2021 Gift Guide: The Picture Books
November 11, 2021 § Leave a comment
It was another stellar year for picture books! Given the size of the list below (sorry not sorry), you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you I had a very difficult time narrowing it down. But it’s true, and I already regret leaving some out. (Thankfully, there’s always Instagram.) What I’m focusing on today are those with the giftiest potential. Whether you’re looking for surprise twists, laugh-out-loud humor, exquisite beauty, moving true stories, affirmations of self-love and acceptance, or ridiculously cute animals, you’ll find something novel and memorable here. Most importantly, you’ll gift a book to be relished and revisited for years. Still, I don’t envy you making these decisions, because these books are all so, so good.
Before we get started, a reminder that my Gift Guide actually started two weeks ago, with four picture books that warranted posts of their own. All of these should be considered part of this master list, but I won’t repeat myself here. They are Little Witch Hazel (my verrrrrry favorite picture book of the year) and the seek-and-find trifecta of If You Go Down to the Woods, Have You Seen Gordon?, and Mr. Watson’s Chickens.
Bear Wants to Sing
by Cary Fagan; illus. Dena Seiferling (Tundra Books)
A story about musical expression, the best kind of friendship, and the pushiest kind of manners, served up in silvery graphite spreads that are downright breathtaking? Sign me up. Add in a dose of unexpected, bust-out-laughing humor, and this will be an easy favorite.
Bear Wants to Sing opens with a smattering of children’s instruments, left on a forest floor in the wake of a departing wagon. Bear is the first to come upon the scene, taken with the “plink” of the ukulele. In perfect keeping with youthful egocentricity, he quickly declares himself a musician to anyone who might be around. His audience, it turns out, is a mouse perched on a tree stump, who informs the bear he’s “all ears.” Only, each time the bear opens his mouth to unleash his musical virtuosity for his new friend, a different animal bursts onto the scene, dons an instrument, and assumes center stage. Any reader up for the challenge of making up tunes to silly lyrics will be heartily rewarded here.
However entertained we may be by a crow singing to a tambourine or a snake rocking out on a drum, our hearts begin to ache for Bear, who waits with growing impatience while the others talk over him. It’s Mouse, the tiniest of them all, who shows him both advocacy and compassion, two hallmarks of thoughtful friendship. And, trust me, Bear’s song is worth waiting for: what he lacks in finesse, he makes up for in enthusiasm.
Everybody in the Red Brick Building
by Anne Wynter; illus. Oge Mora (Balzer & Bray)
I grew up on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the middle of Manhattan—my bedroom window always cracked to let air in—and to this day, some of the most soothing sounds in the world to me are police sirens, car horns, and the exhalations of buses pulling over to let folks on. For the first few nights at sleepaway camp every summer, I would lie rigid in my cot, listening to the deafening sound of silence, broken only by a mysterious rustling of plant life, and imagine all the perils waiting to befall me when I inevitably needed to step outside to pee.
Everybody in the Red Brick Building is an onomatopoeia-rich story that’s sure to become a bedtime favorite. With names like Rayhan and Cairo and a multi-unit apartment building on a bustling street, Anne Wynter gives an urban makeover to the classic bedtime story, riffing on “The House That Jack Built.” Add to that Oge Mora’s stirring artistic interpretation of abruptly-awakened apartment dwellers and the sounds that soothe them back to sleep, and we’ve got a story that positively sings.
“Everybody in the red brick building was asleep.” That is, until baby Izzie lets out a howling “WaaaAAH!” that triggers a domino effect. Suddenly, a parrot is squawking, a jittery cat is pouncing, a car alarm is blaring, and kids are jumping out of bed to play flashlight tag and launch toy rockets. The building is fully awash in a crescendo of sound. Enter the parents, who swoop in to click off flashlights, cover up parrots, and offer songs and shushing noises, until everyone is resettled in bed. In the relative quiet, the calm of outside sounds take over, from the rhythmic street sweeper to the falling acorns to the gentle “ting ting” of wind chimes. But the most soothing sound of all? The beating of her mother’s heart against baby Izzie’s chest.
