2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

October 29, 2020 Comments Off on 2020 Gift Guide: Picture Book Round-Up

Last week, I told you about my two verrrrry favorite picture books of the year: The Bear and the Moon (Ages 2-6) and Girl on a Motorcycle (Ages 5-9). Today, I’m telling you about others I like a whole heck of a lot. I’ve selected titles, both fiction and non-fiction, for a range of ages, from two to ten years old. Some of them are jaw-droppingly beautiful; others elicit laughter; many invite wonder and compassion. All of them are deserving of a permanent home, where they can be enjoyed again and again and again.

Before we start, there are several I’ve already blogged about this year. Rather than repeating myself, I’m going to link to my original posts. The ones with mega gift potential from earlier in the year are Me and Mama (Ages 2-6), The Ocean Calls (Ages 4-8), Madame Bedobedah (Ages 5-9), Swashby and the Sea (Ages 3-7), The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), In a Jar (Ages 4-8), and The Oldest Student (Ages 6-10).

And now, here are ones new to these pages:

If You Come to Earth
by Sophie Blackall
Ages 3-8

Want to spread positivity? Gift this book. Like, to everyone. Sophie Blackall’s passion for our planet and its diversity of human and animal life is evident on every one of these glorious pages, where inventive spreads and tiny details beg to be poured over. Inspired by the thousands of children she met during her travels around the world on behalf of UNICEF and Save the Children, the Caldecott medalist wanted to create a book that speaks to what unites us: our collective home.

In If You Come to Earth, a boy pens a letter to an imagined Visitor from Outer Space, in which he recounts “what you need to know” about our complex planet. Employing convincing, childlike language, he begins at the macro level (“ours is the greeny-blue [planet]”) and then hones in on cities and towns, types of homes, families, bodies, and feelings. (“Inside our heads, we are usually thinking. You can’t see our thoughts, but sometimes we show our feelings on our faces.”) A range of experiences is celebrated, from getting dressed and going to school, to eating and getting around. Where most books would stop there, Blackall peels back more layers still, including ocean and animal life, music and art, and even invisible things like “ghosts, gravity, and germs.”

With eighty pages bound in a shimmery, gold-embossed cover, this book feels like a genuine gift with every page turn, a trove of treasures.

Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away
by Meg Medina; illus. Sonia Sánchez
Ages 4-8

You don’t have to have experienced a friend moving away to connect with this playful, resonant story highlighting the beauty of young friendship. Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away is that rarity of a picture book, where every word works in perfect tandem with the dynamic art. It has all the makings of a classic (and I’m not just saying that because the artwork puts me in mind of the legend Ezra Jack Keats).

Evelyn Del Rey is Daniela’s “número uno best friend.” The girls live in near-twin apartments across the street. When they’re not moving fluidly through each other’s spaces, they’re sending messages along a string between their bedroom windows. But today, Daniela explains, is different. Today, Evelyn’s family will get into a moving truck and drive towards a life that, for the first time, won’t mirror that of her best friend. Daniela’s candid narration bounces from sadness to joy and back again, as she prepares to say goodbye to her friend, while making the most of their final hours together (hide and seek! playing with boxes! spinning in empty rooms!).

With vibrant patterns and washes of color contrasted against rough, angled pencil lines, the art encapsulates both the kinetic energy and quiet intimacy of the girls and their friendship. Matching stickers, secret handshakes, and solemn promises can’t erase the sadness of saying goodbye, but they’re testaments to the power of love over loss.

The Invisible Alphabet
by Joshua David Stein & Ron Barrett
Ages 3-6

Publishing companies are long past putting out alphabet books merely for teaching kids their ABCs. Alphabet books have become a place for creators to take a tried-and-true format and push its boundaries, subvert our expectations, and showcase tremendous ingenuity. I’ve been wrong about fantastically oddball alphabet books before, and I won’t be again. The Invisible Alphabet has mad appeal for both pre-readers and early readers alike.

This is a book about what we don’t see. B is for Bare. P is for Popped. R is for Ran away. Every page offers enticing visual cues to something that just happened. For E is for Erased, we see an orange eraser sitting beside a still-slightly-visible pencil drawing of a mythical creature. The art throughout the book consists of fine black-and-white ink drawings, selectively accented with neon orange.

