31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Unconventional Children’s Books
How dull the world would be if all the children’s books fulfilled the same, rote expectations. If books never surprised or shocked then we’d find the world filled with dull books creating dull brains in dull children. Blah. Happily, we know this is not the case. There were a host of books out this year like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The kinds of books that make Americans blink, blush, and occasionally run for the hills. If a book makes you do a double take, it’s worthy of today’s list.
In the past I’ve called this a list of the “Oddest” books for kids. However, I’ve never quite liked the term “odd” for the books I’ll be highlighting today. Travis Jonker probably had it right when he called these The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2019. So, on this day of all days, I am engaging in the Christmas spirit and outright stealing Travis’s rather perfect term for today’s list.
2019 Unconventional Children’s Books
Aleph by Janik Coat
Oh, Janik Coat. You weird weird weird weird book creator. They will tell you that they are selling this book as “A picture dictionary for babies”. This, in spite of the fact that this book is not in board book form. At all. I mean look at it. Then you flip through and I will say this: It’s mesmerizing. Babies won’t have a chance when you put this before them. High contrasting colors. And actually, very little babies don’t have much of an ability to grasp books from their parents, so as a lapsit book this could work really well. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I LIKE this book! Odd that I’m not putting it on my board book list, but them’s the breaks.
Crescendo by Alessandro Sanna, ill. Paola Quintavalle
You know, I respect a good gestation picture book as much as the next gal. If you want something straightforward then the Miranda Paul / Jason Chin book Nine Months will probably be more your speed. Chock full of fetuses, that one. This import from Italy takes a far more dreamlike approach. A woman’s expanding tummy is likened to a changing landscape. As you watch, a swimmer (not a baby) is seen traversing the seas before it. The endpapers are particularly cool, as Enchanted Lion opted to keep the Italian notations above the thumbprint sketches that signify each month. You do get some “Developmental Facts that Inspired the Text”, but again I’d go to Nine Months if you’re looking for strict accuracy. This book is all about the mindset of pregnancy, not the sheer raw facts of the matter. Lush and odd.
Duckworth the Difficult Child by Michael Sussman, ill. Júlia Sardà
There are two types of books in this world of which I am very fond. 1: Books by Júlia Sardà and 2: Books in which the protagonist gets eaten. This book fulfills both of those needs simultaneously, which is really saying something. And while I did wish fervently that the parents in this book could have suffered a similar fate, you do get a sense by the story’s end that Duckworth now has the coping skills to deal with his “difficult parents” thanks, in large part, to the hangry snake.
The Ear by Piret Raud
Because you simply cannot have enough Estonian children’s books on your shelves, as far as I’m concerned. Sadly there is no word on who did the translation for this book. I’m giving publisher Thames & Hudson some extra points on gumption for putting the rather kooky “Inspired by Van Gogh” button on the cover. It just sort of makes this wackadoodle tale of an ear with impetus that extra goofy push. I love that it begins with a shot of Van Gogh considering the ear and then when she “wakes up” she’s alone and near some rather famous Van Gogh bedroom shots. Not that Raud is trying to emulate his style AT ALL. I just love that he thought to himself, “Van Gogh cut off his ear. So what would happen if the ear wanted to find its place in the world?” And then the fact that the ear turns out to be a great listener?!? Okay, that’s it. I love this book. It’s not an art style Americans naturally gravitate towards but the story is strong and there, man. I am on board with this book.
The Flops by Delphine Durand, translated by Sarah Klinger and Delphine Durand
The French are different from you and I. They like poop jokes more. Oh, and they’re a bit more willing to experiment. Mind you, the first thing I thought when I saw this was that it was the work of Elise Gravel. This is what you’d get if Gravel was French. Travis Jonker included it in his listing of The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2019 where he said it was, “an extremely detailed guide to a creature that doesn’t exist. For seconds, the oddball humor and tone are unlike anything I’ve read.” You’re just gonna have to see it for yourself, honestly.
Fruits of Your Labor: A Baby-Sized Guide to Your Baby’s Size by Andrew Tobin
Allow me to be clear from the outset. This is NOT a board book for an actual baby. This is a sly board book created for one purpose and one purpose alone: To make people laugh at baby showers. I know you may have been to a baby shower where the incipient mother-to-be was given approximately 20-30 board books, 50% of which were Goodnight Moon. If you wanted to be different, you would give mommy-to-be this book. It is sly, and snarky, and rather beautiful. In it, Tobin equates different fruits and vegetables to the weeks of gestation. Only it’s HOW he does it that counts. Examples:
“Week 15: This Week You Are the Size of An: Orange. The name of the fruit was coined in the 1300s. Before the color was named in the 1500s. It literally took two hundred years.
