One of the few reassuring things I can say about 2020 is this has been turning out to be a terrific year for picture books. Writing about them has become a bit of a challenge because of access to new titles. I feel that books in the class of 2020 need an extra push and so voila, here’s a list of fifteen January to June books that have risen to the top of my list. Over the next few weeks, as more new books arrive at my library again, I hope to see more physical copies of acclaimed titles. So this is not a definitive list of all the fabulous works released from January to June. Just a shout out to a fierce fifteen that I think deserve a virtual high five.
Here they are, alphabetical by title:
The Bear in My Family, illustrated and written by Maya Tatsukawa, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525555827.
“I live with a bear,” a child says at the start of this story. Yeeps! Tatsukawa’s delightful illustrations (created digitally with handmade textures) introduce a bear that is imposing and scary, but in a lovable and humorous manner: big teeth and an enormous appetite, but reaching for honey chips not humans. I don’t want to spoil the book’s surprises. Let’s just say that they bring extra layers of fun to the account.
Brown Baby Lullaby, illustrated by AG Ford, written by Tameka Fryer Brown, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374307523.
A warm, comforting book that will work splendidly in a Jammie Time storytime. Cozy, charming illustrations, a text that sings. A book so quiet and sweet, it feels so unassuming. And yet when you dig deeper and study the beautiful art and say those poetic words out loud, you see the art and craft that went into every page.
The Cat Man of Aleppo, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-1984813787.
This powerful look at Mohammad Alaa Alajeel starts with a note from Alaa himself. In his foreword, he tells of his love for cats and how this love drove his mission to save animals orphaned by the war that tore apart his beloved city Aleppo, and to help people as well. Writers Latham and Shamsi-Basha use the present tense when telling his story and this brings an emotional immediacy to the book.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113.
A book about a great poet should offer strong writing, and Slade truly delivers with her concise, poetic text. Meanwhile, the fabulous illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera fills each of her acrylic paintings with beautiful sights and memorable emotion. Cabrera often adds a surreal spin to the words. Swirling pinks, blues, and whites fill the sky. And for those concerned with made-up dialogue in non-fiction picture book biographies, the back matter assures us that every quote can be traced back to an original source.
Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots, illustrated and written by Michael Rex, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1984816269.
Using multicolored (and very funny) robots as stars, Rex clearly presents what makes a fact different from an opinion. He does it in a way many fascinated kids will find entertaining and easy to understand. His cheerful digital illustrations show beautifully across the room–the metallic creatures possess amusing expressions that range from bliss to bafflement. I love how Rex’s text is both playful and direct. Crystal clear, no wasted words.
A Girl Like Me, illustrated by Nina Crews, written by Angela Johnson, published by Millbrook, ISBN: 978-1541557772.
I have been saving up a few books for a post about creative uses of photography in recent picture books. Nina Crews truly is one of the very best at showing how to experiment with the camera and collage for maximum effect. In this dynamic work, Crews’ innovative photographs mix beautifully with Angela Johnson’s inspirational words in this vibrant ode to girl power. Transcendent.
Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring Word of Mister Rogers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823446186.
When I heard that the great Caldecott winning illustrator Matthew Cordell planned to create a picture book biography of the groundbreaking children’s TV performer Fred Rogers, I said to myself “of course, what a perfect match.” Cordell’s gentle kindness shines through in all of his work. And his signature watercolors share that same DIY, lo-fi, “color outside the lines” feeling to them as the pleasantly no frills classic TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is a delightfully scrappy quality to the way Cordell tells the legend’s story.
Hike, illustrated and written by Pete Oswald, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201574.
The first thing to applaud is the inventive cover. Father and child scale the title of the book as if it were a challenging mountain. Oswald chronicles their day from sunrise to sunset, deftly mixing eye-popping double page spreads that convey wonder with visual snippets that capture little moments as well. This is picture book as cinema with overhead shots, changes in perspective, rapidly presented images that suggest quick edits, and slow atmospheric panoramic long takes.
