My favorite 32 non-fiction picture books of the decade (2010-2019)

Last week I presented my list of 52 favorite fiction picture books of the decade. And now here are my 32 favorite non-fiction picture books released from 2010 to 2019, alphabetical by title. For this list I gave myself a rule: each author and illustrator could only have one spot. I did this to spread the wealth and celebrate a variety of styles. (Note: the terrific Kwame Alexander IS on here twice, but that is because the beautiful and gorgeous Out of Wonder includes work from other poets as well.) Creating non-fiction picture books for a young audience is a challenge. This amazing group of 32 books are prime examples of picture book creation at its very best.

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachin Spring, illustrated by Brian Floca, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordon, published by Flash Point, ISBN: 978-1596433380.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Day Parade, illustrated and written by Melissa Sweet, published by HMH Books for Children, ISBN: 978-0547199450.

The Beetle Book, illustrated and written by Steve Jenkins, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0547680842.

Bird & Diz, illustrated by Ed Young, written by Gary Golio, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763666606.

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours, illustrated and written by Duncan Tonatiuh, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-0810997318.

Dreamers, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, ISBN: 978-0823440559.

Soñadores (Spanish edition): 978-0823442584.

Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, illustrated and written by Christy Hale, published by Lee & Low, ISBN: 978-1600606519.

Drum Dream Girl, illustrated by Rafael López, written by Margarita Engle, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0544102293.

Freedom in Congo Square, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by little bee, ISBN: 978-1499801033.

Gravity, illustrated and written by Jason Chin, published by Roaring Brook Press, ISBN: 978-1596437173.

In The Past, illustrated by Matthew Trueman, poems by David Elliott, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763660734.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1600608988.

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, illustrated by Júlia Sarda, written by Linda Bailey, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-1770495593.

Me…Jane, illustrated and written by Patrick McDonnell, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316045469.

Music Everywhere!, written by Maya Ajmera, Elise Hofer Derstine, and Cynthia Pon, published by Charlesbridge, ISBN: 978-1570919367.

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, written by Barb Rosenstock, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-0307978486. 

Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability, written by Shane Burcaw, photographs by Matt Carr, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626727717.

Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, written by Cheryl Bardoe, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316278201.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN:  978-0-7636-8094-7.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico, created by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1620140048.

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Barry Wittenstein, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443314.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, illustrated and written by Javaka Steptoe, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316213882.

Raindrops Roll, photography and text by April Pulley Sayre, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN: 978-1481420648.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to the Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel, written by Bethany Hegedus (with a foreword by Colin Johnson), published by Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 978-1620145876.

Seeing Into Tomorrow, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews, haiku by Richard Wright, published by Millbrook Press, ISBN: 978-1512418651.

Snakes, photos and text by Nic Bishop, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545206389.

Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, published by ABRAMS, 978-1419714658.

The Truth About Bears, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726666.

The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, poem by Kwame Alexander, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328780966.

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom, illustrated and written by Shane W. Evans, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1596435384.

What Miss Mitchell Saw, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Hayley Barrett, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN: 978-1481487597.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, written by Laban Carrick Hill, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1596435407.

 

My favorite 52 fiction picture books of the decade (2010-2019)

Wow, what a fabulous decade for picture books! I now present an alphabetical (by title) list of my favorite 52 FICTION (I will have a list of 32 favorite non-fiction picture books next week) from 2010 to 2019. A rule I made myself though: only one book per illustrator on this fiction list (in a quest for a mix of artistic styles). These fantastic, fabulous, all around terrific group of books kept me on my toes and kept surprising me. I see something new every time I look at them. Thank you to the illustrators, authors, designers, editors, publishers and production teams for this absolutely brilliant 52.

Accident!, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN:  978-0544944800.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, illustrated and written by Dan Santat, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316199988.

All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, written by Margarita Engle, published by Henry Holt and Co., ISBN: 978-1-62779-642-2.

Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693558.

Spanish edition: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693589.

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, illustrated and written by Eric Carle, published by World of Eric Carle, ISBN: 978-0399257131.

Big Cat, little cat, illustrated and written by Elisha Cooper, published by Roaring Brook, IBSN:  978-162672-3719.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316404488.

Blackout, illustrated and written by John Rocco, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1423121909.

blue, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, ISBN: 978-1626720664.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243.

Daniel’s Good Day, illustrated and written by Micha Archer, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0399546723.

Draw!, illustrated and written by Raúl Colón, published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, ISBN: 978-1442494923.

Du Iz Tak?, illustrated and written by Carson Ellis, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763665302.

Each Kindness, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, written by Jacqueline Woodson, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0399246524.

Egg, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN:  9780062408723.

The Field, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, written by Baptiste Paul, published by North South, ISBN: 978-0735843127.

Finders Keepers, illustrated and written by Keiko Kasza, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0399168987.

Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers, written by Misty Copeland, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0399166150.

Flora and the Flamingo, illustrated by Molly Idle, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452110066.

Grandma’s Gift, illustrated and written by Eric Velasquez, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN: 978-0802735362.

Hank Finds an Egg, created by Rebecca Dudley, published by Peter Pauper Press, ISBN: 978-1441311580.

If I Built a House, illustrated and written by Chris Van Dusen, published by Dial, ISBN: 978-0803737518.

Interrupting Chicken, illustrated and written by David Ezra Stein, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763641689.

It’s a Tiger!, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard, written by David LaRochelle, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-0811869256.

It’s Only Stanley, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, published by Dial Books, ISBN: 978-0803739079.

Leave Me Alone!, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by Roaring Brook Press, ISBN: 978-1626724419.

Mango, Abuela, and Me, illustrated by Angela Dominguez, written by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763669003.

Spanish edition: Mango, Abuela y Yo, ISBN: 978-0763680992 (paperback).

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, illustrated and written by Peter Brown, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316200639.

Mr. Wuffles, illustrated and written by David Wiesner, published by Clarion, ISBN: 978-0618756612.

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

My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña, written by Isabel Quintero, published by Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC), ISBN: 978-0525553410.

Spanish edition: Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto, ISBN: 978-0525554943.

Nana in the City, illustrated and written by Lauren Castillo, published by Clarion, ISBN: 978-0544104433.

The Night World, illustrated and written by Mordicai Gerstein, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316188227.

Niño Wrestles the World, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1596436046.

Ocean Meets Sky, illustrated and written by The Fan Brothers, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481470377.

The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van Thahn Rudd, written by Maxine Beneba Clarke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536200317.

Pokko and the Drum, illustrated and written by Matthew Forsythe, published by Simon & Schuster (A Paula Wiseman Book), ISBN: 978-1481480399.

Princess Super Kitty, illustrated and written by Antoinette Portis, published by HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0061827259.

The Rabbit Listened, illustrated and written by Cori Doerrfeld, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0735229358.

The Ring Bearer, illustrated and written by Floyd Cooper, published by Philomel (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN:  978-0399167409.

Round Is a Tortilla: A Book About Shapes, illustrated by John Parra, written by Roseanne Thong, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452106168.

Saturday, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431279.

They All Saw a Cat, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452150130.

They Say Blue, illustrated and written by Jillian Tamaki, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728518.

This Is Not My Hat, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763655990.

Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books, ISBN:  978-1554988716.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328557261.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar, illustrated and written by Ross Burach, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338289411.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1368003551.

When Aidan Became a Brother, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, written by Kyle Lukoff, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1620148372.

When’s My Birthday?, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626722934.

Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends,  978-1250076366. 

 

 

My favorite 30 picture books of 2019 (alphabetical by title)…with honorable mentions, too!

What a great picture book year this was. I looked at hundreds and enjoyed so many. Here are my 30 favorites in alphabetical order by title:

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.

B Is for Baby, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, written by Atinuke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536201666.

The Nigerian-born author of the Anna Hibiscus early chapter book series serves up a bright, bustling baby-eye view of a bouncy trek to Baba’s bungalow. Brooksbank’s beautiful illustrations complement a buoyant storytime-friendly romp that bursts with “B” sounds. Since I wrote my too brief review a few months back this has become a storytime favorite. The groups love watching the baby hide in the oblivious older brother’s bicycle basket as he pedals to see Baba. Although the title suggests that babies and/or toddlers would be the best audience for this story, older preschoolers love this joyous, funny trek especially when the baby surprises Baba and older brother at the end.

Bear Came Along, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, written by Richard T. Morris, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316464475.

I love hearing the wows when I read Bear Came Along to preschool groups. This colorful and broadly funny romp stars a bunch of animals who end up sharing a wild trek on a log down a bendy, twisty river. Author Richard T. Morris serves up a delightful cause and effect approach when telling the tale. Illustrator LeUyen Pham gives readers thrilling POVs of their turbulent journey–look at those blue waves in the river, the animals’ expressions (some bubbling with excitement, others with extreme worry) as they struggle to control the log, the way the trees on the side seem to be bending out of control. What makes the children go “wow” is an incredible moment involving a waterfall halfway through the book. Thrilling.

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

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. With 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. 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.

The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs, illustrated and written by Fiona Robinson, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419725517.

