31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Picture Books
Can you believe it? The year is out and done and we’ve come to the end of the 31 Days, 31 Lists series. I’m just floored. While 2021 had some advantages over 2020, I can’t be the only one that it threw for a loop. And yet, in spite of everything, look at the truly beautiful plethora of picture books we got to experience! Today’s list represents just a handful of the titles published this year. This is some, but surely not all, of the finest. If you need a starting place where you can get a sense of what the year entailed, use this list. It was a pure pleasure putting it together.
And thank you too for following this series! I’ll be sure to see you again next year, when we look through the wonders of 2022. The hits never stop coming since creativity never takes a break!
Now enjoy what happens when you don’t give a blogger a word limit:
2021 Picture Books
The Big Bath House by Kyo Maclear, ill. Gracey Zhang
A girl and her Japanese grandmother don’t share a language, but they do share a love of bathing! A gentle story of family and loving all kinds of bodies, big and small. You say you believe in body positivity? Time to put your squeamish American mouth where your money is, people! This is a book that is going to raise some U.S. eyebrows. Why? Because it features a girl going to a traditional Japanese bath house with her relatives and everyone inside is nekkid. It is also incredibly sweet and loving and natural. This book celebrates all kinds and sizes of bodies. And the one thing that brings out the prigs and the prudes and the Puritans in parents is nudity, so this’ll be interesting to watch. I mean, it’s just about the best “love your body” picture book I’ve seen in a long long while.
Blue Floats Away by Travis Jonker, ill. Grant Snider
People never give teenagers and college students the right picture books. They don’t! They give them junk like Oh, the Places You’ll Go or The Giving Tree when they graduate, hoping those book will confer a kind of unspoken wisdom to the receiver. You want to give a graduate a picture book? Give them Blue Floats Away. I’m dead serious. This is the most heartfelt water cycle story I’ve yet to encounter. You’ve got glaciers and evaporation and melting and an environmental message all wrapped around what is, essentially, a hero’s journey. Blue sets forth and overcomes all obstacles, all within the confines of some pretty huge global issues. Add in Grant Snider’s art (“orthodontist by day and an artist by night”) and you’ve got yourself one of the calmest and sweetest books of the year.
Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder
[Previously Seen on the Message List]
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.
Bright Star by Yuyi Morales
A visually striking and powerful allegorical work about the young finding their way in an uncertain world. To me, this is a companion to the author/illustrator’s award-winning Dreamers. This might be better than Dreamers, actuall, and that’s saying something. Dreamers may have been a more personal story to Yuyi, but in Bright Star she’s doing something really interesting with that classic good-self-esteem format. When this book began, I was uncertain. We are inundated with books with positive messages right now, which is good, but not particularly original. Then the narrative shifts. There’s a separation and a wall. The animals become children and the children are alone. I love the integration of different artistic styles and the way the storyline shifts. Plus that needlework Yuyi wields is particularly interesting.
The Capybaras by Alfredo Soderguit, translated by Elisa Amado
“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.
Chez Bob by Bob Shea
[Previously Seen on the Funny List]
Lazy Bob the just wants to eat some birds. His solution? Open a fancy birdseed restaurant on his nose, of course! But when he starts to get attached to the birds, will he find he’s bitten off more than he can chew? Why do Bob Shea books make me laugh so friggin’ hard? From the man who brought you Who Wet My Pants? comes an unfamiliar story in a familiar package. And the turns of phrase! Shea is one of the rare picture book creators that I honestly think get better and better over time. This is one of the funniest books of the year. You will love it.
Ergo by Alexis Deacon, ill. Viviane Schwarz
[Previously Seen on the Funny List]
Ergo the chick only knows the smooth, round world in which she lives and she very quickly comes to the belief that she IS the world. But when evidence suggests there might be more, this little chicken is unafraid to burst through barriers to discover what is and isn’t real. Words do not do justice to the extent to which I am charmed by this book. And I have to make a hat tip to the Candlewick Press marketing team for putting a finger on precisely why I might love it as much as I do. In their little write up they said that Deacon, “offers a picture book Plato for little ones”, which is PRECISELY what this is. This is what it is like to exist wholly in your own tiny world, in your own separate sphere (in this case, literally), convinced that you know all that there is to know because your limitations are all that you can see. Years ago Alvin Tresselt wrote the picture book The Frog in the Well and it reminds me so much of this book. But, of course, there is the whole Plato’s cave aspect as well. That sounds pretty philosophical for a picture book, but it’s so simple! Deacon and Schwartz previously worked on the not dissimilar A Place to Call Home which was also about blind tiny creatures interpreting the world with limited resources. Pair this alongside Ed Young’s Seven Blind Mice and you’ve got yourself a heckuva storytime! Big time fan over here.
Every Little Kindness by Marta Bartolj
[Previously Seen on the Wordless List]
I guess it’s not really a “translation” if the book hasn’t any words, right? The kooky thing is that I got all the way to the end of the book, glanced at Bartolj’s bio, and only then realized that this title comes to us via Slovenia. Looking back, I realized that, yes indeed, the buildings in this city don’t really look all that American, but Bartolj has a skilled universality to her wordless storytelling that transcends nations. Another reason I didn’t realize it came from overseas? It’s nicely multi-racial. And not to paint our European/East European picture books with a broad brush, but I’d say that the bulk of them usually feature all-white casts. This book shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. The plot of this story is very simple. Essentially it begins with a woman who has lost her dog. The point of view then shifts as other people have small misfortunes that are corrected by the kindness of others. The woman gives a street musician an apple. This is seen by a man that views a litterer. He cleans up the trash and a boy sees this. He in turn helps out a girl who can’t afford a balloon. It’s practically black and white, with this lovely gray watercolor wash. Red is the sole color that pops up, and it really helps to direct your eye to the next person you follow. It’s sweet and lovely and a great example of how to make a keen wordless book with heart.
Family Reunion by Chad and Dad Richardson, ill. Ashleigh Corrin
A reunion? “Do I have to go?” A kid that would rather be playing his video games than meeting up with long lost relatives discovers that there’s more to family than blood in this high-spirited tale. For me, it was the language of this book that worked so well on the page. There’s a great deal of energy at play here and it’s so incredibly fun to listen to when you read it aloud. It does a very good job of giving you a sense of family and why it’s important. Plus, my son would rather play video games all the time too, so maybe I related a little too hard? Don’t care. I think it definitely deserves your consideration.
