We’re just a few days short of the halfway point of 2017, so it’s time for another list of relatively recent picture books that I personally thought were particularly noteworthy. In most cases, that’s because I really liked them, although I’ve also included a few just because they’ve been well-received in general. As in my previous posts of this type, I’ve included pictures of the ones I consider to be the best of the best. (But I didn’t put a lot of thought into that selection, so I reserve the right to completely change my mind.)
Robins! How They Grow Up by Eileen Christelow, 2017
I think it’s a natural instinct for people to find young animals cute and interesting. (At least if the animal in question is a mammal or a bird and not, say, an insect or arachnid) The subject matter of this book gives it a few bonus points in terms of appeal factors, but it’s especially attention-worthy in that it’s more informative than most children’s books of comparable length. Even better yet, it features absolutely gorgeous artwork with multiple panels on most pages. The text comes from the perspective of two juvenile robins, and although the book has far more words than most picture books, it’s broken up and spread out in such a way that will make the book approachable to even beginning readers. In general, I’d recommend it for children ages 7-10 who are reading independently or ages 5-7 reading with a grownup.
A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, 2017
I tried really hard to love this book. For a significant portion of my childhood, I loved reading about presidents, and about John F. Kennedy in particular. Although this book is much shorter than the types of books I generally read at that age, it is certainly one that would have caught my eye. And considering the historical importance of the Civil Rights movement, (and its current popularity as a topic for children’s nonfiction and historical fiction) I like the fact that there’s a children’s book about JFK that specifically focuses on his connection to those issues. But this book didn’t meet my expectations. The writing style is choppy and the transitions are awkward. Perhaps because of that, the praise and criticisms of Kennedy come across as self-contradictory rather than as a balanced, honest, and relatively unbiased account. As a side note, I question the effectiveness of the stylized illustrations. They’re artistically good, but more realistic pictures or even photographs might have been preferable for this particular book.
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex, 2017
I’d recommend this book to independent readers in elementary school rather than to preschoolers for several reasons. It has more text than most picture books, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the game of Rock Paper Scissors, and its humor will go over the heads of younger readers. But for readers of a specific maturity level, it’s absolutely hilarious to use phrases such as “Over by the Tire Swing” and “the Pit of Office Trash Bin” as formal place names, and Rock’s interpretation of battle pants (“If by ‘battle pants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes, I am wearing my battle pants”) is downright hysterical. The various different insults and threats, ranging from “I will leave you beaten and confused with my adhesive and tangling powers” to “You look like a butt”, will also elicit laughs from that demographic. Like any good picture book, the artwork complements the text. In this case, it’s brightly colored and plays with perspective. Much of the text is incorporated into the illustrations, i.e. with word bubbles and the like.
Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin, 2017
This almost-wordless picture book tells the story of a girl who brings her beloved stuffed fox to school for show and tell. When she sets it down, a real fox grabs it and runs away. Along with a classmate, she goes in search of her stuffed fox, which brings her to a colorful animal community deep in the forest. With the help of a bear, she finds and retrieves her stuffed fox. But the young fox who took it is so sad that (spoiler!) the girl decides to let him keep it. He gives her his own toy unicorn, and both protagonists are happy. There are lots of things I like about this story, such as the heartwarming friendship between the two main human characters, and the surprisingly emotional scene where girl and fox meet and the toy fox changes hands twice. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the contrast between the gray-tone realistic human world and the colorful and fantastical setting in the forest. But the different messages and themes don’t quite mesh. The human friendship doesn’t play any role in the basic plot, but quite a bit of space is dedicated to it. The use of color implies some sort of social commentary, but if there is a point, it isn’t clearly made.
