31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Rhyming Picture Books
What hath Dr. Seuss wrought?
So asks the children’s librarian that faces the onslaught of poorly rhymed picture books each and every year. Make no mistake: Rhyming isn’t easy. Actually, I should correct that statement. Rhyming is easy. Rhyming WELL is hard. Even so, I was able to find a plethora of titles that did it well in 2021. Remember, however, that if you intend to read any of these aloud to a child or group of children PRACTICE FIRST! Because there are few sights quite as damning as a grown ass adult who can’t competently read a picture book live simply because they thought it would be a breeze.
Now, I’d like to offer a special shout out to reader Marty Lapointe Malchik who not only saw this list but created this beautiful display of some of the books on this list:
Beautiful work, Marty!
2021 Rhyming Picture Books
Arno and His Horse by Jane Godwin, ill. Felicita Sala
Hard to go wrong with Felicita Sala illustrating your text. In this gently rhyming story, Godwin manages to convey the large swath of background and characters’ relationship with minimal words. When Arno loses his little carved wooden horse everyone sets out to find it. Alas, they cannot and wonder why Arno really needs it in the first place. But through memories we learn that Arno’s horse was carved by his grandfather, a man who would tell his grandson stories about fording rivers on horseback. A grandfather who grew old and sick, but whose carved horse never would. There are layers to this lost toy tale, and beautiful watercolor/gouache/colored pencil art as well.
The Boy Who Knew Nothing by James Thorp, ill. Angus Mackinnon
It is difficult not to be attached to a book where the sheer point of it is that you should be unafraid to say you don’t know something and then learn as much as you can. The story starts off a touch twee, which may turn you off, but stick with it. It concerns a boy who “lived on the island of Solo Capoo, in a broken-down house with a wonderful view.” Very Seussian, no? He’s assured by his classmates that he doesn’t know anything. Then, one day, he finds a flamingo in his house and goes in search of its name. The art, I should mention, looks like what you might find if Peter Max was dipped in a bucket of Pepto-Bismol. I dug its groovy 60s style and thick black lines. It’s the kind of book that you feel like someone could have drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, so connected are its lines. And the rhymes? Consistent, strange, funny, with a spot on message at the end.
Bye, Car by Naomi Danis
There is, somewhere, someone out there collecting all the picture books with overt COVID-19 elements. Perhaps it’s a research library or a book collector. One hopes they’ll know to select this book for that collection as well, if they get a chance. Of course, the pandemic isn’t the focus of this title. I found it very interesting to see that the masks on the kids are seen as simply an everyday part of life. Few picture books have dared to say as much. But what makes me want to include this book here today is how it cleverly takes a very simple rhyming concept (saying goodbye to different types of vehicles) and transforms it into a bit of subtle messaging about transitioning to greener, cleaner forms of transportation. “Bye, car in a hurry. / Bye, car in a flurry.” Danis manages to pack a lot of little details into art that, upon first glance, seems so simple. A nice eco-friendly/pandemic acknowledging/rhyming work of picture book art.
The Cat and the Rat and the Hat by Em Lynas, ill. Matt Hunt
Vibrant colors and fast-paced action are going to make this one beloved. At the beginning, I almost wondered if the book could be considered an easy reader. Nothing’s particularly hard at the start, after all. “Hat”. “Cat”. “Rat”. You get the picture. But once that “Cravat” gets introduced (and I love that there’s a picture book out there where the existence of a cravat is a major plot point) all hell breaks loose. Words like “twisted” and “twirled” probably mean it’s not in easy book territory, and who can resist the sudden moments when you can turn the book to one side or another? Yes, this book’s a rhymer. No question. My sole regret is that it doesn’t quite stick the landing, but you’ll have so much fun watching the antics of these crazy critters, you’ll hardly care.