Fred Gets Dressed by Peter Brown
A boy who enjoys being free from his clothes decides to try on his dad and mom’s, only to discover that mom’s clothes are much more his style. Aww. This is great stuff. Brown’s summoning his own inner Sendak with this book (minuses the penises). From what I understand, the book is based on an incident from Peter’s own childhood. We talk about picture books that are empowering and supportive, but this is one story that definitely shows rather than tells. Love the primarily pink and green palette and Brown’s wordplay is absolutely fantastic. So crisp and clean and pitch perfect. Fred’s a hard one to ignore.
The Goody by Lauren Child
A.k.a. I’m Mad As Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore: The Picture Book. And the award for worst parents of all time goes to . . . the ones in this book! Okay. “The worst” is a bit broad. But it’s been a while since I got to the end of a picture book and wanted to throttle the mom and dad in it quite as much as I did here. This is a fascinating story about parental expectations, the expectations we have of ourselves, and what happens when all of that breaks down. Two kids live in a family. The brother, deemed “the Goody” by everyone, does everything asked of him, even when he doesn’t want to (like eating his broccoli). His sister, in contrast, is considered a bad person and as a result she gets incredible privileges. Because no one can tell her what to do, she never eats veggies, gets to stay up late, and never does her chores. Chirton (and isn’t that a magnificent name for a Goody character?) comes to the slow realization that everyone is taking advantage of his good nature and rebels in spectacular fashion. So much so that his sister starts improving her own behavior. By the end, the two sit the parents down and talk it out with them. Honestly, I think those parents needed an accompanying bonk on the head (I clearly identify a bit too much with Chirton) but I also liked seeing a picture book where the lesson comes in such a cheeky way. Plus isn’t it good to see someone rebel once in a while? I feel like Sendak and Ungerer are just rolling in their graves sometimes. Child, at least, understands the pleasures of sticking it to the man.
Grasshopper by Tatiana Ukhova
[Previously seen on the Wordless List]
An unsentimental look at nature, in all its beauty and ugliness. When a girl captures a grasshopper to save it, and watches the world around her operate entirely by its own rules. The phrase about nature “red in tooth and claw” comes to mind when I read this wordless title. Do yourself a favor and don’t read the plot description on the bookflap until after you’ve gone through it on your own. The less you know about it going in, the more strange and interesting it becomes. When I was a kid I was always a bit shocked when the natural world didn’t line up with the Disney-esque fantasy I’d been sold. The fish in my fishtank ate one another. Cute baby birds in nests were victims to (of all things) squirrels! So I totally identify with the girl in this story PARTICULARLY as it applies to that poor caterpillar. This is the very rare picture book I’ve ever seen that acknowledges that the natural world can be gross and weird and still be wonderful and beautiful. You just can’t have all the good and just sweep the bad under the rug. This is nature, ugliness and all.
Have You Ever Seen a Flower? by Shawn Harris
Awash in color, this book dares to ask the extent to which you’ve ever really allowed yourself to look at nature deeply. Entrancing, dreamlike, and exceedingly clever. At some point we’re all going to have to sit back and admit that Shawn Harris is one of the most interesting, relatively new illustrators working today. It isn’t just that he tackles books in innovative ways. It’s the fact that he never seems to tackle two books in the same way twice. I loved Her Right Foot, squealed at Everyone’s Awake, and was quietly impressed by Polar Bear in the Snow. But this book? This book’s a dare that paid off. You know how he illustrated this book? With pencils. A plain old ordinary one for the city and a couple boxes of colored ones for everything else. Look at what he’s doing with color. Look at what he’s doing with white space. Look at the shading and the writing and the whole thing. It’s super cool and, more importantly, it works.
Hello, Star by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, ill. Vashti Harrison
Most picture books plant themselves squarely in the realm of childhood, never bringing their main characters along into adulthood. This book dares to make a change. You may know Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic from her droll The End of Something Wonderful. You may know Vashti Harrison from Sulwe and Hair Love and who knows what all. Put ‘em both together and whattaya got? You’ve got a book that shows the clear cut path from curiosity into discovery. Chock full of strong star facts (and we all know how much Ms. Harrison likes books set in space) it’s fun to look at the book not just in terms of the storyline itself, but also as a reminder of how short our lives are compared to the life, and subsequent death, of the stars. A picture book that dares to make you think.
A House for Every Bird by Megan Maynor, ill. Kaylani Juanita
This one snuck up on me. We’ve seen lots of stories where a child’s art comes to life, but Maynor’s story is about the assumptions we make. I can’t help but think that it would be a rather delightful companion to fellow 2021 picture book Milo Imagines the World. Both books display kids drawing what they believe to be the truth, only to discover that things are more complicated than they first appear. Kaylani Juanita’s art is, as ever, effortlessly charming. Sometimes an artist’s just got it, right? I love how she distinguishes the childlike drawings of the main character from the birds themselves when they can have a say about their own preferences. Plus, Ms. Juanita knows how to draw an ostrich. 20 extrta points for that!
I Am the Subway by Kim Hyo-eun, translated by Deborah Smith
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Wow. Kim Hyo-eun has managed to capture beauty in subway use that one rarely finds in tales of public transport. I mean, I’m sorry, but just look at that cover. Do you see how the light slants through the windows? The book captures that expression you put on your face when you travel by subway. It highlights characters that spend only the briefest amounts of time in one another’s presence before exiting into their own lives. There’s happiness and sadness here but it’s not a downer of a book. If anything it glorifies our existence by showing us at our most mundane. I utterly love this title and extra point to Deborah Smith’s translation. The book is told from the point of view of the subway itself and there’s this wistful melancholy to its voice that must have been so hard to capture in English. I love lines like “The sour smell of sweat on the long way home; a gentle afternoon light that washes over everything – old shoes, new shoes, clean and dull shoes. The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again.”
I Can Make a Train Noise by Michael Emberley, ill. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
[Previously Seen on the Readaloud List]
A delicious readaloud book follows a small child who uses the very words “I can make a train noise” to sound like a train! Inventive, fun, and interactive. So the whole trick with this book is that it is designed to read out loud. Now what’s so interesting about that is that this book works on both a group level and a one-on-one. There are lots of fun details in the art for the one-on-one, but when it comes to a whole room of kids there are so many participation elements built in. It’s clear that Emberley has been doing this for a while.
