31 Days, 31 Books: 2021 Fabulous Photography
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, long before I trained to be a librarian I trained to be a photographer. I was convinced that this bold, sexy occupation was my true calling. And that conviction lasted right up until I realized that while I could detect quality in a great work of photography, I couldn’t detect it in my own work. Out the window went a life behind the lens and into my life a librarian’s degree. Still, I’ve always retained my fondness for the medium, and in today’s collection you’re going to see a magnificent array. Everything from board books to highly skilled works of x-ray art (really!). There are scientific texts and contemplations on age. There are bunnies, foxes, and baby chicks. There are models and inanimate objects brought to life thanks to photography. Whatever your preference, I suspect you’ll find something to enjoy somewhere on this list.
Also, I would be amiss if I did not note that one of the foremost photographers of children’s literature, April Pulley Sayre, passed away this year on November 6th. April produced marvelous books that I just adored. Whether it was Rah, Rah, Radishes! A Vegetable Chant or Bloom Boom, Being Frog or Warbler Wave, April had a marvelous style and a fantastic eye. Her final book, Happy Sloth Day! will be published in 2022. We will miss her.
2021 Fabulous Photography Books
Animals! Here We Grow by Shelley Rotner
Everything grows but how do growing things change? Beautiful bright photography shows everything from frogs to puppy dogs getting older. Perfect for the youngest of readers. There you go. Like I always say, it’s the children’s books that make you wonder, “Why has no one thought of doing this before?” that are most deserving of your love. With this book Rotner has figured out how to do nonfiction for really young kids AND do it in an original way. And it’s so simple! Basically, she names off animals and then shows them at different stages at growth. The beginning has the usual all-stars like frogs and butterflies, but when she takes it down a notch and starts covering mammals I get seriously impressed. She includes information on baby animal names and then ties it all together with a baby human turning into a kid (not an adult) at the end. I just think she did a stellar job here making something new for, what I’d consider, the hardest age range to write for. If they don’t turn this into a board book in two years then they’re missing an opportunity.
Gifts of the Magpie by Sam Hundley
This is essentially dad humor in picture book form. Now if you know me then you know I love books that are filled with photographed models. This blend of photography and “dug relics” is fascinating. Author/artist Hundley says at the end that these bits and pieces “were unearthed by inquisitive treasure hunters using metal detectors and shovels.” All well and good but how’s the story? Turns out, Hundley can pen a tale! The book hangs together rather beautifully and comes to a pretty nice conclusion. I, for one, also appreciated the information about real magpies at the end (did you know that they have approximately the same brain-to-body ratio as humans?). This is one treasure worth unearthing.
Global Baby Playtime by Maya Ajmera
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
No. Seriously. Why are the Global Babies books so often the ONLY books in a given year to give babies what they actually want? Which is to say, faces faces faces! If you’ve seen any of the other Global Babies books then you’ll already be familiar with their fantastic format. These little babies come from a wide range of places (the first two you meet are “Portugal” and “Burkina Faso”, respectively) but the text ties many of them together. I’ve always admired the economical text that shows rather than tells. Once again, we’ve got a big time hit on our hands.
How Old Am I? Faces From Around the World by Julie Pugeat, ill. JR
100 people from all around the world present their faces, from ages 1 to (you guessed it) 100! Each tells their story, and kids will delight in a book that shows a wide swath of humanity, what makes us different, and what makes us the same. A clever little dingus of a book. Kirkus, I noticed, got very wrapped up on whom precisely this book is for. It said it spread itself too thin by trying to be for everyone. I couldn’t disagree more. I think this book does have a bit for a wide range of different ages, but whoever said that only babies like looking at human faces? As you go forward and people get older you suddenly start going back in time with their memories. Some were born after WWII. Some born during. Now born before. Now some served in the war! The sheer variety of ways in which changes us is important. And hey, after you check out their 100-year-old you might want to invest in a snazzy haircut and stat! Mind you, if you leave it around the house the way I did, don’t be surprised if you keep accidentally reading the title out of the corner of your eye as “How Am I Old?” How indeed.
How to Find a Fox by Kate Gardner, ill. Ossi Saarinen
[Previously seen on the Caldenotts list]
A book of pure photography has never won a Caldecott Award, but this one could have had a shot. Alas, photographer Ossi Saarinen is inconveniently Finnish. Breathtaking photography instructs young readers on where and how one might spot a fox in the wild. YES! This book shoots on all cylinders! The art here isn’t just beautiful. It illustrates the simple text well and is also just a ton of fun. It’s like the photographer knew how to shoot for a children’s book specifically. I loved the simple text for readalouds and younger kids, and the smaller more in-depth info on foxes and their lives. I think any kid who sees this title is going to be instantly obsessed with foxes for the rest of their natural born lives, so take that as a warning. This book is engrossing.
