2019 Gift Guide: Picture Books for Ages 3-7
December 1, 2019 § Leave a comment
Today is part recap, part intro. To kick off the picture book portion of my Gift Guide, I’ve already told you about my mad love for Home in the Woods and Pokko and the Drum. Earlier in the year in these pages, I sang the praises of Crab Cake, Lubna and Pebble, I am Hermes!, Camp Tiger, A Stone Sat Still, The Scarecrow, and Who Wet My Pants?—all of which would also make fantastic holiday gifts. But if you haven’t kept up with my reviews on Instagram all year long, I thought it was high time I shared some of them here. Because one or two (or all) of these might be perfect for someone on your list.
After they read my past two blog posts on My Favorite (Two) Picture Books of the Year, my kids wanted in on the action. Sure, they love the ones I picked. But here’s what they think I *should* have picked for the #1 spot. They rarely agree on anything, but I guess if they were going to agree, it makes sense it would be about a picture book that’s 90% humor and 10% science, written entirely in dialogue a.k.a. Elephant & Piggie (maybe the last thing they’ve agreed on?), and about a feeling my kids know intimately (especially this time of year): impatience.
For the “Are we there yet?” in all of us, Ross Burach’s The Very Impatient Caterpillar (Ages 4-7) chronicles the trials and tribulations of metamorphosis (“TWO WEEKS?!”) from the perspective of one caterpillar who, try as he might, is having a hard time holding it together amidst surprising and sloooooow bodily changes. If you have a soft spot for neurotic characters (as we apparently do), it’s pretty hard to resist reading these speech bubbles aloud without falling into empathetic giggles. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
That my daughter let me read this picture book poetry anthology straight through to her is a testament that something special is going on. Beautifully packaged in a large trim size with gold etching along the spine, The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems (Ages 6-9) is my favorite gift books of the year. Sure, the poems are carefully curated by the late (and great) Paul B. Janeczko. Sure, each one is visually presented with ample breathing room alongside Richard Jones’ quietly expressive paintings. But readers get more than stellar poetry and lovely art with this. These pages abound with bite-sized life lessons. After all, someone has to give it to them straight (or, as is the case with poetry, not straight at all).
From “How to Build a Poem” to “How to Tell Goblins from Elves,” each of the 33 poems by contemporary and classic poets tackle a different challenge: some lofty, some fantastical, and some decidedly practical. Where else can you find a poetic ode to toasting marshmallows alongside “How to Read Braille”? Where else is the pivotal experience of learning to ride a bike followed by advice on what to do if you’re tired of your hair (“Feed it to a hungry pig;/ Then go out and buy a wig.”)? Some of the fabulous poets represented are Margarita Engle, Kwame Alexander, Douglas Florian, Marilyn Singer, Nikki Grimes, April Wayland, and J. Patrick Lewis. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
I love a book that plays with perspective, reminding us that the way we experience the world is based on our size, orientation, biases, even our anxiety. Clever visual humor abounds in Josh Schneider’s pitch-perfect picture book, Ultrabot’s First Playdate (Ages 3-6), in which a massive red robot experiences jitters leading up to a playdate his “professor” parent has set up for him. “What if Becky was mean? What if she broke all of Ultrabot’s toys?” (‘That’s not a very positive attitude,” says the professor.)
In the first half of the story, we’re introduced to Becky as a giant, clawed, hairy beast, bedazzled with barrettes. But, as the playdate commences, we realize this was Ultrabot’s initial impression of her. In reality, she’s a human girl, small enough to fit inside the palm of Ultrabot’s hand (though still bedazzled with barrettes). The two get off to a shy, hesitant start, but they begin to find they’re not as different as they appear. They both, for example, like the crusts cut off their sandwiches (though wait until you see what the robot’s sandwich looks like). But it’s what the two do differently that ultimately makes the playdate even more fun. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
We’ve been huge fans of Kenneth Kraegel since The Song of Delphine (reviewed here), but he pulled out all the stops for his latest, Wild Honey from the Moon (Ages 3-7), a picture book told in seven mini-chapters about a mother’s epic journey to save her son. When Mother Shrew reads that the only cure for her sweet ailing Hugo is “one teaspoon of wild honey from the moon,” she’s off. “But you can’t fly,” whispers Hugo. “Darling, I am your mother.” Because, really, that’s all that matters.
In each chapter, Mother Shrew must face down, outwit, or charm a different living obstacle, including a great horned owl, a fleet of “night mares,” and the coolest Queen Bee you’ll ever meet. To say that Kraegel’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations are lush is an understatement. (They remind me of when I started wearing contact lenses as a ten year old and couldn’t believe I’d gone ten years without realizing one could pick out the individual leaves on the trees.) And yet, Kraegel’s art is never sentimental. There’s a grittiness to his fine lines, which give the art texture and edge, reminding us that beauty is rich and soulful and complex. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
Lots of attention gets paid to the bravery required by kids to head off to school in those early years. But what about those who get left behind? The parents, the younger siblings, the PETS?! Meet Truman, an unassuming, donut-sized tortoise who’s “peaceful” and “pensive” and knows there’s something going on with his Sarah. After all, she ate an extra-large banana, put a bow in her hair (a bow!), and “strapped on a backpack SOOOOOO big, thirty-two small tortoises could ride along in it—but zero tortoises did.” And then she left through the front door, right after touching her finger to Truman and telling him, “Be brave.”
