31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Picture Books
You know how 4th of July fireworks will end with an incredible light show that goes on for a seemingly endless amount of time? Well, consider this the light show of the 31 Days, 31 Lists!! Today I end with the biggest, longest list of them all. Picture books galore!
It’s been a wild and crazy ride this month. I have never, EVER, been so happy to welcome in the new year. So let us all lift a glass to better times. To children’s books reflecting the world around us, giving our kids something to aspire to. To great writing, beautiful art, and profound wackiness. 2021, here we come!!!
2020 Picture Books
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, ill. Bryan Collier
From the matter of the universe to Black Lives Matter, this lushly illustrated book pulls together the very cosmos, making it clear that this book’s young readers are special beyond belief. Never has it been so clear that our library shelves must include books for kids that speak to this current political moment in time. And so far, of all the picture books I’ve seen in 2020, this is the one that addresses police brutality and Black Lives Matter in a picture book context the best. All the more remarkable when you consider that the book doesn’t feel rushed at all. 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.
The Alphabet’s Alphabet by Chris Harris, ill. Dan Santat
Letters are sneakier than you think. Take a look as 26 letters pretend to be 26 OTHER letters in the most twisty-turny (not to mention hilarious) alphabet book you ever did see. What hath P is for Pterodactyl wrought? Suddenly we’re seeing all these alphabet picture books that actually took time and thought and consideration to make. Now Chris Harris won my heart years ago with that marvelous poetry collection I’m Just No Good at Rhyming. That was cool, but apparently he thought it wasn’t enough of a challenge. Now he’s made an alphabet book that doubles as a code (no lie). This is meticulously thought out to the finest particle. The only letter that seems to have stumped him is S, and I’m okay with that. Dan Santat, meanwhile, is clearly having a blast. There are enough kid jokes to keep ‘em roaring and enough adult jokes (did you notice on the cover that the alphabet goes to Times New Roman School?) to keep you involved.
The Barnabus Project by Terry, Eric and Devin Fan
Barnabus is half mouse, half elephant, and an utter failure as a genetically modified pet. So when he and his imperfect friends decide to make a break for freedom, you’re with them every step of the way. Man. Cute and cuddly just got DARK! And I like it! This is an interesting departure for the Fan brothers. Usually they go for the detailed and dreamy rather than the detailed and technical. Here they’re plumbing their inner Jill Barklem to bring us this story of pets that don’t check off enough “cutesy” boxes. By gum, if this isn’t made into a Dreamworks film in the next 5 years I’ll eat my hat. I like this weird little book.
The Bear in My Family by Maya Tatsukawa
It’s not easy living with a bear. They’re loud and bossy and hungry. But when you need someone in your corner, it’s pretty darn useful to be siblings with a bear. I think it helped incredibly that I got to hear a talented co-worker perform this book live. The key may lie in how you do the bear’s voice. If you make it gruff and low, it’s just the perfect accompaniment. As an adult I suspected that a twist might be coming, but even knowing that, I think that Tatsukawa just does a killer job with its reveal of the bear’s true personality. It definitely looks, at first glance, like a book by Tamo Gomi, but it has its own unique, distinct feel.
Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes, ill. Elizabeth Zunon
Calling all creatures! Bedtime is here! When one reluctant toddler goes through the motions of settling down for the night, she impersonates a whole host of colorful animalia in the process. Aww! I gotta stand behind this one. Now, that may be in large part because, two words, “footie pajamas”. It is very hard for a person in my position to resist the cute factor at work in footie pajamas. But even though there is a clear parental POV (dude, the expression on the dad’s face when his toddler is aiming to crawl into bed is OUR face, man) I thought kids would really dig their animal equivalents in every step of the bedtime process. The colors just POP, and I love how the realism of the human characters contrasts with very stylized aspects of the animals. This is a one-on-one book rather than a storytime one, so bear that in mind. We’ve seen lots of picture books with this same concept (bedtime children are like animals) but this may be the best. Plus, it’s on the younger end and we ALWAYS need more of those.
Brick By Brick by Heidi Woodward Sheffield
Papi is a bricklayer who “helps build the city, brick by brick.” Papi can build anything you can imagine, but can he build Luis the one thing he truly wants? Hard not to love the art collage at work here. Look closely and you’ll see that it’s an interesting mix of photography and mixed media. A glance at the publication page and I came across this: “Heidi used brick photos to create Papi and Luis, emphasizing their strength and fortitude.” Additionally there is digital painting, antique lace, embroidery, textile images, and more. It certainly exhibits an Ezra Jack Keats-ish relationship to depicting urban environments. The ending does strike me as a tad unrealistic (not entirely certain where this house is that just got built), but the text is so clear and nice and the art so lovely that I’m willing to put my skepticism on pause. For a little while, anyway.
Catch That Chicken! by Atinuke, ill. Angela Brooksbank
Who’s the best chicken catcher in the whole village? Lami! Upbeat and peppy, kids will be scrambling to find their own chickens to catch after reading this book. And once again, Atinuke just knocks it out of the park. This reminds me of that fantastic picture book The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County by Janice N. Harrington, only in an entirely different setting. Also, this book reads younger than Harrington’s. Impossible not to love the art at work, and it’s cleared up for me a longstanding mystery. Why so many chickens that need to be caught in books? I mean, why not switch it up a little and have something like bunnies. Well, unlike bunnies, chickens are ideal animals for kids to try to catch. Why? Because the possibility of success is so much higher. May we all catch our own chickens in 2021.
