Happy 2023! It’s starting out quiet and that’s giving me lots of time to write (mostly terrible) drafts of children’s books. I’m working on picture books and chapter books — and am grateful for this new creative journey and my amazing critique group. In this slower month, I’m able to participate in Storystorm on Tara Lazar’s blog, joined 12×12 Challenge, and take an amazing Fantasy Middle-Grade class from Sage Blackwood in Storyteller Academy.
What’s new and good in picture books? About half of these titles are from January 2023, the rest are good books that I missed reviewing from 2022. I hope you find something wonderful to read.
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 feels the same as you. “Beneath what’s happening on the outside is what’s happening on the inside…of plants…and animals…” / “And people?” Finn wanted to know. // “Of course! Grandpa answered. “Everyone is more than what you see.”
Twenty Questions by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Barnett writes twenty questions, most of which appear to have an answer but are open-ended to your opinion and imagination. After you read the question, readers can look at the illustration and invent an answer, a story, a what-if, or ask another question. For example, “How did that cow get all the way up there?” shows a cow up at the top of a wind turbine. What would you say?
Mister Kitty is Lost! by Greg Pizzoli
Help the little girl and her dog search for the missing kitty. The girl shares clues with numbers and colors and you get a peek through in the cutouts. For example, “Mister Kitty has two green eyes. Do you see two green eyes?” When you turn the page — it’s two green crocodiles. When she counts down to one, she finds Mister Kitty. (Who is actually a big lion.)
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.
You So Black by Theresa Tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D., illustrated by London Ladd
BLACK LIVES MATTER
“You so Black, when you smile, the stars come out…” Vivid illustrations and poetic, lyrical writing celebrate Blackness in this picture book based on a spoken word poem you can watch here. (Watch it — I HIGHLY recommend it!) “Black is brilliant, Black is strong. Black is resilient. Black is song.” Buy this for your libraries, your classroom, and your friends! You’ll love this emotional, truthful, joyful affirmation of Black boys and girls and folks of all ages.
The Kindest Red A Story of Hijab and Friendship by Ibtihal Muhammad and S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly
KINDNESS / MUSLIM MAIN CHARACTER
Faizah gets to wear the red dress passed on by her mom and her sister for picture day. After a lesson in class about making the world how we want it to be, Faizah and her friend Sophie show kindness to their schoolmates. Then it’s picture time. And Faizah feels sad because she doesn’t match her big sister. With Jada’s help, Sophie shares her dress’s sash so that Faizah can wear a hijab, too. This book will help children consider that their actions can help the world be a better place.
I Cannot Draw a Horse by Charise Mericle Harper
In a funny back and forth, the narrator shares that they can draw one shape. The shape talks to the narrator and demands a horse. But the narrator can’t draw a horse so they make the shape into a cat. In fact, the narrator can draw a cat, a squirrel, a bunny, a skateboard, rocks, and SO many cool things. Just not a horse. But, the cat still wants a horse! The narrator keeps trying and the cat keeps asking for a horse. Will the narrator ever draw a horse?
Sleepy Sheep by Lucy Ruth Cummins, illustrated by Pete Oswald
Relatable and cute, Sleepy Sheep isn’t sleepy AT ALL and wants to knit and build blocks and play cowboy and — YAWN? His hopeful parents walk him back to bed , he dashes for the kitchen only to realize he actually is a bit sleepy and goes to bed. Adorable illustrations!
An American Story by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter
HISTORY OF SLAVERY
How do you tell the story of slavery? You start in Africa and end in horror with chains and working for free and families torn apart. And when the students don’t want to listen because it’s sad and it still hurts, you speak bravely and lift your voice “holding history in one hand and clenching hope in the other.” Exquisite, emotional illustrations and lyrical, stunning writing.
Very Good Hats by Emma Straub, illustrated by Blanca Gomez
HATS / CREATIVITY
Get ready for a creative explosion of clever hats! Because this isn’t about only the hats you get in a haberdashery, 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!