What does bravery look like when you’re staring down a long day alone in a glass tank on a window ledge high above honking taxis and the number 11 bus? Well, if you’re Truman, you’re going to find a way out of that tank. You’re going to find a way, verrrrry slooooowly, across that “endless,” pink, toy-strewn rug. Because sometimes being a pet demands extraordinary measures. Because the only thing that matters is that Sarah is gone and you NEED TO GET ON THAT NUMBER 11 BUS AND FIND HER. A reminder that where there’s a will, there’s a way, Truman (Ages 4-7) is written with perfect wit and repetition by Jean Reidy and whimsically illustrated in a palette guaranteed to elicit smiles by Lucy Ruth Cummins. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
I love picture books that subvert stereotypes of femininity. What if girls can be gentle and commanding? Nurturing and fearless? Sophie Gilmore’s Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (Ages 3-7), the story of a little girl who cares for the aches and pains of crocodiles in exchange for their wild tales of adventures, lures us in with its serene reptilian green palette and child-centric fantastical world. Our hearts swell at the whimsical illustrations of Little Doctor bandaging crocodile limbs, calling to mind our own little ones and their imaginative play. But when Big Mean shows up, hissing and snarling and threatening to bite Little Doctor, only a girl with the heart of a fearless beast can see past appearances to diagnose the real problem and dare to fix it. An absolute delight. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
Full disclosure: I may have second guessed our decision not to have another child while reading Nine Months: Before a Baby is Born (Ages 3-7), by Miranda Paul and Jason Chin, and not only because of the gorgeous paintings of glowing bellies and developing fetuses, or the poetic captions about hearts fluttering, tiny hairs sprouting, and itty-bitty thumbs being tasted for the first time. No, the real reason my heart twinged while reading this book is because this is the “new sibling” book I was searching for all those years ago when my son was getting ready to become a big brother.
In this book, children follow along with the monthly changes happening inside a mother’s ballooning belly (the awesome science here is supplemented by a four-page index with in-depth information about each of the pregnancy growth stages, including amazing things babies can do before they’re born). But readers also watch the bouncy, soon-to-be big sister prepare for her life to change, too. They watch as she cares for her baby doll, as she feels the babies’ hiccups by placing her hand on her mom’s belly, and as she looks uncertainly at her parents as they head to the hospital and leave her with grandma. An absolute must for anyone curious about how babies grow—and who isn’t, really? (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
Linda Sue Park’s Gondra’s Treasure (Ages 3-7), exuberantly illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt, blends Eastern and Western dragon lore to explore mixed-race identity and unconditional parental love. With a Western dragon mom and an Eastern dragon dad, Gondra is a unique blend of fire and mist, subtlety and flair, fortitude and intrigue. As Gondra puzzles out who she is and who she might become, she’s joined fast to her stuffed black and white cow. To choose who is more adorable—child dragon or plush cow—is not a task I would ever be up to. But one thing is for sure: Gondra’s spunk reminds us that blended heritage is something to be celebrated.
Any child knows the palpable rage of having one’s dignity affronted, whether it’s having a toy ripped from his hand or a tower of blocks purposely knocked down by another. In Not Your Nest! (Ages 3-7), written in speech-bubble text by Gideon Sterer and exuberantly illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi, children will find a kindred spirit in a yellow bird, who toils painstakingly to build the perfect nest in an Acacia tree, only to find (every. single. time.) that a different animal has moved in and claimed it for his own. Including animals who have no business even living in nests! It’s preposterous; it’s maddening; it’s downright WRONG. And Bird is determined to set things right.
And yet, what does it mean to set things right? How do we share in a world where we constantly feel like we are on the defensive? As it turns out, it’s in the shades of grey where the magic happens. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)
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Tagged: Andrea Tsurumi, animals, April Wayland, big sister and brother books, butterflies, caterpillars, children's books about investigating heritage, crocodiles, Douglas Florian, dragons, friendship in children's stories, Gideon Sterer, hedgehogs in children's books, holiday gift guide 2019, humor, J. Patrick Lewis, Jason Chin, Jennifer Black Reinhardt, Josh Schneider, Kenneth Kraegel, Kwame Alexander, Linda Sue Park, Margarita Engle, Marilyn Singer, metamorphosis in children's books, Miranda Paul, mothers in children's books, patience, Paul B. Janeczko, poetry, pregnancy in children's picture books, Richard Jones, robots, Ross Burach, shyness in children's stories, Sophie Gilmore, speech bubbles, theme of journey in children's books, transitioning back to school, turtles
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