Every month of 2023, I’ve read around 250 newly published picture books, adding up to three thousand books. Of those three thousand, these are my picture book picks for the best books of 2023.
What do I look for when I read and recommend a picture book?
- exceptional writing
- kid-friendly topic and appeal
- beautiful, interesting, captivating illustrations
I hope you and the children in your lives love these books as much as I do. Happy reading!
Best Books of 2023: Picture Books
Too Much: An Overwhelming Day written by Jolene Gutierrez, illustrated by Angel Chang
SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER
Illustrated with evocative, colorful illustrations, this beautiful rhyming first-person story about SPD shares a little girl’s feelings of overwhelm when the world gives her too much sensory input. Too much sound, light, and physical sensation on her skin. “TOO LOUD! TOO BRIGHT! TOO ITCHY! TOO TIGHT!” After school, the girl’s mom gives her a sheet-hug. Then, the girl spends quiet time in a dark place, which calms her nervous system. Back matter shares information about sensory overload, sensory systems, and how to create a sensory diet. This is the BEST picture book about sensory issues I’ve ever read — probably because not only is Jolene a gifted writer, but she also has personal experience with it.
Dear Stray written by Kirsten Hubbard, illustrated by Susan Gal
KNOWING SELF / BIG FEELINGS
Written in letters to her newly adopted kitten, a little girl explains that she can relate to the prickly, scratchy stray kitten full of fury. Although, she admits that she imagined more purring and less scratching. As the little girl goes through the ups and downs of her emotions and her cat’s emotions, she realizes that she and her fierce little tiger need each other. The art is vivid and evocative with a bold black, blue, and yellow color palatte. This is more than a simple book about a cat, this is a tenderhearted social-emotional story about understanding yourself and your big feelings. Absolutely lovely.
Grief Is an Elephant written by Tamara Ellis Smith, illustrated by Nancy Whitesides
Anyone who has experienced grief will immediately relate to ALL of the metaphors in this exceptional and emotional picture book. “Sometimes Grief is an elephant…It’s hard to breathe under all that Grief.” Push her with your hands. Lean into her. Run! Other times, Grief is a deer with too-tall ears or a fox with soft small feet who settles in for a nap. When she leaves, you know she’ll come again.” The writer captures the essence of grief perfectly in all its soft, big, quiet, loud coming and going ways. This book is a masterpiece. And can we talk about these gorgeous illustrations, which are also perfect with their soft, muted colors?! I love this book so much.
A Walk in the Woods written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Brain Pinkney
After his dad dies, the boy finds a treasure map of the woods from his dad. In the woods, he notices the soft bird songs, a stairway of mushrooms, and the hurt lessening with each step. He remembers being in the woods with his dad. The map leads him to a brick fireplace with a rusty metal box. Inside are sketches and poems from his dad when he was a kid, plus an invitation to finish the stories and to draw and write his own. The boy breathes in the river-scented air and wanders home, grateful.
**Read an interview with Nikki about the creation of this book.
I’m From written by Gary R. Gray, Jr., illustrated by Oge Mora
SLICE OF LIFE
Punchy, vivid language captures a day in the life of a young boy, starting with pan-fried bologna and continuing to the busy, vibrating school bus, school with books that don’t click, kids who ask rude questions like, “Can I touch your hair?”, writing stories with stubby pencils, home with bear-tight cuddles and late-night belly laughs, and the reminder of who he is. He comes from dreams, hopes, ambitions, lion-like traditions…he comes from somewhere. Vibrant, motion-filled mixed media illustrations beautifully match this gorgeous story.
Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A (Not So) Serious Guide by Abi Cushman
A delightfully adorable book about wombats! Abi’s done it again with funny fictional dialogue, the right amount of valuable informational text, and charming illustrations. Oh, and there’s cube-shaped poop–which is pretty weird but also, as the book says, quite wonderful.
Invisible Things by Andy J. Pizza and Sophie Miller
This beautiful book seemingly starts as a book about seeing things with your five senses, but it blossoms into a rich, kid-friendly exploration of feelings — and how noticing our invisible feelings makes for a wonderful life. The creators talk about moods and feelings kids might not know like nostalgia, the heeebie-jeebies, and the blues. The feelings chart is lovely and includes the blahs, empathy, worries, guts, hope, and more. I love the creators’ clever ideas that will spark more curiosity about invisible feelings and other invisible things. This is new read aloud favorite!
