Picture books of the day: celebrating how the arts can transform lives in 3 terrific works

As someone who loves books (obviously), music, film, and, well, the arts in general, I always appreciate it when talented picture book creators pay tribute to the transcendent nature of the arts. Three books (two award winners from 2019 and one upcoming 2020 title) offer vibrant illustrations and dynamic prose when zeroing in on what makes artistic expression so valuable.

Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln, illustrated by Rafael López, written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481487405 (released in 2019). 

A few weeks ago I attended the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia. At Midwinter the highlight for all us youth librarians is attending the Monday morning announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This event is epic with many excited librarians, educators and publishers shouting hurrays for books and people who managed to wow a bunch of awards committees. Dancing Hands deservedly received the 2020 Pura Belpré Best Illustrator Award for the great López who triumphs with this visually striking (he used a wide variety of materials) non-fiction picture book about how art can heal. Engle’s urgent compelling text whisks readers back to the mid-19th century when young Teresa must flee Venezuela for the war-torn United States. A talented piano player, she ends up soothing a grieving President Lincoln with her skilled playing. López does a fantastic job conveying a vast array of moods–somber wartime scenes, the girl’s nervousness when entering the room where she will play. The book reaches a near-euphoric high when she performs for the President and ebullient images swirl from the instrument, filling the double page spread with colorful wonder.

Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Andrea J. Loney, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-1524718527 (released in 2019).

The 2020 Caldecott committee wisely chose this as a Caldecott Honor title. Rudy Gutierrez’s acrylic paintings electrify and dazzle, explode off the page. The story involves a young boy who can play a mean bass solo and wow his peers. However, when carrying the heavy cumbersome instrument across town, from school to home, he endures ridicule and scorn from a bunch of nasty people (and one breathtakingly stylized dog). He also has to zip through the rain. An out of order elevator serves as one last sigh-inducing “you have to be kidding me” punch to the gut. However, when he finally arrives home (after climbing many stairs), he finds four older musicians (his grandfather and three others) waiting for him to play music with them. Loney’s storytime-friendly text mostly consists of engaging musical sound effects–an oof here, a grrrrrrr! there, some plunk plunks. Gutierrez’s images dance, flow and soar across the pages. I love how he experiments with space as the boy journeys home. His paintings pulsate with a jittery energy–you can get lost in them. The book ends on a note of much-needed pure euphoria. Also, I must add how I love the endpapers. At the start we see a stylized modern art view of the boy’s orchestra that begins the book. At the end Guiterrez shows the kids playing with his grandfather’s quintet. Totally terrific.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113, to be released: April 7, 2020.

I just talked about two books that received some 2020 awards love. Here’s an upcoming release that I hope earns some awards love in January 2021 when the next batch of award winners are announced. This heartfelt and tender new book about the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks covers a large portion of her early life and does so in a way that is clear and easy to understand for young readers. In 1950, the Chicago-based Brooks became the first Black person to win the Pulitzer, and Exquisite deftly chronicles what led the author to that crowning moment. 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. For example, on the page that talks about how Brooks went to college and devoured countless poetry books there, Cabrera shows her legs walking on mountains of books. Visually, Cabrera keeps returning to the colorful clouds mentioned in the poem “Clouds” that Brooks wrote when she was only 15 (the book wisely includes it in its entirety in the back matter). 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. This is a beautiful tribute to a great poet. Side note: I was able to see Brooks read twice, and she was amazing both times. This book truly captures her talent and spirit.

And the Oscar goes to…Hair Love? (that would be awesome)…some spoilers about the film

Hair Love, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, written by Matthew A. Cherry, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525553366.

Recently when Issa Rae and John Cho announced the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, a title familiar to picture book lovers popped up in the Best Animated Short category: Hair Love. Written by filmmaker/author/former NFL football player Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by the fabulous Vashti Harrison, the book Hair Love delights as a dad comically struggles to help his daughter Zuri achieve the hairstyle she wants with the help an online vlogger. We learn that she wants to look great for her mom who returns home at the end. From where we don’t know. Business trip? A visit to family or friends? High school reunion? Mom wears a scarf over her head. The book struck me as a sweet, cozy father-daughter bonding story. I didn’t notice any sadness bubbling under its colorful, bouncy surface.

