This past year, I’ve posted very little on this blog. Since I’m working on my Best-of-2017 list and will be posting it in a couple days, (I hope) it’s a little too late to write individual posts about middle-grade or YA books that I’ve read recently. But I’ve been gradually putting together a list of personal favorite picture books that I’ve seen since my last picture book list, so I want to put this one out there before I post my Best-of-2017 list.
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, 2017
Kwame Alexander is quite a prolific author/poet. I had initially started this paragraph with a list of some of his most famous or particularly recent works, but I deleted that because it was long and probably no fun to read. This particular book is a collection of original poems, each inspired by a different famous poet and emulating that poet’s style. I’m counting this as a picture book because of its shape and size and,of course, because of its pictures. Those illustrations are bright collages, featuring lots of orange colors and angled shapes. Of course, like the poems, they vary in style from page to page, and each of them is just right for the poem it accompanies. It strikes me how much skill it took for these authors and illustrator to not only put together a pretty picture book of poems, but to do it in so many different styles. My one minor quibble about this book is that the six pages of biographies at the end of the book are longer than necessary and rather dry, listing awards and honors that will probably be meaningless to most child readers. The small font on those pages is not visually appealing, and I imagine that most readers will simply not read this part. But all in all, it’s a wonderful book of poetry, and I would recommend it to aspiring poets and to teachers and parents who want to introduce their children to poetry.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, 2017
This poetic picture book shows an African American boy going to the barber to get his hair cut. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. But the gorgeous watercolor illustrations and the narrator’s confident attitude in this book are something special. The concluding author’s note talks about self-esteem, the black community, and the humanity of these black people. Since I’m not a black boy, I can’t say much about how well this book captures that experience, but I can say that the voice is believable, and that there’s something profound about communicating such big ideas by describing a relatively small, routine experience.
The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2017
I’m not sure what I’m missing, but I have to admit I don’t love Barnett’s stories or Klassen’s art as much as everyone else does. While I don’t adore this book and the colors seem awfully bland to me, it is a cute story. After a wolf swallows a mouse whole, the mouse meets a duck who also resides in the wolf’s belly. The mouse and duck become friends and give the wolf a bellyache with their partying. Later, the duck and mouse defend the wolf against a hunter. Between the goofy plot and the dramatic dialogue (“Oh woe!” is a recurring refrain) some preschool-aged kids will find it a hilarious read-aloud, even if the pictures do lack the vibrant colors typical of picture books for that audience.
Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victor Ngai, 2017
Ya gotta love nonfiction picture books. Well, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I do. This one is about a method of camouflaging ships by painting them in bright and wild patterns. While the so-called dazzle ships were certainly not rendered invisible, it was very difficult to tell which way they were heading, making them much harder for an enemy torpedo to hit. Considering that several thousand ships were painted in dazzle designs during World War I, it’s surprising that this historical detail isn’t more well-known. Any child who finds this book on his or her own will have much more knowledge about World War I than children who only learn about history from school. And it’s an interesting read with engaging pictures, too. My only complaint is that the illustrations are a bit stylized, with a color palette that isn’t lifelike enough to give readers a clear idea of what dazzle ships looked like. I’d recommend this to children around second or third grade.
Why am I Me? By Paige Britt, pictures by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, 2017
This is personally not one of my favorites on this list, but it kind of needed to be included. It’s gotten a lot of starred reviews, and besides, the collage artwork and philosophical questions are interesting. It’s still a good book, even if I don’t think it’s quite as good as all those stars imply. Two characters explore the concept of identity by questioning what makes them who they are, and eventually meet each other at the end of the book. With its sparse text, this book is a quick read. Be sure to pause to look at the illustrations that depict the children’s trip home at the end of the day, thereby adding a narrative plot to the deep questions that make up the text.
When the Wind Blew by Petra Brown, 2017
Little Bear is safe with Big Bear in their den when a storm comes through and knocks down all the trees. But now, the bears must find a new home. This book follows their journey and ends when they settle happily into their new den. The bears’ observations (mostly about the storms’ effect on the birds, the lake, the meadow, etc.) make this a somewhat educational story; it would make a good classroom read-aloud for kindergarten or first grade. In case you’re wondering, it’s a little too long for a library storytime. The best thing about this book is the artwork. Even before reading the blurb about the author/illustrator on the inside back cover, I could tell that she loves landscapes. The nearly-realistic style of the illustrations captures the beauty of the bears’ habitat, from the clear, calm water of the lake to the splashes from the waterfall, from the mountain and hills in the distance to the pattern of the light on the grass at sunset. This is a book to explore slowly so that you can appreciate the beauty of the setting.
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, 2017
As the subtitle states, this book features thirteen influential women from American history. (They skew towards recent history; most of them are twentieth-century figures, and the earliest is Harriet Tubman) For each woman, there is a biographic blurb highlighting the phrase “she persisted” in enlarged and colored font. For the most part, the book highlights these women’s childhoods, both in the text and in the illustrations. The list is framed with a motivational message that is cliche, but fitting. I have minor quibbles about the choices about which women were included; for example Sacagawea, who didn’t make an appearance, surely played a greater role in American history than Oprah, who did. However, it was nice to see attention given to a couple of unsung heroes. (I’d never even heard of Virginia Apgar before) Although the title is almost certainly a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s role in the congressional hearings regarding Jeff Sessions’ appointment as Attorney General earlier this year, the book doesn’t directly discuss current events.
