It’s been a while since I’ve posted a list of relatively recent picture books that I’ve read lately, and for that reason, I had to limit this list to just the really, really great ones. In fact, there are a few books that have received a lot of critical acclaim that I left out because I just didn’t love them that much. (Most notably, We Found a Hat and Du Iz Tak?) I ended up including nineteen, all of which were published this year and most of which were published in the fall or late summer.
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts, 2016
From the author and illustrator of Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer comes this new book celebrating girls who excel in STEM fields. The story begins in Ada’s infancy and ends in an incident when she, as a second grader, gets in trouble for experimenting on the cat. The rhyming text is catchy and appealing. This is definitely not an ideal book for library storytimes, since it’s wordy for a picture book, but I would recommend it for kindergartners or first graders, either as an educational book or as a fun, quick read for kids who like learning about science.
Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol, 2016
What is an old woman to do when her very big family won’t let her get her knitting done? She goes out to the forest, of course. But the bears in the forest are just as much of a nuisance as her grandchildren. As it happens, so are the goats on the mountain and the little green men on the moon. At last, the old woman finds peace and quiet in the void on the other side of a wormhole. In a predictable yet satisfying ending, she finishes her knitting, gets lonely, and returns home to give newly knitted sweaters to her very big family. (I counted thirty grandchildren, by the way) Young readers will love the simple, repetitive story, all the more so for its bizarre transition from a cutesy folk-style-tale to a science fiction story. The art is great, too; it’s bright and simple enough to make for an excellent storytime book.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, 2016
This three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner has in his possession some documents from the early nineteenth century that concern slavery. In creating this book, he selected one such document, an appraisement of estate from 1828, and imagined the life stories, personalities, and thoughts of the eleven slaves listed to be sold. Written in free verse, this book is best suited for an elementary-school-aged reader and is best described as historical fiction. The author’s note at the end explains that the purpose of the book is to “bring the slaves alive as human beings”, an objective that, in my opinion, is well achieved. The artwork is highly stylized and uses photocopies of actual historical deeds as background. The overall effect is artistic and eye-catching, although again, more appealing to older readers than to the usual target audience for picture books. This is a book that I would consider to be a contender for a number of different major awards.
Up by Joe Cepeda, 2016
This book has thirteen unique words—twenty-seven words total—and none of them are more than one syllable. Yet it does tell a complete story about a boy who uses a toy pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one window morning. Granted, the details are in the pictures, not in the words. But still, it has an appeal factor that’s hard to achieve with such a limited vocabulary, and I would gladly recommend it to a child who is just barely ready to start reading words. I also like the pictures. The digitally-created artwork has a watercolor quality to it, but with much more vibrant colors and clearly defined borders. If that makes any sense.
Beauty and the Beast as retold by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft, 2016
As is common for folk and fairy tales published in picture book format, this book has much more text and is written at a higher reading level than other picture books. I would recommend it to school-age children who can read independently. Although the title page and book jacket cite Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beamont’s 1756 version of the story, the author’s note adds that other retellings were also used as sources. But, as is often the case for retellings of popular fairy tales, the artwork is what makes this book stand out. They are oil-over-watercolor paintings, lifelike and intricate and ethereal. Children with a strong appreciation for art could spend much time enjoying the details of Craft’s illustrations.
Billions of Bricks by Kurt Cyrus, 2016
Children’s picture books about construction tend to be fairly popular. This book may be a little different in that it’s not about anthropomorphic construction vehicles, but I think it very much deserves the fan base that it’s likely to attract. It’s a counting book and a rhyming book, but mostly, it’s about building things, and kids will enjoy watching the illustrations progress from a small stack of bricks to huge, elaborate brick buildings. It’s short enough to read during a library storytime, but it’s also a book that many kids will enjoy reading over and over again at home.
Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, 2016
This picture book features concise but descriptive text about a mother coyote prowling through a suburban neighborhood, looking for prey to feed her family. Although it is written as a story, the “coyote facts” double-page at the end, and the informational value of the simple plot make this book technically function as nonfiction. But the real selling point is the illustration. Ibatoulline’s gorgeous paintings are realistic, detailed, and masterful in their use of light, shadows, and the perspective, which is different on every page. I don’t normally like to use the word “breathtaking” to describe books, but I think I literally held my breath while reading this book. If I have anything less than celebratory to say about this book, it’s that the text seems to be geared towards a younger audience than the pictures. The text is brief and simple enough for preschoolers, but children at that age generally prefer brighter colors than what they’ll see in this nocturnal book. But I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, because even big kids and grown-ups can appreciate a short, simple book sometimes.
