31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Unconventional Children’s Books
We’re almost halfway through our 31 Days, 31 Lists series, and today things are getting weird! Or, put more politely, unconventional. In the old days I wasn’t sure what to name this list. Weirdo books? Odd books? It was Travis Jonker who came up with the term “unconventional” and so, as with all good things, I up and stole it from him. You are hereby encouraged to go to Travis’s blog and read his post on The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2021. Some of these books are on there and some are most certainly not.
Now prepare to enjoy some books that upset your expectations in all the best ways.
2021 Unconventional Children’s Books
Alien Nation by Sandro Bassi
All I can say is thank goodness for Travis Jonker’s regular post on The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2021. Where else would I have encountered this wordless work by Venezuelan artist Sandro Bassi? Created entirely in black and white, it’s a little bit Shaun Tan, a little bit Brian Selznick, and a whole lot the movie They Live. On the outset it sounds dull. Commuters ride the subway trains to work. But visually this is an eye-popper. Each person has a bizarre concoction for a head. It might be tentacles or crystals. It might be all eyes, no eyes, interlocked wooden puzzle pieces or free floating balls. The bodies themselves are normal and contemporary and slowly you come to realize that everybody is looking at their cell phones. Everybody, that is, with the exception of a child in a stroller. The kid has a prism for a head, and manages to locate an old cordless phone. When the subway enters a tunnel the lights go dim, the cell phone service is disrupted, and the child’s head opens like the demi-gorgon in Stranger Things. That’s when everyone’s head starts to disengage. It’s a trip (pun intended) to say the least. A marvelous mix of the mundane and fantastical.
Before I Grew Up by John Miller, ill. Giuliano Cucco
I like a book that reads like a dare. As I may have mentioned before, I prefer to come into a picture book relatively blind. I read this title cover to cover and liked it, but found it so very strange. The text was relatively straightforward, though. In this story, Giuliano reminisces about his life and how, in a sense, he ultimately became an artist. The art, meanwhile, always relates to the text, no matter how wacky that art may be. It wasn’t until I got to the end and discovered the story behind the story that things got interesting. Apparently this is all posthumous. Cucco created this art, but it never saw the light of day. When he died in a traffic accident, John Miller reached out to the family and discovered that Cucco’s son Giovanni was cataloging everything left. Taking some of these pictures, Miller weaves together a story that adapts the surreal nature (and it does get surreal) of the images to the life of an artist as a young man. This is a book for dreamy children, for incipient artists, and for kids that like a little quiet beauty in their stories.
Black Sand Beach: Do You Remember the Summer Before? by Richard Fairgray
I don’t put a lot of sequels on my lists but, to be fair, there are very few people working in the field of children’s comics right now with the guts to go weird. And Fairgray has never, to the best of my knowledge, disappointed in this respect. Now if you decide to read this latest in the Black Sand Beach saga, be warned. There is a price to pay for not reading or rereading the first book in the series just before reading this book. It’s just as weird. Just as gross. It’s got a vibe no one can match. I adore this horrible horrible world.
Cardboardia: The Other Side of the Box by Richard Fairgray and Lucy Campagnolo, ill. Richard Fairgray
Okay, one of these days I’m just gonna have to meet Richard Fairgray once and for all. The man has such a keenly skewed sense of humor. It’s the kind of humor we need to see more of in our children’s literature. Now I know that when you look at this book you might, like me, wonder how similar it is to Cardboard by Doug TenNapel (a comic creator that could give Fairgray a run for his money in the weirdness department). There are some similarities in the logistics of a cardboard world, but I’d say this book has an entirely different feel and take. I also adored the hidden jokes. Fairgray cannot physically draw a sign on a wall in a school without making it funny. Some personal favorites: “Make Every Day Spaghetti Wednesday”, “Name Calling Is for Dweebs”, “Viva La Evolution”, and a personal favorite of Comedy = Tragedy + Time made into a pyramid. Wherever this crazy train is going, I wanna ride it to the end.