Forty Winks: A Bedtime Adventure by Kelly DiPucchio, ill. Lita Judge
Cute may be the name of the game with this outing but twee it is not. DiPucchio brushes off her rhyming skills in this tale of two parents trying desperately to get a brood of young, horrendously energetic mouse children to sleep. And when I say brood I mean BROOD. We’re talking forty of the darn kids, all of varying ages. Anyone who has ever had to deal with a mere two siblings of different ages sleeping in the same room will have to relate on some level. Generally the rhyming follows the standard form, but it gets quite creative when listing the names of the mouse children. I suspect any reader would get a lot of fun out of “Wilma, Winky, Walter, Stinky, Itty-bitty Boo, / Gabby, Grubby, Tiny, Chubby, Stella, Little Stu”. The ways in which DiPucchio changes up her rhymes is eclectic and fun to me. Some may feel miffed that it changes at all, but by repeating the names of the kids at least once, I feel like that two-page section really grounds the book. Plus there’s a note at the end that asks the reader how many mouse kids can name from memory. I just find that clever.
Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme by Melissa Stewart, ill. Steve Jenkins
BANG! Surprised you with some nonfiction, I did! Now riddle me this: How can fourteen different kinds of monkeys all live in the same area? Come to the different heights of the Manú National Park and let this rhyming bouncy text introduce you to its furry little residents. A couple points that you need to consider here. First off, that monkey on the cover is eating orange mushrooms off a tree. I just happen to find that particularly cool. This also goes far beyond the usual Steve Jenkins catalog of things. There’s an aspect where you can see which part of the canopy each different kind of monkey lives in and a two-page spread at the end that shows the different layers (emergent, canopy, understory, etc.). The additional facts about the monkeys in the backmatter are almost as interesting as the front matter (and involve a LOT more urine), and check out that killer Bibliography! You can read the rhyming portions for younger children and the more wordy nonfiction for the older ones. And, as ever, Steve’s art is killer.
Goodnight Ganesha by Nadia Salomon, ill. Poonam Mistry
Who says rhyming picture books can’t also be gorgeous? I was already an admirer of Poonam Mistry’s work on books like YOU’RE SAFE WITH ME, YOU’RE SNUG WITH ME, etc. so it’s nice to see her extending her reach into something with a little more narrative. This book is a bedtime sleepytime title and practically the first thing that you see, aside from Ganesha himself, is this jaw-dropping shot of an airplane flying past the moon. The moon itself is highly detailed, all whorls, dots, swirls, and delicious patterning. The rhyme schemes themselves are interesting too. There are usually four lines, and all four rhyme with one another. This is then following by a Goodnight Moon-esque recap (example: “Goodnight, marigolds. / Goodnight, moon. / Goodnight, planes going zhoom, zhoom, zhoom.”). There are mentions of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu amid bedtime stories, prayer, and lullabies. Probably the prettiest bedtime book you’ll encounter.
Hair Story by NoNieqa Ramos, ill. Keisha Morris
I can remember when Natasha Tarpley’s I Love My Hair was almost the only game in town when it came to hair pride, all the way back in 1998. It seems that in this newfound era of Black pride and Black joy in picture books, hair-related texts are abundant. So much so that we’re beginning to see some particularly original titles. This year I was quite keen on the science fiction inspired Stella’s Stellar Hair by Yesenia Moises with its spacey take. NoNieqa Ramos, however, is rapidly becoming my favorite poet. Every picture book she does is just filled with this rhythm and movement and really lovely rhymes. If you haven’t seen her Your Mama then you have a treat in store (and that goes double for next year’s Beauty Woke). Here she tackles hair love and you just get sucked into the rhymes. Listen:
“Moms do each other’s dos.
Hair, geometric, electric.
Uncover the algorithm
Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel
It’s a great big world out there and the inside cat thinks it knows what to expect. Cut paper, colored pencils, oil pastels and markers bring this precocious feline and its wild imagination to life. So we’re going full-on into rhyming picture book territory here. And yes, it’s impossible to read this book and not think of it as yet another response to our past COVID-year. Essentially it’s about all the assumptions a cat makes about the outside world when it catches glimpses of things through the window. Notice the subtle shift in the art around the windows, as the cat’s imagination grows more and more wild. It packs a punch with that final image, and I had a palpable sense that this could also be read about how your assumptions take a hit when faced with the complexity of the real world. Pretty smart writing for a book with so few words.