Dads by John Coy, photographs by Wing Young Huie
Probably the most realistic, truthful, honest, fantastic collection of dad photos I’ve ever seen produced for kids . . . um . . . ever. You’ve got Mennonites on one page and Hmong on the other. You’ve got young dads and old dads and rich dads and poor dads. Huie writes that he just went through his own archives to find these images, and what that means is that this isn’t just some random accumulation of stock photographs. Heck no! These are art. Each one, art. All brought together under the auspices of Coy’s text.
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 child. This accounts for the sheer authenticity just simmering under the cute illustrations. Speaking of which, 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.
Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman, ill. Archana Sreenivasan
A girl lives amongst sandstorms, a boy amongst rain. But when extreme weather causes them both to leave for somewhere new, their destination is the same. Gorgeous watercolors bring to life different ecosystems within India. This is one of those books with a slow burn. At first it just seems like a kind of cool compare and contrast between two kids in two different environments. Then, as you read it, you realize how many layers there are to this book. Entirely aside from the fact that the art is gorgeous, I loved that the text educates kids on the different geographical weather conditions within India. American children’s books historically have treating other countries the same way we treat planets in Star Wars (one environment). I was impressed by how the author, with the simplest words imaginable, allows the two kids to meet for entirely different reasons. The Author’s Note is impressive, and the fact that the illustrator did research into this years ago before being asking to represent the Rabari settlement in Rajasthan in a picture book is the kind of kismet you only hope to encounter. I kinda love this little book.
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.
Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada, ill. Ryōji Arai, translated by David Boyd
What is the purpose of the bedtime book? To lull the children to sleep is part of it, certainly, but what are you putting into those small brains in the process? On occasion, it might behoove us all to read to our children books that seep into minds. The evocative is not wasted on the young, no matter how often they yawn. To give yourself a sense of what I’m talking about, I recommend that you seek out this hypnotic Japanese import. Artist Ryōji Arai pretty much entranced me by the first page. Osada writes a simple, “Look, it’s raining” and on the bottom third of the page is a pond, surrounded by greenery, the thinnest of yellow pencil lines indicating the falling droplets. Arai has been in this game since 1990, by the way. In fact, in 2005 he won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. I’m just grateful we get a chance to see his work now. Taking his cues from Osada, he is perfectly capable of bringing sentences like, “Wetter and wetter, the blues darken. So do the greens,” to life. I shiver deliciously every time I read this book (I particularly like it when I’m cozy inside and outside it’s raining). After the storm passes, the world revives, but the night has fallen. One could get so wrapped up in Arai’s exquisite writing that they miss Osada’s own gifts. With the aid of the talented David Boyd, the end of the book translates to a beautiful, “We’re all falling falling sound soundly asleep asleep . . .” I aspire to someday write a single sentence as succinct and perfect as this.
Everybody Counts: A Counting Story From 0 to 7.5 Billion by Kristin Roskifte, translated by Siân Mackie
A seek-and-find book for the 21st century. Every person has a story. Can you figure out what they are in this eclectic book that’s part puzzle part ode to humanity? Is it a counting book? A Norwegian counting book at that? Wasn’t too sure about this one at first and then I started playing along. It appears to be like a seek-and-find book at first. Pretty rote. That is, until you start to pay attention to what they’re asking you to seek. “Five people in a family. Three of them love reading. One of them is secretly in love.” Wait, what? The further in you get the more you start to get to know the characters that keep repeating. There’s a grand romance that begins in a library. There’s a crook somewhere in there. There are innocent people in jail! By using the counting book format, you begin to understand that every person you see in this great big wonderful world has a story that you’re not privy to. Why does the book go to 7.5 billion? So that you understand that this is the case for everyone. Looks simple. Ain’t.
Everyone’s Awake by Colin Meloy, ill. Shawn Harris
What do you do when all your family members aren’t just awake but wired? Whether they’re trimming topiary, winning Pulitzers, or staging the occasional coup d’état, NO ONE is going to sleep after reading this tale. Apparently 2020 is the year when I really enjoy books by both Colin Meloy and his wife Carson Ellis. That is not always the case. The rhymes totally work in this book, and I imagine that even though this thing is brimming with inside jokes for adults (for example, it contains at least one, honest-to-god, Hark, A Vagrant reference) I think there is PLENTY for a kid to enjoy. It’s got that madcap energy you’d normally find in books like Accident. As for Shawn Harris, apparently 2020 was the year he decided to flex a little and show off his range. Later on today’s list you’re going to see what he did for Mac Barnett’s A Polar Bear in the Snow. That book is about simplicity and restraint. This book is about glorious excess. I liked too how Harris kind of fills in the visual gaps and makes sense of Meloy’s weirder ideas. Yet it’s clear that no one told him to reign in some of this stuff. Wired.
Everything Naomi Loved by Katie Yamasaki and Ian Lendler, ill. Katie Yamasaki
What do you do when everything starts to go away? Naomi’s block isn’t pretty but it’s alive! So when changes come from the outside, she needs help finding some way to hold onto what’s gone. Hm. Long story short, this is probably the best book on how gentrification affects kids I’ve ever seen. It’s a book with a mission but it’s also, at its heart, a book about change and methods we can use to accept that change. It’s funny how cheery it is considering that Naomi loses a LOT of what she loves in the course of things. I also can’t stop thinking about it. Probably a sign that it’s pretty good.