Fiona Robinson’s The Bluest of Blues won me over the second I held the beautifully designed book in my hand. The book’s tall dimensions, the care put into the cover showcasing Robinson’s striking art. So inviting. Whisking readers back to the early 19th century, the account introduces readers to Anna Atkins who has a loving bond with her scientist father who includes her while studying everything from botany to entomology, from chemistry to zoology. He wants her to have a great education in a time when society did not encourage girls to attend school. Robinson’s use of the present tense adds an urgency to the prose, and gives young readers a “you are there” feeling. The color blue dominates each spread, and it’s remarkable how much visual interest she brings to each illustration.

Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-0544959002.

Creating a picture book for young readers with a message can be tricky business. The very best appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. Deftly capture how a situation is unfair and unjust and the author has cleared the first hurdle. That’s the brilliance of Tsurumi’s latest, Crab Cake: Turning the Tide Together, her follow-up to the rollicking slapstick-packed delight Accident!. The gifted illustrator/author introduces the reader to a wondrous world under the sea, deep in the ocean where the creatures exist (mostly) peacefully (there is still the threat of being munched on). Suddenly a catastrophe happens with the humans above dumping disgusting garbage into their habitat. Tsurumi does a brilliant job with color here, juxtaposing the brightness of the early scenes (love the vibrant coral) with the sudden darkness after the waste invasion. The animals decide on a plan to get back at the humans, and what I love about it: it’s absolutely fair. Seriously people, you can have your garbage BACK!

Daniel’s Good Day, illustrated and written by Micha Archer, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-0399546723.

What is your idea of a good day? Daniel, the inquisitive hero of the terrific 2016 charmer Daniel Writes a Poem, asks a variety of people this very question after being wished a good day. As expected, the responses vary from individual to individual, giving Daniel (and young readers/listeners) a broader sense of the human experience in the process. Every answer Daniel hears bubbles with optimism and happiness. Archer lovingly creates a warm, colorful urban environment with her collages and innovative art. As Daniel makes an urban trek to see his grandmother, each spread creates a welcoming vibe. The illustrations show beautifully across the room for large groups, but also would work well one on one thanks to intricate details that invite investigation.

Field Trip to the Moon, illustrated and conceived by John Hare, published by Margaret Ferguson Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442539.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 expedition to the Moon. There are a number of non-fiction books about the topic planned for 2019. And there’s also the whimsical fictional picture book Field Trip to the Moon, which makes a great companion piece to Jon Agee’s hilarious It’s Only Stanley and Life on Mars.  Field Trip is both melancholy and magical, serving up a possibly nightmare situation (a girl left behind on the moon) but then making the scenario wondrous and funny. Hare effectively employs graphic novel style panels and does wonders with the shadows and the colors black and sandy gray-–the art has a cool dusty 3D look.

Fly!, illustrated and written by Mark Teague, published by Beach Lane Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534451285.

Mark Teague’s Fly! has instantly become one of my favorite wordless books of all time. Well, okay, if you’re a bird, this book probably isn’t wordless. The baby bird and the parent do speak to each other in their own language. In each speech bubble, Teague puts in one of his masterful acrylic paintings illustrating what the characters are saying. The book depicts a charming, visually witty, and hilarious give and take between a stubborn child and an increasingly frustrated parent who feels the time has come for the little one to get out of that nest and fledge already. After the little one falls to the ground, the conversation becomes funnier and funnier with baby bird coming up with all kinds of outlandish excuses not to flap those wings.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Kevin Noble Maillard, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626727465.

Fry Bread starts off as a seemingly simple and direct look at how the food is made. Writer Kevin Noble Maillard (a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band) serves up a bouncy text as each double page spread zeroes in on a specific aspect of fry bread: its ingredients, its shape, the sound it makes when cooking, its color, and so on. Then as the book progresses Maillard starts showing how fry bread unites people at “Supper or dinner/Powwows and festivals.” What takes this book to an even higher level is the extensive backmatter.  Meanwhile, illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal delights with her playful art. She is one of the most unique picture book artists working today–her round figures look like no one else’s.

The Full House and the Empty House, illustrated and written by LK James, published by Ripple Grove Press, ISBN: 978-0999024935.

As soon as I started paging through this delightful, quirky, and surprisingly poignant work I knew I wanted to write it about here on this humble blog. For this book serves up a sense of mystery as it shows the titular characters (strikingly rendered in hand-drawn ink and edited digitally) frolicking and playing together. Why is the turquoise house empty and the red house full? Who lives in them? Where did those who once lived in the turquoise house go? Or is the dweller existing inside of the turquoise house simply leading a simple life with few possessions? Is this an allegory about a friendship that defies class differences? There is so much to ponder here. But even more importantly, this title satisfies as a rather sweet friendship story about celebrating differences. James creates a unique world all her own here. It really helps that, thanks to succinct words and especially her gorgeous imagery, she makes the concept clear and easy to follow.

Going Down Home with Daddy, illustrated by Daniel Minter, written by Kelly Starling Lyons, published by Peachtree, ISBN: 978-1561459384.

Kelly Starling Lyons’ evocative, empathetic prose is a poignant delight to read, filled with details that capture the closeness and love that the relatives feel for one another. All the children will do something special for Granny: recite a poem, sing a song. The drama at the heart of the story revolves around the protagonist’s fear that he won’t have anything to offer. He can feel the stage fright weighing down on him. Yet something magical happens: after Lil Alan hears about his ancestors, about his dad’s own past nervousness during a similar occasion, everything clicks and he delivers a moving tribute. Daniel Minter’s paintings, done in an acrylic wash, add to the book’s power. Experimental and unique, his art captures the haziness of a warm summer day, of a beloved memory. Yellows, earth tones, swirls, dusty textures all take us to that farm where Granny lives, feeding her stylized chickens.

The Happy Book and other feelings, illustrated and written by Andy Rash, published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN: 978-0451471253.

I have enjoyed Andy Rash’s previous books, but nothing prepared me for the exuberant tour de force that is his latest, The Happy Book and other feelings. With the same wit and visual inventiveness of another effective look at emotions, Pixar’s modern animated classic Inside Out, Rash examines the ever-changing landscape of feelings and moods. Don’t let the inviting, bright, jubilant cover deceive you; this book ends up being a wild roller coaster ride. The clever illustrator/author covers a lot of ground here as he serves up a book within a book within a book within a book within a book, changing up the color palette with each twist and each shift in mood. And along the way he delights with shameless (the best kind) puns and wacky whimsy.

The King of Kindergarten, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, ISBN: 978-1524740740.

Author Derrick Barnes (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Winner and Newbery Honor Winner for Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut) delights with an inspirational and loving text that bubbles with creativity, wit, and empathy as a boy faces a milestone (the first day of kindergarten). Barnes deftly employs a second person narrator, and the “you” becomes universal, putting the reader in the boy’s shoes. The result is one of the very best “going to school” books I have read. What’s great about Barnes’ premise is although mom and dad treat the protagonist like royalty, the kid doesn’t get all ego-trippy at school. He treats his peers with respect and kindness. Meanwhile, the supremely gifted illustrated Vanessa Brantley-Newton fills each spread with color and joy.

The Little Guys, illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626724426.

The Little Guys emerges as an idiosyncratic cautionary tale that mixes laughs in with an anti-bullying message. Wearing acorns on their heads, these multi-colored little guys with their stick legs seem endearing and adorable at first. We’re on their side, applauding the fact that they show no fear in the big, dark forest. But then Brosgol pulls the rug out from under the reader. The little guys start getting, well, downright jerky: knocking chipmunks and foxes out of their homes and joining forces to steal a berry from a bird’s beak. Brosgol’s art is remarkably fluid here (this would make an excellent animated film). I love the facial expressions on the various animals (I seriously think that Brosgol ranks with the very best in terms of giving each character she draws vivid features and characteristics). Thankfully the Little Guys learn their lesson by the end. Phew!

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

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. The story then shows how this girl, along with her parents, unite and use their imagination to transcend. Basia Tran’s art sings and dances across the page throughout. I love the facial expressions of the characters. This book offers a series of memorable images, and captures the radiating warmth of a family’s love.

My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña, written by Isabel Quintero, published by Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC), ISBN: 978-0525553410.

Spanish edition: Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto, ISBN: 978-0525554943.

Oh, what a joyful burst of energy this book is, a vibrant slice of life story that celebrates a daughter’s love for her carpenter father, and an author’s love for her community. The vivid prose sings, and the cinematic illustrations (created with a Wacom Cintiq with a mix of hand-painted watercolor texture) effectively convey vroomy rumbling movement. My Papi Has a Motorycle (also available in Spanish as Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto) feels alive–it’s both gentle and rollicking, tender and raucous. Author Isabel Quintero brings a sense of fun to her highly personal anecdote (discussed in an end note) of how as a child she would ride on the back of her father’s motorcycle around her town of Corona, California. This story may seem small on one level, but Quintero’s world view is epic. Wow, Zeke Peña’s illustrations serve as a perfect match for the text. At times using explosive graphic novel style panels and effects (word balloons, special lettering for sound effects), Peña does an amazing job capturing the excitement of this eventful trek. I love the palette he uses–the colors jump off the page.

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Barry Wittenstein, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823443314.

