These picture books stand out as the BEST books of 2020 that I’ve read and reviewed. (And I’ve reviewed hundreds of books this year.)
If you haven’t yet had a chance to read the picture books on this list with children, whether in the classroom or at home, I hope you’ll find new titles for your next favorite read aloud.
What picture books are your favorites of the year?
Best Picture Books of 2020
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
BLACK BOY JOY
I love this exuberant celebration of a young boy’s infinite possibilities illustrated in bright, textured colors. Not only is this beautiful depiction of black boy joy, but it’s also a masterpiece of culture, writing, and art! “I’m the BOOM-BAP– BOOM-BOOM-BAP when the bass line thumps and the kick drum jumps. I’m the perfect beat, the perfect rhyme, keeping everything on point and always on time — but you already knew that.” AMAZING WRITING showing young boys of color that they have worth and that they can be anything. I adore everything about this book.
Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
A beautiful, beautiful story that helps a little girl find the song in her own name. When her teacher can’t say her name, a boy looks scared when she says her name, or the kids at recess say her name sounds made up, Kora-Jalimuso’s momma helps her notice and feel the heart, the beat, the love, in all people’s names, including Kora-Jalimuso’s own name. Her wise momma encourages Kora-Jalimuso to see that names are the songs of dreamers; names like Lamika, Ta’jae, and Ahlam. Kora-Jalimuso returns to school with bravery and confidence…then she shows everyone, including her teacher, how to sing her name correctly…KO-raj DJAAAA-lee-MOOOO-so.
Outside In by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Cindy Derby
Outside In explores our relationship with nature. Sometimes we forget about Outside, but Outside reminds us again with its sunset and shadows and birds…”Outside sings to us with chirps and rustles and tap-taps on the roof.” Celebrate nature with this lyrical ode to all that Outside gives us. Beautifully written with evocative watercolor illustrations, this picture book gem is one you don’t want to miss. (A great example of personification!)
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith
“I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me. And I can’t say them all.” A boy who stutters expresses the difficulties and loneliness of not speaking easily. In fact, he stays “quiet as a stone” instead of talking. His dad takes him to a river where he reminds his son that his way of talking is like the river that flows and bends around rocks and corners. The boy accepts his dad’s wisdom and the comfort of nature. Epic, stunning imagery plus lyrical prose capture the emotions of the boy’s journey and the healing power of nature.
Speak Up, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, illustrated by David Catrow
BULLYING / SPEAKING UP
If you don’t adore Molly Lou Melon already, run to read this new book because Molly Lou Melon IS THE BEST! She’s responsible, loving, kind, and speaks up for what’s right, like when she stops a classmate who teases a new student. The pitch-perfect illustrations are filled with nuanced details that add depth and humor to the storyline.
One of These Is Not Like the Others by Barney Saltzberg
INCLUSION / ACCEPTANCE / FRIENDSHIP
Saltzberg uses minimal text and illustrations to convey an important message of inclusion, friendships, and diversity. Even though one of these is not like the others, that’s just fine with these friends…because it’s how they rock and roll. Cute illustrations show friends groups that don’t all look the same. For example, three pigs and a wolf or three snails and an alien. This is one of my new favorite picture books and great for preschoolers.
‘Ohana Means Family by Ilima Loomis, illustrated by Kenard Pak
FAMILY / HAWAIIAN CULTURE / CUMULATIVE
In the tradition of the cumulative poem, “This is the House that Jack Built“, this mesmerizing version shares a Hawaiian cultural tradition of making poi for an ohana’s lu’au. Pak’s atmospheric, stylized watercolor illustrations and Loomis’s lyrical text show the many “hardworking hands, so wise and old, that pick the kalo to make the poi to share with ‘ohana, the loved ones.” Readers see the ohana’s connection to the earth in rain, sun, and mud. Finally, the family gathers at the end of the day together on a beach to eat and celebrate.
Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
A sad little girl sits on her porch steps thinking about the colors of the rainbow…and how black isn’t in the rainbow. Then, she thinks of all the things that black can be…a crayon, a feather, braids, rhythm, blues, trains, dreams, and so much more in poignant, lyrical metaphors and luminous illustrations. “Black is the color of ink staining page. Black is the mask that shelters his rage. Black are the birds in cages that sing– Black is a color. Black is a culture.// …My color is Black.” Her thoughts celebrate black culture, showing pride, context, and history. She finishes with the thought black is in her rainbow box of crayons. Every single part of this incredible book is meaningful, beautiful, and memorable.
Hike by Pete Oswald
NATURE / WORDLESS
Take an adventure with a boy and his father out of the city and into the woods. Wordless, playful, emotion-filled, and deeply satisfying, see the beauty of nature from a log bridge and a waterfall to the pine forest where the father and son plant a new tree. Stunning and heartfelt.
The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee, illustrated by Pascal Campion
LOVING PARENTS / NIGHT WORKERS /#OWNVOICES
When his night worker parents must take Daniel with them to their job, their stories transform the boring office building into a magical kingdom with a Paper King ruler and fantastical dragons. Their stories keep Daniel entertained while they work, even though he’s very sleepy. You’ll love how these loving, hardworking parents make the world magical for their son, no matter the circumstances.
