31 Days, 31 Lists: 2023 Unconventional Children’s Books
What do we mean when we call a book for kids “unconventional”? Well, to put this in a bit of context, in the old days I used to call this the “Oddest Children’s Books” list, until I figured that that moniker was a tad too judgey. Put simply, these are books that will NOT be shelved at a Barnes & Noble. They do not follow the trends. The fact that they were published at all should be something we give thanks to the great publishing gods for (which is to say, and for the most part, the small publishers). They push envelopes. Try new things. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but they are never boring.
The name of this list comes, I must note, from Travis Jonker, who produces his own annual marvelous list of Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books (which you must now read, particularly if you’re a completist in the unpredictable).
You can find a full PDF of today’s choices here.
Curious about other unconventional titles? Then check out these previous lists:
2023 Unconventional Children’s Books
Banned Book by Jonah Winter, ill. Gary Kelley
The uptick in picture books about books being banned this year has been notable. Not that there have been all THAT many, but I’ve noted more than a few. There was The Great Banned Books Bake Sale by Aya Khalil, illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan and This Book Is Banned by Raj Haldar, illustrated by Julia Patton. Those were interesting but pretty straightforward picture books overall. This latest from Winter & Kelley is a bit different. I found it particularly interesting since this is definitely the first time Winter has ever worked with the publisher known as The Creative Company. Kelley, for his part, is a very specific kind of illustrator, and here he’s pulling out his full inner-European for the art. The whole trick to this book is that as you read it more and more of its words are blacked out. Eventually so many blacked out blocks of text fill the page that you begin to realize that if you read the words that have not been blacked, you start to find an entirely new story there. But what about the art? Everyone loves a cool concept, but how the heck do you illustrate it? Never fear. Kelley’s art opts for an interesting combination of realistic and surreal. I liken them to WPA paintings of the Depression Era, except with a bit of a dada twist. You get a hint of that from the cover certainly. It’s making a gigantic point rather than a coherent story, but considering the truly peculiar way in which it’s doling out its material, you kind of respect it. Definitely a title for older child readers, that’s for sure. Definitely unconventional.
Books Make Good Friends by Jane Mount
So in the spirit of full-disclosure here, I’d like to note that Jane Mount is the sister of one of my husband’s best friends during childhood. How’s that for a connection, eh? You probably know her best for her adult titles like Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany and Bibliophile: Diverse Spines (which I once saw a librarian use as an autograph book). Having seen those books you’d know that Mount has a particular prodigious talent for replicating the spines and covers of books in her books. Yet I never thought she’d take it to the extremes that she has in Books Make Good Friends. Odds are that if you’re an author or illustrator that has a children’s book that made any kind of a splash in the last (checks book) 100 years, you’re in here somewhere. The story is of a shy girl who is more comfortable diving into books than social situations. A lot of us can relate. But then Mount takes on a Peter Sis-ian level of meticulousness with the fine details of the story. You will be agog at the number of spines she’s managed to work into the book (and enjoy the little book recommendations she’s sprinkled along the way). There’s even (be still my beating heart) a paean to nonfiction!! A class act and an eye-popper in the best possible way.
The Bridge by Eva Lindström, translated by Annie Prime
For all that I say that we currently live in a Golden Age of Children’s Literature (and truly I believe this to be so) I can’t help but note that the bulk of the picture books I read any given week are awfully samey samey. Kids like samey samey fine since they often lack a system of comparison, but I would like to propose that we pepper our regular old standard picture book literature with the occasional bit of bizarreness. What kind? Introducing, The Bridge. A story that seemingly goes nowhere until it ends on a disconcerting note. Now this is a Swedish import and I will tell you right now that there are a fair number of parents out there that are not amused by any book that disconcerts them, particularly if it’s written for four-year-olds. Nevertheless, it would do your child’s brain a bit of good to indulge in this particular beauty, at least once. The storyline follows a little pig who is informed by a wolf that the bridge is closed up ahead. While it is repaired he is redirected to the wolf’s house, where he sups with two wolves. It’s laden with the sense of something threatening waiting in the wings, and yet nothing bad ever happens to the pig. Nonetheless, you may feel a bit of a shiver down your spine when you learn at the end, alongside the pig, that there was never any bridge in the first place. An excellent book for discussion, I’ll tell you that! Previously Seen On: The Translation list.