Week 20: This Week You Are the Size of A: Sweet Potato. Sweet Potatoes are roots. Wonder if they’ve ever met Questlove.
Week 22: This Week You Are the Size of A: Banana. Rubbing a banana peel on your forehead can help cure a headache. Pro: Headache gone. Con: Head covered in banana.”
You take my meaning.
The Full House and the Empty House by LK James
There are times when a book is full of such dreamlike goodwill that you say adios to reality with a flourish. It’s hard not to love this little book. If it’s a metaphor then God only knows what it is. An empty house and a full house are friends. But rather than be a story where the empty house attempts to be be full or the full house tries to get rid of some of its stuff, the two appreciate one another for their own merits. I mean, there’s a lot to pick apart here, and that’s before you even get to the gorgeous art. I’m blown away. Honestly.
The Gothamites by Eno Raud, ill. Priit Pärn, translated by Adam Cullen
I am SO torn about this book. First off, I love that 2019 was the year that America started getting all this translations from Estonia. Between this book and Piret Raud’s The Ear I think we’re getting a serious Estonian infusion. This is notable because by and large Americans don’t like a lot of Estonian children’s illustrations. They find them “weird”. Well, with this book it’s like Pärn decided to double down on the weirdness. Oh, you find our images off-putting? Try THIS on for size!!! The end result is pure unsynthesized chaos, just the way I like it. It’s like if you took a Where’s Waldo book and then beset it with psychedelic demons. The stories themselves are actually pretty straightforward fool tales. So why am I torn? It’s not because of the wackadoodle images. I sort of adore those. No, it’s two small elements that could have been easy changes. First off, there’s the fact that the whole premise of the book is that the village of the Gothamites is full (initially) of brilliant people. So the men are sent out all over the world to serve other countries. The men. Ladies need not apply. Everything from there on in, with rare exceptions, is about men. Then, at the end, there’s this note about how all the stupid Gothamites have poured out all over the world to fill the world with foolishness and there is this image of a black guy. The only one in the book, mind you, wearing sweatpants that say “Do It”. What does a person even make of that?
it? by Etienne Delessert
Etienne Delessert is one of our greats. When he puts out a new picture book, he does not follow the rules. In a time when the term “IT” brings to mind Stephen King fare, you would think any author using the same word would eschew peculiarities entirely. Instead, Delessert dares us to plumb our subconscious and almost plays with our expectations when it comes to that King tale. The story here is described by its publisher in this way: “In this modern fable of imaginative inquisition, a boy finds and follows IT, wondering along the way if IT is a monster, a furry bear, or perhaps a wild thing. In the process, he makes a surprising new friend.” I mean, a boy meets a shapeshifting creature called IT. That right there is fascinating. It’s grounds for a horror story, absolutely, but what Delessert does is show what happens if you take that same concept and turn it in a different direction. Some of the best picture books take fears and frights and give child readers the tools to confront them. This book is very much in that same tradition.
Make a Wish, Henry Bear by Liam Francis Walsh
On the outside this looks like standard fare. The story involves a kid (who is a bear) with parents that encourage him to do whatever he wants. Essentially (and you only find this out later) the story has picked up almost a year after the inciting incident and doesn’t explain itself until later. It’s unlike any other book I’ve seen, and it has one striking element. I respect any book that contains a heroic girl in a hijab who saves the day.
The Mermaid in the Bathtub by Nurit Zarchi, ill. Rutu Modan, translated by Tal Goldfajn
This is a pretty good example of how the press materials for a book can be heads and tails different from the end product. Read the promos for this title and you’ll hear that it’s “a gorgeously retro illustrated reimagining of The Little Mermaid.” That is true insofar as it is gorgeously retro and there is a mermaid. But this book has about as much to do with Hans Christian Andersen’s story as a news feature on Billy Porter would have to do with The Emperor’s New Clothes. What you will find inside is actually much more exciting than a standard fairytale. Mr. Whatwilltheysay worries when he finds a gorgeous 1920’s era mermaid in the bathtub. What will the neighbors say? Ultimately he and the mermaid get together, but honestly I think she could have done better than him. The real lure here is the amazing art by Modan. All kinds of kooky details fill the pages, and that flying fish with wings and legs may be my favorite unnamed character of all time. It’s wackadoodle and I love it. Hand it to the mermaid obsessed kiddos. It’ll blow their little minds.