How to Count to 1 by Casper Salmon, illustrated by Matt Hunt
Can you count to 1? And no higher? Silly illustrations and humorous writing will surprise and engage growing mathematicians as they follow the directions and count to ONE. One worm in disguise, one giraffe (among other African animals,) one duck rollerblading, and well, you get the idea– ONE! What’s even better is that the illustrations often mislead you to think you might be counting higher. Except– you are not. Brilliant!
The Search for the Giant Arctic Jellyfish: What Magic Lies Beneath? by Chloe Savage
SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION / ARCTIC ANIMALS
Informative and funny, this picture book belongs on your bookshelves because your readers will love every bit of it. Dr. Morley and her crew search for the elusive Arctic Jellyfish. As they do, they encounter many other arctic creatures, which helps readers learn about those creatures — belugas, narwhals, and orcas. But the crew never sees the Jellyfish. The fun part is that WE SEE THE JELLYFISH! The illustrator shows the jellyfish in scenes where the scientist and her crew are searching. This is a delightful hide-and-seek romp in the Arctic with a playful jellyfish as the special star.
Here I Can Be Mindful by Ally Condie, illustrated by Jaime Kim
100% perfect book about feeling many feelings at once, being mindful, and staying present to what’s happening HERE. Especially with anxiety. When the feelings get stuck, Here reminds us all to be grounded in the present moment…to feel (feet on the ground) to taste (a crisp apple, a warm cookie) to look (close…so close) to hear (the wind, a breath) to smell (the rain, the air) to run and jump and draw and write… and “to know that I am here.” It’s a brilliant picture book that reminds us to ground ourselves in our bodies…with specific, practical mindfulness practices that work, starting with our senses. I LOVE this book more than I can say…
How to Get Your Octopus to School by Becky Scharnhorst, illustrated by Jaclyn Sinquett
BACK TO SCHOOL / FUNNY
It’s going to be tricky getting your octopus to school because they’re very good at hiding, and their suction cups are powerful when they don’t let you go. So you’ll need this book of advice to help him get ready and dressed. Watch out for when he gets nervous, he might have an ink accident. In the end, it might be you who has a hard time letting him go to school.
Stinkbird Has a Superpower by Jill Esbaum, illustrated by Bob Shea
ANIMALS / BIRDS
Get ready for a new read aloud favorite about the many wonders of the stinkbird! The hoatzin papa narrates about his amazing superpower while his baby bird interrupts. Their dialogue is hilarious, and we learn factual information about their clever nests, avoiding predators by swimming and climbing! Oh, also–their poop STINKS!
Cape by Kevin Johnson, illustrated by Kitt Thomas
A little boy puts on his bright red cape and follows the crowd where they gather at the gravesite, then back to the house with no smiles. The boy doesn’t want to listen or to remember, but suddenly, the memories explode, and he remembers… He remembers his dad. He remembers his dad’s laugh and the fun they had. And the boy tells his dad that he will never forget him. This sweet boy’s grief journey is exceptionally told with a brilliant arc showing how he feels both heartbreak and joy. I cried every time I read this story! ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2023!
The Courage of the Little Hummingbird by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Magaly Morales
When a fire comes to the animal’s home, they escape across the river to watch. Except for the hummingbird. She doesn’t want to watch, she wants to help. Despite her friends telling her it’s not going to help, she carries one drop of water at a time to the fire, hoping to put it out. Her actions inspire the others and they all begin to fight the fire. It’s a powerful message about making a difference and working together.
Kitty & Cat Opposites Attract by Mirka Hokkanen
This charming opposites concept book tells the story in opposite words and illustrations of an old, grumpy cat and his interactions with the young, energetic kitten. In a sweet character arc, the old cat begins to care for the young kitty…playing, eating, and sleeping together. Darling!