Brave as a Mouse
by Nicolò Carozzi (Random House Studio)
We belong to each other. That’s what I think every time I read this debut by Veronese illustrator, Nicolò Carozzi. Brave as a Mouse is a whimsical cat-and-mouse chase story, with a very trusting goldfish at its center, but its lifelike graphite illustrations, rendered in a moody earth-toned palette with blue accents, coupled with its dramatic page turns, easily elevate it to one of the most visually exciting books of the year. Gah, this book is gorgeous!
“Would you like to play?” Mouse asks a goldfish in a bowl, and the two find two pages worth of creative ways to play together…until “three others wanted to play, too.” These three foreboding shadows belong to three hungry black cats, who quickly surround the glass bowl and dip a threatening paw into the water. What can Mouse do to protect his new friend?
The answer is “wild.” It’s “bold.” It’s “brave.” It isn’t even a “good idea”…until it is. When distracting the cats is not enough, Mouse must stage the ultimate act to save the fish, even if it means their friendship can’t be what it was. We can do hard things. Even when we feel tiny and insignificant and afraid. And at no time are we more successful than when we do them out of caring for each other.
Aaron Slater, Illustrator
by Andrea Beaty; illus. David Roberts (Abrams)
Aaron Slater, Illustrator is the latest in the hugely popular “Questioneers” series, though it stands equally well on its own. If you’re going to tell the story of a child with dyslexia, who finds expression and empowerment through the visual arts, you better bring your A game to the illustrations. And David Roberts delivers in spades! Such care has been taken here to honor neurodiversity, self-expression, and the right kind of support inside and outside the classroom.
Since he was a toddler, our young protagonist—named after Aaron Douglas, an African American painter during the Harlem Renaissance—has filled his days with drawing, painting, and chalking. As he gets older, he longs to create the kind of stories his family reads to him on the “old garden swing.” And yet, Aaron knows that before he can write, he must learn to read, and that’s where the dream falters. No matter how many lessons he has, the letters always squiggle on the page. By the time he gets to Miss Greer’s second grade class, Aaron wants only to blend in, ashamed of a brain that marks him as different.
Thankfully, Miss Greer celebrates her students as individuals. It takes time, but she identifies the storyteller inside Aaron and helps him unleash his creative potential. All the while, he continues to work on his reading, taking the long view as he allows himself success in other areas. Did I mention the book’s text is set in Dyslexie, a typeface designed for people with dyslexia? Did I mention the Afterward references other learning differences, like dysgraphia and ADHD? Did I mention the fabulous illustrations, which merge the visual style we’re accustomed to with Aaron’s own loosely-penned, spillover drawings, showing us a world all the richer because he’s in it?
Time is a Flower
by Julie Morstad (Tundra Books)
Time is at once measurable and abstract, indisputable and subjective. When our kids are little, the days feel endless, but then we blink and the same children are babbling, walking, reading. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a new parent was to think of the day in three parts: if the morning was a hot mess, lunchtime was a clean slate. Now, ten-plus years later, I can scarcely keep track of where we are in time, so quickly do the weeks and months pass.
Julie Morstad made last year’s Gift Guide, and the one before that, and she’ll likely keep making them because her visual acumen is pitch-perfect, as captivating to kids as to those who read to them. Her color palette and the flatness of her lines elicit nostalgia—her art puts me in mind of mod fashion—yet the copious white space and decided playfulness give her books a freshness all their own. These books take up residence in the everyday details of life, transforming the mundane into the magical.
