31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Books With a Message
I can see that today’s topic is going to require some explanation. What is it that I mean when I say “message”? Well, to explain that, let’s take a deep dive into the very beginnings of children’s books at all. As Leonard Marcus explains in Minders of Make-Believe, the earliest of American children’s books were created to instill puritanical morals in the young. As Leonard explains, the 17th century was when there was “immense popularity in the colonies of James Janeway’s A Token for Children, Being an Exact Account of the Conversation, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children” circa 1671 (though it didn’t come to the colonies until a decade after that date). So, put plainly, children’s books carried with them moral messages.
That instinct to teach and instruct through ink on paper continues to this very day, though the messages have grown a bit more variegated (and contain surprisingly few “joyful deaths of several young children”).
Today’s books seek to teach and instruct, but do so well. I think we all feel a little browbeaten by the books that prefer to thwack young readers bluntly over the head with their messages. These books, picture books and board books one and all, are more adept. And, as such, I salute them.
By the way, this list may look long to you, but please believe me when I say that this is just the smallest smidgen of what I read this year.
2021 Message Books for Children
The Big Bad Wolf In My House by Valérie Fontaine, ill. Nathalie Dion, translated by Shelley Tanaka
I can already tell that this one’s going to be a shocker for some people when they read it. They’ll probably expect some cheeky play on the Wolf/Red Riding Hood dichotomy. Maybe a story about a more contemporary girl outsmarting the Wolf, but in her own way. The clue that this book isn’t that, and would never be that, can actually be spotted on this cover. Notice the rose in the center of the table and the single petal that has fallen. This book is about living with an abuser, and for all that the little girl is the narrator, she’s not the protagonist. That would be her mom, who leaves with her child and very little else. For all that it’s beautifully illustrated and pretty metaphorical, this book packs a hard punch. To read it requires thought and patience and concentration. Interestingly, there’s no helpful backmatter at the end. I suspect that this is because it’s a translation and resources of this sort do not translate in the same way as text. In any case, it’s a hard book, but a necessary addition.
Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder
One body type is boring. We like bodies in ALL their shapes, sizes, colors, and more. Body positivity gets cranked up to 11 in this fantastic, wild, wonderful title. I’m glad my fellow Evanston Public Library librarians discovered this one. I think I would have missed it entirely. I think what Feder does so well here is just imbue here book with a singular joy. This book does a lot of good in this world (and when was the last time you saw top surgery scars on a picture book cover?). Pretty impressive. How good is it? Of the books on this list, I think that this is the only one that made it onto my libray’s 101 Great Books for Kids list.
The Capybaras by Alfredo Soderguit, translated by Elisa Amado
[Previously Seen on the Caldenotts List]
“No one knew them, no one expected them.” But when a family of capybaras comes to a farmyard for safety, they not only win the local chickens’ love but show them how to seek freedom. Who knew that if you just added capybaras to a book chock full o’ chickens you could come up with a pretty good story about prejudices and assumptions without a single anthropomorphized facial expression? Looks like this little Spanish import knows how to tell a tale with universal appeal. I keep thinking about how this is a pretty brilliant metaphor for how accepting immigrants can lead to a new understanding of your own oppressive government. Or am I reading too much into it? Dunno, but those hunters with the red caps sure look like MAGA guys to me.
Coffee Rabbit Snowdrop Lost by Betina Birkjær, ill. Anna Magrethe Kjærgaard, translated by Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov
As it turns out, Americans don’t totally get Danish art all that often. At least not when it’s done in the style of Lilian Brøgger (and, by extension, Dorte Karrebæk, Kim Fupz Aakeson, etc.). But Kjærgaard? That’s someone who makes a little more sense to our Yankee eyeballs. This art we can’t help but like (woman makes a mean chrysanthemum). This is a story of losing a grandparent you love to dementia. What makes it interesting is what separates it from other similar titles already on the market. In this story the grandfather’s decline is heartbreaking, but also completely misunderstood by his wife, who appears to be in some kind of denial. When things almost get too out of hand (he wanders into the snow without proper dress) that’s the turnaround point. The granddaughter, however, appears to be perfectly aware of what is happening, as she silently gathers up the words that he has lost from where they’ve fallen on the ground. The colors are primarily roses, pinks, and blues. There is also, I should note, a very good bit of backmatter on “Dementia and Memory” from Ove Dahl, the historian and head of the Danish Center for Reminiscence (a marvelous title). As with some of the best imports, this book transcends countries. Beautifully rendered.