Friday Night Wrestlefest by J.F. Fox, ill. Micah Player
Are you ready to RUMBLE??? Where will your loyalties lie when Dangerous Daddoo takes on the Tag Team Twins with Mama-Rama joining in the fun? I like a book that allows me to make a big, booming announcer voice. This one delivers. But I find it so strange that this is the first time I’ve mentioned this book on this blog, because in real life I’m singing its praises constantly. As a readaloud, I think this book is just gonna hit it out of the park. I absolutely love the colors, characterizations, and shifting loyalties. There are twists you won’t see coming. And there’s just this great sense of family. Since I’ve been stuck home with my family, I’ve gotten to really appreciate when we can all play together in some way. This book understands and elevates that concept.
From My Window by Otávio Júnior, ill. Vanina Starkoff, translated by Beatriz C. Dias
I wrack my brain trying to find the right words to describe this book. Busy? Not quite. Colorful, certainly. Alive? Maybe that’s the one I wanted. Júnior’s book is a paean to the favela in Rio de Janeiro (specifically Complexo do Alemão) and you’d think a book restricted to a view out a window would be limited. Yet Dias is just packing this book with so much life and color and sheer joy. In the “What Is a Favela?” Júnior acknowledges that there can be violence but this is a book about loving your home.
The Haunted Lake by P.J. Lynch
Jacob loves Ellen and Ellen loves Jacob. But one night, when Jacob explores a mysterious light in an underwater tower, he’s sucked into the embrace of the beautiful, very dead, Lillith. Can Ellen rescue her love? I love P.J. Lynch because of the sheer amount of WORK he puts into his art. Have you ever seen his cover of Sarah, Plain and Tall? Amazing stuff. This book is sumptuous and beautiful and scary all at once. It’s a long picture book for older readers. The kind of thing I could read at bedtime to my nine-year-old and she’d love it. There are also some comparisons to be made to The Corpse Bride, and that is always a good thing.
Hello, World! by Ethan Long / Sun and Moon Together by Ethan Long
Richard Scarry has much to answer for. So let’s say you have kid that loves loves loves Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. They want more of the same. What do you do for them? Well, you could hand them those killer Brian Biggs Everything Goes books. You could give them Vamos! by Raul III. You could hand them the William Bee book Migloo’s Day (and its sequel). But insofar as I can tell there just aren’t that many books of this sort out there, particularly when it comes to communities. What makes the Ethan Long “Happy County” series here so interesting is that it begins as just another meet-all-the-folks-in-the-community-over-the-course-of-a-day storyline. But then in the sequel it kind of shifts gears. Sun and Moon Together takes a deep dive into such concepts as the water cycle, photosynthesis, the phases of the moon, the planets, and more. It’s fun and if you’re concerned that it feels a little too classic there’s a drone and Amazon Prime reference here and there, just to keep things current.
The Hunter and His Dog: A Fantastical Journey Through the World of Bruegel by Sassafras de Bruyn
Under normal circumstances, it kind of bugs me when an illustrator tries to replicate the work of a great artist in their own picture books. That said, I have nothing but admiration for what Sassafras (SUCH a good name) has accomplished here. The book is a wordless journey taken by a single man and his dog. A tear in the very fabric of where he stands allows him to travel from one Bruegel painting to another. Not as up on your Bruegel as you might be? Have no fear, there’s a helpful guide at the back that indicates each painting the poor man finds himself in. At first he has a terrible time of it, falling into stories like The Tower of Babel, The Triumph of Death, and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (which have a distinctly Hieronymus Bosch feel) but eventually he finds himself in far more enjoyable scenes like The Wedding Dance, The Land of Cockaigne, and The Hunters in the Snow. A wonderful author’s note at the end fills in additional information about Bruegel. I already knew that he was interesting because he was painting in the 16th century but wasn’t making art of royalty. Instead, he preferred normal, everyday peasant folks. What I didn’t know was how his paintings lasted as long as they did. Two centuries after his death his family was STILL painting! You don’t need words to appreciate what the artist pulls off in this book. It’s just a joy, Bruegel interest or no Bruegel interest.
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, ill. Gordon C. James
“I am a roaring flame of creativity. / I am a lightning round of questions, and / a star-filled sky of solutions”. An empowering ode to Black boy joy. I don’t envy anyone who might face the prospect of writing a follow-up to Crown: Ode to a Fresh Cut. To my mind, that book was as close to a perfect picture book as you might hope to find in the past decade. Nevertheless, credit Barnes & James for being up to the challenge. And while their latest feels a bit more standard than the sheer raw power of Crown, I Am Every Good Thing is still a rare moment of fantastic #blackjoy in the face of so few picture books staring Black boys at all. Once again, Gordon C. James brings to this book the skills he’s honed as a professional painter. Once again, Derrick Barnes sets the pages on fire with his words. A fine, strong follow-up, to be sure.
I Can Be Anything by Shinsuke Yoshitake
Hmm? What’s that? You don’t think it’s fair that I’m putting two Yoshitake books on the same list? Well, due to the fact that I am now his greatest fan, I think it’s more than fair. The thing about Yoshitake is that several things are usually true. The adults in his book look exhausted, and the kids are these perpetual sources of energy and animation. But best of all are his books’ senses of humor. Because it is a WEIRD sense of humor, and one that I dig very much. In this book, a little girl keeps asking her mom to guess what she is, but instead of always being something relatively easy like a teapot or a baby, sometimes she’s shellfish in miso soup or Mount Fuji or her mom peeling the skin off of her foot. The mom, who is a patient but rapidly deteriorating soul, eventually finds her daughter asleep mid-game, then is left wondering what her daughter was pretending to be. If I could, I would give you all multiple Yoshitake books and you would understand my passion. He is the utter and complete best.
