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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2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)

welcome-neighbors

Yard sign in Millersville, PA. Dec. 25, 2016

Is there room at the inn*? What about in your club? Your school? Your country?

Christmas 2016 seems like a pretty appropriate time to highlight two picture books about welcoming others. Please share your recommendations for similar titles in the comments!

Strictly No ElephantsStrictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When the local Pet Club won’t admit a boy’s tiny pet elephant, he finds a solution—one that involves all kinds of unusual animals in this sweet and adorable picture book.

Today is Pet Club day. There will be cats and dogs and fish, but strictly no elephants are allowed. The Pet Club doesn’t understand that pets come in all shapes and sizes, just like friends. Now it is time for a boy and his tiny pet elephant to show them what it means to be a true friend.

Imaginative and lyrical, this sweet story captures the magic of friendship and the joy of having a pet.

My review: A picture book about a boy and his tiny pet elephant? I’m already sold, but what makes “Strictly No Elephants” worth telling everyone about is the timeless story about being excluded for being different and then finding the people (and pets) who will like and embrace you for who you are.
Published in 2015, the final message that “All are Welcome” feels particularly poignant and relevant in late 2016. Many adults could benefit from reading this as much as children will. It would be an especially great addition to classroom libraries in schools that have historically been homogeneous but are become more diverse.

My Two BlanketsMy Two Blankets by Irena Kobald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Cartwheel has moved to a place that is so strange to her, she no longer feels like herself. This is a story about new ways of speaking, new ways of living, new ways of being.

My review: Told through the eyes of a Sudanese refugee, this is a universal story of loneliness transformed by a simple gesture of friendship. Anyone who’s ever felt like a stranger in a strange land will identify with the main character through her simple but evocative descriptions of her feelings. For example:
“Nobody spoke like I did.
When I went out, it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds.
The waterfall was cold.
It made me feel alone.
I felt like I wasn’t me anymore.”

The soft oil and water color illustrations subtly reinforce such passages by showing the main character dressed in orange amid scenes of blues, browns and grays. In the final scene at a park, other characters and features have taken on orange accents, just as the main character has become more comfortable under her blue “blanket” while still wearing her orange outfit. The author uses blankets as a symbol for the main character’s native language and her comfort with it, as well as for the process of learning a new language — woven together word by word, with the aid of a new friend.

 

*Did you know that the phrase “no room at the inn” in the story of Christ’s birth may be better translated as “no room in the guest room,” suggesting Mary and Joseph may actually have been staying with family? Shows the power of one little word to shape a story, right??

How I did on my 2015 We Need Diverse Books resolution

tumblr-50-pledge

From August through December, I read 23 diverse children’s books, bringing my year-end total to 68.

That means I surpassed my We Need Diverse Books resolution of 50 diverse books even without counting adult books!

My grand total for children’s books this year is 151. Diverse books being 45 percent of that is a number I feel good about. But it didn’t happen by chance. I’ve found titles by following the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog, reading recommendations in Rethinking Schools magazine, keeping up with the We Need Diverse Books newsletters and Twitter account, and participating a variety of other social media conversations. And also, of course, paying attention to the new children’s book shelves at my local library.

I plan to keep up those efforts in 2016 and will decide on my new We Need Diverse Books resolution next week. In the meantime, below are the diverse kids’ titles I read in August through December. To see the rest of my 2015 list, visit these posts: JanuaryFebruary, March, April through July.

August through October mosaic.jpg

Row 1: (All related to civil rights) “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer” by Carole Boston Weatherford, “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis, “Lillian’s Right to Vote” by Jonah Winter, “Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama” by Hester Bass

Row 2: (All fictional picture books) “One Word from Sophia” by Jim Averbeck, “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña, “Lion Lion” by Miriam Busch, “Mango, Abuela, and Me” by Meg Medina

Row 3: (All middle grade or YA; 1st three deal with LGBT themes) “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash, “George” by Alex Gino, “Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Robin Talley, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

Row 4: (All picture books; 1st two are nonfiction) “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, “One Plastic Bag” by Miranda Paul, “The Big Box” by Toni and Slade Morrison, “Please, Louise,” by Toni and Slade Morrison

Row 5: “A Storm Called Katrina” by Myron Uhlberg, “Mama’s Nightingale” by Edwidge Danticat, “Minna’s Patchwork Coast” by Lauren A. Mills, “The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade” by Justin Roberts

Row 6: (All fictional picture books) “The First Day in Grapes” by L. King Pérez, “Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl” by Sanae Ishida, “Langston’s Train Ride” by Robert Burleigh

2 (true) children’s books about transgender youth

I am Jazz and Beyond Magenta

With all the buzz this month around Caitlyn Jenner — formerly known as Bruce Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist — making her first appearance as a woman, you might be wondering how to help the kids in your life understand what “transgender” means. Here are two good nonfiction resources published last year. One is for young kids and one is for teens, though plenty of adults could learn from both.

In “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, the story arc is straightforward — Jazz introduces herself, her favorite things and best friends, then tells us that she’s not quite like the other girls. “I have a girl brain but a boy. This is called transgender. I was born this way!” she explains before describing her and her family’s journey. The simple delivery of course makes this book a good mirror for trans kids or window for cis-gender ones, but beyond the subject of gender, it offers a entry into broader conversations about empathy.

“Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” is written and photographed by Susan Kuklin, but much of the text is directly in the teens’ own words. That’s what makes it powerful. Six teens share early memories of gender identity, struggles with un-accepting family members, experiences with taking hormones and much more. The text is accompanied by sometimes serious, sometimes playful photographs of the featured teens.

