31 Days, 31 Lists: 2023 Rhyming Picture Books
The fun thing about this rhyming list is that I don’t have to limit it to fiction alone. It’s one of the rare lists I produce that can contain nonfiction, picture books, and board books all together. This seems as good a time as any to mention that if you’re a day-by-day 31 Days, 31 Books reader (and bless you if you are) you’re going to see a little bit if repetition at the beginning of today’s list. But here’s a tip about how I put these lists together: No book is allowed to show up on more than 2 lists unless it’s really and truly one of the best of the best of the best of the year. So if you see some repeats here, that’s okay. It’s bound to happen. Pay far more attention if you see a book show up THREE times.
The pdf of today’s list can be found here.
Oh, and are you interested in previous years’ rhyming picture book lists? Of course you are! Feast your eyes, then, on these:
2023 Rhyming Picture Books
Baby Stegosaurus by Julie Abery, ill. Gavin Scott
Baby T.Rex by Julie Abery, ill. Gavin Scott
Our first repeat and it’s two board books! You might think that blatant plays for dino-loving toddlers is a cheap move on the part of board book creators. You might be right. But as someone who spent the better part of 2023 reading through egregious, and I’m talking EGREGIOUS, dino-related board books, please believe me when I identify a couple that are actually worth your time and money. Both of these little board books have the distinction of packing in a serious story in their scant 18 pages. Baby Stegosaurus focuses on an exploding volcano and a baby stego’s break for survival. Baby T.Rex, in contrast, is about saving a hitherto unknown sibling’s egg from destruction. Fairly heady topics for board books, are they not? And here’s the kicker: they rhyme. I kid you not! They rhyme! And they rhyme well at that! “Baby loves leaves / Rip, chew, and gulp! / Crunch a few pebbles. / Pummel the pulp.” If you thought you’d ever see the phrase “Pummel the pulp” in a board book before then I commend you, but generally speaking this is a rare rhyme for a rare series. Rethink your dino prejudices. Come to this delightful series from Amicus Ink.
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. Julia Donaldson is Britain’s top picture book rhymer (sorry Rupert Bear) for a reason. 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.
Cool Off and Ride! A Trolley Trip to Beat the Heat by Claudia Friddell, ill. Jenn Harney
Here’s the situation: It’s summer. You’re a children’s librarian or bookseller. You want to do a summer-themed storytime. You also want to include some new books in the mix, but since you’ve been doing storytimes for a while you know that not all books adapt to being read aloud to large groups all that well. Plus, you’d really like something that’s a bit inclusive. Then, lo and behold, you discover this title. It’s hot. It’s fun. It has a rhythmic bouncy rhythm that’s hard to beat. It friggin’ rhymes (and well)! Plus you can almost see the waves of heat just emanating off of the page. So much so that maybe I’m proposing this to you all backwards. Maybe the best time to read this isn’t in summer, when we’re all melting into our respective sidewalks, but rather in the dead of winter. February even! A summertime readaloud to invoke those days when all you want is to find a cool trolley car to relax in. So in this story a trolley car is riding around and a whole host of people are desperate to get in it and out of the sun. The magnificent backmatter makes it clear that this was inspired by the trolleys of Baltimore. There really was a Cool Off and Ride program in 1938 and Friddell dives deep not only into the program but their integration and even “What Do Streetcars and Roller Coasters Have in Common?” It’s a neat neat book, most recently seen on my knitting needles post for its correct placement.
Good Night, Little Man by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. Heidi Woodward Sheffield
Uh-oh. It’s bedtime for Little Man but where did his sheep sheep go? It’s going to take the whole family to track down this missing stuffie. A wonderful, rhyming, bedtime tale. I’m just such a Daniel Bernstrom fan. You may remember him from such books as last year’s A Bear, a Bee, and a Honey Tree and One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree. The man knows how to rhyme. Rhyming, as funny as it sounds, is exceedingly difficult. Yet somehow, amazingly, Bernstrom has an ear that compares to few. And while this is such a simple story, I was charmed by it in the end. I dunno. Maybe it caught me in the right mood, but I think it’s worth looking into.
