2021 Gift Guide Kicks Off: Favorite Picture Book of the Year
October 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
It’s getting to be the most wonderful time of year: Gift Guide season! Over the next few weeks, you’ll be treated to round ups of picture books, graphic novels, middle-grade books, young adult books, and specialty books with a gifty flair. This year, I’m especially excited to be partnering with Old Town Books, a fantastic indie here in Alexandria, VA, where I’ll be presenting my full Gift Guide LIVE and IN PERSON at 7pm on November 12 and 13, with a chance to shop with me afterwards (get your tickets here!).
Traditionally, I kick off every Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year. (Some past picks are here, here, here, and here.) I recognize that choosing books for loved ones is immensely personal, but sometimes a book comes along that checks all the boxes. It’s beautiful. It’s original. It’s hefty, packed with details that demand repeat readings. It’s got a nostalgic charm that appeals to us oldies doing the gifting. To hold it feels inherently special.
Towering toadstools! All I’m saying is that there aren’t many books you want to clutch to your chest and carry around with you, so when you find one, you just want everyone to have it, OK?
Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest (Ages 4-8), by the extraordinary Phoebe Wahl—I blinked and missed her 2020 picture book for last year’s Gift Guide, and I’ll not make that mistake again—is an anthology of four stories, one for each season. It stars a cheery, capable, caring little witch with a pointed red cap and a fondness for messy braids and fair isle sweaters. Little Witch Hazel lives alone at the base of a tree in the enchanting Mosswood forest, surrounded by trees and waterfalls and a community of gnomes, elves, goblins, trolls, dryads, anthropomorphic amphibians, and tiny talking mammals. He days are spent divided between work and play, between helping others and tending to herself.
It has been a long two years, and I feel like we all deserve to spend some time in a place where tea cakes and twinkling lights are always in fashion, where coziness and cocoa reign supreme, and where the wonders of the wilderness are just an acorn’s throw away. A place where we can dip our tired toes in crystal clear water one minute and ride on an owl’s back the next. A place where creatures watch out for one another, repay favors, and are always happy for an impromptu dance party.
Need I say more? Well, how about a few peeks inside.
Before we get going on the stories themselves, allow me to wax poetic about the book’s endpapers. How I adore a hand-fashioned map! A map that helps kids conceptualize the world they’re about to enter; that allows them to return to trace the journeys of the protagonist. Phoebe Wahl’s world-building is superbly skillful across every page of this book, and it all begins with these endpapers.
The book opens with “The Orphaned Egg,” a story for spring, where Little Witch Hazel comes across an abandoned egg on her walk home one afternoon. Almost as large as her, the egg requires some creativity to get it home, at which point Little Witch Hazel constructs a makeshift nest for it in front of the fire. Imagine her surprise the next morning, when she awakens to a “poof of a bird” perched on the end of her bed.
“The poof was an owl, and his name was Otis.” This fluffy baby owl goes on to do what baby owls do best: he grows and grows, until he’s too big for Little Witch Hazel’s tiny house. Living outside, though, poses other problems; the owl wreaks havoc on a neighbor’s roof. Little Witch Hazel knows a wild creature belongs with his kind, so she helps Otis learn to fly. When, one night, he leaves “as mysteriously and suddenly as he had arrived,” she knows it’s as it should be. But she blows a kiss into the air, hoping they’ll meet again. (Just you wait…)
Summer’s “The Lazy Day” finds Little Witch Hazel uncharacteristically grumpy. It’s the most beautiful day of the summer, and she’s stuck running errands in nearby Mosswood Village—there are library books to return and boots to mend—only all the shops are shuttered.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Little Witch Hazel hops aboard a raft with friends and spends the day floating down the river, going “nowhere in particular,” because that’s the best part about summer. As day turns into night, live bands strike up on the shore, and the water transforms into a jubilee of singing and dancing under twinkling lanterns. (How many months until summer again?)
Autumn’s “The Haunted Stump” is my daughter’s favorite, a funny tale about the fallout of unusual noises and overactive imaginations. When Little Witch Hazel first hears the spine-chilling “OOOOOOUUAAAAOOO” echoing through the forest, her unease is surpassed only by the Mole Sisters, who are convinced the sound must be the laugh of a “hobgoblin robber.” By the time our fearless leader is marching through the forest towards the sound, she is also joined by an entire mouse family, everyone speculating on the horror awaiting them (“It’s an ogre with huge stinky feet!”).
In fact, it’s only the tiniest of trolls, wailing because he has no one with whom to share his fungus soup. Darned if Little Witch Hazel and the others don’t sit right down and offer their company. After all, one of the sweetest sounds is the sound of new friendship.
Winter’s “The Blizzard” is my personal favorite, because just take a gander at these atmospheric spreads! Has snow ever looked more magical? It feels pretty magical to Little Witch Hazel, too, as she sets out on her rounds, tending to chipmunk toothaches and newborn bunnies. She even pulls a frog out of a crow’s throat! (Is there anything our intrepid heroine can’t do?)
But, as she returns home, Little Witch Hazel is caught in a blizzard, the dark forest blanketed such that she cannot find her house. It’s only thanks to the help of an old friend, repaying a favor, that our shivering girl is deposited back into her warm, cozy bed, where our final story ends.
Now, if you were getting ready to hunker down for a Long Winter’s Nap, wouldn’t you want this book for company? And if, for some reason, you aren’t feeling this one, just wait until my Massive Picture Book Round Up…coming soon to your favorite blog.
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Book gifted by Tundra. All opinions are my own.
Books gifted by Abrams, Simon & Schuster, & Chronicle Books, respectively. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying! Even if you aren’t local, you can still support this fantastic indie by shopping my Gift Guide online here.