I Dream of a Journey by Akiko Miyakoshi
A furry hotel proprietor dreams of someday visiting far of lands and distant friends. Dreamlike imagery accompanies glorious light-filled scenes of laughter, friends, and travel. I think we can all relate. In this book Miyakoshi is back to high form. Nobody shows contemporary life with fuzzy woodland creatures as well as she does. I wish I knew what medium this was published in because the art is the best she’s ever done. I love how it starts out black and white and then slowly the colors just bloom on the page. This may be the greatest tribute to solitude and travel for kids I’ve ever seen. And just look at what she’s doing with light! I could read this 100 times and never get tired of it. Don’t forget to look at the back cover when you get a chance.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, ill. Sydney Smith
“I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me. And I can’t say them all . . .” This exquisitely illustrated story tells the tale of a stuttering kid who finds comfort in his father’s advice. Doggone it. Eventually we’re going to have to ask Sydney Smith to please do us a favor and take a year off. Every book he does is beautiful, but this one is important as well. And, since he’s Inconveniently Canadian (TM) he cannot win a Caldecott. Honestly, I have never ever seen a book of stuttering encapsulate it even half as well as this one does. But more than that, more than the lyricism of the writing itself, Smith’s art is the best he’s ever done (and that’s saying something). If you can look at that image of the sun setting between the trees and not squint, you’re made of different stuff than I. A friend of mine questioned the kid-friendly nature of it, but not all books are laugh riots. When it comes to teaching kids about empathy, and understanding, and care, this book blows them all away.
In the Half Room by Carson Ellis
If you have a room full of things that are only half (half a table, half a rug, half a floor) then what do you do when the other half knocks at the door? I mean, it’s weird. I don’t think anyone could make the argument that it isn’t. This is sort of what you’d get if Goodnight Moon got high on mushrooms. Illogical logic is Carson Ellis’s happy place and considering a room of half things where the person becomes whole (with an oddly satisfying “SHOOOOOP” sound) while the cat just cuddles up to its own butt… well, this felt oddly real to me. So I like it very much, but then again I’m kind of nutty too.
Lights and Types of Ships at Night by Dave Eggers, ill. Annie Dills
“…did you realize that of all the world’s most beautiful sights, there is nothing more beautiful than a ship and its lights on the sea at night?” Take a tour of your favorite boats like you’ve never seen them before. We’ve seen lots of picture books about seaworthy vessels before, so leave it to Dave Eggers to crank the whole concept up a notch. This is a book that uses hyperbole as a force for good rather than evil. The language describes each ship so lovingly, you can’t help but get sucked in. Of course, the star of the show is the art of Annie Dills. I am reminded of Yayoi Kusama’s painting Infinity Mirrors. It does similar things with void and light, only this book adds in the blur of water as well.
Little Fox by Edward Van de Vendel, ill. Marije Tolman, translated by David Colmer
A little fox dreams its entire life, the good, the scary, and the wonderful in this deeply charming Dutch import. I can’t tell. Is it more gorgeous than charming or more charming than gorgeous? The book is also this marvelous combination of illustration and photography. A little fox’s entire life passes before its eyes, going through the day-to-day living of what it’s like to be a fox in the wild. From its limited color palette to the clever ways in which backgrounds repeat strategically, there is thought and care put into each shot. Extra points to those stunning orange endpapers of trees.
Madame Badobedah by Sophie Dahl, ill. Lauren O’Hara
When a secretive woman comes to live in Mabel’s b&b, the child vows to discover everything about this new guest. Sweet and mysterious all at once. Not at all what I was expecting. This is the book you hand to parents that lament that picture books are too short these days. It’s a rather fascinating examination of the loneliness of the elderly and child/adult friendships. Adults will get something out of this book while kids get something entirely different. My own children were a bit puzzled when the book shifted unexpectedly from fact to fantasy and back again, but on the whole they were rather riveted by Dahl’s storytelling. And yes. The author’s grandfather was, indeed, Roald Dahl.
my best friend by Julie Fogliano, ill. Jillian Tamaki
“she is my best friend i think / i’ve never had a best friend so i’m not sure.” Two girls meet, play, and enact what may be the world’s most perfect example of friendship. Have you ever had that experience of just looking at the cover of a book and somehow already knowing that it’s good? This is my own personal example of that very phenomenon. It’s like what you’d get if e.e. cummings ever wrote a picture book. When Fogliano is on she’s on, and happily she’s very on in this book. Tamaki makes for a fascinating pairing here. Her style almost resembles that of Jen Wang (that’s an extreme compliment on my part). This did for me what I think They Say Blue was supposed to. You would have no idea this art was all digital. It somehow manages to be about friendship without ever becoming cloying or cutesy. A nice plus.
My Best Friend, Sometimes by Naomi Danis, ill. Cinta Arribas
Best friends are great, but what do you do if your friend doesn’t want to do the same thing as you, or doesn’t share, or gets mad and won’t say why? A sweet treatise on the complexities of being pals. This is the same groovy duo that brought us the edgy I Hate Everyone a year or two ago. Like that book, this one makes it clear that childhood isn’t all sunshine and roses. And making and keeping a friend can be a difficult proposition, particularly when you’re young. This makes for a fascinating pairing with the aforementioned My Best Friend by Fogliano & Tamaki, come to think of it. I really liked the nuance in the characters. Definitely deserves another read.