Hooray for DNA! How a Bear and a Bug Are a Lot Like Us by Pauline Thompson, ill. Greg Pizzoli
I actually do get asked sometimes to conjure up a list of rhyming nonfiction picture books on a regular basis. It’s not something we talk about a lot in children’s literature, but when it comes to making science and math accessible, I think it really helps adults out. Not kids. I honestly believe that they’re a lot more open to those subjects than their gatekeepers. So add a little cadence and a little rhyme and boom! Instant adult interest. Now I love DNA and I love the art of Greg Pizzoli, so getting the two together here seems equally logical and inevitable by turns. Thompson, for her part, does a great job at trying to break down this concept into its simplest terms. But I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, “Betsy, I’m happy to hear that the rhymes are strong and the science sound, but what’s the backmatter like?” You’re probably not actually asking me that, but you should because this backmatter (all of two pages) is fantastic! Info on DNA for older readers, a Bibliography of books, videos, and websites, and even a little “DNA Scavenger Hunt” where you can find out how much shared DNA we have with a range of critters and other living things. Worth the price!
I Am Hungry by Michael Rosen, ill. Robert Starling
He’s still got it, baby! Not even COVID-19 could get Michael Rosen down for the count. He’s up, he’s at ‘em, and he’s very funny. It doesn’t hurt that his partner in crime here is Robert Starling who knows how to draw a red squirrel. I mean, look at the little guy on this cover. Awww. Who wouldn’t want to feed him? Naturally, you get some of your best gags when stuff is taken to a logical extreme. Anyone who has ever met a squirrel knows that they tend to operate within a state of perpetual hunger. I am reminded of the squirrel in Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy as a beautiful example of this. With his typical rhyming wit, Rosen gives us a rundown of all the things this squirrel would be capable of eating right now, so grandiose is his hunger. And, as you would expect, it starts out logically and then rolls rapidly out of control from there. I also love the weirdness of the ending. Illustrator Robert Starling had to find a way to depict the lines, “One last pea, then I’ll eat… me!” What would you have done? I think he made the right choice. A book for the younger folks.
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 bookThe 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 in a beautiful rhyming cadence, always ending with the promise “I will read to you.” Those 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.
Kicks in the Sky by C.G. Esperanza
“High above the street where birds sang in a choir – KAROO KAROO / a cluster of kicks swung from a wire.” What happens when these magical kicks find themselves on kids’ feet? Get ready for incredible hijinks and superheroic abilities in a book filled to the brim with fun. It’s actually a pretty fun pairing with this year’s Jump In by Shadra Strickland and Like Lava in My Veins by Derrick Barnes since it combines having fun in the city streets with superheroic abilities. But it’s the colors you’re going to respond to. The term “vibrant” doesn’t encapsulate properly what Esperanza is doing here. This book feels like it would glow in the dark if you gave it half a chance, there is just so much sheer energy on these pages. The plot gets a little loosey goosey near the end, but it’s hard to deny how much fun the book’s creator is having with this title. And when he has fun, the reader has fun.
Major Taylor: World Cycling Champion by Charles R. Smith Jr., ill. Leo Espinosa
You just have to hand it to Charles R. Smith Jr. The man never tries to take the easy way out. We’ve seen picture book bios of Major Taylor before, but I think this has to be my favorite. Not simply because it does clever things with flashing back and forth between one particular race and the earlier parts of his life, but because Smith makes the whole thing rhyme. Talk about a challenge! And the kicker is that he’s particularly good at it. I mean, of course he is. He’s a poet for crying out loud. But Smith’s other superpower is his ability to make rhyming nonfiction really plunge you into the action. So here we have Major Taylor neck and neck with these white guys on their bikes (Espinosa is really pulling out all the stops with their ludicrous handlebar mustaches) and the action reads, “Go faster go faster / so they can’t catch you – / GO, MAJOR, GO, / don’t let them crash you!” I can envision a teacher really getting into this, pulling the listening audience into the action, as the bikes careen around and around and around. And Espinosa is really doing some amazing work with the art here as well. This is a very different style from the one we saw with the incredible The World Belonged to Us by Jacqueline Woodson. Here it’s less stylized and more realistic and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. A bright star in the pantheon of sports picture book bios.
Nature Is a Sculptor: Weathering and Erosion by Heather Ferranti Kinser
Take a trip to national parks and landmarks to learn about all the different ways that nature designs some of the most beautiful landscapes. My sole objection to this book is that every time I see this title I start singing “Rhythm is a Dancer” for some reason. Not the book’s fault, I suppose. I’m a sucker for gorgeous photography and in spite of the fact that this is pretty much all Getty Images all the time, how can I possibly resist the shots they’ve included here? More to the point, Kinser has taken this mass of information about weathering and erosion and organized it into a comprehensible and understandable format. The rhymes are also accomplished (which is always a relief). “The ocean is a hammer / pounding shorelines into bits. / Ice – a chilly chisel – finds a crack, / expands, and splits.” Very cool.
