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.

Picture books of the day: felines rule in six terrific new picture books

As we all know, cats are everywhere. In memes. In viral videos. Soon a bunch of award-winning actors will sing jellicle songs while dressed as jellicle cats on the big screen. And yes, cats often star in delightful picture books that celebrate their cat nature, their cat-tidude if you will. Six new titles featuring our beloved (even when they are completely indifferent to us) furry friends recently caught my eye. Some silly, one surprisingly moving. One cat helps the book’s human heroine make the perfect bao, while another causes mischief in a bodega. They purr, nap, meow, cuddle, (or in one case haunt) and have to put up with us humans who sometimes mistake them for dogs. All of these would make perfect additions to cat-themed storytimes.

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, illustrated by Charlene Chua, written by Kat Zhang, published by Aladdin, ISBN: 978-1534411333.

I mentioned before that I am considering having a blog post where I give out end-of-the-year awards such as Favorite Ensemble Cast in a Picture Book, Favorite Funny Picture Book, Favorite Lead Character, and so on. In the category of Favorite Animal Sidekick I would easily choose the little white cat that co-stars in this sweet, beautifully illustrated romp. The human girl Amy Wu wants to make bao that rivals the rest of her family’s exquisitely yummy creations, but keeps failing. Soon she comes up with a way to her fix her problem and triumphs (although her bao is not-so-perfect). This book works on so many levels. Kat Zhang’s lively text begs to be read aloud. Readers learn about making the food, too. It’s an intergenerational story about family, tradition, and perseverance. Charlene Chua’s colorful digital illustrations bubble with warmth. I love Amy’s expressions, especially when eyeing that perfect bao on the title page, and looking panicked when her latest attempt at culinary perfection has gone wrong. Throughout Amy’s pet cat watches each attempt with looks of comical concern and apprehension. (Or hungry happiness when a piece of bao falls on the floor.) The cat’s reactions build on Amy’s emotions on most pages (the cat is missing from one spread). At the very end (before the bao recipe in the backmatter) it’s the cat who waves goodbye to us.

Bad Dog, illustrated and written by Mike Boldt, published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1984847973.

When opening this goofy gem, readers will first notice a birthday list that says “My birthday list: 1. Dog” and that’s it. There’s no second gift request listed. The little girl wants a dog. Period. So she seems to be in a state of denial about who just popped out of the birthday box. Her bad dog Rocky with her “black-and-white fur./Pointy ears./And a cute little nose” is, in actuality, a cat who behaves most definitely like a cat, never like a dog. And yet the girl keeps trying in vain to have Rocky act like a dog. But going for a walk proves fruitless (Rocky lies on her back and plays with the leash), and attempts to have her meet other dogs results in her racing and hiding up a tree. Illustrator/author Mike Boldt takes this case of mistaken identity (or just plain stubbornness on the kid’s part) and runs with it, serving up amusing illustrations that have the incredulous cat putting up with the hopeful child (love her grin with the two missing front teeth). Boldt is brilliant at comical facial expressions and body language. The story emerges as a fun exploration of what makes a cat a cat. Also it touches on adjusting expectations–about letting others be themselves.

Blue Spot, illustrated and written by Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay, published by Disney Press, ISBN: 978-1368024594.

Daisy comes home with a blue spot on her dress, and Mama asks what caused this to happen. This results in Daisy spinning a story that becomes wilder and wilder: Daisy dodges raining blueberries, walks on stilts over blueberry jam puddles, climbs a mountain of blue ice cream, comforts a crying monster who used to live in the now melted ice cream mountain, and so on. I read this to a bunch of preschool classes and the kids loved giggling at the embellishments and exaggerated nature of Daisy’s rollicking tale. I love reading the next new development and then looking at the kids with a surprised look on my face. Illustrator/writer Griselda Sastrawinata-Lemay’s art has a zippy, crisp charm to it, and her text knows how to set up the next jubilant page turn. It’s a delight.

Bodega Cat, illustrated and written by Louie Chin, published by POW!, ISBN: 978-1576879320.

