31 Days, 31 Lists: 2023 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
Initially this was a list that would appear later in the month, but last year someone appealed to me and asked if I could do it a bit earlier. The thinking, I believe, was that if people would like to purchase some of the holidays that are appearing this month, it would behoove me to produce this list sooner rather than later. I couldn’t help but agree! Of course, this list goes far beyond Christmas and Hanukkah this year. Looking at it I can see Three Kings Day, Ramadan, Halloween, Yom Kippur, Dia De Los Muertos, and even Christmas Eve. Sorry, Easter fans. Y’all are gonna have to step up your game next year.
For a PDF of this list, please look here.
Would you like to see previous years’ lists of holiday titles? Try these on for size:
2023 Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
The Baddies by Julia Donaldson, ill. Axel Scheffler
Hey, The Gruffalo isn’t a worldwide sensation for nothin’, after all. It was the shock of my lifetime to travel to the Bologna Book Fair this past March and discover that Axel Scheffler is, in fact, German. Now is this book up to Gruffalo standards? Since I’m not a #1 Gruffalo fan, my answer would most certainly be yes. This actually would a rather nice Halloween storytime title, if you were so inclined to include it. A witch, a ghost, and a troll compete between themselves to be the scariest (a plot not wholly different from another 2023 title, Benita and the Night Creatures by Mariana Llanos). When a mouse challenges the baddies to get the handkerchief of a young woman who’s just moved into the proverbial neighborhood, the race is on! Trouble is, this is a Donaldson/Scheffler heroine of a particularly calm and collected disposition. And yes, you guessed it, the one who gets the handkerchief is most definitely the mouse (but not, to my surprise, by scaring her). Ideal for the kid who wants something scary/not scary for the season.
Big Bad Wolf’s Yom Kippur by David Sherrin, ill. Martín Morón
In the pantheon of great Yom Kippur picture books, few feature wolves in sleeveless plaid. Quite frankly, I think that’s a shame. Now as I was traversing the halls of the Annual American Library Association Conference this past June I made a point to sniff out all the smaller publishers of children’s books to see what goodies they might have to display. And Apples & Honey Press did not disappoint. I actually spotted this cover across a distance of at least ten feet and was instantly drawn in. And for good reason too! The story focuses on a Big Bad Wolf, not too dissimilar from the one you’ve seen in the book series/movie Bad Guys. The book centers on a Big Bad who follows the Jewish tradition of t’shuvah, returning to his best self on Yom Kippur. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline and the art (which is top notch!) I really enjoyed the fact that having given up free meals throughout the book, the wolf gets to feast and feast at the story’s end. Probably, and I mean this truly, the best Yom Kippur picture book I’ve ever seen.
The Christmas Doll by Amy Sparkes, ill. Katie Hickey
Now I’m not familiar with this “Repair Shop” television series that this book is apparently based on. Sounds like it’s a kind of cozy, sweet reality show, described as where “Britain’s most skilled restoration experts repair broken or damaged family heirlooms brought to their shop by members of the public.” I do have to give them credit for figuring out that this would make for a good picture book as well. In this story a girl is evacuated from London during WWII and gifted by her new host family in the country with a doll. Today, that woman and her great-granddaughter take the doll in for repair. We get the story of its origins alongside an oddly satisfying restoration sequence, and (naturally) the bestowing of the doll on a new generation. A good Christmas book is supposed to tug on your heartstrings in some way. I was surprised to find that this one did, and then some.
