Lots of librarians are calling this the new golden age of picture book publishing, and I think they might be right on target. We've been reading dozens of new picture books at home the last few months, and here are 10, five fiction and five non-fiction, that I highly recommend!
When Otis Courted Mama by Kathi Appelt and Jill McElmurry (ages 5-9)
It’s easy to see why Kathi Appelt has won a Newbery Honor and twice been nominated for a National Book Award. Her talent for writing chapter books channels easily into the picture books she authors. When Otis Courted Mama is a fine-tuned, well-written picture book. And the gouache illustrations, done on watercolor paper, are just as excellent as the prose. Artist Jill McElmurry has knack for catching emotions on the faces of her subjects, and adding details that make the Southwestern setting come to life. So what happens when you put together wonderful storytelling with beautiful art? You get a top-notch picture book. One that I expect to win some awards.
Cardell is a young coyote who enjoys living part-time with his mother and part-time with his remarried father. He especially appreciates the one-on-one time he gets with Mama. So far, Cardell and Mama have "agreed" that Mama dating is all well and good, as long as each suitor doesn’t wear out his welcome. But then Otis comes along and changes everything, causing a “grrr” to form in Cardell’s throat. How Otis works to win over first Mama and then Cardell, and how Cardell learns to adjust to the change of sharing Mama, form a lively, endearing tale. The development of Cardell’s relationship with his soon-to-be-stepfather is especially tender. Kids facing divorce and family blending will certainly benefit from this book, but so will children who live in more “traditional” households. Regardless of their personal situation, children will quickly warm to When Otis Courted Mama, because the storytelling is engaging and fun. The tale is sweetened by lots of Southwestern flair (Otis tells stories of horned toads and chaparrals and appears on the doorstep with ocotillo flowers for Mama), which make it an excellent read-aloud. And Cardell, Mama, and Otis are charming characters with true-to-life emotions that children will easily pick up on.
Smick! by Doreen Cronin and Juana Medina (ages 18 months-5)
Picture books told with very few to no words are especially powerful. The longest sentence in Smick! contains three words. It’s difficult to bring such a book to life in a review. Imagine thick black lines that depict a big, happy dog who is seldom still. Then throw in a photographed flower petal (transformed by illustrator Medina into a tiny chick) and a long brown stick. And that’s it, really. Smick is one of those goofy dogs that only a hard-hearted reader couldn't love, and he will quickly endear himself to children and adults. Despite his bouncy size and personality, he manages to befriend the tiny chick without scaring it away. The heartwarming friendship between delicate bird and silly dog is particularly tender, while also comical. I still can’t get over how easy it is to love a dog that exists only in black and white on paper.
Betty Goes Bananas by Steve Antony (ages 2-6)
When this book came home from the library, my five year old asked me to read it three times in one night. Then he said, “Mama, is this book from the library, or is it mine?” He wanted reassurance that he could keep reading it forever. (No worries, it showed up a few weeks later beside his Valentine candy.) I think he loves Betty Goes Bananas both because it’s a very funny story, and because it’s all about temper tantrums. (Did I mention my son is having a hard time not being in control of every aspect of his life lately?)
Betty is a pink-bowed gorilla. She wants to eat a banana, but she can’t get it peeled. She ends up on the floor in frustration, kicking and screaming. After a calming toucan arrives to show her how, Betty settles down for a few minutes ... Until she gets mad because she wanted to peel the banana HERSELF. More yelling/stamping of feet later and Betty calms herself again. Then the banana breaks. You can guess what happens next. Young kids will relate to Betty’s struggles with losing and regaining self-control. They’ll also love the humorous ending in which she sees another banana she wants and the smart toucan decides to flee the premises. Read this one aloud with lots of exaggerated temper tantrum noise. You're guaranteed laughs and self-recognition from young kids.
Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre (ages 3-9)
April Pulley Sayre spent a year in her yard, as well as in a neighbor’s garden, camera in hand every time it looked like rain might be near. The result is this gorgeous book of full-page photographs of rainy skies, plants, dirt, spider webs, tiny animals, and more. She pairs close ups of rain-soaked leaves and rolling raindrops with short descriptive verse. The end notes further explain each page with more details of the scientific aspects of raindrops, as well as a suggested bibliography. This is the rare kind of science picture book that kids of many ages will enjoy poring over. If you love a summer rainstorm or know a child who would like to explore a garden with a magnifying glass, this lovely book needs to make it into your lap.