A Place to Land does not cover all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, but zeroes in one significant, unforgettable event: the night he sat down and wrote the unforgettable speech he gave to the crowd attending the 1963 March on Washington. The book takes on an epic scope as King meets with friends and trusted advisors and confidants “in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where Abraham Lincoln once stood.” Author Barry Wittenstein brings a real energy and drive to his descriptions of this meeting, and then to the amazing morning that followed. He makes readers feel like they have been transported back in time. The legendary illustrator Jerry Pinkney creates gorgeous, heart-stirring work here. His evocative oil paintings catch the expressions of a wide variety of people in the crowd. His use of collage and hand lettering add experimental touches that surprise from spread to spread.

Pokko and the Drum, illustrated and written by Matthew Forsythe, published by Simon & Schuster (A Paula Wiseman Book), ISBN: 978-1481480399.

The froggy star of Matthew Forsythe’s irresistible Pokko and the Drum is basically a good frog who tries her best listening to her parents, but hey, when your drumming gets the party started, you can’t stop the beat. Look at how Forsythe skillfully sets up the comical scenario by detailing how the parents have a history of giving Pokko presents that don’t seem to quite work out: a slingshot and a llama (I’m loving these page turns), among others. The drum turns out to be the worst idea because she cannot stop playing it loudly, and the parents fear the noise will call attention to their humble little mushroom home. After they send Pokko outside, a wild musical rumpus starts! The book looks and feels like a rediscovered lost classic thanks to Forsythe’s watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil illustrations.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to the Poet of the People, illustrated by Tonya Engel, written by Bethany Hegedus (with a foreword by Colin Johnson), published by Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 978-1620145876.

Rise! sweeps readers through Maya Angelou’s turbulent life, handling sensitive topics (the abuse she suffered) with sensitive grace. Author Bethany Hegedus skillfully covers a lot of ground, offering readers a thorough yet easily understood look at how she went from being a quiet, grieving child to a confident person who had many jobs, lived many places, and became an entertainer and accomplished, groundbreaking author. Meanwhile, illustrator Tonya Engel creates stunning art that follows Angelou every step of the way. Just look at those radiant compositions (rendered in acrylic underpainting and oils on textured mono-printed papers) packed with often surreal imagery (love how the tall and dignified Momma Henderson has the body of a Sycamore tree to establish her strength). The art in this book is simply transcendent–with an image of Maya flying above her surroundings one of the most powerful of the year.

The Roots of Rap, illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by little bee books (an imprint of Bonnier Publishing), ISBN: 978-1499804119.

This exuberant non-fiction title has my favorite subtitle of the year: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. It’s amazing how much this concise gem covers while offering a personal view of the formation of an extremely vital musical art form. The book sweeps through readers through a history of those who influenced the music, and those who contributed to its artistic development. The great Carole Boston Weatherford who makes picture book writing seem effortless, easy, and breezy, serves up zesty rhymes as she chronicles the evolution of rap. All the while, the terrific illustrator Frank Morrison, always remarkable, outdoes himself. His trademark elongated figures burst off the page, grabbing the eye and capturing the excitement of Weatherford’s zippy couplets.

Saturday, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431279.

The immensely gifted Oge Mora received both a well-deserved John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award from the 2019 Coretta Scott King committee and a fabulous 2019 Caldecott Honor for her lovely, charming Thank You, Omu!. I am happy to report that her follow-up, the bouncy Saturday, is just as terrific: a beautifully rendered tale that begs to be read aloud. Mora’s colorful and inventive collages, created (according to the author’s note) “with acrylic paint, china markers, patterned pattern, and old-book clippings,” shows a mother and daughter attempting to enjoy their adventures on their beloved Saturday, the only day the mother doesn’t have to work. Things go awry. What shines through in Saturday is Mora’s gift for storytelling. Every word feels carefully chosen, and the action flows gracefully from plot point to plot point. She offers a beautiful set-up and effective follow-through. It’s a celebration of love and perseverance.

 

Small in the City, illustrated and written by Sydney Smith, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823442614.

On this blog I have said many times that some of my very favorite picture books feel cinematic. In these cases, the illustrator becomes a director, a cinematographer, a film editor–shifting perspective, creating moods through thoughtfully composed imagery. I especially see this striking quality in the wow-inducing work of Canadian illustrator Sydney Smith. Small in the City feels like a compelling animated short, the kind that would be up for awards at international film festivals. The book creates a sense of moody mystery from the very first page. It soon becomes clearer and clearer what’s going on. And although summaries give away the surprise, I believe for maximum impact it’s best for readers to not know the twist when first reading the book. What’s great about the book is it grows in power on subsequent reads.

A Stone Sat Still, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452173184.

Writing about this outstanding picture book poses a bit of a challenge. There is such much going on, so many different layers at work here, so many intriguing spreads to point out and describe. I could compose an epic-sized essay that still wouldn’t do Brendan Wenzel’s work justice. It’s a book that throws many visual ideas (and puns) at the reader, juggles several playful notions about perspective, and delivers a powerful ecological message as well. And it’s all about a stationary rock that Wenzel says (in a recurring meditative refrain) sits still “with the water, grass, and dirt/and it was as it was/ where it was in the world.” Animal after animal encounters the stone, and the conditions surrounding the encounter change, but not in any way the reader expects.

Truman, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, written by Jean Reidy, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1534416642.

The turtle star of the delightful Truman achieves things both modest and great slowly yet effectively. This sweet (but never saccharine) tale sneaks up on you and has a quietly hilarious punchline. Essentially a warm tale about separation anxiety, what’s great about Jean Reidy’s book is it stays true to Truman’s turtle nature: he doesn’t get very far physically but oh what an amazing triumph he experiences nonetheless. Illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins does a fabulous job chronicling his trek. And yet for Truman this journey helps him emotionally. It’s an especially big day for him and readers happily share it with him.

The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, poem by Kwame Alexander, published by VERSIFY (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 978-1328780966.

First written for ESPN, Alexander’s poem is a dynamic, moving, and at times sobering look at the triumphs and struggles of black America. He not only gives shout outs to legends like “The Wilma Rudolphs/The Muhammad Alis/The Althea Gibsons/The Jesse Owenses…” (and the other “We Real Cool ones”) but also “…the underdogs/and the uncertain/the Unspoken/but no longer titled.” Nelson’s vivid oil on panel paintings match Alexander’s words beautifully. Those remarkable collage-like spreads showing famous artists, athletes, and musicians. The portrait of civil rights marchers speaking out because Black Lives Matter. They are all striking and evocative. The book’s design is effective. The font (which changes size to emphasize certain words) and art pop out of a spare white background. Some page turns punch the reader in the gut.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, illustrated and written by Raúl the Third, colors by Elaine Bay, published by VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 978-1328557261.

I love Raúl the Third’s work. His drawings for Cathy Camper’s supercool (and wonderfully weird) Lowriders in Space graphic novels pop with a retro underground comic look and sensibility, while still feeling fresh, contemporary, and new. He happily brings this aesthetic to his first picture book, the delightful ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, an explosion of surreal detail-packed joy that feels like a cross between Richard Scarry and R. Crumb. This blast of bilingual (Spanish-English) awesomeness crackles with strange yet never alienating illustrations (beautifully colored by Elaine Bay) that invite further investigation and revisits.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar, illustrated and written by Ross Burach, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338289411.

Burach delivers one giddy deliriously funny romp. It’s an absolute blast reading the conversation between the titular character, exasperated that the metamorphosis progress will take TWO WHOLE WEEKS!, and a far more patient peer. Burach tells the tale completely with speech bubbles. His wildly expressive cartoon characters whip fast-paced dialogue at one another. I love humor that surprises me and it’s a thrill to report that I never knew what Burach was going to do next. Burach makes it all look easy, when we all know that creating a brilliantly funny picture book with expert page turns takes skill and, well, patience.

What Miss Mitchell Saw, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, written by Hayley Barrett, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN: 978-1481487597.

Author Hayley Barrett also takes an epic approach when writing What Miss Mitchell Saw, starting with Maria Mitchell’s childhood and then chronicling her life experiences through adulthood. Diana Sudyka’s warm, intricate illustrations, created with gouache watercolor and ink, are hypnotic throughout. They become especially cosmic when Sudyka gives readers surreal, shadowy views of starry night-time skies. Words swirl through the air as Maria as she sweeps the sky and becomes friends with the stars. We see her, her cat, and her telescope in silhouette, marvel at meteors and the Aurora Borealis. And at a comet that becomes the main focus of the book’s final section. It’s a thrilling match between text and brilliant imagery.

When Aidan Became a Brother, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, written by Kyle Lukoff, published by Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 978-1620148372.

What a sweet, joyous, loving book this is, filled with empathy and heart. This own voices story, written with sensitivity and emotional immediacy by Kyle Lukoff, tells of a boy named Aidan who, when he was born, everyone thought was a girl. In a beautiful touch, his parents respond to his coming out as transgender in the most accepting way possible, and meet up with other families with transgender kids. A lot of praise must be given to Kaylani Juanita’s warm, inviting, fluid illustrations.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

27 other 2019 books I loved:

Along the Tapajós, illustrated and written by Fernando Vilela, translated by Daniel Hahn, published by Amazon Crossing Kids, ISBN: 978-1542008686.

