31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Nonfiction Picture Books
Oh yes. We’re in the thick of it now. The closer we get to the end of the year, the longer these posts become. Now some of the books on today’s list are going to look familiar because they’ve appeared on other lists already. Science and Biography and History titles are abundant. But look close and you’ll spot a couple new titles (five in total) that don’t slot easily into any categories. In some ways, these are the books I’m the most excited about. The oddballs. The titles that aren’t afraid to be a little strange, a little different. Welcome to the end of 2020! And welcome to a list of truly wonderful books:
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball by Jen Bryant, ill. Frank Morrison
You never heard of Elgin Baylor? Meet the basketball icon and civil rights advocate who also happened to be the first true NBA all star. I don’t know how I became a proselytizer for sports books, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. These days it feels like I’m always looking for sports related or sports adjacent titles for kids. And sporty picture book bios are often merely okay. Bryant’s here is a step above the rest, because she’s not merely focusing on Baylor’s life and importance, but is also stepping back to put him in the context of his times. Add in the fact that she works natural repetition into the text, and this is definitely worth some additional reads. The art of Frank Morrison, meanwhile, is on fire here. With every book he does, he just gets more and more interesting. One to watch.
All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing by Chris Barton, ill. Nicole Xu
When something horrible happens, what do you do? What can be done? One April morning in Oklahoma, a truck with a bomb exploded. In its wake, a single tree remained. That is the beginning of this true story of healing and recovery. I think when 9/11 happened I expected this kind of book to appear, but it never did. I wanted something exceedingly smart, insightful, touching, with a sense of the greater picture. Turns out, that book is almost impossible to write. So basically I cannot figure out how Chris Barton managed to write this one. I don’t usually go about calling a book almost perfect, but I think I can say it about this one. This book manages to do the impossible. Its focus may begin with the Oklahoma City bombing, but its scope goes far far beyond. I’m just in awe.
Bear Goes Sugaring by Maxwell Eaton III
Did you know it takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup? Let Bear and his friends show you the science, the technique, and the fun behind your favorite pancake topping. Can I tell you secret? I think I’m too biased towards this Eaton fellow. I just love how he makes nonfiction books. Also, and I’m speaking strictly for me, this adheres way too closely to a subject that I was already interested in. I mean, it really and truly breaks down how to tap sugar from trees. Isn’t that crazy? It’s so simple that anyone could do it, and you actually get quite a lot of great science out of the accompanying images and descriptions. I love the way Eaton depicts sap rising and pressure build-up in trees, to say nothing of the illustration of how many gallons of sap it takes to get just one gallon of syrup. Funny asides and a delicious ending. Who could want for more?
Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre
Remember Nic Bishop? Where on earth did that guy go? I only ask since this cover reminds me of good old Red-Eyed Tree Frog. It’s a fortunate thing we’ve other talented photographers to fill in the gaps. Photographers like the incredible April Pulley Sayre. Though she had three books out in 2020, I’ve decided the best of the bunch to appear on today’s list is this one. And her photography is without parallel, no question, but I’d like to also give some credit to Sayre’s text. My favorite line in this particular book is, “This log. Its daily job? Support the frog.” If writing simply is the most difficult thing to do, Sayre is a master.
The Big Bang Book by Asa Stahl, ill. Carly Allen-Fletcher
An interesting and much younger telling of the beginning of the universe. We’ve seen a lot of books along these lines the last few years but there’s a clarity to this book’s simple language that I really grew to appreciate as I read and reread it. To begin, I very much like the first line: “This is the story of the universe. And it begins: Once upon a time, we don’t know.” There is a LENGTHY Author’s Note at the end and Notes and References that I greatly appreciated. A small Bibliography of similar children’s titles would not have been out of place, but it’s not a deal breaker. Allen-Fletcher’s art is rather fascinating to look at, so I was not too surprised when I saw she had done the book Animal Antipodes in the past (which I rather adore). This is a delightful use of her skills. Great to use with small kids. My own particularly enjoyed covering up the small universe with their thumbs pre-Bang.