My Friend Earth by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Francesca Sanna
Expert die-cuts and lush illustrations celebrate an Earth personified as a playful girl, in love with all the creatures of her world. This is the book that made me look up whether or not illustrator Francesca Sanna is eligible for a Caldecott (she’s not, so start your tears now). I think we’ve kind of seen books where Earth is personified before, but nothing quite as simultaneously intimate and complicated as this. I just loved how Sanna’s die-cuts move the story forward. They’re not just decorative, but useful to the tale telling. And, of course, there are roughly 5 million little tiny details all going on at once within a limited color palette. Gorgeous.
Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, ill. April Harrison
Grandparents Day is coming up and Zura’s Nana Akua intends to arrive. But with the traditional tribal marks on her face, will Zura’s classmates be nice or be mean? It’s really pleasant when a book catches you by surprise. Just looking at the title and the cover, I had assumed that this was another book about an older woman learning to read. Instead, you have an engaging and smart consideration of Ghanian symbolism wrapped in an honest story about a girl embarrassed to have her grandmother meet her friends and teacher. Walker plays this really well, having Zura worried on her grandmother’s behalf (that the other kids will tease her) and the love and consideration poured into both the writing and the research of the book shines.
Nerp! by Sarah Lynne Reul
When a picky baby wants its pet’s food, nothing’s gonna keep it from its goal! I came into this figuring it was just another average alien pet story. What I didn’t realize was that Reul is just as playful with her language as she is her art. First off, this book is a hoot to read aloud. “Squishalicious wumpa glump?” “Picklefishy verp?” So you have the group storytime aspect right there. Then you look at the odd three-dimensionality of it all. A marvelous example of eclectic illustration + modeling.
A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis
From a “comma in the long, long sentence of the stream” (a tadpole!) to “a black coat slipped around Earth’s shoulders” (night!) simple rhymes and breathtaking pictures combine into not just a beautiful book. It’s a riddle book! This is also an awesome new take on springtime in picture book form. With every book she does, I feel like Portis just gets better and better. She’s never really abandoned the simplicity of her early work. She’s just found ways to build off of it in increasingly beautiful ways. Her image thunder alone is worth the price of admission.
Nonstop by Tomi Ungerer
Here’s how good Tomi Ungerer was right up until the end. As I was reading this book, I somehow convinced myself that it must be a reprint of his earlier work. Sure, it was weird, but no stranger than anything else you might find in the experimental 60s (I mean, have you seen Yellow Yellow by Frank Asch and Mark Alan Stamaty?). It was only when I was reading Tomi’s bio on the backflap of the book that I came to this final sentence: “Nonstop is his last picture book.” Wuh? Guess I missed the words “A Master Storyteller’s Final Work” on the cover. When you see the book for yourself you’ll have to agree that it’s pretty amazing. Even more so when you figure the man wrote and illustrated this book without ever seeing how 2020 would play out. Because, honestly, this book feels like the year we just had taken to its next logical extreme. In it a fellow named Vasco is the last person on earth (all the other humans departed for the moon instead). Wandering the streets, Vasco finds that if he takes the advice of his shadow, he can avoid a series of unfortunate events. The book has all the illogical logic of a nightmare, but shifts in tone slightly when Vasco meets two strange creatures and obeys the mother’s wish to take her baby to safety. I got quite invested in Vasco and Poco’s subsequent adventures and while the ending is a happy one, it’s also wistful and sad. The wide variety of near deaths sort of reminded me of Fortunately by Remy Charlip. A perfect capper to a perfectly madcap career.
The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom by Colleen AF Venable, ill. Lian Cho
What a treat! Adults have struggled for years with finding the best way to teach children about the different parts of the orchestra. From Peter and the Wolf to Fantasia to picture books like The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and The Composer Is Dead, there seems to be no end to the attempts. This book has its own methods of conveying information. A method that consists of constantly interrupting people with drum solos. The exceedingly patient band director Mr. V is determined to find you, the reader, your perfect instrument. To do this, he describes a great number, giving lots of additional nonfiction information along the way. You’ll get stuff like the science of different reeds alongside Cho’s beautiful art. It isn’t until you get to the end of the book that you realize that every kid in the class is based on a famous musician. So expect to see some cameos from folks like Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez, Ian Anderson, Sidney Bechet, and more. I enjoyed how the info was conveyed, and who doesn’t love a book where the tuba triumphs in the end?
‘Ohana Means Family by Ilima Loomis, ill. Kenard Pak
To make the poi for the ‘ohana lū’au you must first pick the kalo. To pick the kalo you must reach into the mud. To reach into the mud . . . A cumulative tale, gorgeously illustrated, of the people that make a Hawaiian lū’au their own. I dig this. It’s a cumulative story in the vein of The House That Jack Built. Now cumulative tales are not all created equal. Some are privy to a lyrical form of writing that works with the natural repetition of the form. And darned if Ms. Loomis hasn’t mastered it. I kept flipping back to her bio at the end of the book to see if she’d done other things I’d seen in the past, but nope. This is her first book, as far as I can tell. Kenard Pak may have finally found an author worthy of his talents. Plus, it’s hard to resist lines like, “This is the wind on which stories are told, that lifts the rain to the valley fold, that feeds the stream of sunlit gold, flooding the land that’s never been sold . . .”
