Flying Paintings–The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art, paintings by ShanZuo Zhou and DaHuang Zhou, written by Amy Alznauer, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536204285.
Every year it happens. I make my “favorite books of the year” lists and then I see a book later that easily could have been included on one of the said lists. I actually heard about the informative and moving Flying Paintings a while back. The author, the immensely talented Amy Alznauer, told me about how this look at the childhood and art of the amazing Zhou Brothers was all falling into place. I think we had this conversation, like, two years ago? And strangely enough, the completed book eluded me until just recently, even though it was a September release (it has definitely been a strange, disorienting year). I’m glad I was able to finally check the book out.
One of the things that makes the non-fiction account about two brothers who experienced China’s Cultural Revolution first-hand as children and young artists so potent is the Zhou Brothers (now living in the Chicago area) themselves worked together to create the ink and watercolor illustrations. This brings a real emotional immediacy to the work. They are putting their memories on the pages; every visual touch feels personal.
Alznauer grabs the reader right away by starting at the birth of the older brother Shaoli. In an example of effective picture book writing, she zeroes in the details that make this particular story sing. A baby born in the back of the family-run book store, a grandmother telling tales of beautiful flying paintings still living on mountain cliffs and also too-real stories of soldiers and bandits destroying the family’s property. “The world is a beautiful and terrible place” is a recurring line that packs an emotional punch. The introduction of a younger brother, Shaoning, adds some surprising humor, with the loud infant causing the elder sibling to plug his ears and humorously think “A brother, too, is a beautiful and terrible thing.” The rest of the book chronicles their bond as both brothers and artists, rising above tense political situations with their artistic endeavors.
As in her other 2020 releases, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan (illustrated by Daniel Miyares, Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690489) and The Strange Birds of Flannery O’ Connor (illustrated by Ping Zhu, Enchanted Lion, ISBN: 978-1592702954), Alznauer does not talk down to her young readers. She trusts their intelligence, does not sugarcoat any details. Thanks to her sharp, smart writing and the highly personal illustrations of the Zhou Brothers, Flying Paintings definitely soars. Great back matter, too.
I am hearing about some exciting 2021 picture books! Here are 21 (alphabetical by title) that look absolutely terrific!
Bear Island, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel & Friends, ISBN: 978-1250317162, to be published: January 26, 2021.
Becoming Vanessa, illustrated and written by Vanessa Brantely-Newton, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525582120, to be published: June 15, 2021.
Daisy, illustrated and written by Jessixa Bagley, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823446506, to be published: February 2, 2021.
Dear Treefrog, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Joyce Sidman, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0358064763, to be published: April 27, 2021.
El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!, illustrated by Juliana Perdomo, written by Donna Barba Higuera, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1419744457, to be published: July 13, 2021.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, illustrated by Dung Ho, written by Joanna Ho, published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0062915627, to be published: January 5, 2021.
I Dream of Popo, illustrated by Julia Kuo, written by Livia Blackburne, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250249319, to be published: January 5, 2021.
I’m on It!, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi (part of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie Like Reading series), published by Hyperion Books for Children), ISBN: 978-1368066969, to be released: May 11, 2021.
Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurtson, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, written by Alicia D. Williams, published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, ISBN: 978-1534419131, to be released: January 12, 2021.
Mel Fell, illustrated and written by Corey R. Tabor, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062878014, to be published: February 2, 2021.
The Old Boat, illustrated and written by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey, published by Norton Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1324005179, to be published: March 2, 2021.
Outside, Inside, illustrated and written by LeUyen Pham, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1250798350, to be published: January 5, 2021.
The Passover Guest, illustrated by Sean Rubin, written by Susan Kusel, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823445622, to be released: January 19, 2021.
The Rock from the Sky, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536215625, to be published: April 13, 2021.
Stella’s Stellar Hair, illustrated and written by Yesenia Moises, published by Imprint, ISBN: 978-1250261779, to be released: January 5, 2021.
Strollercoaster, illustrated by Raúl the Third and Elaine Bay, written by Matt Ringler, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316493222, to be released: May 4, 2021.
Time for Kenny, illustrated and written by Brian Pinkney, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN: 978-0060735289, to be released: January 12, 2021.
We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, illustrated by Frane Lessac, illustrated by Traci Sorrell, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1623541927, to be released: April 21, 2021.
What’s the Matter, Marlo?, illustrated and written by Andrew Arnold, published by Roaring Brook Press, ISBN: 978-1250223234, to be released: January 26, 2021.
Where Wonder Grows, illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia, written by Xelena González, published by Cinco Puntos Press, ISBN: 978-1947627468, to be released: February 16, 2021.
Your Mama, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, written by NoNiequa Ramos, published by VERSIFY, ISBN: 978-1328631886, to be published: April 6, 2021.