A Bowl Full of Peace: A True Story by Caren Stelson, ill. Akira Kusaka
When an atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Sachiko’s family lost almost everything, except a precious leaf-shaped bowl. A tale of hope and peace in the face of overwhelming devastation. There are some books where you feel a sense of calm and care rippling through each of the pages. Japanese artist Akira Kusaka’s illustrations may be digital but they feel real and almost tangible. Caren Stelson, meanwhile, is deeply respectful of her subject matter. Together, the two manage to tell a story of deep and abiding horror without lingering on the dark moments. The Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, and list of Recommended Books are very much appreciated.
The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, ill. Yuko Shimizu
It’s not just humans that suffer when there is war. When ambulance driver Alaa Aljaleel discovers the hungry and abandoned cats on the streets of Aleppo, Syria, he rallies the world to help him care for the small and the weak. I’ll admit that since I tend to read books cold (I try not to know too much about them beforehand) I was flummoxed by the initial note from Alaa at the beginning of this book. I understand it now, but I think the publisher definitely should have moved it to the back of the story since you don’t really understand the emotional weight of the subject until you’ve had a chance to read the book. Exquisitely rendered by Shimizu (who was last scene making the equally amazing art in Barbed Wire Baseball back in 2013) this gives a weight and humanity to the crisis in Syria that you just don’t get from some of the refugee picture books we see every year. Heart warming in an honest sense, and the notes at the end (and fantastic listing of Art References) make it all the better.
Clever Hans: The True Story of the Counting, Adding, and Time-Telling Horse by Kerri Kokias, ill. Mike Lowery
Can a horse really be as smart as a human? Clever Hans sure seemed like it. A fascinating story of the equine that fooled the world with his true intelligence. It is difficult for me to put into the words the degree to which I love this book. I had heard the story of Hans before on one scientific podcast or another, but nothing was ever made as crystal clear as what Kokias does here. She sets up the mystery beautifully and then uses the debunking to prove that while Hans was not clever in the original sense, the ways in which he read social cues proved to be invaluable information for scientists. In a particularly prescient move, with all the COVID trials in the news, we wouldn’t have our current “double-blind” studies without him. Anyone teaching kids about the pandemic and the vaccine should reference this book. Plus, Mike Lowery’s art is always so fun, and he’s used perfectly with this subject matter. It reminded me a little of Meghan McCarthy’s books. Top notch science!
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals by Katy S. Duffield, ill. Mike Orodán
To a certain extent there’s a little checklist in my brain for each children’s book that comes across my plate. Some books only knock off a category here or there. And some, like this one, seem like they can’t STOP ticking off those boxes. It’s picture book nonfiction. It’s written at a younger reading level (though with plenty of older information in the sidebars, so that it can be useful to a wide range of ages). It’s an animal book, a science book, a conservation book. It’s illustrated with gorgeous art, rendered in graphite pencils and Photoshop. And most importantly, but perhaps not something you’d categorize, is the fact that it gives one the hope that humans can change to help others. In this book you look at real world locations where people have created architectural structures to aid animals on the move. Wildlife crossings are structures that aid animals, sure, but also ultimately help people as well. And that’s one lesson we need to instill in our kids more often.
Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars by Gary Golio, ill. E.B. Lewis
How did the voice of a blind man, traveling this country by train, literally reach to the stars? Golio brings to life the story of how Willie Johnson’s singing ended up on the Golden Record of Voyager I. Okay, now it’s time to think long and hard about what this list is doing for the differently abled. Golio’s take on the nonfiction picture book biography genre is very interesting here. Not content to merely zero in on Johnson’s life, he’s placing on either side the fact that Willie’s voice was placed on the golden record NASA shot into space in 1977. This is both literal (the endpapers are gold) and figurative (Willie’s story begins and ends with that record). Then there’s the fact that Golio is writing in the second person, which is a pretty interesting quirk. No fake dialogue (no dialogue at all) and minimal speculation (which is hard since there is so little known about Willie’s early life). It’s a clever method of introducing someone famous and important to readers and darned if it doesn’t work. One cannot help but think how timely it is to have a book out this year that talks about how we go on even when we’re in the darkest of night.
Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess, ill. Josh Cochran
“I think it is very important to be in love with life.” Since he was a young child, Keith Haring loved to draw and paint. Now the full story of his life comes in this eye-catching, vibrant, joyful biography. This isn’t the first picture book bio about Keith Haring, but it’s a really good example of how a great figure in history can get perfectly okay bios for years and you’ll like them fine. Then a bio as good as this one comes out and it just blows away the competition. No one, I mean no one, should ever try to do Haring’s life again, because Josh Cochran turns out to be the world’s most perfect fit. His fine art is clearly Haring-inspired anyway, but what I love about what he’s done in this book is that you get the feel and energy and jolt and life of Haring (and life in 1980s NYC) without feeling like Cochran is copying his style. Burgess, for his part, is great about making him interesting to kids, and I deeply appreciated that the book doesn’t elide or shy away from his being gay. This is the GLBTQIA+ book we were waiting for this year.
The Eagle Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), ill. Natasha Donovan
No stranger to my lists, Gyetxw and Donovan previously created The Sockeye Mother and The Grizzly Mother (which appeared on last year’s 2019 Science & Nature list). Gyetxw is a member of the Gitxsan nation of the Northwest Interior of British Columbia, Canada, while Donovan is a member of the Métis Nation of British Columbia. Like “Sockeye” and “Grizzly” this book follows a mother in nature. In this particular case it is a bald eagle and her mate, raising two chicks. We see different aspects of parenting, food, nesting, and other integral aspects of the eagles’ lives. Terms are defined as footnotes throughout, though alas there is no glossary at the end with pronunciations of the Gitxsan words that appear throughout the text. The back matter does include information on the Gitxsan and the Gitxsan Moons, though. Most have definitions like “Black Bear’s Walking Moon” and “Budding Trees and Blooming Flowers Moon”. My particular favorite was the moon for November: “Getting-Used-to-Cold Moon”. I hear that. Smart writing in a smart book.
Emmy Noether, the Most Important Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of by Helaine Becker, ill. Kari Rust
Oh, my goodness gracious me! I came THIS close to missing this book this year. Slot this one into the good math-related picture book biography section. This book doesn’t disappoint. First of all, it eschews the usual pitfalls such books fall into far too often. No fake dialogue, no fictionalized scenes for dramatic effect, NONE of that! Instead, it’s a fun recounting of the facts surrounding Emmy’s life. At the beginning you get a checklist of the qualities girls were supposed to embody in the late 19th century. That list is paralleled on the opposite page by all the things Emmy couldn’t do (the usual “feminine” talents) and what she could (puzzles and math). She managed to sit in on the local university’s classes, and attend when it changed its rules and let women in. When Einstein’s theory of relativity had a hole in it, Emmy was able to use the field of algebra called “invariance” to solve it. And when the Nazis rode to power, Einstein helped set her up in America. Oh, and did we mention that she invented Noether’s theorem, and worked on “ideal theory” which has helped underlie computer science today? The art and writing together in this book are great, and I was very impressed by the mathematical explanations. I wouldn’t say a kid would understand everything, but it at least may make some want to learn more so that they CAN understand it. 2020 has seen a plethora of biographies for kids of individuals that weren’t attention hogs, so this book would pair nicely with The Only Woman in the Room. Or Nothing Stopped Sophie for that matter. So much fun.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, ill. Cozbi A. Cabrera
When she was a child in Chicago, this future Poet Laureate would look at the clouds and “dream about the future, which was going to be ecstatically exquisite.” A gorgeously rendered look at the power of perseverance. Excellent. My plans for world domination via the art of Cozbi A. Cabrera is going right on schedule. SO very glad that Abrams tapped her to do this book. Her illustrations prove to be the perfect accompaniment to Slade’s authentic and reliable text. I love how direct quotes (cited!) are worked so effortlessly into the narrative. I love how the book keeps returning to the clouds, both in the art and the themes. This book is an excellent example of how you take a life, select a detail that kids can grasp, and use it work the life around it so that it give a kind of narrative sense to everything. This book is so much more than rote facts about a person. It’s a guide for young poetic people everywhere.
Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots by Michael Rex
Does the kid in your life know the difference between a fact and an opinion? Let these goofy robots show you how it’s done. Reading this book, I’ve found it to be enormously helpful with some of my kid’s at-home learning. Schools these days start early in teaching children the difference between these two ideas. Now if only we could reach the adults! It’s really nice that we’re seeing artists like Michael Rex truly finding their footing with these silly serious books. This pairs so well with other silly serious picture book nonfiction, like last year’s Skulls by Blair Thornburgh. And could this book even be more timely? Looks like Rex has tapped into PRECISELY the kind of books kids (and, as I said, adults) need right now. I’m all in. Fact or opinion? That’s a fact!
Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh, ill. Baljinder Kaur
2020 has been a good year for tales of centenarians, it would seem. And the danger of doing a book about a guy like Singh is that it might come off as a gimmick. A 100-year-old runs a race. That in and of itself is interesting. What more is there to say? In this case, the author does a great job of finding even more to the story. Like Wilma Rudolph, Singh suffered from a debilitating disease as a child that kept him from walking, let alone running. That’s also kind of interesting, but the moment this book really came through for me was when Singh decided to run in the New York City Marathon to combat racism . . . and pretty much failed. THAT is the crux of the story, because even after that he didn’t give up. A well done look at an extraordinary guy.
A Garden in Your Belly: Meet the Microbes in Your Gut by Masha D’Yans
Take a gorgeous trip into your microbiome, where good food and exercise will keep the more than 100 trillion microorganisms there happy and healthy. Lush and funny watercolors bring the impossibly small to life! When it comes to sheer beauty and artistic inspiration, D’Yans puts her whole heart into this effort. I have a weakness for any book where creatures too small for the human eye are shown sporting googly eyes (see: last year’s How Did I Get Here? by Philip Bunting or Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost). But on beyond the beautiful watercolors, the writing is some of the best I’ve seen. Lots of books tell kids to eat healthy food and exercise. This is one of the first to give a really good explanation about WHY. I love this book.
Honeybee: The Interesting Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
The life cycle of a bee is so much more than just getting honey. Follow an Apis mellifera as she cycles through multiple jobs in the hive, complemented by luscious, velvety oil paints. Pairs rather beautifully with Burleigh and Minor’s Tiny Bird, actually (see below). In both cases you follow a single tiny creature as it goes about its day. I loved the almost call-and-response way in which you are continually asked if the bee is ready to start flying yet. Also, this is a great example of how you might feel that every aspect of honeybee life has been covered in books before and then a particularly smart author comes along and highlights some aspect you’d never considered until now. Who knew that bees changed jobs? Love the backmatter with its parts of a bee, info on Helping Out Honeybees, additional facts, online resources, and a Bibliography of other books for kids. Phew! Oh, and did I mention it’s gorgeous? So gorgeous!
If You Take Away the Otter by Susannah Buhrman-Deever willustrated by Matthew Trueman
The most adorable nightmare fuel you’ll ever have the chance to see. Playful sea otters aren’t just cute. Once they were hunted to near extinction causing an army of sea urchins to wreak devastation. A clever, enticing, and beautiful look at the interconnectedness of nature. The title reminded me a bit of the book If Sharks Disappeared, but I think overall this story does a better job of really drilling home how impossible it is to separate different parts of nature. Aside from the obvious lure of getting to looking at cute otters (mere moments before one is harpooned, but never mind) the text spends time really drilling home how the exploitation of the Unangax (Aleut) and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) tribes by whites devastated the region. But Matthew Trueman’s art! Aside from being gorgeous, I am now going to have horrific, horrible nightmares of sea urchins (not something I woke up expecting to say today). This is great.
Incredible Jobs You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of by Natalie Labarre
Tired of grown-ups asking you what you want to be when you grow up? Then take some tips from a book that offers you such options as water slide tester, dinosaur duster, gross stunt tester, and more! Clocking in at almost 15 inches tall, this won’t be the easiest book to fit on your shelves, but it might be one of the most fun. I’ve always wanted to see a book that made it clear that even the craziest jobs (like “opera singer”) are viable options but take very specific steps to make them happen. This book isn’t that, but it’s the next best thing. Labarre talks about everything from jobs you may have heard of (like smoke jumpers) to some of the more obscure (like space psychologist). And I challenge you to find any other book in 2020 where the term “chicken sexer” is bandied about quite as willy-nilly as it is here. Great design, just the right amount of text, funny art, and wonderful job choices. In a word: fun.
