31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
I read with interest a recent Holiday round-up of picture books in the most recent edition of The Horn Book. Of course, unlike the staff of HB, today’s list is not constrained by a single season. I cannot say to have seen most of what came out in 2020, but from what I did see I found a nice array of titles that I’d say are a cut above the rest. These are books that you’d be honored to pull out year after year for your holiday displays.
I should note that when I say “Holiday”, I’m a little bit broad with the term. Essentially, these are books that you could recommend alongside the holiday listed. They may not have been written with a specific holiday in mind, but they adapt oh so well.
2020 Holiday Books
Before We Eat by Pat Brisson, ill. Mary Azarian
[Holiday – Thanksgiving]
Yeah, I already included this book on yesterday’s list, but can I help it that it straddles multiple genres? The original book came out in 2014, and at its heart this book is really about giving thanks for the good things we eat. The kind of book that’ll be welcome equally at Farmer’s Markets as it is Thanksgiving storytimes.
Bear Meets Bear by Jacob Grant
[Holiday – Valentine’s Day]
Uh-oh. I’m doing it again. I’m just sorta sliiiiiiiiiding a book into a Holiday category because I like it so much. So Jacob Grant (Evanston resident – woohoo!) has done a couple of these Bear books already and they’re all cute. I gotta say that this latest title is my favorite so far, though. In this story our hero, Bear, falls hard for a cute delivery bear named Panda. Bear is so flummoxed in her presence that his tongue ties itself into knots. The only way he can see her is if he just keeps ordering more and more teapots for his home. Then one day a teapot is delivered by a gruff raccoon and it’s up to Bear’s spider friend to save the day. The charcoal, crayon, and ink art allows for these funny little moments that all come down to how Mr. Grant illustrates eyes. There’s this shot of a skeptical Bear eyeing a lemonade like he’s half afraid it’s gonna jump up out of the glass and bite him that I’d pretty much kill to have on my wall. In another shot, Spider looks dead at the reader, flabbergasted by something Bear has just said. Not a lotta mouths in these books but whole buckets of charm.
The Christmas Feast by Nathalie Dargent, ill. Magali Le Huche
[Holiday – Christmas]
It’s My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza but jacked up to 11. When a fox (who lives in a pretty interesting living situation with a wolf and a weasel) steals a turkey for a Christmas dinner he has NO idea what he’s getting himself into. Not only does the turkey immediately take charge, but she’s one smart cookie. She whips those three villains into shape, having them cook and clean and pretty much reassess their sad, sorry lives. And when, at last, it’s time for them to prepare her for Christmas dinner a couple weeks later (“I would like to be flambéed… But the recipe is quite difficult. Will you be able to manage it?”) they don’t want to. Christmas books, I know ALL too well, are supposed to be hopeful and heartening. Here in America the snark gets ironed right out. Leave it to the French to make something satiric with a bit more bite. I’m still chewing over how I felt about that last shot of the turkey reading a book called “The Best Recipes for Stuffed Wolves, Foxes, and Weasels”.
Eggs Are Everywhere by Wednesday Kirwan
[Holiday – Easter]
These board books are brilliant. I’d already gone all kinds of gaga over the previous book in the series (concept by Naomi Kirsten) called Guess Which Hand. This book is a more Easter-themed version and it’s so smart. Essentially, you turn a little wheel on the side of the book until you get to the item you want to find. Then you guess where it is. Is it under the bunny’s left ear or right ear? Lower the flap and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong. I’m sure a smart cookie could figure out the pattern after a while but I dunno. Feels fairly random to me. Plus, I just love that the only kid that appears in the book is Black. More of this, please!
Emergency Monster Squad by Dave Horowitz
[Holiday – Halloween]
Is it strictly a Halloween book? It is not. But doggone it, I had to find a way to get this Dave Horowitz delight onto a list SOMEWHERE this year, and this was the only way I could figure to do it. As you may or may not know, Horowitz is the rare children’s book author/illustrator turned EMT turned EMT/picture book author/illustrator. And now, finally, his two loves combine in a rather charming story of a monster and human paramedic and their attempts to help out a variety of ills. The repeated understanding is that you can never ever use the “Q” word around a paramedic. Why? Because the minute someone says how “quiet” it is, that’s when the world goes ka-blooey! I love the eye-popping, incredibly colorful style at work here. The whole kerschmozzle sings. For kids who want “scary” not SCARY.
Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago
[Holiday – Halloween]
And speaking of “scary” not Scary . . . Okay, so naturally not every single book out there starring a ghost is going to be a Halloween or Dia de los Muertos title. In fact, if we’re going to be completely honestly about it, Gustavo kind of feels like a first day of school book more than anything else. Yet Mexican author/artist Drago fills this book with so much life, pep, and detail (I’m 99% sure the Frankenstein monsteresque kid in art class is a Diego Rivera reference) that I had to put it SOMEWHERE! And there are too many pumpkin-headed kids to not make it an unofficial holiday book. Gustavo’s sweetness reminds me of that Mac Barnett/Chrstian Robinson title Leo, a Ghost Story. If you’d like an ultra-sweet not scary Halloween storytime, consider pairing these two together.
The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol by Arthur A. Levine, ill. Kevin Hawkes
[Holiday – Hanukkah]
Busy year for Arthur, eh? On the one hand he’s jumpstarted the Levin Querido publishing house (in the middle of a pandemic, and doesn’t THAT sound like fun?) and on the other hand he has a picture book of his own coming out. And yeah, I looked at the gold and gilt on that cover and was skeptical. But reading the book, with its mix of fantastical holiday spirits gadabouting around, I was won over. In his Author’s Note, Arthur points out that while Christmas gets a whole host of fantasy folks (he calls it “supplementary mythology”) that have little to nothing to do with the religious aspects of the day (the Grinch, Santa, Frosty the Snowman, etc.), Hanukkah doesn’t have any. Enter, Nate Gadol, a snazzy dresser and cheery spirit that can help you make whatever you have last just a bit longer. This is essentially a tale that explains how presents came to be a part of Hanukkah, and the note at the back has this fascinating historical note about how America is the one to blame when it came to THAT little addition. The book gives it a distinctive flair. Fun!
Mistletoe: A Christmas Story by Tad Hills
[Holiday – Christmas]
First and foremost, it is important for me to make clear that in this book Tad Hills does something particularly good: He makes sure that Mistletoe’s knitting needles are pointed down and NOT up when she’s knitting. Well done, sir! Now I am one of those annoying, perpetually cold people out there. So when given the choice between a cozy sofa and a cold blustery day, just slap a #TeamCozy on my forehead. I think there are a lot of kids out there that feel the same way. Heck, after all this COVID lockdown stuff, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-vaccine there are kids that never ever want to leave the house again! If that’s the case, read them this book. It’s sweet and gentle and won’t shame them for that decision. But it will make it clear that sometimes the outside isn’t the cold, scary place you’ve been avoiding all this time.
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, ill. Loren Long
[Holiday – Christmas]
Now here’s an interesting challenge. How do you diversify a poem that’s as exacting and precise as old Clement C. Moore’s? Anyone familiar with this classic poem (beloved of picture books because it breaks down easily into a mere 32 or 40 pages) knows that there’s a precision to the actions in the text. What makes Long’s version so remarkable is that he splits St. Nick’s arrival between four very different households. There’s a mobile home, an apartment, a home in a tropical climate, and a house in the country. That means the kids and adults are also diverse, and it’s interesting to see all these adults watching St. Nick on the sly while their children sleep soundly. Long mentions in his Author’s Note that he wanted to adhere a little closer to the text to what St. Nick looks like physically, so you end up with something akin to Tasha Tudor’s “jolly old elf”. Like Tudor, Long’s Santa is small and agile. I was particularly taken with his reindeer and their toylike appearance. Need a new Christmas classic? I think this book has your answer.
