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One of the nice things about working in a bookstore is hanging out with children’s books. Since I have no children myself, I no longer knew what toddlers and preschoolers can read these days. But now I have a dream job of putting books in people’s hands and doing a lot of social media for East City Bookshop. I get to write the tweets for our weekly releases, and our book buyer alerts us to new and noteworthy books that I should pay special attention to. Our weekly tasks also include the so-called shelf reading, i.e. checking the shelves for correct literacy. We do this so customers can find books, but it’s also a great way for us to keep up to date as not every bookseller can read every book. And of course we take care of the books: from setting up the shelves at the entrance to calling the customer when the order has been placed.
Before I picked up the phone last year to tell a client that their book was ready for them, I was intrigued by the title – Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo – so I read it through first. I should have had handkerchiefs ready! It’s a sweet story about friendship and acceptance and I’ve been a little torn. I think that’s what I love about picture books: how positive and life-affirming they are. Whether it’s a call to courage, like Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps, where a father helps his child find the courage to jump off the springboard, or in the case of BJ Novak’s wonderful The Book With No Pictures, just a joyful exploration of language. Picture books are a great way to develop a child’s imagination and amazement, and to help them learn and understand the world around them, including the wide variety of people who make up this world.
I asked my Book Rioter colleagues to share their own favorite picture books. Here is what they said.
Guri and Gura by Rieko Nakagawa and Yuriko Yamawaki
This classic Japanese children’s book series is about twin field mice named Guri and Gura and their adventures. In this first book they find a giant egg in the forest and decide to make a cake out of it that they share with all of their forest dwellers. I grew up with my mother, who read this to me in Japanese, and I studied the illustrations carefully and was particularly pleased with the details where all the animals end up eating the cake together – even the snail has a tiny piece in front of it ! In countless repeated readings, my mom even turned the first lines of the book into a song that we both can still sing to this day. I still love this book as much as I did when I was a kid and I really long to try this cake!
Cloudy with a chance of Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett’s meatballs
This was one of my favorite childhood picture books, so much so that my father probably got tired of reading it to me. The idea of food falling from the sky and turning into weather has always sparked my imagination. It always felt so amazing! And I loved to see how the townspeople used the increasingly ridiculous and oversized food to make life easier, or changed themselves differently to cope with the mess it had created. Give me a restaurant size pancake every day!
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Julián is a mermaid from Jessica Love
A short, sweet picture book that is both full of love and acceptance and full of lush, eye-catching illustrations. Julian wants to be a mermaid, as he and his Abuela saw some ladies on the bus, which of course requires a wonderful costume made of fern hair and a certain tail. It is his sweet exuberance and his immediate acceptance and encouragement from his Abuela that make this book such a touching addition to the picture book canon.
You are Stardust from Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim
This is a picture book that works on several levels: it’s a science book, but it also has narration and a great style of reading. Older readers will appreciate the facts woven in. I think it’s great that this reads almost like a spirituality message, except that everything is backed up scientifically. (We’re made of the stuff of the stars! We’re part of the creature kingdom, and we’re all connected!) But what really steals the show is the illustrations that combine watercolor and multimedia dioramas. This is the first picture book I’ve looked up the illustrator just to stare at some of her other illustrations!
Ghosts in the house! by Kazuno Kohara
If I were to make a list of wishes for the qualities I would like in a book, then this tick all the boxes. It’s fun, cute, and scary. That’s triple that for kids who will love horror novels with happy endings. With bold orange, black and white illustrations, the book shows a girl who finds ghosts in her home. She cleverly catches them, runs them through the washing machine and uses them all over her house. What a fearless hero! Reduce, reuse, recycle, use your ghosts. It’s probably a metaphor for all of us in how to take control of what scares us. I will refuse to investigate this further, no doubt to my own detriment. But I’ll definitely read this book again when Halloween is back in circulation.
Drawn together by Minh Lê and Dan Santat
This story uses limited text and beautiful illustration to tell a nuanced story about families, culture, and connections. A young Vietnamese American and his grandfather struggle to spend time together because they don’t speak the same language, but they eventually discover that by sharing the joy of drawing, they can communicate. Once they start sharing their art, it becomes easier for them to feel connected. A very sweet, uplifting story about the power of art to push boundaries and it is expertly told with vibrant, complex art.
When you come to earth by Sophie Blackall
Caldecott winner Blackall’s latest book is beautiful and comprehensive, with plenty of illustrations and meaningful, well-written copy. In this creative picture book, a child wants to put together a guide to earth. The guide is aimed at extraterrestrial visitors from space and contains bits and pieces of everything – emotional things, like people’s lives and how to be kind; but also factual information about weather, animals, insects and much more. And all of this with charm and humor. Adults will have just as much fun with it as children. Added bonus: look under the book cover to see the front and back for extra fun.
Fortune Cookie Fortune by Grace Lin
Grace Lin is one of my favorite authors, and I always try to read at least one of her picture books when my son and I visit the library. Your characters are always so adorable and the illustrations are beautiful works of art. I recently checked this book out of the library and it has now completely won me over as my favorite picture book! Pacy and her family open fortune cookies at the beginning of the story, and each family member receives a different fortune. Pacy wonders if this fortune will actually come true, and yet as the adventure progresses we see the surprising way this fortune blooms into reality. Pacy has a weakness in my heart because, like her, I have always felt awe of the wealth I receive and I seek it in my life too.
Mufaros beautiful daughters of John Steptoe
This beautifully written and illustrated book is based on a traditional African folk tale. Murfaro is proud of his two beautiful daughters Manyara and Nyasha. Manyara is spoiled and mean and everyone knows that except Murfaro. Nyasha, on the other hand, is generous and kind. When it is time for the Great King to choose a new wife, only one of the girls will be chosen. This is an older book, but still a must-have in children’s literature. It’s the first book I can think of in which the main characters looked like me, and for that reason, like the story itself, has stuck in my mind.
Find even more standout picture books with these must-have picture books 2021 plus this guide to the best kids’ books by age.