El Cucuy Is Scared Too! by Donna Barba Higuera, ill. Juliana Perdomo
On her blog De Colores, Beverly Slapin gives, what I feel is, the perfect review of this particular book. She says, “Perdomo’s digitally created illustrations are bright and appealing, with each double-page spread having its own background color. The dialog between boy and monster is honest and engaging as well, with touches of Spanish words and phrases seamlessly woven in (and not defined or italicized). This warm story of two friends—one human, one monstruo, sort of—who share their immigrant experience, is highly, highly recommended.” I can’t help but agree. I was not particularly familiar with El Cucuy, but I could appreciate how Higuera has found a clever method of showing one particular kind of immigrant experience through a wholly new lens. We take our stories with us when we find new homes, and what could be a better way of showing that than with El Cucuy? There’s a moment when Ramón tells El Cucuy that he’s not afraid of the monster because “Other things are scarier to me now.” It’s a little heartbreaking to think of the wide range of things that might be. A fun, great new take on a topic that could stand more creative books like this one to make its point.
By the way, I’m having a hard time digesting the fact that the same woman who wrote this book also wrote this year’s dystopian space horror novel The Last Cuentista. Mind blown.
Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) by Carrie Finson, ill. Daniel Wiseman
Man. Can I buy this book for every random hugger I meet in my travels? I gotta say, I’m not as far down the Don’t Hug Me spectrum as Doug, but I definitely see what he’s getting at. Personally, I’m baffled by people who feel they have the right to physically touch someone they aren’t, I dunno, romantically involved with or know closely. And while I don’t have any immediate evidence on hand, Doug here feels like a corrective. Like there are lots of picture books out there where a grumpy character is brought around through the power of loving hugs. Heck, no! The best thing about this book is that Doug’s a good sport through all his gentle but firm denials. The cover says it all (“It’s just not my thing!”). He doesn’t have to have some underlying condition to not want folks wrapping those meat slabs they call arms around him. Plus, this book builds a wonderful starter conversation not just about personal space but permission when it comes to touching others. That’s something more than a few adults could stand to learn. Let’s hear it for body autonomy for the young!
Families Grow by Dan Saks, ill. Brooke Smart
I can’t imagine the difficulty that comes with attempting to write a book that is for the youngest of readers and touches on everything from surrogacy to adoption to foster parenting. This is a board book with a glossary in the back, but as far as I’m concerned the glossary is there to help give parents the words they need to explain these concepts to their children. There’s a lot to admire here (not least the beautifully colored art by Brooke Smart) but my particular favorite part is when it explains how babies come from pregnant bellies and says, “The belly might belong to Mom, / But also it may not. / Sometimes another special belly / Is the perfect spot.” And yes, it rhymes, but the fact that I didn’t really notice on a first read just means that the scansion is so innocuous that it never detracts. All told, there aren’t a lot of board books out there covering these subjects. This one goes beyond merely checking a box and is beautiful to eye and ear alike in its own right.
Goodbye, Old House by Margaret Wild, ill. Ann James
Go to any parenting Facebook group in any town and search for “books on movie”. There you will inevitably find parents asking for book recommendations because they’re about to move house. And though we all have our favorites (mine remains Good Bye, Bad Bye by Deborah Underwood, ill. Jonathan Bean) I have a special fondness for this new little Australian import. Reading it, you can see why illustrator Ann James has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. She imbues the main character with this marvelous, wild, frenetic energy. And the text is just so clever. The book begins on what you might think was a dour note, with the kid softly saying things like “This is the last time I’ll fish in this river” or “This is the last time I’ll sleep in this house.” But then she does a bunch of very silly goodbyes to different rooms. Once she’s in the new place, everything shifts. “This is the first time I’ll climb up this tree.” “This is the first time I’ll walk through this door.” And now she’s saying hello to each room. So while the book is acknowledging the sadness she’s feeling, it’s also showing the adventurous side of change. It turns moving into a wondrous, exploring game. Almost makes me want to move house myself, just so I have an excuse to read this book to my kids (almost).
