What are the top-recommended picture books of 2021? It’s been a fantastic year in publishing with stunning writing, kid-approved page-turners, and meaningful topics with more representation than we’ve ever seen.
These new picture books make great read alouds for younger children –but also for older children as well. Remember that picture books are also for Elementary-age readers as well as toddlers and preschoolers.
Because as you probably know, the vocabulary, writing craft, and topics are often are just right for older readers. So before you skip to the best chapter book list, remember to keep picture books in the reading mix. (Teachers, I already know you do this. You’ll find some amazing books to use as mentor texts and for other instructional purposes on this list.)
It’s worth mentioning that I’ve read and reviewed (also not reviewed) at least 600 picture books this year but if I missed any titles, I’ll add them as I read them.
Ready for the list?
To help you find your favorites, I’ve organized the list of books into the following sections…(Click to jump to the section.)
Best Picture Books 2021 Table of Contents
Best Picture Books of 2021
The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming, illustrated by Nicola Salter
Kids will love this darling story about a worried squirrel who thinks that SOMEONE is stealing his tree’s leaves. HIS leaves! Even though his friend Bird tries to help him, Squirrel doesn’t seem to understand the changes that the fall season brings like leaves changing color and wind blowing them off the trees. It’s funny and illuminating — and will spark helpful discussions about the characteristics of fall– with a hint of a winter surprise at the end. (Use this to teach cause and effect!)
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Something’s Wrong! A Bear, a Hare, and Some Underwear by Jory John, illustrated by Erin Kraan Hilarious!
Follow a bewildered bear named Jeff who wanders around the woods wondering why he’s feeling like something’s wrong. He overcompensates for this nagging sense of wrongness by talking TOO MUCH and talking LOUDLY. The other animals aren’t fooled and wonder, “Why is that bear wearing underwear?” Finally, his friend Andres bravely asks Jeff why he’s wearing underwear. And as the other animals look on, Anders puts on underwear, too.
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Pizza with Everything on It by Kyle Scheele, illustrated by Andy J. Pizza
Wildly imaginative — this is the story of a pizza-loving boy who decides he should add EVERYTHING on top of his pizza. Pickles and apples, books and pencils, the White House, and a particle accelerator,…so many toppings! Before long, the pizza begins to collapse in on itself and turns into a black hole!! Will it ever become a pizza again? Take a wild ride in this funny picture book that will have kids begging for multiple readings! (Use this to teach cause and effect!)
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Strange Planet The Sneaking, Hiding, Vibrating Creature by Nathan W. Pyle
A HILARIOUS story of aliens investigating a strange creature prowling around their house. First, they notice and record the creature’s behaviors. Next, the aliens try to imitate the behaviors but unfortunately, can’t quite do any of them very well — which is funny. As they narrate their day, make inferences about the words that the aliens use for everyday objects; words like “starblock fabrics” and “ink cylinder”. Highly recommended!
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I Am Not a Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament by Liz Wong
What a hysterical story! An increasingly frustrated pangolin tries to explain what he is to a group of animals who don’t understand and think he’s a skunk, penguin, or an armadillo. Then, an actual penguin arrives and the animals rush off to go surfing, leaving behind someone who knows all about the pangolin. But now the pangolin is confused. Is this creature a goat?
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XO, Exoplanet by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jorge Lacera
Get ready to laugh at this hysterical story! When our solar system’s planets write a friendly letter to an exoplanet, their communication turns into a funny argument after the exoplanet tells our planets that THEY are actually the exoplanets. A visiting comet helps them see that both sides are right–depending on your perspective.
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Let Me Fix You a Plate a Tale of Two Kitchens by Elizabeth Lilly
A little girl and her family visit grandparents in West Virginia and also, grandparents in Florida. Each grandparents’ home is filled with love, memorable food, unique decor, and distinct culture. Beautiful writing with descriptive sensory images will transport readers to into each setting.
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Looking for a Jumbie by Tracey Baptiste, illustrated by Amber Ren
You will LOVE this picture book about mythological monsters, friendship, and bravery! Naya is a brave girl who goes out into the dark to search for a jumbie…even though her Mama says that jumbies are only in stories. “I’m looking for a jumbie. I’m going to find a scary one.” The refrain repeats as Naya searches the woods in the dark, meeting other mythological monstrous creatures that she compares to the illusive jumbie.