There’s a specific situation to be grasped on each page, but careful readers will piece together larger narratives across multiple pages, as the same handful of children recur, their everyday lives showcased at home, at school, and in between. Y is for Yesterday, when you should have ordered this book.

Julián at the Wedding
by Jessica Love
Ages 2-7

It’s no secret that Julián is a Mermaid is one of our favorite picture books ever, as much for its quietly subversive story about individuality and acceptance as for its finely-penned, richly colored, never-seen-anything-quite-like-it illustrations on brown paper. Well, the follow up is finally here! Julián at the Wedding is every bit the eye candy of the first, with old and new characters joining together to celebrate love and inclusion.

Julián and his abuela are off to a wedding for two brides. Julián, clad in a dapper purple suit and purple shoes, gets to be in the wedding, alongside a girl named Marisol wearing a crown of poppies and a peach tulle dress. Everyone knows the best part of being a kid at a wedding isn’t just walking the dog down the aisle or sprinkling flower petals; it’s the unsupervised time, while the grown-ups are preoccupied, to sneak off and make some revelry of your own. Julián and Marisol hatch their plans under the brides’ table, before disappearing into a fairy house of their own creation.

Things don’t exactly go according to plan (think: mud), but it’s nothing a little creative wardrobe switcheroo can’t fix. With love in the air, wings can sprout in surprising places.

I Talk Like a River
by Jordan Scott; illus. Sydney Smith
Ages 5-10

Seeing yourself reflected in the pages of a book can be life-altering for a child. But when that representation is handled so beautifully that it invites connection and compassion from those outside the experience, it can alter the world. I Talk Like a River, by “own voices” author Jordan Scott, illustrated by the supremely talented Sydney Smith, features a boy who stutters, an experience rarely documented in picture books. In the genuine, lyrical way the boy describes his stuttering—not just the physical sensations but the emotions they bring up—he brings our attention to the role language plays in our lives and the way we can make space for those around us to be heard.

“I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me,” the boy begins, “and I can’t say them all.” Word sounds like P, C, and M get stuck in the back of the boy’s throat, so most of the time he stays “quiet as a stone.” At school, the boy hides at the back of the class; when forced to speak, he is met with stares and murmurs from his classmates.

On a particularly frustrating day, the boy’s father picks him up from school and brings him to the river, where he likens the boy’s speech patterns to the “bubbling, whirling, churning, and crashing” of the rapids, versus the calm, smooth waters down the way. As the boy swims, his strong arms navigating the current, he relishes a new, primal connection with the “proud river.” Smith’s moody, blurred watercolors echo the boy’s struggles, and the ethereal play of light on every page speaks to the hope and peace that can come from re-framing our challenges.

When I Draw a Panda
by Amy June Bates
Ages 4-8

I have one kid who excels at step-by-step drawing instructions and another who will tear up multiple sheets of paper and spill endless tears because her art doesn’t look “exactly right.” When I Draw a Panda encourages children to embrace the wonky circles and celebrate the creative process itself, in all its exciting unpredictability.

We meet a girl who loves to draw but sometimes crumples in frustration when her “perfect circle” looks more like “a perfect flat tire.” But then she discovers that drawing lots and lots of circles can morph into something entirely new, like a panda in a top hat! Not only does this panda spring to life, he begins to model for the young artist what it means to draw your “own way.” When someone tells the panda to draw a castle the right way, he draws it the “left way.” When he’s supposed to draw something “pretty,” he draws something “silly.”

Quickly, the girl embraces this freer, looser way to making art, adding squiggles and unicorn horns to conventional subjects. She draws on and off the page and, most importantly, thinks deeply about what she’s drawing. The result is an energetic explosion of color and movement that celebrates creation over imitation.

I am Every Good Thing
by Derrick Barnes, illus. Gordon C. James
Ages 2-6

Black boy joy spills from the pages of this empowering book, whose oil paintings exude warmth and whose poem begs to be read aloud. I am/ a nonstop ball of energy./ Powerful and full of light./ I am a go-getter. A difference maker./ A leader. By the same team as the award-winning, equally infectious Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, I am Every Good Thing is what every parent wants to say to their Black son, born into a world quick to sentence him for his skin color.