This Is Not My Home by Viviene Chang, illustrated by Eugenia Yoh
MOVING TO A NEW HOME (REVERSE IMMIGRATION)
Lily’s mom moves them back to Taiwan to care for her Ah Ma and Lily has trouble adjusting. She misses home. But when her mom explains that Taiwan is her home and her people, she asks Lily if it can be both their homes. Lily’s new friends and her mom help her feel at home and happy in her new location.
The Great Ball Game by Rebecca Sheir, illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
Brilliantly illustrated and well-told, this folktale revolves around a traditional ball game from the Americas with a message that differences are good. The birds and the animals challenge each other to a ballgame to see who is the best. But just as they’re about to begin, Bat interrupts and wonders which side he should be on but the teams don’t accept him. Until, they need him to eat the pesky insects that are ruining the game. Bat helps the birds and animals see that everyone is different and that can be great whether they’re furry or feathered or hop or slither. After you read, try the fun activities in the back. (That I wrote!)
You are a Reader! You Are a Writer! by April Jones Prince, illustrated by Christine Davenier
READING AND WRITING
You scan and spy letters and words, practice, grow, and fly. You read stories and recipes, labels and maps. You love drinking up stories. You are a reader…and a writer! You find ideas and write with juicy words and details that show. You journal, letter write, sing, and storytell because you are a writer…as much as you are a reader. With jaunty rhymes and cheerful illustrations, this is a wonderful book that you can flip and read one way or the other — two in one!
The Boston Chocolate Party by Tami Lehman-Wilzig and Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz, illustrated by Fede Combi
REVOLUTIONARY WAR / HANUKKAH
Joshua’s papa imports chocolate beans and introduces hot chocolate to colonial Boston merchants, hoping it can replace the expensive tea from England. And, the Bostonians love it! Joshua proposes a hot chocolate cafe to help his friend Issac’s family earn money. Then, the two families celebrate Janucá, the Spanish word for Hanukkah, together with their own Boston Chocolate Party. I love this sweet story, the different perspective of colonial life than we usually read, and the Jewish representation! Back matter explains more about the Boston Tea Party, Hanukkah, the first Jews in the Americas, and colonial hot chocolate.
I Love You, Cockatoo! by Sarah Aspinall
Cockatoo asks his Mama if she loves him all the time, and he gives her example after example of possibly unlovable behaviors like being grumpy or making a mess or being noisy. After he feels bad for interrupting his dad’s nap and tracking mud through the house, he runs outside to a branch. His family comes for him and they reassure each other of their mutual love.
Upside Down by Katarina Macurova
A bear plants a carrot but can’t figure out why it’s not growing. The reader can see that the carrot is growing under the ground — and the rabbits are very excited, and eventually eat it. The bear figures out another solution and it’s just as silly as his initial confusion.
Gotcha! A Funny Fairy Tale Hide-and-Seek by Clotilde Perrin
LIFT THE FLAP / FAIRY TALE
Over-sized with lots of flaps to open, kids will love hiding from ridiculous monsters in these fairy tale locations like Sleeping Beauty’s castle or the Gingerbread Cottage. And in the end, the child remembers that he’s read about monsters before and scares them off.
All the Colors of Life by Lisa Aisato
ILLUSTRATION / STAGES OF LIFE
Lisa Aisato’s gorgeous artwork moves us from childhood to adulthood and old age with reflective, poignant questions and musings that will feel familiar and truthful.
Steve the Dung Beetle on a Roll by Susan R. Stoltz, illustrated by Melissa Bailey
DUNG BEETLE INSECT
As Steve rolls his ball of poo, he answers questions from the other African animals; questions which explain what and why he’s doing. He’s recycling poo to make a bed for the baby dung beetles and to help control the number of flies and insects that bite the big animals like a warthog. Learn how he navigates, why he rolls it with his back legs, and more! This is a great introduction to a weird and cool insect.