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My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien
Detailed, rich, and immersive illustrations plus lyrical, metaphorical writing narrates the story of a young Vietnamese boy who paddles a boat through waves and a dark mangrove forest to his first day of school. It feels a little scary at first, but as the boy leaves the forest, the fish-filled river and colorful sky begin to feel welcoming and friendly. Soon, he arrives at school and waves hello to his classmates, also arriving in boats.
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Wishes by Muon Thi Van, illustrations by Victo Ngai
Gorgeous illustrations and lyrical, personifying text work together in beautiful harmony to narrate the bittersweet goodbye as a family leaves their Vietnamese village and then the country by boat. They eventually arrive at a new home. It’s an important story arc of sad endings, challenging middles, and hopeful beginnings with room for inference and connection about the themes of family and feelings and the topic of immigration.
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My Two Border Towns by David Bowles, illustrated by Erika Meza
A boy and his father travel to El Otro Lado, a border town in Mexico, a town that mirrors their own town. It’s a wonderful day of traveling the streets, stopping for savory food, chatting with friendly vendors, playing with primos, and buying a checklist of items including medicine. As they wave goodbye to travel across the border again, the father hopes they can welcome their refugee, encamped friends into the U.S. with open arms one day. Lyrical writing and vibrant illustrations.
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Paletero Man by Lucky Diaz, illustrated by Micah Player
Exceptionally written and colorfully illustrated story, follow a boy as he takes a savory trip around his neighborhood searching for Paletero José and his frozen treats. As the boy searches, a familiar refrain repeats, “Can you hear his call? Paletas for one! Paletas for all!” When he finally finds Paletero José, his neighborhood friends show their kindness to him in a most refreshing way.
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Kiyoshi’s Walk by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Nicole Wong
Kiyoshi and his poet grandfather Eto walk through the town. Eto helps Kiyoshi see where poems come from…what you see, what you hear, what you imagine, and what you feel. They write poems and notice that everything is a poem.
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Tomatoes for Neela by Padma Lakshmi, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Experience the smells, colors, and flavors of tomatoes in this flavorful story about a girl named Neela and her mama cooking together. As they do, Amma shares the history of tomatoes and stories of Paati. Their time cooking is joyous and loving. culminating in a warm, savory sauce that they can enjoy all winter.
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My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios
In Haiti, a little girl wants to carry the payne on her head just like her mother. Her mother tells her that little by little, she’ll get strong enough to carry it, too. And when they arrive home, the girl tells the same thing to her little sister. It’s a heartwarming story of family, culture, and perseverance.
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Dad Bakes by Katie Yamasaki
Beautiful illustrations capture the loving relationship between a girl and her dad who rises early for a job at the bakery then returns home to his daughter. At home, they make dough that the dad rolls the dough into a bear shape for the daughter. Inspired by muralist Katie Yamasaki’s work with formerly incarcerated people.
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Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robi
Milo travels on the subway with his sister, observing the people around him, then draws and writes stories about them in his notebook. At the jail, he’s surprised to see a boy that he noticed before is there, also– a boy wearing a fancy suit. Then, he and his sister get to hug their mom and visit with her. Milos gives her a drawing of their family together eating ice cream on the front stoop.
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The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, illustrated by Lorian Tu
Sing along with this cheerful and exuberant story that rewrites the words to the familiar “Wheels on the Bus” song, making it a story about a large, multi-generational Chinese family sharing a meal together. “Ye Ye eats noodles going slurp, slurp, slurp.” Seeing the yummy foods will make you hungry for some rice, noodles, and dumplings yourself.
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Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho
“I have eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” I can’t get enough of this beautiful book. It’s a sensory, lyrical celebration of Asian eyes; a body-positive ode filled with self-acceptance and confidence as a little girl shares her thoughts on who she is and who the women in her family are including her little sister and her Amah. “My eyes crinkle into crescents moons and sparkle like the stars. Gold flecks dance and twirl while stories whirl in their oolong pools, carrying tales of the past and hope for the future.“
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Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali
Body positivity at its best! Laxmi’s friends at school tease her about the hair on her upper lip and suddenly she begins to notice all the hair everywhere on her body. Her mom helps her learn about her heritage of women with moochay (the Hindu word for mustache is mooch) from an empress to village girls. She shares how hair protects and warms the body. This helps Laxmi embrace her mooch so she can be a tiger at recess. She gets the other kids excited about their hair, too –even drawing on mustaches if the kids don’t have a mooch.
