The Best Picture Books I Read in 2017

2017 was a wonderful reading year for me. I don’t mean by volume (I haven’t counted), but in terms of the number of excellent books I read. Below are some of the picture books from the top of my list. Tomorrow I will post the middle grade, young adult, and adult books I liked best last year.

(Note: These titles were not necessarily published last year. That is simply when I read them.)

Interstellar CinderellaInterstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood

Loved this playful STEM-oriented version of Cinderella. And the twist in the ending made me laugh in delight.

Specs for RexSpecs for Rex by Yasmeen Ismail
I love everything about Rex — his wild mane, the way he tries to stuff his new specs into the cereal box, and all of his other antics as he copes with this unwanted accessory.

This book marvelously captures the emotions and behaviors of a child in a preschool classroom. As a writer I typically pay more attention to the words in a picture book, but this one had me paging back through multiples times just to delight in the images. Between this and “One Word from Sophia,” Yasmeen Ismail is quickly finding a spot among my favorite illustrators.

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a NeighborhoodMaybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy

Maybe Something Beautiful shows kids the power they have to shape the world in their vision. It begins with a child, Mira, looking out the window from her colorful bedroom to the view of a gray city. On her way to school, she sprinkles art and color all around her. When she meets a muralist, they join forces to brighten the city. Then the whole neighborhood gets involved.
This vibrant, pulsing celebration of art and community-building is inspired by the true story of how Rafael Lopez (the book’s illustrator), and his wife, Candice, transformed San Diego’s East Village.

Happy DreamerHappy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds

Sometimes jubilant, sometimes quiet — across the pages this book will make you smile. I especially love the fold-out pages at the end showing many ways to be a dreamer with different characters and personalities for all readers to identify with.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-ExplorerLift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson

I heard about Stephen Bishop, slave explorer/guide, during my visit to Mammoth Cave in 2014, and I’m so glad someone has written a children’s book about him. Not just that, I’m glad that Heather Henson in particular wrote a children’s book about him. Picture book biographies often follow a similar narrative pattern, but this one charts its own path. That’s likely in part because of limited historical records about Stephen Bishop, but Henson combined known info and thoughtful imaginings elegantly. In first person narration, Stephen guides the reader through his story just as he guided thousands of visitors through Mammoth Cave. The tour is as much a lesson on historiography as history, starting with the first passage:
“The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways. Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.”
It’s also honest about the time Stephen lived in:
“Why? Is that what you want to know? Why is it against the law to teach me my letters?
Because I am a slave. Because am the property of a white man. Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule; bought and sold, along with the land I work.”
The silhouetted faces cut and pasted like a wave over a water color ox remind me of imagery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the cramped, dark place full of bodies that the titular character disjointedly recalls). OK that makes is sound a little intense for a children’s book, but Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations are actually perfect, lending both a seriousness and intimacy to Stephen’s tale. This book is not a story of jubilant triumph over the odds, but one of quiet power in unjust circumstances.

Silent Music: A Story of BaghdadSilent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford

A tribute to the beauty of Arabic calligraphy, wrapped up in the story of a contemporary boy and his hero, a famous calligrapher from 800 years ago. While the book is set against the backdrop of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, readers will connect with Ali’s dedication to his favorite activity and the family scenes that could occur in any home around the world. The tapestry of calligraphy and images in the illustrations evoke the richness and depth of the written language Ali practices.

The Blobfish BookThe Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien

Brilliant. Awe-inducing facts infused with humor from a lovable, vulnerable main character.

Four Feet, Two SandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams

When a relief truck delivers clothing to a refugee camp in Pakistan, Lina and Feroza each find one yellow sandal. The two girls share the sandals, along with their daily chores, memories of lost family members, and hopes for a new home. After Lina and her mother get word they will be resettled in America, the girls decide what will happen to the sandals, but the future of their friendship (and lives) remains unknown.
This touching story opens a window onto life in a refugee camp in a heartfelt, non-didactic way, as well as speaking to the meaning of friendship. Timely and timeless.

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Last-minute holiday gift ideas for activist families

Innosanto Nagara, the author of “A is for Activist” and “Counting on Community” — both of which I wrote about in September — recently posted a “2015 Holiday Gift Guide for Activisty Families.” If you’re still trying to check off all the rad kids and parents on your giving list, go check his suggestions first. It’s mostly awesome children’s books, but there are a few other ideas, too.

3 ways to introduce teenagers to activist Grace Lee Boggs #GraceLeeTaughtMe

Grace Lee Boggs, a longtime civil and labor rights activist, died last week at age 100. I knew Grace’s name before but I didn’t know anything about her life or work, so I’ve been reading about her in the last few days.

I haven’t found any children’s books about her! That’s a hole that needs to be filled. But many of the resources geared toward adults could also be read/viewed by young adults, so here’s a list of three ways to introduce teenagers to Grace Lee Boggs. Continue reading

2 Board books for baby activists

A is for Activist

OK, so I guess babies can’t really be activists, but they can certainly attend protests with their parents. And they can also get their first introductions to numbers and letters through activism in these two board books.

Innosanto Nagara’s “A is for Activist” was published by Seven Stories Press in 2013, and his new book, “Counting on Community” came out from the same publisher this week. Both feature vibrant, chunky imagery in an artistic style similar to many social movement banners and flyers (not surprising given the themes and that Nagara is a graphic designer for activist causes).

“Counting on Community,” as you might expect, is a numbers book. It starts out, “Living in community, it’s lot of FUN! Let’s count the ways. Let’s start with ONE.” Then it goes up to 10, with things like 3 urban farmers, 7 bikes and scooters, and 9 yummy potluck dishes. The lives/communities portrayed definitely made me think of my organizer and activist friends in D.C., Philly and elsewhere.

Continue reading