One of the reasons I'm drawn to children's literature is that the right book really is a gift that can last a lifetime. For me, one of those books is A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. So when the sad news of Williams' passing broke this year, I opened up my tattered copy and was immediately hit by a wave of nostalgia.
I remembered the feeling of reading that book with my family as a kid. I felt the mother's exhausted posture after a long day of work, the satisfaction when they finally filled their huge jar with coins, and the giddiness of the grandmother giggling as she tried out new chairs. And now, as a father who gets to create new memories by reading that same book to my sons, I have a new appreciation for the term "a gift that keeps on giving."
So, while you can't replace a legend like Williams, it seems somewhat fitting that in such a dazzling year for picture books, the one that stood out the most for me was Last Stop on Market Street, a touching story that carries on the tradition of emotionally honest and compelling family stories that was her trademark.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, ill. Christian Robinson (Penguin)
The first time I read this book, its generosity of spirit instantly evoked memories of A Chair for My Mother. Under the guiding influence of his kind but no-nonsense Nana, young CJ learns to see the world around him with greater empathy. So many books for children focus on the power of the imagination, but often in the service of the fantastical or the outrageous. Through de la Peña's deft narrative and Robinson's timeless illustrations, Last Stop on Market Street invites readers to train their imaginative powers on the real world in order to see more deeply and with greater compassion.
Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, ill. Zachariah OHora (Little, Brown)
The delightful Wolfie the Bunny has captured a lot of hearts this year and with Dyckman's perfect comic timing and OHora's distinctively bold style, it's no wonder. For any family, adjusting to a new arrival is a huge adjustment. But like Wolfie, given time the newest addition will win you over... assuming he doesn't eat you all up first.
In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, ill. April Chu (Creston)
At first glance, In a Village by the Sea appears to be a straightforward story about family, but Van's clever nesting doll narrative and Chu's playful illustration sprinkle the story with a healthy dusting of magic and surprise.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Ekua Holmes (Candlewick)
Told in a lyrical first person narrative by the prolific Weatherford, Hamer's inspiring life story is further elevated by Holmes' powerful artwork. A fine artist making her debut in children's literature, Holmes' work is both grounding and transcendent, somehow taking the tactile qualities of collage and paint and infusing them with the otherworldly glow of a stained glass window. A fitting tribute to the woman known as "the spirit of the civil rights movement," Hamer's story feels as timely as ever.
Best Biography (Artist)
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, ill. Kris DiGiacomo (Enchanted Lion)
The title of this book (Enormous Smallness) is perfectly fitting. Many of us think of poems as small things, but as much as anyone, E. E. Cummings showed us that even the smallest stanza could hold enormous meaning. Lovingly written (Burgess is himself a poet) and ingeniously illustrated, this book is a treasure for fans of Cummings, as well as those discovering his poetry for the first time.
Most Heartwarming (and/or Heartwrenching)
Sonya's Chickens by Phoebe Wahl (Tundra)
Sonya raises chickens on her home farm, but following a deadly fox attack, she must learn to cope with loss. With the help of her father's timely storytelling, she receives a valuable lesson about empathy. A warm hug on a crisp morning, Sonya's Chickens is The Lion King's Circle of Life... minus the soaring orchestral arrangement.
Best on Kindness
If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson (Harpercollins)
Every interaction we have presents us with a choice about how we behave toward each other. Here Nelson (whose artwork is, as always, stunning) presents us with a simple but dramatic reminder about the power of choosing kindness.
Float by Daniel Miyares (Simon & Schuster)
Following the rainy day adventures of a boy and his newspaper boat, every square inch of this book is a treat. Though drama and disappointment hit when the boy's boat floats away, an uplifting twist leaves readers with their spirits soaring.
Best Concept Book
Red, Yellow, Blue (And a Dash of White Too!) by C.G. Esperanza (Sky Pony Press)
A book that is ostensibly about mixing colors, this is a true feast for the senses. The first thing I thought of while flipping through this book was Basquiat after a Skittle binge. There is a level of confidence to Esperanza's style that is unique in a debut author -- his control of the page is such that he is unafraid to loosen the reins and let the colors run a little wild. The result is thrilling and hypnotic.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, ill. Rafael López (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Some people can't help but march to the beat of a different drummer, but this is the story of someone who wants to actually be that different drummer. Based on a true story, a young girl dreams of playing the drums despite social norms forbidding her from doing so. Rather than allowing tradition to discourage her, she pursues her dream and through her determination, makes it easier for others to follow their own dreams.