The Night Tent by Landis Blair
Reminiscent of Maurice Sendeck’s Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully illustrated bedtime story is about Watson, a boy who worries about monsters in the closet. When he sees a light under his covers, he discovers a beautiful night sky with twinkling stars…UNDER HIS COVERS! He wanders down a path and through the forest. He plays with the forest creatures and rides a trolley to a tall tower which he climbs. When he crawls back out from under the covers, he’s so sleepy that he falls fast asleep without any worries about monsters. Enchanting and atmospheric!
One Small Thing by Marsha Diane Arnold, illustrated by Laura Watkins
When Raccoon’s home burns down, his friends try not to think about it. Then, they realize they can each do something kind, even small, to help their friend. Beaver helps build Raccoon a new home, Squirrel gathers herbs for Raccoon’s feet. Rabbit shares honey so Raccoon can eat. You will love this book’s message of community and helping someone when they need it.
Monsters in Trucks by Laura Baker, illustrated by Nina Dzyvulska
Toddlers and preschoolers will love the exuberant explosion of colors, monsters, and trucks filling every page. The rhyming text shows monsters building, drilling, and working very hard, whether they’re cleaning the street or eating everything they can. 100% adorable.
Friends Beyond Measure: A Story Told with Infographics by Lalena Fisher
FRIENDSHIP / MATH
Ana and Harwin are the best of friends. They have adventures, disagreements, agreements, and silly fun. But when one friend is moving away, the other friend feels lots of feelings. They plan this year and the next year to stay friends and be in touch. The warm-hearted story is illustrated with amazing infographics, including a line graph, charts, maps, a Venn diagram, and other infographics that add so much extra playfulness and learning to the story. I love it.
Make Way for Butterfly written and illustrated by Ross Burach
POLLINATION / BEING YOURSELF
In this third book, our hilarious main character The Very Impatient Caterpillar, who is now Butterfly, questions a passing bee all about pollinating…and learns that he is a pollinator, too. As he learns about pollination and bees, Butterfly decides to be the BEST pollinator, just like a bee. His attempts don’t go well until Bee helps Butterfly see the important contributions of butterflies. So Butterfly decides to be himself and spread pollen far, far away. Something a bee can’t do. “Just be a butterfly. Just be a butterfly.” Sneakily educational about pollinators yet packed in a delightful story about being yourself.
Spicy Spicy Hot! by Lenny Wen
FOOD / AAPI CULTURE
If you love charming and heartwarming stories about culture and family, you’ll love SPICY SPICY HOT with all your heart. When Lintang’s nenek visits for the first time, nenek cooks sambal. And it’s spicy, spicy, hot to Lintag’s mouth! (The illustrations hilariously capture the agony.) Lintang wants to enjoy her nenek’s cooking, so she keeps trying different recipes– but they’re mouth on fire, lips burning too hot. Soon, she’s ready to give up, but her nenek figures out the perfect recipe that balances sweet and spicy.
Pocket Full of Sads by Brad Davidson, illustrated by Rachel Mas Davidson
I love this book because it shows that feelings like sadness are OKAY and don’t need to be FIXED. In this tender story of friendship and feelings, Bear feels sad, a heavy kind of sad. Rabbit tries to fix Bear with jokes, happy thoughts, and five steps from an internet article. It doesn’t work, and they don’t go fishing. But they do sit together quietly. And THAT is what makes Bear feel better. Having his friend close without trying to fix him!!! YESSSSS!
How Dinosaurs Went Extinct A Safety Guide by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Jennifer Harney
DINOSAURS / FUNNY
Ready for the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales? At the science museum, the child’s dad explains that the dinosaurs went extinct because they behaved badly –they ran with scissors, jumped on the bed, scratched their bug bites, didn’t wear a helmet, pick their nose…you get the idea. The text is hilarious. The illustrations are, too. Read this uproarious new theory of dinosaur extinction — and see if it makes your wild children behave perfectly, just like the little girl in the book!
Octopuses Have Zero Bones by Anne Richardson, illustrated by Andrea Antinori
STEM / COUNTING
Is this an octopus fact book? No, it’s an oversized unconventional counting book with fun facts for each number –like an avocado contains one seed, your heart has four chambers, and the earth has five oceans. Pour over the random facts and beautiful illustrations.