Hamsters Make Terrible Roommates by Cheryl B. Klein, ill. Abhi Alwar
Seems to me we could cut down the number of inter-roommate squabbles by 40% easy if we just made people read this book before living together. As someone who grew up in the Midwest, I truly appreciated this paean to the detrimental effects that passive aggressiveness has on a person’s own soul. The plot involved two hamsters. One, Henry, had a nice, comfortable routine to fall back on until the dire day when roommate Marvin moved in. Marvin’s constantly talking, constantly in Henry’s space, and it all comes to a head the day that Henry explodes. Then Marvin’s feelings get hurt and Henry is blissful. Now here’s the key. In a lot of books like this, Henry would realize that he missed Marvin’s talking, even though this makes zero sense. Instead, in this book it’s Marvin that does the apologizing and starts the conversation between the two, and I really appreciated that. Other books with similar friendship lessons sort of rely on old conventions. In this book, Henry considers his actions, apologizes too, and then the two set up clear ground rules that they can abide by. The last lines of this book are fantastic. It is so hard to end a picture book well, but Klein references back to the fourth sentence and nails it with, “It’s a beautiful morning, Day Two Hundred and Seven. It feels like our Day One.” Got nothing but admiration for that line and for this book.
How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay, ill. Matt Ottley
I’m not so blind that I can’t see true talent at work in a book like this. That said, I think this is a very specific kind of book for a very specific kind of situation. Put frankly, this is best given to parents who have experienced or are just about to experience empty nest syndrome. There are other implications for this story, though. I should say that the plot of this book is rather dreamlike itself. In it you will find instructions for making a bird of your own. Lightweight bones, a fast beating heart, feathers, you name it. By the end of the story, the bird’s creator lets it go. It flies out, never looking back once. The metaphor doesn’t quite extend as easily to children that must set animals free, since you’ve created the bird in the first place. Like I said. Empty Nest Syndrome: The book!
I Can Help by Reem Faruqi, ill. Mikela Prevost
I’ve got some big Prevost fandom over here, thanks to the remarkable work she did on Let’s Have a Dog Party! so I was already inclined to like this book when I picked it up. Inside I found a rather fascinating story that ends without the neat and tidy resolution we all have gotten so used to in our picture books over the years. Telling a story from her own youth, Reem explains how as a child there was a boy in her class that needed a little help with things. She was always eager to aid, until some classmates shamed her for her kindness. She turned mean, then left the school before she could ever make it up to the boy. By the end, she decides to help any new kid in the school, choosing kindness once again. Ms. Faruqi keeps the facts straightforward. She doesn’t dwell or linger too often on her past crimes. One gets the feeling that this was a neat, tight editing job. Meanwhile Ms. Prevost brings just the right tone to the art. I’m particularly taken with the shadows and the way in which autumn infuses the scenes, until suddenly it’s spring at the end. A lovely book.
In the Meadow of Fantasies by Hadi Mohammadi, ill. Nooshin Safakhoo, translated by Sarah Khalili
I love many things about Iranian picture books, but one of the things I love the most is how different one book always is from another. In 2019 I wrote a blog post about four Iranian picture books coming out that year, each one worlds different from the others. Now I have been introduced to Hadi Mohammadi and Nooshin Safakhoo for the first time, and all that I can say is that I wish I’d met them sooner. Mohammadi has a marvelous understanding of the role of repetition in a children’s picture book text. In this tale a girl daydreams about seven horses. Six of them have their act together. They’re able to receive colors, choose where they live, have their own dreams and fantasies, and have their own foals. What comes easily to them, however, does not come easily to the seventh horse. And so, the other horses share their colors, and the seventh horse receives them all. They share their living spaces, and it can live anywhere. They share their dreams, and it can dream so many different things. And these gifts it passes on to its own foal who, in turn, passes everything on to the girl dreaming all this up. Safakhoo’s art is sublime. I absolutely adored the facial expressions of the seventh horse (which has, and I mean this in the best possible way, a kind of Berkeley Breathed quality to it). The book also contains a subtle bit of messaging if ever I heard of it. Interestingly the copy sent along with this book doesn’t stress what it means all that much, but one cannot help but notice that this book was selected for IBBY’s Collection for Young People with Disabilities. Draw your own conclusions as to why.