I Eat Poop: A Dung Beetle Story by Mark Pett
Doug has a secret, and it’s one that he feels he has to hide from his fellow insect classmates. But when he stands up for someone else, he discovers that there is no “normal” in nature. Put another way: Charlie Brown as dung beetle. What could be better? Don’t be put off by this book’s scatalogical title. Though ostensibly about how there’s something “strange” about all of us that we’d rather not share with our classmates, this book is just chock full of insect trivia and information. It would be cool to have some backmatter, but in a clever little twist, Pett actually includes a LOT of facts on the back endpapers. My favorite might be the fact for Buffy Bumblebee: “Has hair on two of her five eyeballs.” I mean, that’s just cool.
The Impossible Mountain by David Soman
While the other villagers cower in fear, two children set forth to climb a mountain on their own. A stirring tale of doubt, bravery, and blazing your own trail. We’re getting a lot of picture books these days about people kept inside by fear who break out in some way. Can’t help but wonder how COVID has marked the subconscious of some of these books. This one’s by David Soman and ever since he wrote Three Bears in a Boat I’ve been a fan for life. In that book he played with the nature of water. In this book he appears to be playing with light. Dappled light in forests or in caves or through the leaves of apple trees. Worth your consideration.
Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel
[Previously Seen on the Rhyming List]
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.
Julia’s House Goes Home by Ben Hatke
[Previously Seen on the Fantasy List]
No “best of” list at the end of the year is free from personal prejudice and preferences. We all know that. Committees are made of people and people are guided by their own internal weirdnesses. These 31 days, 31 lists are created by a committee of one: me. And I’m more than perfectly aware of my own weird likes and dislikes. Generally I at least make an effort to keep my own little odd desires out of the mix, but for this book? Yeah, no go. I love the “Julia” series in general, so now to find that #3 has come out AND that it’s in hot contention with #1 as the best of the trilogy (nothing against #2 but it suffers from classic second-in-a-trilogy syndrome), that’s a treat. In this book Julia’s house has served its purpose, providing space for more and more creatures that need a home. In search of a new place to park it, Julia spots the ideal spot in the distance. Then, tragedy strikes! The house tumbles away, throwing inhabitants hither and thither. Julia picks them up as well and new ones, promising each a place to live (“we’ll make room”) until it begins to dawn on her that she’s being unrealistic. The house was never THAT big, after all. I’m just gonna give away the ending here, because I think Hatke just sticks the landing on the trilogy so well. The house? When she finds it, it’s just rubble. But now she has a veritable city of creatures and they plunge forward, rebuilding. “They called it Julia’s Town.” I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING! I was highly amused, by the way, to see that the mermaid has somehow over the course of the books acquired a t-shirt. Guess her strategically placed hair wasn’t cutting it anymore. Ah well. A brilliant little book that stands on its own, even if you haven’t read its predecessors.
Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule, ill. Rebecca Green
[Previously Seen on the Informational Fiction List]
A strange sweet tale based on a true story. According to Kafka’s last love, Dora Diamant, in 1923 the two ran into a little girl who was crying because she lost her doll. Touched, Kafka crafted meticulous letters from the doll in question, recounting her many adventures and travels. He would die shortly thereafter. In this book, Theule reimagines the situation, giving the doll a wider range to explore, and unlike the real letters, these end with the doll scaling mountains, inspiring the little girl to do the same. The book’s ending is semisweet, with Kafka dying but the girl going on to adventure. As the final line reads, “Their warm breath clung fiercely to the cool air, then blew softly away, one to play and explore and one, finally, to sleep.” It’s funny the degree to which this feels like a translation. We don’t expect our American books to be quite as candid about death, or as introspective about the power our words have long after our own . The tone of this book, perfectly complemented by Green’s art, has a dreamlike feel that some child, somewhere, will remember for all time.
Keep Your Head Up by Aliya King Neil, ill. Charly Palmer
A near miss on my part. I was well into December before my hold on this book came in. I’d heard vague praise surrounding it, but pretty much came into the reading cold. I don’t know what I expected to find, but a contemporary take on having a rotten day was not what I expected. Much like the beloved Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Keep Your Head Up involves a kid dealing with a string of awful occurences. D wakes up late and everything is wrong. He can’t brush his teeth because his sister used his toothpaste to make slime (Best Line Ever: “Toothpaste doesn’t even go in slime”). He forgets his gym uniform on kickball day, he doesn’t get to be Recycler, he gets the laptop with the sticky space bar, he gets corrected in math, and he gets paint on his clothes. Meltdown time. Now here’s the kicker. The grown-ups in the book are, for the most part, sympathetic, but even then the day doesn’t end with everything a-okay. As D says, “So, this day won’t get any better?” Replies his mom, “It might. But if it doesn’t get better, what can you do?” “Keep my head up.” That simple acknowledgement that things might not improve is so key here. A lot of the time kids prefer honesty over false promises. Add in Charly Palmer’s art, where a dark mood is visualized but somehow doesn’t distract from the reality of the day. Little wonder that this is a Denene Millner title. Remember Crown? That was one of hers. She knows what she’s doing with these books.
Let Me Fix You a Plate: A Tale of Two Kitchens by Elizabeth Lilly
On a trip a family visits Mamaw and Papaw in rural West Virginia then heads to Florida to visit Abuela and Abuelo. Evocative language really drills home the joy of family from different cultures. I still need to think about this one a lot. It’s pretty simple on the surface but the more I consider it, the cleverer I realize that it is. Basically, this is a book where you get this really crystal clear specificity that comes with a kid visiting two entirely different sets of grandparents. And the relationships of each parent to their parents and how that is displayed (the dad having the same coffee cup as the grandfather or the mom immediately helping out in the kitchen) is so subtle and central. It’s an incredibly good creation. A book that deserves multiple reads.