It also wins the Best Dedication of the Year Award:
Have You Seen Gordon? by Adam Jay Epstein, ill. Ruth Chan
Usually when I’m discussing unconventional picture books I tend towards the visually eclectic and wacky. But there’s a subsection to this category that could easily go missed if we aren’t careful. That relates more to those books that defy conventions. The nice thing about Epstein and Chan’s book is that it’s really zeroing in on seek-and-find books while also, somehow, miraculously, being a book about consent. That’s a kooky combination that takes a certain level of finesse. At the start it’s pretty standard. The reader is asked to find a purple (anteater? elephant?) fellow by the name of Gordon. Then, at a certain point, Gordon just doesn’t really care about hiding anymore. Frustrated the narrator decides we’ll be trying to follow Jane, a blue rhino construction worker, instead. But Jane has even less interest in being “found”, particularly as she is (in her own words) “kind of shy. I don’t like a lot of attention.” It’s Gordon who has to interrupt and explain that maybe the best course of action here is to find someone who WANTS to be found, for a change. I love the way the book turns what looks so seemingly simple at the start on its head. There are some pretty keen in-jokes for parents in Chan’s art too, like a spider shop in the mall of high end clothes called (I kid you not) “Arachnopologie”. Also, if a certain cheeky axolotl gets its way, we may be seeing it in a sequel in the future (inspect the pictures carefully to see why).
Infinity by Pablo Bernasconi, translated by Evelia Romano
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Initially I mistook this book for a work of poetry, and even after I finished reading it through, I wasn’t wholly convinced that I was wrong. This little Argentinian import attempts to define the infinite via the mundane. Thus you end up with little conundrums like “It’s a carpenter waiting for the love of his life in the wrong life.” Each phrase is accompanied by an illustration that’s this amazing mix of models, photography, paint, digital tinkering, and more. With a hat tip to mathematicians, some of the pages have equations in their corners that “capture and represent a take on the concept of infinity”. It is overwhelmingly an import and not of American make or design. Why do I say that? Because it’s so incredibly original. A lot of Americans won’t get what it’s doing, but some might. I think the dreamy kids, the dreamy teens, the dreamy college students, and beyond will get a lot out of this title. Or, at the very least, they’ll stretch their minds to their fullest as they attempt to figure out riddles like, “It’s the formula for happiness hidden in a cow’s hide. But on the inside.”
The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk, ill. Joanna Concejo, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
The one and only time I made it to the Bologna Book Festival I was awed by the plethora of massive, beautiful, and strange (to my eyes) art that was submitted from countries whose books never make it to American shores. And while I am sure that this isn’t the first Polish picture book I’ve ever encountered, I certainly won’t be able to forget it. I suppose I should have been warned when the blurbs on the back were from folks like Annie Proulx. You know. Novelists. But that’s just because Olga Tokarczuk is, herself, a professional writer for adults. I do believe I once purchased her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (good title) for my library. This particular book already received a special mention of the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2018. To read it is to feel as if you’ve fallen into a work that is equal parts Shaun Tan and Sebastian Meschenmoser. The story is one we’ve seen many times here in America, however. The message is to slow down and enjoy life. Why? Because if you move too fast you’ll leave your soul behind you and it may take a while to catch up. A reread of this title rewards the reader since you can catch glimpses of the hero’s soul long before you realize that that’s what it is. It has a surreal touch and an interesting use of color. It’s also a very soothing book. Odd. But soothing. Recommended indeed.
The Museum of Everything by Lynne Rae Perkins
“If you like to be in a quiet place sometimes (even if it’s only in your mind), or if there is a lot that you wonder about, or if you like to make things, I made this book for you.” Boy, man. That Lynne Rae Perkins. I swear, whole years can go by and she won’t write a picture book, and then when she does it’s just so completely from left field that you never see it coming. This book is a passion project of hers, that’s clear from the outset. In this book, a kid speculates on the ephemeral things in life you might be able to build a whole museum around. Basically, it’s like if you calmed a Dr. Seuss book way way down, took out the rhymes, and then gave it a shot in the arm of Heavy Introspection. The narrator is almost perfectly genderless, or either gender depending on your preference (though the summary on the publication page says they’re a girl, which I reject as merely a possibility). Eventually it’s all skirts made of bushes, hiding places, variations in shadows, and the transient nature of Sky Museums. Don’t mistake this book for one that’s asking “Big Questions” because the questions here meander onto the page the same way your mind meanders on a hot day. Perkins mixes up her media with plenty of (as she calls it) “odds and ends” alongside her usual watercolors. The end result isn’t really like other books out there. It’s for the dreamy kid. You know the one.