Jenny Mei Is Sad by Tracy Subisak
There are a number of messages one could take away from Tracy Subisak’s book, but two stand out to me in particular. In this story our heroine explains that her friend Jenny Mei may be goofy and fun and silly in school, but that this doesn’t mean she isn’t also sad. There’s a level of complexity to that understanding that I really admired. So that’s the first thing I liked about it. The second was something I also appreciated in fellow picture book The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. Essentially, that to be a good friend you listen to someone. You try to understand them. And, what’s more, you’re there for them. A lesson worth teaching to the very young and, for that matter, all the other ages too.
Keeping the City Going by Brian Floca
A number of picture books were released in 2021 relating to COVID and the lockdown. To create such a book is, in many ways, a gutsy choice. After all, by the time Floca’s book was released in April, the vaccines were thoroughly underway. Even so, there’s a great deal of good to be gained from giving children the words to explain what they’ve just lived through. One also can’t help but like a book that spends so much of its time praising front line workers. Indeed, that’s the true focus of the book itself (the title is kind of a give away). Now any book that praises, amongst those workers, the police in 2021 is going to find itself under a microscope. What I really like about this book is how Floca phrases them as “the people whose job is to keep everyone safe.” Whether they DO that job or not is an issue, but few could contest why they exist in the first place. Smart move. In his Author’s Note, Brian says “We all have our coping mechanisms, and drawing vehicles is apparently one of mine.” Of course, when you compare this book to those in Floca’s early days, he’s come a long long way. The technical expertise is incredible. And too, we all post-COVID have come a long long way on our own. It takes books like this one to show us just how far.
Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand, ill. Nabi H. Ali
I’d seen the cover of this book out for quite a long time, not knowing what “mooch” even was. I figured it had to be some derivation of “smooch”, what with its obvious focus on lips. I was . . . not right, but not entirely off base. As it turns out, your “mooch” consists of the hairs above your lips. We all have some kind of a mooch, it’s just that some are darker than others. This book is essentially a joyful embrace of body hair, whether it’s on your lips or your legs and arms, or even between your eyebrows. Sometimes you encounter a picture book that removes the sigma from something you didn’t even realize was stigmatized until it’s brought out into the light. The messaging, art, and humor (those parents are perhaps my favorite picture book couple of the year) raise this to another level. Now I get all the praise it’s received. I really do.
The Little Things by Christian Trimmer, ill. Kaylani Juanita
There’s a clever idea! Christian Trimmer (who was behind one of my favorite under-the-radar picture books Teddy’s Favorite Toy) takes the old story about the person saving sea stars after a storm and builds an entire plot arc out of that act. This is a pay it forward book that doesn’t feel pushy or didactic (no small feat). Mind you, I’d be inclined to like it anyway, but throwing Kaylani Juanita into the mix just turns the dial to 11. Trimmer apparently has incredible luck pairing up with fantastic illustrators. Best of all, there’s a lot to pick apart in this book. I love the infinite details in the art and the sheer energy of the piece. A book that manages to convey its subtitle (“A Story About Acts of Kindness”) with verve and flair.
The Longest Letsgoboy by Derick Wilder, ill. Cátia Chien
It’s time for one last walk for a gooddog (oh yes he is!) and his foreverfriend. Sumptuous illustrations and a delightful text tell the story of a dog saying goodbye from its p.o.v. If you know me, then you know that if I add a dead dog title to this list, it’s going to have to be pretty good. Now I’m not going to try to convince you to read it by saying that it made me cry in the lunchroom when I read it because that’s a real low bar. I freakin’ cry when I watch Xanax ads on TV. But Wilder is taking a big swing with his text here. He’s writing it in such a way where the dog has his own way of speaking. And that could come off as really twee or cutesy or simply not work at all. The fact that he pulls it off is nothing short of amazing. And it goes far beyond just being for kids who are grieving their own pets. Anyone can take something from this book.
