2016 is almost halfway over, and it’s been a few months since I posted a list of my favorite recent picture books. Here are some that I’ve discovered and enjoyed since the last time I posted such a list. Most, but not all of them have been published within the last few months. I am well aware that there are some noteworthy new titles that haven’t crossed my path yet, so if some of your favorites aren’t on this list, feel free to leave a comment.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexi, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, 2016
His name is Thunder Boy Smith, but everyone calls him Little Thunder, since his father has the same name. Secretly, Little Thunder hates his name. With all due respect to Sherman Alexie, renowned author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I didn’t love the text of this picture book. It deserves some attention for cultural reasons, but it didn’t do anything special for me. I did love the art, though. According to a note on the copyright page, the unique illustrations were created digitally with the colors and textures taken from old wood and clay from the rotted roof and walls of an antique house in Mexico. The target audience for this book might not understand or appreciate that backstory, but the overall effect of those textures with bold, black outlines is striking.
My House by Byron Barton, 2016
Like Barton’s other works, this book features bright colors and simple text, appropriate either to be read aloud to a baby or toddler, or to be experienced by a beginning reader. The artwork is a bit more textured that the strictly two-dimensional pictures that I have come to expect from Barton. The cute orange cat adds an appeal factor.
The Airport Book by Lisa Brown, 2016
In this second-person account of the airport experience, a boy and his family are traveling by plane to visit his grandparents. The quantity of text makes this book best suited to be read aloud to a preschooler or kindergartner, and many parents might enjoy having this book to read to young children at home before going on an airplane trip themselves. Young readers will enjoy perusing the illustrations to follow the sub-stories of various other passengers.
Mr. Goat’s Valentine by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kevin Zimmer, 2016
Okay, this one is specifically a Valentine’s Day book, but I didn’t read it until April, so I’m including it here. Mr. Goat wants to give a special gift to his first love. So he buys her a bouquet of weeds in a tin can and rotten eggs, wears skunk perfume, and writes her a song. Child readers will be amused by how disgusting goat’s gifts are, and adult readers will find it adorable when Mr. Goat’s first love turns out to be his mother. The brightly-colored, digitally-created artwork with its large-eyed animals is appealing.
Friends to the Rescue by Suzanne Chiew, illustrated by Caroline Pedler, 2016
A group of forest animals find a series of objects that turn out to be parts of Mole’s hot air balloon. They then reassemble the balloon in order to rescue Mole. The story is wordier than necessary, but the beautiful springtime illustrations, featuring flowers and the color green, as well as the friendship theme, are enough to redeem this book.
Who Woke the Baby? By Jane Clarke, illustrated by Charles Fuge, 2015
This is a cumulative rhyming story about a baby gorilla “who woke in the morn, smelly and yelly and all forlorn”. Although cumulative stories like this are generally fun, what really makes this particular book special is the artwork. The beautiful and intricate illustrations feature wild animals in a jungle habitat and will appeal to preschoolers and perhaps toddlers who love reading about animals.
Don’t Touch This Book by Bill Cotter, 2016
This interactive book, reminiscent of Don’t Push the Button by the same author and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems, features simple, bright illustrations and instructions to the reader.
Swatch: The Girl Who Loved Color by Julia Denos, 2016
Swatch loves to catch colors in jars, but then Yellowest Yellow asks her not to tame him, and she realizes that the colors don’t want to be caught. Although this book is relatively short, the anthropomorphized colors make it more accessible to preschoolers and kindergartners than to younger children. As one would imagine, the artwork is colorful and vivid. The colors stand out against a simple white background.
Horrible Bear! By Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora, 2016
A girl sneaks into a bear’s cave while he is asleep, and he rolls over and breaks her kite. The girl is angry, and the bear is upset because it was an accident. He decides to give her a taste of her own medicine by barging into her home. But in the meantime, she accidently tears her stuffed animal and realizes that the bear didn’t mean to break her kite. She apologizes, and together, they fix both toys. The story is a bit cutesy, but it is humorous and will appeal to many kids, and the two-dimensional artwork is colorful and attractive, especially due to the protagonist’s distinctive red, curly hair.
Not Me! By Valeri Gorbachev, 2016
Bear and Chipmunk go to the beach together. Bear says he likes the beach, but Chipmunk says, “Not me!” In fact, that’s Chipmunk’s reply every time Bear says he likes something and every time Bear does something. In the end, Bear asks Chipmunk why he came to the beach, and Chipmunk says he came to be with Bear. It’s a sweet story, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that Chipmunk is complaining an awful lot, considering that he came as a favor to his friend. This book is an early reader with simple text that is appropriate for even a beginner. Sentences are short, and “chipmunk” is by far the biggest word in the book.
The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Peter McCarty, 2016
Drawing from a few mentions of a tree in Anne Frank’s diary, the creators of this book put together a story of Anne Frank’s time in hiding. The only thing that makes this book historical fiction rather than nonfiction is the fact that it’s told from the tree’s point of view. It’s nicely done, although neither the very beginning nor the very end are very interesting. This is a picture book for older readers; neither the wordy text nor the colorless pictures are likely to appeal to children younger than about seven or eight.
Flora and the Peacocks by Molly Idle, 2016
Following Flora and the Flamingo from 2013 and Flora and the Penguin from 2014, Molly Idle has come out with another appealing wordless lift-the-flap book about a girl dancing with birds. This one has a slightly different feel because some of the illustrations are more close-up, including one large spread to be unfolded. Some young readers may be particularly drawn to this book for that reason, or because of the beautiful blues and greens, but for me, this book felt a bit too gimmicky to be as lovable as the original.