A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall (ages 7-10)
A Fine Dessert introduces young readers to families in 18th century England, 19th century South Carolina, 20th century Boston, and 21st century San Diego. Although four centuries and varying circumstances separate them, each of the families are tied together by one dessert, a delicious blackberry fool. A rural family picks blackberries and strains them through muslin, then makes cream by milking a cow, and constructing a whisk out of twigs in 1710. One hundred years later, a slave girl and her mother follow similar steps, but use a metal whisk and strainer. In 1910, a young girl and her mother purchase the fruit from a stand, and use cream delivered to their doorstep and a metal rotary beater. Fast forward to modern day 2010, and a boy and his father buy organic fruit and milk and use instruments like a food processor and electric beater. Each family shares the blackberry fool at dinner tables filled with different kinds of people, from slaves serving a white family to a party featuring a 21st century interracial couple. Despite varying circumstances, each child licks the bowl clean: “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. What a fine dessert.”
I’m thrilled to see one of my favorite picture book artists involved in such thoughtfully constructed non-fiction for kids. In the end notes, Sophie Blackall relates how she made a whisk out of twigs and used it to make cream before starting the drawings for A Fine Dessert, which took a year to complete. She also put a lot of forethought into her rendition of the slave family, along with myriad other details that make this book fun to pore over repeatedly. Both Blackall and author Jenkins ensure the accuracy of the text and drawings with careful research. While the authenticity A Fine Dessert achieves is important, it also has to be entertaining to be an excellent picture book. Fortunately, Jenkins and Blackall succeed on this front. The thoughtful, rhythmic text and engagingly detailed watercolor and ink illustrations draw readers' attention in, and won't let it go. Be sure to show children that the end papers were colored with blackberry juice and don’t miss out on trying the included blackberry fool recipe.
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall (ages 4-8)
What happens when a red crayon can only create things that are blue? Strawberries, red ants, and stoplights all turn out wrong. When Red tries to create a “nice round orange” with Yellow, the resulting green mess (remember, yellow and blue make green), prompts Yellow to comment, “Yuck.” Despite help from family and friends, Red just can’t make anything red. Then Berry comes by and asks Red to make a blue ocean for her boat. Red hesitates, but lo and behold, it turns out beautifully, and Red is happily inspired to draw blue jeans, a blue whale, a bluebird, and more. Children who read this book (or to whom the book is read) will notice from page one that Red has a red crayon wrapper, clearly labeled “Red,” but that the crayon inside is blue. So it’s no wonder Red can’t create anything red! Use this book as a springboard for discussions about identity, and a subtle lesson that what’s on the inside counts so much more than outside appearances.
Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora (ages 4-8)
Ame Dyckman is the creative picture book author of both Boy + Bot and Tea Party Rules. Zachariah OHora wrote and illustrated No Fits, Nilson!, a favorite in my house, which I reviewed here. So when I heard that Dyckman and OHora were combining talents for a new picture book, I couldn’t wait to see it! Let’s just say that Wolfie the Bunny has lived up to my hopeful expectations.
The Bunny family, which consists of Mama, Papa, and young Dot, come home to a bundle of joy on their front stoop. Mama and Papa are immediately smitten with the tiny wolf baby, but Dot can’t believe her bad luck. Don’t the grown ups known that wolves are dangerous? Dot’s frustration grows as Mama and Papa dote all over their new baby, and refuse to listen to her concerns, even as Wolfie grows larger and larger. Things come to a head when Dot and Wolfie encounter a giant bear at the produce market, and end up saving each other. Kids will enjoy the familiar refrain of “HE’S GOING TO EAT US ALL UP!” and those who’ve encountered a new baby in the family will relate to Dot’s frustration. A comical gem that makes a great read aloud.
Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns and Ellen Harasimowicz (ages 6-9)
We have a butterfly garden in our backyard which my kids very much enjoy, so I’m always eager to get my hands on any books on the subject. I had to wait a long time for this book, but it was well worth my patience. I am thrilled with Handle With Care, for a couple of reasons: It features striking full-page photographs, the text is the simplest I’ve seen in such detailed non-fiction, and it focuses on a different aspect of the butterfly story. Kids who read Handle With Care learn about a butterfly farm in Costa Rica, where blue morpho butterflies are carefully tended until their pupae can be shipped to a museum in Boston. This is the first non-fiction butterfly book I’ve read that bridges the gap between material for really young kids and books written for middle schoolers, and at the same time chooses an original slant to focus upon. Handle with Care is a fine example of quality science non-fiction that young elementary schoolers will very much enjoy poring over.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz and Catia Chien (ages 6-10)
I missed this powerful, understated picture book until it was awarded the 2015 Schneider Family Book Award for its outstanding portrayal of a “disability experience” in children’s literature. Author Rabinowitz is both a world-famous wildlife conservationist and a spokesperson for the Stuttering Foundation of America. In A Boy and a Jaguar he relays his experience growing up with a stutter, which included being (mis)placed in a school class with learning-disabled students.
As a young boy Rabinowitz found his stutter amazingly disappeared when he talked to animals:
I know that my pets listen and understand. Animals can’t get the words out, just as I can’t get the words out. So people ignore or misunderstand or hurt them, the same way people ignore or misunderstand or hurt me. I make a promise to my pets. I promise that if I can ever find my voice, I will be their voice and keep them from harm.
A young Rabinowitz makes the same pledge to a lonely jaguar at the Bronx Zoo. As a young adult, he finally learns to control his stutter, “but nothing has changed on the inside. I still feel broken.” Only when he begins to study animals in the wild, like black bears in the Smokies and jaguars in Belize, does Rabinowitz find happiness. He’s inspired to protect the jaguars from hunters, even when it means pleading their case in front of government officials. Later he encounters the largest male jaguar he’s ever come across in the forest, one that approaches him peacefully. In a few emotionally resonant lines, the undeniable power of both the animal and human spirit becomes evident. This is a picture book biography that every child should read, not just to learn about the difficulty of being “different,” but also because the message is encapsulated in a beautiful, well-written story. In addition, A Boy and A Jaguar will speak to kids who struggle in any way, giving them hope for understanding.
Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker and Jonathan D. Voss (ages 7-10)
I knew that the real Christopher Robin was author A. A. Milne’s son, and that the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh was named for Christopher Robin’s stuffed teddy bear. But until I read this children’s book, I had no idea that the stuffed bear was the namesake of a live black bear who lived in the London Zoo from 1914-1934. I also learned that Winnie’s stint in the zoo is not the beginning of the story, for he first belonged to Harry Colebourn, a young Canadian soldier enlisted in the veterinary corps during World War I. Winnie traveled with the corp to its training camp in England and became a beloved mascot to the soldiers, as well as a close friend to his caretaker Harry. Children will fall in love with the real Winnie’s endearing personality, and be intrigued by the special relationship between the bear and Harry. The book is enhanced by photographs on the endpapers of Winnie, Harry, Christopher Robin, and A. A. Milne, which help make Winnie’s story more real for children. An author’s note with a bibliography means Winnie can be used both as an enjoyable story and for kids doing research.
Dream Drum Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López (ages 5-9)
This picture book was inspired by the life of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a young girl of Chinese-African-Cuban descent, who grew up in 1930s Havana. Modern-day children will find a role model in the story of the Drum Dream Girl, who defies her culture (“only boys should play the drums”) to become a jazz drummer. They’ll also be quickly carried away by the bright, rhythmic poetry of Engle’s prose, which will remind them of — what else — a percussion beat. Such powerful poetry also makes Drum Dream Girl a perfect read-aloud:
When she walked under
wind-wavy palm trees
in a flower-bright park
she heard the whir of parrot wings
the clack of woodpecker beaks
the dancing tap
of her own footsteps
and the comforting pat
of her own
López’s vibrant illustrations, made using acrylic paint on wood board, are unbelievably beautiful, and bring Cuban culture to life with a warm, tropical, spicy palette of colors and a folk-art feel. Take a look at a page spread:
I can’t decide which is my favorite part of Drum Dream Girl — its artwork or its poetry. That tells me that I’ve encountered a remarkable picture book, in which art and prose meld seamlessly into perfection. No wonder Drum Dream Girl has earned rave reviews from more than one children’s book review journal! This is a wonderful book to encourage kids to pursue their dreams, no matter the obstacle.
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