This list has been a long time in coming. I say that by way of justifying what a long list it is; there are just too many great new picture books out there to pick out just a few to write about. Everything on this list was published in 2017, and although a few of them came from early in the year, these are all books that I only just discovered since the last time I posted a list of picture books. And most importantly, everything on this list is something that I like and would recommend.
Fly Guy Presents: Castles by Tedd Arnold, 2017
Fly Guy and his human friend Buzz are the main characters in a popular series of fictional early readers, but since 2013, the duo have also been starring in nonfiction companion books. Somewhat more advanced than their fictional counterparts, the Fly Guy Presents series is nonetheless a good choice for the K-2nd grade audience, as the books are short enough to read in a single sitting, with large text and colorful, full-page illustrations. This particular title includes thumbnail-sized photos of various castles across Europe, plus a couple from other parts of the world. The text does an impressively thorough job (considering that it’s only 32 pages long) of covering the history of European castles, typical castle architecture, weapons and defenses involved in sieges, and various aspects of the castle lifestyle.
SPLATypus by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic, 2017
The platypus is a bizarre animal, breaking rules that apply to most mammals and bearing ducklike bills and venomous ankles. (The venomous ankles don’t play a role in this book, but it’s a weird and random fact that I couldn’t resist mentioning.) As such, it makes a humorous and potentially educational character in a picture book. This book is silly and brief, with rhyming and repetitive text and bright illustrations, so it’s perfect for kids as young as three-ish… young enough that they may have never heard of a platypus and will be learning along with the platypus on his journey of self-discovery. Platypus learns that he can’t jump like a kangaroo, run like dingoes, play in the trees like possums, or fly like bats. Only at that point does he start to get discouraged. That doesn’t last for long, though, before he tries swimming, the thing that he does best. Whether you think of this as a book about lesser-discussed animals or a story about persistence and self-esteem, it’s a positive and humorous read.
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall, 2017
I feel that it’s become a cliché to describe that first jump off of a diving board as a rite of passage, as if it’s always every child’s first experience with bravery. But it’s a convenient and child-friendly way of discussing fear and courage. It’s a scenario that doesn’t involve much legitimate danger and generally ends with the child feeling confident and accomplished. There’s a lot of character development that can be fit into a very short time frame. And besides, a family trip to a swimming pool is such a happy, summery, heartwarming setting. Cornwall’s artwork perfectly complements the story: the pale background colors keep the mood light-hearted while the variety of perspectives capture the experience of the scary lead-up to the jump. Jabari’s bright orange swim trunks and Cornwall’s subtle use of collage (buildings and parts of the ground appear to be made of bits of newspaper) keeps the illustrations interesting.
Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney, 2017
Fans of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site and other books about anthropomorphic construction vehicles will likewise enjoy this new title about “Little E”, an excavator who is too small to be of much use at any of the jobs that the other construction vehicles are doing. Rhyming text and textured illustrations (It looks like the original was drawn on canvas) tell the tale, concluding with the clichéd but satisfying ending, in which Little E finds a job that’s just right for him. As cute as it is, this isn’t one that will be making my “Best of 2017” list, but I’m sure there will be a significant number of preschoolers out there who will feel differently.
Baby Dolphin’s First Swim by Neil Duncan, 2017
This nonfiction picture book describes dolphin life in text simple enough that children as young as six or seven will be able to read it independently. (The font is nice and large, perfect for young eyes that are still getting used to reading) Yet the book is very informative, covering topics such as dolphin communication, dolphin diet, and how dolphins stay safe from sharks. Readers will learn that a baby dolphin is called a calf, that dolphins are mammals, and that a group of dolphins is called a pod. But best of all, these facts are accompanied by gorgeous photographs, most of which take up most of the page. For teachers and librarians working with kids in the kindergarten-2nd grade age range, I highly recommend this book. For parents of budding marine biologists, I recommend it even more highly.
All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato, 2017
This cheerful picture book tells the story of a family’s drive from their small Cuban village to Havana and back. They are visiting family to celebrate the “zero-year birthday” of the narrator’s cousin. Perhaps the real main character of the story is the family’s blue car, affectionately called Cara Cara for the noise she makes when she’s running properly. (The story begins with the boy and his father working together to fix the car; it’s a 1954 Chevy that has needed a lot of amateur repairs over the years) Although the family is clearly not wealthy, this story depicts their lifestyle as a happy one, full of family and friends and laughter and celebration. An author’s note and an illustrator’s note at the end both reiterate this image of the Cuban people, praising their sense of hope, “everyday ingenuity”,(Engle’s words) “perseverance, and family loyalty.” (from Curato’s note) Although the positive mood and use of onomatopoeias make this book a fun read, the things I liked most about this book are the lively and realistic illustrations of architecture and vehicles. The endpapers alone are engaging and appealing with their array of vintage cars still common in Cuba, and all labeled with their year, make, and model.
Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez, 2017
Little confession: This book reminded me so much of Nino Wrestles the World that I initially thought it was essentially a companion book from the same author. I don’t know why I forget that Nino Wrestles the World was by Yuyi Morales, but I somehow did. However, Lucia is a brand new character, and her story is a debut picture book for both the author and the illustrator. The similarity between the two books lies only in that they are both about lucha libre, described as “the acrobatic and theatrical style of wrestling popularized in Mexico” in the note at the end of this book. (Luchadores and luchadoras are the wrestlers/ characters/ superheroes of lucha libre) The plot is relatively simple: Lucia is tired of being told that girls can’t be superheroes, so her Abuela cheers her up by giving her a luchador costume. For a while, the mysterious hero in silver is the talk of the playground, but Lucia reveals her secret identity to prove that girls can, in fact, be superheroes. The book has a positive message that isn’t preachy and a feel-good resolution that isn’t sappy. Also, if I can assume that its portrayal is accurate, this story does a beautiful job of representing Hispanic culture without being about ethnic differences.
In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, 2017
The same author and illustrator who brought us When Spring Comes last year are following it up with this new book, using the same bright and vivid style of acrylic-paint illustrations to capture some of those quintessential fall moments. Reading this book is like being in just the right place to experience a chilly gust of wind that carries brightly colored leaves and turns the world into an autumn kaleidoscope for just a moment. Sorry if that’s a little overly corny. (I would like to make it clear, though, that the phrase “autumn kaleidoscope” is not from the book, that’s mine and I kinda like it.) The point here is that it’s a seasonally atmospheric book with beautiful illustrations. The brevity of the text makes it a great read-aloud for even the youngest audiences. In particular, it would make the perfect book to use as the last one in a library storytime about fall.
The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way) by Patrick McDonnell, 2017
For a book with such a long title, this story has hardly any text. It’s literally just the alphabet, although the last page lists the 26 words that play significant roles in the plot. Each page adds one character or element to the story to represent that page’s letter. On the A page, the red cat meets an alligator, who chases him to the B page, where they encounter a bear. On the C page, a chicken joins the chase, but when they meet a dragon on the D page, the chicken is so surprised that he lays an egg on the E page. I think you get the idea. This book is best suited for kids who already know the alphabet well enough to know what words start with what letters, even without seeing the word spelled out.
Little Wolf’s First Howling by Laura McGee Kvansnosky and Kate Harvey McGee, 2017
This book has it all: animals, a simple plot perfect for preschoolers, distinct character personalities, beautiful illustrations featuring light/dark contrast, the exact right amount of repetition, and silly noises. As soon as I saw the title page, I loved this book for its gorgeous scenery, and it only took me a couple pages to notice what a fun read-aloud it is. Big Wolf’s didactic tone (“First, let me demonstrate proper howling form”) and Little Wolf’s eagerness add up to a conversational and vaguely humorous pattern. But what makes this book most wonderful is when Little Wolf’s excitement gets the better of him and messes up his howling form. I don’t care whether you’re a toddler or a grandparent or anywhere in between, it’s hilarious when a wolf goes “dibbity dobbity skibbity skobbity,” and if you don’t think so, then you don’t have a proper appreciation for fine literature.
7 Ate 9: The Untold Story by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, 2017
Do you know why 6 is afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9… and 7 is after 6! (Get it? Get it?) This colorful picture book is full of number puns that are somehow just as funny as they are corny. Despite its brevity, this is not a preschool storytime book; it’s best suited for children old enough to recognize that words such as “positive”, “negative”, “root”, and “pi” are references to math. But as a quick classroom read-aloud, or perhaps as a gift for a budding mathematical genius, this is a brilliant book.
Masterpiece Mix by Roxie Munro, 2017
I experienced this book almost as if it was two separate books. The first half is a short and concisely worded story in which the narrator sets up her canvas and thinks about what to paint, while looking at her favorite works of art for inspiration. The second part, headed “Key to the Art in This Book” lists the paintings (plus one sculpture) shown previously, with a blurb about the artist. This part has much more text with much smaller font, so I feel justified in calling it “half” the book even though it actually only takes up six pages. I’d recommend this book for young artists with an interest in art technique and history.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui, 2017
Both the author and the illustrator of this sentimental picture book are Vietnamese Americans who grew up without a lot of money, and who aim to share a snapshot of their childhood experiences in this book. The story is about an ordinary fishing trip between a boy and his father early one chilly morning. Although both of the boy’s parents work hard, (in fact, the father just got a second job) they can only afford to eat well if they catch their own fish. With its everyday setting, the book discusses numerous aspects of the Asian American experience, from other kids’ comments about the dad’s accent to sad stories about the Vietnam war. The titular phrase refers to the pond where the father fished when he was a boy.
Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex, 2017
Poor orange. As he watches the rhyming text introduce his fruity friends, he inserts his remarks, first politely volunteering to participate, and gradually becoming more irate as the fruit rhymes become more and more forced. Even the quiche, kumquat, and lychee get to make their appearances, as does Friedrich Nietzsche. (He’s not a fruit, of course, but his name does rhyme with “lychee” and “peachy”) But since nothing rhymes with orange, he’s left out… until the very end, when his friends invent the word “smorange” in order to include him. “Smorange” means “totally awesome in every way”, apple informs him. With its colors, silliness, and range of emotions, this book will appeal to preschoolers. As a bonus, its discussion of rhyme makes it a great example to use when introducing the concept of phonological awareness to parents.