I discovered that the short film could be found on YouTube. Of course I was curious to watch it (I would post a link here but I don’t want to violate any copyright laws). Financed in part by a megasuccessful Kickstarter campaign, and released by Sony Animation, the movie played before The Angry Birds 2 feature this past year. I didn’t make the trek to see that film in the theater so I missed Hair Love when it played on the big screen.

I put the film on expecting a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book. Sort of like one of those great animated Weston Woods adaptations that remain faithful to the text while adding some inventive spins to the illustrations. However, I soon discovered that the movie version of Hair Love veers into a surprisingly different direction and has an emotional ending that serves as a punch to the gut (the movie earns its tears honestly).

The movie starts off capturing the book’s funny spirit: little girl wakes up, needs to fix her hair that resists fixing while her cat watches with deadpan expressions. Dad steps in to help, but finds the process, oh, a bit challenging. But those familiar with the book start noticing significant differences from the book. Cherry’s text is gone. Most of the action is wordless, accompanied by sound effects and music cues. We only hear the voice of an online hairstyle vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae) who turns out to be Zuri’s mom. Zuri and dad finally succeed while watching one of the helpful videos. We expect mom to come home at this point, but instead Zuri and father head out to see mom. I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just say, it adds a whole other layer of meaning to the story. When I returned to the book after watching the movie I looked at everything from a new POV thanks to the viewing experience.

I highly recommend both the book and the movie. They complement each other. It’s interesting that the movie does not mention the book (unless I missed the credit). Cherry wrote and co-directed the film. Harrison receives a character designer credit.

The Oscars happen on Sunday, February 9. It would be cool if Cherry gets to take the stage and accept an Oscar for this moving animated short that is also a terrific, affirming picture book.

My favorite 22 middle grade books (fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels) of 2019 (one of them being YA)

A little while back I posted a list of my favorite 30 picture books of 2019. Here’s another list! Whoo hoo! Although this blog primarily celebrates picture books, I sometimes do love to give a shout out to middle grade books (works of fiction, non-fiction, and graphic novels) and occasionally YA. There have been so many excellent titles this past year, from blistering satires to warmly funny comedies, from thought-provoking sci fi/fantasy to heartbreaking realistic fiction. Here are 22 books (listed alphabetically by title) that I loved. I will write a quick sentence or two about each choice.

Because of the Rabbit, written by Cynthia Lord, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545914246.

When library patrons ask me for gentle realistic fiction for 3rd-5th graders, I always recommend Cynthia Lord (especially her Newbery Honor title Rules). Rabbit is one of her very best, a beautiful story about two very different kids becoming friends after they bond over a healing wild bunny.

The Best At It, written by Maulik Pancholy, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062866417.

Actor Pancholy serves up funny, heartfelt middle grade realness with this engaging story about a gay Indian-American boy trying to excel at a variety of extra-curricular activites. Tender hilarity ensues.

Dear Sweet Pea, written by Julie Murphy, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062473073.

This breezy, homespun novel gives readers a plus-size heroine who sneakily steps in for a newspaper advice columnist. A charming story from the talent who gave us the YA novel (and Dolly Parton-fueled Netflix movie) Dumplin’.

A Good Kind of Trouble, written by Lisa Marie Ramée, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062836687.

A riveting novel about a Black girl named Shayla who prides herself on following the rules. Ramée does a beautiful job showing this engaging protagonist becoming a Black Lives Matter activist fighting racial injustice.

I Can Make This Promise, written by Christine Day, published by Heartdrum, ISBN: 978-0062871992.

Many of my favorite 2019 middle grade novels are about identity, and this is one the very best. Edie, a Suquamis/Duwamish girl, wants to learn the truth about her estranged mother and her pursuit for the truth leads to a delicate, quietly devastating ending.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, written by Jason Reynolds, published by Atheneum/Cathy Diouhy Books, ISBN: 978-1481438285.

There’s always a fire in Reynolds’ writing that crackles and pops. This collection of ten interrelated stories sprints from one intriguing scenario to the next, all the while offering surprise after surprise.

Midsummer’s Mayhem, written by Rajani LaRocca, published by Yellow Jacket, ISBN: 978-1499808889.

A fresh, funny food-packed delight that plays with a major (but unresolved) plot point from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and runs with magical notions and ideas of its very own.

New Kid, illustrated and written by Jerry Craft, published by HarperAlley, ISBN: 978-0062691194.