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Hair Twins by Raakhee Mirchandani, illustrated by Holly Hatam
The loving little girl’s Papa combs her hair every morning. Sometimes he braids it. Sometimes he puts it in a top bun just like the joora he wears under his turban. “Hair cheers!” the little girl tells her Papa, her hair twin. After school, Papa takes her hair down. Then, they have dance parties and go to the park where they play with friends. A sweet father-daughter relationship story plus important Sikh representation.
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Beautiful Me by Nabela Noor, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali
Zubi’s story reminds us to be kind to ourselves and that beauty doesn’t have anything to do with our weight. Zubi overhears people in her family and at school talk about body size, dieting, and how being large isn’t good. She wonders if she needs to change anything about herself. So, she asks her family. Her baba says that sometimes we can be mean to others and ourselves and apologies to Zubi. Then, her mama tells Zubi that only Zubi gets to define what is beautiful. In response, Zubi reminds her family that just like her, they are all beautiful just the way they are, too.
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More Than Fluff by Madeline Valentine
This story reinforces that we shouldn’t let other people define who we are — and that it’s okay to set boundaries with other people for being touched. Daisy is annoyed that all anyone notices about her is that she’s fluffy. People squeeze, pet, and kiss her. And she doesn’t like it. “I’m not just. fluff…I have substance!” She tries new looks (mud) and finally, from the suggestion of her mom to tell people how she feels (nicely), Daisy communicates with others what she wants– sometimes she wants personal space and doesn’t want hugs. Instead of hugs, she suggests that her friends can give her wing bumps, tail bumps, super-secret handshakes. And her friends learned to give her some space when she wants it. And she learns to do the same for them. WONDERFUL!
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Ten Beautiful Things by Molly Beth Griffin, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga
A sad little girl sits in the back of her grandma’s car, traveling to her new home. As they drive, her grandma asks her to look for ten beautiful things along the way. She finds that even in her sorrow, there is beauty around her. Heartfelt and emotionally resonate.
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Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham
Absolutely lovely and reassuring about the situation we’re living in during the pandemic. “Outside, the sky was quiet, but the wind still blew and birds kept singing. Raccoons came out and squirrels played in the streets, but the cars stayed away. The world felt a little different.” This book simply shows that even though the world outside is different, and we’re all inside, we are all the same on the inside. “Inside, we baked and cooked, made music and watched TV. We read and played games. Some of us worked a little, some of us worked a lot…and some of us couldn’t work at all. We all felt a little different.”
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El Cucuy Is Scared, Too! by Donna Barba Higuera, illustrated by Juliana Perdomo
Ramón isn’t scared of El Cucuy anymore (the boogieman) because he’s more worried about his first day of school. And El Cucuy feels the same — he misses their old home and the desert. Ramon reassures El Cucuy that they’ll both get used to it and make new friends and that El Cucuy is strong and brave; they both are. It’s a sweet story of friendship with colorful, vibrant illustrations.
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Big Bear Was Not the Same by Joanna Rowland, illustrated by John Ledda
This gentle story explains PTSD in a way that young children can understand–and I highly recommend it. One day Big Bear experiences a scary fire. And after that, Big Bear is not the same. He doesn’t want to climb a tree, loud noises startle him, and sometimes he makes a loud roar that frightens animals, including Little Bear. Little Bear offers to hold his hand. He reminds Big Bear that he is sorry for what happened to Big Bear and that he will always be there for him.
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The Longest Letsgoboy by Derick Wilder, illustrated by Catria Chien
Heartbreaking and beautiful with transcendent illustrations, this is a beautiful book for anyone who has a dog or who has lost a dog. An old dog walks with his Little one last time through nature, speaking to us in a playful dog-speak style. “She gives me a happyface. I wigglewag…We reach a bend in the gurgleburble, where hornheads and stripetails often visit, and sipslurp cool sweetness.” Later, when Little sleeps, the dog slowsteps to the softgreen, circles twice, and then hears his last letsgoboy. He closes his eyes and is lifted to a place where he’s young again. There, he watches Little as she grieves and eventually welcomes a new “awwwpuppy”.