It’s Shoe Time! By Bryan Collier, 2017
Remember Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie? Of course you do, their last book came out just last year and they’re still going strong in terms of popularity. This is the fourth book in their spin-off series, a bunch of stand-alone early readers that begin and end with a few lines of dialogue from Elephant and Piggie themselves. This one is about a group of shoes that all want to be worn by the girl… but she complicates everything by picking two shoes that don’t match! The humor is perfectly suited for readers in the four-to-six-year-old age range, but for me personally, it was a bit of a flashback to 2008. Y’know, when mismatched stuff was cool. What, you don’t remember that? It was all the rage at my high school. (Yes, I was homeschooled, why do you ask?) Most of the artwork is cartoonish, in typical Elephant and Piggie style, but the human characters are depicted more realistically, and look more like what you’d expect from Collier. (He’s the same guy who illustrated Trombone Shorty and several books about heroes in African American history.)
Invisible Lizard by Kurt Cyrus, illustrated by Andy Atikins, 2017
Poor Napoleon has a hard time making friends because he blends into his surroundings, and no one can see him. He tries various tricks to get the other animals’ notice. My favorite is when he weaves a wicker Welcome mat. But nothing works. Then one day, Napoleon falls. With nothing surrounding him, now he is fully visible, and a parrot and monkey help him back into the tree. Of course, by the end of the story, the three are best buddies. I love the illustrations, especially for the detail of the rainforest plants. But probably the best thing about this book is that it’s about a chameleon named Napoleon. There’s no historical reference there as far as I know; it just sounds cool.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, art by Shawn Harris
After giving some historical information about the Statue of Liberty in a conversational tone, Eggers points out that her right foot is lifted; the statue is posed mid-stride. The message that Eggers infers from this is that the statue is walking out to meet and welcome the immigrants as they arrive. It’s a little strange that he includes Emma Lazarus’ poem (calling these newcomers “wretched refuse” and using several other adjectives that call unflattering images to mind) immediately after his own, much more positive, message. Surely that could have been smoothed over with a couple sentences of commentary. On an even more nitpicky note, Eggers for some reason emphasizes the statue’s direction, even though that seems to be implying that immigrants are supposed to come from Europe. That’s definitely not the intended message! A little elaboration on a few points near the end would have cleared that up. But I’m probably being over-critical, and I should acknowledge that ultimately, this is an informational book with positive messages about America, liberty, and immigration. At 108 pages, this nonfiction picture book is actually a lot thicker than your typical picture book. It’s not an ideal read-aloud and it’s not suited for preschoolers, but a child in the 7-10-year-old age range is likely to enjoy it and learn from it.
Pizza Mouse by Michael Garland, 2017
This early reader, averaging about four words a page, tells the story of a mouse’s adventures looking for food in the city. When he finds a slice of pizza, he takes the subway home and feeds his family. “Pizza”, “subway”, and “Daddy” are the only multi-syllable words in the entire book, unless you count the signs on the fancy restaurant that is evidently named “Fancy.” The digitally created artwork is engaging, and the text tells a complete (and funny, and sweet) story despite its brevity. All in all, this book is about as good as it gets for this early reading level.
So Many Smarts! By Michael Genhart, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown, 2017
Ever heard of Howard Gardner? Maybe not, unless you’ve studied psychology, in which case you might remember him as the guy who introduced the theory of multiple intelligences in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which points out that there are a variety of cognitive processes and skills lumped together under the word “intelligence”. Chances are, your preschooler or kindergartener doesn’t know anything about research and theories on cognition, or even what the word cognition means. But he or she probably already is used to judging or being judged based on words like “smart” or “dumb,” “intelligent” or “challenged”. This book from Magination Press (The American Psychological Association’s publishing imprint) uses cutesy anthropomorphic animals to explain Howard Gardner’s theory and to show examples. Despite the scientific concepts behind this book’s message, the language will make total sense to a child as young as four or five. It may be just a little on the corny side, but not so much so to detract from its appeal.
The Bad Seed by Jory John, illustrations by Pete Oswald, 2017
As this seed introduces himself to the reader, he wants to make it quite clear that he’s a bad seed. He wants you to notice how the other seeds talk about him, and he tells about all the bad things he does, like cutting in line and telling long jokes with no punch lines. But then he tells his tragic backstory, and we realize how unhappy he is. In the end, he reveals that he’s made a big decision, and he’s not such a bad seed anymore. This one will make a fun read-aloud and is good for a few laughs.
