31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
The holiday picture book fills a particular niche in our collections. If you’re a librarian like myself then you probably have a “Holiday” collection somewhere in your library. Maybe it’s a section kept out of public view, perhaps in a backroom, until the appropriate time of the year. Maybe it’s a designated section of your larger collection. And maybe your library, like my own, has started to wrestle with the question of what books should be placed in the “Holiday” collection vs. the nonfiction collection as a whole. Do you only put the Christian holidays there? Are you including Diwali and Nowruz and Shabbat? These are big questions for our times, so let today’s list be a plethora of holidays from a range of cultures and religions. As you’ll see, it’s relatively short. And that’s because I only wanted to include just the best of the best.
Would you like to see previous years’ lists of holiday titles? Try these on for size:
2022 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
Build a House by Rhiannon Giddens, ill. Monica Mikai
Written to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, this song tells the tale of sorrow and joy, pain and triumph, always with the child reader in mind. A marvelously honest look at how to sing when the world has left you nothing at all. Let the record show that I was into this book even before I watched the video of Giddens performing it with Yo-Yo Ma. As a general rule I don’t like it when celebrities write children’s books. Turns out, I don’t mind it as much as I thought I did. I just don’t like it when they do a crap job. Ms. Giddens, in contrast, has adapted this song perfectly to the 40-page picture book format. I think what it does so perfectly is acknowledge pain and trauma without giving it power. This book is ultimately hopeful, even when you see the darkness at its edges. Nothing in this storyline or this art (created by the accomplished Monica Mikai) comes across as simplistic. It is instead a marvelously nuanced adaptation. Whether we put it in the picture book section or the poetry section, it deserves to be on our list. Listen to it, performed by both Ms. Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma here:
Crack-Crack! Who Is That? by Tristan Mory, translated by Wendeline A. Hardenberg
I’m slotting this in the Easter category, which may be a bit of a stretch, but I stand by my choice. Look, I’m not made of stone, people. If you didn’t want me to fall in love with this board book then you shouldn’t have found a way to allow it to make cracking sounds every time you pull the (sturdy, easy to grab) tab. Different types of animals that emerge from eggs are revealed by the reader. Of course, if you want to get technical about it, I’m not sure that turtle or fish eggs actually crack when they open, but that’s neither here nor then. As a note, the book does end with an Easter egg cracking open, so don’t be too surprised when you get to that part. Interestingly, this is a French import as well. I suspect you’ll have trouble wrenching this from your babies’ hands, once they get ahold of it.
Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, ill. Alex Bostic
The official poem of Juneteenth is brought to life in a stunning adaption for children. June 19, 1865 is truly celebrated in verses that will last through the ages. Full disclosure, I interviewed Mr. Bostic as part of SLJ’s last Day of Dialog. And what I learned from our talk was the degree to which he meticulously makes sure that the clothing of his subjects is authentic to the time period. He’s part of this larger trend of publishers tapping professional Black painters to start illustrating picture books. The history of this poem (and Sojourner Rolle’s own role in the creation of the Juneteenth holiday) is fascinating for adults in the backmatter, but the poem itself is good and strong. A neat adaptation to the picture book format worth considering.
The Ghosts Went Floating by Kim Norman, ill. Jay Fleck
I love to be surprised. Board books, while not as prevalent as they might be, still come to me on a regular basis looking very much like this little title. And since this was included in a batch of Halloween-esque titles, I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed by it when I looked at it. When I discovered that it was a creepy take on “The Ants Go Marching” (a.k.a. “When Johnny Comes Marching”) I had to give it some points. Then I liked the fact that each verse ends with “by the light of the moon, moon, moon, moon.” And THEN I started looking at some of the lyrics. You have to really admire the fact that for all that the book looks cutesy as heck, there are verses like, “The zombies lumbered, five by five, / You’d never guess that they weren’t alive.” The rhymes consistently scan perfectly. I’ll go on and say it: This is my favorite Halloween board book to date. Super adorable for the kids but with enough interest (and a great tune) so that parents will actually want to read/sing it over and over. And not just at Halloween.