Another, illustrated and conceived by Christian Robinson, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534421677.

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

A Big Bed for Little Snow, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0316478366.

The Boring Book, illustrated and written by Shinsuke Yoshitake, published by Chronicle, ISBN: 978-1452174563.

Camp Tiger, illustrated by John Rocco, written by Susan Choi, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN: 978-0399173295.

The Clever Tailor, illustrated by Nayantara Surendranath, written by Srividhya Venkat, published by Karadi Tales, ISBN: 978-8193388907.

The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, written by Natascha Biebow, published by HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1328866844. 

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

Explorers, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250174963.

The Girl and the Wolf, illustrated by Julie Flett, written by Katherena Vermette, published by Theytus Books, ISBN: 978-1926886541.

The Great Santa Stakeout, illustrated by Dan Santat, written by Betsy Bird, published by Arthur A. Levine Books, ISBN: 978-1338169980.

How Do You Dance?, illustrated and written by Thyra Heder, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734182.

Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, written by Sarah Aronson, published by Beach Lane (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1481476683. 

Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda, ISBN: 978-1512498080.

Lion and Mouse, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, written by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood, ISBN: 978-1773062242.

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

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

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

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

The Scarecrow, illustrated by The Fan Brothers, written by Beth Ferry, published by Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062475763.

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

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

The Thing About Bees, illustrated and written by Shabazz Larkin, published by Readers to Eaters, ISBN: 978-0998047799.

Vroom!, illustrated and written by Barbara McClintock, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, ISBN: 978-1626722170.

Why?, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Neal Porter Books (an imprint of Holiday House), ISBN: 978-0823441730.

Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, created by Megan and Jorge Lacera, published by Children’s Book Press (an imprint of Lee & Low Books), ISBN: 978-1620147948.

My favorite 30 picture books of 2018

I looked at hundreds of picture books in 2018 and loved a lot of them. Here are 30 of my favorites in alphabetical order by title:

Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693558.

Spanish edition: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763693589.

In Juana Martinez-Neal’s beautiful and playful Alma and How She Got Her Name (also available in Spanish: Alma y Cómo Obtuvo Su Nombre), the young heroine first gripes about her long name. It’s so long it never fits on a single piece of paper. After hearing her complaint, Alma’s bespectacled Daddy tells her the story of how she received her full name. A loving family tale emerges on the ensuing pages. Using graphite, colored pencils, and print transfers on handmade textured paper, the artist gives us spare bursts of colors (muted pinks and blues popping in mostly grayish-white spreads) that jump off the page.

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316404488.

Wow, what a cosmic delight A Big Mooncake for Little Star is. In a quick’s author note, Grace Lin writes how she wanted to create a tale that celebrates the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, while giving the story a mythological feel. So Lin gives young readers a deliciously surreal night-time romp that feels like a classic long lost Chinese folktale. Set against black backgrounds, the book introduces us right away (on the endpapers) to a little girl named Little Star, who wears striking star-covered pajamas. She helps her Mama (wearing similar PJs) make a giant mooncake (the traditional food enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival) that indeed looks scrumptious. After the mother places the moon in the sky, she reminds her daughter not to touch the Big Mooncake until instructed. Enchanting and lovely, Grace Lin’s latest will make little ones go “whoa” in between appreciative giggles.

blue, illustrated and written by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, published by Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, ISBN: 978-1626720664.

In terms of overall design, Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s blue works as a companion to her earlier Caldecott Honor winning concept book green. The books share the same look (the covers resemble each other thanks to the font, the use of lower case letters). Also, Seeger employs similar artistic techniques (acrylic paint on canvas; small peek-a-book die cuts throughout). Only two words appear on his each spread. Yet unlike greenblue tells a linear story that captures the complexity of the color blue which calls to mind things that are warm and comforting, but also sad and haunting. The emotional story at the heart of blue is of a boy and his dog. Seeger gives us snapshots of their lives as they grow up together. A page that says “baby blue” shows a puppy and baby snuggling, “ocean blue” a shot of them playing in the water, and so on. Using various shades of blue, Seeger conveys a wide variety of moods and emotions. Especially when the dog starts to age, and heartbreak becomes inevitable. blue never feels manipulative or cheap. It earns its tears honestly.

 

Dreamers, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, ISBN: 978-0823440559.

Soñadores (Spanish edition): 978-0823442584.

Always a surrealist, Morales gives each illustration a dreamy, off-kilter edge. Above all, Dreamers/Soñadores, a deeply personal look at the author/illustrator’s own immigrant experience, is a book above love. A love between mother and child. A love for creating art. A love for books. A love for language. A love for libraries. In times so troubling and heartbreaking, Morales gives the reader a book filled with hope. I have read the book several times and still the final words lift my heart every time: “We are stories. We are two languages. We are lucha. We are resilience. We are hope. WE are dreamers, soñadores of the world. We are Love Amor Love.” Beautiful, just beautiful.

Ducks Away, illustrated by Judy Horacek, written by Mem Fox, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-1338185669.

Originally published in Australia in 2016, but finally arriving in the US in January 2018, this preschool-friendly mathematical romp stars a mother duck and five little ducklings. While crossing a bridge, the little birds each fall, one by one, into the water below, and this dramatic action leads to a sound and satisfying lesson in subtraction. Horacek’s adorable illustrations are crystal clear, easy to follow, and Fox’s language has a compelling rhythm that works with the youngest of crowds. I have read this to many groups and the children love it. Especially the ending which has the feathered little ones begging their mom to take the plunge too. A fun addition to preschool storytimes.

The Field, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, written by Baptiste Paul, published by North South, ISBN: 978-0735843127.

I wish The Field had a subtitle. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a solid title. However, it only slightly hints at the messy muddy gooey action found in this rollicking book about a group of kids enjoying a futbol (soccer) match in the Saint Lucia rain. I wish the subtitle could be something like Epic Muddy Futbol Match. Or Squish Squish Kick Kick. But then again, as a title, The Field is quick, to the point, and has a nostalgic feel. Interjected words in Creole fuel Baptiste Paul’s zesty prose. Alcántara’s figures delight (I love the cow’s expressions as a child attempts to shoo them to a different part of the field). The excitement of the game is palpable. Then when the rains come the book soars to another level of coolness, visually and as a story. The players decide to not let some raindrops get in the way of their fun, and soon they are dashing, splashing, slip-sliding, and belly flopping in the mud.

Hello Hello, illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel, published by Chronicle Books, ISBN: 978-1452150147.

The wow factor. That’s what Brendan Wenzel’s latest celebration of the natural world Hello Hello has throughout, but especially when you reach a double page spread that is filled with animals big and small. Against a spare white background, each creature manages to pop off the page and make an impression. And all of them have those Brendan Wenzel Eyes (I call them Wenzelian)–googly and warm and friendly (he truly has a unique, distinct style). His love for these animals is apparent. Although Hello Hello can be seen as a fun romp that finds similarities and differences between a vast variety of species, the message he delivers is sobering one: many of them are endangered, near threatened, vulnerable, or critically endangered. He invites readers young and old to try and save them.

A House That Once Was, illustrated by Lane Smith, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626723145.

Two kids (a boy and a girl) stumble on a deserted house with boarded up and smashed windows. They climb in, carefully avoiding the jagged glass. Once inside they explore the rooms and wonder about the home’s departed occupants. Why did they leave these many objects (books, bottles of olive oil, even a set of house keys, others) behind, the children wonder? Thanks to Julie Fogliano’s vivid poetic language, A House That Was Once Was is a story that begs to be read aloud…but in a whispering voice. Lane Smith’s inventive illustrations add to the mysterious atmosphere. Smith has these amazing ability to create works with cool-looking textures. The spreads with the children walking around the house have an almost washed-out look to them. You feel as if you are breathing in the dust.

Imagine!, illustrated and written by Raúl Colón, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481462730.

There have many books about children discovering art. There have been many books celebrating the joys of having a fun day in the city (and in the case of Imagine!, New York City). But there has never been a book quite like Raúl Colón’s Imagine!, a simply fantabulous wordless follow-up to the brilliant artist’s Draw! (2014). Imagine! mixes two things this singular artist loves: enjoying artistic masterpieces and living in the city. It’s a deeply personal work, the same way Draw! (about a bed-bound boy who escapes into his drawings of safari animals) is. And it’s an exhilarating piece of work…and funny and witty, too.

In The Past, illustrated by Matthew Trueman, poems by David Elliott, published by Candlewick Press, ISBN: 978-0763660734.

Raise your hand if you know a child who loves dinosaurs. Okay, you can put your hands down now. Poet David Elliott joins forces with artist Matthew Trueman to create one of the most dynamic books about prehistoric life  I have ever encountered. Just look at those amazing portraits that would show perfectly across the room to large storytime groups. Using mixed media, Trueman gets the reader up close and personal with a Megalodon with its ginormous teeth, a Mammuthus with its enormous tusks, a Quetzalcoatlus with its imposing beak, among many others. Meanwhile, Elliott creates witty, sometimes second person poems that both celebrate and tease them about their grandeur. About the aforementioned Brachytrachelopan: “And that name!/You should renounce it./It takes a genius/to pronounce it.”