In Time is a Flower, Morstad explores the idea of time in a child’s life, offering fun, imaginative ways of thinking about its passage, beyond the “tick tick tock of the clock and numbers and words on a calendar.” Time is a butterfly that used to be a caterpillar; or a flower that used to be a seed—and now sheds its petals all at once. “Time is night for someone. And day for someone else.” It’s a sunbeam that moves across a sleeping cat; or a face “whose lines and shapes change little by little, year by year.” Time moves slowly when we’re waiting on the school day to end, or far too quickly when the tide destroys our sandcastle. But for all its tricks and turns, time never stops showcasing the beauty of the natural world.
Bodies are Cool
by Tyler Feder (Dial)
Is it naïve to think a book could change the world? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whenever I page through Bodies are Cool, an inclusive, sing-songy tribute to human bodies, including skin tone, body shape, and hair style, I’m struck by how glaringly absent a book like this was from my own childhood. In a society that’s doing its darndest, every day, to infiltrate us with a single idea of beauty, what would happen if children were bombarded with the opposite from a very young age?
“Big bodies, small bodies,/ dancing, playing happy bodies!/ Look at all these different bodies!/ Bodies are cool!” Whether packed onto a subway car or swimming at a rec center, Tyler Feder highlights diversity within crowds. And he covers all the bases, from freckles to leg hair, “sticky-outy tummies” to “knobby knees,” bare-chested men to breast-feeding moms. There are bodies in wheelchairs and braces, bodies with tattoos and “tell-a-story scars.”
These different bodies aren’t just normalized, they’re celebrated. And while the book gives parents and children useful and creative language for noticing bodies, it ends with a refreshing reminder that we get to define our own bodies on our own terms. “This body, that body,/ his and her and their body./ However you define your body!/ Bodies are cool!”
Bear is a Bear
by Jonathan Stutzman; illus. Dan Santat (Balzer & Bray)
Years ago, when I was sick in bed and my daughter was keeping me company, she happened upon the towering pile of clothes on a chair in the corner and caught sight of a fuzzy paw poking out from beneath. “What’s this?” she asked. “That’s Clarence, my old teddy bear,” I told her. She looked at me aghast. “YOU MEAN HE’S JUST BEEN ABANDONED HERE ALL THIS TIME?!” And with that, she tucked Clarence under her arm and paraded him over to her bedroom, where she has loved on him ever since. (She still periodically admonishes me for my neglect.)
Guaranteed to elicit knowing smiles from kids and a twang of nostalgia from those reading to them, Bear is a Bear is a tender, poetic ode to the everyday magic of stuffed childhood companions, following a girl and her beloved bear from the day her mom presents him to her, until years later when the girl, now a young woman, packs him away in an attic trunk. (Cue the tissues! Though it doesn’t end here.)
Over the years, the bear serves a litany of roles, from receptacle for runny noses to plush pillow for a tired head; from tea party guest to fellow bookworm; from brave protector during thunderstorms to cozy company under shooting stars. Jonathan Stutzman’s short, declarative sentences—all of them begin “Bear is,” including the swelling refrain, “Bear is a bear full of love”—are imaginatively interpreted by Dan Santat’s larger-than-life art. On some level, the listener understands the bear is merely a stuffed toy, though we never see him drawn that way until the end. We see Bear the way the child does, as a living, breathing entity. A best friend in a world of the child’s own creation. That is, until the call of the real world eclipses her make-believe one.
The Me I Choose to Be
by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; art by Regis & Kahran Bethencourt (Little Brown)
When The Me I Choose to Be—an electrifying tribute to self-love and the power of potential—showed up on my doorstep, my jaw hit the ground. This book is STUNNING. First-person poetic affirmations are framed by vibrant, commanding, joyfully staged photographs of Black and Brown children.
“Some may think they know who I am,/ but here’s what you must understand./ My creativity and curiosity/ flow without end,/ and if I meet an obstacle,/ I just begin again.” Who are you? A bridge builder “connecting people and nations”? A “weaver of words”? A maker, creator, conjuror? A free spirit, moving “to the rhythm of [your] own heartbeat”? Props, face paint, fashion accessories, and dramatic backgrounds make performance art of the imagination, inventiveness, and wit cited in the text.