Inside In: X-Rays of Nature’s Hidden World by Jan Paul Schutten, photography by Arie van’t Riet, translated by Laura Watkinson
Take a trip into the rarely seen world of x-rays and learn about all the insects, fish, birds, and mammals that make up our world. See them as you’ve never seen them before! We think of x-rays as ubiquitous but the key to this book is something that Schutten explains at the beginning. Apparently it is incredibly difficult to find books of x-ray photographs. Why? Well, there are the safety guidelines to consider as well as just how difficult it is to even get access. That’s part of what makes this book so unique. Animal after animal is shown without their skin or feathers or prickles. The end result is that you get these amazing connections drawn by Schutten between similar types of animals or animals you might never think had anything in common with us. They’ve also been posed to look like they’re mid-jump, leap, run, or swim (which takes off a bit of the morbid taste that comes with knowing that they are, in fact, dead). Definitely needs some consideration.
Let’s Find Momo Outdoors! A Hide-and-Seek Adventure with Momo and Boo by Andrew Knapp
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
Photography is the name of the game with this uniquely clever board book. Stand aside, Seymour Simon! You haven’t seen the machinations of Momo and Boo at work. Heck, stand aside William Wegman. These pups have one job: To hide in each scene. Fortunately, their little black and white heads have a tendency to give themselves away. Still the book doesn’t make it easy for young children. Personally, I had a lot of difficulty with one of the objects you’re supposed to find. In the second two-page spread you’re asked to find a collar. And, for whatever reason, I had a devil of a time locating it. I seriously found myself wondering if it was hiding beneath the fur of one of the dogs at one point. I also suspect that had you matched me against a toddler and asked us both to find it in the picture, the toddler would have blown me out of the water. Beautiful photography and a darn good encapsulation of what it’s like to camp. Give it all the things.
The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, ill. Regis and Kahran Bethencourt
“I am a superhero yet unnamed / I am laughter that falls like rain.” Fantastic, surreal Afro-futuristic photography coupled with a life-affirming text helps turn ordinary kids into their extraordinary selves. Feast your eyes! Earlier this year I purchased the title Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty for the adult section of my library (where, believe it or not, I’m the Adult Selector), and when I paged through it on my own I was just floored by what I found. I remember thinking, “We should have this in the children’s room too!” since the photographs of the kids were jaw-dropping. So imagine my pleasure when I discover that not only do Regis and Kahran Bethencourt have a book out for kids but that the writer is none other than local Chicago author Natasha Tarpley (of I Love My Hair fame)! This book has a positive message and the art will just blow you away. I already loved the photography, so this book is everything that I like all nestled in one lovely little space.
Oakley the Squirrel: The Search for Z, A Nutty Alphabet Book by Nancy Rose
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
My friend Junko got a tiny picnic table during the pandemic and enjoyed watching the resident squirrels eat there. This book is sort of like that, only instead of a mere picnic table, Nancy Rose has constructed a kind of uber-dollhouse construction entirely for the purposes of enticing a baby squirrel to interact inside. An alphabet board book at its core, the story is that Oakley is in search of the letter Z. To get to it he must look through a whole array of different objects, each of them squirrel-sized. The meticulousness of the sets is probably worth the price of admission alone (and the cute squirrel is a definite plus) but the true star of the show are the elements that are so accurate, you forget you’re looking at them in miniature. My personal favorite came on the “N” page where Oakley looks for the Z “Nestled in the Newspapers”. Those newspapers in question have teeny tiny articles about other squirrels on their pages with headlines like “Just chewing up the scenery”. It’s so perfect it kinda made my head hurt. High praise indeed. Plus, how LONG do you wait for a squirrel to wander into your shot? Ms. Rose must have hid peanuts everywhere. That’s my theory anyway.
Pet by Matthew Van Fleet, photography by Brian Stanton
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
When my children were very small we had a good solid run of Matthew Van Fleet books in our home. Not just these big, beautiful photography-centered books, but those small ones with the illustrations too. We were a Van Fleet household and we read those books until they were nothing but pulpy pieces of paper held together by frayed plant fibers and baby spit. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen another photo-based Van Fleet, but 2021 decided to give us a couple gifts, and this book is one of them. Once again, we have the gently rhyming text (that you’ll probably want to practice a time or two before you read it aloud). Once again there are touch-and-feel elements like a hedgehog’s spiny back or the sleek fur of a ferret. I loved the fact that all the animals inside are pets, and that at the end each one gets to take its proverbial bow. Stanton’s photography wows, thought I’m half convinced that the grin of that full-grown pot-bellied pig must have a whisper of computer generated magic in its pixels. The pull tabs are big and strong and just waiting for small hands to pull ‘em. Welcome back, Matthew. It’s good to have you here where you belong.