Julián Is a Mermaid, illustrated and written by Jessica Love, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763690458.

Some picture books feel like instant classics. You look at the art and immerse yourself in the book’s world and by the end, you cannot think of the world without the book. Julián Is a Mermaid, released on April 23, 2018, joins this esteemed list. I know this seems like an over-the-top compliment, but seriously, this wondrous work has earned these raves, this praise, all the starred reviews. And even praise from the divine RuPaul! The book ends with a parade, a celebration, slightly surreal but positively heartwarming. And the fitting ending for a book that deserves to be celebrated.

King Alice, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, published by Feiwel and Friends, ISBN: 978-1250047496, ARC reviewed, to be released: September 25, 2018.

There’s a detail I love in Matthew Cordell’s absolutely hilarious King Alice, about an exhausted father trying to keep up with his imaginative, rambunctious, and demanding (but lovable) daughter on what appears to be the umpteenth snow day in a row. Whenever the titular character thinks of something new to do she doesn’t say “Oh, I have an idea,” she yells “Idea!” and then proceeds to reveal the new plan. This may seem strangely specific to praise, but hey in comedy, timing is everything. And in picture book comedy, the way the writer words things matters. The succinct way Alice says “Idea!’ says everything about her character: she’s confident, blunt, and you better go along with her IDEA. But most of all: it’s funny…every time she says it.

 

The Little Red Fort, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez, written by Brenda Maier, published by Scholastic, ISBN: 978-0545859196.

Serving up a fresh retelling of a classic folktale takes skill and talent. There have been many versions of The Little Red Hen for example. So how does one offer a new, unique take on the tale’s rather simple plot (hen asks for help when making bread, and everyone else says “not I,” causing the hen to do all the work on her own)? Luckily clever writer Brenda Maier has found a way to do exactly that with The Little Red Fort, a witty and vibrant new addition that would be perfect in storytimes not just about fractured fairy tales, but also about girl power, teamwork, resourcefulness, and siblings. Not to mention mothers and daughters bonding together to create something really really cool. Vibrant, colorful work from the gifted Sonia Sánchez.

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, illustrated by Júlia Sarda, written by Linda Bailey, published by Tundra, ISBN: 978-1770495593.

Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and this properly creepy and goth picture book biography emerges as a perfect way to introduce young readers to the 18-year-old author who created it. I pretty much love everything about this account: the layout, the design, the book’s dimensions (tall, like the monster), and of course the art and writing. Júlia Sarda’s brilliant, slightly macabre (but not overly so) art captures the eye right at the very start, and Linda Bailey’s text has an interactive immediacy to it that captivates the reader. She asks questions throughout, involving the audience. She skillfully employs the present tense, and this grabs you and never lets go.

Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn, written by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, published by Salaam Reads (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), ISBN: 978-1534400597.

“A khimar is a flowing scarf my mommy wears,” the young girl narrator says at the very start of this vibrant, colorful book that radiates joy and pride. The instantly lovable child reveals that her mother has many khimars of different colors. Some have stripes, others have polka dots, some have tassels, and others beads. She loves all of them (although the yellow one is her favorite). Many of the best 2018 picture books pop with child-like wonder and enthusiasm, and Mommy’s Khimar emerges as the happiest of them all thanks to Thompkins-Bigelow’s warm, energetic prose (perfect for storytimes) and Glenn’s effervescent digital illustrations. The drawings in this charmer flow across the page, with the girl’s body language and expressions inviting readers to share her sense of fun.

Neck & Neck, illustrated and written by Elise Parsley, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316466745.

It’s Giraffe Vs. Giraffe-Shaped Balloon! Neck & Neck chronicles a game of one-upsman(giraffe)ship that gets sillier and funnier. I have always enjoyed Parsley’s work, but Neck & Neck has popped out as my new favorite by her. The characters’ expressions, her use of perspective and white space on some spreads, the narrative’s twists and turns, and a satisfying resolution all add up to a book that should become a staple in rollicking, humor-packed storytimes.

Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, written by Cheryl Bardoe, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316278201.

Bardoe’s crisp prose effectively gets inside Sophie’s head, explaining how “Math, with its clear and simple laws./Math, with its strong sense of order” helped Sophie make sense of her world. The great illustrator Barbara McClintock also takes the reader inside Sophie’s mind. She fills her illustrations (colorful markers, gouache, collage) with witty mathematical details. What’s especially impressive about Nothing Stopped Sophie is how it manages to feel both epic and intimate. It covers many years in its subject’s life. And yet not a single word feels wasted. The book never gets bogged down in excessive detail. The child reader walks away feeling that they have been on a journey through Sophie’s life, appreciating that she achieved so much and never gave up.

Ocean Meets Sky, created by The Fan Brothers, published by Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 978-1481470377.

Brothers Terry and Eric Fan (known for their much loved The Night Gardener) create magical moments that feel both epic and intimate, universal and personal. Ocean Meets Sky, which they wrote and illustrated, takes the reader to the high seas, and the journey is laced with philosophical longing. A child named Finn remembers his now deceased Grandfather once telling him about a place where the ocean meets sky. On what would have been his elder’s 90th birthday, the resourceful boy builds a boat and searches for this cherished place.The spare yet poignant language and the graphite illustrations (colored digitally) work together to make Ocean Meets Sky one of the most loving, memorable dedications to a loved one I have ever seen.

A Parade of Elephants, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), ISBN: 978-0062668271.

The high-spirited and deceptively simple A Parade of Elephants has a bit of a rollicking spirit, but although the five pastel-colored beasts march about, the book still glimmers with a gentleness that invites reflective “aaaaahs” and “oooohs” from young children. Presented in the same square-like dimensions as the fun EggParade serves that same preschool audience. It has a bold font and a clear design; thick borders surround the characters. After an eventful journey, Henkes brings things to a quiet resolution with the elephants exhausted, yawing and stretching…and then in a magical moment that moves the book up to a higher level they lift their trunks and trumpet. Stars pop out of their trunks, scatter, and then fill the skies. And quietly and surprisingly A Parade of Elephants becomes one of the strongest bedtime books of the year.

The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van Thahn Rudd, written by Maxine Beneba Clarke, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-1536200317.

Some picture books come along and they rattle your world because they feel new and alive, offering fresh insight and an innovative approach when telling a story. The Patchwork Bike, first published in Australia (where it won a Children’s Book Council of Australia award) and New Zealand in 2016 and now being released (thankfully) here in the States in 2018, is one such book, a visually inventive look at how a girl and her brothers zip, zoom, and whoosh along on their bicycle made from various spare recycled parts. The words pop and zing, the illustrations burst with exhilarating energy. I have never seen a book that looked and sounded like this one.

The Rabbit Listened, illustrated and written by Cori Doerrfeld, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0735229358.

A comforting book that mixes heartbreak with humor, and one that taps into a deep understanding of a child’s emotional landscape. Doerrfeld’s quick, direct prose snaps; there isn’t a single wasted word. In a beautiful moment, one of the sweetest rabbits in all of children’s picture book history, comes to Taylor’s side and quietly cozies in, not pressuring Taylor to do anything at all. This is great advice when encountering someone who is sad: let the person have their emotions, feel their sadness, don’t tell them how to feel, just be there. It’s all handled so beautifully.

Seeing Into Tomorrow, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews, haiku by Richard Wright, published by Millbrook Press, ISBN: 978-1512418651.

Thanks to her distinct photocollage technique, Nina Crews’ books look like no others. And her latest Seeing Into Tomorrow emerges as a vibrant and moving celebration of boyhood with often stylized, overlapping photographs (causing a panoramic look) of boys enjoying the outside world. A beautiful haiku by the legendary African American writer Richard Wright inspires and accompanies each double page spread. And if you are a fan of Donald Crews’ Caldecott Honor winning classic Freight Train (and his other great books), you will happily notice that he appears in one of the photographs, standing with his grandson while looking at, of course, a freight train!

Teddy’s Favorite Toy, illustrated by Madeline Valentine, written by Christian Trimmer, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481480802.

A delightful celebration of imaginative play that also defies conservative notions of gender, the kinds of toys boys play with (and does so in the most nonchalant, least preachy way possible). Written with succinct grace by Christian Trimmer, Teddy’s Favorite Toy tells of a  very expressive boy who loves all kinds of toys, including his supercool truck that he can sit on, a hula hoop, a rocket, a puzzle, and others…but he loves an amazing multi-talented doll the most. After accidentally tossing the beloved toy out, Mom must spring into action to save the day, performing moves that Zoë Bell would envy. Illustrator Madeline Valentine’s warm and amusing illustrations, rendered in gouache and pencils and then composed digitally, do a splendiferous job capturing the action.

Thank You, Omu!, illustrated and written by Oge Mora, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN: 978-0316431248.

