2022 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Picture Book of the Year

October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment

It’s that time of year again! For months, I have been working behind the scenes, reading hundreds of picture books, middle-grade books, young adult, and non-fiction in order to bring you this fall’s top picks for kids, tweens, & teens (nearly 60 titles in all!). I’ll be rolling out the Gift Guide in a series of blog posts between now and Thanksgiving, but if you live in the Northern Virginia area, I’d LOVE to see you at one of two In-Person Events I’ll be doing on the first two Friday evenings in November at Old Town Books, the beautiful indie where I’m the kids’ buyer. You’ll get a chance to hear me present the entire guide in person, followed by personal shopping and gift wrapping. Knock out all your holiday shopping and stockpile fabulous books for the year to come! (Just hurry, because tickets are going fast.)

It has become traditional for me to kick off each year’s Gift Guide with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year. (Last year, it was Little Witch Hazel (swoon!) and before that we had memorable titles like this, this, this, and this, which actually bears some fun similarities to today’s book.) This year’s pick officially hits shelves today, but it was actually the very first book I picked for this year’s guide, after reading a digital copy six months ago, so it has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to tell you about it until now.

I knew a fairy tale remixed by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen—the launch of a new picture book trilogy, no less!—was bound to be brilliant, but I also knew it would need no help from me to find its audience. Between the two of them, these kid lit superstars have garnered numerous Caldecott Honors, not to mention countless other accolades, so there was no way this book was falling off anyone’s radar. Normally, for “My Favorite Book of the Year” posts, I tend towards the hidden gems.

But while this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest books of the year, I’m happy to jump on the bandwagon, because The Three Billy Goats Gruff (ages 4-8) is the bomb. This story is READ-ALOUD PERFECTION. The humor! The pacing! The rhyme! The bonus endings! The ode to gourmands! The chin hair! The VOICES! I can’t think of a single child who won’t hang on every word of this book, alternately holding their breath and howling with laughter. Or a single adult who won’t be game to read it again and again.

Are you ready to step onto the bridge with me?

I’m actually only going to give you a taste of the first few pages, because the novelty of this tale increases with every page turn, and too many spoilers will detract from the reader experience. And trust me, YOU WANT THIS EXPERIENCE.

“Once upon a time, there was a bridge. And beneath that bridge, there lived a troll.” In simple, declarative sentences, the book establishes the structure of this familiar fairytale.

But then we meet the troll. And he’s not simple at all. He’s a troll of contradictions. Squatting among reeds and trash, a napkin tied around his neck and a fork and spoon in hand, he’s at once a little rough around the edges and a little refined. And a whole lot desperate.

“I am a troll. I live to eat.

I love the sound of hooves and feet

and paws and claws on cobblestones.

For that’s the sound of meat and bones!”

In typical Mac Barnett fashion, lest there be any concern that he has written a troll that’s too scary, he quickly assures us that it’s going to be impossible to take this villain too seriously. This is a troll who uses “a filthy fingernail to scrape the wax out of his ears,” a troll who is starving because the only thing of note he has eaten recently is “some goop he’d found in this belly button.” Can you hear your listeners’ reactions? Ewwwwww!

So, yes, the troll is “practically starving.” Which means that when he hears the “clip clop clip clop” on the bridge above his head, he’s both enraged and intrigued. “Who seeks to reach the grassy ridge? Who dares to walk across my bridge?” (One of the reasons the original story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff has endured for generations may be how child-centric the troll’s possessiveness is (“my bridge”). That and the fact that the little guys outsmart the bully, of course.)

Enter the first of the billy goats. The tiny creature is dwarfed by the troll, who manages, still with fork and spoon in hand, to heave himself onto the narrowest of bridges, where the goat stands “quivering” in fear. And here’s where the book really finds its legs. Jon Klassen’s art has always leaned into a restrained palette, and here, the barren-toned landscape, with its touch of the macabre, allows the contrasting silliness of Mac Barnett’s words to shine. What reader wouldn’t want a go at performing the troll’s spontaneous recitation of gourmet goal meals:

“I love goat! Let me count the ways.

A rump of goat in honey glaze.

Goat smoked, goat poached, a goat pot roast.

Goat smorgasbord! Goat smeared on toast!

A goat kale salad—hold the kale.

Goat escargot? (That’s goat plus snails.)

On goat I’ll dine, on goat I’ll sup.

You little goat, I’ll eat you up!”

(If I tell you that the story boasts three original poems, one for each goat who dares to walk across the bridge, will you maybe salivate a little, too?)

We all know how the story goes: the little goat convinces the troll that he’s better off saving his appetite for the bigger brother headed their way—“Now that he mentioned it, this goat did look kind of stringy”—and then the second goat convinces the troll to wait for the third, even meatier brother. But Barnett and Klassen have so much fun with the banter between the troll and the goats, not to mention the troll’s congratulatory self-talk, that we forget we know how the story ends.

But you didn’t think Barnett and Klassen would miss a chance to put their own absurd spin on that ending, did you? (Remember, no spoilers.)

In their seamless blending of horror and humor, adeptly scaled for the very young, Barnett and Klassen invite parallels to one of the most beloved picture book creators of all time—the great Maurice Sendak. Last week, School Library Journal ran a piece titled, “In Praise of Scary Things,” which argues that “efforts to shield children from perceived unpleasantness, however well intentioned, ignore the genuine fear and anxiety that kids must grapple with in their daily lives. Children, as understood by Sendak, among other creators, know the world is a scary place. And they find the darkness in themselves, too: fear, rage, hate, despair—the same emotions experienced by adults, as child psychologists tell us.” Fantastical storytelling becomes a cathartic way for children to process these darker elements of life. (Children’s author Adam Gidwitz talks about the same thing in his “Defense of Fairytales,” which I referenced in my recent Halloween round up.)

The SLJ article also notes that when Sendak was accepting the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things in 1964, he said, “The adults who are troubled by the scariness of [Max’s] fantasy forget that my hero is having the time of his life.” As has always been the case in the story of the three billy goats, it’s gratifying to witness the turning of the tables, as the troll’s fun becomes the goats’ fun. But in Barnett and Klassen’s remix, the one who’s really having the time of their lives is the listener. And that feels worthy of My Favorite Picture Book of the Year.

Also, how on earth does Jon Klassen consistently manage to produce such depth of expression, such intensity, in eyes so crudely drawn?

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 3-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

Book published (and gifted) by Scholastic. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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