The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper, 2017
Mo Willems’ beloved characters Elephant and Piggie are back to recommend this story about nothing. Or rather, it’s about a button that does nothing. As three birds repeatedly press the button and argue about its effect or lack thereof, readers will be entertained by their over-the-top emotional reactions to nothing at all. Like the original Elephant and Piggie books and the previous two books in this spin-off series, this new story is a great choice for young readers who are just beginning to read in full sentences. It proves that a controlled vocabulary and simple sentence structures are still capable of telling an actual story with a plot. (And effective humor)
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, 2017
This is another nonfiction one. It’s a biography of the student who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, when she was just 21 years old. As one would expect, it focuses mainly on that one particularly famous work, but it also dedicates some space to her childhood as well as to her more recent projects. I’m surprised that this book hasn’t gotten more attention than it has, because it hits quite a few of the major buzzwords in today’s education/children’s nonfiction trends. It’s about a female who has been successful in a STEM field and it discusses technology while making a connection between artistry and the use of technology. Another thing that I would consider to be an appeal factor is the fact that it portrays a very young woman doing very important professional things. In my personal opinion, though, the artwork deserves as much attention as the text. The digitally-created illustrations have the softness of watercolor but the cleanly defined lines of ink. The overall effect seems to me to parallel the simple but artistic architectural style that we’re told is characteristic of Lin.
Who Wants to Be a Princess? What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Migy, 2017
Do you dream of twirly pink gowns, royal balls, and knights to guard your castle from dragons? Well, Princess Beatrice is here to tell you that royal life was a little different in the Middle Ages than what the fairy tells tell you. Most double-pages have a couple sentences and a picture about a fairy tale princess’s world followed by a couple of sentences and a picture about Princess Beatrice’s everyday life. Beatrice is a fictional character, (the author’s note specifies that her castle is depicted as one from 12th-14th century Britain) and the illustrations and writing style in this book are pretty standard for a picture book aimed at kids around kindergarten-age. But it’s very informative and will give readers a much more nuanced view of its historical setting. In fact, I think it’s likely to spark an interest in “real” history among a demographic that doesn’t often read much nonfiction.
Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes, 2017
Remember My Brother Ant from 1996? Or The Stories Julian Tells from 1981? Then you already have a pretty good sense of what this book is like. It’s an early reader about two brothers, divided into four brief stories that tie closely together. But if the basic premise isn’t especially unique, the humor is memorable enough to make up for that. My personal favorite bit was the bedtime banana. Although I wasn’t as amused by the repetition of the question “How can you be sleeping? You are talking,” I think that most 6-8 year-olds will enjoy that line much more. But yet I do think this is a children’s book with a strong adult appeal; anyone who misses the good ol’ days before iPhone apps and video games will take a nostalgic pleasure in reading about Charlie and Mouse spending their time trying to sell rocks and having a neighborhood party at the playground.
All Ears, All Eyes by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson, 2017
I’ll admit, as far as the text goes, this book isn’t really my type. It’s full of onomatopoeias and phrases that aren’t full sentences. It doesn’t exactly have a plot, although it does have a sequence of events in that it’s set at different times of night, starting at twilight and ending at dawn. And the print is arranged on the page in such a way that sometimes, it’s hard to tell what order they come in. But even though I don’t typically like this kind of book so much, this one is well done. If you’re paying more attention to the flow of sounds than to the meaning of the words, it’s pretty, and the artwork is definitely beautiful. The color combinations vary from page to page, but many of them are eye-catching. This isn’t necessarily one of my favorites on the list, but it has received multiple starred reviews. (Five out of the six most relevant review journals, if I recall correctly)
Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard, 2017
As a brief biography, this book is somewhere between mediocre and good, but as a picture book, it’s exceptionally beautiful. The inside of the book jacket describes the illustrations as “gorgeous, almost magical acrylic paintings,” and I can’t disagree with that. Young Johann Sebastian Bach’s face is emotive and realistically detailed, and the use of musical notes in the illustrations expresses Bach’s devotion to music much more effectively than a picture-book’s-worth of text possibly could. I found it artsy that music is also portrayed as colorful, abstract patterns in some pictures, especially where it depicts Bach’s own compositions. I’d recommend this book to readers of all ages with a fondness for the artistic style, and for parents or teachers who are teaching music history or instilling music appreciation to kids in the five- to eight- year- old age range.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, 2017
The events of 1963 Birmingham are pretty well represented in children’s literature, (historical fiction perhaps even more than nonfiction) but somehow Audrey Faye Hendricks wasn’t a figure I’d heard much about until I saw this book. At the age of nine, she was the youngest activist known to have participated in the Children’s March, in which over three thousand juvenile protesters were arrested. This nonfiction picture book presents the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of the plucky girl who wanted to do anything she could, even go to jail, to fight for racial equality. Although the discussion of the movement is fairly superficial and the artwork a little cheery for the subject matter, I think that this book will make a great introduction to the topic and that it holds a strong appeal for children around the ages of 5-8.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Jerry Pinkney, 2017
If you’re familiar with Jerry Pinkney, you are probably pleased every time he comes out with a new folk/fairy tale. Like usual, the illustrations are gorgeous, full-page watercolor paintings, (be sure not to skip over the endpapers) and the book as a whole is an enjoyable reading experience and likely a Caldecott contender. I’m sure that most reviewers, librarians, and booksellers will classify this as a book for younger readers since it’s a picture book, but I’d recommend it for all ages, and in fact, I think that older kids and adults will have a greater appreciation for Pinkney’s artistic style than younger kids will. One thing I want to note about this book is that Pinkney took some liberties and gave it a new ending. I’ll withhold an opinion on whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the aesthetic value of the book.