Hanukkah Upside Down by Elissa Brent Weissman, ill. Omer Hoffmann
With apologies to all the other Hanukkah books out this year, behold my absolute favorite!! It is rare for me to put a holiday book on both my Holidays list and my Best Picture Books list of the year, but that’s just how good this little book by Weissman and Hoffmann is. My sole regret is that I encountered it as late in the year as I did. In this story you have cousins Nora, living in New Zealand, and Noah, living in New York. They talk on the phone all the time but they also find one another’s Hanukkah experiences to be utterly backwards. To settle things once and for all, they have a competition: Who can have the world’s best Hanukkah? Weissman then proceeds to do this clever little pairing of each activity that Nora or Noah does that’s different on each of the eight days, but in the end they both always end up doing the same thing. Example: “Noah threw snowballs. Nora did cannonballs. But on the fourth night of Hanukkah, they both gave tzedakah to help repair the world.” The end result is that you learn a lot about each night of Hanukkah, but not in a way that feels teachy. Omer Hoffmann, meanwhile, is utilizing this kind of Quentin Blake/Matthew Cordell-esque style that perfectly captures all the fun that each kid is having on a given day. Love the mirroring of each character, and I also love that we live in an era where these kids are talking to one another on the phone and posting their experiences into a shared online album, rather than relying on something archaic like handmade letters. The whole book feels fresh and fun and utterly original.
Holy Night and Little Star: A Story for Christmas by Mitali Perkins, ill. Khoa Le
Okay, quick question for folks out there. Who was the smartie who figured out that it was a good idea to pair Mitali Perkins and Khoa Le? I mean, it’s not a new pairing. Last year the two worked on another Christian book called Bare Tree and Little Wind. And since this imprint is a bit on the small side (Waterbrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House, anyone?) I missed them the first time around. This time, however, I was prepared. Now I’d be the first to admit that I tend to miss a large swath of children’s books published every year because they are created by Christian publishers and have their own little market, far away from the stuff I usually see. Those that I do see vary wildly in quality. So it seems to me that this particular Christmas story is heads and tales better written and prettier than a lot of the other Baby Jesus stuff that comes out in a given year. I’ve seen picture books about the Nativity done from the point of view of drummer boys, donkeys, angels, shepherd boys, you name it. This time, it’s a little star who’s the … um… star of the book. That could go real twee real fast, but somehow Perkins and Le make the whole thing work. This is also a religious story. I mean, sure, obviously because of the subject matter, but this one’s a bit more forthright about the whole thing. My sole objection is that for some reason Mary and Joseph end up holing up in a small cave rather than a manger (not entirely certain what’s going on there) but aside from that, this is certainly a pretty book. For those of you unafraid of a little beauty on your shelves.
How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? by Mac Barnett, ill. Jon Klassen
First and foremost, Jon Klassen dedicates this book “To Santa” which is the best use of a holiday book dedication I’ve seen to date, and I think it deserves some praise. But let’s just get down to the nitty gritty. When picture book creators hit a certain level, a lot of them will try their hand at a holiday picture book. Heck, just this year we’re seeing Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Sleigh (it goes pretty much the way you’d expect it to). Even the great Dan Santat illustrated a Christmassy picture book (and if you’re asking if I’m shamelessly pandering, I am and I have zero regrets). But when Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen make a Santa book together, it doesn’t feel like they’re hooking their train car up to a larger trend. Instead, it feels like a personal challenge. Just last year the two of them tried their hand at recreating a classic fairytale (The Three Billy Goats Gruff, if you’re curious). Now they tackle the big man in red, but in their own inimitable style. Mac looks at the problem and comes up with an essential question that many children ask. Mainly, how the heck does Santa get down that chimney? And what if you don’t even have a chimney? What then? Respecting the intelligence of his readers from page one onward, Barnett tackles each problem and possibility, approaching his subject matter the same way a scientist might. This works because his art is coming to us via Jon Klassen, a man capable of presenting a reindeer holding a cup of coffee better than any reindeer has ever held a cup of coffee before. His Santa isn’t befuddled. More, he’s a man approaching life’s challenges as they are presented to him. There’s a moment when Santa looks down at a plate, not of cookies, but of carrots that feels more poignant than any of the previous escapades involving chimneys or doggies or night vision goggles. This is, and I mean this sincerely, my favorite Christmas book of the year. I think it balances neatly between amusing kids and amusing adults equally in turns. In other words, the Barnett/Klassen sweet spot.
