In a year when reasons to celebrate felt few and far between, the world of children’s literature continued to provide moments of great beauty and inspiration. Often, the moral clarity, optimism, and resilience found in picture books were a welcome (and necessary) reprieve from the messiness of the world. So as we reflect on the year that was, I think we’d all benefit from immersing ourselves in the year’s best children’s literature. Perhaps embracing the spirit of these books will allow us to see beyond the headlines and re-imagine the world as it should be.
(Note: I am currently serving as a judge for this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, so while I am highlighting 2017’s best books, unlike past years this post does not include a pick for “Best Overall Picture Book of 2017.”)
Most Touching: You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith, ill. Danielle Daniel (Orca)
Let’s be real for a second: we could all use a hug these days. This book is that hug. Read and feel its warmth course gently through your cynical veins. Praising the strength that we draw from those we love (and vice-versa), Smith and Daniel provide an important reminder that resilience does not have to be (and probably should not be) a solo effort.
(Honorable Mention: “Big Cat, Little Cat” by Elisha Cooper; “Dream” by Matthew Cordell; “Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Presidency” by Pete Souza; “Life” by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Brendan Wenzel; “Windows” by Julia Denos, ill. E.B. Goodale)
Most Charming: Crown: An Ode to a Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, ill. Gordon C. James (Agate/Denene Millner)
Paying tribute to that feeling of a fresh cut from a trusted barber, Crown captures that extra bounce in your step as confidence crackles from the top of your freshly-shorn head down through your feet. With a flawless delivery, Barnes and James’ book is a celebration of self-esteem and a thoughtful nod to the importance of stepping into the world with a touch of swagger.
(Honorable Mention: “Catawampus Cat” by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. Gus Gordon; “Hector the Collector” by Emily Beeny, ill. Stephanie Graegin; “Little Iffy Learns to Fly” by Aaron Zenz; “Not Quite Narwhal” by Jessie Sima; “Through with the Zoo” by Jacob Grant)
Best Surprise: After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat (Macmillan)
The surprise here is so good I hesitate to say anything about this book, which revisits the story of Humpty Dumpty in Santat’s inimitable style. I will say this: I’ve personally witnessed a number of accomplished authors, illustrators, and teachers audibly gasp and tear up when reading this book for the first time.
So... what are you waiting for?? Pick yourself up and head to the library!
(Honorable Mention: “Delivery” by Aaron Meshon; “The One Day House” by Julia Durango, ill. Bianca Diaz; “Red Again” by Barbara Lehman; “The Teacher’s Pet” by Anica Mrose Rissi, ill. Zachariah OHora; “Where Oliver Fits” by Cale Atkinson)
Best Family: A Different Pond by Bao Phi, ill. Thi Bui (Capstone)
Hours before sunrise, a father and son go fishing for that night’s meal. So begins this powerfully understated picture book, which shifts the focus of the refugee narrative from the harrowing journey to the reality awaiting the family members once they reach their destination (in this case, the United States). By the end, it’s clear that the small struggles that make up everyday life are the very things that bind the family together. The father and son return home that morning with a fish but, more importantly, a fond memory that will help make this new country feel like home. The ponds may be different here, but the water reflects life just the same. (see full review originally in the Horn Book)
(Honorable Mention: “Bruce’s Big Move” by Ryan Higgins; “Days with Dad” by Nari Hong; “Jabari Jumps” by Gaia Cornwall; “Pete with No Pants!” by Rowboat Watkins; “Sing, Don’t Cry” by Angela Dominguez)
Best Adventure: Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin (Random House)
After a little fox absconds with a girl’s favorite stuffed animal (also a fox), the girl gives chase and finds herself stumbling upon a colorful world of anthropomorphic woodland creatures. Graegin’s art, which always has charm to spare, breathes depth into this wordless wonderland. Quiet but intoxicating, Little Fox ends as so many great adventures do: by returning to a home that will never be quite the same.
