31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Picture Books
And like that, 31 days just flew by. It’s New Year’s Eve, everybody! Time to take one last lingering look at 2019 before we launch into a whole new decade. What better way to see the old year out than with a final list? Picture books are such a delight to read and discover. This year, I saw so many wonderful ones. As a result, this list is going to strike you as a tad on the longish side. Still and all, I honestly believe that every book listed here deserves its day in the sun.
Thank you, one and all, for reading these lists. And HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
2019 Picture Books
B Is for Baby by Atinuke, ill. Angela Brooksbank
I’m pretty much putty in Atinuke’s hands anyway, so you just add in the art of Angela Brooksbank (who did Baby Goes to Market two years ago) and I’m gone. I’m always looking for picture books for the very young to put on my lists, and I have to say that not only is this young book clever in its contents (every page highlights something that begins with the letter “B”), but the story really works. Love the whole sweet package.
Bloom Boom! by April Pulley Sayre
Gentle rhyming text and jaw-dropping nature photography combine in this paean to the eye-popping colors of the great outdoors. The quintessential spring book. I’m a sucker for photography, and Sayre is the current reigning queen of nature shots. So much so that I occasionally find myself wondering, “She didn’t do ALL the photos in this book . . . did she?” They’re just too good not to question.
The Book in the Book in the Book by Julien Baer, ill. Simon Bailly, translated by Elizabeth Law
It’s not that this kind of book hasn’t necessarily been done before. I know it has. You can find books in books in books every once in a while, though they can be pretty rare. But what this book really reminded me of was Evan Turk’s The Storyteller, where you dive deep into a story in a story in a story and then the author has to deftly pull you right back out again. Plus the book’s just neat, you know? Get the right kid to read it and it may well blow their minds.
Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together by Andrea Tsurumi
I think Tsurumi has perfected the art of the disaster. In her previous picture book Accident a community falls prey to their own mistakes. In this book, the disaster comes from outside the community but is no less devastating. It’s interesting to me how the book begins by looking like this cute little story about a crab baking, spotted with fish facts in the margins. Then, when the pollution falls, that normality disappears instantly. You get this real sense of the weight of the horror. And then, in turn, of how a community can pull together. Manages to be environmental without being preachy about it. Beautifully rendered.
The Ear by Piret Raud
Because you simply cannot have enough Estonian children’s books on your shelves, as far as I’m concerned. I’m also 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 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 End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, ill. George Ermos
“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 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.
Fly! by Mark Teague
Sometimes getting out of your comfort zone means falling out of a nest. In this wordless wonder, a baby bird tries desperately NOT to fly, with hilarious results. Now I may be prejudiced towards it since I have to watch our own falcon fledglings learn to fly every year, but it’s Teague’s unique method of storytelling without words that’s the real star of the show here. It’s not a comic, but the speech balloons are an excellent method of communication. Plus that baby robin is just so dang sure of itself. Look at that confidence! Bottle that stuff up and sell it to me, man.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition by Kevin Noble Maillard, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry bread is food, shape, color, flavor, time, art, history, place, nation, everything, and us. Lively art and verse celebrate a modern Native American family at the table. Phew! Now I need you to see this book’s backmatter. The copious copious backmatter. As I read Maillard’s personal family stories and cultural additions and historical notes, I realized that what this book is, truly is, is a Thanksgiving corrective. Maillard even mentions Thanksgiving when he discusses “the amicable relations taught at school and celebrated at home every Thanksgiving,” and how they contrast with the true history of the colonists and the Indian nations. So. Adults. When you read this book, read the whole thing. Read the backmatter. Then read it to your kids and you’ll have all this information you can tell them WHILE you read. You can supplement the reading with what Maillard has written here.
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 Girl and the Wolf by Katherena Vermette, ill. Julie Flett
A little girl in red gets lost in the woods. Think you’ve heard this story before? Think again. A Métis take on a European fairy tale. I’m always a fan of Flett’s art, which is beautifully rendered here. A lot of readers, young and old, will walk into this book making assumptions. When those assumptions are upended, it leaves the reader vulnerable and open. That’s when you get the message loud and clear. More of these, please.