The Longest Storm by Dan Yaccarino
When the future children’s literature historians look back at 2020 and the legacy of our COVID year, they will want to see what children’s books had to say about it. And as with any large event, there are good ones and there are bad ones. Yaccarino’s, however, is notable because it dares to dwell in metaphor. The press for this book said that Dan has called this his “most personal” book to date. I’m a very big fan of his All the Way to America, which, I might argue, also holds that title. What struck me about this book, however, was how his style has shifted ever so slightly. The story is of a family that becomes stuck inside for a very long time thanks to a storm outside and how they at first fail to cope, and then learn. Those kids who remember that time will relate. In the meantime, the black, yellow, and blue colors at work are fantastic. There’s a particular two-page wordless spread I’m thinking of where every family member reacts to a terrifying flash of lightning. Worthy of framing in and of itself, it is. Yes, there will be books that speak directly to the pandemic we lived through, but this book will earn its place in that pantheon by being about much more, much much more, than that.
Nook by Sally Anne Garland
Lord help me, I’m a sucker for an emotional pun. At first read I wasn’t quite sure what to think about Nook. It can be hard to root for the underdog, and harder still to write a picture book that celebrates them in some way. Quiet individuals in picture books are too often forced to “stand up for themselves” or go against their introspective inclinations. What’s so nice about this book is that Nook (a small white bunny of infinite shyness) is allowed to be herself from the story’s start to its finish. She likes to have a strong tree to sit against. The feel of the tree against her back makes her feel safe. Later, when she doesn’t feel safe at all, her friends stand behind her and support her. And as it says later, now she knew she has friends who “had her back.” It’s soft and very sweet. Not a big showy book, since a big showy book would defeat the whole purpose. And Nook is never identified as being on the autism spectrum, but you could certainly read that into this story if you wanted to. Subtle grandeur.
Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli, ill. Isabel Roxas
It’s about this point that you really wonder about the executive decision to turn one book into a picture book while another is a board book. Why make this book, worthy as it is, the same format as something you’d hand a baby? The answer, one would assume, is that it is instead meant for toddler and preschoolers. Not toddlers, though. Even with its simplified language, I can’t see them quite grasping the explanation of melanin. Preschoolers then, though I know that some already eschew board books as “baby” books by this point. Even so, they appear to be the intended audience. This book is an aid, intended to spark simple conversations about injustice early. It’s an intriguing idea. We know that young children notice race quite young. We know too that racial stereotypes and prejudices can be picked up on just as early. Can racial awareness? Anti-bias? I don’t know the answer to that, but this book could serve as an aid. I can even see teachers and parents dipping into different parts of it that apply to one situation or another. So perhaps not ideal for the youngest of kids, but a helluva baby shower gift that trumps Goodnight Moon, wouldn’t you say?
Out On a Limb by Jordan Morris, ill. Charlie Mylie
Though I’ve not seen any picture books where a child is afraid to go outside post-the COVID lockdowns earlier in the pandemic, what I have seen are some fairly strong metaphors instead. Case in point, Out on a Limb. First off, I’m giving it extra points for the cleverness of the title. Second, I was exceedingly impressed by Charlie Mylie’s art. There’s really only one color in this book: yellow. But how that yellow is used, often in the context of staying safe, is fascinating. In this story Lulu broke her leg. She’s not as upset as you might think since she has a nice yellow cast. But when that cast comes off, Lulu suddenly realizes that there’s nothing standing in as protection between her and the real world. Meanwhile, we’re following the path of her grandfather’s get-well-soon card, which takes a mighty circuitous route to get to its recipient. While the moral of this story appears to be, “Don’t be afraid to take chances,” I suspect that many an introverted kid will find a lot to like in Ms. Lulu here.
