealing. There’s this energy to the thick black lines that’s very difficult to resist. This isn’t the first Feminist board book for kids out there (that honor may go to 2018’s My First Book of Feminism (For Boys) by Julie Merberg, ill. Michéle Brummer Everett) but by gum it’s one of the peppiest.
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey, ill. Mika Song
[Message/Subject – Autism Spectrum]
A quiet book, much in the same vein as The Rabbit Listened, only this time with a boy who likes his organized world to stay just so. He’s on the lookout for a friend but it’s clear that most of the kids in his class aren’t good matches. Thought never voiced explicitly, it seems clear that Henry is somewhere on the spectrum. A lot of what I liked about the story, though, was that it shows that all kids can make good friends. I almost want the author to write a series of early chapter books about Henry’s friendship with Katie, the friend he makes here, as they grow older.
Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! by Cori Doerrfeld
[Message – Moving]
And speaking of friends . . . I included this book earlier in the year in a post about the trend of picture books that ask us to examine our own perspectives more closely. Specifically, this book is about life events and how we couch loss when it leaves room for new gains. You might remember Doerrfeld as the creator behind the truly extraordinary The Rabbit Listened, last year. In this book, perspective is wrapped up with ideas of transition and change. What is lost and what is gained and why it’s not the end of the world is the name of the game here. It’s hard to ever see the good in your best friend moving away, but life is long and often we don’t yet have the big picture.
Hair, It’s a Family Affair! by Mylo Freeman
[Message – Hair Love]
So Mylo Freeman actually lives in Amsterdam, making this one of the more international Love Your Hair message books out there. She first caught my eye when she wrote those keen Princess Arabella books. In this one, I just love how the artist uses watercolors to depict hair. I love the way the colors bleed out to look soft. And, naturally, I like the message of all different types of hair too. A worthy addition to a rapidly growing field.
Here and There by Tamara Ellis Smith, ill. Evelyn Daviddi
[Message – Divorce]
I feel like picture books about divorce come in waves. There were some years in the past when the market was flooded with divorce titles, many of them less than stellar. In recent years, it’s not talked about as much, forcing parents to check out ancient texts like Marc Brown’s Dinosaurs Divorce. I can’t say I saw many such books in 2019, but when it comes to stories about a kid navigating two different homes, this one’s pretty outstanding. In it, the kid (Ivan) refuses to call his father’s new place “here”, opting instead to call it “there”, even when he’s there himself. Slowly his father shows him that some things have not changed, and Ivan is able to be himself a little more. The text is smarter than your average messagey title, and let’s keep an eye on Daviddi while we’re at it. There’s some keen stuff going on here.
Ho’onani, Hula Warrior by Heather Gale, ill. Mika Song
[Message – GLBTQIA+]
Remarkably interesting. Intersectionality at its finest. Here you have the story of a Hawaiian child that does not see themselves as wahine (girl) or kāne (boy) and wants to join in with the traditional kāne hula chant that their school is performing. The central conflict doesn’t come from society (though that is a fear Ho’onani harbors) but rather from the sister in the story who finds her little sibling to be potentially embarrassing (or, is it jealousy?). The book refuses to be labeled so I won’t label it. I’ll just say it’s a subtler message than we often see on similar subjects.
Kindness Rules! by Eunice Moyle and Sabrina Moyle
[Message – Manners and Courtesy]
To be honest, there’s not a reason in the world why this book should be in its board book format. I worry a little that it will miss its best possible audience (4-7 year olds) because they’ll discount it as a “baby book”. It ain’t. Filled with witty little asides throughout, it does a pretty dang good job above covering this WIDE array of situations in which a kid should choose courtesy or kindness. Even when it’s very hard – ESPECIALLY when it’s really hard.
M is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child by Tiffany Rose
[Message – Skin Pride]
Sometimes it isn’t until you see someone represented in a book that you realize you’ve never seen that child represented before. Author Tiffany Rose writes in her Author’s Note of this book that “I created this book for all the children who ever doubted themselves or were made to feel their blackness wasn’t enough. No matter your hue or shade. This is for you.” And on these pages I saw a kid with albinism and a kid with vitiligo, or the loss of pigment in patches of the skin. In all my years, I’ve never seen these kids in a picture book. Thank you, Ms. Rose, for giving them a space. Let’s hope for more of them in the future.
Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell, ill. Ana Ramírez González
[Message – Grief]
A beautiful glimpse of the buoying help of our friends. Elba drags a block behind her wherever she goes. Norris dances. But when he’s with Elba, Norris will help carry her block, and give her space to be sad. I heard someone refer to this as 2019’s version of The Rabbit Listened (I keep mentioning it, I know) and I was intrigued. First off, this looks straight out of the Moomintroll books. A funny coincidence that the artist went in that direction, since the author is originally Swedish. When I saw it was a book with a big old metaphor about a block being someone’s sadness (or, possibly, depression) I was skeptical. We have seen a LOT of books like that, and they always end with this unrealistic happy ending. This book is very smart, and very different. I love the dialogue, the look, and I adore the fact that Elba says, “I’ll always have this block, you know” to which Norris replies, “Yes, maybe you will… But I will help you carry it sometimes.”
Mira’s Curly Hair by Maryam al Serkal, ill. Rebeca Luciani
[Message – Hair Love]
Like I say. Lots of love your hair books out there, with the bulk of them aimed at African-American children. What sets this book apart is that it’s set in Dubai and the girl and her mom have an entirely different kind of curly hair. Beautiful art and sumptuous colors. You can read my interview with the author of this book here, if you want to learn more.
