It feels like just a few days ago when I was compiling my best-of-2016 list. But we are now nearly one fourth of the way through 2017, so there’s already quite a lot of 2017 children’s literature out there. My reading pace has admittedly been slower than usual lately, but I still have accumulated a list of new favorites. Hopefully, I’ll later get around to blogging about some of the novel-length books I’ve loved. (For the record, The Ethan I Was Before and The Warden’s Daughter are probably my top two at the moment, with Scar Island coming in at a relatively close third) But for now, here are my remarks on some recent picture books, (and one early reader) including a couple non-fiction titles for grade-school aged kids.
Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, 2017
This nonfiction picture book does a beautiful job of describing the water cycle through pictures that are visually appealing and that complement the text, making the science easier to understand. The text itself is brief and concise, and its positioning on the page helps to make it look and feel like poetry. I personally found it a little corny that the book is written in first person from the sun’s perspective, especially on the concluding page (not counting the somewhat excessive six pages of notes) when the sun makes a promise to the reader and asks the reader to commit to “find[ing] ways to use water sparingly and keep[ing] it clean”. But I am willing to concede that as a personal opinion that doesn’t necessarily reflect the book’s quality.
Noisy Night by Mac Barnett, pictures by Brian Biggs, 2017
For Mac Barnett, 2017 is off to a good start, as he has two new picture books that have been well received. Both of them are making my list. Noisy Night is a short and simple story with bright colors and fun noises. It starts with a boy wondering what is going LALALA above his head, and each double-page spread introduces the character(s) on the floor above. The residents of each floor are making some type of noise and wondering who is making the noise they hear from the next floor up. Finally, at the end of the book, who see an old man who yells “GO TO BED!” at all of his noisy downstairs neighbors, and finally hears the click of a light switch being turned off. It may not be an especially interesting ending from a literary perspective, but it will entertain young children. This will make a fun bedtime story for a toddler or preschooler, and it will also be a great book to use in library storytimes.
Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, 2017
This story about an anthropomorphic triangle’s “sneaky trick” on his friend Square is silly, pointless, childish, and consequently wonderful. I can imagine this book getting some giggles in a storytime for preschoolers, (although any grownups present are less likely to appreciate the humor) but I also think it’s a great choice for a young reader—perhaps around first grade—who is just barely ready for a book of this reading level. It has sentences up to twelve words long and words as challenging as “triangle”. Due to its picture book format and sparse text, this will not be an intimidating book, and the plot’s simplicity is conducive to comprehension even if the reader needs to take the story slowly in order to sound out words.
Pig & Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond, 2017
In terms of its reading level, this book does a nice job of filling the niche of literature for kids who are a bit too advanced for Henry and Mudge or Fancy Nancy, but not quite ready for Magic Tree House or Bad Kitty. It has several sentences per page, and some of those sentences are actually pretty long, but it also has color pictures on every page and quite a bit of white space. It is divided into chapters, but is considerably shorter and uses a larger font size than most picture books. It’s comparable to the popular Princess in Black series in those respects. But in my opinion, it falls a little short of Princess in Black’s quality because the writing style is stilted and a little too repetitive and because it doesn’t have strong appeal factors. The plot leaves a fair bit to be desired. On the whole, though, it’s not a bad book, and I can certainly imagine scenarios in which I’d recommend it.
Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue by Calista Brill, illustrated by Tad Carpenter, 2017
Ah, another picture book about a cute anthropomorphic mode of transportation! And it’s a story about an underappreciated character who does something to earn respect and sudden popularity from his peers! There may not be anything particularly creative or innovative about this particular book, but its topic and plot are tried-and-true crowd pleasers. Especially if that crowd includes preschool boys, a demographic group that is likely to be fans of a transportation theme. Tugboat Bill and his barge friend Mabel will fit nicely into a library storytime about boats or rivers. And I’m sure that somewhere out there, there will be a few parents who will find themselves accidentally memorizing this story from reading it aloud so often.
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin, 2017
Okay, this book has raised a very puzzling question in my mind. Is it “Grand Canyon” or “the Grand Canyon”? I’ve been used to using the definite article, so it was a little jarring to read about “Grand Canyon” without the definite article. A Google search reveals that both phrasings are commonly used. I suppose they’re probably both grammatically correct, in which case that has absolutely no bearing on the quality of this book. In terms of its artwork, its breadth of information, and its narrative voice, this is an excellent book that will be a valuable resource for kids from about second grade to about fifth grade. It’s significantly longer than its picture book format would lead one to expect, so it will be more useful to readers towards the older side of that range. Although it conveys a lot of geological and ecological information, it reads like a work of fiction, thanks to the first-person point of view. The narrator is a girl who is exploring the canyon with her father.
Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell, 2017
In this nearly-wordless book, a girl gets lost in the snow on her way back from school and a wolf pup falls behind the pack and likewise gets lost. When the two cross paths, the girl sympathizes with the pup. He is too small to walk through the deep snow, so she carries him all the way to the woods, following the sounds of wolves howling in the distance. Once the young wolf is safely home, she continues towards her own home, this time aided by the sound of her dog barking in the distance. But she doesn’t make it. The wolves find her huddled up in the snow, presumably unconscious. They form a circle around her and howl, alerting the dog (and thereby, the girl’s parents) to her location. The last page shows the girl inside her home, drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire with her parents and the dog. (There are a couple minor plot details that are unclear to me. Does the girl fall because she injured herself? Or was she so tired that she fell asleep on her feet? I wasn’t even entirely sure whether she was already lost before she went out of the way to take the wolf pup home, but the summary on the inside jacket says that they’re both lost.) It’s a sweet story about friendship/family/kindness, but I think my favorite thing about this book is the wolves’ faces. They’re incredibly expressive given the not-quite-realistic art style. (It’s watercolor and ink, in case you’re wondering.) When an almost wordless book can tell a story with this many essential plot points, that says a lot about the skill of the illustrator.
The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! By Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, 2017
Although it’s an original story, the plot of this book resembles a folk tale in its tone, pace, use of repetition, and the way the end cycles back to the beginning. It tells of a village called La Paz, where everyone sings all the time. The people are fed up with the noise, so they fire the mayor and elect Don Pere to take his place. Under Don Pere, the village becomes a silent place where singing is illegal. These laws stand for seven years, until the day when a rooster shows up in town. What ensues is a battle of wills as Don Pere tries to quiet the rooster by taking away everything that makes him happy, one by one. But the rooster can always find a song to sing. Eventually, the villagers gather around the loud rooster and angry mayor. The rooster’s singing inspires them to rediscover their own songs. Don Pere leaves town and La Paz is once again a noisy place. (La Paz, by the way, means Peace) The message about not letting yourself be silenced is eventually explicitly stated, maybe even a little too thoroughly, since the book leaves a bit of a preachy aftertaste. But overall, I love this book, both for the story and the vibrant, colorful artwork.
Antoinette by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, 2017
I may not be appreciating this book as much as it deserves; maybe I’m missing something wonderful about it. But frankly, I don’t see that there’s anything particularly special about the plot, the artwork, or the writing. This seemed to me like a fairly generic dog story set in France. Not at all bad, but generic. Antoinette is one of four puppies who are all special—but Antoinette doesn’t know yet what it is that makes her special. After rescuing a puppy from another family, (the sister of Gaston, who is the subject of an earlier book by DiPucchio’s) Antoinette discovers that her specialty is her bravery, along with the reliability of following her heart and her nose. It’s a sweet story, and I’m not surprised that it’s somewhat popular, but I don’t think it really deserves quite the buzz it’s received.
The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling by Timothy Basil Ering, 2017
I can think of numerous ways to interpret the title of this picture book. Perhaps the love story is about Captain Alfred and his wife back home. Perhaps it’s about the love between the duck egg/ duckling that Captain Alfred is bringing home for his wife, and the Captain’s fiddle, which the duckling finds after a terrible storm that (evidently) destroys Captain Alfred’s boat. Maybe, it’s about the friendship that develops between the duckling and the dog who discovers him when the duckling and fiddle reach land. Or maybe, it’s about the music of the fiddle, which is responsible for reuniting the wife, her lost dog, the gift duckling, and the captain. The story is sweet, almost bordering on sappy, but the gorgeous acrylic artwork is the most noteworthy aspect of this book. It conveys a variety of moods, from the bright and happy opening scene of Captain Alfred setting out towards home, to the dark and raging storm, then the gray mist and sadness in the aftermath of the storm, and finally the colorful, magical music of the fiddle and the characters’ return home. Although Candlewick Press says that this book is for ages 2-5, I would argue that it skews a bit older than that, maybe more like 4-6, due to the complexity of the plot and the subdued color palette of the entire middle of the book.
Cat Knit by Jacob Grant, 2016
Do I only like this book because I know a certain other cat who is friends with a ball of yarn? Perhaps. I openly admit my bias towards cat books, particularly those that describe scenarios that regularly occur in my own catful home. But I think that this book can also be greatly enjoyed by children who have never watched my cat play with yarn. In fact, since cats’ love for yarn is such a famous trope, even children who aren’t necessarily cat lovers will be entertained by the friendship between Cat and Yarn, two of the three characters in this book. The third character is Girl. Readers as young as three years old will understand and enjoy the plot—Girl takes Yarn away and transforms Yarn into a sweater, and Cat is initially upset that his friend has changed. But by the end of the book, Cat has decided that Yarn is still his friend. On the one hand, this is a simple but beautiful story about friendship and acceptance of change. But on the other hand, it’s a goofy book that allows young readers to laugh at Cat because they know something that he doesn’t. At that age, children are still in the process of developing theory of mind, (which is essentially the understanding that different people/characters can know or believe different things) and these types of stories are therefore even funnier to preschoolers than they are to adults.
