31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Books With a Message
Oh yeah. Today’s topic is a hard one. I’m not gonna lie to you, but this is the kind of book that a lot of adults think they can write and must write and, let us be honest, shouldn’t write. Children’s books in America essentially began as instructional tomes dedicated to the betterment of pliable young souls. Sometimes, reading through tons of picture books in a given year, very little feels as though it has changed. That’s why I like to celebrate those books, with some kind of “message” to impart, that do so with minimal didacticism. These books do a great job of teaching without forcing. I salute their worthy efforts and the folks who brought them to life.
2020 Books With a Message
Addy’s Cup of Sugar: Based on a Buddhist Story of Healing by Jon J. Muth
Right from the start the book tells you that this story is based on the Buddhist tale “The Mustard Seed.” My brain immediately latched on the Christian “Parable of the Mustard Seed” and, let me tell you, it isn’t anything like the Buddhist story. In this book, a girl named Addy absolutely adores her kitten, Trumpet. The two are inseparable, but, being that this is 2020, I wasn’t too terribly surprised to read that “one day, shortly after they moved into their new neighborhood, it happened. Trumpet was hit by a car.” The book doesn’t show this, of course. It just shows Addy staring into the distance alongside a long road while the sun sits low in the sky. Sad, she asks Stillwater, the Panda that has appeared in numerous Muth books, to bring her cat back. He promises nothing except to make medicine that Addy needs. To do this, she must bring him a cup of sugar “from a home where death is a stranger.” And what she finds is that everywhere she goes, someone has lost someone. It’s a good book for death in general, but particularly good for those kids that have lost pets.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, ill. Bryan Collier
You know, I didn’t originally have this book on this list, but somehow it just fits. From the matter of the universe to Black Lives Matter, this lushly illustrated book pulls together the very cosmos to make it clear that this book’s young readers are special beyond belief. Of all the picture books I’ve seen so far in 2020, this was the first one that actually addressed police brutality and Black Lives Matter in its text. All the more remarkable when you consider that the book doesn’t feel rushed at all. Collier’s art varies from book to book and he’s on point here, absolutely. Drawing inspiration from his own grandmother’s quilt-making, Collier’s work reminded me of what Hudson Talbott did for Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way, all those years ago. An important message in a beautiful package.
Arlo the Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep by Catherine Rayner
Rayner is the kind of author/illustrator that really captures a person’s attention. Years ago she created the board book One Happy Tiger and it was just about the sweetest little thing I’d seen in a while. Ever since, I’ve watched her work with interest. It’s hard to describe her style. Like scribbles overlaid with watercolors, acrylic inks, screen prints, and pencil markings. It’s messy beauty. In this case, it’s a really practical message at work. It probably doesn’t hurt any that I’ve two kids for whom falling asleep can be a bit tricky, what with their constantly running brains and all. This book offers good, practical advice. On beyond counting sheep!
The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer, ill. Cindy Derby
First and foremost, I know that including any kind of monkey or ape in a picture book at this time can be viewed as a racist trope. This is particularly true when the creature is made to act like a human in some way. What’s interesting about Kramer’s story is that the gorilla here is not a stand-in for a human or even, for that matter, a stand-in for a gorilla. It is a comfort in a time of grief. Not a representation of the grief itself, necessarily. But the thing that goes with you as you try to live your life. The book isn’t quite as elegant a metaphor as last year’s Maybe Tomorrow by Charlotte Agell, but it has a definite leg up thanks to the watercolors of Cindy Derby. Just look at the gorilla’s eyes for a spell. At first you almost don’t see them. When you do, you can hardly look at anything else.
Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim
Charming illustrations tell the tale of a young Korean immigrant child’s first day of school, from tragedy to triumph. On the bookflap, Kim talks about how she herself immigrated to the States from South Korea when she was a small kid. I find the art in this book utterly fascinating. Specifically, I like very much how Kim does children. She’s got a hook on facial expressions that’s enticing. And what kid reading this book wouldn’t identify with Danbi when she thinks, with utter misery, “But nobody would play with me”? That kind of stuff just rips the heart out of my chest. Did I already say it was charming? I did, but it bears repeating. Charming, charming, charming.
Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton
Going to the ocean seemed like a good idea to Little Crab, but that was before he saw how vast and scary it was. Will he overcome his fear or scuttle back to his safe tide pool at home? This isn’t my first encounter with Haughton’s art. Honestly, all his books look kind of like this one, and I was totally prepared to write this one off when I picked it up. But darned if the guy doesn’t do a really good crab. How does he get so much pathos out of those big yellow eyes? It’s not an overly complex book, but the way in which he delivers its message is keen.
I’m Not a Girl by Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi, ill. Dana Simpson
I wonder what the current number of transgender illustrators existing in America today is. Because honestly, Dana Simpson is always the first person who jumps to my mind, thanks in large part, to her Phoebe and Her Unicorn series of comics. As such, I instantly recognized her style on the cover of this book. There are lots of thoughtful picture books about transgender kids on the market with terrible terrible art. Simpson’s style, on the other hand, is cartoony but not too much so. It’s just engaging. The note from Maddox’s mom (Maddox is a twelve-year-old transgender boy) is clearly aimed at informing parents, and then you get this truly killer list of transgender heroes. Looking at it, I’d love to see more picture bios of some of these folks. There’s also a lengthy section of Resources We Recommend, including books for kids, books for adults, media for the family, and organizations. A lot of work went into this book and it shows.
A Last Goodbye by Elin Kelsey, ill. Soyeon Kim
As I mentioned earlier in the year in my post Trendwatch 2020: Death Death Death Death Death, this was a year where a surprising number of picture books confronted the mortality of all living things for young readers. Kelsey’s book is a Nonfiction offering on the same subject, presenting the topic through the death of animals and how they handle it in nature. My personal favorite has a lot to do with a Radiolab episode I listened to years ago about what happens to a whale’s body when it dies. I don’t know if Kelsey heard the same episode but when she writes, “Will new undersea communities flourish on the nutrients found in your skeleton?” I thought it a wonderful way of celebrating how bodies feed other organisms as they decompose. This book is infinitely gentle. And I think of all the death books of 2020, it might be my favorite.
Love Your Body by Jessica Sanders, ill. Carol Rossetti
Body positivity gets a shot in the arm with this high powered title. Note, if you will, the Note to the Reader and the Author’s Note, which specify that “This book has been written for girls and those who identify as a girl. However, the language I have used is not gendered and the overarching message is universal.” It goes on to explain about the body positive movement, the preferred reading ages, and how younger kids can read this with support. “The illustrations send a strong, clear message, and it is important that young girls be exposed to this message as early as possible.” And we’re off! The sheer amount of resources here are stunning. I liked the “My Self-Care List” of ten things you can be kind to yourself. Turns out, if I really liked it I could take the cover off of this book because on the inside is a poster with that same message. The art is great (Rossetti is Brazilian) and check out those Resources in the back! Hotlines and websites and all kinds of support locations for people. Great good stuff.
Mom’s Sweater by Jayde Perkin
Remember, 2020 saw a surprising number of picture books about death. That’s not unusual in middle grade fiction, but the sheer uptick in picture books was a surprise. Mom’s Sweater reminded me of nothing so much as last year’s Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell (which I seem to keep bringing up today). In it, a child deals with the death of her mother. Grief is the real issue at work, and I liked its attitude. “Some people say that grief gets smaller over time. But Dad says it’s a little more complicated than that. Dad says the grief is like Mom’s sweater. The sweater stays the same size, but I will eventually grow into it.” Originally called Mum’s Jumper, this British import has just the right attitude. Grief isn’t something you leap out of, but grow with so that it becomes a part of you. One of the better books on the topic this year.
No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, ill. Jeanette Bradley
You know what’s great? Books that show kids in active roles (Kid Blink only gets you so far) but often the books that talk about them are so dull. I like a book that dares to try to bit literary as well as informative. Is that so wrong? In this collection of poems about young heroes, fourteen different poets write sixteen poems in total. Some of the subjects you know well (Marley Diaz, Jazz Jennings, etc.) and some are complete surprises. In terms of inclusion, I was impressed by the presence of Judy Adams, the Down syndrome activist, and at least two Indigenous kids. My sole objection, honestly, is that Bradley’s beautiful art has been drawn on sepia toned paper. And sepia, as as kid will tell you, means “boring” to them. Otherwise, it’s hard to find anything cooler than that image of Viridiana Sanchez Santos in her quinceañera gown, fist raised high. Shoulda made the cover.