Chip is one cool cat. Chip rules over a bodega in New York City and explains how this is indeed the Good Life, the best life ever. Illustrator/writer Louie Chin’s dynamic celebration of these ultrarad felines bubbles with enthusiasm and visual wit. The best moments have Chip bragging about being an epic asset to the bodega while the illustrations show the cat causing trouble (knocking a toilet paper roll on a customer’s head, sitting on the scale and causing the price to go up). Chin also excels with his depictions of the humans as well. The diverse characters popping up in Chip’s bustling neighborhood all make an impression, especially Chip’s human brother Damian who likes to play superhero with the cat. Adding to the book’s hipster charm: its squarish dimensions make it feel like a vinyl record jacket. Bursting with colors and energy, this tribute to the city Chin loves and the cats who make it special has universal appeal.

Everybody Says Meow, illustrated and written by Constance Lombardo, published by Harper, ISBN: 978-0062689887.

Some books feel naturally created for interactive preschool storytimes, and illustrator/writer Constance Lombardo’s latest title certainly is one. Will children enjoy making the animal noises in this? You bet they will. And will they laugh at the silliness of it all? Definitely. And will the final two punchlines (a loud animal noise followed by the reveal of how big that seemingly fierce creature actually is) surprise them? Most likely. A gray cat starts off the action, looking directly at the action, announcing “Welcome to that magical time when everybody says ‘Meow!” Ready?” Three other multi-colored cats yell “Meow!” while a yellow kitty naps, but a dog botches up the moment by popping in to say “Woof” at an inopportune moment. The distraught gray cat argues with the pooch, begging the creature to say “meow” to no avail. And then a frog and duck come along to further complicate things. Lombardo’s pen, ink, and watercolor drawings have an innocent, child-like charm to them. She has a talent for comic timing and knows how to get young audiences involved, and makes it all seem so effortless. (And I like that one last joke on the back cover that only makes sense as a joke after you have read the story. Keep your eye on the aforementioned yellow cat.)

 

Ghost Cat, illustrated and written by Kevan Atteberry, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442836.

And finally on a bittersweet melancholy note, there is illustrator/writer Kevan Atteberry’s story of a child haunted by the titular character. The kid tells of their experiences sensing the presence of the cat who has (recently?) passed away. What starts off as a slightly spooky tale of the child seeing glimpses of and hearing noises made by the deceased feline turns into a poignant account of loss. I love how Atteberry gives the ghost cat an otherworldly glow, an ability to zip in and out of the frame. The cat even starts acting a tad like a poltergeist, knocking over books, dishes, and plants, in an effort to lead the child from room to room and to the front door where a kitten in need of a new home awaits. Without resorting to maudlin sentimentality, Atteberry creates a moving story about the everlasting connection between humans and their beloved pets.

Picture books of the day: two gorgeous CaldeNotts explore nature and connections with great sensitivity

Birdsong, illustrated and written by Julie Flett, published by Greystone Kids, ISBN: 978-1771644730.

Song of the River, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews, written by Joy Cowley, Gecko Press, ISBN: 978-1776572533.

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, you can start hearing the book buzz about year-end best of lists and awards talk. Many in the children’s books world are taking part in Mock Caldecott programs or leading young students through discussions about possible Caldecott winners. And part of this discussion brings up the melancholy reality that some beautifully illustrated books won’t be eligible. People dub them “CaldeNotts.” In order to be eligible for a Caldecott, the illustrator must have some kind of residency tie to the United States. I, like many librarians and/or teachers and/or picture book fans, have encountered a breathtakingly well-illustrated title and say “ooh, hope the Caldecott committee notices this one” only to go “d’oh!” when I read the artist’s bio. Now many of these illustrators are eligible for other awards in their home countries. For example, the great Canadian illustrator Julie Flett (illustrator/author of Birdsong and another 2019 beaut The Girl and the Wolf, the latter written by Katherena Vermette) won Canada’s 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for When We Were Alone (written by David Robertson) and is the three time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award (for residents of British Colombia or Yukon).

