2020 has been a smashingly good year for picture books. I urge you to seek out the visually dynamic books appearing on this list. Some are humorous, others poignant, and many beat to the sound of their drummer, but all make a lasting impression.
Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, written by Tara Dairman, published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0525518068.
Two children leading different lives and experiencing different weather conditions initially appear to be living far away from one another. However, this book reveals that they live in northern India near the Aravalli Range. As they head towards each other (one to escape a desert storm, the other a monsoon) their stories start merging into one. Sreenivasan does an expert job making this visual concept clear, and Dairman’s succinct writing captures the drama of their respective journeys.
I Am Brown, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, written by Ashok Banker, published by Lantana Publishing, ISBN: 978-1911373940.
This inspirational work tells brown children that they are beautiful and they can be and do anything. They can make art, design a rocket ship, study germs, be an electrician or president. Banker’s quick, lively text covers a lot of ground, has fun (“I have a moustache, a beard, no moustache, no beard”) and is remarkably inclusive. All the while Prabhat’s warm digital art shows a bunch of cool kids on the go and loving life.
I Really Want The Cake, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti, written by Simon Philip, published by Orchard Books (an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.), ISBN: 978-1338589412.
Ooh, just look at that cake. Who can blame the obsessed child starring in this tasty (and chaotic) comical delight. This British import (first published in 2017 and now making its US debut) is a perfect example of a funny book that grabs the reader with its humorous situation, remains amusing, and sticks its landing. Gaggiotti’s playful illustrations capture what imaginative thoughts are going through the protagonist’s head as they formulate a plan (dog by their side) to munch on this tempting dessert. Philip’s manic rhyming text begs to be read aloud.
My Best Friend, Sometimes, illustrated by Cinta Arribas, written by Naomi Danis, published by POW!, ISBN: 978-1576879467.
Having a best friend can really add drama to your life. And this quirky gem covers the ups and downs of being BFFs. Sharing cookies and secrets lead to great times, but what happens when one friend wants to race across the playground while the other longs to sit and sing a clapping song? Illustrator Arribas creates striking individuals with giant heads, large eyes, and expressive faces. Colorful backgrounds leap off the page. Danis’ first person narration crackles.
Pacho Nacho, illustrated by Pablo Pino, written by Silvia López, published by Capstone Editions, ISBN: 978-1684460984.
This charmer offers a bouncy, Latinx retelling of a Japanese folktale about a boy whose brother has an extremely long name. What crisis strikes and the kid needs to save his sibling, saying this tongue twisting name leads to near-disaster. López’s captivating prose deftly mixes Spanish and English words. Pino excels at exaggerated facial expressions (this would make a great animated short) and body language. I love the two frogs the boys chase.
Rot: The Bravest in the World!, illustrated and written by Ben Clanton, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481467643.
I watched an interview with Ben Clanton during which he said he loves drawing potatoes. And yes, you can see this enthusiasm in this delightfully deranged tale about a mud-loving potato whose older brother warns him about an evil creature lurking in a nearby mud puddle. I seriously never knew potatoes could be this expressive or funny. As Rot imagines overcoming his fears, Clanton isn’t afraid to make his cartoony illustrations a bit grotesque. I cannot wait to read this in storytime someday.
Sandcastle, illustrated and written by Einat Tsarfati, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-1536211436.
I first saw this 2018 import as an ebook…that simply did not do justice to the intricate, strange artwork (lost page turns, small details hard to see). From the very first shot of a crowded beach to the highly detailed interiors of the sandcastle itself, Tsarfati packs this book with visual wonder and imagination. It’s a book to study and explore, featuring a child creating an epic sandcastle packed with rooms and royal characters bitterly complaining about the sand in their food.
Swashby and the Sea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Beth Ferry, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-0544707375.
I have praised Pura Belpré Illustrator and Caldecott Honor winner Martinez-Neal several times for her distinct, unforgettable style. I adore her round characters. Writer Ferry tells a lovely story of a reclusive sailor (his boat is even called El Recluso) not exactly digging his fun-loving and friendly young new neighbor. There is an amusing running joke with Swashby writing “go away” type messages in the sand, only to have the waves wash away the mean letters to create new, more welcoming words.
Tad, illustrated and written by Benji Davies, published by Harper, ISBN: 978-0062563590.
Another import, this one from an illustrator who knows how to fill his pages with eye-catching color and textures. The titular character is a tadpole happily living with his siblings underwater. Soon though they all turn into frogs and leave poor the slow-to-develop Tad all alone. And this situation is terrifying thanks to a tadpole-munching fish dubbed the Big Blub. The action-packed text works beautifully with the fluid artwork. This adventure will work well in storytime.
Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird’s Amazing Journey, illustrated by Wendell Minor, written by Robert Burleigh, published by Christy Ottaviano Books (an imprint of Henry Holt and Company), ISBN: 978-1627793698.
Over the past few years I have become fascinated with birds. I once saw a hummingbird outside my window and for one mesmerizing fleeting moment, I reveled in the creature’s magnificence. How can a being so small seem so epic? In his usual captivating fashion, Burleigh whisks readers along with a resilient hummingbird as it migrates. The great illustrator Minor chronicles this turbulent trek with dramatic scenes showing the bird outwitting a hawk and a fish, surviving a storm at sea, and finally landing safely in a rainbow-hued forest miles away from where it started.
Who Will You Be?, illustrated and written by Andrea Pippins, published by Schwartz & Wade, ISBN: 978-1984849489.
While on the children’s reference desk I am often asked for easy picture books about families. I will definitely not hesitate to recommend this tender, joyous book the next time the question arises. With emotionally direct language, Pippins introduces a parent who wonders about which traits their child will possess as they grow older. Will the kid be like the activist grandmother, the introspective brother, the dad with the kind eye, the loud joyful cousin? Each double page spread exudes warmth and will show nicely in family storytimes.
Window, created by Marion Arbona, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1525301360.
Every year members of the Academy vote for films vying for the Best Animated Short Oscar. And usually at least one of the nominees is idiosyncratic, surreal, and fabulously odd. This wordless romp feels like one of those masterpieces. A child sees a bunch of windows and wonders about the rooms inside. Each double page spread has a gatefold that when opened (the pages fold out) reveals a very strange fantastical space. Both psychedelic and astonishing, Arbona’s illustrations (rendered in felt pen) are packed with humor and surprise. Readers will want to make this journey again and again.