Egg by Kevin Henkes, 2017
Here is a picture book that I can’t wait to use in storytime. It features bright and simple illustrations, sparse text, (except for the page that says “waiting” sixteen times) and a hilarious plot. First, we see four eggs of different colors. Three of them crack open and hatch, but the green one does nothing. The birds are impatient, but when the final egg does hatch to reveal a baby alligator, they scatter. In a predictable happy ending, the three birds eventually return and befriend the baby alligator. (And yes, I’m sure it’s an alligator and not a crocodile. Since he’s a hatchling, I’ll concede that the teeth might just be too small to include in these simple pictures, but the shape of the snout makes it pretty clear.)
A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, 2017
I didn’t realize that I had any specific prior assumptions about this book until I opened it and found that it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I guess I was anticipating it to be longer than most picture books, perhaps with a detailed plot, and I was imagining a formal tone. Actually, it is anything but wordy and serious. Essentially, it’s about two animals playing together. Short sentences, repetition, and use of rhyme and alliteration make this book just as light-hearted and playful as the animals’ chasing game. The illustrations are likewise simple, many of them set against a plain white background, but still manage to pack in enough details to make them likable and memorable. The pinks and blues, especially towards the end of the book, evoke a sunrise-like mood that makes up for anything the pictures would otherwise be lacking.
Watersong by Tim McCanna, illustrated by Richard Smythe, 2017
Worded entirely in onomatopoeias, this book depicts a rainfall as experienced by a fox as he searches for shelter and then joins his family when the rain is over. I love the watercolor artwork with its colors, details, and frequently-changing perspective. And the text is effective in its portrayal of the rain. But the informational page at the end struck me as being disorganized and awkward. I wouldn’t say it ruined the book for me, but it did detract from it just a little.
Pax and Blue by Lori Richmond, 2017
It isn’t easy being little. I’m not sure whether the protagonist Pax is small for his age, or if he’s just little in the sense that he’s very young, but at any rate, his smallness leads him to bond with a pigeon. He names the pigeon Blue and brings him a little toast every morning. But one day, Pax’s mother rushes him onto the subway too quickly for him to feed Blue first. Blue follows Pax onto the subway, leading first to chaos and then to a predictable happy ending when they find each other. The plot feels underdeveloped, even considering the brevity and simplicity of the story, but the value of friendship is aptly expressed and the characters are endearing. Although the illustrations are simple and not very colorful, the characters’ faces are very expressive. I think that’s mostly thanks to the eyebrows. I’m only just now noting the glaring inaccuracy; pigeons don’t generally have eyebrows.
Everybunny Dance! By Ellie Sandall, 2017
What do bunnies do when no one is watching? They dance, of course, and then they play and sing—until the fox approaches, that is, and then they run. What does a fox do when he thinks no one is watching? He waltzes and pirouettes, he somersaults and plays his clarinet, and then he sheds a tear of loneliness. But he isn’t really alone. The bunnies are watching from their hiding spot, and after the fox’s performance, they can’t help applauding. Now, the bunnies and the fox all dance and play together. The bright artwork and rhyming text will make this a fun read-aloud in a storytime or at home, but the part that I expect children to love the most is the fox’s unexpected performance.
Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, 2017
This is not an ideal storytime book—it’s on the long side and the plot is too complex for most kids younger than about five—but I’d highly recommend it for a newly independent reader, for a classroom read-aloud, or for parent-child reading at home. It starts with a few clichéd remarks about how much Bunny loves books, but before the reader has time to get bored, Bunny is sneaking into the library in the dark of night. This escapade becomes a nighttime occurrence, and each time, Bunny brings back a few books. (So that’s why library books sometimes disappear right off the shelves! Mystery solved!) Then Bunny begins bringing his friends. First Porcupine, then Bear, and eventually a group of nine woodland animals are visiting the library together. Predictably, the librarian catches them… but instead of banning them from the library, she gives them library cards and allows them to check out books. As a librarian, I suppose I’m biased towards books that have a pro-library message, but besides that element, this story is humorous and features bright and cheery artwork. With the exception of a couple text-heavy pages, there are few enough sentences per page (about one to three) to make it approachable for even a reluctant reader.
How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? By Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, 2017
This fun series by Jane Yolen is one that I recommend frequently to parents or caregivers of three- or four- year olds. The books are relatively short, colorful, and funny, and the rhymes are yet another appeal factor. Each book begins with a series of questions about the dinosaurs’ behaviors, all of which are silly and/or just plain wrong. The book then ends by answering those questions with a “No” and then describing what a good dinosaur actually does. This particular book, in my opinion, is a little less fun than the ones that describe everyday activities (How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? are my favorites) But this is still a book that I would recommend to a wide audience, and that I could potentially use in storytimes in the future.