The Collector of Heads by Ana Matsusaki
If you don’t read any books to kids that seriously weird them out, can you really say you’ve done your due diligence as a parent? Confounding the young is the moral imperative of the old. Better still if the book in question is a Brazilian import. Mind you, imports make up an unnerving majority on my “Unconventional” list. Americans have a very rigid understanding of what a picture book should consist of: It must have a plot, characters you care about, and a resolution. The Collector of Heads has exactly none of these. There is less a plot than a recitation of the heads Rosália collects. The only true character in the book is, in fact, Rosália, but she remains a cipher throughout. As for a resolution, the last line in this book is, “her collection doesn’t stop growing. ever.” Make of that what you will. Inside, Matsusaki employs mixed media alongside illustration, giving the book this marvelous tincture of controlled chaos. Each head in the book is also a delight. I have a hard time deciding which one is my favorite. Could it be the rich lady’s head, which contains “extravagant fancy shoes,” “eight ways of forgetting her loneliness,” and (best of all) “a woman loved in secret”? You could read this book ten times and still miss all the strangeness and details in the corners. I showed this book to my 12 and 9 year olds and they were simultaneously appalled and intrigued. The BEST possible reaction, I think.
Corner by Zo-O, translated by Ellen Jang
This past March I had the opportunity to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and almost immediately I made a beeline for the Korean booth. If you want innovative international picture books that appeal to Americans, that’s the place to be. Owl Kids knows this. They’re Canadian and you can bet that they didn’t hesitate to snatch this book up when they saw it. It has a distinctly Suzy Lee feel to it, since, like her, it’s a book unafraid to use its gutter. Tall and thin, the gutter is a corner in a room. The view of it never changes and a crow slowly begins to install furniture and then to design the walls. As it does so, the entire feel of the place changes. The information on creator Zo-O says that the O in her name stands for “the Chinese character for crow, making her full name “Crow Zoo” in English.” Which, as names go, has gotta be my favorite for a picture book creator in a while. It’s a marvelous, almost entirely wordless, and highly unconventional book. My sole objection is the cover. It’s a bit of a pity that it comes off as colorless as it is. And because of the nature of the design, it’s not an accurate depiction of the read since that corner, by definition, has to be in the gutter of the book. But, of course, if it showed the end of the book it would give everything away. A conundrum, indeed. Previously Seen On: The Translation list.
The Garden Witch by Kyle Beaudette
In his bio at the back of this book Kyle Beaudette notes that growing up he liked to read Quentin Blake, Tim Burton, William Steig, and Richard Scarry. You don’t say! With the exception of Mr. Scarry, this book certainly feels like the lovechild of those first three creators, particularly Steig. I love a title unapologetic about who precisely is getting eaten and when (hence its inclusion here on the Unconventional list). The story involves a very sweet but unsuccessful witch with rather terrible self-esteem. Nobody in the nearby town comes to her for her wonderful potions, so she spends a lot of time with her magical garden. The garden loves the witch, but the three nasty rats that live with her do not. Incensed that she’s so depressed (by a combination of too little attention from the townsfolk and too much from the rats) the garden sends her a little gift: A turnip boy! Just a sweet, thoughtful little guy who helps out however he can. And when the rats get made and threaten him, at last the witch finds a way to deal with her furry little parasites. If you’ve a kid who loved the picture book of Shrek and is sad that most titles for kids these days are of the sparkly unicorn variety, consider this the bracing (but still heartfelt) antithesis they need. Vile and sweet in all the right ways.