Old Rock (Is Not Boring) by Deb Pilutti
The other forest creatures think Old Rock lives a boring life, but it astounds them with stories of its surprisingly eventful existence. A clever, humorous science lesson. This is such a pleasant surprise! And what a clever method for teaching kids about their geology. I like a book that has a good idea and then tackles it from a slightly different slant. Essentially, this book looks at a single rock. Does it just sit there? Maybe it does now but that same rock could have an amazing history you had no clue about. A marvelous look at the wonder in the everyday. If rocks could talk, eh?
On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex
Oh no. There’s gum stuck in your hair? Don’t worry, I know a surefire solution. A book where things get increasingly, hilariously, catastrophically worse. when it comes to comic timing, Adam Rex may be surpassing Mo Willems and Bob Shea. This is very much like Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, only instead of a tree it’s a kid’s head. And there is just so much to enjoy about it too. Little details like the rabbit’s never changing expression or the band-aids on the aunt’s chin in the final picture (see if you can figure out how they got there). The jokes land and they land hard. My kids were rolling when I got to the line, “Wait, no. I’m thinking of the old cat.” And on top of all of that it RHYMES!? Try reading this aloud to a group (you’ll need to practice beforehand because some of those rhymes aren’t obvious when you’re just reading a book in your head) and see what the results are.
Out the Door by Christy Hale
Every year I do a 101 Great Books list with my library, and every year we have to be done by mid-October. That means we miss things. Now the books I most regret having missed in 2020 include a whole plethora of fairy tales and folktales and this book. It’s so unassuming. So simple looking. Then you get right down to it and it’s more than a touch brilliant in its layout, formatting, design, and writing. It’s an over-under-around-and-through book! But Hale, who “spent many years in Brooklyn” (and hasn’t forgotten a thing) knows the city. I give extra points every year to any book set in NYC that’s accurate in its directions, travel, and feel. The feel element is the hard part. In 2020, Chris Raschka was poised to win my personal Best NYC in a Picture Book award for In the City (which even included a cameo by my former branch the Jefferson Market Library) but he has been scooped by Hale. This book KNOWS Carroll Gardens. It knows what a subway platform feels like. And it knows what it’s like to come out of a subway station to a bright blue sky surrounded by tall tall buildings. There’s nothing else in the world quite like it.
Outside In by Deborah Underwood, ill. Cindy Derby
When you forget that the Outside exists, it has ways of gently reminding you. Nature is the true star of the show in this gentle, poetic celebration of the outdoors, accompanied by evocative art. Derby, man. You just gotta keep your eyes on Derby. That lady’s going places. Remember last year when she put out How to Walk an Ant AND my one of my favorite poetry books Chasing Shadows? Some smart cookie has now paired her with Underwood and the result is this extraordinarily fun take on how the outside is always trying to remind you that it exists. Much subtler and smarter than all those put-down-your-cell-phone books we see regularly. Derby, for her part, is just knocking heads and taking names with the water colors. A true award contender.
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James E. Ransome
At the crack of dawn, Ruth Ellen clutches her copy of the life of Frederick Douglass, as she and her family climb a train bound for New York City. A thrilling tale of one family’s hope for a better life. Once a book starts racking up the stars I get simultaneously itchy to read it and worried that it won’t be as good as everyone says. Lesa and James have been making books together for years, but I feel like they’ve really been hitting their stride in the last two or three. In her Author’s Note, Lesa says that she’d not heard the term “Overground Railroad” to describe The Great Migration until recently, but it’s a perfect way to describe what was, in truth, often a clandestine way of escaping the sharecropping system. I love how the story of Frederick Douglass is expertly woven in and out of Ruth Ellen’s journey. It provides just the right connection between the events of the 19th and 20th century. Plus Ransome does some very nice things with overlaying the cotton plants on the endpapers over the four different methods of moving northward.
A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett, ill. Shawn Harris
“There is a polar bear in the snow” but where is he going? Brilliant papercuts display a bear on a snowy journey of his own. This book works, in large part, due to the clever paper workings of one Shawn Harris. If his name sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because he worked on Her Right Foot (a Dave Eggers project) lo these many years ago. And, of course, the already mentioned Colin Meloy book out the same year. It’s not an overtly environmental tale, though any book with a polar bear at its focus is going to appear that way. There’s a marvelous gag involving a human that appears halfway through the story, and I like how Harris takes Mac’s suggestions on how to render the bears as just eyes and nose against the white white. Weirdly affecting.
Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy, ill. Pete Oswald
Every day Rita and Ralph run down the hill, and up the hill, and down the hill, and up the hill to see each other. That is, before an accident makes everything bad. A rotten day was never this much fun. Consider it the readaloud book to beat all readaloud books! Deedy’s a storyteller at heart, but I’ve never seen her take a hand rhyme and turn it into a book before. She calls the original handrhyme “Mr. Wiggle & Mr. Waggle” but when you see it in the back of this book you’ll recognize it immediately, no matter what version you do. This book was made for storytimes. Plus Oswald’s art really fits Deedy’s writing so well. Love the color palette and those little noseless, glaring faces. A pretty darn good encapsulation of how things can get out of hand between friends.
Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan, ill. Anna Bron
Salma, a Syrian refugee living in Vancouver, hopes she can make her mother happy again by cooking one of her favorite dishes. A lovely celebration of community and compassion. Wow! I guess I was expecting just another kid-who-likes-to-cook title with a recipe in back. No recipe here (which is kind of a pity since the foul shami sounds delicious, but there is a link to the recipe online) just a really nice story of Syrian immigrants, a new community, and a child dealing with their parent’s depression. But it’s not a downer! And whoever this Anna Bron is, she is an amazing artist! I particularly liked that the author works with Syrian LGBTQ+ refugees and that this element made it into the book.