Going Down Home With Daddy by Kelly Starling Lyons, ill. Daniel Minter
Normally Lil Alan doesn’t fret when he joins his family “down home” at Granny’s in the country. But this year everyone’s paying tribute to Granny in some way and Alan’s out of ideas. Rendered with meticulous acrylics, Lyons pays tribute the close ties of a modern black family. In a way the conflict at work in this story isn’t dissimilar to the conflict in the McKissack book What Is Given From the Heart. In both stories a black boy must come up with a truly personal gift and he stresses over getting it just right. I liked the text at work here, and I REALLY liked the art. Look at those chickens! Those things are out of control!
A Good Day by Daniel Nesquens, ill. Miren Asiain Lora, translation by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
I love a book that works by its own strange little internal logic. With a style that feels like a 21st century Anno (Anno + selfie sticks) the story is a restrained, lightly magical tale of a tiger that yearns for freedom and the canny housecat that helps him achieve that dream. Half of the book displays the sky above the zoo at all times. It’s a gutsy move for an illustrator to make, because it means reducing the main characters, particularly the cat, to tiny figures. Yet somehow you just love the delicacy of it all. I love that the humans are so small they never warrant faces (with the exception of the sympathetic zookeeper) and yet the animals all have faces. Even the snakes and the tiny toucans. Doggone it, the more I look at this book the better and better it gets.
Great Job, Dad! by Holman Wang
Great Job, Mom! by Holman Wang
In terms of the text, it’s not exactly breaking new ground, but I kind of love a picture book that’s comfortable showing a dad who both works in an office and cooks and cleans and takes care of the kids. And on the mom’s side, I’m friends with a woman who works as a carpenter, so this book really hit home for me. On the dad side, usually in these books you either get the sense that the engaged parent is a stay-at-home father and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I like seeing dads that work outside the home too. I’m always floored by Holman Wang’s art, so please take that into account when you consider this book. The man is a master of the tiny detail and the forced perspective. His photography skills alone should win awards. Plus, how cute is it that it shows the dad reading his kids the MOST Canadian picture book of all time (one that is almost completely unknown to American audiences) The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, ill. Sheldon Cohen?
The Happy Book and Other Feelings by Andy Rash
You had me at “sad trombone”.
Basically I was sold on this book in three pages, which is no mean feat. Someone once compared it to the film Inside Out but I think it’s much more than that. Imagine that someone walked up to you and said, “Hey. Write an original book on emotions”. You’d freak out, right? I mean, talk about an impossible assignment. And I love the dedication too. “My son, Joe, first wrote his version of The Happy Book for his sister, Katie. I borrowed his title and relied on his creative help to write this version. Joe and I dedicate this book to Katie as well.” 2019 was the year of father/son collaborations! Between this and Lenny the Lobster (see below) I think we’re getting some high quality stuff from the kiddos.
Herring Hotel by Didier Lévy, ill. Serge Bloch
I will walk far distances in downright unpleasant weather to see the newest book from Bloch. This title reads like a Wes Anderson film, which makes sense since tonally it has as much in common with Grand Budapest Hotel as it does The Royal Tenenbaums. There is an array of quirky hotel residents, including a woman who claims to be the former Queen of Kettlippia. I was very intrigued when it showed that the tanks that invaded Kettlippia were sporting an American flag. Altogether the book is extraordinarily sweet and a rather lovely paean to always being kind, even in the face of another person’s reality.
High Five by Adam Rubin, ill. Daniel Salmieri
You probably remember Rubin & Salmieri best for their Dragons Love Tacos book. This one is FAR more interactive. YOU, the reader, are competing to be the high five champion of all time. That means high fiving this book manymanymany times. It is honestly funny and it works in a storytime if you let individual kids high five the book when it’s one competitor or another, and then let them ALL high five the octopus at the end. Plus you get to hold up a trophy in the final spread. I’ll say it. This might be one of the most fun books of the year.
Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler
Family history rendered as family lore. I took a shine to this, though I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it was the fact that the mother of eight children looked like a silver-screen goddess throughout (in practical shoes). Maybe it was the tone, which balances the hardships with wonder. I see a lot of kids fantasizing about what it would be like to live in the woods with seven other siblings. Extra points for making the teenage boy carry the baby on his back
How Do You Dance? by Thyra Heder
What’s your favorite way to dance? What’s that? You say you don’t dance? Nonsense! Check out the crazy moves going on in this book and just see if you can keep your toes from tapping. I resisted this one hard. So hard. I mean, it looks like it should be one of those millions of picture books that essentially boil down to the message of You Do You. And there is a bit of that going on here but shoot, man. Thyra Heder knows how to make people look like they’re dancing! I dare say there’s more light and life on one little page of this book than in the reams and reams of picture books that clog our shelves. I didn’t really know who Heder was before now, but after this book I’ll watching her output very closely in the future.
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, ill. Vanessa Brantley-Newton
How do you follow up Crown? When a book that magnificent hits the market, anything that comes in its wake would strike you as somehow lesser. Full credit to author Derrick Barnes, then. With a multiple award winner tucked neatly under his belt, he had the wherewithal to consider other kinds of picture books out there. That he opted for a first day of school book is inspired. First off, first day of school books are notoriously tricky creatures. As far as I can tell we get one good one per year. And for 2019, The King of Kindergarten reigned supreme. It was great to see Ms. Brantley-Newton give this little guy all the strut and pride he required. We had this book on display in my library and a mom came in, took one look at the cover and grabbed it so fast it would’ve made your head spin. She said this was EXACTLY the book she’d been hoping for. I say it’s EXACTLY the book we’ve all been hoping for. We just didn’t know it until now.
Lenny the Lobster Can’t Stay for Dinner by Finn Buckley with Michael Buckley, ill. Catherine Meurisse
2019 was a good year for child/parent book deals. Finn Buckley was just seven when he wrote this book, so how cool is it that he gets top billing? Even better, the book’s a blast! The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure vibe is limited to single, important choice and who can resist a wilfully ignorant protagonist? Particularly one that gets all kinds of EATEN! Loved the art, loved the writing, and it’s really and truly funny to boot. A winner.
Let’s Have a Dog Party by Mikela Prevost
Move aside, Go, Dog. Go! This is the true Dog Party book. Look at that dog. Look at its eyes. This is a canine in hell. I think we’re used to children torturing their pets in various ways, sometimes, ESPECIALLY, with good intentions. Kirkus put it best when it said that this was a story of empathy for the voiceless. I can’t believe that this is a debut! The kids are just the right combination of grotesque and cute. And the pacing! Such pacing! Loved it.
Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast by Sophie Gilmore
Odd dreamlike watercolors tell the tale of the child the crocodiles call Little Doctor. She’s the best, but when the largest croc on the land, Big Mean, pays a visit, it’s going to take all Little Doctor’s smarts to find out what’s wrong. I don’t know why I’m as goofy over this book as I am, but there’s just something completely unique, oddball, and yet comforting in its bones. First off, I love the illogical logic of a barefooted child croc doc. The art is strange and dreamlike and lovely. Best of all, it would pair beautifully with the nonfiction titles Beware of the Crocodile by Martin Jenkins and The Truth About Crocodiles by Maxwell Eaton III.
Maya and the Lost Cat by Caroline Magerl
Awash in deep luminescent watercolors, a girl finds a lost wet cat on a roof and becomes determined to locate its owner. A dreamlike tale of loss and discovery. This one got under my skin. I liked the language first. “On a roof as wet as a seal, as gray as a puddle, Cat was rumbling a rumbly purr.” And then the art with its watercolor wash really captured the wind and water so beautifully. I don’t pull out the term “evocative” very often but this book is. Uber evocative.
Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell, ill. Ana Ramírez González
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 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” Norris replies, “Yes, maybe you will… But I will help you carry it sometimes.”
Motor Mouse by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Arthur Howard
I cannot tell a lie. The Rylant/Howard pairing that served them both so well in the “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series has lost none of its magic. If anything, they’ve both gotten even better. Rylant in particular is in her element with this little picture book (which is, in fact, three different stories). Consider her turn of phrase when we hear that Motor Mouse and his brother Valentino (I mean… that name right there, people!) “share” a bucket of popcorn every time they go to the movies. “This had not worked for years. And it was not working this Saturday, either.” That is how you write a picture book. Succinct and rather brilliant. This book won’t win a single award, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve all the praise. If there were an award specifically for picture book writing, Motor Mouse would be a shoo-in.