Little Messy Marcy Su by Cheri Fu, ill. Julie Kwon
The agents of chaos are strong in 2021. Makes sense when I say it like that, but I’m referring specifically to picture books. The same energy that infuses books like Mr. Watson’s Chickens by Jarrett Dapier and Andrea Tsurumi is alive and well in this tale of a kid “helping”. Any parent that’s been on the receiving end of such “help” will feel for the mom in Little Messy Marcy Su. Upon being told to clean up, Marcy Su’s attempts to go above and beyond the call of duty yield a mess so magnificent, she couldn’t have produced it intentionally. And of course, it all rhymes! “Speeding to dress herself, Marcy was beaming. / Her ribbons pulled tight. But the faucet? Still streaming!” Beautifully rhymed throughout. And, as an unrelated aside, I want mom’s white button up shirt. That thing is enviable.
On the Day the Horse Got Out by Audrey Helen Weber
On the day the horse got out, “the green fly said, ‘So long! Goodbye!’ / and the comet cried out to the sky…” Gentle rhymes and dreamlike watercolors tell a rhythmic story for the youngest of new readers and listeners. This one is utterly original, you’ll have to give it that much. We’re always talking about how we wish that we could have more books for younger readers out there. It doesn’t get much younger than a book this heavily influenced by nursery rhymes. It is subtly rhythmic, with strange, wonderful, dreamlike art, and a story that is more chant than plot. I could see me reading this to a small child over and over and over again. If the publisher, Little Brown & Co, doesn’t turn this into a board book then they’ll be missing out on a beautiful opportunity.
Paletero Man by Lucky Diaz, ill. Micah Player
This upbeat, catchy book is a hard one to resist. I’d never heard of the paletero man before. Mind you, I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, the setting of this tale of a boy with a dream. His dream? To eat a slew of delicious paleteros. These frozen treats come in a variety of different flavors. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t accompany the read of this book with a listen to the recording of the song, recorded by the author, that goes with the rhyming text. It helps that the art is so colorful and vibrant and that the paleteros look mouthwatering. I’d love to see a live read of this book sometime. It just feels like it could be a hoot and a holler.
The Rapping Princess by Hannah Lee, ill. Allen Fatimaharan
I got charmed by this one, but let me be clear that if you didn’t see it firsthand you might think the premise was a bit too twee. In this book, Princess Shiloh discovers that while all the other princesses can sing like birds, she lacks the gift. This would be more depressing if she didn’t also discover that she has a keen talent for rapping. At first, she ignores her gift and pig-headedly tries to insist on singing. It’s only when she truly embraces her ability that she’s able to shine on her own. Remember when rapping was relatively young and a ton of picture books tried to (poorly) incorporate it into their storylines? This isn’t that. Naturally I loved the setting, the costumes and the message, but I was also happy to find that this book rhymes and scans with ease. There are a lot of books out there about finding your voice. Just be sure you take this one home since it has a little more pep, a little more zing, and a little more flair than the rest.
Room for Everyone by Naaz Khan, ill. Mercè López
“The daladala rumbled and roared, and Musa and Dada were off to the shore.” A simple trip turns into a raucous adventure in this fun and frolicsome adventure on the road. Bouncy. Fun. The rhymes definitely work. If you’ve questions about the book’s origins, I highly recommend that you check out my interview with author Naaz Khan, where she discusses her process. I love that the book isn’t just a play on Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse but integrates a counting aspect as well. And just look at those stunning images over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Magnificent.
Runaway Pea by Kjartan Poskitt, ill. Alex Willmore
So I picked up this book about a pea with ambition and found myself growing increasingly suspicious. The whole concept of the book is that the pea is boinging and banging all around a kitchen/dining area, running into problems every step of the way. Think of it as a really unlucky Gingerbread Man without the self-satisfaction. Eventually the pea even manages to end up in a dryer. It was at this point that I had to finally ask the question: Is this book British? Because in my experience the British are the only folks that regularly put their dryers in their kitchens/picture books. Sure as shooting, this book’s an import. And I have to commend Poskitt for these rhymes. England has sure come a long way since the days when Julia Donaldson was their primary source of rhyming picture books (they’ve also never understood the lure of Dr. Seuss, a choice that feels somewhat prescient these days). I was quite impressed with the book’s scansion, to say nothing of the British-to-American translation. I mean, at one point the pea falls into a toaster and when it comes out its “bottom’s on fire.” Look me in the eye and tell me that wasn’t originally “bum is on fire”. There’s not a word out of place in this little charmer. If you want some high-caliber legume-related antics, this puts the “pea” in “party”.