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Even More Best Books of 2023
B is For Bananas by Carrie Tillotson, illustrated by Estrela Lourenco
A silly story that will make you giggle, this alphabet book is really a story about Banana who does not want to go to sleep! He interrupts the narrator and shows his wide-awakeness, creativity, and energy! Also, he doesn’t need a bath– he wants to jump and be wild. Will Banana ever zonk out?
100 Mighty Dragons All Named Broccoli by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Lian Cho
FUNNY, ADDITION & SUBTRACTION
In this quirky, silly book of subtraction and fantasy, 100 mighty dragons named Broccoli live on a high mountain. Until the wind blows away 50. And 10 become professional surfers in Hawaii. 2 take a train to New York City. One by one, the dragons move on through magic or trips or more crazy adventures. Finally, it’s only one mighty dragon named Broccoli is left alone in the cave. Time passes. What happens next brings this delightful adventure to a full-circle ending! And you’ll love it.
Once Upon a Book by Kate Messner, illustrated by Grace Lin
Wildly imaginative, this engaging meta adventure follows a girl bored at home in the cold and gray winter as she reads and ventures into the pages of a book. There, she finds wondrous spaces of jungle flowers and colorful birds, camels on hot sands under blazing suns, gentle waters of a coral reef, billowing clouds, and even space. After visiting each place, she wishes for something different, and the characters in the book invite her to turn to another page to visit them. Eventually, the girl feels lonely and wishes for the warmth of her kitchen that smells like dumplings, and her mom says, “Turn the page…and come in.” I absolutely adore Grace Lin’s illustrations — her character is so charming. ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2023!
Cinderella With Dogs! by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Freya Hartas
FAIRY TALE CINDERELLA RETELLING
I love this unexpected Cinderella remix with a Fairy Dogmother who is ready to give Cinderella a dog-ish makeover! In this story, Cinderella gets a gown made of an old dog blanket, hair like a poodle, and booties on her feet. She runs to the ball, howling all the way, and meets the prince and his dog-loving family. After the dance, she declines the prince’s marriage proposal and suggests they chase squirrels together.
Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar by Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani, illustrated by Maya Fidawi
IRAN / MUSLIM CULTURE
A little girl worries about getting lost at the bazaar and asks her Mama Shamsi if she can hide under her big black chador. Eventually, the girl understands she must bravely hold hands with Mama Shamsi, feeling safe. This beautifully illustrated story captures Iranian culture and a warmhearted family relationship.
Paula’s Patches written by Gabriella Aldeman, illustrated by Rocio Arreola Medoza
Paula’s pants rip, which makes her feel embarrassed and worried because it will be a while before she gets more hand-me-downs. When she gets an idea from her friend who makes quilts, she use her mami’s scraps of material to make patches, not just for her but for everyone in her class! Paula shows her classmates that the patches are like stickers for jackets and bags or bandages to cover tears or stains. And her classmates love it! I love this kindness and empathy-building story that will inspire readers to treat themselves and others with more understanding and gentle compassion.
Rivka’s Presents written by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Adelina Lirius
HISTORICAL FICTION / JEWISH MAIN CHARACTER
In this historical fiction picture book, Rivka advocates for her own learning of letters and numbers, reading, and addition, but since she can’t go to school because her papa is sick with a long-term flu, Rivka asks local shopkeepers to be her teachers. In return, she works at their shops. When her papa is no longer sick, Rivka is reading and able to go to school for more learning. This is a warm-hearted story about education, community, and family.
Carina Felina written by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Henry Cole
In this rollicking, rhyming Cuban cumulative folktale, a parrot falls in love with a cat named Carina Felina-– and that starts all the trouble. Carina Felina warns the parrot, “I’m Carina Felina! I do what I like and I eat what I wish. Step out of my way, or be my next dish!” The parrot doesn’t comply…so Carina Felina eats him! Back outside in the market, the cat chants the same arrogant warning before eating one creature after another starting with the florista and then the carretero and his ox, the chivo and his boy, and the novios and his boy. Fed up, the crabs teach Carina Felina a lesson and Carina Felina learns to be a pickier eater! What a fun read aloud romp!