The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang, ill. Khoa Le
Kalia’s grandmother has one tooth, but her smile is the most beautiful her granddaughter has ever seen. A moving picture book memoir filled with jaw-dropping art about growing up with little money in a Hmong-American home. Yeah, it’s Khoa Le again. Way back in October of 2019 I attended a book festival (remember those?) in Minnesota. While there, I met with some reps from Lerner and they showed me amazing titles like All of a Sudden and Forever and Bowl of Peace (look for them on my upcoming non-fiction picture book lists). Those books stayed with me but this one ingrained itself in my memory. Something about the art and the writing. Gorgeous and searing and amazing. The rare picture book memoir about growing up poor in Minnesota from a Hmong-American perspective.
My Bed: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep Around the World by Rebecca Bond, ill. Salley Mavor
Ah! Nonfiction for the youngest of readers! What could be better? And look! Is that Salley Mavor returning to the picture book scene after all these years? Time was that you could count on a new Mavor book every other year or so. Then she created the extraordinary Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, won herself both the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award AND the Golden Kite Award for Illustration and . . . went away for a decade. But she’s back! She’s back! And she’s popping up in our nonfiction! With the most delicate of stitching, Mavor accompanies Bond’s gentle rhyming verse. The subject? Different ways people sleep around the world. But don’t go thinking this is some It’s a Small World After All simplification. Sure, Mavor’s art blew me away yet again, but it’s Bond’s text that makes the book work. The text rhymes and is accompanied by a nonfiction section at the bottom that gives further information for older readers. But there are no absolutes here. Bond never says that “everyone” in a country or nation sleeps a certain way. She’ll say that “many families” sleep in this fashion or “some children” sleep one way or another. The facts are good, the art is engrossing, and you’ll be happy to read this to a child over and over again, I guarantee.
The Nest That Wren Built by Randi Sonenshine, ill. Anne Hunter
“These are the twigs, dried in the sun, that Papa collected one by one / to cradle the nest that Wren build.” Gentle rhyming text show how wrens construct intricate homes to shelter and protect their eggs. An interesting take on nest building (which appears to be a hot theme in 2020 books for some reason) that, on first glance, appears to be emulating the cumulative tale form. If I have any reservations with this book, it’s that it isn’t really cumulative (or, at least, not in the same way that ‘Ohana Means Family is cumulative). That said, it’s neat! I love how it works in tiny details, like the fact that the wrens might add a spider sac so that the baby spiders eat mites that could hurt the eggs. And who can resist a species where the male makes several nests, the female chooses one, then proceeds to rip it apart and rebuild it from scratch? A woman after my own heart.
On a Snow-Melting Day: Seeking Signs of Spring by Buffy Silverman
Are you ready to take a deep dive into a drip-droppy, slip-sloppy, hawk-squawking, woods-walking, crocus-poking, mitten-soaking, snow-melting day? Nature photography celebrates the arrival of spring. The minute this was released a lot of my children’s librarians were enamored. There’s a photograph in this book of a chickadee simultaneously flying and sipping from an icicle. You pretty much could have just shown me that chickadee image and I would have been sold. I know we always need books for the younger kids, especially in the Nonfiction picture book section. This fits right into that category.
Only A Tree Knows How To Be a Tree by Mary Murphy
A simple encapsulation of the world and your place in it is told in clear, straightforward terms for younger readers. The diversity of experience is simplified. I’ve rarely seen a book this young do this good a job of paring down information to its simplest and most rudimentary parts. When I think of Mary Murphy I think of board books like I Kissed the Baby, but don’t confuse her uncomplicated simplicity for ease. Much as Lucy Cousins once made Yummy (which took fairy tales and made them as easy to understand as possible) so too does Murphy tackle the very essence of what life is and what a child’s place in the world can be. It’s poetic but also scientific. Rather amazing.
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull, ill. Alexandra Bye
Who would have thought that a quiet, shy girl would grow up to fight injustice and take a significant role in FDR’s New Deal? A picture book biography of a woman who never drew the spotlight, changing the world in quiet, careful ways. Y’all are going to have to help me figure out if I like this one on its own merits as a book for kids or if I like this so much because as an adult I didn’t know any of this information. Maybe the book makes her out to be too big a deal, but you definitely get the impression that the New Deal was due in large part to Perkins herself. One thing I love about Ms. Krull is that she doesn’t fudge a fact, fake a line of dialogue, none of that. I was very impressed too by the fact that in her note at the end she mentions that a great park of Frances’s success was being the right person in the right place at the right time. Definitely deserves additional reads. A cut above many of the other strong female picture bios we see.