The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, 2017
As I read this picture book biography, I kept on thinking about Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, a 1996 Caldecott Honor book of which I have fond childhood memories. It took me a while to realize that these two books actually were illustrated by the same person. The other commonality, of course, is the musical topic. Aside from that, the two books are very different; this one is much longer and geared towards an older target audience. And although it’s an interesting read, I think it has greater educational value than entertainment value. Readers will learn a few musical terms, get a snapshot view of late-seventeenth century upper-class Italy, and come to an understanding of what’s inside a piano and why it’s such a versatile and important instrument. The final pages include a summarizing timeline, remarks on the evolution of the piano since Cristofori’s lifetime, titles of music for recommended listening, and fairly extensive notes on the author’s research. Despite its picture book format, it’s best suited for students in about 3rd-5th grade.
Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, 2017
Considering how many preschool-aged unicorn lovers there are out there, it’s surprising just how few good preschool-storytime books there are about unicorns. I have learned this from experience when taking requests for storytime themes. This book fits the bill. Kelp has grown up underwater in a narwhal community. He knows there’s something a little different about him, but he doesn’t realize that he actually isn’t a narwhal at all… At least not until he starts exploring on land and encounters other unicorns. Kelp’s dilemma (he feels a need to choose between his narwhal family and his unicorn family) seems a little cliche, as does the implied message about individuality. But overall it’s a sweet book with a plot and illustrations that will have a strong appeal for preschoolers.
Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson, 2017
Escargot is the riveting tale of a young French snail’s journey towards a beautiful salad with croutons and a light vinaigrette. In his quest to become the reader’s favorite animal, he learns valuable lessons about friendship, courage, self-acceptance, and carrots. Also, he’s super cute. This is probably my favorite picture book of 2017 so far. Admittedly, that’s largely because I have a soft spot for snails, (there are some stories behind that) but still, this book deserves a lot of credit for its appealing and conversational tone, its bright artwork, and its sense of humor that shows respect for the intelligence of the young reader. I’d recommend it as a read-aloud for four- and five-year-olds, but it also holds appeal for a slightly older independent reader and for anyone with a fondness for cute snails.
Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Lisa Brown, 2017
This is a bizarre one, but I say that with the acknowledgement that sometimes, a bizarre book is just what a reader wants. The story follows Goldfish Ghost as he floats out of his bowl and flies around a seaside town looking for some good company. After rejecting a number of characters including other ghost fish and a live goldfish, Goldfish Ghost eventually befriends the ghost of a lighthouse keeper. And there, the story abruptly ends. The story is subtly humorous—Goldfish Ghost is depicted as an upside-down flying white fish—and has an overly simplistic tone that feels as if perhaps it’s a deliberate parody of preschool fiction in general. It probably holds the strongest appeal as a quick-and-easy read for a child in first or second grade with a quirky sense of humor.
Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis, 2017
I preordered this book so long ago that I’d almost forgotten to expect it in the mail. I would have forgotten if I hadn’t seen posts from Facebook friends who got it a day or two earlier. (At one time not very long ago, the author and I worked together.) The story, told in verse, follows a family as they purchase a pine tree, take it home, and decorate it for Christmas. I’d recommend it for any family (or preschool, daycare, etc.) who use picture books as part of their Christmas countdown. And by the way, I recommend that. When I was a child, my family had quite the collection of Christmas books, which would be packed up for most of the year, but would come out as one of the first steps in the Christmas decoration/preparation process. There were so many beautiful, magical, and memorable books in there. Pick a Pine Tree would have fit right in; both the text and the illustrations convey the sense of that “Christmas feeling” that was so important and so tangible to my little-kid self.
Danza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuth, 2017
When I found out about this book, I knew that I needed to get it for my library. It’s by an award-winning author/illustrator with a distinctive style, it’s associated with Hispanic heritage, (the community includes a lot of Mexican American people) and I’ll admit it, I’m kind of biased towards books about dance because of my own ballet background. This book is a biography of a dancer who started a now-famous company that performs choreography based on Mexican folk dances. The book says much more about her career as a choreographer and company director than about her training and her performing career, but I think it will still appeal greatly to young aspiring dancers, especially but not only those of Hispanic heritage. While the illustrations aren’t exactly my personal favorite aesthetic, I love its resemblance to classical Mayan artwork. I would highly recommend this book to fans of Tonatiuth’s previous books.
Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the World by Mo Willems, 2017
I owe a shout-out to the six-year-old young man who asked me about this book that I had somehow not known about. This particular patron is in the library frequently and is quite a Mo Willems fan. He once read Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct in its entirety to me. At any rate, this new book is a sequel to Willems’ Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, and it shows what happens when the most scaredy-cat kid in the world and the second most scaredy-cat kid in the world (accompanied by their respective monster friends) meet each other. Spoiler: first they’re scared of each other, and then they end up becoming friends. I wouldn’t consider this one of Willems’ best books, but it’s a fun story that’s worth a read.