If You Get Lost written by Nikki Loftin, illustrated by Deborah Marcero
LOST / FRIENDSHIP
A little girl loses her stuffed bunny out the car window. She tells the bunny to look around and try to find one smile, one friend. The AMAZING illustrations show the bunny making friends with a fox and playing with the forest animals until the little girl finds the bunny again. Lyrical with simple text, this is a beautiful story told primarily through the evocative artwork — I love it.
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A Bucket of Questions by Tim Fita
Absurdly hilarious questions and answers! Especially for your kids who love to be silly! Let me give you an example, “What is at the bottom of the ocean? a. Water b. More water c. Diamond Fish d. A Mermaid BBQ.” Why are the comic illustrations only in black and white? I’m guessing that because all the colors are sleeping. What will you guess? We love the illustrations in this story, too.
Are You a Monster? by Guilherme Karsten
4TH WALL, FUNNY
This will be a new read aloud favorite — it’s a fun, funny, and interactive story! The monster hopes you are also a monster and that together, you can do scary things. He’s horrified to learn you don’t have a long pointy tail, or big yellow eyes — but you show him your big teeth and loud growls, and he gets interested again. In fact, you’re so good at being scary that you might just scare away this monster!
9 Kilometers by Claudio Aguilera, illustrated by Gabriela Lyon, translated by Lawrence Shimel
SCHOOL / NUMBERS / LATIN AMERICA
As the young boy walks to school through forests and on roads, over a river, and by a soccer field, he muses about 9 kilometers…how big it is and how many steps it is. He counts butterflies, ponders how fast snails can travel, and reflects on slow walks and fast walks. Eventually, the boy arrives at school. The back matter shares 8 other countries where students walk to school and various birds that live in southern Chile. Exceptional!
Very Good Hats by Emma Straub, illustrated by Blanca Gomez
Get ready for a creative explosion of clever hats! Because this isn’t about only the hats you get in a haberdashery, but it’s about hats for your fingers (acorns, raspberries, doll shoes) and non-traditional hats like cats and books, bubbles, and towels. If you’re in an airplane, you wear clouds and if you’re on a scooter, you wear your helmet and the wind. Basically, hats are everywhere you look!
Izmelda The Fairest Dragon of Them All! by Joan Marr, illustrated by Lala Watkins
FUNNY / FAIRY TALE
Izmelda is a dragon who wants to meet a princess, so she finds one— but Princess Penelope needs to hurry to get to her class because witches are chasing her. It’s taking forever because Izmelda talks Penelope’s ear off– and that’s when the witches arrive! In a surprising twist, the witches aren’t scary at all. Kids will love the hilarious characters and playful fantasy story.
Beneath by Cori Doerrfeld
You will adore this sweet, metaphorical story about what’s under the surface of appearances. Finn’s feeling grumpy, so his grandpa takes him for a walk. As they walk, Grandpa explains that there are things beneath the water and the dirt; sometimes, you know what those things are, and sometimes you don’t. Beneath appearances are experiences and explanations and things that are the same as you, even who feel the same as you.
My School Unicorn written by Willow Evans, illustrated by Tom Knight
BACK TO SCHOOL
Evie is feeling wobbly about going to school, so at the school uniform store, the store clerk suggests Evie bring a school unicorn. The teeny-tiny unicorn named Bobby helps her whenever she feels worried. He gives her a nuzzle or hops up on her shoulder, and she feels better. With Bobby, all the new things at school didn’t feel so scary. By Saturday, Evie’s wobbles have gone away, so she gives Bobby back to the uniform store so he can help someone else. Your kids will love that the back page has a traceable picture of Bobby so you can make your own unicorn.
The Book From Far Away written by Bruce Handy, illustrated by Julie Benbassat
Exquisite illustrations tell a story about a child who sees a family of aliens having a picnic. When the family leaves an object behind, the child picks it up. Then, he meets one of the aliens. The child plays with his new friend and shows him Earth objects, giving him a book. When it’s time to say goodbye, both the child and the alien go home with something from each other. Lovely.
365 How to Count a Year written by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Julian Chung
I listened to Miranda read this aloud to my SCBWI conference (after we all sang “Seasons of Love” together), and I fell in love with the emotional, gentle message of this book about literal time (in kid-lly examples) and making moments count. For example, savoring the flavors of ice cream and sleep-in Saturdays. Reading this book is instructive and inspiring. Learn, count, and reflect: “How will you count your year?”