Perkin’s Perfect Purple: How a Boy Created Color with Chemistry by Tami Lewis Brown and Debbie Loren Dunn, ill. Francesca Sanna
Ah, it reminds me of the good old days of Chris Barton’s Day-Glo Brothers. Now wouldn’t THAT be a fabulous nonfiction picture book pairing! Surely I’m not the first to think of it. Like that book, this one talks about the science of creating colors. We see how a mistake led to a discovery. We see the history of the color purple and the egalitarian spirit behind William Henry Perkin’s creation. One thing the book does not explain as well as it might is simply why combining red and blue dyes didn’t yield the purple color everyone craved. After all, if a kid knows how colors are made, they’re going to have a lot of questions along those lines. Even so, the spirit behind this book is peppy and Sanna’s art is an excellent choice. The backmatter is primo too. An extensive Author’s Note replete with images like Queen Victoria in a killer purple gown, info on the scientific method, additional resources (including the aforementioned Day-Glo Brothers), an a science experiment all round out this fun title. Plus, it’s a heckuva lot better than that Purple People celebrity picture book that got all that press in 2020, amiright?
The Reason for the Seasons by Ellie Peterson
My favorite kind of book for kids is one that clearly explains and shows concepts that even adults get wrong. In this particular case, the book starts with a very simple question: Why do we have seasons? To test this book, I tried it out on my six-year-old. When asked why we have seasons he initially thought that it was because our planet turned and when we were near the sun it was summer and away was winter. Peterson does a great job of covering not just that theory but also the theory that it’s because the planet is closer to the sun in the summer and farther in the winter. She integrates concepts like tilt, rotation, the equator, and even the angle at which light hits an object with aplomb. I was particularly taken with a section on how different the length of our shadows are at different times of year. If it were easy to explain scientific concepts then we’d see a million books like this one. As it stands, this book is a rarity. A necessary rarity!
Rescuing the Declaration of Independence: How We Almost Lost the Words That Built America by Anna Crowley Redding, ill. Edwin Fotheringham
During the War of 1812, England was determined to burn the nation’s capital to the ground. Yet thanks to a plucky office clerk, the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and more were saved from destruction. A riveting true tale. A stirring piece of American history that plays completely fair with its material. Will you find fake dialogue in this book? You will not. Will you find imagined sequences that can’t be backed up with historical records? You will not. Is there a Selected Biography in the back with eleven different sources listed? There is. And does it also come with an Author’s Note, information on The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, The Articles of Confederation, a Timeline for the Burning of Washington, and info on where to see these documents? It does AND (even more important than all of this) it’s a super fun read. Part of that is due to Fotheringham’s art. At some point the main became the official illustrator of Literary Revolutionary America, and I for one have no objections to that point. But really, it’s Redding who deserves a lot of credit for the book’s success. I know that telling the story of the guy who had to keep one step ahead of the British army during the War of 1812 sounds inherently interesting, but if you want to keep it accurate then you’re hindered by inconvenient facts. Redding never wavers from the truth and the book is stronger for it. And did I mention that it’s fun?
Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit by Linda Elovitz Marshall, ill. Ilaria Urbinati
Sure, you may know the story of the woman who wrote Peter Rabbit, but did you also know that she saved 4,000 acres of land as well? A story of the original picture book creator/conservationist. Marshall has done a particularly good job at highlighting a new aspect of Beatrix Potter’s life for young readers. This is by no means the first Potter picture book bio I’ve ever seen. It may, however, be one of the best. Sure, we get the usual story about her upbringing and love of art, science, and nature, but we also hear the far lesser known story of how she single-handedly saved four thousand acres of land from development. It’s great. Even Batman agrees:
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta, ill. Frank Morrison
As a child George loved flowers. To grow them, he made a secret garden for himself in the woods. A sumptuous biography of the book who would grow up to be an innovator and inventor. I both did and did not know anything about George Washington Carver. I feel like he used to be this ubiquitous force in children’s biographies back in the day, and yet aside from his peanut-related activities I just didn’t remember much about him. Biographers for kids always want to focus on their subjects when they were young, but sometimes that feels shoehorned in. Not this time. Concentrating on Carver’s love of nature, specifically flowers, is novel. No fake dialogue, a Timeline (THAT will make teachers happy!), a Bibliography, and suggested books for Further Reading all make up the backmatter.