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, illustrated by Eric Rohmann, written by Candace Fleming, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442850.
Wow. Just wow. Just look at those details in those oil paintings. Study how the great Caldecott winning artist Eric Rohmann brings the reader up close and personal with the hard-working and extremely fuzzy honeybee. Think about the care he put into each illustration–all those minute details, all that fuzz, those eyes, that tongue, that antennae, those stripes. Candace Fleming’s brilliant text gives the journey a driving immediacy that captivates with each and every page turn. She walks the reader through the honeybee’s busy days, all the while promising that soon this industrious bee will take flight. A masterpiece.
Lift, illustrated by Dan Santat, written by Minh Lê, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1368036924.
What’s amazing about the prolific award-winning Santat is how he manages to find new ways to visually tell a story, to shake up the picture book format. Each new book feels fresh and alive. And he excels at comedy, packing each humorous spread with amusing touches. Facial expressions that say a million words, page turns that lead to new surprises, and brilliant shifts in POV that masterfully capture the comical action. For example, examine his use of graphic novel style panels in Lift, his rather epic collaboration with Minh Lê (a follow-up to their award-winning Drawn Together). Lift has the expert pacing of a thrilling and first-rate animated film.
My Best Friend, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534427228.
Confession: this book has been out for months and I have not yet dedicated an entire post to it. I was planning to write about this and Jillian Tamaki’s other 2020 release, the delightful Our Little Kitchen (out September 22, 2020) in an upcoming little mini-essay. My Best Friend is a book that I keep recommending to colleagues and patrons and I’m singing its praises here. And for good reason. Tamaki’s beautiful and unique, often surreal, illustrations join forces with Fogliano’s surprising words in a book that will definitely be mentioned in every “what will win the 2021 Caledecott Award” conversation.
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9781419736858.
A stirring first-person memoir with Sharon Langley (working with co-author Amy Nathan) looking back at how, on August 28, 1963, she became the first African-American child to ride on the carousel in Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. The great illustrator Floyd Cooper is at the top of his game here. Using his signature technique (oil erasure on an illustration board), Cooper creates spreads that have the hazy, poignant feel of a summer memory.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Gene Barretta, published by Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062430151.
Brilliant at depicting the lively vivacity of city life, illustrator Frank Morrison proves here that he is equally adept at creating quiet scenes in the woods. Here budding scientist George Washington Carver explores and interacts with the natural world. Writer Barretta does a solid job covering a lot of ground in a succinct fashion. The final spread with an elderly Carver standing near his garden, leaning on a stick cane, accompanied by the words “Regard Nature. Revere Nature. Respect Nature.” is Morrison at his best. He offers an image that haunts the memory long after you close the book.
Trees Make Perfect Pets, illustrated by Cathy Gendron, written by Paul Czajak, published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, ISBN: 978-1492664734.
This charmer has already become a storytime favorite. For her birthday, Abigail says she wants a pet. Not a dog. Not a hamster. Not a bird. But rather a tree, a dogwood she calls Fido. People, especially her brother and a pesky neighbor boy who brags about his cat Oprah Whiskers, tease her for her choice. And having a tree has its share of ups and downs. However, everything leads to a sweet, satisfying ending that convinces readers trees are great to have around for many many reasons. Czajak’s text sings with amusing good cheer as Gendron’s fluid illustrations pop off the page.
¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328557049.
Last year I went gaga over Raúl the Third’s delightfully surreal ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market, which I described as a visually inventive cross between Richard Scarry and R. Crumb. I’m happy to report that he has followed up with a sequel that is just as boisterous, just as rollicking, just as cool. I mean, we are talking supercool. Holding these books in my hand make me feel a kazillion times cooler than I ever hope of being. What amazes me about this new offering is it feels like I’m revisiting familiar old friends: Little Lobo, Kooky Dooky, El Toro, all of the animal supporting characters populating the ever-busy pages. As Little Lobo scrambles about trying to find food for los luchadores, he zips and travels through arrestingly rendered cityscapes packed with intricate comical details.