I Am Dog! written by Peter Bently, illustrated by Chris Chatterton
Playful rhyming, simple text shares a day in the life from a dog’s perspective. “I am a dog. Dog is me. I like walkies. I like tree.” Dog likes to chase, splash, dig, and bark.. among other things like searching for the smell he sniffs which makes a big mess! The illustrations are essential to this story of the dog’s day — and what is really happening. This is the perfect read aloud for 2 – 5 year olds!
Autumn Peltier, Water Warrior written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Bridget George
ACTIVISM / INDIGENOUS HERITAGE
Water narrates this tribute about the 7th generation of Indigenous Anishinaabe women who fight like Grandma Josephine to protect the water, specifically activist Autumn Peltier, who speaks for the water. Vivid, saturated illustrations and strong, lyrical language.
One Perfect Plan written by Nancy Tupper Ling, illustrated by Alina Chau
CHRISTIAN BIBLE STORIES
What a lovely book! Gorgeous illustrations from Alina Chau and beautiful writing from Nancy Tupper LIng celebrate the beauty of a broken world through the stories of the Bible. One and sometimes two repeats throughout, giving the poems a cohesiveness that feels exciting. One couple prays for a child to love, one cry to God for freedom, one stone from David’s sling, leading us to one empty tomb, one Holy Spirit, and one heaven on earth. Beautiful in every way.
How This Book Got Red written by Margaret Ghiu Greanias, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
Two friends — a giant panda and a red panda — look through a book about pandas. But there are NO red pandas in the panda book! So, the red panda writes her own book which a group of other red pandas find in the trash and love it! Red continues writing her story so that other red pandas can see themselves in a book. And maybe be inspired to write their own. This is a relatable story that shares an important message about (lack of) representation.
Mae and Gerty and the Matter with Matter written by Elaine Vickers, illustrated by Erica Salcedo
I loved this clever introduction to matter and science using the baby sister’s antics and first word, “madda.” When little sister Gerty shouts “Madda” while popping Mae’s bubbles, Dad praises her for getting all three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Frustrated at all the attention Gerty is getting, older sister Gerty decides she can ask questions, make messes, and try stuff out with her little sister. So they do!
A Stone is a Story written by Leslie Barnard Booth, illustrated by Mare Martin
What a beautiful ode to stones and their many properties and likely backstories crushed, squeezed, transformed, whittled by ice, and scraped! With lovely muted watercolor illustrations, this gorgeous book feels gentle and instructive. The book ends with an invitation. The next time you pick up a stone, ask if it was part of lava, sand, or bone, and imagine all that it might become.
Holy Night and Little Star written by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Khoa Le
CHRISTIAN CHRISTMAS BOOK
With gorgeous illustrations and evocative language, this is the story of Little Star who is reluctant to help Maker with something exciting. But Maker asks her to be ready. When it’s time, she comforts Baby Maker when he is crying. Then she stays night after night, shining and shimmering in the sky, soothing Baby and watching the special visitors arrive.
Connor Kissed Me written by Zehava, illustrated by Sarah K. Turner
When Connor plants a kiss on Miriam, she’s surprised and shocked. She tells one adult after another, but their reactions are not helpful (we’ll move your seat, go play somewhere else, puppy love) until her mother asks, “Did you want him to?” And, no, Miriam didn’t want him to kiss her! So, her mother encourages her to say that to Connor. In reverse order, she tells the adults and finally tells Connor clearly: “I don’t want you to kiss me.” Not only is this a helpful book to introduce consent, but it’s also a reminder to adults to support a child’s boundaries and body safety with actionable answers. ANOTHER BEST BOOKS OF 2023!
Eclipse by Andy Rash
TIME / ECLIPSE
Written in a countdown parallel structure with three different verb tenses starting with future, then present, and then past, a boy plans to see an eclipse using time words like month, days, hour minutes, and then, they arrive at the spot to see the Sun disappear behind the Moon. Then, the boy and his father return home and try to remember the eclipse they saw. Kids will love the amazing digital illustrations.