The King of Circles by Shuntaro Tanikawa and Kiyoshi Awazu
This is what you get when you decide to combine a poet with a graphic designer, my friends. And I will confess that often when I hear the term “graphic designer” anywhere near a picture book, I want to go hide my head in a hole for a while (my least favorite Caldecott Honor book, and this is saying something, is The Graphic Alphabet). But should I be the kind of person who paints an entire occupation with so broad a brush? There are some marvelously creative graphically designed picture books out there and as luck would have it, this 1971 Japanese import is one of them. For one thing, it’s just a legitimately good story. Different round things proclaim themselves to be perfect circles, or capable of creating perfect circles, and they must therefore be the KING of circles, doggone it. Does Pi make an appearance? It sure as heck does, as does mention of the Japanese flag. It all comes to a head when the Earth declares that while it is a circle, it is fully aware of even larger circles in the universe and could never declare itself king. But what really kicks this book up a notch is the fact that in the back the book it instructs kids to draw their own circles. It reads: “Let’s draw a circle—it’s ok if it’s a little bumpy. Let’s draw a circle—it’s ok if it’s a little crooked. Let’s draw a circle—on a white sheet of paper, with all your might—draw your very own circle.” And as anyone who has ever tried to freehand a circle will tell you, this simple instruction, saying that it’s okay if your circle is bumpy or crooked, is incredibly important. Like I say. A legit great book.
Kozo the Sparrow by Allen Say
Sometimes you’ll encounter someone in the children’s book biz who will complain about the state of contemporary American picture books. They might ask why all of them have happy endings. “Why, if The Lorax was written today I bet Dr. Seuss wouldn’t even be able to get it published!” And to them I say, the only reason you think that is that you aren’t reading ALL the picture books. Because for every five hundred happy endings, I guarantee you there’s a picture book with a more complicated finish. Take, for example, Allen Say’s latest. As with many of his picture books, this one has an autobiographical bent. It recounts a time in his life when Allen was mercilessly bullied, but managed to save a hurt sparrow. He raises it and trains it, to the point where it will come when called. One day he takes it to school, and on the way home the bullies appear. So, in an act of preservation, and to save the little bird he has named Kozo, he opens the cage and it not only flies, but joins a flock of other sparrows. The last page just shows this pencil sketch of Allen staring at the flock, one bird more delineated than the rest. Now if I were to bestow an award for Most Bittersweet Picture Book of 2023, no one would contest my nomination of this title. You, the reader, are just left there, standing and staring at the flock with the boy. If you are a teacher and you read this book to a class, I guarantee that it will burn itself into that class’s memory for all time. You’d probably also get an amazing discussion going about whether or not freeing Kozo was the right thing to do if it led to that small heartbreak. A marvelous title and a bit of a surprise too. Extra points to Say for the blocked out page-by-page sketches of this book that appear on the back cover.
Ludwig and the Rhinoceros: A Philosophical Bedtime Story by Noemi Schneider, ill. Golden Cosmos, translated by Marshall Yarbrough
Ahh. One of the few books I first saw at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair that actually made it to the States. Do you need some concrete reasons why we need to see more translated children’s books on our nation’s shelves? Here’s one: How often in America are philosophical suppositions by Ludwig Wittgenstein turned into picture books? The conceit behind this is delightful. Apparently, Wittgenstein and his professor Bertrand Russell (another name you don’t usually see in books for 5-year-olds) got into an argument about whether or not there was a rhinoceros in the room. As the book’s backmatter explains, “Ludwig claimed that you couldn’t prove that there was NOT a rhinoceros in the room.” You can’t prove a negative. This idea is taken to its logical extreme here, with the story of a kid named Ludwig who tells his dad that there’s a rhino in his bedroom. No matter where dad looks, it’s never where the rhino is. The art, by duo Doris Freigofas and Daniel Dolz under the truly awesome name of “Golden Cosmos” (we should pair them with Red Nose Studio one of these days) use only three fluorescent colors to print the book. As it says at the end, “Three special luminous colors that mix when printed on top of one another. In this way three colors become seven colors.” The result has a classic feel but with mighty contemporary colors. Previously Seen On: The Translation list.