If My Love Were a Fire Truck: A Daddy’s Love Song by Luke Reynolds, illustrated by Jeff Mack, 2017
For me, this book instantly brought to mind the 1994 book (now considered a classic) Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. But the listing of metaphors for love is a common theme in children’s literature, as well as songs and poems for all ages. This book rephrases the idea by using more masculine imagery than what is usually included in such books. The father’s love for his son is depicted as a knight’s shield, a marching band, and a lion’s roar, among other things. These metaphors aren’t actually explained, but I chalk that up to poetic license. In this book, it doesn’t matter what it means for love to stomp from tree to tree; (that’s from the page where love is an elephant) the point is that it sounds good and the picture is sweet.
Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith, 2017
To be honest, I’m having a hard time putting into words what makes this book so beautiful and so powerful. It has something to do with the ink and watercolor illustrations with thick black outlines and something to do with the repetition in the text. (The events of the protagonist’s day are punctuated with the phrase “it goes like this”, and we are periodically reminded that his father is “under the sea” “digging for coal”.) It has something to do with the little details, such as the description of the swingset with only two swings left; one is broken and one “is wound so high around the top post it will never come down.” It has something to do with the contrast between the carefree, picturesque life above-ground and the dark, difficult job of a coal-miner. And it has something to do with the boy’s matter-of-fact acceptance that he will one day give up his idyllic childhood for the gloom of the coal mines. The understated social commentary is actually much more thought-provoking than an inflammatory tone could be. Maybe that’s as good a way as any to describe this picture book, because I’m just now looking at the inside of the book jacket, and it uses many of the same words as I have here.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu, 2017
For all of the attention that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs get for their computer-related innovations, we don’t hear much about earlier figures in the history of computer technology. Grace Hopper was one such early programmer, and evidently an especially significant one. This book credits her with finding ways to simplify coding, making it possible for people to use computers without learning “computer language.” Much of the book focuses on young Grace’s academic achievements, (and one academic failure) which makes this book very child-friendly. Wallmark also does an exceptional job of explaining Grace Hopper’s technical accomplishments in simple, understandable terms. Add to that the bright and cartoonish artwork, and the end result is a picture book biography that takes the best of both worlds. It’s also worth mentioning that this book falls into the highly desired category of books about females in STEM.
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams, 2017
I’ve really been looking forward to this nonfiction picture book because, y’know, sharks are cool. And although this book isn’t likely to make it onto my best-of-2017 list, it doesn’t disappoint. The cartoon-style illustrations of marine life are bright and eye-catching, with a couple satisfyingly detailed sharks. As far as the text goes, it’s both concise and informative, appropriate either as a read-aloud for kids as young as Kindergarten or as independent reading for students around 2nd-3rd grade. (Independent readers will easily finish the book in a single sitting) One thing I’d like to point out for the benefit of any grownups interested in this book is that it’s specifically about wildlife conservation and marine ecosystems rather than the broad topic of shark facts in general.