2022 Gift Guide: The Picture Books

November 10, 2022 § Leave a comment

With so many spectacular stories, every year it gets harder to narrow down a list of picture books for my Gift Guide. I’ve weighted this year’s list towards fall releases, hoping to ensure that the titles will be new to you or your gift recipient. But I also made exceptions. There were a few books published in the first half of the year that stand the test of time, and I couldn’t imagine a 2022 favorites list without them (Bathe the Cat, Knight Owl, and Endlessly Ever After).

I’ve also concentrated on books that feel inherently gifty. These are books you could gift to almost any child, regardless of how well you know them, and be confident that they’d be charmed and you’d be heroic. If I was strictly making a “best of” list, I would have added titles like Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky.

If space and time permitted, I’d remind you of all the books I’ve already blogged about this year (because I only blog about books I love). As well as others I’ve highlighted on Instagram, like Mina, Does a Bulldozer Have a Butt?, Izzy and the Cloud, and Poopsie Gets Lost.

Finally, before we get started, I’ll remind you that I kicked off the Gift Guide a few weeks ago with My Favorite Picture Book of the Year: Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s fresh telling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. I won’t repeat myself here, but don’t forget that if you really want to wow your audience, that’s the ticket.

But, of course, these others are incredibly special, too. Presented here from youngest to oldest. (As always, links support the lovely indie where I work as the kids’ buyer. We ship!)

For the Sleepyhead

Mushroom Lullaby
by Kenneth Kraegel
Ages 2-5

My favorite bedtime story of the year! I’ve always had a weakness for Kenneth Kraegel’s fanciful art style, with its intricate dots, lines, and pop-off-the-page colors (remember this?). Add in some lulling verse, and Mushroom Lullaby makes me want to quit my day job and move into a little mushroom house right now.

The book begins with an ode to mushrooms—the ones that grow in the park, the ones that grow in the dark—before landing on “a mushroom made just for you. Your friends can come too…” Sitting in the shade and drinking lemonade with pals in the grass outside your mushroom house is grand, but it’s even sweeter when the sun begins to set and you “head up your soft mushroom stair and read a book in your big mushroom chair.”

With the stars twinkling outside and a mushroom bed that makes pillow-top mattresses look puny, who wouldn’t harbor dreams of bedding down in their own cozy little mushroom after this?

For the Fire Truck Obsessed

Fire Chief Fran
by Linda Ashman; illus. Nancy Carpenter
Ages 2-6

It seems like yesterday and forever ago that my life revolved around our local fire station. When we weren’t swinging by so my toddler could be lifted up into the shiny red engine to put hands on the big steering wheel, we were reading about the work of firefighters. But as much as I enjoy a good Richard Scarry, I would have loved some contemporary, inclusive representations of firefighters. 2022 has been a banner year for firefighter books! Linda Ashman’s Fire Chief Fran may have won out for this Gift Guide, but a close second would be Firefighter Flo (by the team behind Trashy Town, best garbage truck book ever). And don’t forget our fire hydrant pal, Lou!

How a fire chief and her crew keep their community safe is on full display in Fire Chief Fran, an energetic, rhyming, day-in-a-life story. We begin with routine inspections at the station, when suddenly “lights begin flashing,/ and—CLANG!—the bells blast./ They leap into action—/ they need to move FAST!” It’s not just two fires that keep the firefighters busy on this particular day; there’s also a dog stuck in a fence, two injured soccer players, and a downed tree. In between emergencies, the crew lifts weights, drills, cooks, and gives a fire safety talk to a group of kids. Primary colors abound in the digitally enhanced acrylic paintings which are as dynamic as the day at hand and its fearless leader.

Whew! Firefighters give new meaning to “all in a day’s work.” Ditto to parents of toddlers.

For the Small But Mighty

Knight Owl
by Christopher Denise
Ages 3-6

Who could resist the sweet, earnest face on this owl? Those big eyes? That puffed-out chest? Christopher Denise makes his author-illustrator debut with the darling picture book, Knight Owl, starring a young owl who dreams of becoming a knight. Since it came out this spring, it has been drawing Caldecott buzz for its play of light and dark in the deliciously atmospheric art.

Each night, when he climbs into bed with his stuffed baby dragon, Owl envisions the bravery, cleverness, and epic quests in his future. When knights begin mysteriously disappearing from the castle, Owl seizes his chance to attend Knight School, despite the fact that his tiny size makes wielding swords and shields challenging. (He also has a tendency to nod off during the day, but who doesn’t…)

Still, Owl perseveres, graduating to the Knight’s Night Watch, where his nocturnal nature serves him well. But what happens when tiny Owl finally comes face to face with the ginormous, fire-breathing dragon that has been eating his way through the kingdom? Spoiler alert: there might be pizza involved.