If you’ve read these books, let me know what you think in the comments. What children’s books featuring transgender individuals would you recommend?

My diverse reading from March

I’m a little bit late on this one! In March, I read 31 books. Of those, 12 count toward my We Need Diverse Books resolution. That’s about 39% — a drop from February, but on par with January.

I’m now at 35 diverse books this year. If I keep up the same pace I should hit my goal of 50 sometime in May.

I’ve noticed that it’s easier to find diverse picture books when I’m seeking nonfiction and biographies than when I’m tracking down fiction titles that have generated a lot of buzz. Part of that is because those character-driven stories often feature non-human characters (like a recent favorite of mine, Gaston), but it doesn’t seem that there’s a lot of diversity among the authors, either.

That’s all anecdotal, but the stats on children’s publishing do support these observations.

Here are the diverse books I read last month. They are picture books unless otherwise noted.

March mosaic

Row 1: “Bird” by Zetta Elliott, “One Million Men and Me” by Kelly Starling Lyons, “Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan” by Jeanette Winter

Row 2: “Listen, Slowly” by Thanhha Lai (middle grade), “John Lewis in the Lead” by James Haskins, “Draw What You See” by Kathleen Benson Haskins

Row 3: “Dizzy” by Jonah Winter, “Rad American Women A-Z” by Kate Schatz, “The Storyteller’s Candle” by Lucia M. Gonzalez

Row 4: “Port Chicago 50” by Steve Sheinkin (young adult), “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (young adult), “X: A Novel” by Ilyasah Shabazz (young adult)

Interview with Jacqueline Woodson, award-winning children’s author

I love this author - Jacqueline Woodson

If you know Jacqueline Woodson’s books, you love Jacqueline Woodson’s books. Her use of words to give birth to completely authentic characters puts me in awe. She’s written picture books, middle grade novels and YA. She’s won too many awards to name. Tomorrow, she’s speaking about her latest novel, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse about her childhood, at a college in my area. Because of that, I had the incredible fortune of interviewing her for an article for my newspaper, and now I’m posting the full text of the interview below.

Woodson (who I really want to refer to as J. Wood, like J. Law, but I don’t know that that’s a thing) is on the board for the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which if you don’t already know about, you need to go check out now. Actually, you should read this interview, and then go check it out.

KN: What does diversity in children’s literature mean? Why is it so important?

JW: It means all kinds of books being available for all kinds of children.  It’s important because children need to see reflections of themselves as well as representations of other kinds of people in literature.  This helps this not only feel like they’re a legitimate part of society (not invisible) but also helps them understand the bigger world and the greater good and begin to learn empathy, tolerance, understanding, etc.

KN: Did the outpouring of support for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign this year surprise you?

JW: I was very happy by the response but not surprised.  People have been saying this for a long time — It’s great that other people are beginning to hear it.

KN: A Publisher’s Weekly article about the diverse books panel at BookCon quoted you as as saying publishers pigeonhole and promote books as “issue-related” or “about a black kid” or “about a gay kid,” and that we need to talk differently about books. How do you describe your books?

JW: My books are about people.  People who are trying to figure out who they are becoming, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there.

KN: Whether it’s a little girl who’s sick of hearing about “that ding-dang baby” sibling on the way or a teenager addicted to meth, you do an incredible job developing your characters’ distinct voices. How do you get into their heads?

JW: I start with their hearts — I believe even though so much of us is different — skin color, economic class, family make up, etc – -In our hearts, we all long for the same thing — to love, to be loved.

Continue reading

“Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty and Bryan Collier

Knock Knock picture book

Last fall I heard award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier speak at an SCBWI event in eastern PA. When he said his latest book, Knock Knock, was based on a spoken word poem about a child with a father in prison, I knew I needed to get a copy.

Daniel Beaty’s powerful words and Collier’s collage illustrations (my favorite style) didn’t disappoint. Here’s the review I wrote of Knock Knock for Lancaster Newspapers last winter.

Every day a boy’s father wakes him with their special “knock knock” game. “Good morning, Papa!” the boy cries.

Until one morning his father isn’t there.

He’s not there to cook scrambled eggs or help with homework, and he won’t be there to teach the boy to dribble a ball or shave.

Continue reading

2 picture books about … boys who like dresses

2 pic books

These two picture books came to my attention through the May discussion on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center listserv, which is focused on gender non-conformity.

Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino both feature a main character who’s a preschool/early elementary school boy in love with a dress at the classroom dress-up center. Continue reading

Explore with me!

Hi! I’m Kara, and I’m an aspiring children’s author with a particular interest in books portraying world cultures and social justice themes. I’ve been working on my own picture books for a few years but this year I’ve  committed to the pursuit in a much bigger way. In doing so, I realized that I need to read lots more books like the ones I want to write for several reasons:

  • to improve my craft
  • to know what’s on the market
  • to better understand how picture books work
  • to enjoy and recommend them!

As I explore this world of social justice-oriented kids books, I’m going to document some of what discover. Blogs posts will include, among other things:

  • book reviews (mostly of picture books, but also middle grade and young adult and maybe occasionally adult books)
  • information on bloggers, publishing houses, organizations and others promoting diverse and social-justice themed kids’ books
  • author interviews
  • relevant news and updates

And more!

Eventually, I hope this site will serve as an author website where I can share information about my own books, but in the meantime I invite you to explore with me. Just climb aboard my pirate ship. I promise we won’t get lost at sea. (Usually.)

 

Oh yeah, got any good book recommendations?