My Footprints by Bao Phi, ill. Basia Tran
[Message – Self-Esteem]
Boy, this is really interesting. I feel like there is a LOT to unpack here. Bao Phi first came to national attention with the surprise Caldecott Honor given to his A Different Pond. Like that book, Phi prefers small, realistic stories, though this one definitely has some flashes of fantasy. A girl replicates the footprints of different animals as she deals with the mean kids at school. I was really intrigued by how the book equated mythical creatures made of different parts to families made of different kinds of people. Also, extra points for it being a two moms book where that’s important but not the sole focus. Probably one of the smarter anti-bullying picture books I’ve seen this year. Celebrates the “unexpected combination of beautiful things”.
Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen, translation by Unknown
[Message – Dying Pets]
I’m prone to hyperbole, particularly when I become excited by a book. That aside, I truly do feel that this little Norwegian import may be the sweetest old-dog-dying picture book I’ve ever read. When at first you encounter Paws, you just get the impression that he’s an old, lazy dog. Edward wants him to go out and play and walk, and Paws goes along with it (the walking part anyway) but as the book puts it so succinctly, “Paws doesn’t feel the urge to run anymore. He has run enough.” Throughout the story you see his dreams of running and when, at last, he lies down to sleep and never wakes up again, it’s Edward that night who instead has dreams of Paws. It’s handled so swimmingly and eloquently and touchingly, but without any patronizing or cutesiness. And just look at those watercolors! I love Johnsen’s style. More of this, please!
Pride Colors by Robin Stevenson
[Message] – GLBTQIA+
Board books that intend to convey a message of any kind have a tough road to hoe. That’s why people should make it easy on themselves. Why not make a book a baby would actually enjoy reading? There’s a notion. Stevenson didn’t take the photographs you’ll find in this book. A quick glance at the publication page reveals that a lot of these are your standard Getty Images/Shutterstock/iStock fare. That said, clearly a lot of thought went into their curation, with the end result that you get a lot of faces, cute babies, and a HUGE amount of color! Remember: Growing eyes need bright and contrasting colors in their books. This one delivers, and conveys its message of love and acceptance in the cuddliest way possible. Isn’t it nice that we live in an era where gay parents can get a wide variety of GLBTQIA+ board books when they’re expecting, instead of yet another copy of Heather Has Two Mommies?
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, ill. Hatem Aly
[Message – Muslim Pride]
Standing strong in the face of bullies and prejudice, a young girl’s older sister attends school in her “first-day hijab.” I think it will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m not a fan of celebrity picture books in general. That said, we have seen a lot of picture books celebrating hijabs, but they all sort of flow together. Very few address the cruelty kids can face in American schools. There’s an honesty to this picture book, then, that I really appreciated. Like the other hijab books, this book is celebratory, but unlike them there’s an actual story at work. It’s strong, celebrating strong women. A book that moves beyond its celebrity author status.
Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival by Lindsay Moore
[Message – Environmental]
I mean, it’s not like it’s a race or anything but when it comes to using polar bears to hit home environmental messages, I think Sea Bear’s is probably the best we’ve seen so far. Moore takes a fictional polar bear and walks it through what its life looks like in the 21st century. In a very small note on the publication page, Moore credits the scientists that study these bears in the wild. “With nearly fifty years’ worth of peer-reviewed research published in books and scientific journals, we have a wealth of information available about polar bears.” She goes on to thank the folks at Polar Bears International and Dr. Dale Smith for his knowledge of polar astronomy. So you know the research at work here was sound. This book is a perfect example of a tricky title to catalog. It’s a fictional bear in a real situation, informed by research. Memorable.
Sweety by Andrea Zuill
[Message – It Gets Better]
An “It Gets Better” message for eclectic naked mole rats. It’s never too young to let kids know that even if they stick out in a crowd, there may be people like them out there somewhere. You just gotta find ‘em. Never mind that I’m also completely charmed by Sweety herself. She’s sort of an awkward phase incarnate.
This Beach Is Loud by Samantha Cotterill
[Message – Sensory Overload / Audio Sensitivity]
I don’t encounter many books about sensory overload, and when I do they don’t always feel right to me. What’s so great about Cotterill’s story is that its hero’s difficulty with an overload of sound isn’t also his personality. This kid is a talker. In fact, from the moment he gets his dad up at 4 in the freakin’ morning (dad, I feel you), to his nonstop chatter both to and from the beach, to his declaration that he wants to go home, almost the minute he arrives, this book just pulsated with realism. Kids will see themselves in it, even if they don’t have to moderate their reactions to overwhelming sound issues. This is great stuff.
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, ill. Kaylani Juanita
[Message – New Baby]
When Aidan was born everyone thought he was a girl, and it took him a while to get them to understand who he really was. Now a new baby is on the way and Aidan wants everything to be perfect. A clever trans child narrative replete with gorgeous illustrations. Yeah, this is good stuff. I’m so tired of these picture books where your gender identity is supposed to be a stand-in for character development. I like very much that this takes two different tropes (the new baby story and the trans kid story) and melds them together effortlessly. Read my interview with Kyle here.
When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller, ill. Eliza Wheeler
[Message – Moving]
I’m already squarely on team Eliza Wheeler anyway, so take that into consideration. What’s interesting to me about Miller’s book, though, is that it confronts a situation that is scary to a child (moving to a new home in a new place) with some pretty practical advice. Specifically, I liked the line, “Because some days are full of things you’d rather not do.” Yeah, they are, kid. Yeah they are. I can see this rapidly becoming the Moving Day picture book of choice amongst parents. Nothing wrong with that.
Where’s Buddha? by Marisa Aragón Ware
[Message – Spirituality]
At worst, I was fearing this would be some kind of Where’s Waldo knock-off except, y’know, with . . . Buddha. Instead, it’s a rather thoughtful, clever method of showing how the spirit of Buddha can be found everywhere. Takes the spiritual and makes it understandable for the young.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older 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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