Little Girls Are Wiser Than Men, adapted from Leo Tolstoy, ill. Hassan Zahreddine
Let me tell you a crazy story. I receive a number of e-newsletters published by small presses. One of my favorite presses is Tara Books. This India-based publisher lavishes time and attention on books in ways entirely unfamiliar to even the most independent of American companies. Case in point: Little Girls Are Wiser Than Men. They’d made mention of this book in one of their newsletters and when I saw it was adapted from a Leo Tolstoy story, I knew I wanted to see it. Alas, it didn’t look as thought it was available here in the States. Plus, ever since I left New York Public Library, I’ve had difficulty getting my hands on any Tara Book products. Resigned, I figured I’d have to cut my losses . Fast forward to Christmas and my mother and father-in-law send me this very book as a present. To say I was stunned was an understatement. I simply couldn’t figure out how they knew to get this for me. Turns out, my FIL was in a shop he loves and the proprietor guaranteed him that I wouldn’t have seen this book. What luck! The book comes in its own little close-fitted translucent cloth bag, and inside you find just the most gorgeous product. The lino-cut art by Lebanese printmaker Hassan Zahreddine is influenced in part by 16th century woodcut illustrations. The etching process was then published on handmade paper using a vintage 1965 Hedelberg letterpress. Sound too old-fashioned? Well, the plates that relief-printed on the paper were made from digital files of the text and art, so there’s that. And the story? A delightful fable of two little girls that get into a spat but work it out (and an issue with their village itself) while the men stubbornly determine to fight without reason. This book is a work of art, but don’t expect to get it just anywhere. Best that you go directly to the publisher and purchase it that way. After all, you won’t find anything else out there quite like it.
Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
[Previously Seen on the Fantasy List]
Shoot. SHOOT! There are too many books out in a given year. So how the HECK do I draw the appropriate bit of attention to this truly fantastic title? See, I liked Phoebe Wahl already. I liked her work on Sonya’s Chickens and The Blue House and all that. She just has this particularly great style that feels old-fashioned but, at least in the case of this book, utilizes digital illustration with “colored-pencil textures” (which is so cool). And now I have found my favorite Wahl. My hands down, without a doubt, stop the presses, favorite favorite Wahl. Little Witch Hazel is getting placed in this picture book section here, but it actually consists of four different stories. Each one follows Hazel through a different season, starting with the spring. In the first story she helps a baby owl. In the next she is seriously stressing out and needs to chill. In the third she deals with a spooky sound. In the fourth she gets caught in a snowstorm and is rescued by a familiar face. Each story also makes sure to tie itself significantly into its own season in some way. Now the book looks all classicy classic on the outset, but part of what I love about Wahl is that she’s such a wild card. Yeah, it’s about tiny people in the forest. But there’s also inside jokes about Noam Chomsky (at one point Hazel has to return a library book called “Who Rules the Woods” by Gnome Chomsky) as well as same sex couples, bearded fairies in dresses, breast-feeding, and even Hazel’s own unapologetically unshaven legs. Man. Wish I had some little kids to read this to. This book is marvelous.
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld
When a childless king and queen seek kids of their own, they end up with a wooden robot and a girl made from a log. And when tragedy places the siblings in danger, they’ll do anything they can to keep one another from harm. This was a surprise. I read a lot of random books during my lunch break, and normally I have a sense of whether or not they’ve garnered much buzz. I hadn’t heard boo about this book initially, so admittedly my expectations may have been lowered. Then, lo and behold, I read it and discovered that Tom Gauld has an ear for fairytales that I haven’t encountered in a very long time. This is so sweet and so funny and so very perfect in terms of tone that I’m just stunned. Then I flipped the book over to discover blurbs by Neil Gaiman, Oliver Jeffers, Jillian Tamaki, Jon Klassen, and Carson Ellis. Clearly I was late to the party.
The Longest Letsgoboy by Derick Wilder, ill. Cátia Chien
[Previously Seen on the Message List]
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 Lost Package by Richard Ho, ill. Jessica Lanan
No matter how lovingly a package is wrapped and sent, something can always go wrong. Marvelous watercolors show the journey of one little box from coast to coast, and friends made along the way. Folks, we have a problem. We are seeing way too many good picture books in 2021. Not merely good ones either, but grand ones. Spectacular ones. Ones like this book. As a love letter to the postal service, the book starts off pretty low-key. But then there’s this one illustration of a mail truck approaching a pothole. I don’t know why that particular picture caught my attention the way that it did, but I just spent this inordinately long amount of time just gazing at it. After that, Lanan starts really getting into it. She’s good at water and rain and reflections of shadow and light. She also does as convincing a San Francisco as she does a Queens.
Magic Candies by Heena Baek, translated by Sophie Bowman
When Tong Tong purchases a bag of strange round candies, he discovers that each one allows him to hear the hidden speech of someone or some thing. Marvelous models bring this kooky story to life. Lemme cut off those objections at the pass. The people in this book aren’t attractive? Who cares! I love their imperfections. The book is weird? No question! Strange and original and wonderful. I love books that use models and photography and this South Korean import is skilled in that department. The only reason I’m a little uncertain is when our hero apparently is talking to his dead grandma. Not sure what to make of that one. But the rest of it is really fun. I particularly love the message behind the dad’s haranguing. And I’ll be sure to treat my couch nicer from now on.
The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, ill. Regis and Kahran Bethencourt
[Previously Seen on the Photography List]
“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.
Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor
[Previously Seen on the Readaloud List]
Pack everything up and just go home, folks. You’re not gonna find a book half as charming as this one this year. Tabor’s pulling tricks out of his Peter Newell playbook here, mucking with the way you hold a book to make it not just a funny story (which it is – that snail at the end is fantastic) but a fantastic readaloud. Once you get comfortable turning the book the way it needs to be turned, I could see this just bringing down the house with certain storytimes. I like picture books that take risks, are funny, and have just a little bit of heart. This hits all those buttons, absolutely. There’s definitely a reason people keep singing the word “Caldecott” behind Tabor’s back.
Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, ill. Mariachiara Di Giorgio
When the fair has closed and the night has come, what happens to the merry-go-rounds, rides, and games? Join a troop of intrepid animal adventurers in this beautifully rendered wordless romp. How strange is it that I’ve never seen an outdoor carnival represented accurately in a picture book before? This book is so evocative you can practically smell the popcorn and elephant ears. Sometimes wordless books require a lot of energy to read and understand. This one feels effortless. There are small storylines couched within larger ones. I could read and reread this hundreds of times and always find something new. Honestly, what it really reminded me of was Tuesday by David Wiesner with its surreal nighttime hijinks. My sole regret is that the illustrator lives in Rome and cannot win herself a Caldecott.
Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña, ill. Christian Robinson
On a long subway ride, Milo draws and imagines the lives of the people around him. But is there more to their stories than at first glance? Is there more to his own? Walking into this book knowing absolutely nothing about it, I was completely and utterly charmed. First off, both Matt and Christian know what NYC feels and looks and sounds like. That subway is authentic to the point where I can half hear the squeal of the steel (though rarely is the wind from the tunnel something I’d call a “cool rush”). And then the messaging about assumptions and imagination and where imagination diverges from assumptions or poisons them . . . I have a lot to chew on now. Finally, you get to that ending. That truly amazing ending. So yeah. I think you could call me a fan.
Mr. Watson’s Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, ill. Andrea Tsurumi
[Previously Seen on the Funny Picture Books List]
Mr. Watson wants some chickens so he and his partner Mr. Nelson get three. But what happens when those three turn into 456 or more? Okay. Big fan of this one. Andrea Tsurumi is pulling out some serious Accident energy (Accident being a picture book she did that I really and truly enjoyed). This taps into what she does best and, I’d argue, what Jarrett does best too. I mean, I think I love it for the inclusion of the term “pickle slinger” alone. It felt a lot like Skunk & Badger at times (which is a compliment). Plus, this may be one of the truly rare books in which you have a gay couple that’s thoroughly affectionate towards one another without having to have kids. Big chaos energy alert!
Moon Pops by Heena Baek, translated by Jieun Kier
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Generally I don’t like to include two of the same author on my lists, but for Heena Baek, recent winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, I will certainly make an exception. Though I saw Baek’s Magic Candies first in galley form, technically Moon Pops was the first brought to American shores. Here Baek uses a cut paper technique to relay her storytelling. And what storytelling it is too! When a night becomes so hot that the moon itself melts, Granny runs out, collects the drippings, and freezes them into delicious moon pops. That’s neat, but it’s the glimpses into people’s homes in this single apartment complex that blew my particular mind. You get all the voyeuristic thrill of Rear Window, peeking into the lives of these various clothed animals. She’s even added some lights within the pops for an extra thrill. I was amused by a note at the beginning that was clearly put in there for American readers too. It explains that in Korean folklore it is said that you can look at the moon and see a rabbit there with a mortar and pestle. If you didn’t know that, the ending of this book would be a true headscratcher. Gorgeous.
Moose’s Book Bus by Inga Moore
I couldn’t contain a cry of joy when I opened my mail and found this little beauty. Inga Moore’s The House in the Woods is a book that I personally consider one of the coziest titles out there, and a prime candidate for “modern classic” status. Plus she draws a good beaver. Now she’s returned with, not a sequel, but a kind of companion picture book. Like the previous book, this story has a moose protagonist, but this one is front and center. He lives with his family in the woods and each night tells them stories. But when the stories run out, he starts borrowing them from the library in town (which is run by a Bird at the desk – naturally). Trouble is, Moose is a particularly good orator and soon everyone wants a piece of his increasingly cramped living room. The solution to THAT problem is a book bus and it all ends with literacy programs and an increasingly literate populace. In other words, catnip to librarians like myself. I was particularly intrigued by the presence of the three wild pigs, that all appear to live and raise their children together. Polyamorous families do not yet exist in many picture books, so I suspect kids in those situations are grateful for whatever they may find. A charmer of a title.
My Two Border Towns by David Bowles, ill. Erika Meza
When you live on the border of Mexico and America, a trip to “The Other Side” can feel like an adventure. Follow one small boy as he and his father travel to Mexico to run errands for the family, greet old friends and family, and hope the future will be brighter for those caught in-between. I’ve got a real hang-up with picture books that attempt to be meaningful but end up being addressed more to the parents reading a book than the kids. There’s nothing worse than a heartfelt, boring book. What makes this Bowles/Meza collaboration so successful is that it’s a legitimately fun story, placed in a setting that’s usually depicted as deadly serious (when it’s depicted at all). What these two do so well is make it clear how much fun our young hero has, travelling between America and Mexico on a regular basis. The nod to those who don’t have those privileges is done fluidly (it’s integrated with the rest of the story) and well. Meza’s art is just the loveliest too.
My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Liên
[Previously Seen on the Caldenott List]
A child in Vietnam experiences an eventful journey down the Mekong River. Where is he going? What natural wonders (and dangers) will he encounter next? Visually riveting. This works. The illustrations are the first thing to blow you away (as you can probably tell from the cover) and I did feel a pang of worry that this would be all that the book is. But as I read on I discovered some really nice turns of phrase (example: “It’s different when you’re alone in the unfamiliar hallways of the forest”). And that’s even before I realized where the main character was heading. The art is lush and immersive, drawing you in. Would love to know who the translator of this book was (both the author and illustrator are Vietnamese), but no word on that (disappointing). Still, I often like to say that we get one truly great first day of school picture book every year. For 2021, it could be this book, but then I saw . . .
Negative Cat by Sophie Blackall
I feel like it’s been a little while since Ms. Blackall did a picture book as simple as this. The story has a familiar start. The book begins, “On Day 427 of asking for a cat…” Our young hero is cat-obsessed. After continuing his campaign in very possible fashion and medium, finally his family gives in. They go to the shelter and there he finds Maximilian Augustus Xavier (or just “Max” for short). But Max isn’t one of those cats that tries to charm you. He’s a negative cat. I think we’re familiar with the breed. What was particularly interesting to me with this book was the fact that I can’t remember Ms. Blackall ever illustrating a cat before. Surely this isn’t the first time, but it kind of struck me that way. According to her, she had the beginning of this book all planned out for years, but could never think of an ending. Inspiration hit when she became aware of programs where kids read to cats. A cat won’t judge you by how well (or poorly) you read to them. Hence, the perfect ending to a perfectly charming book.
Never, Not Ever by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Every year I’m able to find one First Day of School book that really bowls me over. In the past that honor has fallen to School’s First Day of School, King of Kindergarten, and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. This year, my heart was stolen by a naughty little bat in a penchant for pink. Her name is Pascaline and her response to her parents, upon being informed that she must attend school, is “Never, not ever.” When a particularly loud yelling of this phrase shrinks her parents down, she tucks them safely under her wings and is able to take them to school with her. What follows is a disappointing day for Pascaline as she comes to realize that it would be much more fun at school by herself than having to cater to two tiny, naughty parental units. It’s such a bold, ridiculous premise that it works fantastically, and no one can top Alemagna when it comes to petulant bat eyelids. My sole regret? That I don’t have a kid of my own going to a first day of Kindergarten anymore. I’d love to read them this.