Jerry Craft packs his stingingly funny graphic novel with potent social commentary and visual wit as a Black seventh grader named Jordan encounters racism and microagressions at his posh, mostly white school. And although the book pokes fun at the kinds of superserious books that usually win awards, I hope this one wins a bunch–it explodes with humor and heart.

Other Words for Home, written by Jasmine Warga, published by Balzer + Bray, ISBN: 978-0062747808.

A very moving free verse novel about a girl who needs to leave Syria for the United States. Ultimately hopeful, Warga’s story is a humanist account at its most humane.

Our Castle by the Sea, written by Lucy Strange, published by Chicken House, ISBN: 978-1338353853.

Don’t let the seemingly old-fashioned cover and title fool you, this is a rather rip-roaring World War II drama about a girl named Pet living in a lighthouse. She’s a quiet girl about to tap into her inner-bravery when war turns her world upside down.

Patron Saints of Nothing, written by Randy Ribay, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0525554912.

This YA novel about a Filipino-American teen named Jay wondering what happened to his beloved cousin, murdered in the Philippines, might be my favorite of the year (adult, YA, middle grade). It packs an emotional wallop as Jay struggles with a family mystery and his own searing feelings of guilt.

Pie in the Sky, illustrated and written by Remy Lai, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250314093.

After his father dies, Jingwen moves with his mother and pesky younger brother move from Indonesia to Australia. Remy Lai employs some extremely clever graphic novel flourishes to depict how and why he finds the move and learning a new language a challenge.

Queen of the Sea, illustrated and written by Dylan Meconis, published by Walker, ISBN: 978-1536204988.

Wow, how long did this rich, evocative historical graphic novel take to create? Look at those details, that lettering–this a visual tour de force work of art to explore and investigate.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, written by Dan Gemeinhart, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250196705.

There are a lot of 2019 middle grade novels about grief. But this novel (which has its share of joy and laughs) about a girl endlessly traveling with her father on a former school bus, picking up friendly strangers along the way, is the one that had me wiping the most tears at its heartfelt conclusion.

Some Places More Than Others, written by Renée Watson, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1681191089.

Renée Watson makes creating a realistic, multilayered story about family and identity look so effortless; you never see her sweat and she never wastes a single word. A girl travels from Portland, Oregon to Harlem to find out why her father and grandfather don’t get along, and she learns many lessons (life and about Black culture) along the way.

Spy Runner, written by Eugene Yelchin, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1250120816.

Yelchin’s action novel about 1950s-era paranoia explodes with action and never lets up–it’s like one extended, wildly deranged chase scene. Yelchin masterfully delivers the thrills.

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to the Ruffling Feathers, by Celia C. Pérez, published by Kokila, ISBN: 978-0425290439.

Pérez follows up one of my all-time favorite middle grade novels (The First Rule of Punk) with this enjoyable story of four wildly different outcasts forming a surprising bond and becoming activists as a result. You will cheer them on as they fight for what’s right.

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Fight for School Equality, written by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-1681198521.

This riveting memoir-in-verse creates a visceral you-are-there experience as 12 Black students (including writer Boyce) start attending an integrated school in 1956 Clinton, Tennessee. Excellent backmatter rounds out a searing, powerful account.

This Was Our Pact, illustrated and written by Ryan Andrews, published by First Second, ISBN: 978-1626720534.

A dreamy graphic novel masterpiece about boys hoping to solve a mystery on the night of the Autumn Equinox Festival: where do those paper lanterns go? I could see the great filmmaker Miyazaki turning this into an amazing animated feature–rich, vibrant, and mysterious imagery.

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship,” written by Deborah Heiligman, published by Henry Holt & Co., ISBN: 978-1627795548.

Heiligman spares no punches here with this no-nonsense work of non-fiction, this is one harrowing read. Skillfully researched and presented, this book uncompromisingly shows how this tragic event unfolded.

We’re Not from Here, written by Geoff Rodkey, published by Crown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1524773045.

A blistering social satire that asks the question: what if there are only a handful of us humans left and we need a bunch of bug-like aliens to allow us to stay on their planet in order to survive and they don’t want us because they think humans are, well, horribly destructive? I love how Rodkey celebrates music and lowbrow humor here–this book is hilarious, but each laugh comes with a punch.

Wildfire, written by Rodman Philbrick, published by The Blue Sky Press, ISBN: 978-1338266900.

Like Spy Runner above, this skillfully written burst of adrenaline starts with a bang and does not let up. A boy, a girl, and a very resourceful antique jeep must outrace a raging wildfire in Maine. Philbrick’s creation isn’t just mere thrills though–he touches on the horrors of a too real and prevalent situation.