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It’s So Quiet: A Not-Quite-Going-to-Bed Book by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tony Fucile
Mouse can’t go to sleep because it’s too QUIET. His mom helps him listen to the many sounds of the night. “Crr-cak, crr-cak, bullfrog sings through the thickets. Chirp chirp, chirp chirp, chime in all the crickets,…” and when Mouse opens his window, it’s very loud…too loud. Three times the sounds repeat, each time getting louder (and bigger type size). Now, it’s too LOUD! An exasperated Mouse bellows for the night noises to be quiet so he can fall asleep…which he does when it’s back to quiet. Sure to be a new read-aloud bedtime favorite!
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The Thingity-Jig by Kathleen Doherty, illustrated by Kristyna Litten
Wordplay, problem-solving, and persistence! One day Bear finds a Thingity-Jig (aka. a couch) which he thinks is wonderful as a sit-on-it, jump-on-it thing. He asks his friends to help him carry it home but they’re too fast asleep so Bear figures out some ideas to do it himself. He makes a Rolly-Rumpity! Which is a pack-it-up, heap-it-up, load-it-up thing. That isn’t enough to move the Thingit-Jig so Bear makes something else — a Lifty-Uppity. And then, a Pushy-Poppity. And at daybreak, he arrives back at home where his friends are waking up, with his special Thingity-Jig. Bingity…Bing…Boing…Bear falls asleep.
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Atticus Caticus by Sarah Maizes, illustrated by Kara Kramer
A boy and his adorable cat friend have a fun day together in this rhythmic, darling story with hilarious made-up words and a sweet relationship. “Atticus Caticus jumps…/SPLAT-a-tat-taticus!” From waking up to breakfast all the way to bedtime where the cat sleeps on his head, these two best friends always have fun.
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100 Dogs: Playful Pups to Count by Michael Whaite
“Small dog, tall dog, playing with a ball dog, big dog dig dog, burying a bone.” You’ll love seeing all the different kinds of dogs in this colorful, inviting book that is sure to be a favorite read-aloud!
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Amara’s Farm by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Samara Hardy
Read this picture book for the fall harvest season and learn about pumpkins with a girl named Amara who needs to harvest pumpkins. As she searches the farm, we learn about the features of pumpkins with our own search and find and compare and contrast. For example, “A pumpkin is large and round. Is that a pumpkin? // No. That’s an apple. An apple is round, but not large like a pumpkin.” Can you spot the pumpkins?
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Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel
Repetition and rhyme with short, punchy words and phrases depict Inside Cat’s observation and expertise on Outside as he observes it through the windows. Inside “Wanders. Wonders. Naps. Knows what’s hiding in the gaps.” Outside is full of color while inside, only the cat is full of color. Cat thinks he might know it all — until. Oh. The last page shows him walking outside into a beautiful, amazing world that is ready for exploration. SURPRISE, INSIDE CAT!
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Not Now Cow by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Troy Cummings
Perfect for preschoolers, this funny take on the seasons shows the farm animals celebrating each season…with a clueless Cow dressing in the wrong outfits for each season’s weather. Each season is the same — the playful animals do seasonal activities and Cow shows up wearing something not quite right…Kids will love this!
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What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures by Heather L. Montgomery, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga A delightful introduction to both collecting and to famous scientists when they were curious children and their later contributions as adults. Gorgeous illustrations and clear text will captivate readers as they learn about kids like Diego who collected snails as a child and later became a herpetologist, Mary who collected caterpillars and eventually wrote a book on metamorphosis, or Bonnie who collected sea slugs and later helped discover a new kind of sea slug. Readers will be inspired to start their own collections and see where their curiosities take them!
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Mornings with Monet by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Granpre
Descriptive, sensory writing shows Money waking up early, getting in his boat, and traveling down the river. He waits for the light and then he paints. “A few rays breakthrough; wet leaves droop over winding water.” His efforts and process will show aspiring artists what goes into a master’s painting. Well-written and lovely. “More blue, less violet, some yellow. More reflections, less mist, some horizon. His brush moves back and forth, chasing sunlight.”
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Cougar Crossing: How Hollywood’s Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by Alexander Vidal
Fantastic writing tells the story of a cougar, P-22, trapped inside the city of Los Angeles in a large park. Along with the pages of the narrative is a conversation between two wildlife biologists who explain more about P22’s story and the fundraising to build a bridge for wildlife to safely use to expand their territory. Earthy-toned, dark illustrations capture the nocturnal cougar’s life and impact on the city’s policies.