Hanukkah in Little Havana Julie Anna Blank, Carlos Vélez Aguilera
The Hanukkah picture book has many of the same problems as the Christmas picture book: Coming up with an original story can be a beast. Julia Anna Blank tells one that I most certainly hadn’t seen before and that I appreciated. It diverges in interesting ways away from her own story. Where she, we learn in the Author’s Note, grew up in Venezuela and then visited Miami (where she connected more with the “Ladino-speaking ladies at the synagogue’s ‘Sisterhood’ whom I understood, not my grandmother’s Yiddish-speaking friends”) this particular story focuses on some kids living in Maryland who take a trip to Miami to visit their grandparents there. The Hanukkah celebration they find is low-key but includes the usual dreidel, chocolate coins, etc. as well as almendrikas with guava jelly and buñuelos. Aguilera keeps things peppy. Adults reading this to their kids may wonder at the all-day drive from Maryland to Miami and pity the parents, but you get why they do it.
Hanukkah Nights by Amalia Hoffman
I have often thought that should I ever turn to painting as a hobby, the first thing I would want to do is experiment with vibrant colors on pure black backgrounds. I can’t tell you why I find this combination so appealing. Perhaps it holds a kind of late 70s vibe for me that I dig. What I can say is that it’s particularly neat to see when it’s in a brand new board book. And a holiday board book at that! The first thing that you see when you lift the cover of Hanukkah Nights are these gorgeous red streaks just spewing out of the left-hand side of the page. On the right-hand side sits a single candle, also burning red, and the words below, “1 light. Special night.” As each night progresses, the lights increase and the colors and patterns on the left-hand page change. It’s almost trippy to watch. Which, when you think about it, means that it’s absolutely ideal for young growing brains. Colors and religion and board books all together? My kind of party!
Harvest Days: Giving Thanks Around the World by Kate DePalma, ill. Martina Peluso
Every year Thanksgiving comes around and every year we have to struggle to figure out which of the books in our library collections are sufficiently respectful (Spoiler Alert: Very few!!). As such, teachers and librarians have been scrambling to find books that can both serve to honor a day of giving thanks without, I dunno, honoring colonialism in some way. I’d say this book seals the deal. It’s a collection of harvest festivals, worldwide, in a picture book form. Each festival or celebration, or what have you, takes about two pages. Now upon an initial read I was a little baffled by some of the inclusions in this book. La Tomatina in Spain, for example, where you just, sorta, throw tomatoes at one another. Is that a harvest festival? I had to go to the backmatter to learn that it’s set for the end of August when there is a plentiful bounty of overripe tomatoes that are unsafe to eat (but perfect for thwacking at your neighbors!). A marvelous alternative for a popular holiday.
The Monster in the Bathhouse by Sina Merabian
Nowruz is having quite the renaissance in picture books these days. Granted the arrival of The Monster in the Bathhouse upon our American shores brings the grand total of picture books I’ve seen on this topic up to a whopping two (the other being Seven Special Somethings by Adib Khorram), as well as a mention in Our Favorite Time of the Year by A.E. Ali. Still, there’s something gratifying about reading a picture book in which Nowruz is potentially upset by a monster with a yen for personal hygiene. I’d not seen the work of Sina Merabian before and I like her digital style. The work here has a funny fuzzy quality. Like looking at the characters through a cloud of steam. It’s a nice inclusion.