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.
My Footprints by Bao Phi, ill. Basia Tran
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. 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”.
My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, ill. Zeke Peña
There story really just consists of a girl going for a ride with her Papi on his motorcycle. That’s it. But in spite of its simplicity, I found it immensely cool. The art by Peña is super keen and you get this amazing sense of the author’s love of Corona, CA. It’s also available in a Spanish-language edition. Look for this one come awards season. I have a good feeling about it.
Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen, translation by Unknown
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 Edward 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 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.
Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe
“The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum.” So begins this wild, raucous, slightly twisted, but always interesting picture book infused with deep pulsating colors. I’ve always liked Forsythe’s art (remember his work on The Brilliant Deep last year?) but now he’s breaking out on his own with this strange, wry, mildly twisted but ultimately cheery story. I LOVE his voice. I love the art. I love the whole darn package. My soul regret is that he lives in Canada and can’t get a Caldecott for this. Oh yeah. It’s just that good.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, ill. Hatem Aly
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 people can face in America. 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 celebrating strong women. A book that moves beyond its celebrity author status.
Rabbit and the Motorbike by Kate Hoefler, ill. Sarah Jacoby
Rabbit always admired Dog’s adventures across the country so when he’s left his friend’s motorbike he must make a big decision. A dreamlike, evocative tale of following your dreams. Who knew that 2019 would be the year of picture book motoring (I’m thinking of My Papi Has a Motorcycle here)? This book has such a slow, sweet, alluring charm to it that I can’t help it. The story about not missing an opportunity to follow what you love is strong, but it’s Jacoby’s art that gives the tale its dreamlike, evocative charm. Worth more reads. Darn it.
River by Elisha Cooper
A woman sets off from the northernmost point of the Hudson River, travelling by herself down to New York City. Vast, sweeping watercolors document her journey, giving scope and breadth to her adventures. A new Elisha Cooper book is always cause for celebration. One of the rare books where you get to see the human close up (though just at the beginning and the end). You just want to frame each one of these spreads as you come to them. Actually, this would make an amazing accompaniment to that old classic picture book Three Days On a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams.
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.
Rocket Says Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, ill. Dapo Adeola
There’s a meteor shower coming up and Rocket is inviting everyone (even her phone-addicted big brother Jamal). But when the meteors don’t appear to be coming, what’s a space loving girl to do? So, again, when I look at a picture book it’s great if it’s inclusive, but I also need that book to be a great example of primo writing and art. This little number looks like another girls-can-be-anything title but is much much more. It’s the STEM girls book we should see more often. Plus I love how it’s also a subtle mention to look away from your screens once in a while without hitting you upside the skull with that message.
Small in the City by Sydney Smith
It can be hard to be small when a city is so large. A deeply thoughtful consideration of what we love, brought to brilliant life by Smith’s evocative illustrations. Started out slow for me but got so much better as it went until POW! That ending! You want to know how good this book is? Look at that seemingly simple cover. Somehow, Smith has managed to paint what is clearly a kid sitting next to a window where you can see the city reflected AT THE SAME TIME. I mean, just think about how hard that is to do for a minute. One of my favorites of the year, no question.
Small World by Ishta Mercurio, ill. Jen Corace
A book that zeroes in on the intimate smallness of just a mother and a child and then expands and expands and expands until you’re contemplating the universe itself. What Mercurio has managed to accomplish here deserves great heaping helpfuls of praise. It is natural for an adult to look back and realize how limited your worldview is (ideally) when you are small. But to convey that same notion to kids, with the promise that there is something bigger than you out there, and to somehow hitch that idea on a story to boot . . . how the heck do you even begin to do that? Corace’s art, which I’ve always adored, serves as a perfect complement to this tale which, ultimately, is about a girl that someday is able to stand in space looking back at her small small planet. In a year when we’ve seen loads of books about the first moonwalk (what with it being its 50th anniversary and all) this seems to be the small, fictional picture book that rightly caps off all that talk and gently nudges us into a greater future. Of course, there’s a spiritual component to it as well. I could see church groups using it to convey the fact that you are limited to your own view of life and the universe until you go out and do more and see more. So, in that light, it actually pairs well with the Iranian picture book The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, ill. Farshid Mesghali, translated by Azita Rassi and the picture book reprint The Frog in the Well by Alvin Tresselt. A remarkable book.