Hoot and Peep by Lita Judge, 2016
Hoot is trying to impart his owly wisdom on his little sister, but she doesn’t want to hoot the way owls should. The plot, revolving around sibling relationships and/or attitudes towards change and innovation, is interesting, but not unique. My favorite part of this book is the buildings in the artwork. The owls are pictured flying through a picturesque, European-looking city, drawn in blue hues because it’s nighttime. The use of light/dark contrast is beautiful.
Swap! By Steve Light, 2016
A series of swaps enables two sailors (who appear to be pirates, although the text doesn’t specify that) to gain all of the materials needed to fix up an old ship. The detailed pen and ink drawings are only partly in color, which is likely to make this book more appealing to older readers despite the short and concise text. This book is perfect for children who are in the process of learning how to read, particularly those who have an interest in pirates.
The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield, 2015
One day, a bear finds a piano in the woods. Over time, he learns to play it, and after his talent is discovered by some humans, he ends up in the city, playing the piano in front of large, admiring audiences. Eventually, he returns home to the forest, and the book ends on a very sweet note as we discover that his bear friends have been watching his career from afar. The plot is nice, but it’s the artwork that really sets this book apart. The mixed media illustrations feature beautifully detailed backgrounds, both in the forest and in the city. My personal favorite double-page spread is the one inside the concert hall. I was disappointed to notice that this book actually came out last year, so I can’t add it to my running list of the best books of 2016.
Wild Ones: Observing City Critters by Carol L. Malmor, illustrated by Cathy Morrison, 2016
Scooter the dog sneaks out the back door and wanders the city, discovering various types of wild animals. Each page mentions something that Scooter doesn’t notice and something that he does. In the end, he goes home and is reunited with his family. Beautiful, detailed, and almost-realistic digital artwork is the selling point for this book. I would recommend it for any young animal lovers.
Listen to Our World by Bill Martin Jr and Michael Sampson, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, 2016
Books with animal noises tend to make good storytime books, and this one is no exception. Each type of creature is pictured in its own habitat and shown making a noise. As is typical in these kinds of books, it ends with humans. It’s a happy, feel-good book, but I didn’t find it to stand out, although I did like some of the artwork. The snowflakes on the penguin page are pretty.
The Opposite Zoo by Il Sung Na, 2016
This fun book, geared towards toddlers and preschoolers, plays with opposites within the construct of a brightly colored zoo. For example, noisy baboons are paired with a quiet tortoise, and a slow sloth is compared to a fast cheetah. I found the artwork to be unique, mostly in its use of color. The tortoise shell includes a rainbow of colors in a random pattern, and the cheetah’s spots are a variety of colors including green and red. The artwork is clearly multi-media; I can identify parts that look like watercolor, parts that seem to be ink, and some that look like a crayon or pastel.
Yaks Yak: Animal Word Pairs by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt, 2016
As the title implies, this simple picture book plays with words with multiple meanings by pairing animals with a corresponding verb. The concept is fun and could be effectively used didactically, but it’s the artwork that makes this book special. Perhaps I have a personal affinity for the watercolor and ink combination, but I think it’s used particularly effectively in this book. I especially love the realistically murky appearance of the water on the “fish fish” double-page.
Are We There Yet? By Dan Santat, 2016
There are a couple things that make this book unusual. One is that the story is told in second person; the main character is “you”. Another is that half of the book is upside down. And also, it’s a picture book about time travel. The main character is his parents are on a boring road trip, and they go back in time, all the way to the time of the dinosaurs, and back again. Although the text is short and concise, I would recommend this book for somewhat older readers because the concept of time travel won’t make sense to most three- or four-year olds.
Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley, illustrated by Lauren Castillo, 2016
After a fun, happy day at the beach, Lucy has trouble going to sleep. But after gathering her stuffed animals, she finds herself yawning and, on the last page, falling asleep. The plot is a little strangely paced, since more than half the book is spent describing playing on the beach, which turns out to be irrelevant to the main conflict/resolution. But young readers won’t necessarily mind that. They are more likely to enjoy the artwork—the beautiful sunset in the middle was my favorite part—and identify with Lucy. It’s also worth mentioning that Lucy seems to be of a mixed race; it appears that her mother is African American and her father is Caucasian, and Lucy’s skin tone is somewhere between theirs. That means that this book falls into a fairly sparsely populated niche of children’s literature, even though race is never mentioned in the text. In terms of reading level, I would recommend this as a read-aloud to preschoolers, although it’s just a little on the wordy side.
Giddy-Up Buckaroos! By Shandra Trent, illustrated by Tom Knight, 2016
A brother-and-sister duo spend the day playing at being buckaroos. Every experience they have is incorporated into their game. For example, their mom is the sheriff, and they are on the run from her. The cat is a cow in their rodeo. Interspersed with Spanish words, this book is funny and sweet, and very subtly educational.
The Thank You Book by Mo Willems, 2016
One of the greatest challenges of being a children’s librarian is trying to ensure that there are enough Elephant and Piggie books to go around. Fortunately, Mo Willems comes out with a couple new ones a year. This newest installment in the series is not one of my favorites, but it’s still a good book that I would highly recommend to beginning readers. The relatively easy text is made even less intimidating by the speech-bubble format, and the familiar, lovable characters wins this story a few bonus points. The storyline is sweet, too, as Piggie goes around thanking everyone who is important to him, and readers will be amused by the implication that he is forgetting to thank his best friend Gerald the Elephant.
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Frank Morrison, 2016
It’s 1960 and Alta is a huge fan of Wilma Rudolph, fastest woman alive. Alta considers herself the fastest kid in Clarksville, but she finds a rival in Charmaine, a girl with new shoes much nicer than Alta’s old ones. This is a picture book for older readers, appropriate for children in first or second grade. In my personal opinion, this is one of the most noteworthy picture books of 2016 so far. It could be a contender for the Coretta Scott King and/or the Caldecott.