Shoshi’s Shabbat by Caryn Yacowitz, ill. Kevin Hawkes
It’s not that Shoshi is the only farm animal with a Shabbat title to her name. Last year, after all, we saw Soosie: The Horse That Saved Shabbat. But Shoshi here stands entirely on her own. Yacowitz has taken a midrash about the Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta from about two thousand years ago and expertly turned it into a fun picture book idea. In the story Shoshi (the cow doesn’t have a name in the original story, so Ms. Yacowitz settled on this one) works for a Jewish family, plowing the fields six days a week. When the Sabbath comes she rests just like the rest of the family. When Shoshi is sold to neighbor Yohanan, who is not Jewish, all is well. Yohanan sets about plowing the field, as per usual, but finds that every 7 days or so Shoshi just will not work. It takes him a little while to figure out what’s going on, but when he does he realizes that the cow has the right idea and he and his family start adapting to the idea of a weekend. The Author’s Note in the back says that the story ultimately is about how this cow eventually influenced Yohanen to become a rabbi. Add in the truly marvelous art of Kevin Hawkes and you have yourself a winner of a book.
Snow Horses: A First Night Story by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Micha Archer
Ah ha! First night! Now here’s a holiday that won’t have its own section in your local library. Taking place on the very last evening before the new year, this posthumous MacLachlan title is how you want to go out. Micha Archer pours her all into rendering a snowy landscape entirely in her customary paints and papers. Just take a moment, when you pick it up, to admire the initial two-page spread that appears behind the title page. In this small town, two horses, Tim and Tom, pull a sleigh full of young and old people around town on this special night. It’s pretty fun to begin with but, as a parent, I also appreciated that there’s a second round where the adults get to have their own fun on the sleigh later in the evening. It reminded me a bit of Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep, if only because after I read that book to my own young daughter she bristled and wondered why I insisted on reading her books about fun things she couldn’t do herself. I kind of wanted to know more about this tradition and this town in the backmatter but MacLachlan leaves everything to your imagination. However you slice it, though, this will be a hit.
A Spoonful of Frogs by Casey Lyall, ill. Vera Brosgol
Okay, truth be told there’s not a HUGE amount of Halloween infused in this story of a witch, her cooking show, and a plethora of frogs so canny they might well be related to the ones in David Wiesner’s Tuesday. Do I care? I do not. I figure that if the pointy hat fits, wear it. And what’s not to enjoy in this exceedingly simple, one might even say Merrie Melodies-esque paean to physical comedy and clever amphibian know how? A witch on her own cooking show attempts to show the viewers at home how to create a delicious Frog Soup. Trouble is, the spoonful of the titular ingredient refuses to fall into the pot. Hijinks ensue. For those kids that like their Halloween a little less scary and little more silly.
And, please forgive me, but I’d be amiss if I didn’t honor the good folks at First Book who turned this particular title into their Halloween inspiration of the year:
Strum & Drum: A Merry Little Quest by Jashar Awan
I imagine that if there’s a spot in the bad place for me, one of the many impossible tasks they might set before me would be to write countless picture books on well-worn themes. I mean, it’s hard, man! Tantalus-level hard! There are only so many ways that you can regurgitate the same themes over and over until you find one that works. So full credit to Jashar Awan for managing to come up with that rarest of beasts: An original, interesting, loving, fun, adventuresome Christmas book. In this story there are two little characters: Strum and Drum. As you might imagine, Strum has a lute-like instrument and Drum a . . . well, y’know. Extra points for Drum presenting as a gal too. The two decide to set out for the Great Star in the north and they encounter a ton of different characters along the way. Initially I was absolutely confounded by the mix of religious Christmas and more Santa-like Christmas characters in the “woods” of this story. Kudos, then, to Jashar for not only justifying that move but also for this really fantastic artistic switch that happens late in the book from the kind of cartoony style (complete with speech bubbles) to a much more realistic one in the style of a Selznick or Van Allsburg. I won’t give away the twist at the end, but needless to say, I loved it. It works as a Christmas book and as a genuinely good story. A keeper.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas or Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, ill. Matt Tavares
Like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” the controversy surrounding the “real” author of “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” is shrouded in a bit of mystery. And yet this book is the only picture book edition of that particular poem I’ve seen to acknowledge that fact. Fascinating! I admit that I didn’t realize that this was a reprint when I first saw it. Full disclosure, I actually glanced at the cover and thought, “I didn’t know Chris Van Allsburg adapted Moore’s poem!” Whoops! Originally this book came out in 2002 and I can’t help but wonder if they’re reprinting it now because of the massive success of Tavares’ picture book Dasher (to say nothing of his work on Red and Lulu) would just make good clean sense. It’s a lovely edition, all black and white, and I love the original text inside. Such a cool addition to our shelves. Of all the picture book authors/illustrators working today, I think Matt Tavares can officially be deemed The Official Holiday Creator.