The Making of Butterflies by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by Ibram X. Kendi, ill. Kah Yangni
The highlights of this particular list is the wholly original and hitherto unseen, wouldn’t you agree? And wouldn’t you further agree that any board book adapted from a Zora Neale Hurston story fits the bill? Before I say anything else I want to mention how grateful I am to both Mr. Kendi and the good people of Amistad Books for Young Readers for taking the time to include some backmatter in this book. One could be forgiven for wondering, once you’ve finished, where this story originated. Kendi explains that in Mules and Men, Hurston explained that she found this story when she visited a lumber camp in Polk County, Florida. The men there would tell folktales as they worked and sometimes just make them up on the spot. This one arose when a man named Floyd Thomas said that sometimes the Creator isn’t satisfied with what’s created and makes changes. This story is an explanation of that. Yangni’s art is utterly gorgeous, and I adore the sneaker wearing, butterflied Creator on the cover. Kendi has made the choice to retain Hurston’s dialect, so that the first line is, “The Creator wuz all finished and thru makin’ de world,” and it goes on from there. Parents will decide amongst themselves if they feel comfortable reading the book in this matter or if they feel like they should change it as they go. Previously Seen On: The Board Book list
The Mighty Bite by Nathan Hale
Let’s get away from picture books and board books for a moment for the king of strange and his newest graphic novel concoction. The man has range. And by “the man” I mean Nathan Hale. And by “range” I mean he isn’t just a fount of Hazardous Tales from history. Read enough Hale and after a while you’d come to inescapable conclusion that there are times when the man just wants to let his freak flag fly. Periodically he’ll show off his skills, whether it’s with post-apocalyptic metal eating alien monstrosities (as in One-Trick Pony) or going all in on horror with his truly terrifying Apocalypse Taco. I’m still having nightmares after that one (shudder). With The Mighty Bite, though, he’s toned down the weirdness a bit. I mean, it’s still the strangest thing you’ll read this year (no question) but this is a younger, more 8-year-old friendly GN than we’ve seen him indulge in before. The plot involves a trilobite, an ambulocetus, a tiny spinosaurus, and a human newscaster who are attempting to win a journalism video-making competition. Sorta. Along the way there are numerous references (including what has to be the greatest Dog-Man visual gag I’ve seen in a comic to date) laughs, and chaos. I’m talking complete, utter madcap chaos, my friends. My son, I will admit, found the ending a bit of a downer (he didn’t like the bad guys getting millions of dollars) but I think it’s cheery enough to serve. Hand it to the kid who wants a comic that looks a little different from the pack.
Mr. Fiorello’s Head by Cecilia Ruiz
A supremely excellent companion to this year’s fellow title When Dad’s Hair Took Off by Jörg Mühle. Mr. Fiorello, for the record, has about as much hair on the top of his head as Homer Simpson. Done in an almost geometric artistic style, the story tells of how Mr. Fiorello used to love his long flowing locks. Think young Greg Universe (and 20 points to those of you that get that reference). There’s a rather touching picture of him sitting on the side of his bath, lovingly brushing his hair. “Mr. Fiorello loved his hair and never wanted it to go away.” I think you see where this is going. “But sometimes the things we care about the most, the things we never want to see gone, leave anyway.” So let us just raise a glass not simply to Cecilia Ruiz’s art in this story but also her way with words. Sure as shooting, by the end of things only three miscreant hairs remain on the top of Mr. Fiorello’s head and their very presence disturbs him. But the harder he fights to get rid of them, the harder they stay. The book is about letting go of what you can’t control and in its own zen little way, it’s a delight. Not quite like anything else out there.
Mulysses by Oyvind Torseter, translated by Kari Dickson
Another graphic novel! One with a particularly adult bent (though its readership is definitely young). In this story, Mulysses must find $5,000 and fast, so he joins a rich man’s quest to find an enormous magical eye. Essentially, this is the story of Ulysses, told with quirky humor and a touch of weirdness. Ahhh. Nothing like a little Norwegian GN to make you go, “What did I just read?!?” But I love this stuff. This is a grand example of weird books for kids that like weird stuff. Ostensibly it’s the story of Ulysses meeting the cyclopes, but this couches the encounter in with a bunch of other stuff. Like other European comics, it’s unafraid to show the world as needlessly ridiculous and cruel. I like our hero, though, and I like the resolution at the end. In a year of samey samey comics, this is one of the ones that stand out.