A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel
A stone “was as it was where it was in the world.” And to every creature, it means something different. A quiet, utterly beautiful ode to nature. Well, I like Wenzel but I’m no pushover. Just because he does a book, that doesn’t mean I’ll go goofy for it. That said, this is really extraordinary. I think he’s done his best work since They All Saw a Cat, absolutely. He even seems to be saying something subtle about the rising sea levels here, which I found particularly interesting. One of the strongest of the year. Please feel free to read my Calling Caldecott piece on the book for further thoughts.
Stormy: A Story About Finding a Forever Home by Guojing
Ah, Guojing. She did this killer wordless graphic novel a couple years ago The Only Child which just about destroyed me. Now she’s gone from a lonely child hero to a lonely dog hero. Wordless stories are exceedingly hard, and it takes a really delicate hand to render one that gets you emotionally. Cute doggies are easy enough to empathize with, but this story actually gets beyond that to talk about trust on some level. Pretty darn good.
Sweety by Andrea Zuill
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.
The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter by Shabazz Larkin
Scared of bees? Don’t be! Larkin and his kids offer a loving look at a fearful friend/foe. Larkin’s the fellow behind the art in Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, which was one of my favorite books a couple years ago. I’m placing this book in my Picture Books list, but it probably could just as easily end up in the Nonfiction since it’s chock full o’ facts. I was a bit disappointed that bees were lumped in with hornets and wasps at the end, but when I took a closer look I saw that it does clearly say that wasps and yellow jackets aren’t bees. Also, it’s good that it shows their body types. I get irked when people call nasty non-bee critters “bees”.
Truman by Jean Reidy, ill. Lucy Ruth Cummins
Peaceful and pensive, that’s Truman, a tiny turtle who loves his owner Sarah. But when Sarah leaves him one day on the number 11 bus, he summons all his bravery to trek out and find her again. Undeniably sweet. Team Truman for the win! I loved the art by Cummins’, sure, but I think what really impressed me about this book was how good the writing was and how perfectly the text melds with the illustrations. This is what a great picture book should be.
¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market! By Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay
My co-worker described this book as Richard Scarry meeting Robert Crumb, which isn’t the worst way of putting it. I was already a fan of the man’s work on the “Lowriders” series, so it’s kind of cool to see him put down the ballpoint pen, and pick up whatever he’s using here. There are so many tiny details to discover, but the real lure (aside from the fact that he’s basically bringing El Mercado Cuauhtémoc in Juárez to life in a format kids can read) are the tiny little Spanish words that keep popping up to explain everything. There’s a Glossary of Spanish/English words in the back, should you need it, but a lot of what you’ll find is pretty self-explanatory, not to say mind-blowing. You know a good word for it? Joyous. That’s the term.
The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach
My insect soulmate. Okay, I am so on board with this. I mean, the readaloud potential is magnificent. And I completely agree with my co-worker Brian (this book’s #1 fan) that it’s particularly noteworthy that it “sticks the landing”. There are so many funny picture books out there that have no idea how to end. This one does so brilliantly. Plus, I really appreciated that when he became a butterfly he looked GOOOOOOD.
Vroom! by Barbara McClintock
When little Annie puts on her helmet and gloves and hops into her silver bullet of a car, she takes off like a shot. Past fields, up mountains, through forests, into the city, and then back home where everything is familiar and safe. Adventure and comfort all in one neat package. Now while I love me my Barbara McClintock, she has her great books and her merely good ones. This one is great. Why? Because somehow she has managed to synthesize the tone, feel, and splendor of no less than Where the Wild Things Are. Seriously, read this book aloud. It’s succinct (my husband calls such creative endeavors “handsome”) and imaginative and beautifully rendered. Honestly? I think it has Caldecott potential.