For the Curious

by Annie Barrows & Leo Espinosa
Ages 3-6

That humans are more alike than different is a buzzy topic these days—a much needed one, too—and Like offers a fantastically fun twist on it. Quirky, silly, and wise, this book is a delight to read aloud, and Leo Espinosa’s retro illustrations positively pop off the page.

Through a series of surprising compare-and-contrast situations, our young narrator gets closer to landing on what makes humans human. We’re decidedly unlike tin cans (“if you open up our lids, nothing good happens”). We’re a little more like swimming pools, since we have water, chemicals, and dirt inside us, but we’re way more like a mushroom, which grows over time and makes baby mushrooms! Then again, hyenas have brains like we do, only they “don’t tell stories” or  “get embarrassed, even when they’re caught eating something off the ground.”

The comparisons continue until we get to our fellow humans. “Even if you speak a language I don’t speak, you are more like me than a hyena.” That wrinkly lady on the park bench? The man dressed in brown who delivers your packages? The girl in the wheelchair? “I am more like [them] than I am like most of the things on Earth. I’m glad. I’d rather be like you than like a mushroom.”

For the Believer

The Mermaid Moon
by Briony May Smith
Ages 4-8

Ready to make all their mermaid dreams come true? Remember Margaret’s Unicorn, the picture book that turned even my daughter—the biggest skeptic of all—into a unicorn lover? In The Mermaid Moon, the same Briony May Smith lends her gorgeous lyricism and mixed-media art to the mermaid world, chronicling the story of two best friends: Molly, a human girl, who lives on land in the seaside town of Merporth and collects sea glass and books; and Merrin, a mermaid girl, who lives in the sea and is proficient in whale songs, storm charming, and the red hair of my dreams.

Remember the excitement of a friend coming to your house for the first time? Molly and Merrin are used to playing together every afternoon after school, but they’re limited to what they can do by the seaside, with Molly swimming above the water and Merrin diving below. Tonight, however, is the annual Mermaid Moon festival, and with Merrin finally old enough to participate, she’ll be able to “swim through the air to explore the human world.”

Once the magic ignites, the two girls race through the market stalls, buying friendship bracelets and hot chocolate, before ending up in Molly’s bedroom, looking through books and sharing stories. With so much of human life to explore, will Merrin make it back home “before the moon’s reflection disappears from the sea,” causing her scales to dry out and the magic of the cove to vanish forever? Prepare to get lost in this magical story of friendship with the dreamiest illustrations.

For the Big Hearted

Feathers Together
by Caron Levis & Charles Santoso
Ages 4-8

One of the picture books on last year’s Gift Guide was The Elephants Come Home, so I was ecstatic to find a 2022 book also inspired by an amazing true story from the animal world. Feathers Together is about the unbreakable bond between a pair of storks—not to mention a beautiful story about loving across distance—and I dare any Grinch’s heart not to grow three sizes after reading it.

Klepetran and Malena are inseparable: “whatever the weather, feathers together!” But on their spring migration from South Africa to Croatia, Malena’s wing is injured. With the help of a ramp cleverly constructed by the “featherheaded” old man who lives in the house atop which the storks want to nest, Malena is able to come and go from the nest. But she is not able to make the trip back to South Africa. Come fall, Klepetran must go on without her, and the two exchange a single feather in parting. “Friendship survives all kinds of goodbyes,” the old man whispers to the pair, as he tucks them in for their last night together.

Malena adjusts to her winter in Croatia, getting to know a different side of the town and its people, while she sends love messages back to Klepetran through the puffs of clouds made by her breath in the snowy air. But when storks begin returning in the spring, Malena can’t spot Klepetran among them. Is it possible he won’t find his way back? (Spoiler alert: the real-life storks who inspired the story reunited every spring for a whopping NINETEEN years. Swoon.)

For the Pretender

Butterfly Child
by Marc Majewski
Ages 4-8

There are a lot of beautiful picture books on this list, but this one might take the cake, both in artistry and message. Reminiscent of an older favorite, Julián is a Mermaid, Marc Majewski’s Butterfly Child, inspired by his own childhood, is a story of creativity, self-expression, and a father’s love. With few, carefully chosen sentences, the story relies primarily on its extraordinary art to take us on an emotional journey. Oh, how it succeeds.