Best on the Environment
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye)
Through economical text and luscious illustrations, Hughes captures the daunting challenge (and sometimes despair) of environmental stewardship. However, she ends her story on a hopeful note as the Little Gardener's seemingly futile efforts inspire others to take up the cause.
Bernice Gets Carried Away by Hannah E. Harrison (Penguin)
Compared to the limited emotional range of media-darling Grumpy Cat, Bernice is the Meryl Streep of the animal kingdom. Harrison's vibrant art and clever (but not too clever) play on words makes Bernice the perfect companion for any mood.
Water is Water by Miranda Paul, ill. Jason Chin (Macmillan)
Creative nonfiction at its best. Chin has a confident yet subtle style that brings to mind a modern day Norman Rockwell. Paired with Paul's rhythmic text, this exploration of the water cycle will not only teach today's children, but will also serve as a useful refresher for older readers as well.
Best Read Aloud
Where Bear? by Sophy Henn (Penguin)
Our book begins with a bear cub and a boy who live together, but when the bear grows too big for the house, the two friends shift into problem solving mode. While the two search for Bear's new home, Henn's keen eye for design and effective see-sawing dialogue ensures that Where Bear? will always have a home at storytime.
The Dog that Nino Didn't Have by Edward van de Vendel, ill. Anton Van Hertbruggen (Eerdmans)
A story about an imaginary friend that is interwoven with fraying threads of realism, Nino is a refreshing change of pace in the expansive imaginary friend genre. Rendered in scorching earth tones, this Dutch import might be the most visually jaw-dropping book of the year.
The Potato King by Christoph Niemann (Owl Kids)
Niemann, an award winning graphic designer, ingeniously uses the overlooked art of potato stamping to tell the (probably apocryphal) story of how King Frederick of Prussia introduced the potato to his country's cuisine. In addition to its delightful design, The Potato King is also a useful study on how to use reverse psychology and behavioral science to get people to eat their vegetables.
Best Deep Dive
The Specific Ocean by Kyo Maclear, ill. Katty Maurey (Kids Can Press)
If you pay attention, you'll find that each year books happen to cluster around particular themes. This year there happened to be a good number of wonderful books featuring the ocean/water, my favorite of which was The Specific Ocean. Like the ocean itself, this book shimmers quietly on the surface but contains an unexpected depth. A valuable reminder that just because you can't take something with you, doesn't mean you have to leave it behind. (Note: There was also a bizarre clustering of books about Yetis this year... but even I couldn't bring myself to create a category for Best Yeti).
It's Only Stanley by Jon Agee (Penguin)
It's only Stanley. It's only a mystery. It's only a slapstick comedy. It's only science fiction. It's only a love story. It's only all of these things, which makes it only one of the best picture books of the year. Also, if there were an award for Best Supporting Character, the beleaguered cat in this story definitely deserves it.
Two Mice by Sergio Ruzzier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
It's impressive how much personality, drama, and adventure Ruzzier manages to fit into such a seemingly slight book. For a counting book that only goes as high as three, the friendship in Two Mice feels satisfyingly rich and well-developed.
The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin (Random House)
Martin didn't just write a book, she took all the hopes and dreams that we have for our children and turned that into a heat-seeking missile aimed straight at the heart. If you're in the market for a baby shower gift, look no further than this stylish book about loving someone no matter who they grow up to be.
This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary, ill. Julie Morstad (Tundra)
It seemed appropriate to reserve the "miscellaneous" category for Sadie, a character who defies easy categorization. A young girl who revels in the power of her imagination, Sadie scoffs at silly things like traditional gender constructs. The dynamic duo of O'Leary and Morstad have crafted a quiet but powerful celebration of childhood with a heroine who is a role model for all children. Readers should be prepared to reserve a special place on their shelves -- and in their hearts -- for the incomparable Sadie.