New In Town by Kevin Cornell
In the little town of Puddletrunk, bridges have a nasty habits of getting eaten by termites. But when a clever repairman goes head to head with the town’s resident troll, it becomes clear that things aren’t always what they seem. I like a picture book that gives smart kid readers credit. I also like a picture book so chock full of details that you can’t help but read it over and over again. This book fulfills both of those needs, though I think I might have to read it ten or twenty times more to catch all the details that Mr. Cornell has crammed inside. I also rarely encounter unreliable narrators in picture books, so this was a treat. I can’t wait to read this one aloud. I suspect you could have a lot of fun with the bridge troll’s oily voice.
Nobody Owns the Moon by Tohby Riddle
[Previously Seen on the Caldenott List]
It’s always kind of awkward including imports on this list that were published years and years ago in their home countries. This little number came out a whopping 13 years ago in Australia. But considering how good it is, I’m just grateful we got it here in the States at all. The story tells you in a straightforward manner that only a few wild creatures can successfully make a home in the city. The fox is one of them, and we get a great look at Clive the fox reclining in an armchair with a view of what looks to be NYC outside (the Australians love to depict Manhattan, as evidenced by this and Gus Gordon’s fabulous Herman and Rosie). The fox moves about its daily life, much like the dinosaur in Sean Rubin’s Bolivar (another book this would pair well with) but his friend Humphrey has it harder. With great delicacy the text notes that “Humphrey doesn’t always have a fixed address,” and holding down a job can be hard for him. On a day when Humphrey looks a little worse for wear Clive notices that there’s a fancy invitation in Humphrey’s bag. He was going to eat it (“But if you’re hungry, Clive, it’s yours”) but his friend opens it to find two free tickets a new play premiering that night. They attend and get free hors d’oevres, punch, and a show that is absolutely fantastic. Afterwards their tickets entitle them to “a hot beverage of their choice and a large slice of cake.” Coming out, the city is bright and glittering and full and Humphrey declares, “This is our town!” There is no solution for Humphrey’s other problems. Clive doesn’t come to his rescue to let him stay with him. It’s just a single wonderful night in a city they both enjoy. And like the play they’ve just seen, it has a bittersweet ending. I don’t keep a lot of the picture books that land on my desk, but this one I’m keeping for a long long time. Read further praise of the book (with copious interior spreads) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
Off-Limits by Helen Yoon
No home office is safe when there are little hands ready to try out all the binder clips, sticky notes, and other supplies. A truly hilarious story with a twist ending you won’t see coming. This book is Readaloud Gold (capital R, capital G), but it was my daughter who pointed out that this is a COVID book, albeit a subtle one (what goes on when a daughter gets into her dad’s home workspace). I was completely taken with the art and the text and it just STICKS that landing at the end! One of my favorites of the year.
On the Trapline by David A. Robertson, ill. Julie Flett
[Previously Seen on the Caldenott List]
See that medal on the cover? That’s the Governor General’s Award. It’s the Canadian Caldecott equivalent and this book is its most recent winner. A trip with his grandpa to see the trapline, a place where he once hunted, takes a child into the heart of his family’s history. Flett’s art is always subtle and beautiful, but it was Mr. Robertson’s word choices that got me to thinking. This book is about as much of what we say as what we don’t say to our children. The grandfather in this book is clearly protecting his grandchild, but is still answering questions about his past. I was particularly impressed by the way in which the Swampy Cree vocabulary words aren’t just inserted into the text, but carry some of the load of the storytelling. They advance the plot, the way a song does in a musical.
Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More by Johanna Schaible
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.
Opposites Abstract by Mo Willems
“Is this calm? Is this excited?” “Is this dark? Is this light?” 18 abstract paintings by award-winning creator Mo Willems use the concept of opposites to give children a deeper appreciation of abstract art. Before you read this book, I need you to do something impossible. I need you to close your eyes and just pretend that it wasn’t created in any way, shape or form by Mo Willems. Imagine it was written by some new person and you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. Because if you do that, you can see its potential. Mo (who is clearly gunning for Chris Raschka’s title of Most Abstract Picture Book Creator) has set up an opposites book that works entirely in the form of questions. He asks the reader questions about his own abstract art (the ultimate dream of every artsy illustrator) and what this does is teach child readers to come up with their own answers. This, in turn, starts to teach them about the beauty of abstract art. Maybe it’s a lot to ask, but I think this book’s lofty ambitions actually work.
Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by Lauren Tobia
[Previously Seen on the Wordless List]
While his mom travels, Oscar finds peace growing flowers and plants. Soon he has so many that he decides to share them with his appreciative community. I think I had a distinct advantage going into this of not fully realizing that the artist was Lauren Tobia. After seeing her work with Atinuke over the years, I inadvertently became a lifelong fan. Plus, wordless books are difficult things to create and this book really does do a great job with its storytelling. At first this looked to me like a story about a kid with two moms, but on closer inspection I see that he’s just temporarily moving into the other woman’s home. Still, this is a really cool slice of life with an incredibly strong sense of place.
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. In the end I think I like this a lot. 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 the Black Lives Matter movement, unemployment, and death, and 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, maskless. 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.
Over the Shop by JonArno Lawson, ill. Qin Leng
[Previously Seen on the Wordless List]
A wordless story about a girl, her grandparent, and the family they build when two strangers come to rent the apartment above their shop. Okay. That’s it. If the ALA doesn’t change the rules on who gets to win a Caldecott then I am personally walking over there and twisting their arms myself. You know how you suspect that a good illustrator has a really good book inside of them and that it’s just waiting to come out? I’ve been watching Qin Leng for years, just hoping that she’d get paired with the right text. Who knew that all along she had to be paired with no text at all? I have no idea what JonArno Lawson actually did when he wrote this wordless book but whatever it was, it works. This is an infinitely gentle tale about building community where you find it. Lawson dedicates it to “trans activists of all ages” and you can read that into the images, though I didn’t realize that until some other librarians pointed it out to me. I mean, this book is just flat out great. Deserves more reads.
The Pocket Chaotic by Ziggy Hanaor, ill. Daniel Gray-Barnett
Don’t get him wrong, Alexander loves his mom, but why does she stuff her pouch full of junk? Is she incredibly messy or is there an ulterior motive at play? A clever little readaloud. This reminded me a lot of classic kangaroo stories like Katy No-Pocket or (the far more similar) Joey Runs Away. I was very impressed that both the author and the artist managed to keep from giving away the mom’s intentions until that very last page. Hand this one to a parent trying desperately to get their 25-year-old out of the basement.