No One Is Angry Today by Toon Tellegen, ill. Marc Boutavant, translated by David Colmer
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
There goes Toon Tellegen again. Writing in his inimitable style. Confusing Americans everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, because I really like the weirdness in his tales. And when you combine such words with the art of Marc Boutavant (who is clearly giving this book 100% of his attention) then you’re bound to end up with a pretty product. But the same guy that brought us The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties back in 2009 is now going full on wackadoodle here. There is no better way of showing this than you give to you the first and last stories in his latest collection No One Is Angry Today. The first story The Firebelly Toad and the Hedgehog has a lot less to do with the hedgehog in question than it does with the toad. In the story the toad abuses a number of his neighbors, questioning whether or not they’re really angry. In the end, they all come to the conclusion that maybe the toad’s right. Maybe none of them can even hold a candle to how angry he is. How can you ever know what another person is truly feeling? The last story is the strangest of the book. Called “The Scarab”, consider this the anti-epistolary story. In it, you watch a scarab and a dung beetle write one another letters. You never hear what is in these letters. You just see how they react to them. The last image is of the dung beetle’s letter ot the scarab sitting in the snow, forlorn and unread, while the dung beetle waits in vain for a response that will never come. Americans like myself are used to happy endings. Hand this book to the child that isn’t afraid of a book to end a little mournfully once in a while too.
Off the Beaten Track by Maylis de Kerangal, ill. Tom Haugomat, translated by Helen Mixter
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Here’s the thing about the publisher Greystone Kids: That’s a company that isn’t afraid to take a risk once in a while. Some publishers of overseas picture books want a guaranteed win and sell. Greystone? They aren’t afraid to get a little weird once in a while. Case in point, this book. I read it cover to cover but it wasn’t until I read the “How this book was made” section at the end that things started to fall into place. Apparently artist Tom Haugomat was given free reign to just make his art without the impediment of pesky things like words or a plot. Once he’d finished the images for this book it was up to Maylis de Kerangal to construct a story. What could have been a rote tale of a boy’s heroism when his adult friend is injured becomes something much more dreamlike and strange in her hands. There are many mysteries to the story. What happened to the boy’s parents? With whom does he live now? And how do things go so wrong so quickly for the mountaineers? The use of negative space on the pages is almost as fascinating as the boy’s interior life, hope, dreams, and fears. It’s not just the art that uses negative space either. The text does as well. You have to read around the missing facts. A truly captivating title. Hand it to slightly older readers (the ones who feel they’re too old for picture books) to get their take on it.
Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More by Johanna Schaible
[Previously Seen on the Translated Titles and Caldenott Lists]
I’ll confess that I knew that this book was an import when first I saw it. Why? Because it feels like a Bruno Munari redux, baby! Schaible is doing something particularly keen and original with this title. This is a book that pulls back right at the start, zooms in, and then pulls back again. The first page shows the early Earth. “Billions of years ago, land took shape.”. We see this gorgeous spread of thick paints that look like volcanic rocks as well as the splatter of lava as it surges on the page. These acrylics, mixed with the cut paper technique, are truly beautiful, evocative of Ed Young. But what’s cool is that as you turn the pages the time period shrinks. Now we look at images from “millions of years ago”. Then it’s “hundreds of thousands”, right on down until you get to “A minute ago” and then “Now!”. As the time shrinks, so too do the pages. Then (and this is particularly cool) it expands. We look to the future. To a minute from now, a day, a week, a year. And the pages expand as well until the child is considering what it is that they’ll look back on when they’re old. “What do you wish for the future?” We don’t always expect our books to become quite so philosophical and vast. This one is a wonder that makes you wonder.