I Will Read to You by Gideon Sterer, ill. Charles Santoso
I was having a talk with a fellow picture book author the other day and we were lamenting the fact that when you write any kind of a book for kids that is holiday-adjacent, it’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, you have the guarantee that long after you’ve forgotten that you even wrote the book, it’s going to pop up in library’s holiday displays, long after you have left this great, green earth. On the other hand, its very connection to a holiday, even if it isn’t overtly stated, means that the likelihood that it ends up on Best of the Year lists is vastly decreased. For whatever reason, folks don’t like to put holiday fare on Best Of lists. Seems unfair. On the other hand, my own Best Of lists are 31 days long and if I want to blooming put a book like, say, I Will Read to You on TWO lists (Rhyming & Holiday) then I’m darn well going to do so. Ironically, the first time I ever noticed the books of Gideon Sterer, it was for his wordless book The Midnight Fair. Kind of a pity because the man can write! Evidence Proffered: This book. Here we have the story of a boy who’s got some serious Max from Where the Wild Things Are vibes going on. His mom says she’ll read to him (the repeated phrase “I will read to you” has a remarkable effect on the listener) but he’s more interested in reading on his own . . . to the monsters outside! They have no one to read to them! As he calls them together, he names each type of monster but always ends with the promise “I will read to you.” The cadences just stick in your brain and work wonders on the listener. Love how it’s creepy but never too creepy. Don’t just pull this one out at Halloween. This is a bedtime book that deserves year round attention.
Is This … Winter? by Helen Yoon
Folks, we gotta do something. Something about the fact that Helen Yoon isn’t getting the levels of attention she so richly deserves. First off, I adore her angular style which manages to convey movement with a clever application of odd lines here and there. In this book a pup is totally out of its friggin’ gourd excited about winter. It’s high fiving mailboxes and freaking out squirrels and birds, but when it crashes into a snowman reducing it to rubble (is that the right term or should a busted up snowman be called something else?) things take a turn. Suddenly the pup notices some reindeer decorations and things start to get weird. For any child that has ever encountered holiday blow-up dolls that crossed a little too far into the uncanny valley, this book is for them. And, of course, Yoon’s art is a joy each and every time.
Kid Christmas of the Claus Brothers Toy Store by David Litchfield
Litchfield, as it happens, is the creator of The Bear and the Piano (not to be confused with this year’s fellow bear/piano mash-up, Bear Is Never Alone by Marc Veerkamp) which first utilized his ambitious and highly illustrated style. He cites as one of his influences Raymond Briggs, but you’ll find little of The Snowman in this highly holidazed title. Now I will confess to you that, for whatever reason, I’ve a particular fondness for Santa Claus origin stories. No idea why. I blame books like When Santa Was a Baby, which I enjoyed thoroughly when it was released, and which gave me a taste for more. I’ve finally gotten the perfect companion picture book this year with Kid Christmas. Honestly, its timing could not be better since it also feels like a picture book companion to this year’s Wonka movie. The central conceit is that our hero is Nicky Claus. He works with his three uncles at the Claus Brothers Toy Store where toys are made with just a touch of magic. Nicky is under the impression that he lives in an equitable society, but when he finds himself face to face with toyless poverty he devises a plan to make sure that every kid gets a toy of their dreams on one magical night. And yes, this is most definitely a Santa origin tale, as the end of the book makes clear. Heck, you even find out who Mrs. Claus is later, which is something that often gets overlooked in these tellings. Extra points for the throwaway joke at the end involving Krampus (who I did NOT think was going to put in a cameo). This one’s a hoot.