Mr. Nogginbody Gets a Hammer by David Shannon
When Mr. Nogginbody discovers an errant nail in his floor his solution is to hammer it. Which is fine, until he takes his love of “fixing” a little too far. The first time I read this to my kids they thought it was pretty funny. The second time I read it to them they thought it was out and out hilarious. Apparently it improves with repeated readings. This is very much my specific sense of humor, which is to say someone walking around whacking things with a hammer. It’s weird. Lord knows it’s weird. But I sort of adore it now.
Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson, ill. Nahid Kazemi
This is what you get when poets are allowed to write picture books, people. According to the publisher (Enchanted Lion Books, naturally) this is a “story about community, feeling different and coming to understand what it is to belong.” I’m going to take their word on this one because honestly this story flummoxed me. I think I’m going to read it 100 times more and then, maybe then, I’ll be able to understand what children probably get at at first glance: The fact that it’s Good with a capital G.
Roar Like a Dandelion by Ruth Krauss, ill. Sergio Ruzzier
Can you fall like a tree? Jump like a raindrop? Look under the bed for poetry? Witty and thoughtful commands abound in this alphabet book that travels a little off the usual path. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This book is better than Krauss’s better known work A Hole Is to Dig. While that book treads too closely to cloying kid-isms, this book revels in its weirdness. How else to explain lines like “Eat all the locks off the doors”? I have to give Harper credit for thinking to pair Ruzzier with this text too. Can you imagine the challenge he faced with some of these abecedarian offerings? Love his choices, love the strangeness of the text. This is an alphabet book I can get behind.
Up Down Inside Out by JooHee Yoon
The perfect book for the literal child. Do you have any literal children? I do. That kind of kid can be like Dax in Guardians of the Galaxy. No euphemism can pass a literal child by without their sharp-ears hearing it and calling it out. Well this book is nothing BUT euphemisms taken seriously! Eighteen aphorisms are taken to their logical extremes. It doesn’t hurt that Yoon is using a limited color palette and her printmaking techniques to render this book entirely in black, gray, purple, blue, and red. Odd books are rarely beautiful books, but there are always the exceptions out there. This is one of them.
The White Snake: Based on a fairy tale by The Grimm Brothers by Ben Nadler
When a poor servant boy is sent by a mad king to spy on his rival, he has no idea of the epic quest he’s begun. A comic book rendering of a classic Grimm fairytale. Oh, Nadler was such a strange choice for this adaptation, but as I read I started to really get into his freaky-deaky psychedelic style. This is definitely in the same style as last year’s The Dragon Slayer, right down to the copious endmatter and Bibliography. I love classic weirdo Grimm so I was on board with this (and on board with the explanations at the end about why they changed the story in the ways that they did). Might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but throwing it out there.
The Worst Book Ever by Elise Gravel
It’s the MST3K of picture books! Three little characters (one’s spiky, one’s blobby, and one’s a spider) comment on a picture book that systematically makes every single mistake a picture book can make. From sexism to poor plotting, from a lack of diversity to poor spelling, the whole thing’s a great big mess. So, naturally, it’s huge fun. Particularly when you get to know the personalities of the commenters (I’m Team Spiky Thing, should anyone ask). Gravel wouldn’t know how to do a normal book if you paid her. Everything she does is in her own style, and is fantastic. Two thumbs up.
Yellow Yellow by Frank Asch, ill. Mark Alan Stamaty
I almost never include reprints on anything but the Picture Book Reprints list, but today we are making a much needed exception. When people say that folks don’t take a chance on picture books anymore, this is what they’re talking about. I had no idea that this book even existed until this year. For a long time I’ve been a proponent of the cult classic Who Needs Donuts? (a.k.a. The stranger danger book) for years. Had I but known that it essentially had a companion volume out there I would have been insisting on its re-publication from the start. If anything Stamaty is even more creative in this book, and you can see him toying with the notion of going in the direction of a Crumb or some kind of Underground Comix. His unshaven men in particular are practically works of grotesque art. You’re reading all this and wondering if the book was even intended for children. YES! YES IT IS! Children deserve weirdness! They deserve books so chock full of details that they spend countless hours just poring through them. They deserve this book and I am so so pleased that they can have it. Be the weird aunt or uncle in your niece or nephew’s life. Buy them this book.
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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