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, ill. Kaylani Juanita
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 the 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.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee, translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won
There is a wilderness that grows between the border of North and South Korea, where nature flourishes. A child’s grandfather visits it, no matter the weather, no matter the season. Pretty much the sweetest little book about the no man’s land between North and South Korea that you ever did see! I, personally, have never seen a book like this, and it’s amazing! Beautiful art and a truly original story. I love the translation. I love the whole package. A strange, sweet consideration of home and longing.
When You’re Scared by Andrée Poulin, ill. Véronique Joffre, translated by Karen Li
There’s something very appealing about this book. Stuff like the sing-song repetition that changes your p.o.v. and your perceptions at the same time. It feels wordless but the words are so key to the storyline and so clever in their simplicity. What was it that Mo Willems said in an interview once? Ah yes. That “easy” and “simple” were opposites. This clever import from Quebec proves that.
Who Wet My Pants? by Bob Shea, ill. Zachariah Ohora
The subtitle on the cover just slays me. “It’s not the crime . . . it’s the cover-up.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not usually the kind of person that finds pee-related picture books all the funny. But this? First off, some genius paired Bob Shea with Zachariah Ohora, so can we just give some serious applause right there? Then there’s the fact that Shea has inserted this subtle message about taking responsibility. And kudos to the other characters for not making fun of Bear for his accident. Sole Flaw: Makes me really hungry for donuts.
Why? by Adam Rex, ill. Claire Keane
The dastardly Doctor X-Ray has masterminded a scheme for total world domination. What he doesn’t anticipate is that his defeat will come, not at the hands of a superhero, but a little girl who likes to ask, “Why?” Why oh why oh why do there have to be two very very strong picture books out this year that ask why? This book is very different from the Seeger’s (see below), and I think I respect it in a wholly different way. Where the Seeger is serious and forthcoming, this book really delves deep into what happens when we question ourselves and our own motives. The annoying “Why” of the little girl suddenly becomes insightful and probing as the evil mastermind comes to the surprising conclusion that all bad guys think that they’re the heroes in their own stories. Surprising depth in something so outwardly silly.
Why? by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Oh, shoot. You know I have a low cute tolerance. I glanced at this cover and assumed it was just more of the Guess How Much I Love You ilk. I didn’t expect the poignancy of it. There’s a deep and abiding patience, but also a sadness, to this bear. When it says, “I don’t know why. Sometimes I just don’t know why” after the rabbit finds the dead bird, the book moves from being something cute and sweet to poignant and, yes, sad too. And then to have the bear be the one who says “Why?” at the end . . . it’s a quieter and sadder picture book then we usually come across. I like it for that.
You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks by Evan Turk
It’s probably a bad sign of the times when a book on the National Parks feels political, isn’t it? I honestly am not quite sure where to categorize this. It feels like a poem, is filled with facts, and is the size of a Picture Book. I’m going with Picture Book on this one. Turk’s art is, as ever, incredible. And you can tell that a book is doing its job right when, after finishing, you want to run out and find the nearest National Park to visit (for me I think it’s either Gateway Arch or Cuyahoga Valley). Nice of him to include a map of the Parks, a list of the Parks shown in this book, and meticulous information on all the animals featured as well, don’t you think?
You’re Strong With Me by Chitra Soundar, ill. Poonam Mistry
I don’t like to include sequels on lists or books is series where the book isn’t the first. Fortunately, there are exceptions to every rule in this great, grand world. Now if you’ve already read Soundar and Mistry’s You’re Safe With Me or their You’re Snug With Me then you’re going to assume that this book just checks off the usual boxes of gorgeous art involving animals in some way and slower, meaningful text. And yep. That’s all here. But I actually found the writing in this book to be a bit better than in the first two. A baby giraffe is noticing unpleasant things in this world, like the sharp claws of the oxpecker bird or the head of a grassland fire. And the mom doesn’t make things easy for it either. She points out that when the baby is older the oxpecker won’t bother it as much, and when it’s bigger it’ll be able to outrun fires faster. Until then, “You’re strong with me.” It’s not exactly the message “buck it up, kiddo”, but it’s certainly along those same lines. The mama is offering support but she’s not going to fight her baby’s battles for it.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything I 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
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Booklists
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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