Photo Ark ABC: An Animal Alphabet in Poetry and Pictures by Debbie Levy, photographs by Joel Sartore
The delightful animals of Photo Ark are paired with playful poetry to show off the alphabet in all its abecedarian glory. I’m a sucker for photography and a sucker for baby animals, so perhaps I’m not the best judge to read this book. The poems themselves are good, if a bit inconsistent. I think Levy’s trying a variety of different styles, including poems that don’t rhyme. They’re serviceable though, and more than made up for by the photography of Sartore, the Photo Ark guy. It’s an alphabet/poetry book too, and it’s quite lovely to see something for “X” that isn’t your same old X-ray fish (no shade on the fish, but you’d think that they were a much bigger deal than they are, considering how often they show up in children’s books). Here X is for “Xenarthra” which is an animal with joints in its back (including sloths, anteaters, and armadillos). The poem with that one is quite clever too. This reminds me a lot of that gorgeous alphabet/photography book called Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman that came out years ago. I think they’d pair together particularly well.
Rainbows in Bloom: Discovering Colors with Flowers by Darroch and Michael Putnam
[Previously Seen on the Board Books List]
Photography for the good of the masses. Vibrant, clear, and fun, this is the kind of board book you wish you saw more often. And don’t go thinking it’s what I call a “coffee table board book” (a.k.a. A board book made to impress other adults rather than children). Though it’s beautiful, small children are clearly the intended audience. The first thing you see when you open it up is a rainbow of colors. Turn another page and a red flower is on the left-hand side and an orange flower on the right. Lift their respective pages and you are treated to a spectrum of other flowers, fruits, insects, and sometimes even small plastic toys that show how red can morph into orange. There are even little seek-and-find suggestions in the margins (“Can you find the two butterflies? Which one is more orange?”). Walter Wick, back up, baby. You’ve got some serious competition. At the end it’s like everyone takes a bow as you get the full rainbow of colors put together on the pages (you get a sense of that from the cover as well). Brilliant and beautiful. More of this, please!
Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Bliss by Gregory Mone, photos by Levon Bliss
Glowing, pulsating, iridescent Microsculpture photography introduces you to insects as you’ve never seen them before. A book to make bug lovers of us all. Photography is my first love, so photography that utilizes Microsculpture to stitch together thousands of photographs into a single image? This book may as well just stamp “For Betsy” on the cover cause that’s how much I like it. You’re going to overwork the word “luminous” when you describe what’s in these pages. I was less enchanted by Mone’s jokes but even that definite dad humor isn’t enough to turn me off of the glorious facts on these pages. Now can someone please explain to me how scarabs are in both Egypt and Peru?
The Tale of the Mandarin Duck: A Modern Fable by Bette Midler, photographs by Michiko Kakutani, ill. Joana Avillez
Well, let it never be said that Bette Midler never had a successful picture book. This isn’t her first, by the way. I remember in her Beaches days some horrifying creation going by the name of Saga of Baby Divine, in which you watched a tarted up tot that looked more like Roger Rabbit’s Baby Herman than anything else. This book is loads better in the illustration department, but it’s the photographs that I admire. The story? Sufficient. At its best it discusses a strange moment in 2018 when, for whatever reason, a mandarin duck set up shop in Central Park, to the delight of one and all. It’s less successful when it tries to say that New Yorkers stopped looking at their phones all the time after that incident (come again?) but it’s the photography that whets my proverbial whistle. Sure it’s been dinked with some but there’s no faulting the duckie itself. It’s almost ludicrous in its outrageous colors and patterns. How nature could ever go quite that far with a duck is beyond explanation. At the end of the book are sixteen perfectly square pictures of both New York City itself and the duck. I love the juxtapositions of different seasons and different shots of the birdy. A good NYC book makes me miss it. After the last 2 years we just had, you can bet I can’t wait to see it again.
Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Jane Dyer
Two good friends find themselves in an escalating series of fiascos when they try to simultaneously clean their home for the inspector of neatness AND prep for their annual Strawberry Jam Party. You know, there’s something to be said for making sure that books don’t all look the same. Birdsall and Dyer are definitely going for an old-fashioned feel with this book. Now if this were a Dyer only affair, I think it would look too twee, but Birdsall’s got a bit of bite to her writing that cuts through the treacle (apologies for the mixed metaphor). I happen to like models, so that was a no brainer for me (I like the animals in this book). Give yourself an open mind when you read it. You may find that it’s a bit of a charmer. At the very least, worth more reads.
Zion Unmatched by Zion Clark and James S. Hirsch, photography by Wikkie Hermkens
Meet Zion Clark, a true champion. Born without legs, Zion takes his talent and strength and shows kids how, in his own words, “If I can do it, so can you.” This one was a surprise to encounter. I had no idea it was coming out. Zion Clark was born without legs and was shuffled between foster homes, some of them abusive, for years until he was finally adopted at the age of 17. His charisma just vibrates off the page. There’s not a huge amount of text to this book, so ultimately we might consider it too slight for the list. Still, as far as inspirational stories go, I like the design. I like how it’s laid out and I like the selection of photographs. It’s not quite on the same level as something like Shane Burcaw’s Not So Different, but it’s got a charm entirely of its own.
Curious about the previous years’ collections? Then take a gander!
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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