The Passover Mouse by Joy Nelkin Wieder, ill. Shahar Kober
[Holiday – Passover]
Coming up with original fables, to say nothing of holiday-specific fables based off of passages from the Talmud, are not as common as all that. I often say that I learn much of what I know about the world from the children’s books I read. In this particular case, I didn’t know at all that not only do you not eat leavened food during the holiday, you can’t have any in your home at all. You find any such bread, you burn it. So the gist of this book is the almost philosophical question of what one does if a mouse enters your house with bread in its mouth. The book comes up with a smart answer, but I really appreciated that when the rabbi consulted the Talmud he discovered that the answer is, “This question is not decided.” Sometimes it’s comforting to know that other people get befuddled as well.
A Sweet Meeting on Mimouna Night by Allison Ofanansky, ill. Rotem Teplow
[Holiday – Mimouna]
Mimouna, the Moroccan Jewish holiday, is the star of this beautiful little book. I’d not heard of Mimouna before, but Ofanansky does a great job of explaining it bit by bit, piece by piece. On the last afternoon of Passover, Miriam’s family is getting ready to bake all kinds of Mimouna treats, like moufletot. The trouble? When the sun goes down, where can you find flour? Like many Jewish families in Morocco, Miriam and her mother go to a Muslim neighbor’s home, where a flour pick-up has already been arranged. There Miriam meets Jasmine, and later she and her family arrive in Miriam’s home for the celebration. But by the time Jasmine’s able to invite Miriam to Ramadan, she’s moved to Israel. A year later Mimouna comes around and Miriam, wistful, thinks of Jasmine and whether or not she’ll be waiting for her that night. It’s a bittersweet ending to a book that does an excellent job of showing the interconnectedness of kind neighbors to one another. An explanation of Mimouna and a recipe for Moufletot appear at the end. Extra points to Rotem Teplow, whose art lends the piece precisely the right feel. You won’t even know you’re reading a translation with this book. It feels just that natural.
12 Days of Christmas by Lara Hawthorne
[Holiday – Christmas]
On its surface, this just feels like a pretty standard rendition of that famous song. We all have our favorite versions, of course (I’ve always liked the LeUyen Pham). What causes the Hawthorne here to stand out, apart from the neat crisp style (gouache and edited digitally) is partly the fact that the “true love” is a woman sending gifts to another woman. How has no one ever had that idea before? And just in case the reader isn’t getting it, the final two-page spread in the book shows the women together, holding hands, with a friggin’ heart over their heads. Ha ha! No two ways around it. I liked that, I like the song in general, and I liked the multi-racial art. So yes, this is my new holiday favorite.
Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With a Tail by Lesléa Newman, ill. Susan Gal
[Holiday – Passover]
For young children, a goodly portion of any religious ceremony is the process of waiting. With this book, the waiting is both part of the story and a part of Passover itself. As a boy and his family gather together, a small kitten waits outside. The boy inside is anticipating his favorite part, where he can finally open the door for Elijah. When he does so, he is greeted by the kitten, who is swiftly adopted, and I suspect you already know what its name is now. The writing is nicely portioned out. It’s a simple text, so appropriate for reading aloud to groups or one-on-one with littles. Gal, meanwhile, keeps everything just beautiful, from the glow of moonlight on a kitty’s white fur to the way light reflects off the boy’s eyes as he breaks his matzo in half. A prettier Passover book you simply couldn’t hope to find.
When Pumpkins Fly by Margaret Lawrence, ill. Amanda Sandland and Margaret Lawrence
[Holiday – Halloween]
It’s not what you’d call #ownvoices, but Inhabit Media is a pretty reliable publisher when it comes to Indigenous tales. Author Margaret Lawrence, born in Japan, has lived in the Canadian Arctic since 1980 and has “been fortunate to learn from four generations of Qikiqtarmiut”. This book does not attempt to speak for that community, but rather gives an accounting of what happens around Halloween when cargo planes of pumpkins arrive in the remote Sanikiluaq community where the author resides. There’s an Inuktitut pronunciation guide at the back and a link to additional resources. And, quite frankly, if you can name me any other Halloween book with an Indigenous focus, I’d love to hear it.
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
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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