Birdsong is a book of quiet beauty and humane heartbreak. A rather sensitive, introverted Cree girl moves with her mother to a new country home. This child takes in and notices the nature surrounding her: the trees, the field covered with snowdrops, the peeps and ribbits of outside creatures. Her dog Ôhô (meaning owl in Cree) by her side, she befriends an elderly next door neighbor named Agnes. As the seasons change, the two spend quality time together in places such as Agnes’ garden and art studio where she works on a round, bright pot. The two bond while talking about waxing and waning moons. The girl tells Agnes about the Cree seasons. As winter turns into spring, Agnes’ health deteriorates and the girl cheers the now-bedridden woman up with a beautiful present: drawings she has made of birds. Flett’s art (rendered in pastel and pencil, and composited digitally) matches her evocative, moody text with great clarity. Each illustration conveys emotion without feeling treacly: the sadness of moving, the serene wonder of country living, the warm connection between the girl and Agnes, the tenderness of the girl’s gift, the sorrow of losing a friend. Flett knows when to employ a double page spread or white space for maximum visual impact. Her use of color (greens, browns, light blues, and so on) reflects the season she depicts. Every image feels tender and poetic.

Birdsong makes a good companion with Song of the River from New Zealand. The copyright date says the author Joy Cowley wrote the book in 1994. However, Kimberly Andrews’ eye-popping illustrations are from 2019. I could see Cam, the young mountain boy starring in Song, becoming good friends with the young girl from Birdsong. They both seem like quiet souls who take stock in the natural world and wonder about life’s bigger questions. Song starts with Cam hanging out with his grandfather and telling his elder that he wishes he could “see the sea.” The grandfather replies that one day this wish will be fulfilled; they will go out together. Just when the reader expects the two to make a journey to the sea together, Cowley throws a curve at the reader. This becomes a solo adventure with the boy noticing and then following a trickle of water running through pine trees. The water speaks to the lad, instructing him to “Come with me. Come with me. I will take you to the sea.” The boy does so, and the trickle leads to other trickles, and then a waterfall, and a creek, a stream, a river, all the way to the sea. The world becomes more crowded as Cam journeys. Robertson’s art here shimmers and shines. She serves up misty shadowy images, depicts light reflecting in the water, plunges under a river to show us some frogs with sun rays breaking the surface. She excels at capturing the shifts not only in the physical landscapes but those going on inside Cam’s mind. The book is both an exterior and interior journey. And it’s simply spellbinding.

 

Picture book of the day: celebrating The Shortest Day

The Shortest Day, illustrated by Carson Ellis, written by Susan Cooper, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763686987. 

In 1974, Newbery medalist Susan Cooper (The Grey King) wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day” for John Langstaff’s theatrical piece Christmas Revels. And now 45 years later, Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis (Du Iz Tak?) creates mysterious, mesmerizing, and ultimately warm images to accompany Cooper’s intriguing words. Cooper’s words and Ellis’ illustrations connect the past to the present in the most creative of ways.

It’s interesting to note that a book based on a poem starts with a series of wordless spreads. At the very start, Ellis presents a giant mythic-appearing figure with a sun for a head, using a walking stick, ambling across the landscape. She shows two people from a faraway past sitting next to a crackling fire as the sun-headed figure approaches, looking exhausted. It’s amazing how much emotion this character conveys through body language and with no discernible facial expressions. As the sun disappears, we see people (most likely farmers) gathering wood. You can feel the chill radiating from Ellis’ gouache folk-style paintings. The shadows of birds. Snow covers the landscape.

When Cooper’s poem begins, the effect is powerful. “So the shortest day came,” she writes on a spread that shows one last glimpse of sunlight. A flip of the page and we now see houses plunged into darkness; candlelight seen in windows the only light. Suddenly jubilant people emerge from a house carrying torches, candles, holly, and musical instruments. Cooper writes “And everywhere down the centuries/of the snow-white world/Came people singing, dancing,/To drive the dark away.” The book continues to chronicle  the ritual and contains a beautiful image of the merrymakers in a circle while unusual spectral visions dance in the sky.

Another moment I love in the book is when Cooper and Ellis transition us to the present. There’s a page with three kids from the past heading towards the now-risen sun. A flip of the page and suddenly Cooper and Ellis transport us to the modern world with a trio of contemporary children in a similar position heading towards a house. These young ones join together for a celebration reminiscent of the days of old. Just look at the happiness Ellis captures here with her distinct art. Her work beautifully echoes Cooper’s message wishing readers a Happy Yule.