The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat, ill. Lauren Castillo
I like to say that I enjoy children’s books that take big swings. That do something different from everyone else out there. And as I read this collaboration between Soontornvat and Castillo, I started thinking about what it was doing, and how different it was from so much else out there right now. The childhood fantasy of living on your own, doing stuff that grown-ups do (like tending to the house, taking care of the garden, making the meals, etc.) rings so strongly within me. So much so that I’ve come to realize that this book would have been one of my favorites when I was a kid. I was constantly writing books where I killed all the parents off off-screen (I wasn’t vindictive, I just needed them gone) and allowed the kids to live their utopian lives without interference. In this book, much as in a Bink & Gollie story, parents aren’t even part of the equation. These five kids have it pretty good, until the day they find a book in the attic and it gives them ideas of what is “proper”. Turns out, fitting into someone else’s vision isn’t half as interesting or satisfying as fitting into your own. Both creators just seem to be having loads of fun with this title. You can’t help enjoying Castillo’s ingenuity when it comes to radiating sunbeams or the sticky splatter of mud. This is the book you give to the family so that they’ll read it for generations to come. This big swing has knocked it out of the park.
Road Trip! A Whiskers Hollow Adventure by Steve Light
After a minor accident, Bear needs a new headlight for his old truck. Good thing friends Rabbit, Mouse, and Donkey are willing to come along for an epic, arboreal road trip! Once you abandon all sense of scale, this book gets to be a lot easier to read (don’t obsess over the fact that the bear and the mouse are pretty much the same size). I’ve always liked Steve Light (Have You Seen My Dragon?) and that style of his that’s simultaneously detailed and sketchy. When you open this book you get an eyeful of this marvelously rendered world called Whiskers Hollow. There are so many places to look! The story itself is pretty basic (animals must find a replacement headlight) and I felt myself over-identifying with the hungry rabbit, but all told this was a lot of fun.
The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen
Five short chapters follow three behatted animals as they avoid death, aliens, and rocks falling from the sky. Not necessarily in that order. When Jon Klassen first picture written and illustrated picture book I Want My Hat Back was released, I thought it was amazing. Since that time he’s done a lot of good work, but that initial frisson of delight I experienced with Hat Back never quite returned. Foolishly I thought he’d lost the ability to surprise me . . . until now. Folks, if I am wrestling with some aspect of this book then I am wrestling with the uncertainty of whether or not it is possible that I like this book even MORE than Hat Back. Broken into five chapters it has this amazing grasp on deadpan humor and full out comic timing. My kids were roaring by the end and I was roaring right alongside them. Okay. I’ll say it. It’s better than I Want My Hat Back. Come at me.
Ship in a Bottle by Andrew Prahin
Mouse dreams of a better life so one day she sets sail for distant lands. Peaceful watercolors illustrate her gentle search for a new home. I was kind of floored to discover the extent to which I really enjoyed this book. The premise is incredibly simple. The mouse’s journey. The way it meets unsympathetic characters as well as sympathetic ones. I was impressed with a sly bit of messaging as well. Early in the book you see bunnies and seagulls treat the mouse poorly. Later it meets nice bunnies and nice seagulls, showing, without having to say out loud, how different folks have different personalities and you can’t assume things based on type. There’s some really good pacing at work here, and that final shot of the cat looking mournfully (regretfully?) at the water is possibly worth the price of the book alone. It’s not showy or anything, but this book made me really happy.
Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa Wheeler, ill. Loren Long
Architects, artists, scientists, and more all dream but . . . someone has to build what they dream up. A clever and respectful celebration of skilled laborers. Very interesting! What we have here is a picture book that shows the intersection between the professionals that dream up vast sculptures, bridges, buildings, etc. and the people that actually make those things a reality. It’s this rather fascinating class dichotomy which works hard to give equal weight to people in all occupations. I just love the image of the construction worker at home with his kid reading at the end. Fun Fact: The librarian at the end of the book is Alia Jones, library assistant in Cincinnati.
Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, ill. C.G. Esperanza
Man! Can we just get C.G. Esperanza to illustrate all the books now? This guy has more light and life and power in a single brush stroke than some folks can hope for in a lifetime. A South Bronx artist, some genius thought to pair him with this Winsome Bingham manuscript and the result doesn’t just pop off the page, it gets a head running start then slides into home (which is a mixed metaphor, I know, but I super love this book). It’s not simply the colors (hope you like yellow!). It’s the people. Contrast the grandma with her brilliant apron and elephant slippers with that shot of the teens in the living room playing video games while a three-year-old blocks the screen (that shot is how you know that this is a period piece, by the way). Look at the “Grill Master” Roscoe Ray with his TV propped on the mini fridge outside. And the writing! I mean, I love the repeated beats of the grandma saying that everything her grandson does is the best, “I’ve seen in all my life”. You SMELL that dinner as it’s cooking. You hear the people laughing. You are IN this house. I haven’t been this sucked into a book in a long time. Just fantastic stuff.
Starting Over in Sunset Park by José Pelaez and Lynn McGee, ill. Bianca Diaz
Moving can be hard, but imagine you’ve just left the Dominican Republic for Brooklyn. When a girl and her mom come to live in the U.S. they discover the good and the bad of coming to a new home. Oh, I like this. I got a distinctive Vera B. Williams vibe from it. Actually, it kind of pairs well with the middle grade book The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold. The book felt very authentically NYC (good map at the end) and the story was this realistic kind of hopeful. Things aren’t easy for the mom and her daughter but you get the distinct feeling that they’re doing okay. And check out those wowza endpapers! The colors! This book is steeped in these hugely cheery hues. I wish the real NYC were half this bright!
Strollercoaster by Matt Ringler, ill. Raúl the Third and Elaine Bay
Wow. This book’s a trip. I love it when you get the feeling that Raúl the Third has just pulled out all the stops and gone full throttle into a color-soaked frenzy. There’s a phrase regarding toddlers and tantrums that, to distract them, you have to “meet their energy”. And I can’t think of a better “meet their energy” book than this one. I love how the dad’s shirt billows behind him like a cape because there is some serious superhero stuff going on here with that running. Plus check out when the art looks like it’s become scratchboard stuff. Bonus: Go here if you want to see how Raúl and Elaine tricked out their own kid’s stroller. It’s pretty funny.