2018 has been a great year for picture books celebrating gracious, generous behavior. In these troubled times, these heartfelt creations have done a superlative job showing readers (not just child readers) that kindness can still exist and empathy can prevail. Oge Mora’s tender and very personal Thank You, Omu! certainly emerges as yet another prime example of a beautifully rendered work about goodness and caring behavior. Thank You, Omu! does a lovely job capturing the beautiful soul of this compassionate title character who treats an entire neighborhood to her scrumptious stew. Mora uses inventive collage (acrylic paint, china markers, pastels, patterned paper, and old-book clippings) and as a result, each spread bursts with color and child-like wonder. Without feeling cluttered, each image invites exploration, possessing clever details designed for re-visits and re-examinations.

They Say Blue, illustrated and written by Jillian Tamaki, published by Abrams, ISBN: 978-1419728518.

How absolutely gorgeous and thoughtful this book is. With swirling brush strokes and flowing vibrant imagery, this philosophical creation gets inside the head of a curious girl thinking about the natural world around her, and, when thinking about the blood flowing in her veins and the heart pumping said blood, inside her. Removing the cover offers an abstract visual treat: a special surprise painting of birds and splashes of color. There isn’t a plot per se, but we readers follow the girl as she thinks about the colors around her, trying, for example, to understand why blue ocean water suddenly becomes clear as you hold it.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, created by poet Tony Medina & 13 Artists, published by Penny Candy Books, ISBN: 978-0998799940.

Just look at the illustrators involved with this project. Listed in the order found on the back of the book: Floyd Cooper. Cozbi A. Cabrera. Skip Hill. Tiffany McKnight. Robert Liu-Trujillo. Keith Mallett. Shawn K. Alexander. Kesha Bruce. Brianna McCarthy. R. Gregory Christie. Ekua Holmes. Javaka Steptoe. Chandra Cox. 13 of the very best artists working in the field today. The brilliant Tony Medina has penned 13 poems (each written in the tanka form: 31 syllables over 5 lines) about black boys, and each poem is accompanied by a piece of art that beautifully captures the moods of Medina’s creations.

This Is My Eye: A New York Story, pictures and text by Neela Vaswani, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0763676162. 

Many books for young readers instruct the audience to look at the world around them, to examine their surroundings. The vibrant new photographic essay This Is My Eye, with its wondrous views of urban beauty, makes one of the strongest cases for people to do so. And while we are at it, the book suggests, why not take some cool photographs? The author’s note states that she snapped more than half of the photographs on a smartphone (the others on a “refurbished digital SLR camera”). So reader, you can do this too!

The Truth About Bears, illustrated and written by Maxwell Eaton III, published by Roaring Brook (A Neal Porter Book), ISBN: 978-1626726666.

Maxwell Eaton III promises “seriously funny facts about your favorite animals” on the cover of this book and wow, does he ever deliver. This fantastic title zips along from one punny joke to the next, all the while unveiling some fascinating child-friendly facts about bears. Also, like Brendan Wenzel’s playful yet sobering wake-up call Hello Hello, Eaton reminds young readers that many of these creatures are threatened and/or endangered, hopefully planting seeds about wildlife conservation in their minds. Eaton’s cartoon-like illustrations invite us into the animals’ worlds; he uses warm colors that work well with the amusing, lighthearted, yet at times subversive tone. This excellent series includes books about dolphins, hippos, and soon crocodiles.

The Visitor, illustrated and written by Antje Damm, published by Gecko Press, ISBN:978-1776571888.

Antje Damm creates a diorama-like world for a fearful character named Elise who resides in a stylized three-dimensional space. Damm isn’t afraid to make the place look colorless and bleak. Suddenly a blue paper airplane flies into Elise’s neat and orderly space and she freaks out, becoming too scared to sleep. Damm shows us what Elise fears: that even more airplanes will come soaring into her house. Visually, the book rises to a whole other level of inventiveness when a child comes the next day to claim his plane. He brings bright, warm colors with him. At first Elise finds him unwelcome, but soon his youthful curiosity and energy win her over, and the colors start filling the room. It’s absolutely enthralling, and it all leads to a great final moment that feels reassuring and hopeful.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN: 978-1368003551.

Ryan T. Higgins once again proves to be a master of comic timing. This ferociously funny tale serves as a “first day of school” etiquette book (and possibly an anti-bullying book) that also spoofs this purposeful kidlit genre. In the text, Higgins delivers his story with a straight face, and this makes every startling visual joke in the illustrations all the more effective and hilarious. And his striking art (created using scans of treated clayboard for textures, graphite, ink, and Photoshop) pleases the eye as the outlandish situations tickle the funny bone. The book’s long rectangular dimensions help create a CinemaScope effect that makes the book an easy choice for diabolically minded storytimes.

 

Honorable Mentions: I also loved All of Us (illustrated and written by Carin Berger), Are You Scared, Darth Vader? (illustrated and written by Adam Rex), The Day You Begin (illustrated by Rafael López, written by Jacqueline Woodson), Dude! (illustrated by Dan Santat, written by Aaron Reynolds), Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years (illustrated by David Litchfield written by Stacy McAnulty), The 5′ O Clock Band (illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews), The FUNeral (illustrated and written by Matt James), Good Dog (illustrated and written by Cori Doerrfeld), Grains of Sand (illustrated and written by Sibylle Delacroix), Grandma’s Purse (illustrated and written by Vanessa Brantley-Newton), Grow Up David! (illustrated and written by David Shannon), Hello Lighthouse (illustrated and written by Sophie Blackall), A Home in the Barn (illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, written by Margaret Wise Brown), The Honeybee (illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, written by Kirsten Hall), If I Had a Horse (illustrated and written by Gianna Marino), Interrupting Chicken and the Elephant of Surprise (illustrated and written by David Ezra Stein), Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor (illustrated by Felicita Sala, written by Patricia Valdez), My Hair Is a Garden (illustrated and written by Cozbi A. Cabrera), Never Satisfied (illustrated and retold by Dave Horowitz), New Shoes (illustrated and written by Chris Raschka), Night Job (illustrated by G. Brian Karas, written by Karen Hesse), Otis and Will Discover the Deep (illustrated by Katherine Roy, written by Barb Rosenstock), Play This Book (illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, written by Jessica Young), Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul (illustrated by Matthew Cordell, written by Susan Verde), Sometimes Rain (illustrated by Diane Sudyka, written by Meg Fleming), Star in the Jar (illustrated by Sarah Massini, written by Sam Hay), The Stuff of Stars (illustrated by Ekua Holmes, written by Marion Dane Bauer), The Tiptoeing Tiger (illustrated and written by Phillipa Leathers), The Very Last Castle (illustrated by Mark Pett, written by Travis Jonker), Vivid: Poems and Notes about Color (illustrated and written by Julie Paschkis), and The Wall in the Middle of the Book (illustrated and written by Jon Agee).

What a fantastic year!!!

My favorite 25 picture books of 2017 (alphabetical by title)

Accident!, illustrated and written by Andrea Tsurumi, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN:  978-0544944800. Talk about a book packed with surprising visual humor, Andrea Tsurumi’s chaotic, surreal, and joke-a-second Accident!  has page after page after page of comical mayhem with visual puns galore.  An animal named Lola stumbles quite literally over the title of the book, causing a mess that makes her race to the library to hide.  As she races down the street she encounters other disasters that grow wilder and wilder.  Tsurumi’s graphite (on Bristol vellum with digital color) drawings and her deranged hand lettering make the reader want to flip through the pages with great celerity.  However, as the accidents magnify, the pages brim with gags that beg you to stop and explore each spread.

 

After the Fall:  How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again, illustrated and written by Dan Santat, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN:  978-1250149770. 2015 Caldecott Winner Santat gives us a Humpty Dumpty physically healed, but still psychologically scarred from the big fall off his favorite wall.  Although Santat serves us some laughs here (I love the spread of the cereals surrounding Humpty as he refuses to climb a ladder to nab his favorite brand), mostly this is a bittersweet tale of learning to rebuild self-confidence.  I found the humbled eggman’s journey surprisingly moving.  Will Humpty rediscover his courage to climb to great heights?  I would not dream of spoiling any of the story’s twists.  All I can say is Santat, working at the top of his game as a writer and as an illustrator, kept surprising the reader with this fractured yet tender Mother Goose riff.

All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, written by Margarita Engle, published by Henry Holt and Co., ISBN: 978-1-62779-642-2.Engle and Curato take the reader to modern-day Cuba where a boy and his family hits the road to visit the big city and see their brand new baby cousin.  Curato’s amazingly detailed, vibrant art (created, according to an illustrator’s note in the back matter, by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from photographs he snapped while in Cuba) has a three-dimensional look.  The blue Cara Cara feels as if it’s bursting off the page.  Ooh, that car, that beautiful car shines in a book that celebrates the pre-1959 American cars one can find on the island of Cuba (according to Engle’s Author’s Note).  Engle’s glorious, lively text mixes in the sounds that Cara Cara makes when it needs some slight fixing. Curato masterfully captures the light and shadows of a perfect sunny traveling day as the now-repaired vehicle noisily makes its trek.  We go inside the crowded car and then outside for grand, panoramic views of the upcoming city; I love the many points of view Curato offers here.  Engle’s evocative prose makes you feel like you’re in the passenger seat.