The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat by Melissa Seron Richardson, ill. Monica Arnaldo
I identify real hard with Marta in this book. I did not grow up with la Rosca de Reyes a.k.a. king cake, but if I had then my fears would mirror hers to a tee. Richardson and Arnaldo are both having a delightful time with this book. The premise is fairly simple. Marta, for the very first time, is now old enough to get her own slice of the Three Kings Day dessert. But with great responsibility comes great fear. She’s basically convinced herself that she is definitely, and without a double, gonna eat the baby Jesus. You know the little baby figurine hidden in the cake? And illustrator Monica Arnaldo just LEANS into that fear. There are multiple views of what she imagines baby Jesus would look like in her tummy (with his sunglasses on, he’s basically having the time of his life in there). The conclusion is triumphant and, yes, a tad silly. There’s also some backmatter summing up what Three Kings Day is, the details on la Rosca de Reyes, and both a surprisingly extensive Author’s Note and Illustrator’s Note as well. I’m just gonna come out and say it: This is the best Three Kings Day picture book I’ve ever seen. The endpapers alone sell it.
Latke’s First Hanukkah by Alan Silberberg
I doubt that when he was a small child Alan Silberberg looked in the mirror one day and vowed to himself that he would crush the competition in the Jewish Holiday picture book/board book market, but maybe? I mean, he’s kind of the first person I turn to when I want something on anthropomorphized holiday munchies. It’s possible that Alan’s done board books before and I just missed them, but I’m not so sure. Whatever the case, in an era of 5 bagazillion (a rough estimate) Christmas board books of varying quality, it’s just awfully nice to encounter a Hanukkah board book that’s just this fun. It’s a counting book that works its way through all the different aspects of the season, and (yes) it stops at eight. Even the gelt gets to do something. Consider this a precursor to The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming (you can save that one for when the kids are older).
The Light Inside by Dan Misdea
I worry about this book. On a practical librarian level, I mean. It’s just so small. Clocking in at a petite 5.75 inches up and across, I know that a lot of libraries will catalog is as part of their Holiday collections. This makes sense since it’s full of Halloween-appropriate characters. What chaps my hide is that after it had its initial day in the sun they’ll take it to the part of the library where all the holiday books go and it will disappear. I mean, it’s not that much bigger than a Beatrix Potter book and I think we all know how those tiny titles have a tendency to snuggle deep into the stacks, never to be found again. Still, for those children who do find it, the story is just so lovely. Wordlessly, it tells the tale of a pumpkin headed child (I love how just the tip of mom’s green stem sticks out of her hair) who is initially afraid of the creatures that dwell in the dark but, finds it must confront them when its prized mouse stuffie is stolen by a black cat. Looking at Misdea’s art, I was reminded of the work of Liniers. I thought maybe Misdea might have an underground comix background, but turns out he’s a New Yorker cartoonist that we’ve undoubtedly seen before. He is also the nephew of none other than fellow children’s book creator, and syndicated cartoonist, Patrick McDonnell. Misdea has his own small, spare style distinctly his own, but very much in keeping with his uncle’s tone. I see big things for his little books in the future.
Lullaby for the King by Nikki Grimes, ill. Michelle Carlos
What criteria do I use when considering holiday books? In essence, it’s quite simple. If I can read a book out of season and still feel a frisson of feeling and remembrance of the holiday being celebrated, that is a worthy holiday book. In the case of Lullaby for the King, I read this book at the beginning of May, when the world was warming and spring was coming into its own. And yes, reading this book I felt a wave of familiarity for hymns and Christmas feelings. No surprise to anyone who sees the cover that this is a straight up baby Jesus book. But Grimes, who has a poetry pedigree few could match, is up to the challenge of doing something original here. Her story is about a plethora of different animals and the different gifts they are bringing to the babe. Some are as personal as an ostrich’s own egg, some are instruments, some are jewelry, some just something small and beautiful. And it was a smart cookie who pegged Michelle Carlos to provide the illustrations. She’s forever changing the colors of the animals featured into shades and hues you wouldn’t necessarily find in nature. My favorite of these? The red peacock. Everything is still incredibly stunning, not least the way in which the angels are depicted. Not that I’m giving it away. You’ll just have to give them a glance yourself!