Sandcastle by Einat Tsarfarti, translated by the S.B. Rights Agency
One day a girl built a sandcastle. So begins a ludicrously told, meticulously illustrated story of spoiled royalty, incredible opulence, and the way sand has a way of getting into EVERYTHING! Okay, I’ll admit right here and now that I wasn’t giving this book a fair shake when I first glanced at it. I think I’d convinced myself that I’d already read it or something. A quick read was enough to convince me otherwise. This is amazing! I completely missed the detail of the hamster, but the scene of everyone dancing has my eternal love. This is a bonafide winner.
Shape Up, Construction Trucks! by Victoria Allenby
How often do you find a rhyming math book with copious photography? Allenby’s book is almost too good for its very simple premise. Essentially, you’re just looking at some (remarkably detailed, high-resolution) photos of construction equipment and finding the natural shapes in them. And just to up the ante, it rhymes. As the Kirkus review pointed out, you could do a whole storytime and sing this book to the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” song (which I always did with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) and make a whole construction production out of it!
Smashy Town by Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha, ill. Dan Yaccarino
Who’s looking for some serious smash time? Join Mr. Gilly has he smashes, crashes, tumbles and crumbles a great big building down to smithereens. Expect to read this one out loud again and again! While I prefer not to put sequels on my lists, there’s gotta be a 20-year statute of limitations in there, right? Trashy Town was released in 1999 and a whopping 21 years later we now have Smashy Town. It has all the perks of its predecessor, but the extra added benefit of allowing you, the children’s librarians, the chance to yell, “SMASH SMASH SMASH!” and “CRASH CRASH CRASH!” at the top of your lungs during storytime. Amazing!
Snail Crossing by Corey R. Tabor
Not only did I laugh out loud when I got to the punchline of this book but I kept snorting whenever I remembered it for the remainder of the day. Now I’m the kind of person who lives in a state of perpetual anxiety when someone in a work of fiction doesn’t take proper precautions on the road. Whether it’s someone not watching the road when they drive or a snail that decides to do a dead stop in the middle of a highway and have tea with some ants inside his shell, if you have an anxious child they may be chewing their fingernails down to a nub like me. Assure them that everything will turn out okay. The snail will have his day. The lettuce will be consumed. And all will be well and all will be well and all good manner of things shall be well.
Southwest Sunrise by Nikki Grimes, ill. Wendell Minor
Jayden’s been pouting all the way from New York to his new home in New Mexico. But when he goes out and starts to explore outside on his own, he’ll experience nature like never before. Ahhh. Here we go. I know we’re always on the lookout for books with black kids in nature. Turns out, Nikki Grimes was on the lookout too. So much so that she’s written this story. You can read her thoughts on the book here. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that her writing is lyrical here. And Wendell Minor’s such a pro that you can practically feel the heat bouncing off your skin.
Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, ill. Khoa Le
Vietnamese illustrator Khoa Le isn’t new to the picture book scene, even here in America. Books like Sun and Moon Sisters and The Lonely Polar Bear have been around for a couple years. With Umrigar’s Sugar in Milk, however, she outdoes herself. I honestly wasn’t sure whether or not I should put this in the picture book section or in the fairytales/folktales/religous tales category instead. The framing storyline centers around a girl from India that has come to live with her Auntie and Uncle in America. She’s miserable, so her Auntie tells her the story of refugees from Persia, forced to seek refuge in India. When they arrive, the king feels there is no room for the strangers. To illustrate this, he displays a cup of milk, filled to the brim. Yet a clever man amongst them takes a spoonful of sugar and stirs it into the cup to show that there is always more room (and sweeter besides). Umrigar’s tale is told with incredible elegance, yet it’s Khoa Le’s incredible art that blows us all away. If the New York Times Best Illustrated list had been released this year, this would have definitely have been a strong strong contender. Upcoming Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, anyone?
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.
Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
Grumpy Captain Swashby just wants to be left alone, but new neighbors and a mischievous sea have other plans for the cranky curmudgeon. I’m beginning to get a real respect for Beth Ferry’s books. She’s sort of gone all brilliant on us with this latest one. As the sea erases the girl’s words the story makes quite a lot of sense. I may also be a sucker for that old grumpy-person-makes-friends storyline as well. Add in the fact that this is the art of Juana Martinez-Neal and she is giving it her all. I already loved Martinez-Neal but this just really drills that home.
Tanna’s Owl by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, ill. Yong Ling Kang
The back of this book describes this as a “heartwarming story.” Nope. It’s a story all right but I certainly wouldn’t call it “heartwarming” in the sense that people usually mean. And you know what? That’s what I like about it. The tale, based on Inuit-Cree Rachel’s childhood, is a pretty straightforward tale of a girl tending to a baby owl that she doesn’t really want or feel a huge amount of affection for. Seen in that light, it’s actually really interesting. She’s not tending for it because it’s cute (she does NOT see it that way) but out of a kind of sense of obligation to nurse the helpless. When she “leave[s] her community for school” (notice how daily Inuit life is worked into the narrative so neatly) she worries about the owl but doesn’t miss getting up at 4 in the morning to catch lemmings for it. And when at the end she sees what may be her owl in the wild, there’s a sense of peace to the proceedings, not gooey sentimentality. So yes, it’s warms the heart in that the book gives you an understanding of what doing good in the world feels like, but don’t mistake it for the other ootsy-cutesy stuff we’re seeing on our shelves.
There Must Be More Than That! by Shinsuke Yoshitake, translated by HAKUSENSHA, Inc.