Antiracist Baby Picture Book by Ibram X. Kendi, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky
RACISM / ANTIRACISM / INCLUSION / DIVERSITY
Now a picture book as well as a board book, introduce your children to 9 ways to be antiracist, a person who actively works to recognize and stand against racism. From “1 Open your eyes to all skin colors” to “9 Believe we shall overcome racism,” this book is filled with guiding principles and rhyming kid-friendly explanations plus colorful, playful artwork. “Antiracist Baby is always learning, changing, and growing. Antiracist Baby stays curious about all people and isn’t all-knowing.” Use this important book as a springboard for learning and discussion.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier
A beautiful love letter to black and brown children…The author acknowledges that they will face challenges but reassures readers that they matter and were dreamed of long before they were both. “Did you know that you are the sun rays, calm, like the ocean waves, thought, like montañas, magic like stars in space?” Calming, reassuring, beautiful.
Lulu the One and Only by Lynnette Mwhinney, PhD, illustrated by Jennie Poh
RACISM / IDENTITY
A wonderful book about race, identity, and kindness…Lulu is a biracial girl who hates it when people ask, “What are you?“ Her big brother explains that he uses a power phrase to answer that question, saying, “I’m magic made from my parents.” Lulu decides to answer with WHO she is, not WHAT she is. She says, “I’m Lulu Lovington, the one and only!” Lulu finds her inner strength and models for readers that they can find their own power phrases, too. Her story also will help readers understand why questions like “What are you?” based on observations of a person’s skin color feel hurtful.
This Way, Charlie by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
FRIENDSHIP / ANIMAL RESCUE
A tender, touching, and inspiring friendship story about two animals who help each other with kindness and patience. Just like the Ranch believes in patience and love, the Ranch’s new goat, Charlie, show patience and love to a grumpy, blind horse named Jack. The two spend their days together but not their nights because Charlie the goat is too afraid of barns. One day, a terrible storm traps Charlie outside and it’s up to Jack the horse to get help and all the Ranch friends help.
Together We Grow by Susan Vaught, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Dynamic illustrations and lyrical text model inclusion and making a difference. This barn full of animals won’t allow a drenched fox family to enter. So a yellow duckling goes outside to comfort the fox family in the rain. Eventually, the other animals follow the duckling’s example. “Learn and show together we grow.” As they ALL return to the warm, safety of the barn, even the foxes, we see that many different kinds of animals are now welcome to find shelter in the barn. “Flat or long, screech or song. Slow or quick, lumpy and slick…there is room for us all.”
The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann
CAMPING / NATURE / BRAVERY
Ernestine shares all the important details about her first camping trip from packing to hiking and even getting a little scared in the night. The trip ends up being a wonderful experience! And it’s a wonderful reading experience, too with fresh, atmospheric comic panels and illustrations.
Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration by Samara Cole Doyon, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
#OWNVOICES / POC CULTURE
Lyrical, figurative language (filled with similes, personification, and vivid imagery) this story not only celebrates people of color living life fully but transports readers into scenes rich with sensory imagery. “Deep, secret brown. Like the subtly churning river currents playfully beckoning me through my grandmother’s kitchen window, winding steadily past banks of tall grass and wild rose bushes.” A stunning, joyful tribute to brown skin of all shades.
Bunheads by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey
BALLET / FRIENDSHIP / COOPERATION
You don’t have to love ballet to love the captivating story of pursuing a goal, working hard, and cooperating with a friend. Misty is excited to learn her studio will be dancing the ballet Coppelia and she wants to get the role of Coppelia. As she works hard in practice, she and her friend Cat help each other prepare. At the auditions, her friend gets the part of Coppelia and Misty is happy with her part of Swanilda. After the show, Misty and her bunhead friends take a final bow, proud of what they accomplished. Transcendent illustrations capture the joy of dance!
For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe In a Better World by Michael W. Waters, illustrated by Keisha Morris
RACISM / GUN-VIOLENCE / CURRENT EVENTS
Jeremiah’s dad explains about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, gun violence, and blue ribbons. Each time his dad explains another racially-related or gun-related incident, Jeremiah gets quiet and doesn’t feel like talking. When Jeremiah does feel like talking, his dad explains that they must also hope for change which is why it’s important to vote, march, pray, organize, and speak out. Jeremiah connects social change to growing locs — you need patience, time, and belief to grow locs and to see positive changes in the world. Understandable and relatable, this timely book shows social justice issues and gives readers action steps and hope. A helpful discussion guide at the back will allow you to unpack the big issues covered in this book.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri, retold by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Briony May Smith
I’d forgotten how much I loved this story until I read this retelling! Heidi’s a sweet, resilient girl who makes everyone around her feel happy, even her grumpy grandpa. She finds a true home with her grandpa in the Swiss Alps but just as she’s settled in, her aunt sends her to live with a sickly little girl named Clara in a big city. Heidi desperately misses her Swiss Alps home; she misses her grandpa and Peter and the goats and flowers. Luckily, Clara’s family eventually sends her back to the Alps after Heidi learns to read and write. Soon, Clara joins Heidi in the mountains– and miracles ensue. Full-colored, beautiful illustrations.
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