You are greatness. You are “good to the core.” You are a “roaring flame of creativity,” a “lightning round of questions,” and a “star-filled sky of solutions.” You are going places. Gordon C. James paints the faces of his own sons alongside those of friends, as he showcases Black boys in movement, from the athletic field to the dance floor, on skateboards and with snowballs. Resilience is emphasized as knees get scraped; manners are non negotiable; fear is normalized; and love is essential.

A jubilant ode, not just to Black boys, but to the preciousness that is childhood.

On Account of the Gum
by Adam Rex
Ages 4-7

My daughter has insisted on reading this book aloud to me at least once a day for the past month. A madcap picture book creator that’s got a pulse on what gets kids laughing (and brilliantly subverts storytelling conventions in the process)? That’s Adam Rex.

Chewing gum is loads of fun…until you fall asleep and wake up with it in your hair. On Account of the Gum delights in good intentions gone awry, as a girl sits at the breakfast table at the mercy of the narrator and her relatives, each trying their hand at some outlandish remedy to remove the gum from her hair. In conversational, second-person rhyme, each page builds on the last, reminiscent of that age-old favorite, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” (if only this girl HAD swallowed her gum…).

Did I mention it’s picture day at school?

The Moon Keeper
by Zosienka
Ages 3-6

There is no shortage of picture books about the moon waxing and waning, but this one goes straight to the top. To page through The Moon Keeper is to know you’re in the presence of something truly special: eloquent, gorgeous, quietly witty, and deeply compassionate. (Plus very cute polar bear butts.)

Emile, a most conscientious polar bear, learns he has been selected by the night creatures for the prestigious role of “moon keeper.” Determined not to let anyone down, he packs an assortment of supplies, from flashlights to feather dusters, and starts up a 93-stepped ladder. From his perch in the sycamore tree, the moon is even more magnificent than he realized! He busies himself dusting off clouds and keeping fruit bats at bay.

Only, what’s that? Is the moon shrinking? What’s wrong? Is it hungry? Does it need firefly jokes? But the moon only gets thinner. “I was supposed to protect it,” Emile confesses to a big green bird, “but I don’t know how to make it stay.” To that, the bird offers some sage reassurance: “things come and go—you’ll see.”

A charming testament to the natural cycles around us, and a reminder that sometimes we need to let go to find beauty anew.

Sun Flower Lion
by Kevin Henkes
Ages 1-5

As with Kitten’s First Full Moon, once treasured above all by my daughter, Kevin Henkes once again capitalizes on young children’s love for simple, repetitive shapes and a budding understanding of real versus pretend.

In Sun Flower Lion, A single visual element—a black circle framed by yellow scalloping—is at once a sun, a flower, and a young lion. As the story evolves, each element building on the last, the reader is continually asked if he can spot the object in question. The story grows in abstraction, as the lion falls asleep under the sun in a field of flowers and starts a dream sequence, where the flowers become cookies and “the lion eats them all.” When the lion wakes, he realizes how hungry he actually is and races home (“Can you see him? No you can’t. He is running too fast.”)

This is one of several title on the list with a visual surprise waiting under the jacket cover.

We Are Water Protectors
by Carole Lindstrom; illus. Michaela Goade
Ages 4-8

In We Are Water Protectors, stirring prose and stunning watercolors combine in a memorable call to action for young people to stand up for environmental justice, inspired by the Standing Rock Water Protectors.

Our young narrator—proud, passionate, and fierce when she needs to be—is the heart of this book. Echoing the words of her elders, she explains the sacredness of water in her people’s lives: “Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me,” nourishing us inside our mother’s bodies even before we’re born. The lush illustrations invoke a fluid relationship between water and the living world, one currently threatened by a “black snake,” which will spoil the water, poison the animals, and “wreck everything in its path.” This snake is a reference to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is explained in detail in the book’s Afterward, including the protest movement to block it.

Rather than fearing this snake, our young narrator is emboldened to fight it, invoking a legacy of Native resilience. Furthermore, she calls upon all young readers who care about our interconnected plant to join her in becoming fierce protectors of this essential natural resource. “We are stewards of the Earth. Our spirits have not been broken. We are water protectors. WE STAND! The black snake is in for the fight of its life.”

The Old Truck
by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey
Ages 2-6

250 stamps were handcrafted to create the retro look for this quietly powerful story. Is there anything more iconic on a road trip than a barn in the distance with a rusted pickup truck parked beside it, half-concealed by overgrown grass? Have you ever wondered about that truck’s story, what work it has done, all it has seen?