Exuberance reigns, as a child who presents as a boy handcrafts bold orange and black butterfly wings, complete with peacock feathers for antennae, and sets out the front door, “spinning and swirling,” “fluttering and flapping.” But a red ball, intentionally thrown by a group of teasing schoolkids, hits the child squarely in the forehead (“not these kids again”). The wings are tugged and torn by the other children, and the child abandons them on the ground and retreats home, presumably a familiar pattern (“I’d rather stay home anyway”).

The child’s exit and re-entry has been observed by the child’s father, who bides his time before entering the child’s bedroom—itself a stunning array of creative output—with a plated snack. Papa’s display of love is quiet but sure, and after a long embrace, he restores agency to the child, who answers the father’s open-ended question about what to do next with a confident, “Start over.” And they do, working side by side to patch and paint, stitch and sew, until the Butterfly Child is crowned once again. But before the child tries for a do-over with the other children, Papa has just the fix. (Don’t you want to know what it is?)

For the Nature Lover

Berry Song
by Michaela Goade
Ages 4-8

I knew Michaela Goade’s first self-authored picture book would be gorgeous—she’s a Caldecott Medalist, after all—but this book surpassed even my wildest expectations. Berry Song doesn’t just exhibit the reciprocity that the Tlingit people strive for in their relationship with the land, it invites us inside that relationship. In these evocative pages, we feel the fog settling over the boat, “the sweet smell of cedar and the tickle of moss,” the stain of a fresh-picked berry. We experience the affection and gratitude that a little girl and her grandmother show not just one another, but the flora and fauna around them. We feel the beauty, wonder, and thrill of the natural world, as few picture books allow.

The story is set “on the island at the edge of a wide, wild sea.” The Author’s Note reveals this as the Alaskan island where Goade herself was raised and still lives. Through a girl and her grandmother, who spend their summer days combing the forest for berries, from salmonberries to cranberries—all the time singing to announce their presence to bears—Goade shares a piece of her childhood with us.

Their singing turns out to be about more than announcing themselves to their surroundings; it’s a call-and-response ritual that pays homage to the land, its gifts and its history. When Grandma says, “We speak to the land…,” the girl echoes, “As the land speaks to us.” It’s a song that calls to us as well, and we would do well to consider our answer carefully.

For the Midnight Snacker

Night Lunch
by Eric Fan; illus. Dena Seiferling
Ages 4-8

Would my Gift Guide even be my Gift Guide if it didn’t include an appearance by The Fan Brothers (It Fell From Above, 2021) or Dena Seiferling (Bear Wants to Sing, 2021)? In 2022, the two join forces and, not surprisingly, the result is one of the most conceptually and visually unique picture books of the year.

Crafted in a dark, dreamy, sepia-infused palette, Night Lunch is a magical ode to Victorian lunch wagons, precursors to today’s food trucks, starring an elegant horse drawn wagon that rolls into the city at midnight, ready to serve the nocturnal animals their lunch. An owl presides over the oven, as different animals approach the wagon to cozy up under its twinkling lights and feast off its porcelain plates. A mince pie for Fox; a sandwich for Badger; eggs over easy for a lunar moth; butter rolls and biscuits for the raccoons; and so on.

But what about the poor mouse below the wagon, hard at work sweeping the streets, pausing only to devour a crumb or look for pennies dropped in the gutter? When the night is through, will the mouse become the owl’s own tasty meal, or does the owl have something else in mind for the little street sweeper?

For the Miniatures Lover

by Sophie Blackall
Ages 4-adult

How does this two-time Caldecott medalist keep outdoing herself?! Sophie Blackall’s extraordinary artistry aside, I think the secret may be that she connects so personally with her subject matter. Nowhere is that more evident than in Farmhouse, a story born from a falling-down nineteenth-century farmhouse that Blackall discovered on her property in New York state. Before the house was demolished, she combed through its interior, imagining its long-ago inhabitants and scavenging scraps of wallpaper, curtains, newspaper, clothing, and handkerchiefs to tell their story. All these physical bits and pieces combine in delightful, surprising ways to become the book’s art, the backdrop against which a family of twelve children lives out their days.

In addition to artwork so richly detailed that readers young and old will want to pour over it—I was recalled to my own childhood obsession with dollhouses—children get a captivating glimpse at nineteenth-century rural life, at what it might have been like to grow up as one of twelve children, to share attic bedrooms and farm chores and care for one another in times of sickness. At the antics of painting green spots on the house cat (and getting sent to one’s room because one doesn’t appear very sorry about painting green spots on the house cat). At what it’s like to live by candlelight and organ music, to wage endless battles against dust and humidity. At what happens when a house sits empty and the natural world reclaims it.