The Shortest Day is a yuletide treat: idiosyncratic perhaps (in a great way), but also very human and warmly moving.

Picture books of the day: My Footprints, The Piano Recital, and Sweep capture the inner-workings of their protagonists’ minds

My Footprints, illustrated by Basia Tran, written by Bao Phi, published by Capstone Editions, ISBN: 978-1684460007.

The Piano Recital, illustrated and written by Akiko Miyakoshi, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN: 978-1525302572.

Sweep, illustrated by Júlia Sardà, written by Louise Grieg, published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534439085.

As I have written before, one of the things I enjoy most about keeping up a regular blog is finding picture books with similar themes or ideas. They may seem completely different from one another at first glance, but then with deeper exploration, connections and similarities appear. This visually engaging trio of books share a common trait: all three use vivid, often surreal imagery to show what’s going on inside their child protagonists’ heads. All three children are experiencing intense emotions. Fear and anxiety. Anger. And/or frustration. However, the creative talents behind each offering manage to keep the stories playful and surprisingly light, and serve up happy reassuring endings.

Akiko Miyakoshi’s The Piano Recital emerges as probably the funniest book of the bunch, but one that still simmers with discomfort as it tackles a common fear: public performance. First published in Japan in 2012, this exquisitely rendered (in pencil, charcoal, and acrylic gouache–the colors pop off the page) tale depicts a girl named Momo preparing for a concert. And she is beyond nervous. As Momo psyches herself up with an “I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay,” she suddenly hears a squeaking voice echoing her words. She looks down and sees an elegantly dressed mouseling also preparing for a recital…in a little mouse world. The mouse invites Momo to watch the entire talent show, and we follow her and become a spectator to quite an enthralling show. Miyakoshi’s books all have a dream logic to them. They’re cute on one level, but they always strike me as odd and off-kilter (in a great way). This keeps them from being too overly sweet. Although the antics of the mice are cute, they also have a weirdness to them that feels disorienting. This is also apparent in her masterpiece The Way Home in the Night that made me think of David Lynch’s surreal rabbits. Did Momo imagine the mice to help her push through the performance? It’s a mystery. But a satisfying, triumphant one.

Many past picture books have used vibrant imagery to capture a child’s anger. The striking Sweep effectively uses the motif of swirling, whirling leaves tossed about in a raging storm to represent a boy named Ed’s foul mood. Writer Louise Grieg wastes no time giving us a rundown of what’s up. On the very first page she writes “Ed in a good mood is a very nice Ed. Ed in a bad mood is not. And Ed was in a bad mood.” The immensely gifted illustrator Júlia Sardà shows him on a blank white page wearing a hat and scarf covering his nose and mouth blowing in the wind. His eyes, under raging eyebrows, glare at the leaves on the opposing page. The broom he carries is immense and ready to get a workout. Although his bad day starts off as something small, the sour feelings grow and accumulate, and soon Ed is sweeping everyone and everything around him up, infecting them with his angry outburst. The text and digitally created imagery combine to create quite a spectacle. When Ed finally calms down and starts seeing the good in his world, the reader feels a sense of sweet relief.

My Footprints has so many things going on it, so many layers, that a mere capsule review cannot do it justice. Written by the celebrated poet Bao Phi (who penned the 2018 Caldecott Honor winner A Different Pond) with gorgeous empathy, the story revolves around a child picked on for being Asian, for having two moms, and for being a girl. In an afterword, Phi talks about how he worries about how bullying or erasure might affect his daughter. So with My Footprints he shows the harmful effects two bullies have on Thuy, but then shows how she, with her parents’ love, rise above everything with their unified imagination. Living in a wintry environment, and clad in a cat hat, Thuy interacts with common everyday animals (a bird, a cat) and makes animal-like tracks in the snow. Then Thuy starts imagining herself as giant creatures such as polar bears. After an explosion of frustration, the parents comfort her. In a beautiful touch, Thuy and her moms start making footprints together of more mythical beings. This all leads to Thuy creating her own unique imaginary species, called Arti-Thuy-Ngoc-osaurus (in honor of all of their names). Basia Tran’s art sings and dances across the page throughout. I love the facial expressions of the characters and her renderings of the creatures. The result is a book that offers a series of memorable images, the warmth of a family’s bond radiating with beauty and grace.