(Honorable Mention: “The Antlered Ship” by Dashka Slater, ill. The Fan Brothers; “Great Big Things” by Kate Hoefler, ill. Noah Klocek; “On a Magical Do-Nothing Day” by Beatrice Alemagna; “Nile Crossing” by Katy Beebe, ill. Sally Wern Comport; “The Only Fish in the Sea” by Philip C. Stead, ill. Matthew Cordell)
Best History: Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, ill. Victo Ngai (Lerner)
It’s hard to imagine the staid military agreeing to such a plan, but this quirky slice of history is true: in World War I British and U.S. decorated warships in pyschedelic patterns to confuse the enemy. A feast for the eyes, this book (much like the ships themselves) is substance cleverly disguised by wondrous art. Even readers who are typically averse to non-fiction will find themselves captivated by this delightfully bizarre moment in history.
(Honorable Mention: “All the Way to Havana” by Margarita Engle, ill. Mike Curato; “Let the Children March” by Monica Clark-Robinson, ill. Frank Morrison; “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” by Vashti Harrison; “Martí’s Song for Freedom” by Emma Otheguy, ill. Beatriz Vidal; “Soldier Song” by Debbie Levy, ill. Gilbert Ford)
Funniest: Be Quiet! by Ryan Higgins (Disney-Hyperion)
Rupert the Mouse’s ambitious plans for a wordless picture book go off the rails with the arrival of his overly-enthusiastic (and talkative) friends. The jokes come at a furious clip as Higgins delivers a crowd-pleaser reminiscent of a classic Marx-brothers comedy. (Also FYI: If you don’t straight up guffaw at the onomatopoeia joke, then I’m sorry but I don’t think we can be friends.)
(Honorable Mention: “Snappsy the Alligator (and His Best Friend Forever!)” by Julie Falatko, ill. Tim Miller; “Laundry Day” by Jessixa Bagley; “Triangle” by Mac Barnett, ill. Jon Klassen; “The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse” by Mac Barnett, ill. Jon Klassen; “Sam the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the Whole World” by Mo Willems)
Most Clever: A Perfect Day by Lane Smith (Macmillan)
In this instant favorite, a picturesque scene is disrupted by a wandering bear and everything quickly takes a turn for the worse (unless, of course, you're the bear). Like reaching the bottom of a candy dish and unexpectedly biting into a Sour Skittle, the clever A Perfect Day provides a delightful jolt. (see full review originally in NPR’s Book Concierge)
(Honorable Mention: “Have You Seen My Trumpet?” by Michaël Escoffier, ill. Kris DiGiacomo; “I Love You Like a Pig” by Mac Barnett, ill. Greg Pizzoli; “The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way)” by Patrick McDonnell; “Nothing Rhymes with Orange” by Adam Rex; “This is Not a Normal Animal Book” by Julie Segal-Walters, ill. Brian Biggs)
Best On Creativity: Lines by Suzy Lee (Chronicle)
A lonely figure skater glides across the ice, cutting an elegant and dynamic path across the blank page. Suzy Lee's Lines uses this simple premise to launch a surprising meditation on the artistic process. Indeed, midway through the book, when Lee attempts a tricky metafictional twist, readers may find themselves holding their breath and preparing for a crash, but luckily, Lee sticks the landing in style. (see full reviews originally in the Horn Book and NPR’s Book Concierge)
(Honorable Mention: “Another Way to Climb a Tree” by Liz Garton Scanlon, ill. Hadley Hooper; “The Book of Mistakes” by Corinna Luyken; “Claymates” by Dev Petty, ill. Lauren Eldridge; “A River” by Marc Martin; “Someone Like Me” by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Chris Sheban)
Best Concept: Round by Joyce Sidman, ill. Taeeun Yoo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Beginning with a young girl who loves “round things,” we follow along as she explores all different kinds of roundness: from turtle eggs to blueberries to a circle of friends. Infused with a deep sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around her (no pun intended), Sidman and Yoo’s book is one that you’ll want to keep around for a long time (ok, that time the pun was intended… sorry).