My Pocket Bathroom by Yan Du, ill. Erin Vanessa
Welp, I knew I made the “Unconventional” designation for a reason, and when I see a book like My Pocket Bathroom I remember once again why I did so. I’d call this a good-hearted-weird-book more than anything else. Now it feels like nothing so much as an import (American books don’t like dealing with toilets) but I don’t think that’s actually the case. As a parent of young children, the premise of this book also felt very very real to me. In this story, a young girl lives in a family of four but finds that when she wants to escape it all, there’s really only one room that will do: The bathroom. Only there can she find the privacy she craves. The problem? Troublesome fellow family members keep showing up wanting to use it too. Enter the magical toilet guardian, Lady Violet. Rising like a purple phoenix from the toilet, she bestows up on our heroine a pocket bathroom. Basically, it’s a little private bathroom you can take with you wherever you go whenever you need some “you time”. But our hero now feels she must share her gift with the world so she plants the tiny bathroom and produces, you guessed it (or did you?) a bathroom tree covered in miniscule bathrooms for everyone. This is a fairly good example of a bizarro idea that just takes its plot to a logical extreme and goes from there, and I am HERE for it!
My Strange Shrinking Parents by Zeno Sworder
The narrator of this tale tells a peculiar and beautiful story of how his immigrant parents traded inches of their height to support their son. As he grows up, they grow down. A story of love and of sacrifice. And Australian! Ever noticed how good they are these days at original immigrant narratives? With immigrant parents, Zeno’s story is a metaphor about the sacrifices people make for their children. In his dedication, the author says he was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige and books by Oscar Wilde, Shel Silverstein, and Stan Sakai. And weirdly enough, I feel all those influences here. It’s not just that the written words or the bizarre story, but also the sheer beauty of the art itself. The publication page doesn’t reveal how the art was made but it’s so strangely beautiful. Realistic enough so that the strangeness seeps in but never distracts. There are even gorgeous wordless two-page spreads that give the reader time to think and to talk. I can’t think of a book exactly like this one. It’s a complete original and beautiful to its core.
Myra and the Drawing Drama by Rosemary Rivera, ill. Mario J. Menjivar
When I call this list “unconventional” it’s a broad term that can mean any number of things. Most notably, these are books that are unlike any others out there. And were I to elect a picture book the Unconventional Picture Book Poster Child of 2023, those laurels would fall upon none other than Myra here. I did a bit of a cover reveal of this book as far back as January 2022 but it only came to be published this year. At the time I said that the book was, “so strange and interesting that I have difficulty parsing it in my head. Essentially, it’s a picture book about a culture that prizes adult panic over childhood creativity. Based on an incident that happened to Rosemary when she was a kid, the book follows a kooky girl who creates a picture that she thinks is marvelous. It also happens to freak out every adult that comes in contact with it. And let me tell you, when you get to that moment where you see the art for yourself, you’ll have this amazing moment of disconnect. The kid part of you will suddenly wrestle with the adult. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it in a picture book before.” I stand by every word. Add in the fact that it has all the trappings of a 1930s black and white cartoon, and I think you’ll agree that this is a VERY rare original American publication. I kinda, sorta love it.