Outside Inside by LeUyen Pham
On an unremarkable day “just before the season changed” everyone who was outside went inside. A gentle, loving look at resilience during a pandemic. Interesting. It’s a pretty darn good encapsulation of the COVID-19 pandemic for kids. It doesn’t shy away from the hard parts, tips its hat to BLM and unemployment and death, but generally keeps it kid-friendly and light. What really made it work for me, though, is that ending. That shot of a spring where we can walk outside and be with people again. At the beginning of 2021 I saw that and wrote, “Oh my heart just ACHES for that to be true!” It’s a smart way to wrap the whole thing up and, of course, Pham’s art is fantastic. See if you can spot the Dan Santat cameo too.
Puppy In My Head: A Book About Mindfulness by Elise Gravel
As I undoubtedly mention every single year, in my eyes Elise Gravel can do no wrong. And as she proved with the book What’s a Refugee? she has a preternatural ability to simplify complex ideas. Not that mindfulness is that complex an idea for young children. Heck, every year I have to essentially swim through a sea of meditation-based board books to get anywhere near my own desk. Gravel, however, isn’t content to skip straight through the Whys into the Hows. In this book, a child describes their mindset as akin to having a puppy inside of them. Calming the puppy when it gets anxious or worried is a job in and of itself, but this kid is up to the challenge. At the end, readers are encouraged to identify the type of puppy that lives inside their heads as well. So basically it’s a book for dog lovers and lovers of deep breathing exercises alike. The perfect combo.
The Sour Cherry Tree by Naseem Hrab, ill. Nahid Kazemi
A book that begins with the main character biting her mother’s toe so as to wake her up. This isn’t an act of malice or anything. As the young girl who serves as our narrator explains, her grandfather fell asleep and didn’t wake up yesterday, so there’s no sense in taking chances. As books about grief and loss go, this is one of the gentler offerings I’ve encountered. The sadness in this book is more a melancholy than anything else. The young granddaughter is almost too small to really understand what it means for her grandfather to be gone from now on. The girl and her baba bozorg weren’t able to say much to one another since he spoke Farsi and she speaks only English for the most part, but you get this really nice sense of their relationship. The last image of the mom and her daughter waving to baba bozorg’s home, just as they always used to when they were leaving, casts this really gentle and nice feeling overall. This is a book of acceptance and the importance of remembering. If you are looking for a story about the death of a grandparent that handles everything with humor and compassion, I’d start here. A nice companion to The Funeral by Matt James.
The Spectacular Suit by Kat Patrick, ill. Hayley Wells
Sometimes a book just hits you the right way. It’s funny to call a book with such bright colors a “limited color palette” but since this title only works in certain colors, it felt that way. What separates it from the pack, however, is how well it captures a feeling of isolation when you know that no one will understand the way that you feel. In this story, Frankie is having her first birthday party. She’s nervous and wants everything perfect, and it’s all going so well, until it comes time to pick something to wear. Her mom offers her three dresses but none of them are quite right. What Frankie wants is a suit. And not just any suit but, like, a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat level suit. I loved this book even before I read Kat’s Author’s Note, which I shall share with you now:
“Throughout my life I have fallen in love with lots of different suits. Very few have ever fit me properly. As a kid, queerness manifested in a complicated way: wanting to be noticed and not wanting to be noticed all at the same time. By writing this book I recognized and realized my small suit fantasy…Clothes, especially when you’re required to wear the wrong ones, can be crucial. In conversation with other folk from the queer community I realized I wasn’t alone in this bit of childhood. For too long so many of us kept good, tender ideas to ourselves because it wasn’t worth the risk of saying anything aloud. Now I feel lucky to have the chance to offer up lightning bolt shoulders and star studded waistcoats to whoever needs them.”