Yeah, all right. That’s it. Someone go and convince Yoshitake to come live here in America. For years I’ve adored his books and the degree to which he continues to be good each and every time is amazing to me. Surely you’ve run into one of his titles at some point, whether it was The Boring Book or Still Stuck. He just has this quirky, skewed, weird little look at life that no one else can replicate. In this particular book an older brother tells his younger sister that in the future we’re going to run out of food due to overpopulation, there will be plagues and wars, and aliens will invade. Freaked out, the girl runs to her grandmother who reassures her that grown-ups have a terrible track record when it comes to predicting the future. She assures the girl that she can try to think up her own futures, and this leads to an extraordinary, kooky array of possibilities, all ending with a nice boiled egg. Tried this one out on my 6-year-old and yes indeed. Laughs ah-plenty. This is one sense of humor that translates with infinite ease.
This Old Dog by Martha Brockenbrough
Old Dog likes to take things slow to explore the world, but his people just rush rush rush. Will New Girl be the friend he needs? Yeah, okay, so apparently I’m just a big old softie, not for dog picture books, but for OLD dog picture books. Last year I had nothing but love for Paws + Edward, and now here I go seeing this book about an old dog adjusting to a new life. I mean, just open the book and look at that expression on the dog’s face when he sees the crib. Classic. Plus I kind of tear up when I read the sentence, “He finds his girl.”
This Thing Called Life by Christian Borstlap
The minute I saw this book in my office I started to laugh. I really couldn’t help it, just look at that title! Have you ever seen a sillier, French-er title in all your lifelong days? The next five minutes consisted of me and co-worker saying in progressively thicker and thicker French accents, “Thees thing . . . . called LIFE!” Eventually I was able to calm down enough to actually sit and read the book and what I discovered under its cover astonished me. Yes, on a very real level, this is a ridiculous little book. It is, at its core, a high-flautin’ graduation book. You would hand this to a new high school graduate to tell them a little about the world they’re about to enter. And yet, and yet . . . it’s much weirder than your average Oh, the Places You’ll Go type title. I credit this to the translation and to the art. The translation because there isn’t a fleck of preciousness to this text. I mean, the last lines in the book are, “Life is something we do together. All of life is connected and dependent on the rest of life.” Meanwhile the accompanying images are having a friggin’ field day. We’re talking mouths with legs, what appears to be a troop of multicolored (and ambulatory) pants, and at least one out-and-out laugh-out-loud moment that caught me by surprise (it discusses whether or not life is fair). It is, as I say EXCEEDINGLY French and weird and really very wonderful. Honestly, if you had a graduate to anything in the coming years, hand them this along with Selma.
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 Truth About Dragons by Jaime Zollars
Created in graphite on vellum bristol paper and colored digitally, Zollars has constructed a surreal Where the Wild Things Are-esque interpretation of what school can feel like when everyone but you is a dragon. As a kid, I often viewed other children as strange, wild beasts. I sympathize with the protagonist who sees everyone else as a dragon, herself the only human. Only when she’s able to get to know them do they humanize. It’s kind of like Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster (No, I’m Not). The colors are jewel-toned and the dragons odd, curling, and lovely. It’s the kind of book that you assume would rhyme and then, gratifyingly, doesn’t.
Turtle Walk by Matt Phelan
“Are we there yet?” takes on a whole different meaning when a family of turtles takes a long distance trip. Another contender for your earliest of readers. Anyone who has ever experienced a long car trip with small children will be able to relate to the turtle parents in this book. This is a nice return to form for Phelan. I’m very pleased to see him back in the picture book game. Plus, I suspect you won’t see the ending coming. I sure didn’t.
Unstoppable by Adam Rex, ill. Laura Park
What’s that you say? You say I can’t have two Adam Rex books on the same list? How wrong you are! After reading this and On Account of the Gum, I was inspired to interview Adam and the result is here if you’re curious. In this book, Crab wishes it had wings. Crow wishes it had claws. What happens when you put the two together? They become UNSTOPPABLE! Hilarity ensues and ensues. I cannot tell a lie. I laughed incredibly hard when this book went from a fairly simple concept and then took it to its furthest extreme. And I can see why Rex opted not to illustrate this himself. My sole objection is that you have absolutely no idea what you’re getting into with this cover. Then again, that’s a good solid chunk of the fun. Side question: Why do all the funniest books feature bears?
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, ill. Michaela Goade
A powerful look at the Indigenous-led movements in the United States to stop the oil pipelines from ruining the natural world. In this powerful “own voices” book by two Indigenous women, the text is solid, but it’s the art that really makes it soar. One of the reasons I suspect this book has a particularly good Caldecott chance this year is due, in large part, to Boade’s adept handling of the watercolor medium. Just watch how these illustrations seem to just flow across the page. As my co-worker Brian put so well, “Timely and beautifully conceived.”
Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, ill. Luisa Uribe
On the first day of her new school, no one can pronounce a little girl’s name. Fortunately, her mother has a surefire method for showing people how to both pronounce and celebrate her name and those of others. I’m keen on the ways in which this book normalizes names, including a pronunciation guide both in the text and at the end of the book to show that there is no “normal” name or pronunciation. So you get “Benjamin” next to “Bilqis” and “Bob” next to “Ha” and “Jalonte”. There’s also a nice note saying, “Always listen carefully to how a person says their own name. Ask people how to pronounce their name and let them know that getting it right is important to you.”
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
Thank you for reading, everybody!
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2020
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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