The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu, illustrated by Manuela Adreani, 2017
The copy of this book that I read was published by an American publishing company, but it was first published in the United Kingdom, the illustrator lives in Italy, and the author was born in Kenya, where this story is set. (In case you’re curious, the book was printed and bound in Hong Kong) It tells the story of a boy named Etabo, who wants to race camels. But before he is old enough to ride camels, his family has to sell them in order to buy water. Etabo prays to Akuj the Sky God, who tells him, “Your dreams are enough.” His older sister makes him some toy wooden camels, and he’s pretty happy with them; they are the happy ending to this story. In my opinion, the plot leaves something to be desired, and frankly, it’s not very believable that the toy camels are a better substitute for real camels than the other live animals shown in the book. Sure, it’s a nice message about imagination and about being satisfied with what you have, but seriously, there are horses, and he’s awful quick to give up on the idea of horseback riding. But on a more positive note, the illustrations are absolutely beautiful, especially in the colors used to depict the sky and sand of the desert setting. One double-page also shows water in the distance, presumably Lake Turkana. Yes, I did look at several maps in order to pinpoint the area where this book takes place. I also spent way too much time on Google maps. Y’all, Nairobi looks way more like an American city than most Americans think.
Stay: A Girl, a Dog, a Bucket List by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise, 2017
All right, as sweet as this book is, it probably has a bit more appeal for a grownup than for a child. But it would be a great book to share with a child who (like 8-year-old me) is upset at the realization that a beloved pet is growing old and will die eventually. Astrid and her family’s dog Eli have been best friends since the day baby Astrid came home from the hospital. (Like me and my family’s cat Lysander.) But dogs age more quickly than humans, so by the time Astrid is six years old, Eli has grown old. So Astrid makes a bucket list and takes Eli on a series of fun trips that she wants to share with him before he gets too old. The good news is that (spoiler!) Eli is still alive when the book ends. But the last four-ish pages are almost as bittersweet. Astrid asks Eli if there’s anything left on his bucket list. But there isn’t, because he’s with his person and that’s the only thing he ever wanted. (Like Lysander. Except he actually had multiple favorite people.)
Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, with art by Christopher Silas Neal, 2017
Although it’s in picture format and is told in a narrative style, I’d classify this as a nonfiction book. It shows a mother and son in a boat on the pond, observing the wildlife. An author’s note and several pages with the heading “About the Animals” offers more detailed information in a more academic manner. The illustrations are attractive and relatively detailed, although probably more appealing for an older reader (K-2nd grade perhaps) rather than a preschooler.
We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio, 2017
Palacio’s 2012 middle grade book Wonder is immensely popular among kids and adults alike, especially now that the movie adaptation has recently come out. The main character Auggie has a facial deformity, and the book describes Auggie’s struggles interacting with “ordinary” people who have a hard time seeing past his appearance. Ultimately, it’s a story about being nice, having empathy, and noticing the positive things that make people special. If you haven’t read it yourself, I can promise you that it’s not nearly as sappy and preachy as that moral makes it sound. Not surprisingly, this picture book has generated a lot of interest. It is obviously much shorter, and depicts Auggie at a younger age, but the basic message is the same. Just like fifth-grade Auggie, little Auggie is hurt by people’s reactions to his face. He and his dog take a pretend trip to Pluto, and he comes back feeling confident and declaring that he is a wonder, and, as an afterthought, so is everyone else. This one is about as sappy and preachy as it sounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good book. But I really don’t think it lives up to the standards of the original book.
Tyrannosaurus Rex Vs. Edna the Very First Chicken by Douglas Rees, illustrated by Jed Henry, 2017
All of the dinosaurs are terrified of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but not Edna. In fact, she thinks that Tyrannosaurus Rex should be scared of her. He may have mighty claws and terrible jaws, but she has a mighty beak and terrible flapping wings. After some back-and-forth dialogue to that effect, Tyrannosaurus Rex gobbles Edna up in one bite. Predictably, Edna survives and escapes. Then she chases Tyrannosaurus Rex out of the forest. This book will make a fun read-aloud, especially the bit where Tyrannosaurus Rex can’t pronounce words because he has a chicken on his tongue. The story might be just a tiny bit long for a preschool storytime, but the humor and bright illustrations might make it work. At any rate, it’ll be a good one for parents to read with their kids at home.
The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, illustrated by the Fan Brothers, 2017
Marco is a curious fox, but the other foxes don’t have answers to his questions. So when the deer ship with its antlered figurehead shows up at the harbor, he joins them in hopes of finding other foxes who can answer him. A flock of pigeons also joins for the adventure. On their voyages, Marco doesn’t find the answers he seeks, but he does find friends to ask questions with him. The best thing about this book is the artwork. I like the detail of the ship and the landscapes, the texture of the of the water and the animals’ fur, and the variety in perspective and lighting. But I especially like Marco the fox. He’s a very good-looking fox.
In Your Hands by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, 2017
This one has gotten some attention and some very favorable reviews, so I’m interested to see if it has awards coming its way. That would kind of surprise me because it’s about religion. The narrator is a mother speaking to her son. She tells him that, as he gets too old and independent for her to shelter him, she prays for him. Meanwhile, Pinkney’s artwork is stylized and sketch-like, very different from his familiar fairy tale books. Personally, it isn’t going to be very high on my Youth Media Awards wishlist this winter, but we’ll wait and see what happens. It’s certainly a beautiful book.