Ten Beautiful Things by Molly Beth Griffin, ill. Maribel Lechuga
If you had to find ten beautiful things on a long car ride, what would you find? Lily’s going to live with Gram and she isn’t feeling too happy, but slowly the beautiful things Gram asks her to find open her up enough to hope for more. We have plenty of pretty books with lovely art out this year and this one’s no exception. Watercolor texture and digital art and all that. It’s nice, but if the story doesn’t stand up then what’s it worth? This book really, seriously impressed me, though. Griffin takes the concept of just counting things on a long road trip and grounds the book in a kind of understanding about how a child processes tragedy. You never know what Lily’s just gone through but you know it’s bad enough that she’s got to stay with her Gram now. I really appreciated that none of this magically cured Lily’s deep and abiding sadness either. All it does is give her a safe space and a reason to hope. Sometimes, that’s enough.
The Tiny Woman’s Coat by Joy Cowley, ill. Giselle Clarkson
[Previously Seen on the Readaloud List]
I got some serious Teeny Tiny Woman vibes (courtesy of Paul Galdone) off of this book, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes I think that half the reason fairies are so popular is that kids finally have someone smaller than they are to watch. The woman in this book isn’t a fairy. She’s just trying to get by and make herself a warm coat before the weather turns. Believe me, I know how she feels. This is an ideal book to read aloud in the fall season. Aside from the obvious autumnal details, there’s all kinds of sound effects that come up naturally as you go through the book. When the trees offer something as cloth it reads, “ ‘You can have our leaves,’ said the autumn trees. Rustle, rustle, rustle.” Joy Cowley’s been in the readaloud game for a while (Red-Eyed Tree Frog is still maybe my favorite of her books) and Giselle Clarkson’s art is just fantastic. This would pair beautifully with Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl. All told, this book is a small delight from start to finish.
A Tree for Mr. Fish by Peter Stein
A bossy fish who lives in a tree (!) alienates his Bird, Cat and fishy pals. After feeling lonely, he realizes he must make things right. But how? Okay. I officially love this book. Like, LOVE love it. It’s the kind of illogical logic book where the kid reader is smarter than the characters on the page that I adore. And the readaloud potential is through the roof! It’s deeply silly (the pissed off looking fish guests who are in the tree saying calmly “I can’t breathe” just floored me) and the solution is just so inane that I ended up loving it even more. So wonderfully weird. Definitely needs more reads.
Watercress by Andrea Wang, ill. Jason Chin
[Previously Seen on the Informational Fiction List]
A girl wonders why her family is foraging for watercress in the ditches along the road. Can’t they get their food in the grocery store? A richly textured and emotional tale of immigration and understanding. Oh my. What a beauty. Jason Chin just doesn’t illustrate a single bad book, does he? This one reminded me more than a little of A Different Pond, illustrated by Thi Bui, written by Bao Phi, or last year’s The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le. Wang’s the same author who brought us that fantastic Magic Ramen book two years ago, so you know she’s a great author to begin with. She’s essentially told her own story as an immigrant kid in the 70s/80s, embarrassed to be foraging for watercress in the ditches beside the road. Chin just imbues the whole story with light. And that two-page shot of the family during the famine in China? It just rips the heart out of your chest. One of the best picture books I’ve ever read about the immigrant experience in America.
We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers, ill. Woodrow White
How does a visiting grandmother win over her shy grandchild? By having them both transform into jaguars. It’s kind of cool to go into this book cold. Once I started reading it, I liked how elegant the grandmother was (even when she’s crouching down on her well-pedicured bare feet) but there were other things I enjoyed as well. I was fond of how this relationship is affectionate without being the least bit gooey. She’s just not THAT kind of grandma. I liked how surreal it becomes. I hesitate to use the term “magical realism” but there’s more than a hint of that (particularly at the end). It pairs well with Wildflowers by Liniers, actually. In both cases, the imaginary world of the main character swallows up the rest of the narrative. Just cool.
Wishes by Mượn Thi Văn, ill. Victo Ngai
This visually striking book chronicles the scary journey by boat made by people fleeing Vietnam to Hong Kong in 1980. A true story based on the author’s experiences. Wow. I’ve been waiting for a new Victo Ngai book ever since she illustrated Chris Barton’s Dazzle Ships. This book does not disappoint. The suffering is hard but there’s something about the beauty of the art that softens it. The succinctness of the language itself and the fact that it’s a specific instance but speaks to a wider immigrant experience is key. Absolutely amazing.
Wounded Falcons by Jairo Buitrago, ill. Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado
[Previously Seen on the Translations List]
Santiago and Adrián are shocked when they discover a wounded falcon in an empty lot. A testament to the strength that comes from caring for another, be they bird or beast. Our falcons may have abandoned us this year, but by gum we won’t abandon them! There are depths upon depths lurking below the surface of this seemingly simple tale. The home life of Adrián is never explained in any great detail. You just know it has to be horrible. I particularly liked the pacing and the slow change that comes upon Adrián as he tends to the falcon.
Yes & No by Elisha Cooper
An overeager puppy and slinky black cat spend the day together with vastly different attitudes. Marvelous watercolors bring these unlikely friends to vibrant life on the page. Uh-oh. This is one of those books. The kind where I end up reading the whole thing out loud at the dinner table to my entire family because I like it so much. I already knew that Elisha Cooper was capable of tapping into the cat mindset thanks to his Caldecott Honor winner Big Cat, Little Cat, but I was unaware that he was just as good with dogs. The succinctness of line in this book is astonishing. And did you notice what Elisha hid at the beginning and end of the book? Hint: Check the endpapers. Look under the book jacket too. This is fantastic.
Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, ill. Jacqueline Alcántara
Your mama is strong, powerful, friendly, beautiful. A multifaceted Latine celebration of motherhood with illustrations and words that burst with life. This is very strong. I was prepared for one of those usual gushy picture books that are ostensibly about moms, but are really for moms. This . . . isn’t that. Ramos has a writing style that is simultaneously smart, funny, and resonant. I love that this mama is such a concrete, realistic person. And it has amazing lines in it: “Your mama so forgiving, she lets you keep on living”, when you’ve used her makeup without her permission. Plus, what mom can’t relate to the line, “I mean, it’s been years since she’s gone to the bathroom on her own.”
Curious to see what the previous years’ lists of picture books looked like? Behold the fruits of my labor!
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 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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