Selena: Queen of Tejano Music by Silvia López, ill. Paola Escobar
Every year I learn a lot from the nonfiction children’s books that pass by me, but this book (the very first picture book about Selena’s life, no less) probably taught more more facts I simply didn’t know than any other in 2020. Going into Selena’s life I didn’t know where she was born (Texas), what Tejano music was, or even why she was considered an important pop star. As a kid, Selena came to my attention mostly when she was killed. Now, reading this book, I have a sense of her scope and influence. It’s a fascinating story, and makes her out to be far more than just another pop star. I can, with certainty, also say that she was someone worthy of the time and attention that López and Escobar have lavished upon her here. Backmatter includes a Timeline, additional information on everything from Tex-Mex Music to Quinceañeras and more.
Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers, ill. Rachelle Baker
“A catalyst for change in America” gets her due in this riveting, inspirational, magnificent biography of a figure that was so much more than just the first Black woman to make a bid for the presidency. Okay, I admit that I’m a little harsh when it comes to picture book biographies. Like, do kids actually need to read one about the members of Queen? Half the time I suspect that they’re just being written to appease the parents and they don’t really deliver anything significant for child readers. But THIS biography is different. Chisholm is hugely important, but what makes the book different is that Chambers pulls in context and contemporary figures like AOC and even rap lyrics praising her, to tell her story. Inspirational (and I don’t use that word lightly).
Swish! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters by Suzanne Slade, ill. Don Tate
“Skilled athletes, expert players, and electrifying performers all rolled into one.” Meet the ballplayers that broke racial barriers, even as they went on to live up to their globe trotting name. My daughter assumed this was the sequel to Whoosh based on its title and illustrator. Good sports books for kids can be difficult to find, so when you find one as excellent and amusing as Swish, grab it with both hands and do not let go! This book did a great job of placing the Globetrotters in historical context, while Tate had the unenviable job of having to convey their physicality. I love too that George Mikan has appeared in both this and Gene Luen Yang’s Dragon Hoops this year. This is the kind of fun history we need to see more.
Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery by Meeg Pincus, ill. Yasmin Imamura
If you didn’t know where monarch butterflies flew every winter, how would you go about solving the mystery? Meet all the people who worked together to come up with an answer to a question spanning continents. Sick of butterflies yet? It’s hard not to be, what with them popping up in every other book some years. That’s why I have to doff my cap to Meeg Pincus here. In a lot of ways the central conceit of this book is how the credit for a “discovery” should not rest solely on the shoulders of the white scientist that initially wrote it up. When you look at all the people involved with solving the mystery of where the monarchs would fly, it’s staggering. Pincus even writes at the end, “It’s also important to note that history depends on who tells the story – Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis asks: “ ‘Did the white scientists really ‘discover’ the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico knew about for centuries?’” A self-aware, smartly illustrated, and very cleverly written tale.
Women Artists A-Z by Melanie LaBarge, ill. Caroline Corrigan
A beautiful collection of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. You know, I went into this with a critical eye, because this didn’t sound like a particularly novel idea, but it’s honestly very well done. It really takes the time and care and attention to provide as wide a swath of female artists as possible. International and Indigenous and differently abled and (this is key) not just the same usual suspects. Sure you get your Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe but you also get your Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, your Gee’s Bend Collective, your Xenobia Bailey, and more! It honestly made me excited about showing this to kids!
Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin
From kids to the cosmic web of the universe, gorgeous watercolors encompass the sheer scope and scale of everything inside and beyond our own galaxy. Just as good as everyone says it is. It sounds strange to mention that I like a book that makes me feel insignificant, but what other way is there to describe what it is that Chin is doing here? Now he could have overplayed his hand and started with microbes, but he keeps it simple, talking about average kids, and things that are taller than them. I’ve never seen a book that shows the sheer scale of the universe as effectively as this one has. It’s an absolute jaw-dropper. Both of my children were utterly gobsmacked by it. Considering how much they love fiction, that’s saying something.
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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