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Mars: Earthlings Welcome by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Mars is a planet with a big personality. In first-person narration, Mars shares all its many features that are much better than Earth. Like two moons and 37 more minutes in a day! It’s funny, entertaining, and very informative. I would love to use this in a writing class to teach voice, point of view, and even organization.
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Except Antarctica! by Todd Sturgell
A stoic narrator begins by sharing information about turtles until…the turtle, who doesn’t live in Antarctica, sets off for Antarctica, making the narrator very irked. Soon, the turtle is joined by other animals also NOT found in Antarctica. Hilarity ensues with an increasingly exasperated narrator and bothered turtle who does not want any traveling companions which include a dung beetle, owl, snake, bee, mouse, and frog. Several pages of back matter explain more information about each animal and the continent of Antarctica.
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The Little Butterfly That Could by Ross Burach
A kind whale teaches a distressed butterfly to persevere when it gets lost from its migrating group. The whale encourages the reluctant, fearful butterfly to find its gumption and courage, kicking it out of his stomach, and reminding it to keep trying. Drawn and narrated in comic panels and dialogue bubbles, this wonderful new story is funny, emotional, and poignant.
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The Owl Who Asks Why by Michelle Garcia Andersen, illustrated by Ayesha L. Rubio Little
Owl has a lot of questions such as, “Why is a group of owls called a parliament? and Why do we regurgitate after eating?” The other owls laugh because he doesn’t ask “Who?” questions. The same thing happens to Little Wolf who asks “When?” questions not “How?” questions. Papa Wolf tells him that wolves are supposed to ask HOW and the other wolves laugh at him. Both Little Owl and Little Wolf run away together. But, they get lost and scared. The friends ask a variety of questions including when, who where, why, what, and how to help them find the way home. When they arrive home, Papa Wolf and Mama Owl ask their children new questions that start with different words, too. This is a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself, staying curious, and solving problems.
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How to Apologize by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka
Use this gentle, instructive guidebook to teach children about apologizing. It talks about how hard it can be but that it’s important because it makes both you and the other person feel better. It gives readers examples of what not to do (don’t make excuses) and what to do (be sincere). The examples show animals acting out apologies and because most of them aren’t good apologies, end up being quite funny. (One not-sincere example is, “Mom told me I had to apologize for putting your doll in the fishbowl or I can’t go outside and play baseball. So I’m sorry.“) Excellent.
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Listen by Gaby Snyder, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin
What if you listened to each sound? Listen with a little girl through her day, starting with the noisy street, then the sounds at school, into the rain and wind, and all the way to bedtime. “Listen past the crunch of gravel and the scrape of chalk.// Can you hear new words? Listen to each sound. Some pop, like quick and snappy, while others stretch, like looong and leisurely. Listen.” The girl implores you to listen, repeating it frequently throughout the book, reminding us to stop and listen to what’s outside and inside us, too. Listen to the slap-slap-slap of shoes, the tippy-tap-tap of rain falling on your umbrella, the rumble of belly, and whooshy of breath. Beautiful.
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What the Animals Saw by Louise Greig, illustrated by Nicola O’Bryne
See what the animals see from their eyes and in their lives in this lyrical, descriptive read aloud story. It might be the sight of their family or prey or predators. “A rhinoceros sees a rival. A mirror of himself. A hulk of head and horn.” Use this beautiful, interesting book to teach perspective, learn more about animals, and encourage a discussion of what it might be like to see things through others’ eyes!
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Have You Seen Gordon? by Adam Jay Epstein & Ruth Chan
Goofy adventures and fun characters make this the most hilarious seek-and-find book you’ll ever read with themes of consent and allyship. A funny narrator battles the independent thinking characters who have their own ideas about how the story should go. But first, can you find Gordon? When Gordon doesn’t hide very well, the narrator decides to find someone else to look for — but his new target, Jane, the construction worker, is shy so she runs away. Quickly, can you catch up to her? What will happen now?
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Penelope Strudel and the Birthday Treasure Hunt by Brendan Kearney
It’s Penelope’s birthday but her Uncle Derek hid her presents from the pesky puffins. You’ll have to help her solve the puzzles including ciphers, mazes, and equations on each page as well as search for the lists of items. That will help Penelope move to the next room until finally, she can find out what her birthday present is. Great problem-solving fun with detailed, interesting illustrations best for ages 7 – 10.
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