Moon’s Ramadan by Natasha Khan Kazi
This year I started doing a little freelance work for an educational organization that likes to find science books for a range of ages that also show a range of experiences. And let me tell you, if they ever ask me to recommend books for younger ages that discuss the moon’s cycles alongside holiday celebrations, I know precisely what book to bring up. In this story the moon watches as her cycle influences worldwide celebrations of the month of Ramadan. As she waxes and wanes, we learn a little more about how people celebrate in a wide range of different countries. It all ends with Chaand Raat and the beginning of Eid. Copious backmatter includes an Author’s Note, info on the Lunar Cycle (WITH a small Bibliography, thank you very much), and then a Glossary of Ramadan terms. It’s just an exceedingly clever way to talk about the holiday with a little bit of science mixed in there. A friend of mine saw this book and asked if there was any book that talked about how important the moon is to so many different holiday celebrations around the world. Not yet, but I’d say this book is a pretty good start.
An Ofrenda for Perro by Judith Valdés B., ill. Carlos Vélez Aguilera
Remembering by Xelena González, ill. Adriana M. Garcia
A twofer! As strange as it may sound, we had TWO books this year released about Dia De Los Muertos and dead dogs. By the way, were you aware the the #1 trend in 2023 children’s books was dead dogs? This isn’t the last time you hear me mention this fact. I saw more ex-fidos this year than I’d ever care to see again. I didn’t mind it so much with these two books, though. Eye-popping? You don’t know the half of it. It’s a little strange to me that while I’ve seen so many fun Day of the Dead picture books over the years, surprisingly few are tied into grief and the experience of grieving someone you loved. In An Ofrenda for Perro, Benito is desperately missing his old dog Perro, who died shortly before the holiday in question. By helping his family to remember Perro on their ofrenda, he’s able to come a little bit more to terms with his own loss. Meanwhile, in Remembering, the family dog is named Simon and a child gathers the pup’s favorite items in a way of never forgetting. The stories is good but the lure here are the amazing colors that artists Aguilera and Garcia both bring to life. Gorgeous offerings and two new (though not to each other) spins on the loss of a pet storyline.
One Christmas In Our Building: A Very Merry Mystery by Johanna Lindemann, ill. Andrea Stegmaier
Only Murders in the Building – picture book style! I think it’s fair to say that until this year I had not yet encountered a holiday picture book mystery before. What a gap in the marketplace! Kids love mysteries. Adults love holiday picture books. Put the two together and you have gold! Mind you, there’s a trick to writing a truly great holiday picture book, regardless of religion. If we’re talking about the American publishing industry then there will be an unspoken requirement to be heartwarming. Trust me. I wrote one. I know. But in this particular case Lindemann and Stegmaier have the situation well in hand. The storyline follows Emma, Dad, and Susan (presumably the stepmom or dad’s girlfriend) who decide to put their Christmas turkey in the hallway overnight (since it didn’t fit in the fridge or freezer). Cut to the next morning and the turkey? It’s gone! Someone in the apartment complex had to have seen what happened, so the family goes from apartment to apartment inquiring. In the course of things they inadvertently make it clear that their Christmas dinner has been pilfered and so almost all their neighbors (save one) make the effort, no matter what religion, to make that dinner the best on record. It’s incredibly satisfying. The solution to the mystery? Less so, but at least there IS a solution. Come for the mystery. Stay for the good feels.
Our Italian Christmas Eve by Danielle Sedita and Francesco Sedita, ill. Luciano Lozano
I am growing increasingly fond of stories where huge hoards of relatives show up somewhere for a celebration and things get a bit wackadoodle. And as strange as it may sound, I don’t remember ever encountering an Italian Christmas Eve celebration picture book before. This would actually be a marvelous pairing with previously mentioned The Last Slice: A Three Kings Day Treat by Melissa Seron Richardson, ill. Monica Arnaldo, since both books really dive deep into raucous family celebrations around the holidays. I’m a little embarrassed to confess that I had no idea that Christmas Eve was such a big deal with Italians. Raised Episcopalian myself, I’m familiar with doing Midnight Mass and everything, but how the heck would you be able to stay awake after all this delicious food? And I am talking DELICIOUS. This book is like my food happy place. Absolutely adore these relatives (Aunt Babe may actually be my favorite person here). The kids in this book are the heroes of the day and it doesn’t feel like a stretch in the slightest. Delicious, funny, wacky, and wild. A winner!
