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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Happy Halloween reads

Happy Halloween! What did you read to get in the holiday mood?
I’m averse to scary movies and books, but I do love Halloween-ish stories with witches and ghosts and pumpkin delights. That usually means that when October arrives I start feeling the itch to watch Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus, or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This month, however, I felt pulled to re-listen to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It doesn’t actually involve Halloween (or any holidays), but, being set in a graveyard, it’s full of autumnal atmosphere. It really got me in the October spirit despite quite warm temperatures in Virginia.

I also love the Halloween feasts in the Harry Potter books. Here are a few other not-so-spooky October reads I recommend.

Boo-La-La Witch SpaBoo-La-La Witch Spa by Samantha Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Halloween is the most important day of the year for any witch. So when the holiday ends and the witches are tired from tricking and treating, they all head to the fa-boo Witch Spa. Here they indulge in Bat-Whisker Tea, Broom Bristle Facials, and other spooky spa goodies. A trip to the Witch Spa is sure to make any witch or warlock feel refreshed, revived, and positively revolting.

My review: Such a fun Halloween read! And the rhyming is so well done. As I read it, I felt like I was back in second grade listening to my teacher read Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or The Night Before Christmas. Kids will love discovering all the witchy details in the illustrations.

Fright ClubFright Club by Ethan Long

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Each year, on Halloween eve, Fright Club meets to go over their plan: Operation Kiddie Scare. Only the scariest of monsters can join Fright Club-Vladimir the Vampire, Fran K. Stein, Sandy Witch, and Virginia Wolf have all made the cut. They’ve been practicing their ghoulish faces, their scary moves, and their chilling sounds. But when a band of cute little critters comes along asking to join in the fun, the members of Fright Club will find out who really is the scariest of all!

My review: Fun and clever.
Leo: A Ghost StoryLeo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: You would like being friends with Leo. He likes to draw, he makes delicious snacks, and most people can’t even see him. Because Leo is also a ghost. When a new family moves into his home and Leo’s efforts to welcome them are misunderstood, Leo decides it is time to leave and see the world. That is how he meets Jane, a kid with a tremendous imagination and an open position for a worthy knight. That is how Leo and Jane become friends. And that is when their adventures begin.

My review: Now I want to be Leo for Halloween. Love the cut paper and crayon (oil? i don’t know) illustrations in this simple friendship tale.

View all my reviews

3 revision tips from an L.A. Times editor

Joanna Penn edits

Book edits. Photo by Joanna Penn

“It’s okay to borrow from literature,” an L.A. Times editor told me and a room full of journalists at a recent workshop on word craft. Well, the reverse is also true. I attended that workshop for my job as a reporter but in the subsequent days have found myself utilizing Steve Padilla’s tips as I revise picture book manuscripts. Details like length and vocabulary level may differ in my writing spheres, but the principles of good writing cut across formats. So I thought I’d share some of Steve’s best tips here that you can make use of in your children’s writing, or any other kind of writing.

1. Focus on verbs Print your story out and circle all the verbs. Look at each one and decide if it’s a) active, and b) specific/vivid. My high school yearbook adviser drilled active vs. passive into me as a teenager, so I rarely use forms of “to be,” but I’ve noticed in revisions that many of my verbs are still boring/generic.

An example:The man was eaten by a lion. (passive)

A lion ate the man. (active)

A lion devoured the man in two gulps. (active, vivid, specific)

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