There’s a strong tactile draw to the book—we want to run our fingers over the pages, much like we do the raised window frames on the cover—but there’s equal amounts of warmth, love, joy, and nostalgia in the story it brings to life. It’s the feeling of coming home.

For the Helper

Bathe the Cat
by Alice B. McGinty; illus. David Roberts
Ages 4-8

Bathe the Cat was one of the first books published this year—I dedicated an entire blog post to it—but I’m still talking about it ten months later because nearly every day someone tells me how much their kids adore this book. Young kids, older kids, middle kids: the appeal is endless. Then again, the Theater of the Absurd rarely fails to delight young audiences. Add in clever word play and incidental representation of a biracial family with two dads, and I’m on a mission to see that everyone ends up with this book by the end of the year.

While a family jumps into action to ready the house for Grandma’s impending visit, their pet cat keeps mischievously scrambling the chore list, spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge, in order to avoid ending up with a bath. Everyone is moving too quickly to notice the errors until they’re well on their way to the mayhem of misunderstandings. Sweep the dishes? Scrub the fishes? Mop the baby? Bathe the mat? Just you wait.

A guaranteed crowd pleaser, I tell you! The rhyming text relishes being read aloud, and the giggles will only increase with repeat readings.

For the Adventure Seeker

Rick the Rock of Room 214
by Julie Falatko; illus. Ruth Chan
Ages 4-8

While we’re on the subject of funny, meet Rick the Rock of Room 214. He might look like an ordinary, nondescript rock, but make no mistake: he has adventure in his soul.

For as long as Rick can remember, he has sat on the Nature Finds shelf in classroom 214, alongside an acorn, some moss, and a piece of bark. But when he overhears the teacher giving a lesson on all the cool things rocks can do (they explode out of volcanoes?!), he makes up his mind to hitchhike his way into the Great Outdoors to exploit his untapped potential.

It turns out the schoolyard isn’t quite what Rick expects. For one, there’s rain; for two, the other rocks don’t have names or…personalities. He misses his inside pals. Is it possible to be an adventure-seeker inside a classroom? He’s about to find out, and thanks to the story’s infectious combination of speech bubbles, whimsy, and impeccable timing, readers will never look at their classroom objects the same way again.

For the Boss

Endlessly Ever After: Pick YOUR Path to Countless Fairy Tale Endings
by Laurel Snyder; illus. Dan Santat
Ages 5-9

Don your red riding cape or “coziest (faux) fur coat,” and prepare to make decisions as you blaze a myriad of possible paths. You might encounter vengeful pigs, sticky licorice cages, roses bigger than your head, frozen castles, wicked queens, bellowing boys, or wily wolves. You’ll definitely encounter lots of questionable doors. But never fear: if you meet your untimely demise, simply back up and make a different choice!

Across 85 dramatically illustrated pages, Endlessly Ever After summons and contorts bits from classic fairy tales into riotous chaos, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,”  “Snow White,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Pre-readers will love directing their readers, while newly independent readers will enjoy having the reigns all to themselves.

Gone are the tiny paperbacks with miniscule type and black-and-white sketches that dominated our childhoods: this Choose Your Own Path book boasts full color, a large trim size, gorgeous art, and just as many LOLs as preposterous perils.

For the New Reader

Our Friend Hedgehog: A Place to Call Home
by Lauren Castillo
Ages 5-9

With vibes of Winnie the Pooh and the “100 Aker Wood,” Lauren Castillo’s Our Friend Hedgehog series delivers a fresh crop of friends-turned-family: a single human child and a slew of anthropomorphized forest animals. And she does it with the sweetest full-color artwork on every one of its 100+ pages! (Yes, there’s a map on the endpapers, too.) But what else would you expect from a Caldecott-winning artist? (Ditto for Matthew Cordell’s Cornbread and Poppy series, which I’ve already sung the praises of this year.)

A Place to Call Home is the second in this early chapter series—the first one is The Story of Us—but it stands alone. And with a wintery cover like this, how could I resist including it here? It’s perfect for reading aloud or for newly confident readers who aren’t ready for heavier topics.

The change in seasons is in the air, which means some of the forest friends will be hibernating soon, but Hedgehog is trying not to think about that, as she heads to Owl’s for storytime (“today is new-book day, today is new-book day!”). Along the way, she encounters a creature that looks…exactly like her?! A crisis of confidence ensues: is there room in her forest of friends for another hedgehog? Everyone has an opinion, but it’s Hedgehog who’s going to have to muster up the courage to make up her own mind. (“I’m exhausted just thinking about it.”)

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).

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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