The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
This book. This book is why I like books. If I sat you down and said that I’d found a picture book about animals that explains the refugee experience in a way even the youngest kids could understand, you might assume the worst. You might think the book would be preachy or well-intentioned without being any good. The thing about The Suitcase, though, is that it’s utterly sublime. An animal arrives with a suitcase and immediately meets three different animals with three different attitudes. The bird questions, the bunny accepts, and the fox rejects. When the creature tells them that there’s a table, chair, and wooden cabin in its suitcase they don’t know what to think. After it succumbs to exhaustion, they break into the suitcase and find a broken teacup and a photograph of the table, chair, and cabin. When the creature awakens it finds the teacup has been fixed, and the creatures have created a cabin for it, complete with chair and table. I don’t know why but this always makes me tear up a little bit. Nothing about this book panders to the reader. It’s just a straightforward story of a mistake based on mistrust, and how people can do better.
Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez, ill. Seng Soun Ratanavanh, edited by Amy Novesky and Parker Menzimer
Probably the best mindfulness picture book I’ll ever have the pleasure to meet in 2020. This is by no means the first Miyuki book to come out in America. I’d already read Time for Bed, Miyuki and Patience, Miyuki but while their art enthralled me the storylines were just a nice kind of okay. Nothing to necessarily write home about. In this latest title, Miyuki begs her Grandpa to show her how to meditate. She then proceeds to act EXACTLY like a small child would, never staying still, flitting about like a butterfly while her grandfather takes everything in slowly. And yet, by the end of the book, it turns out that Miyuki, in her own way, has been paying attention to the world around her all along. A book that beautifully brings to life Miyuki’s observation, “doesn’t it feel good to be here right now?”
A Thousand No’s by DJ Corchin, ill. Dan Dougherty
Yeah, okay, I do like this. Admittedly, the title is awfully similar to that old 1000 Times No by Mr. Warburton, but the plot couldn’t be more different. The concept of being told “no” when you have a dream is a familiar theme in picture books. And it is almost never ever seen as a good thing. Kids are told that if they have a vision, they need to pursue it and ignore all the naysayers. But . . . what if the naysayers are on to something? What if they aren’t wholly wrong? Trying to work THAT into a picture book is a daunting prospect, but Corchin and Dougherty take an interesting angle. A girl thinks she has a great idea, but then the NOs start to hit her. They hurt and are heavy but she carries them alongside her idea. Now the key here is that she doesn’t abandon the idea, because of the Nos. But, in an interesting twist, the Nos start to change the idea. And some of the Nos are good and some are bad, but ultimately what they make at the end is so much better than the original idea. And THAT is an idea I can get behind. Consider pairing alongside the Ashley Spires book The Most Magnificent Thing.
The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, edited by Yoshimi Kusaba, ill. Gaku Nakagawa, translated by Andrew Wong
So you wanna write a picture book about how we should consume less? Well good luck in finding a hook, my friend. Honestly, where would you even begin? A smart way might be to look for a real world example of someone who lived an ascetic but appealing life. What about a president? What about the President of Uruguay? This book chronicles an actual speech given by President José Mujica at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Now don’t go slapping this into your Nonfiction section of the library, necessarily. Though the sentiments of this book are true, the words have been rewritten to fit a picture book audience. Part of what’s so fascinating about this particular book is that it is a translation from the Japanese original. Apparently Mujica is a huge deal in Japan and that accounts for this book’s origins. The message of simply wanting less and appreciating more is admirable, and the art is gorgeous. It’s a book with a clear message, absolutely, and the package and telling so nice that you might think twice about wanting that new doodad you had your eye on the other day.
Wreck This Picture Book: How to Make a Book Come to Life by Keri Smith
Okay, truth? I’m putting this book into the “Message” category because I really wanted to include it on a list but had a devil of a time figuring out where to put it. This is an interesting title too because, technically, it’s designed to make librarians cry. Seriously! That title isn’t just for effect. It really, truly, and honestly wants you to abuse this book in the most loving way possible. The tactile nature of physical books is something we reviewers spoke of longingly through the worst of the pandemic. Review journals and publishers made everyone look at e-galleys and we no longer could feel the pages beneath our fingers as we considered a book’s worth. Smith’s title celebrates the sheer physicality of literature and encourages children to abuse these paper friends with love. Smell, touch, taste, see, and listen to this title. Silly, sweet, and lovely.
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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