Quick takes: an eclectic mix of picture book awesomeness: Henry and Bea, Just Because, M Is for Melanin, My Winter City, Please Don’t Eat Me

On this blog I often like to pair up or group together picture books that have common themes or ideas. For this post I am praising five books that do not have much in common thematically, but are simply examples of pure picture book awesomeness.

Henry and Bea, illustrated and written by Jessixa Bagley, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House, ISBN: 9780823442843.

The title characters in this gentle story enjoy a close friendship, can easily call each their BFF. However, Bea becomes confused when Henry becomes distant, not wanting to be around her or others, avoiding conversation. As proven in her rather devastating Boats for Papa, Jessixa Bagley knows how to tackle sad topics with tender finesse. (Her Laundry Day also demonstrates her talent for comic timing.) I don’t want to spoil the plot’s major reveal, why Henry has become so despondent. Bagley does a lovely job creating a sense of mystery, ably conveying Bea’s confusion with her sensitive writing and warm art (rendered in watercolors and pencil on paper). When Henry finally does talk about what has caused him such distress, the book started reminding me of Cori Doerrfeld’s beautiful The Rabbit Listened. Being a good friend means stepping back and giving your pal some emotional space. A sweet, humane book.

Just Because, illustrated by Isabelle Aresenault, written by Mac Barnett, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763696801.

The New York Times/New York Public Library recently released their list of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2019. They included this visually witty and whimsical offering that has a parent providing nonsensical yet oddly soothing and philosophical answers to an inquisitive child at bedtime. The wildly prolific (and altogether fab) Mac Barnett has fun with the responses to such questions as “Why is the ocean blue?” The father’s response: “Every night, when you go to sleep, the fish take out guitars. They sing sad songs and cry blue tears.” The gifted Isabelle Aresenault takes these queries and runs with them: providing digitally assembled illustrations done in gouache, pencil, and watercolor that sing with surreal delight. The illustrations feel both retro and modern. The dialogue is presented in perfect circles, each a bold color. It all leads to the kid bombarding her grown-up with an avalanche of questions and the tired dad providing an answer that is both comical and perfect. A charming bedtime story for deep thinking children…which means, of course, all children.

M Is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child, illustrated and written by Tiffany Rose, published by little bee books, ISBN: 978-1499809169.

This joyous alphabet book celebrates black children with each letter offering an upbeat and inspirational message for young readers underrepresented in children’s books. One beautiful example: “C is for creative. Paint the canvas of life with the colors of the rainbow. Sprinkle your BLACK GIRL MAGIC and BLACK BOY JOY on the world.” The vibrant art pops off the page. Each hand-drawn capital letter beautifully captures the spirit of the text accompanying it. Paris-based illustrator Tiffany Rose says in her author’s bio that as a child she did not see herself in the books she loved. Her dynamic book will be cherished and embraced.

My Winter City, illustrated by Gary Clement, written by James Gladstone, published by Groundwood, ISBN: 978-1773060101.

This cozy, loving (slush and all) ode to experiencing winter in the city offers panoramic watercolors from award-winning Toronto-based illustrator Gary Clement and evocative text from James Gladstone (also from Toronto). The book’s large dimensions suit the epic, beautifully rendered urban landscapes. Packed with memorable images of snow-covered streets, crowded sidewalks and buses, thrilling sledding hills, and sites that look absolutely perfect when surrounded by snowflakes. My favorite moment: the overhead shot accompanied by the words: “My winter city is a wilderness of footprints,/crisscrossing,/disappearing…Who walked here before?” Thoughtful and lovely, more proof that there is a truly exciting Canadian picture book new wave going on.


Please Don’t Eat Me, illustrated and written by Liz Climo, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316315258.

This twisted deadpan delight presents the funny cartoon bubble interactions between a hungry bear and a bunny who, well, does not want to become the predator’s next meal. I love the way Climo keeps surprising the reader from page to page. The dialogue is hilarious, especially rabbit’s reactions to the perilous situation (example, in bear’s mouth, pretending to be devoured prey: “Oh…no. I am being eaten. What a bummer. Ouch”).The best humorous picture books nail their landings, and this one certainly does. We think Climo is serving up an impossibly sweet moment enclosed in a heart-shaped bear hug, but nope, the danger remains.