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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Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Update

Clearly I haven’t kept up with my goal of weekly posts on children’s books by or about Muslims. It’s been a busy spring for me: working, taking classes, studying for the GRE and getting ready for my wedding. Up until the last week or so I have still managed to fit in regular intervals of kidlit writing, but ultimately blogging wasn’t a priority.

Today, however, I saw this Bustle post, “11 Books By Muslim Women That Show The Many Facets Of Islam” and wanted to share it. None of them are picture books or middle grade, but teenagers will find titles to try on there, including some books that are specifically YA. I’ve read a few from the list before and I’m adding many of the others to my TBR shelf.

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania

Another lunch-related picture book! This one is by Queen Rania of Jordan, inspired by one of her own childhood memories. Experiencing new foods and food-related traditions is, in my opinion, one of the great joys of traveling abroad and/or making friends from different backgrounds than yours.

The Sandwich SwapThe Sandwich Swap by Rania Al Abdullah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thoughts: Salma and Lily do everything together, until one day lunchtime differences come between them. After calling each other’s sandwiches — one hummus, one PB&J — gross, the feud spreads to their classmates and sparks an all-out food fight, leaving Salma and Lily to clean up the mess in the cafeteria and their friendship.
This book has a positive cross-cultural message, which of course I like. I also like that instead of one character being ostracized for an unusual lunch, the two characters are already friends. The small comment that leads to an out-sized fight is something so common in childhood. Luckily, kids are also capable of moving past such spats and treating each other better, as Salma and Lily show.


Other things to read this week: The Unleashing Readers blog this week has a list of of “Books to Deepen Our Understanding of the Countries on the #MuslimBan List.” The post includes one book for each of the 7 countries in Trump’s executive order.

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Finding titles

I’m building my list of children’s books with Muslim characters to read and recommend, so this week I thought I’d share some of the ways I’m finding titles.

It’s not an extensive set of resources, but this weekly blog post is a good motivation to push myself to find more. Please share any you’ve come across in the comments!

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Refugee experiences

Today President Trump signed an executive order that halts the processing of refugees to the U.S. for four months. He cited national security concerns and said “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”

That statement describes most refugees. Shutting them out is profoundly un-empathetic.

Reading about refugee experiences is the opposite. Reaching out to refugees in your community all the more so.

Here are two children’s books about refugees (one picture book, one middle grade). The characters in these books are Muslim, but not all refugees are Muslim. See here and here for some more lists of children’s books about refugees.

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important. Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her. With warm colors and sensitive brush strokes, this book portrays the strength, courage, and hope of refugees around the world, whose daily existence is marked by uncertainty and fear.

My review: 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.

The Red PencilThe Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

RELATED: 2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

I’m getting this post in just before Friday turns to Saturday. I hope to be more intentional with my posting in February as I fall into a routine with other things in my life.

Have you guessed why I chose Fridays for these posts? In Islam, Friday is significant. It’s the day of prayer, when services are held at the mosque. In Arabic most days of the week have ordinal names, i.e. “first day, second day,” but Friday, “yawm al-jum’ah,” is related to a verb for meeting or gathering. Weekends in predominantly Muslim countries are either Thursday/Friday or Friday/Saturday.

This week’s featured book is a Ramadan-related picture book. Ramadan, a month of fasting to mark the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, follows the lunar calendar. This year it will start in late May and end in late June. The emotional takeaway from “Lailah’s lunchbox” is relevant any time of year.

Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan StoryLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Now that she is ten, Lailah is delighted that she can fast during the month of Ramadan like her family and her friends in Abu Dhabi, but finding a way to explain to her teacher and classmates in Atlanta is a challenge until she gets some good advice from the librarian, Mrs. Scrabble.

My thoughts: A culturally specific and thematically universal story about feeling strange in a new place and learning to share who you are. Lailah is excited to fast for Ramadan for the first time but nervous about explaining it to her non-Muslim teacher and classmates. All of her interactions are positive, so the conflict is an internal one. Reem Faruqi so effectively captures Lailah’s feelings and thoughts that I when I went to re-read it I realized I had mis-remembered it as being written in first person.
This simple and relatable story can serve as a “me too” story for Muslim children or an introduction to Ramadan for others.

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Muslims in Kidlit Friday: “Tell me Again How a Crush Should Feel” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel”

Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.

My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…

Anyway, on to the books!
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
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