Sato the Rabbit by Yuki Ainoya, translated by Michael Blaskowsky
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
“One day, Haneru Sato became a rabbit.” After putting on a bunny suit, a boy engages in a series of small, charming adventures in this beautifully rendered Japanese import. This book is dreamlike but with a strange internal logic and energy that I really dig. And yes, it does seem a little like Where the Wild Things Are since it begins with Sato putting on his rabbit suit. But just as Max transformed into a Wild Thing thanks to wearing the suit of a wolf, so Sato transforms into this calm, Zen, unperturbed bunny dude. The book consists entirely of small, sweet adventures. My favorite is when he looks at a puddle of water, reflecting the sky and realizes it is actually a window TO the sky. It’s not your usual book, and that’s why it works.
The Sea by Piret Raud
And they don’t get any more unconventional than Estonian author/illustrator Piret Raud. How odd is it? Let’s just say that the negative space of the water takes on a personality of its own while fish and shells become its facial features. That’s cool in and of itself, but when the sea takes off for parts unknown and leaves the fish behind, those fish are some kinda marvelous nightmare seafood, that’s for sure. I think this has something to do with the fact that you can pretty much see their innards at all times. Or maybe it’s that shot of them weeping with their mouths full of teeth. In any case, this is a tale of a group of fish that love stories so much, they’d trade their own lives just to hear them. I found it unnerving and lovely (and one does not preclude the other).
This Is Still Not a Book! by Jean Jullien
It’s not a party until a Jean Jullien board book has entered the room. For those of you familiar with Jullien’s board book outing This Is Not a Book, I can at least promise you a significant decrease in butts. This book is a butt free zone. Yet like its predecessor it takes a certain childish glee in upsetting expectations. I enjoyed the surprise that comes even after you just open the front cover, but the pages that I loved the most involve an elephant. It’s not intuitive. You don’t know that it’s an elephant at first. But when you unfold the pages and hold them correctly, there’s nothing else it could be. Jullien, being a French creator to his core, gets away with ideas and creative measures that I’m sure some American illustrators would envy. Thank goodness for imports. As weird as its predecessor, and that’s saying something.
The Two Fridas, memories written by Frida Kahlo, ill. Gianluca Folì
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this before. Have you? Have you ever seen someone take a famous person’s words from their diary about their youth and then turn them into a 32-page picture book? A bit ballsy, wouldn’t you say? Without reading the premise beforehand, when I started reading this book I had the very keen sense that the writing was not intended for young readers. Here, I’ll show you what I mean: “I must have been six years old when I formed an intense imaginary friendship with a girl…” Not that a kid wouldn’t necessarily understand this. You just don’t find the phrase “intense imaginary friendship” in picture books all that often. The book is strange and dreamlike and quite enjoyable. It’s a little difficult to determine if the person breaking up the text was Folì or the Editorial Director Fernando Diego García. Whatever the case, it makes for a wholly unique book. Could be nice if it were part of a series. Just saying.
What You Don’t Know: A Story of Liberated Childhood by Anastasia Higginbotham
Had you asked me if I thought I’d see a picture book out this year that contained multiple inclusions of Billy Porter, Jesus, and Mitch McConnell I might have believed you but I might also have backed away slowly as I did so. Higginbotham is known for tackling downright impossible issues in her books. Whiteness (and all that that entails), Death, Sex, and Divorce have already been clear cut, so what else is there to do? How about something for the queer kids? Lest you imagine this to be your standard 32-page fare, this is 143 pages in total. Baker & Taylor is selling it as Fiction, though it could just as easily be labeled YA or a graphic novel or an early chapter book. Since there’s a fair amount of asterixed swearing, I suspect most libraries will put it in places for their older readers, but you never know. Considering that the art is a mix of cut paper and photography and fabric and what have you, I cannot even imagine how long it even took to make. In the end, this is the kind of book that melds genres as often as it melds artistic mediums. But with its story of Demetrious who only wants to smash stereotypes, you’ll understand why it’s being called a picture book for 8-12 year-olds.
Curious about other unconventional titles? Then check out these previous lists:
And here’s what else we have happening 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 Book
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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