In addition to enjoying many excellent picture 2020 books, I read a LOT of terrific chapter books, graphic novels and middle grade works for older readers. Here are some of my favorites in alphabetical order by title:
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, written by Christina Soontornvat, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536209457.
An immersive account, from a welcome Thai perspective, on how many came together to save a bunch of young soccer players (and their coach) trapped in a cave. Makes you feel as if you are there.
Any Day with You, written by Mae Respicio, published by Wendy Lamb Books, ISBN: 978-0525707578.
There are no villains in this heartwarming account of a young budding filmmaker whose grandfather wants to move back to the Philippines. Just anxiety caused by change and the fear of missing someone you love. A beautiful inter-generational story told with compassion and empathy.
The Blackbird Girls, written by Anne Blankman,published by Viking Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1984837356.
A visceral, powerful account of two girls who become unlikely friends after the 1986 Chernobyl crisis overturns their lives. This feels like an instant modern classic.
Brother’s Keeper, written by Julie Lee, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823444946.
I’m not going to lie to you: this story set during the Korean War packs no punches and can be one tough ride. But it’s also historical fiction novel writing (based on the the author’s family story) at its most vivid and haunting.
The Canyon’s Edge, written by Dusti Bowling, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316494694.
Wow, this crackles as one intense survival story. A girl becomes trapped thanks to a truly terrifying flash flood. A wildly effective mix of short prose chapters with expertly crafted poetry.
Echo Mountain, written by Lauren Wolk, published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0525555568.
I keep waiting for adults to discover Lauren Wolk. She writes historical fiction that end up placed in middle grade because they star young protagonists. However, her intense, no-nonsense works have major crossover potential. This is one of her very best.
Efrén, Divided, written by Ernesto Cisneros, published by Quill Tree Books, ISBN: 978-0062881687.
This poignant and sadly timely novel finds a boy’s life upended after his mother has been deported. Written with heart and empathy, this book packs a wallop.
Fly on the Wall, illustrated and written by Remy Lai, published by Henry Holt and Co., ISBN: 978-1250314116.
Fans of Lai’s lovely graphic novel hybrid hit Pie in the Sky will enjoy this comical nail-biter about an Australian boy who sneaks off on to a plane to find his dad. This works on so many levels.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, written by Janae Marks, published by Katherine Tegen Books, ISBN: 978-0062875853.
Readers will cheer Zoe as she finds a way to prove that the judicial system failed her imprisoned father. An absorbing look at systemic racism with an unforgettable heroine.
A Game of Fox and Squirrels, written by Jenn Reese, published by Henry Holt & Co. ISBN: 978-1250243010.
A daring mix of magical realism and powerful domestic problem novel as a girl comes to terms with turbulent family issues while playing a bizarre, animal-centric interactive game.
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!, written by Sarah Kapit, published by Dial Books, ISBN: 978-0525554189.
A bouncy, engaging look at an autistic girl who wows them as a pitcher and strikes up a memorable email pen pal friendship with her baseball hero. A touching delight from start to finish.
The Girl and the Ghost, written by Hanna Alkaf, published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0062940957.
Okay, I’m not supposed to pick Ultimate Favorites I guess, but I have to admit that this creepy (truly scary) and subversively funny look at a girl’s friendship with an envious ghost is, well, probably my favorite book of the year. Great sense of place, with plenty of surprising twists. This would make a first-rate animated feature if done well. Contact Studio Ghibli or the folks who did Coraline.
Go With the Flow, illustrated and written by Lily Williamsand Karen Schneemann, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1250143174.
A much-needed social activist graphic novel about a group of girls fighting to have feminine products available at their school. Excellent art, strong characters, and satire with a bite.
Green Lantern: Legacy, illustrated by Andie Tong, written by Mihn Lê, published by DC Comics, ISBN: 978-1401283551.
Striking imagery and a fast pace keep the thrills coming in this superhero graphic novel about a kid finding out the amazing truth about an elder. More please!
Hide and Seeker, written by Daka Hermon, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338583625.
You want your horror novels truly scary? Well, look no further than this twisted (yet never overly gory) mix of Us, Stranger Things, Nightmare on Elm Street, and It that beats to the sound of its own demented drummer.
King and the Dragonflies, written by Kacen Callender, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338129335.
Callender’s visceral look at a boy encountering racism and homophobia has already won a well-deserved National Book Award. Written with empathy and heart by a writer at the top of their game.
Leaving Lymon, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, published by Holiday House, ISBN: 978-0823444427.
This evocative companion to the award-winning Finding Langston zeroes in on the turbulent life of a boy trying to find his way in the 1940s.
Letters from Cuba, written by Ruth Behar, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0525516477.