The Kraken’s Rules for Making Friends by Brittany R. Jacobs, 2016
As it so happens, Brittany R. Jacobs is my coworker. But this book was on my radar before Brittany started the job, and I didn’t happen to notice the author’s name and make the connection. The title alone struck me as something unique and interesting because I feel like there aren’t that many children’s picture books about the Kraken. (Although a quick Google search reveals that this isn’t the very first) Since then, I have of course gone and purchased the book on Amazon. (Note to self: Take it to work. Ask Brittany to sign it. Get another copy for my cousin’s kids for Christmas. Ask Brittany to sign that, too.) It’s definitely a book worth owning. It’s funny, cheerful, short enough for young children, intelligent enough for early grade-school children, and it has a shark. And a Kraken.
Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober, 2016
I discovered this book while searching for stories appropriate for storytime on Star Wars Day, which my library celebrates in early October. No, Chicken in Space doesn’t have anything to do with Star Wars, but it’s about space travel, so it fits the bill. And it’s an absolutely brilliant book in its own right. It tells the story of Zoey, an ambitious chicken, who dreams of flying into space. Despite all the challenges, (such as the fact that she doesn’t have a spaceship) she and her friend Sam, a pig with a penchant for pie, do manage to eventually get off the ground and brave the dangers of an asteroid (actually a baseball) and an alien attack (actually a flock of birds) before returning safely home. Yes, it’s just one more of many books about the power of imagination, but its original, likable characters and entertaining dialogue make it memorable and extra fun.
Tek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell, 2016
I’m not typically the biggest fan of books about the evils of technology. But this one is clever enough to make me overlook the overly simplistic plot and the condescending message. The first thing a reader will notice about this book is that it looks like an iPad, complete with the little icons showing wifi signal and battery power. (The battery power progressively decreases, a fun detail that I didn’t notice the first time through.) The jokes in the text will appeal to early school-age kids, who will find it hilarious that Tek’s dad invented the internet before discovering fire. My favorite bit of humor in this book is the phrase “a Flying Idontgiveadactyl”. Although it’s technically a picture book, I would recommend this for young independent readers.
A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2016
On January 7, 1785, Dr. John Jeffries of England and pilot Jean-Pierre Blanchard of France, set off on a balloon ride across the English channel. As indicated in the book’s subtitle, it was to be the first flight to cross national borders. Unfortunately, the two men were bitter rivals. Closely based on historical events as described by Jeffries later that year, this book recounts the near-disaster that forced the two to work together. Like many historical picture books, this book is best suited for readers in first or second grade. (Readers of that age demographic will find this book hilarious, not only for the petty bickering between the two men, but for the important role that “pee” plays in the story.) I’d love to see it show up on readers’ choice awards for elementary-school-aged children next year.
Little Bot and Sparrow by Jake Parker, 2016
Although this is a picture book rather than a middle-grade novel, it reminded me quite a bit of The Wild Robot—and I think I like this one better. After being thrown away with the garbage, Little Bot meets Sparrow, who teaches him a variety of life lessons before flying away for the winter. Although the ending is anticlimactic, it’s a sweet story and beautifully illustrated. Little Bot’s face seems to be specifically designed to look cute and likable, and the flora and fauna is fairly realistic-looking. I love the colors on the page that depicts autumn. This book will fit into a variety of storytime themes; since it takes place over the course of a year, it’s a great book about the seasons, and it’s technically both a nature book and a science fiction book.
The Mixed-Up Truck by Stephen Savage, 2016
This fun picture book about a cement mixer’s first day on the job came to my attention in September thanks to a program that involved a cement-mixer craft. This is an excellent storytime book. It features bright, cheerful illustrations of anthropomorphized construction vehicles, (who could have imagined that a cement mixer could be so cute?) it’s relatively short with a repetitive structure, and it is humorous. After being told to get some powdery white cement, the cement mixer mistakenly goes first to a flour factory and then to a sugar factory and accidentally makes a giant cake before finally getting it right on his third trip. On an irrelevant side note, I actually messed this book up the first time I read it. I had it in my head that the cement mixer was trying to make a road, not a building, so I believed (and actually told the kids) that he was still mixed up on that third trip, thereby proving that my narrative skills are underdeveloped and I need to go back to preschool.
Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes, 2016
This beautiful picture book doesn’t have many words, but the brief request for a nighttime snowfall is somehow eloquent and poetic. The scratchboard and watercolor artwork likewise manages to encompass both simplicity and elaborate detail. This is fitting, considering that the appeal of the snowfall is that it makes everything “slow and delightful and white”. As much as I love this book, I’d have to say that it’s actually probably more enjoyable for adults than for young children. For an adult who loves picture books, this particular book is full of meaning and nostalgia, and has fascinating sub-themes and motifs tucked into the illustrations. (Transportation, especially airplanes! Old-fashioned vs. new! Animals! Angels!) But to most children, this is just a book about wishing for snow. However, I can imagine an adult and a child having endless fun reading this book and examining the illustrations together. (Let’s count everything that can fly! The geese are flying, the airplanes can fly, and does the falling snow count? Let’s count all the kinds of transportation! Cars, airplanes, horse-carriage, snowplows… do sleds count?)
Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead, 2016
I have mixed feelings about this book. I found the dialogue to be a little stilted, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in books intended for very young children. The story is sweet, but not unique and noteworthy. (Although the woolly mammoth protagonist sets this apart from most other sweet books about animals being nice to each other.) The artwork is the deciding factor that made me decide that I do in fact like this book quite a bit. The shape of the snowflakes, the texture of Samson’s fur, and the colors and patterns used for the sky and snow make this book one that a child can enjoy looking at, with or without the story. I would recommend it as a read-aloud at home for a preschool-aged child, although it’s too long to be used in a library storytime.
Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson, 2016
Fox is separated from his family. While the beautifully sad illustrations show poor, dejected Fox wandering through a residential neighborhood, the text describes his forest life in a stream-of-consciousness manner. In the end, Fox stumbles across a tunnel that leads him back to his forest and his family. The final illustration, showing seven bright-eyed, perky-eared foxes happy to see one another, will change the minds of anyone who might previously have felt that this story was “too sad”. The author’s note on the final page makes it clear that this book was written largely to promote the construction of wildlife crossings, including tunnels under highways like the one that brought Fox home. But somehow, this book doesn’t feel as preachy as most books about wildlife conservation do. I found Fox to be such a likable character that, for me, this was still an enjoyable fictional picture book as well as a message about preserving animal habitats.
The Storyteller by Evan Turk, 2016
I was a little unclear as to whether this story is a Moroccan folk tale or an original story by Turk, and for me, that ambiguity detracted a little from the value of the book. Although the author’s note doesn’t answer my question, a little background research reveals that the story is in fact original, but was inspired by what the author saw in trips to Morocco, and makes use of local artistic techniques and styles. The artwork in this book is definitely beautiful and unique. I would not at all be disappointed to see this book win the Caldecott. My one complaint is that the plot seemed very complex and a little hard to follow. If the text was a little less concise, that would have helped. But I loved the emphasis on the art of storytelling and the implied parallel between water and oral tradition. This is not a preschool storytime book, but it’s a great picture book for school-aged independent readers.
They All Saw a Cat by Brenden Wenzel, 2016
I knew I had to get my hands on this book because it’s been getting a lot of positive attention. The fact that I’m a crazy cat lady played a very small role in my anticipation of reading this book. Really. At a first glance, I admit I was actually a little disappointed. The text’s brevity and repetitive nature make it a great book for reading aloud to toddlers, but nothing about it struck me as unique and distinctive. But the more I think about it, the more appreciation I can muster for the use of perspective in the artwork. (Which is really the whole point of the book) Not only does every character view the cat from a different vantage point, but the artistic style and medium changes from page to page. The publisher’s summary includes the phrase “rhythmic prose and stylized pictures”, and that’s probably the best way to describe this book. It’s definitely a good book and worthy of a place in library storytimes and the homes of young children. As a side note, I’m just now noticing the dedication. I do not in fact know Brenden Wenzel, so I am not the Magdalena to whom this book is dedicated, but we’ll call it my book anyway, okay?
Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems, 2016
Rounding out this list, we have the newest book by Mo Willems, who probably couldn’t write a less-than-wonderful children’s book if he tried. (Okay, I personally didn’t love the Knuffle Bunny books – but a lot of people did.) This picture book plays with rhyme in a way that is both humorous and educational. (For toddlers and preschoolers, playing with rhyming words can help to build a lot of skills that will serve them well when they are learning to read.) Although the repetition of the –et word ending is probably the most memorable element of the book, the plot itself is both humorous and emotive. Even the artwork is distinctive. The backgrounds of the illustrations are photographs of cardboard constructions, giving a sense of depth to the otherwise cartoonish, two-dimensional images. All in all, this is a great book that I can’t wait to use in a storytime.