Twelve Dinging Doorbells: An Every-Holiday Carol by Tameka Fryer Brown, ill. Ebony Glenn
You know when a holiday picture book is so good you just want to make it an instant classic and a standard immediately? Yup. That’s this book. And before we even get into it, I want to acknowledge the sheer brilliance of saying right there in the subtitle that it’s “an every-holiday carol”. Because really what this is is a story of a family getting together with a big meal and games and dancing and all kinds of stuff. So that could be Thanksgiving or Easter or Christmas or, heck, the Superbowl. In other words, this is the readaloud storytime holiday picture book of every librarian’s DREAMS! Next, you get to the format, which is your standard Twelve Days of Christmas deal. And like all Twelve Days of Christmas books, it has to jump the usual hurdles. Illustrator Ebony Glenn had to decide pretty early on whether or not she wanted to show every single person after they were introduced onto the page. So when you hear about the “two selfie queens” (mildly brilliant, right there) are they in EVERY picture? Pretty much yes! We had a different Twelve Days of Christmas book out this year involving cats that was not nearly so good at this. Then there’s the fact that there is, thanks to Tameka Fryer Brown, an actual plot! Our heroine, a small girl, wants “a sweet potato pie just for me”. And as you might expect, tragedy happens near the end, only to be rescued on the very last page. You can sing this. Perform it (have the kids do the repping with the seven brothers). The whole thing’s just a joy. SO glad to have discovered this!
The Very Best Sukkah: A Story From Uganda by Shoshana Nambi, ill. Moran Yogev
It can be difficult to think of international children’s stories when your own country makes such nice ones. Americans have a bit of difficulty looking outside our own national borders, and that extends to the picture books we highlight. So when I see a story about a Jewish community that isn’t set in America or Europe, I take note. Nambi and Yogev have penned a tale of a Ugandan Abayudaya community. Each year in Shoshi’s village there’s this low-key competition to make the titular very best sukkah. Shoshi and her brothers are fairly sure they’ve got it in the bag. That is, until they see that one of their richer neighbors actually splurged for electric lights. How are you supposed to compete with that? Then a storm comes and the only sukkah that’s absolutely wrecked is, you guessed it, the neighbor’s. So what’s the right thing to do in this situation? Not only is the writing top notch on this one but Yogev’s woodcut style is just gorgeous. And those colors! Better not miss this one this year, is all I have to say on the matter.
A Very Mercy Christmas by Kate DiCamillo, ill. Chris Van Dusen
Let it be declared, far and wide, that holiday books are, as a rule, difficult. I’m aware that I say that about specific kinds of books for kids all the time. “Poetry books are hard”. “Easy books are difficult.” “And don’t even talk to me about nonfiction biographies in verse.” But books linked to specific holidays present their own entirely unique sets of challenges. DiCamillo knows this. And A Very Mercy Christmas is not, truth be told, her first outing into the Christmas season, but it is her most successful. To a certain extent, she has the comfort of relying on beloved characters to help her along. Now one thing I cannot do, when I read this, is judge whether or not a stranger to Mercy’s world would be able to read this book without impediment. Could they read through this and understand it just as well as someone who understands the complex nature of the relationship between Baby and Eugenia Lincoln? I vote yes. Even without ever having met these characters before, they are types that are instantly understandable upon contact. Add in the fact that this has a gentle, downbeat take on the Christmas holiday and that it’s just a nice book through and through. A Christmas classic? Dunno. But a fine and friendly purchase when the winter comes a-knocking.
Eager to read other lists this month? Then be sure to stay tuned for the following:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade 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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