(Honorable Mention: “Egg” by Kevin Henkes; “First Times” by Charles Ghigna, ill. Lori Joy Smith; “A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars” by Seth Fishman, ill. Isabel Greenberg; “I Know Numbers!” by Taro Gomi; “No More Tantrums” by Maria van Lieshout)
Best (Auto)Biography: Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, ill. Kerascoët (Little, Brown)
By now, most of us are familiar with Malala’s inspiring life story, but here we see it from a fresh perspective. It begins with Malala as a child, fascinated by the magic pencil in a favorite TV show. She is captivated that she dreams of having a magic pencil of her own. As she grows up and her dreams evolve, she is still able to connect her life’s work (making the world a more peaceful place and ensuring girls everywhere have access to education) back to that original dream. Because while she never did get an actual magic pencil, she did realize her dream by learn how to make magic from her words and her writing. With Kerascoet’s shimmering artwork bringing the illustrations to life, Malala continues to be an inspiration.
(Honorable Mention: “A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White” by Barbara Herkert, ill. Lauren Castillo; “Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masterpiece” by Marc Harshman and Anna Egan Smucker, ill. LeUyen Pham; “Frida Kahlo y sus Animalitos” by Monica Brown, ill. John Parra; “Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song” by Kathryn Erskine, ill. Charly Palmer; “Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines” by Dow Phumiruk, ill. Jeanne Walker Harvey)
Most Beautiful: Town Is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, ill. Sydney Smith (Groundwood)
Sheila Barry, the revered editor of Groundwood Books, sadly passed away earlier this year. The stunning and nuanced Town Is by the Sea is one of the final books she helped bring into the world. A touching tribute to a mining town (where author Joanne Schwartz grew up), this story ebbs and flows like the sea itself, alternating between expansive seaside vistas and claustrophobic scenes of miners tunneling deep beneath the ocean floor. In one of the best illustrated books of the year, the masterful Sydney Smith uses luscious color and expressive lines to infuse each page with a fitting mix of melancholy and beauty. (see full review originally in NPR’s Book Concierge.)
(Honorable Mention: “Blue Sky, White Stars” by Sarvinder Naberhaus, ill. Kadir Nelson; “Out of Wonder” by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, ill. Ekua Holmes; “Plume” by Isabelle Simler; “Red & Lulu” by Matt Tavares; “This House, Once” by Deborah Freedman)
Best Nature/Environment: Grand Canyon by Jason Chin (Macmillan)
A staggering feat of non-fiction, Chin not only takes readers deep into the canyon, but takes us on a trip through time itself. With clever layering and formatting, Chin tightly packs in an impressive amount of information without feeling dense. Exploring the pages of this book is probably the second best thing to going to the Grand Canyon in person (and might just be more informative).
(Honorable Mention: “The Blue Hour” by Isabelle Simler; “The Boy and the Whale” by Mordicai Gerstein; “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” by Oliver Jeffers; “How to Be an Elephant” by Katherine Roy; “Over and Under the Pond” by Kate Messner, ill. Christopher Silas Neal)
Best Read Aloud: The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy, ill. Eugene Yelchin (Scholastic)
A parable about refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice, this defiant rooster’s infectious call of “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!” will inspire readers to crow along, their voices echoing loudly for all to hear.
(Honorable Mention: “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors” by Drew Daywalt, ill. Adam Rex; “Peep and Egg: I am Not Taking a Bath!” by Laura Gehl, ill. Joyce Wan; “This is My Dream” by Langston Hughes, ill. Daniel Miyares; “Snow Scene” by Richard Jackson, ill. Laura Vaccaro Seeger; “Winter Dance” by Marion Dane Bauer, ill. Richard Jones)
Most Exuberant/Fun: When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano, ill. Christian Robinson (Macmillan)
I'm not sure how writer Julie Fogliano and illustrator Christian Robinson managed to stuff 365 days' worth of enthusiasm and anticipation into one slim book, but they did. With playful illustrations and text that bounces like a bouquet of balloons, if you were to blow out your candles and wish for a perfect birthday book, this is what you'd get. (see full reviews originally in the Horn Book and NPR’s Book Concierge.)