The Antlered Ship, illustrated by The Fan Brothers, written by Dashka Slater, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451604. The Antlered Ship introduces a fox named Marco who has a LOT of questions that his vulpine peers refuse to answer.  After three hungry deer with no sense of direction or navigational skills arrive on a ship with epic antlers, Marco decides to hop on board (with a bunch of ragtag pigeons) to help them find an island offering nourishing eats.  Marco hopes that this journey will lead him to someone who will help answer his many queries.  Slater’s compelling story serves both as an adventure and as a philosophical allegory.  Throughout, the Fan Brothers keep topping themselves with captivating imagery, especially on the epic double page spreads.  The animals’ expressions are priceless.

Be Quiet!, illustrated and written by Ryan T. Higgins, published by Disney/Hyperion, ISBN:  978-1484731628. First off let me say that this book gives the storyteller a host of opportunities to ham it up–it’s quite a workout vocally and even physically (sometimes a book inspires me to happily throw myself into the material), and I mean that as a high compliment.  But what really struck me is how this dynamic piece of meta hilarity works on different levels–the adults in the room laugh at some jokes, and the little ones others.  That said, the communal joy in the room spreads, the giggles magnify.  It’s the greatest feeling in the world being engulfed by the sounds of laughing audience members.  Be Quiet! is a work of supremely funny meta fiction, so clever and surprising you never know what you will encounter with each page turn.  A bespectacled mouse named Rupert (who appeared in Higgins’ beloved Bruce books) happily finds himself the star of his own title, and he wants the story to be wordless because, as he dreamily proclaims, wordless books are so artistic.  However, all aspirations of achieving this goal fly out the window when his clueless mice pals enter the picture, disrupting the wordless calm by begging to become part of the plot.  Using speech bubbles to great effect, Higgins has fun with wordplay and goofy dialogue.

Big Cat, little cat, illustrated and written by Elisha Cooper, published by Roaring Brook, IBSN:  978-162672-3719.  When it comes to picture books, I find my taste goes more for the funny ones, the silly interactive ones.  And yet every once in a while, I find myself falling for a poignant, quietly heartbreaking picture book that puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.  Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, little cat falls into this latter category, a lovingly told tale of mentorship, friendship, loss, and new hope that takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride.  The book’s power sneaks up on the reader; you don’t realize the impact Cooper’s minimalist drawings are having on you.

The Blue Hour, illustrated and written by Isabelle Simler, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN:  978-0802854889.  Full disclosure:  my favorite color is blue, but I can honestly say that until I had the chance to enjoy Simler’s exquisite celebration of this color that I didn’t realize how many shades of blue exist.  The front matter gives us 32 splotches of different kinds of blues, everything from azure blue to cyan blue.  The book that follows is visually spectacular as Simler immerses the reader in the “blue hour,” that special time that happens when the day ends and the night falls.  Each turn of the page introduces an animal with primarily blue features such as blue jay, a blue fox, and a blue poison dart frog.  Simler masterfully uses the book’s large dimensions  (9.3 x 0.4 x 13 inches) to stunning effect; the illustrations leap off the page.

Boo!, illustrated and written by Ben Newman, published by Flying Eye Books, ISBN:  978-1911171058. Wow, what a triumph of book design this is.  With bold shapes and sharp colors and striking typography, Ben Newman’s Boo! is an artfully conceived romp in which, one by one, an animal brags about being the bravest creature there ever was.  As each character speaks highly of itself, another shadowy figure approaches from behind and then screams “BOO” when we turn the page.  I have done this book in story time and the children love guessing what kind of animal the shadowy figure will turn out to be.  And I tell them to shout BOO! on the count of three and they love doing that.  Each page turn offers a vibrant, hilarious surprise.  The reaction of each character after it is startled is priceless.

The Boy and the Whale, illustrated and written by Mordicai Gerstein, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN 978-1626725058. In Gerstein’s books you see an artist who loves using vibrant imagery to create thrilling children’s books, and his joy is captivating. The Boy and the Whale crackles with intensity as it tells the story of the young son of a financially strapped fisherman who sees a whale trapped in their only net. After plunging into the water, and looking at the still living whale in the eye, the emphatic boy remembers how he too was once caught in a net and almost drowned. The images in Gerstein’s book haunt the reader long as they close the page: the morning sun reflecting off the waves, the boy under water fighting to free the whale from the net, the lad bursting out of the water to BREATHE. This is easily one of the very best coming of age picture books ever, and can be added to the long list of Gerstein’s very best works.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017. Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real.

Egg, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow Books, ISBN:  9780062408723.  This is Kevin Henkes’ 50th published book, and easily ranks with his very best. In under 20 words and using comic book style panels with brown ink outlines, Henkes takes the reader on a bouncy emotional journey here, making the reader giggle, gasp, sigh sadly, and then cheer with hope.  There are many surprises in the book, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the big one at the story’s center.  And there’s a surreal surprise at the tale’s end that emerges as one of Henkes’ most magical moments ever.

Jabari Jumps, illustrated and written by Gaia Cornwall, published by Candlewick, ISBN:978-0-7636-7838-8.  Creating suspense in a picture book truly takes talent, a deft handling of the page turn and strong use of perspective.  In her Jabari Jumps, Cornwall gives the reader a relatable story of a young boy bracing himself to tackle a milestone:  a jump off the community pool’s diving board.  And my word does this uplifting tale of accomplishment get your heart racing (or maybe it’s my vertigo). As Jabari climbs the ladder, Cornwall has an effective page with four squares chronicling the action, with a POV shot that allows the reader to peek down at Jabari as he stares up the big ladder.  With a flip of the page we are then looking down, waaaay down at the pool as seen from Jabari’s perspective, and we only see his feet on the edge of the diving board.  And then another flip and we are now behind Jabari and we see his view, a striking vantage point, and our eye is drawn to this dad and sister lovingly watching him from the pool.  You cannot help but join the cheering onlookers  when Jabari flies through the air, smiling with confidence.  Thanks to Cornwall’s visual storytelling, you whoosh to the surface with Jabari, and feel as if you have taken the plunge with him.

Life, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, written by Cynthia Rylant, published by Beach Lane Books, ISBN:  978-1481451628. Rylant’s spare, poetic and meaningful text has an inspirational bent to it, kind of a National Geographic meets Oh, the Places You Will Go! kind of vibe, confidently asking young readers to find a connection between the animals on the page and their own lives.  As a lifelong animal lover myself, I find this enormously moving and effective.  To say Wenzel takes the text and runs with it is an understatement.  From the captivating cover to the stars on the endpapers to the glorious title page which gives us a panoramic view of simple life forms swimming in water, Life hooks you at the start.  Page after page, spread after spread, Wenzel offers up memorable images.  I especially love the illustrations that mirror or comment on one another (elephants waking under the sun on the verso, under the moon on the recto; a dog facing a possibly startled cat; and most hauntingly, a gorilla facing a polar bear as the words “And something to protect” appear on the page, reminding us that these beautiful animals are endangered).

Life on Mars, illustrated and written by Jon Agee, and published by Dial Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0399538520. This tale gets a lot of comic mileage out of a scenario kids love:  seeing something that a character is completely oblivious to; children love knowing something others don’t.   Chronicling a child’s journey to the Red Planet, the book’s first person narration serves as a perfect example of disconnect between text and image.  The kid (identified as a boy on the book jacket) lands on Mars’ surface in a snazzy rocket, hoping to find life, and bearing gifts (yummy chocolate cupcakes to be exact).  He’s filled with bravura at first, saying that he will prove that there is–hence the title–Life on Mars.  However, he grows increasingly mopey as he finds nothing but rocks and dirt, and decides to head home to Earth.  What follows is a hilarious game of “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!!” as a sweet, silent, and ginormous Martian follows the clueless pint-sized astronaut.  This round, blobby creature has one of the funniest entrances I have seen; it peeks out from a crater after the child passes it–I love its pointy ears.

Lucía the Luchadora, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez, written by Cynthia Leonor Garza, published by POW!, ISBN:  978-1-576878279.  Wow, what an explosion of action and color this book is, with a heroine who emerges as one of the coolest picture book characters in recent memory.  Garza’s language zips and zooms (love those verbs!) as she tells the story of Lucía, a cape-wearing superhero-loving girl demonstrating some awesome moves on the playground.  Bermudez’s art pops off the page (I love how she gives Lucía expressive braids that fly in the air) as the protagonist soars and jumps off the monkey bars.  I like the fonts used here, with the BAMS and BOOMS catching the eye.  After two party pooper buzzkill boys, jealous of her skills, tell her that girls cannot be superheroes, Lucía becomes spicy mad and vents to her abuela.  Grandma then reveals something superamazing and the story leaps to another level of cool.  Grandma unwraps a box with a cape and silver mask, revealing that she was once a luchadora!, an agile and quick-thinking superhero.  Donning the outfit, Lucía heads to the playground looking really rad.