In the late 1930s, a young Jewish girl travels from Poland to Cuba and works with her father to raise money to save the rest of their family. Behar’s follow-up to her award-winning Lucky Broken Girl tells another captivating and personal family story.
Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian, illustrated and written by Tim Probert, published by HarperAlley, ISBN: 978-0062990464.
Absolutely lovely and creative this art is, enriching a compelling fantasy with beautifully rendered characters on one humdinger of a quest. A thrill from start to finish; readers will be begging for volume 2.
The Magic in Changing Your Stars, written by Leah Henderson, published by Sterling Children’s Books, ISBN: 978-1454934066.
An absolutely charming time travel fantasy. A young boy botches his audition for The Wiz and then finds himself whisked from 2010 to the late 1930s where his meets his tap dancing grandfather…as a young boy!
Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419740831.
A truly fabulous mix of stories all related to Eid. Although some offerings have serious moments, what is most memorable about this collection is its sense of humor and fun.
One Last Shot, written by John David Anderson, published by Walden Pond Press, ISBN: 978-0062643926.
A hilarious sports novel for those who don’t necessarily love sports novels (and even for those who do). Our young hero who cannot quite communicate with his jock father discovers that he does kinda sorta like miniature golf. Throw in a crusty coach with unorthodox teaching methods and the result is a lot of fun.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, written by Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0593109212.
This lively and at times quite rollicking story about a Muslim boy starting a new school will appeal to fans of Jeff Kinney’s illustration-heavy hybrid Wimpy Kid series. Omar emerges as a most affable hero, trying to get through all the new changes in his life and also encountering bigotry thanks to a creepy villain.
Primer, created by Thomas Krajewski and Jennifer Muro, illustrated by Gretel Lusky, published by DC Comics, ISBN: 978-1401296575.
The colors in this graphic novel…oh, those colors. This superhero romp shimmers with spray paint-packed glimmering wonder, with images that leap and jump off the page. The heroine must battle evil and each page turn crackles with visual splendor.
Second Dad Summer, written by Benjamin Klas, published by One Elm Books, ISBN: 978-1947159242.
A sweet ode to effeminate men, this dramedy dares to make the young protagonist bigoted and close-minded. The kid does not know what to think of his dad marrying a flamboyant man, as terrific and caring as he is. Klas does a great job with character growth while keeping the story unpredictable and surprising.
A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttman Created the Paralympic Games, illustrated by Allan Drummond, written by Lori Alexander, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1328580795.
A riveting non-fiction account that shows how, during the mid-20th century, a dedicated Jewish doctor found ways to make lives better for those with spinal injuries. His efforts and discoveries led to the formation of the wildly popular paralympic games. One of the most hopeful books I read this year.
Stepping Stones, illustrated and written by Lucy Knisley, published by Random House Graphic, ISBN: 978-1984896841.
This remarkable and honest graphic novel shows what happens when a girl does not exactly click with her stepfamily. Knisley does not sugarcoat the situation–the stepdad is truly awful at times with his mockery. However, a sweet and tender story emerges, one with heart and humor.
The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth, edited by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, published by Crown, ISBN: 978-0593121610.
This dynamic, much-needed anthology about race brings in a LOT of excellent authors and artists who discuss their racial experiences, touching on what they would say to the younger generation. The result is a strikingly honest and unflinching work that makes an unforgettable impression.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, written by Adrianna Cuevas, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN: 978-0374313609.
Oh, this book is fun! A boy who can speak with animals (and I love that the animals can be a bit, oh, snippy with Nestor) is also trying to clear the name of his abuela, accused of being a witch who harms all the neighborhood’s creatures. A little bit scary, very very funny, this one grabs the reader on the very first page.
Ways to Make Sunshine, written by Renée Watson, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1547600564.
Set in Portland, Oregon, Watson’s effervescent book for younger readers introduces Ryan Hart, a girl keeping a look at the bright side of life even with an annoying brother and her family’s money problems. And a huge yes knowing that this is the start of a series.
What If a Fish, written by Anika Fajardo, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1534449831.
This gem, this sleeper of an underdog book has stayed with me months after I finished it. A boy travels from the States to Colombia where he spends time with his half-brother. This feels like an deftly told coming of age movie and has a vivid sense of place.
What Lane?, written by Torrey Maldonado, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0525518433.
This slim, lean novel zips at a fast pace, all the while skillfully addressing complex issues of systemic racism and social justice and fairness. Written in an emotionally direct manner that makes the story compelling and relatable.
Wink, written by Rob Harrell,published by Dial Books, ISBN: 978-1984815149.
A remarkably personal story about a boy who undergoes treatment for eye cancer. What’s surprising about it is its captivating sense of humor thanks mostly to the presence a hard-rawking guitar player/medical professional who teaches the boy about the transcendent thrills of rock and roll while battling this health crisis.