Saving the Day: Garrett Morgan’s Life-Changing Invention of the Traffic Signal by Karyn Parsons, ill. R. Gregory Christie
Sometimes people will request booklists from me via Goodreads or Facebook Messenger. This happened the other day when a complete stranger asked if I could provide a list of rhyming nonfiction picture books. Thanks to these lists (found here, here, here, here and here) I was able to bring together a nice group. Still, it really drilled home to me the fact that when it comes to nonfiction, people need a wide variety of ways of communicating information. Now, by and large I’d slot Ms. Parsons’ book into the “Informational Fiction” category since there’s a fair amount of fictionalized stuff on its pages. Made up dialogue, situations, etc. That said, as a rhyming picture book, it’s fairly fun. This isn’t Garrett Morgan’s first appearance in a book for kids by a long shot (it would have been nice to see The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan by Joan DiCicco in the backmatter) but R. Gregory Christie has definitely loosened up his style for it. A less serious title for younger audiences.
Trillions of Trees: A Counting and Planting Book by Kurt Cyrus
If you missed the Kurt Cyrus book Billions of Bricks when it was released back in 2016 then I suggest that you alleviate your condition tout suite. That Mathical Honor winner was just a marvelous amalgamation of rhyming text, gorgeous art, and counting fun. I still regret not reviewing it officially. Since it came out, Cyrus put out Fix That Clock, which was vaguely in the same vein. Trillions of Trees is more recent and more successful. Though it sort of eschews the notion of counting (the “trillions” of the title is a plot point but we’re not actually gonna go into what makes a trillion here) what it lacks in math it makes up for in cataloging different kinds of trees, where they grow, where they should grow, and catchy rhymes. Naturally the art is beautiful, but this is a highly informative little piece to boot. The whole premise of the story is that our main character’s sister called to order “a trillium, please” and was misheard to order a “trillion trees”. Now our heroes need to figure out where those trees can grow. Child readers will see poplars and pines planted as a windbreak, alder, ash, willow, and cottonwood planted beside a river, mountain hemlock, sugar pine, and douglas-fir planted to keep the muddy slopes from creating mudslides, and more. Librarians, booksellers, and teachers are always on the lookout for good books to do for Earth Day (or, heck, Arbor Day) and the rhymes found here are fantastic. Plus, those older readers amongst us will appreciate any book where near the end the rhymes just turn into, “Ow. Ow. Ow. / We’re bruised and blistered now. / Our knees are weak. / Our elbows creak. / Ow. Ow. Ow.” I hear you, little book characters. I hear you.
We Want a Dog by Lo Cole
“Striking” is the word I want to use when discussing this particular book. If you ever looked at the band The White Stripes and thought to yourself, “They’re good, but what would those colors look like in a picture book about dogs?” I have your answer. From the messy footprints on the front endpapers (Pro Tip : Don’t look at the back endpapers unless you want to ruin the book’s final twist) to the anthropomorphized title page, this is a dog book for the ages. As you may or may not be able to tell, Lo Cole is a Brit, and his work tends towards the simple and modern. And while he has done picture books before, this is the one that jumps out at you a bit. But for me, for all that the art is cool (and it is) I like the rhymes. The litany of different dog types is amusing. “One with hair? One that’s bare? One that likes to sit and stare?” It’s a marvelous combination of ideal one-on-one gentle rhymes and art that you won’t mind seeing again and again. One warning, though. Don’t be reading this one to your kids if you adamantly do NOT want a dog. Because while the ending may try to steer your kids in another direction, clearly dogs are the name of the game with this title. Gorgeous and maybe a tad too enticing.
Interested in previous years’ rhyming picture book lists? Of course you are! Feast your eyes, then, on these:
And here’s what else is on the docket 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2021, Booklists
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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