But this isn’t merely a book about considering potential. It’s also rich in social-emotional validation. “I am Joyful” and “I am Sad” face off next to one another. “I am Not (That) Cool” is one of my favorites, where a suspendered boy hams it up in front of the camera: “I don’t always know what to say,/ and every so often I go the wrong way.” There’s power in these photographs—more so for the vulnerability that sits alongside the passion and poise.
The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship
by Kim Tomsic; illus. Hadley Hooper (Chronicle Books)
My favorite non-fiction picture book of the year is also one of the most exquisite examples of narrative non-fiction I’ve ever seen (that paper! those colors! that art! those page turns!). It tells an amazing story—a story we’d warm to even if it was fictional—only it gives us an added case of the goosies because we know from the start it REALLY HAPPENED.
Sometimes, reality trumps fiction. And when it does, it’s usually because love is at play. Love makes possible things we couldn’t possibly dream up. The love that one man shows a herd of wild, angry African elephants, brought to a wildlife sanctuary called Thula Thula, will change the course of those elephants’ lives. But it will also change his own life—and the lives of his loved ones. It’s a love that reminds us how little separates us from the animal world, especially if we lead with our heart.
Norman Didn’t Do It! (Yes, He Did)
by Ryan T. Higgins (Hyperion)
First, there was Mother Bruce. Then, there was Penelope. Now, meet Norman. Ryan T. Higgins’ newest, Norman Didn’t Do It! (Yes, He Did)—you have to whisper that last part—is every bit as delightful to read aloud as its predecessors. Norman is an anthropomorphic porcupine whose best friend is a tree named Mildred. You might think it would be hard to sustain a friendship with a (non-interactive) tree. Not for Norman. The two play baseball, they bird watch, they play chess…well, to be fair, Norman does most of the playing.
What happens in every friendship? At some point, you’re asked to share your friend. This can be one of the hardest lessons foisted upon us in childhood (adulthood?)—what if they like the new friend more than us?—and some of us handle it better than others. Some of us are more like Norman. When a new tree begins growing next to Mildred, Norman is less than thrilled. (“Suddenly, it was no longer just Norman and Mildred.”) But when the new tree grows big enough to reach out and touch Mildred, Norman draws the line. In the cover of darkness, Norman digs up the new tree and rows it to an island far, far away.
But the guilt! Oh, the guilt! Every time Norman looks at Mildred, he’s convinced she’s judging him. Then the paranoia sets in, because what if another tree saw him and tells Mildred what he did? Obviously, Norman has to make things right…but can a threesome ever be as good as a twosome? GIVE ME THE PORCUPINE TREE HUGGERS! Especially the flawed ones. Give me all of those.
It Fell from the Sky
by The Fan Brothers (Simon & Schuster)
It Fell from the Sky is further proof that The Fan Brothers are in a league of their own when it comes to world building in picture books. Their dramatic use of light and shadow! Their arresting pops of color! The fine elegance of their graphite lines! Not to mention their nuanced humor, like a slow burn, drawing us in deeper with every reading. This is hands down one of the most beautiful picture books of the year.
“It fell from the sky on a Thursday.” This is a story of reporting. Of perspective. Of miniature worlds. Of everyday objects repurposed. Of wonder and patience and faith. It’s also a story of greed and consumerism. Money is rarely, if ever, addressed in children’s picture books; and yet, it’s something every child wonders about. Here, money is allowed to take center stage for a spell, one of the few pops of color against the greyscale landscape.
What we recognize as a marble lands in the center of a community of insects, arachnids, and amphibians. Is it a gumdrop? A planet? A chrysalis? Whatever it is, “the crafty Spider” is prepared to monetize it. Within weeks, WonderVille opens, and the price of admission is one green leaf. When the line stretches for miles, Spider sees an opportunity to raise the price again…and again. Until he finds himself painfully alone, faced with the question of how to restore community. Greed is a lonely business. (Thankfully, spiders with bow ties ultimately do the right thing.)