The Three Little Engines by Bob McKinnon
I’m not sure what it was that I was expecting out of this continuation (or is it a prequel) to The Little Engine That Could. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t a considered approach to equity. This is sort of the anti-pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps book we’ve looked for. And, when you consider the messaging, the idea of taking The Little Engine That Could wasn’t a bad one. Essentially, The Engine in question is beside two other engines on Graduation Day at Engine School. The three just have to get over the mountain and they’ll have passed. The Little Engine goes first, doesn’t encounter weird twists or wind or bad weather or really any impediments at all. She makes it in fine. The other two, however, face difficulties that are so severe, they’re forced to stop. At the finish line, the Little Engine doesn’t understand why they don’t just plow ahead. It takes the Old Engine there to point out to her that she just breezed through the test but that no amount of “I think I cans” can overcome actual impossibilities. The Little Engine understands that she needs to remove some of those barriers herself. Honestly, this was like a more adept version of this year’s picture book Race Cars. It works within the context. One of the better Little Engine spin-offs I’ve seen too.
Valentina and Monster by Ángeles Ruiz
There are as many different ways to write picture books about grief as there are ways to grieve. And as the grieving process is never the same for two people, it stands to reason that no two picture books on the topic be quite the same either. Spanish author/illustrator Ruiz presents us with a monster so incredibly sweet that you can barely distinguish him from the cotton candy he creates. Valentina befriends him and as she does so her own nightmares about monsters dissipate. The thing that distinguishes this book in a way is the fact that one day the Monster is there and the next she has to be told by the other forest creatures that he is gone forever. There’s no lead up or build up and it’s the suddenness of it that really struck me as realistic. I’ve seen other books try this same thing (I’m not naming names) but fail to make it clear that the person who’s gone really is gone for good. This book is straightforward, making no bones about it. What Valentina does next is the crux of the story. The art is just so lovely, but at the same time it isn’t showy. One of the better grief titles I’ve seen.
A Walk in the Words by Hudson Talbott
It’s a bit of a Catch-22. You want to write a book for kids that have a hard time reading, but to do that you have to write a book that they might not want or be able to read. This is an interesting departure for Talbott, whose illustrations tend towards the historical. And, honestly, I guess this is a kind of historical fiction since it’s based on Talbott’s own youth. Essentially, it follows his problem with being, what he thought at the time was, a slow reader. Of course now it’s clear that he was dyslexic in some way. This book shows visually the struggles some kids experience when they find themselves compared to their fast-reading compatriots. Talbott has a lot of fun with the visual representation of words as dense, impenetrable forests that he must navigate as best he can. Hopefully this book will be a balm to other kids going through similar struggles.
When Grandfather Flew by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Chris Sheban
By all rights, this is the kind of book I’d usually reject on sight. I mean, the description alone would sink it. A grandfather, who loves birds, shares that love with his youngest grandson. But as time goes by, the grandfather’s sight goes and then he goes as well. There are a million different ways you might tell this story. MacLachlan’s method is straightforward. Always affectionate and always compassionate, the book links the grandfather to the birds he loves. It’s interesting to watch great authors tackle these subjects and show folks how it’s done. I appreciate the honesty of a picture book that doesn’t shy away from its own subject matter. You will find few books this year about ailing grandparents quite as good as this one.
When I See Red by Britta Teckentrup
[Previously Seen on the Caldenotts List]
This is sort of what you’d get if you took When Sophie Gets Angry… Really Really Angry and then cranked up the messaging to extend beyond mere personal anger. Teckentrup’s little girl is filled with rage. We don’t know the cause but we do know that this isn’t the kind of anger that fades right away. She writes, “I’m blinded by fury. I’m furiously mad. But I can see clearly that change is ahead!” The anger calls forth monsters. It whips up hurricanes. This is a rage that is full command of itself. Not a temper tantrum but a righteous anger that gives her power and keeps her safe. There is a quote at the end of the book from Anni Lanz, a Swiss human rights activist, that says, “Use your anger to transform the world around you.” On top of that, the art is stunning. It’s a real shame that imports don’t tend to tell us the medium in which their artists were working. Teckentrup here looks like nothing so much as Eric Carle speeding down the highway at 180. And can I just get nerdy on the typography for a second, because whoever did it did a REALLY good job! That font changes perfectly in tandem with the book every time it appears. It’s just gorgeous. A marvelous response to an unjust world.
Care for more? Then check out these previous years of message-laden delights:
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
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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