On the Edge of the World by Anna Desnitskaya, translated by Lena Traer
What could be more unconventional than a title where its two storylines meet in the center of the book? Loneliness is the name of the game here. Depending on how you hold this book, you can chose to begin by reading the story of Vera, a girl living on the eastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Determined to someday be a ship captain, Vera goes about her day playing and pretending she had a friend to share all her knowledge with. At the end of her story she takes a flashlight and points it out over the dark water, using morse code to say, “Hi, I’m Vera.” And the, suddenly, she sees a response. “Hi, I’m Lucas.” Now flip the entire book upside down and meet Lucas himself! He’s a lonely kid too and currently lives in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Like Vera he spends the day playing but he wishes he had a friend. So at night he turns his flashlight across the sea . . . and you know the rest. There’s no true conclusion to this story but in the center of the book you can watch the beams of light impossibly splay out over different oceanic scenes. There’s a gentle melancholy to the book but there’s also a great deal of hope in there as well. The tone is so key to its success, and to that we must credit Lena Traer, translator extraordinaire. Consider this a writing prompt book, or a title where you can get kids to tell the rest of the story. However they want to tell it. Previously Seen On: The Translation list
Oops by Julie Massy & Pascale Bonenfant, translated by Charles Simard
An interactive picture book revels in luring its readers into breaking with convention. From the very start, this narration plays devil’s advocate with its young readership. Opening upon a page featuring a single egg it reads, “Eggs are very breakable. Why don’t you try knocking on this egg?” Turn the page and the child’s knocking has revealed a bright yellow chick and the word, “Oops!” Lest you mistake that “Oops!” for an apology, the next page shows a dozen more eggs, prompting the reader to “Give them a whack!” Doing so, however, yields a sea of yolks and the pointed “Oops!” yet again. As the book continues, gentle chaos reigns. The titular “oops” is complicit in its own reoccurrences as the narrator urges readers to transgress by squashing toothpaste tubes, dropping mugs, flipping full bowls of noodles, and more. Within the safety of the page, kids are allowed to indulge in a cathartic release of naughty inclinations. The simple, colorful pages leave reader in little doubt of the results of their “actions”. Certainly, children that flinch from deviating from the rules will find this book more perturbing than inspiring but for others it may prove a joyful release. Interactive books work very well in storytimes too, I can attest. Remember the heyday of Press Here? This has the same energy. With just a hint of Uncle Shelby’s ABZs (1961) this book gives anarchic impulses a good name. Previously Seen On: The Readaloud list.
The Snow Man by Jonah Winter, ill. Jeanette Winter
Our second Jonah Winter book on today’s list! I imagine a person could probably do an entire reclusive-gent-who-likes-snow biography storytime if you combined this book with Snowflake Bentley. That’s a little specific, but it’s true! Odds are you probably haven’t heard of bill barr and odds are that’s how he’d prefer it. Jonah Winter doesn’t name him in the text, even as his tells his story. You’ll have to read the Author’s Note to figure out the true details of the man’s life. You see, back in 1972 billy (lowercase spelling) came to the Rocky Mountains when he was a twenty-one-year-old college student. He holed up in a cabin and started tracking the wildlife. If this sounds a little familiar, that may be because this story isn’t that dissimilar from the one we heard in 2022’s I Begin With Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau. In both cases a man tracks information about nature for fun and, years later, scientists use those notes to track climate change. Jonah keeps the storytelling lyric and lovely, and the art most certainly helps. It’s an unconventional story of an unconventional citizen scientist.
Sorry, Snail by Tracy Subisak
Huh! Who knew Tracy Subisak had a weird streak in her! I stand impressed. The woman who brought us Jenny Mei is Sad and last year’s lovely Amah Faraway is capable of some pretty grotesque stuff and I am HERE for it. You know that old phrase, “Hurt people hurt people”? You get a bit of this here. I knew I liked it right at the start when it showed Ari coming out of her house mad, but she’s not allowed to yell when she’s upset. So, instead, she does a mad dance. This is interrupted when she notices a snail and proceeds to give it the tongue lashing of the century. Insults just pour out of her. When, that night, the snail appears in Ari’s bedroom demanding a heartfelt apology, she refuses. And that’s when things escalate. Love the extendable eye stalks. Love the moment when Ms. Snail and Ari look into one another’s souls. Love the massive army of snails demanding retribution. What is not to like about this book?