Santa’s Gotta Go! by Derrick Barnes, ill. Courtney Lovett
Relax. In spite of its title this isn’t a book about Santa needing to use the toilet (which, quite frankly, I’m a little surprised doesn’t exist yet). Now I’m no pushover for Santa-related stories, but the combination of seeing a Black Santa sporting a sleeve of tats and the author of this book being Derrick Barnes? Yeah. I was hooked fairly early on. The whole premise is that a nice family invites Santa to stay with them after his flying sleigh busts one of its parts and he’s grounded while he waits for a replacement to arrive. Extra points to Barnes for realizing that Santa would definitely use the term “Figgy Pudding!” as an expletive if he could. At first the kids think Santa staying is awesome, but the man quickly wears out his welcome. He keeps them up all night rocking out with some local guys (the keyboardist alone is worth looking at in this book). He makes a mess. He busts tablets through yoga. Then you get Barnes nailing the ending of the book with a twist and let me just say, this artist Courtney Lovett is doing something REALLY interesting with her cute twink Valentine’s Day mascot. Like, check this guy out sometime. I want a book all about HIM now!
Skeletown: Sí. No! by Rhode Montijo
Ahh. I’ve been waiting for this. Not literally, of course. I had no idea that Rhode Montijo was working on a new picture book series. But ever since I saw Montijo’s last picture book The Halloween Kid about 13 years ago (oh, I have a long memory) I knew another holiday offering had to be in the future. I just didn’t know it would turn out to be a series. Or, for that matter, colored in a fluorescent orange you could see a mile away (consider pairing this with Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton if you ever want to make a fluorescent picture book display). It’s not explicitly a Day of the Dead book but with a town wholly inhabited by skeleton folks, you can bet that people will be pulling this out for displays by the dozens. This falls squarely into the category of “simple books” since the text is almost entirely two words: si and no. It reminds me a bit of Unfortunately by Remy Charlip with its continual set up and payoff structure. Eventually a plot does begin to settle in, with the naughty skeleton getting his just desserts, then making up with the clever skeleton with the hair. Montijo has even managed to work in a surprise twist at the end, so kudos there. Kooky, silly, and fun enough that I hope we see more in this vein in the future. Previously Seen On: The Simple Picture Books List.
We Disagree About This Tree by Ross Collins
It is difficult for me to emphasize enough how fantastic this title is. Let us all stop for a moment, sit, and admire it together. Note the gentle rhyme, its sweetness unhinged oh-so-slightly by the essential snarkiness of the statement. We disagree indeed. And we’ve seen these two characters together before. Bear and Mouse already appeared in such delightful hits as There’s a Bear on My Chair and There’s a Mouse in My House. Collins specializes in sweet absurdity and mild annoyance. That’s certainly the case here, where each of the two friends takes his own turn trying out outdo the other animal’s tree trimming expertise. Either Mouse is placing baubles that are far too large on the branches or Bear is lighting the tree up like he’s trying to signal deep space. The text consistently rhymes, and every possible method of decorating a tree comes to the fore. Tinsel, candles, and then the whole thing escalates into sheer madness. By the end, the tree is in pieces but the gifts Bear and Mouse have gotten one another hold true. Now I called out this book earlier this year for Mouse’s incorrect knitting needle placement, and I would stand by that statement even now. But beyond its blatant disregard for crafts, you cannot contest how much fun Collins is having with this text, and how much fun families are going to have, reading it together. We may disagree about this tree, but few will disagree about this book.
Hope you enjoyed these! Here are the lists you can expect for the rest of this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readaloud
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 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Comics & Graphic Novels
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 – 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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