In telling the seemingly simple story of a single truck, the Pumphrey brothers tell a larger intergenerational story, one inspired by the strong female figures of their own childhood, including a great-grandmother who bought her own farm in Louisiana with the money she’d earned picking cotton. The story begins, “On a small farm, an old truck worked hard,” and we see a Black couple, flanked by a red barn and a girl in braids, loading baskets of produce into the back of a red truck, presumably to sell at a farmer’s market.

The Old Truck is a story of time passing: of a truck that works hard, that “grew weary and tired,” that “dreamed” at night, much like the girl herself, of sailing the seas and chasing the stars. It’s a story of a truck that comes to be parked for good alongside the barn, usurped by shinier, newer machines. It’s a story of a daughter who outlives her parents, who takes over the farm and works long days herself, who one day tows the old truck out from the overgrown grasses and restores it, piece by piece, so it can still give to the world. It’s a story of imagination, hard work, loyalty, and pride.

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera
by Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann
Ages 7-10

This exquisite non-fiction picture book boasts a narrative thread so enticing, so perfectly paced, that children will scarcely notice they’re being schooled on one of nature’s most fascinating and necessary species.

The apis mellifera, most common variety of the honeybee, lives only about 35 days, but in that time, she flies upwards of 500 miles, visits 30,000 flowers, and collects enough nectar for one-twelfth a teaspoon of honey. But before she even begins to fly, she has 25 days of work to do in the hive: eating, swelling, tidying, caring for new larvae, passing messages from the Queen, building, storing, and defending. The book starts with the honeybee’s birth, then builds in momentum as the bee gets closer (but “not yet”) and closer (still “not yet”) to the much-anticipated moment—like a child yearning to spread her own wings—of flying.

In Honeybee, Rohmann plays with perspective in marvelous ways, magnifying the bee to put us squarely inside the dark, tight hive, then pulling back to remind us that she works as part of a team of thousands. Four pages of extensive back matter, including an anatomical diagram, round out the book, guaranteeing that children (and their parents) will emerge with an informed appreciation for these busy, bumbling, beautiful workers.

My Friend Earth
by Patricia MacLachlan; illus. Francesca Sanna
Ages 2-6

Lyrically written and enchantingly illustrated with die-cut pages perfect for inquiring fingers, My Friend Earth personifies the earth as a young brown-skinned girl, who wakes in spring, naps in winter, and in between tends lovingly to all living things.

I love the verbs Patricia MacLachlan invokes for “my friend Earth,” that delicate balance between observation and action performed by the best of teachers and parents. She “watches” the “spider spinning silver.” She “guides” the “zebra baby to find his mother.” She “pours” the summer rain to fill streams; and then, when she pours too much, she dries the land.

And I love the way Francesca Sanna’s artwork infuses playfulness into the relationship between Earth and her surroundings. She rides on the back of an albatross; she curls up in a falling leaf; she wraps her arms around a snowbank full of dormant animals. At times we catch the tiniest glimpse of mischief on her face.

A lovely reminder that, for all the gentleness our friend Earth shows us, we best show the same to her.

Hello, Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers
by Matthew Cordell
Ages 5-9

When I heard that Caldecott medalist Matthew Cordell worked on this picture book for a decade, I knew it would be special. But I was unprepared for my wash of emotions upon reading it. I grew up watching Mister Rogers, but it wasn’t a favorite. And yet, reading Hello Neighbor, I teared up at Fred Rogers’ passion for his work; felt nostalgia for the opening and closing songs of the show; smiled at remembrances of learning how crayons were made; and got chills reading some of his quotes (“The greatest gift you can give is your honest self.”). Something about the way Mister Rogers talked to me as a child must have made a lasting impression on me.

In the first authorized picture book biography of Fred Rogers, Cordell brings this quiet, genuine, curious, and empathetic man to life for a new generation. The proof lies in the evocative details included about the production set Rogers constructed—as dedicated to whimsy as diversity—and the fans he made along the way. Rogers attempted to do what no one on TV had done: to showcase for children the ups and downs of life, to honor the struggles as much as the successes, and to give credit to the interior life as a source of strength.

Fred Rogers showed us that compassion must be taught by bearing witness to the struggles of others. His reminder to lead with curiosity and love couldn’t feel more timely.

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