Ten Little Dumplings
by Larissa Fan; illus. Cindy Wume (Tundra Books)
Sweet, irresistibly charming, and a wee bit subversive, Larissa Fan’s debut picture book, Ten Little Dumplings (yes, she’s sister to the aforementioned Fan Brothers!), is inspired by her father who grew up in Taiwan as one of ten brothers. In traditional Taiwanese culture, one son was considered lucky, so you can imagine the fame this family attracted! The ten little brothers do everything together, and everywhere they go, they “take luck with them.”
But here’s the thing: I can’t tell you much more, lest I ruin the delightful surprise twist two thirds of the way in. I actually let out a yelp when I read it, and then I gave it to my daughter to read, just so I could watch her eyes get wide and a smile break across her face at exactly the same moment mine did. She then had to flip back to the pages she’d already read to see how she hadn’t seen it coming!
Let’s just say it’s a story about brothers. As cute as dumplings. But maybe about someone else, too. Maybe, it’s best read to a sister growing up in a house full of boys. Oh, but I’ve said too much.
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem
by Amanda Gorman; illus. Loren Long (Viking)
You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about the first children’s picture book by Amanda Gorman, the youngest presidential inaugural poet in US history and a total phenom. From the moment she delivered her electrifying poem live from the Capitol steps as our family looked on from the couch, my daughter has been infatuated. She has collected magazines with cover stories on Gorman, chosen Gorman for a biography report last spring, and started writing poems of her own with a fury. And I know she’s not alone.
Change Sings is Gorman’s soaring new poem about being the change we wish to see, about channeling love to bridge differences and celebrate diversity (“Change sings where? There inside me./ Because I’m the change I want to see.”). It’s also a purposely ambiguous poem, one that kid lit favorite, Loren Long, visually interprets as a girl who gives back to her community in different ways—from playing music to delivering food to building a ramp for a girl in a wheelchair—and rallies other children to join her. It’s a book that comes more alive, becomes more personal, with every reading.
I love that Gorman has gotten kids excited about the cross-section between poetry and activism. And I love the way this book, with its sparkling cast, adds music and visual art to that powerful mix.
There’s a Ghost in This House
by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel)
Wait. An 88-page homage to ghosts made my Holiday Gift Guide? Yup. And given how quickly this insanely clever book is flying off shelves at bookstores—the tracing paper overlays are to blame for the printing challenges that pushed back the book’s pre-Halloween publication date—lots of kids agree that There’s a Ghost in This House is year-round fare.
“Hello. Please come in. […] Perhaps you could help me?” Oliver Jeffers loves breaking with tradition in picture books, and here he breaks the fourth wall, allowing his protagonist to address the reader directly as she tries (and fails) to find the ghost allegedly haunting her 18th-century mansion. But it’s the reader who’s really in the driver’s seat here, manipulating overlays to the austere black-and-white photographs to reveal, not one, but a multitude of adorable ghosts right under the girl’s nose.
Cue the giggles.
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Tagged: Amanda Gorman, Andrea Beaty, animals, Anne Wynter, bedtime stories, black American characters in children's books, bugs and insects in picture books, Cary Fagan, children's books set in Taiwan, children's books about body image, children's books with bears, Cindy Wume, Dan Santat, David Roberts, Dena Seiferling, favorite illustrators, girl main character, holiday gift guide 2021, humor, Jonathan Stutzman, Julie Morstad, Larissa Fan, Loren Long, mice, Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, neurodivergent characters in children's literature, Nicolo Carozzi, Oge Mora, Oliver Jeffers, photography, poetry, Regis and Kahran Bethencourt, Ryan T. Higgins, skeletons and ghosts in children's stories, social-emotional development in children, spiders, stuffed animals, The Fan Brothers, time, Tyler Feder
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