Mighty Moby, illustrated by Ed Young, written by Barbara DaCosta, published by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN:  978-0316299367 I’m going to be blunt:  Mighty Moby is one strange book (and I mean that as a compliment).  However, when you go through it a second and third and fourth time (and beyond), you start seeing that it follows the patterns of many other children’s picture books about toys, imagination, and bedtime.  What Ed Young, in full creative genius mode, and Barbara DaCosta, providing a text that cleverly reminds one of sea shanties, do here is take conventions and spin them into something wildly unexpected.  I don’t want to spoil the big surprise at the end of this book (but I’m guessing I probably gave some if it away).  All I can say is no other picture book this year has made me feel so wonderfully disoriented.  At first we think we are reading a pared down picture book version of the climactic moments of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with Captain Ahab and his sailors battling the huge whale.  Young’s brilliant, abstract collages (he uses cut paper, photographs, string, and pastel) drop you in the middle of the action.  You have to turn the book vertically for some spreads.  One gasp-worthy page turn gives us a full view of the whale himself (“Shh!  There he is,” the captain whispered and you’re like whoa! being anything but quiet).  The magnitude of the animal is conveyed beautifully.

Mine!, illustrated and written by Jeff Mack, published by Chronicle, ISBN:  978-1452152349. There is something so cool about those books in which Mack only uses a few repeated words–they manage to give young readers a story that feels complete, with a beginning, middle, and an end.  The person reading the book aloud can use vocal inflection to show how the word can mean something different with every new plot twist.  Mine! reminded me a lot of those funny if startling Spy Vs. Spy cartoons that appear in MAD magazine (although there are no weapons–well the wrecking ball might count as a weapon):  two mice (one blue and the other orange) battle over a rock, and the one-upmanship intensifies, growing increasingly funny.  Using mixed media, Mack masterfully uses a handful of colors here; note how when the orange mouse wins a round the background and font go orange, and then when the blue emerges victorious (only momentarily) the background and font go, you got it, blue.  The moments where a mouse is tempting the other with a diversion, Mack gives us a yellow that reminds us of yummy cheese.  Everything leads to a real big surprise that I will not reveal.

Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN:  978-0-7636-8094-7.  Usually this blog looks at picture books for younger readers, but also I love giving shout outs to longer illustrated books that are truly special.  Out of Wonder:  Poems Celebrating Poets falls into that truly special category, a brilliant collection of poems by three poets at the top of their game paying tribute to (and writing in the style) of a wide variety of celebrated poets.  Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth write about a range of topics including “How to Write a Poem” (Alexander’s homage to Naomi Shihab Nye), the beauty of the Chilean forest (Wentworth’s celebration of Pablo Neruda), and the work of Sandra Cisneros (a lovely ode by Colderley).  If these wonderful creations weren’t enough, we have Ekua Holmes’ vibrant, brilliant collages giving the book a lush visual beauty, lifting the title to a whole new level of awesomeness.

A Perfect Day, illustrated and written by Lane Smith, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN:  978-1626725362. This hilarious romp plays with the idea that sometimes one character’s happiness can come at the expense of another’s joy.  The ever-smart-alecky Lane Smith gives us, his audience members, a soothing first half, only to pull the rug out from under our feet.  And instead of feeling betrayed by the tonal shift, we laugh quite giddily at the author/illustrator’s audacity. A Perfect Day shows four animal characters in states of bliss, only to have a fifth animal character stomp its way into the frame and cause total chaos.  Smith’s language is simple and direct when introducing a cat enjoying the sun’s warmth as it frolics in daffodils, a dog cooling off in a wading pool, a chickadee eating seed found in a bird feeder, and a squirrel munching on corncob left for it by a caring boy named Bert.  For each animal, Smith says “it was a perfect day.”  Nothing could go wrong, right?  Wrong!  In bursts bear and all heck breaks loose.

The Ring Bearer, illustrated and written by Floyd Cooper, published by Philomel (an imprint of Penguin), ISBN:  978-0399167409. Floyd Cooper’s charming new slice of life tale of a young boy named Jackson facing his upcoming ring bearer role with excitement but also some trepidation.  His mom will be marrying a loving guy named Bill who has a daughter,  which means Jackson will instantly become a big brother.  This also causes the sensitive kid some concern:  will he mess up at the wedding? will he be a good older sibling?  Cooper’s paintings create a warmth without feeling cloying.  He especially excels at depicting body language in his double spreads.  Just look at the first spread of Jackson worrying and looking pensive–we see him from the side, laying down but a bit contorted, his eyes closed as if thinking deeply, his hand on his chin.  His soon-to-be-stepsister’s pink bike pops off the page.  Throughout the book Cooper uses perspective in a striking fashion; he knows exactly where to place the characters for maximum effect.  What’s especially beautiful about the story is how it celebrates empathy.

Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Joanne Schwartz, published by Groundwood Books, ISBN:  978-1554988716. The picture book as cinema. With his ink and watercolor (with a bit of gouache) illustrations, Smith transports the reader to a Canadian mining town where a boy goes through his day while his father toils in an underground mine.  Throughout Smith gives you evocative double page spreads that give you widescreen views of the interior of the boy’s house, the landscape as the father walks to work, and, most claustrophobically, the view underground as the workers labor (the earth seems to be crushing their hunched bodies).  He also breaks the pages down into smaller frames at times, and this helps convey movement as the lad and his pal play on swings, for example.  Readers cannot help but notice the difference between the boy’s joy and freedom in the open air and the oppressive nature of his dad’s occupation.  Joanne Schwartz’s beautiful, direct (and never cloying) text (the boy narrates) carries you through the little moments of the child’s day, and this brings a kid-friendly quality to the book that a modern child can appreciate.

The Way Home in the Night, illustrated and written by Akiko Miyakoshi, published by Kids Can Press, ISBN:  978-1-77138-663-0.  Originally published in Japan in 2015, this moody, beautiful import shows an anthropomorphic rabbit family walking home at night.  Although I find this cozy and comforting overall, I have to admit I find its surreal dream-like quality a bit creepy on another level.  There’s something Lynchian about the imagery (in fact the rabbits remind me of the strange human-sized bunnies in Lynch’s Inland Empire) with the rather dead-eyed toddler rabbit (being carried by mom at first, and then later a father who joins them on their nocturnal stroll) looking in windows at other animals engaging in mundane activities that somehow seem mysterious and otherworldly in Miyakoshi’s hands.  I mean, I bet you can read this in a sinister voice and end up with eerie story perfect for a scary story time.  Or read it in a comforting voice and lull a little one to sleep.  The expert, panoramic illustrations rendered in pencil, charcoal, and acrylic gouache masterfully give us a shadowy night both serene and spooky.

When’s My Birthday?, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Julie Fogliano, published by Roaring Brook, ISBN: 978-1626722934. Wow, Fogliano’s text bops along with great excitement, making you wish that your birthday could be every single day of the year. The glorious refrain: “when’s my birthday?/where’s my birthday?/how many days until/my birthday?” is wildly catchy, getting the ole heartbeat racing. And she doesn’t let up for a moment, we turn the page and we read “will my birthday be on tuesday?/will my birthday be tomorrow?/will my birthday be in winter?” and find our bodies dancing along with the bouncy words. All the while Christian Robinson’s adorably witty illustrations join in the fun, filling each spread with child-like wonder and warmth

 

Where’s Rodney?, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Carmen Bogan, published by Dream On Books and Yosemite Conservatory, ISBN: 978-1930238732. Artist Floyd Cooper is on a roll. Earlier this year he gave us the beautiful family story The Ring Bearer (reviewed on this blog here). Where’s Rodney?, a terrific celebration of being a child experiencing the wonder and glory of the outdoors, more specifically the breathtaking national park Yosemite. Author Carmen Bogan’s lively story introduces Rodney, an instantly likable kid who fidgets a bit in class, all the while eyeing what’s going on outside the window. When we arrive at Yosemite, yowsah! it’s a marvel. Cooper gives us a series of spreads showing Rodney’s delight in being outside. A double page spread showing him from afar, standing on a high rock, is a beaut. Then with a flip of the page we see reclining in a mountain’s crevice. Another great juxtaposition is the spread that shows Rodney looking like a giant as he investigates an anthill on the verso, and tiny as he stands at the base of a tree on the recto. Bogan’s series of opposites (“He was louder./He was quieter./He was faster./He was slower”) keeps the action moving at an exciting pace, and leading up to a beautiful moment with Rodney standing with his hands outstretched and a drop of rain on his forehead  and the words “Rodney was outside–more outside than he had ever been before.”

Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends,  978-1250076366.  First of all let me say I love wolves.  So any book that gives me a great wolf story rises to the top of my “favorites” pile.  This poignant, near wordless tale depicts the bond that quickly develops between a brave young girl wearing a Little Red Riding Hood style jacket and a scared wolf cub separated from its pack on a cold, snowy day.  Cordell’s work is always a joy, but here he does something brand new with his pen and ink with watercolor art, and the result is a book that gives the reader goosebumps.  Cordell serves up two linked storylines that merge as we cut back and forth between the huffing, shivering girl walking home from school and the little wolf who falls increasingly behind its elders.  When the two characters meet on an unforgettable series of spreads, we see a bond form.  And yet, we don’t get a cutesy revelation that the wolf wants to hang with humans.  The reader knows, and the girl knows that she must reunite the frightened animal with its pack, and a real sense of urgency develops.  Cordell gives the work the feel of a timeless fable as the kid saves the creature from a variety of dangers, and is then rewarded later by the wolves who come to her aid.  His masterful use of double page spreads deepens the tension of the unfolding events.