(Honorable Mention: “Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books” by Michelle Markel, ill. Nancy Carpenter; “Everywhere Wonder” by Matthew Swanson, ill. Robbi Behr; “Hooray for Books!” by Brian Won; “You Don’t Want a Unicorn” by Ame Dyckman, ill. Liz Climo; “Miguel and the Grand Harmony” by Matt de la Peña, ill. Ana Ramírez)
Most Powerful: Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, ill. Mehrdokht Amini (Simon & Schuster)
With current events as they are, it is heartbreaking and sobering to read Yo Soy Muslim and experience a father defending their family’s religion (and humanity) for his daughter’s benefit. But it is also inspiring to witness a parent fortifying their child with the loving strength of tradition, bolstering them for existence in an often hostile world. Of course I can’t do it justice, so I’ll leave off with Gonzales’ own beautiful words: “No matter what they say, know you are wondrous. A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendent of brilliance, an ancestor in training. Say it with me: Yo soy Muslim. Our prayers were here before any borders were.”
(Honorable Mention: “Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics” by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael Lopez; “Flowers for Sarajevo” by John McCutcheon, ill. Kristy Caldwell; “Her Right Foot” by Dave Eggers, ill. Shawn Harris; “She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World” by Chelsea Clinton, ill. Alexandra Boiger; “When We Were Alone” by David A. Robertson, ill. Julie Flett (technically published in late 2016, but this is my list so I’m including it.))
Best Friendship/Kindness: Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell (Macmillan)
Using the basic elements of the Little Red Riding Hood story (girl, red coat, dark woods, wolf) Cordell forges a new parable for our times. Wisely retaining the natural tension and suspicions that exist between human and wolf, Cordell subverts the dynamic by allowing his characters to defy their instincts and find the strength within them to offer kindness under duress.
(Honorable Mention: “Come with Me” by Holly M. McGhee, ill. Pascal Lemaître; “I Wrote You a Note” by Lizi Boyd; “Little Elliot: Fall Friends” by Mike Curato; “Super Manny Stands Up!” by Kelly DiPucchio, ill. Stephanie Graegin; “What’s My Superpower?” by Aviaq Johnston, ill. Tim Mack)
Best Design: What Does Baby Want? by Tupera Tupera (Phaidon)
One of those brilliant designs that is so elegant (and hilarious) in concept that you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. While I won’t reveal what what baby wants, I can tell you what I want: to be able to experience reading this for the first time again.
(Honorable Mention: “Accident” by Andrea Tsurumi; “Morris Mole” by Dan Yaccarino; “One Red Button”/”One Piece of String” by Marthe Jocelyn; “This Beautiful Day” by Richard Jackson, ill. Suzy Lee; “Tony” by Ed Galing, ill. Erin E. Stead)
Best Bedtime: Now by Antoinette Portis (Macmillan)
Not a traditional bedtime book, Now is actually the perfect way to wrap up the day. Portis’s quiet charmer takes stock of the world through a wonderful meditation on the experiences of the day. Thoughtful without being preachy and meditative without being boring, Now should prove to be a favorite for today — and well into the future. (see full review originally in the Horn Book)
(Honorable Mention: “I Just Want to Say Goodnight” by Rachel Isadora; “Noisy Night” by Mac Barnett, ill. Brian Biggs; “On the Night of the Shooting Star” by Amy Hest, ill. Jenni Desmond; “Quiet!” by Kate Alizadeh; “Wild One” by Jane Whittingham, ill. Noel Tuazon)