The Tailor Shop at the Intersection by Ahn Jaesun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
At the end of this book, author/illustrator Ahn Jaesun has including the following statement: “I always thought it would be wonderful to have a favorite place that I could go back to again and again with my two sons, and with their children as well in the future. The Tailor Shop at the Intersection was inspired by that idea.” Now this book is an excellent example of an import that we Americans may read but will only understand partially. Back in April I interviewed Adam Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy, the duo behind Transit Books, and they discussed this title. At the time I said of it, “The book is a kind of statement about urban development, capitalism, and artisanal craft.” In the course of our talk, they mentioned some of those details I just alluded to. You see, this is a book about three generations of dogs who are also tailors and who specialize in Western style business suits. “… when Transit acquired the book, it was the translator who pointed out that when you look at the city’s signs there is a subtle but significant shift over time. Initially, the signs display Chinese long words that were more common in the 20th century. Then, as time goes by, the script changes in a way that would be familiar to Korean readers. At Transit, they felt it was important to preserve that element of the book. As they described it, a publisher has as much power to erase cultural specifics as to highlight them. For Adam and Ashley, though, there’s little point in a translation unless you make sure that you’re not whitewashing or domesticating the spirit of the original.” As for the final product, once I saw it firsthand I was utterly charmed. It really doesn’t feel like any other book I’ve ever seen, but it’s the tone that stays with you. It’s soothing. Like a warm bath you just kind of sink into. Previously Seen On: The Translation list.
Ten-Word Tiny Tales to Inspire and Unsettle by Joseph Coelho and 21 Artist Friends
Tell me a story in just ten words. One poet tells 21 tales and 21 artists give their interpretations. Part writing prompts, part short stories, and all very very interesting. Oh ho! This one’s great! Sort of what you’d get if you asked a bunch of authors to do a visual riff in the vein of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Joseph Coelho isn’t afraid to get creepy, which I appreciate thoroughly, and he also not shy in saying outright that this is a book of writing prompts. Personally, I think that a number of these artists could have been significantly creepier with their interpretations. Fortunately, you have folks like Thea Lu, Júlia Sardà (so good!), and Karl James Montford to make up for it. The book is worth it for the Shaun Tan image alone: “Every year they honored their son by decorating his skull.” I’d get that one as a poster if I could. A perfect accompaniment to Halloween too!
Twenty Questions by Mac Barnett, ill. Christian Robinson
I knew we made this “unconventional” list for a reason! The reason? Books like this. Barnett and Robinson are doing something here that European picture book creators do on a regular basis but that American picture book creators tend to avoid (or maybe it’s just our publishers who are doing the avoiding). This reminded me a lot of If… by Sarah Perry, in that it creates a lot of open-ended questions for the young reader to explore. It’s interesting, I was just listening to Mac Barnett on the 99% Invisible podcast talk about Bank Street College and their picture books (as part of the episode Goodnight Nobody) and in a way this feels like a very Bank Street-esque book. Mind it, Robinson gives as good as he gets too. He’s clearly trying out some different, almost more tactile style here, playing with these thick paints and almost minimalist images. Extra points for the inclusion of an ostrich (all artists get extra points when they make ostriches, by the way).
Zig Zag by Julie Paschkis
Who’s to say that unconventional books can’t be American? Why, Paschkis is Pennsylvania born and bred, yet she’s never felt particularly inclined to adhere to the norm. That’s why it’s so nice to see her break free once in a while. And, thanks to smaller publishers like Enchanted Lion, she’s free to do so in books like ZigZag. Looking at this cover, you can forgive me if I initially assumed this was just going to be another alphabet book. A pretty alphabet book, sure. But an alphabet book. Instead, I found an odd little story about an alligator named ZigZag who has a penchant for eating words. All is well until he goes a bit too far and accidentally eats all the vowels (not “y” though). Once the vowels are gone everything that’s labeled in the pictures Richard Scarry style becomes labeled with shorter, less pleasant words. “He wanted sweet dreams, not swt drms.” The solution, naturally, is to draw out the vowels on their own from new sources. Along the way Paschkis lets her style, which I’ve heard sometimes as “folk-art” and sometimes as “folk style” flow. Apparently this is a companion to her previous creation The Wordy Book but I like to think it stands entirely on its own. I mean, once you get to the cats with tambourines and pig in a cumberbund, you begin to appreciate its odd little energy. Delicious.
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
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists
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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