Ode to a Bad Day by Chelsea Lin Wallace, ill. Hyewon Yum
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day with a 21st century update, eh? Hyewon Yum can do no wrong, so sayeth I. And pause, for just a moment, to appreciate the cover going on here. The next time you have a young child performing histrionics for your special benefit, I hope that the image here is what comes to mind, spotlight and all. A young child is having a textbook terrible day. We’re talking cereal with too much milk. We’re talking hiccups galore. The whole thing opens with “Oh Bad Morning, eyes are crusty, bones are rusty. Why do all my teeth feel dusty?” I hear ya, kid. Check out the endpapers where a stuffed pig and cow are giving the gal some serious side-eye. There’s some reassurance that even if today is terrible, tomorrow may seriously improve. All this is done with some dang good rhymes, that keep the cadences bouncy and fine. A splendid rendition of terrible times on the mend.
When Stars Arise by E.G. Alaraj, ill. Martyna Czub
Cozy board book fare! How pleasant. It’s the sign of a good board book when the adult doing the reading finds themself to be just as pleasantly lulled by the repeating rhyming text as the child. Some repetition can feel… well… repetitive. Here, Alaraj’s phrasing “Don’t close your eyes” serves as both a challenge and an impossible to obey command. The rhymes play fair from start to finish as well. Even the most nervous parent won’t have difficulty with these cadences. At first I found Martyna Czub’s art a bit muted and blotchy, but as the book proceeds it unfolds to become quite beautiful. A book I wasn’t so sure of at the start but that really won me over.
Wombat by Philip Bunting
So I first knew of the work of Philip Bunting because of his rather hilarious World’s Most Pointless Animals series for older nonfiction readers. An Australian, I guess he decided to jump on that big old wombat bus and see what he could do with an exceedingly simple (and exceedingly silly) wombat-centric bit of rhyming. Much in the same vein as Ramona Badescu’s Pomelo’s Opposites, this has an urbane, almost deadpan, take on all wombatphilia. There’s also a low-key drama happening in the sidelines between two wombats in love (distinguished by pink cheeks and coloration but not much else). Now I know what you want to ask: Does he or does he not manage to include square wombat poop? My friends, he does. And we are grateful for it. As for the rhymes, they reminded me of those easy reader books of yore, particularly One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. “Squarebat. Roundbat. Longboat. Splatbat. / Happybat. Grumpybat. Doormat. Fruit bat.” All told, a sweet wombatian bit of flair for those of you in love with those weird little mammals.
You So Black by Theresa tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D., ill. London Ladd
“You so Black, when you smile, the stars come out. / You so Black, when you’re born, the god come out.” A beautiful, viral spoken word poem is reinterpreted into a picture book celebrating the richness, the nuance, and the joy of Blackness.I think this one really stands out thanks in large part to the text. That line, “You so Black, when you smile, the stars come out. / You so Black, when you’re born, the god come out,” manages to be both incredibly simple and empowering. I can also recognize that while London Ladd’s style isn’t the kind I naturally gravitate towards, he’s really put himself on the page here. From the gorgeous endpapers, to mixes of thick paints and patterns, this hits a lot of the same bases as other books out there, but rises above them thanks to those singular little touches you won’t find anywhere else.
Zap! Clap! Boom! The Story of a Thunderstorm by Laura Purdie Salas, ill., Elly MacKay
“Flicker, flitter, skitter, flash! / Pounding sounding distant crash!” A clear day turns stormy in this marvelous natural readaloud told with a gently rhyming text and simply gorgeous art. Oh! What a delightful surprise! Somehow, I came close to missing this little book, so I’m so glad you all pointed it out to me. I actually do get asked for rhyming nonfiction from time to time, and as anyone who has ever had to page through a dull Seussian attempt will tell you, that can go real wrong, real fast. But Salas, I am happy to report, is a true pro and best of all she’s been paired with Elly MacKay! I’ve been waiting years for MacKay to be given the right project and here, at least, we have it! This is a really good readaloud, with all kinds of interactive elements to enjoy. I can see a librarian getting a whole room of kids to repeat “Zap! Clap! Boom!” together. Add in the almost marbled, iridescent art with its vague hints of three-dimensionality and you’ve got yourself a hit.
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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