Storytime Success Stories: A trio of charmers (As Warm As the Sun, Astro Girl, and Mr. Scruff) win over the storytime crowd

As Warm as the Sun, created by Kate and Jim McMullan, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443277.

Astro Girl, illustrated and written by Ken Wilson-Max, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536209464.

Mr. Scruff, illustrated and written by Simon James, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536209358.

Every month I visit a group of preschool classes packed with the most amazing kids. They love to laugh and listen to brand new books. It’s fun trying out stories that I have not read to anyone on them. Recently they responded quite favorably to three books: Ken Wilson-Max’s lovely Astro Girl, the McMullans’ new sibling allegory As Warm as the Sun, and Simon James’ verbally witty Mr. Scruff. This lively trio surprised them with their twists and spoke to them. Creating picture books with warm, inviting illustrations that show well across a room and succinct text that engage while tap into a wide range of emotions is definitely a challenge. And all three of these books emerge as terrific examples of seemingly effortless picture book success stories.

Astro Girl introduces readers to a child who loves all things outer space. Her name is Astrid after all. She dresses like an astronaut on the cover (and the title page). The story begins with her using a small telescope to study the night-time sky. Wilson-Max’s charming acrylic paintings practically give the reader a hug. Astrid tells her pal Jakey that she wants to be an astronaut, and he responds by asking her to bring home an asteroid. Her response “Of course I will, Jakey” is beyond cute. The story then captures a sweet conversation between Astrid and her father. When she announces her plans to become an astronaut, Papa tells her she must be prepared to spin round and round the earth, get used to zero gravity, and other elements of the job. Joyful play accompanies each parental instruction: he spins and tosses her in the air, they make rocket-shaped cookies, and cuddle under a starry blanket. The book soars to another level when Wilson-Max delivers a final surprise. Astrid and her dad head off to pick up their mom at work. And guess what she does for a living? Kids listening to the story just love this ending.

For As Warm as the Sun, Kate and Jim McMullan take a break from their justly acclaimed and popular vehicle series (titles such as I’m Dirty! and I’m Fast!) for a tender story about an older dog trapped in an existential crisis when a younger pooch comes along. The McMullans’ evocative watercolors deftly convey the warmth this elder canine, named Toby, feels when lying in a sun puddle on the livingroom floor. Toby also enjoys the warmth of a child’s lap and cozying near a crackling fire. The book then takes a melancholy turn when the McMullans write about how the sun fades, the lap disappears, and the fire fizzles out, and how Toby must stay warm in his dreams. Drama ensues when a younger, littler dog named Pinkie appears and Toby finds himself vying for the warmth. Many books have covered this topic (new siblings, change, appearance of a new individual who steals focus), but there’s something special about the way the McMullans tap into the emotional angst. The writing crackles, and they are not afraid to go chilly sad with Toby’s dilemma. Thankfully an anticipated happy ending comes, with the regretful Pinkie making amends with Toby. Children love seeing the two dogs become friends at the every end.

The invaluable Simon James loves writing about inter-connectedness between individuals around different locales. His books sparkle with a curiosity about others. His bouncy ink and watercolor illustrations always delight. His latest, Mr. Scruff, starts off as a seemingly simple book about dogs belonging to certain dog owners, and how an older dog named Mr. Scruff seems destined to live forever in a shelter. But James has a blast playing with words and rhymes in the book, and this trickery adds an extra element of fun. Before we meet the titular character, James introduces us to a poodle named Polly who (turn the page) belongs to Molly, and a dachshund named Eric who (turn the page) belongs to Derek, and so on. Mr. Scruff, we learn, sadly belongs to no one. And so it goes. Luckily a child comes along who, despite being younger and smaller than Mr. Scruff, wants to adapt the dog. And the child’s name…well, it doesn’t rhyme with Mr. Scruff. But it’s a perfect match anyway. James then introduces another shelter dog, this time a puppy, who ends up paired with an elderly man. James pulls off a surprise ending involving the names of the puppy and this elderly owner that had the kids in my storytime giggling…the off-kilter nature of the rhymes boggling their minds.