Last year, oh my, there were probably three picture books I liked. It was not a good year, alas. But this year has more than paid off. Here’s a quick recap of some of my very favorite picture books that came out in 2013 – listed in alphabetical order, because who can pick a real favorite?
Tug of War, by John Burningham: Hare, Hippopotamus, and Elephant all live together in the wild. One day Hare boasts to the elephant that he is stronger than the elephant. He boasts likewise to the hippo. They propose a tug-of-war to see who is stronger (but of course the clever hare has pitted them against each other.) Burningham illustrated this fable many years ago, but this edition pairs those original illustrations with his own re-telling of the story.
The Bear’s Song, by Benjamin Chaud: A baby bear chases a bee (because where there are bees, there is honey), and the anxious Father Bear, chases the baby first through the woods, into a city, and finally into an opera house, in the middle of a performance, with a fully packed house. I’d say this is the best picture book of 2013. It is certainly the most novel, imaginative, richly illustrated, sweetly told. The illustrations are so full — a child would spend hours and hours pouring over them. (The first image in the post is also from The Bear’s Song.)
Train, by Elisha Cooper: Elisha Cooper, watercolor chronicler of the wholesome things of middle America, gives us another winner this year with an in-depth look at trains. His books are part sketchbook, part narrative, filled with illustrative details that reward re-reading. A definite winner for the train obsessed child.
A Taste of the Moon, by Michael Grejniec: This retelling of the Africa myth of the animals piling on top of each other to try to taste the moon is wonderfully “illustrated” with papier mâché. I always loved this fable, and am thrilled to see it anew.
The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers: We all had a favorite crayon growing up. You know, the one that you always turned to when you were stuck. (Mine was, predictably, red.) Daywalt takes this theme and runs with it: each of the crayons writes to their owner, Duncan, complaining about or thanking him for what they are used to color. Blue is quite content to be the favorite — skies, lakes, the ocean. Poor pink is neglected (but finds solace in Duncan’s little sister’s love of princesses). Orange and Yellow are fighting over the sun. And all of this is illustrated by Jeffers in child-like realism. Super fun!
Cinderella: A Fashionable Tale, by Steven Guarnaccia: I’ll be honest: this is actually my favorite picture book of the year. Guarnacci has done a number of re-imagined fairytales (The Three Little Pigs as Architects!) – this one is evocative of the 1920s flapper years, Cinderella sports a chic bob, and the thick-lined illustrations rely on old comic-strip and fashion illustrations for inspiration. The story is told straight: the only embellishment is the setting (and that the fairy godmother is actually a godfather, a fashion designer). I would have loved this as a child: perfect for the fashion obsessed, or old-movie (especially the Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers-dance-fest) watching girl. It celebrates fashion and fashion history without the self-obsessed lens of so many books targets directly at girls.
How Big Were the Dinosaurs, by Lita Judge: I’m loving how many technically “non-fiction” picture books are coming out that really draw the reader in and captivate them. In How Big Were the Dinosaurs, Judge shows (and tells –the text is delightful!) the size of different dinosaurs in comparison to things we are familiar with today: the Laellynasaura is around the size of a penguin, and therefore is shown, curious and a little afraid, mixed in with a flock of penguins. Humorous and informative and, anyway, the world needs more dinosaur books. (Not being sarcastic: of course it does! Kids love dinosaurs!)
Lifetime by Lola Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal: Another in the awesome non-fiction picture book category, Lifetime is a counting book that highlights some of the incredible numbers of nature: that in a lifetime, an Elk sheds 20 sets of antlers, a woodpecker drills 30 nesting holes, a seahorse has 1,000 babies. And all are richly illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (yes, all 1,000 baby seahorses!)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen: Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen (one of the best illustrators around right now) team up for a Who’s-Afraid-of-the-Dark book, where a little boy, curious but a little afraid, keeps exploring the dark, further and further into the basement. I’m hesitant to spoil the surprise for you, but will do so anyway, lest you think it’s a scary book: at the foot of the staircase, in the dark, he discovers a drawer full of lightbulbs, and is no longer afraid. With wit and (like I said) great illustrations, this book helps show how to conquer fears.
Fog Island, by Tomi Ungerer: Ungerer, the Italian illustrator, who first rose to popularity in the 60’s, is having a bit of a renaissance here in the US. Many of his books are back in print (including his funny pig family, the Mellops), but this is a new story! And I love it. In his late years, Ungerer is less interested in the macabre and avant-garde, and more interested in those borderline-areas where myth meet our daily lives. In Fog Island, an Irish brother and sister find themselves near the ominous Fog Island (from where no man has ever returned) during a horrible storm. They land, and meet the Fog Man, who is really a mischievous grey bearded fellow as old as the hills. Needless to say, he is also harmless. His illustrations have become more realistic too, which I love.
The Man with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic: This picture book follows a little boy and his mother running their errands through town. The boy hears a busker performing in the Metro, and is completely overcome by the music. He begs his mother to stop and to listen. This is based on an experiment in the Washington, DC, metro system: violinist Joshua Bell performed one winter morning, and hardly anyone stopped to listen. The article about the experiment, which won a pulitzer prize (read it here). I loved the article at the time but its “moral” – stop! listen! – reads a little too self-righteous for a children’s book (the child is wise and wants to listen, the mother is harried and doesn’t). Still, the illustrations really capture the vibrant intensity of listening to a piece of music (or, as in the case of this boy, recognizing beautiful music for the first time). And the books closes with mother and son dancing together in the kitchen.
Hello, My Name is Ruby, by Phillip Stead: Phillip Stead will be a household name for this generation, the way Jerry Pinkney or Maurice Sendak were for my own childhood. While nothing compares to his first book (written with his wife Erin, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, which won the Caldecott and is perfect), every book he’s written since then has been charming, whimsical, and delightfully illustrated. He is one to watch, and definitely one to share, and add to the canon.