I once gave a friend’s son a picture book I hadn’t read.
It hurts to admit that.
We read it aloud later that day and it turned out to be a terrible story about a bunny mom who laid a heavy guilt trip on her child because he didn’t want to eat his carrots. I died a little inside.
No, really. I’m better than this.
But then, during my preschooler’s very first Zoom call in March of 2020, she was asked to show the class her favorite book. Before I even had time to beam with pride as she raced to her bookshelf with obvious joy, I caught a glimpse of the completely random Mickey Mouse book that we had never read that was now being flashed to all of her preschool friends and parents, who were no doubt whispering, “I thought her mom was a writer. What is this shit?”
Really, I am better than this.
Let me explain. I have three kids under the age of six. I want to note that even though I’m a writer and I appreciate the power of books and early literacy, sometimes, I am tired and I rush story time. Not every book on our shelves is a gem.
Some of them are terrible, and I’d like to say that they suck because they were given to us as gifts by people who meant well, but it’s also possible that a few of the particularly wretched stories on my children’s shelves were purchased during a moment of weakness, perhaps after trying to explain to my children why I chased them away from a group of unmasked children at the park.
Ah, pandemic memories.
And not to sound selfish, but if this pandemic has taught me anything it’s that the books we read to our kids should be for us too — “us” being the grown-ups in the room. Which is why I’d like to celebrate some of the picture books that lifted us this year, because as much as everything changed with school and friends, stories at bedtime were a constant. They kept us grounded and it was an honor to be soothed by these brilliant writers and illustrators.
Here are seven books I’ve loved this year and the authors and illustrators you need to pay attention to if you’re not already:
Sweety by Andrea Zuill is a story about a naked mole rate who learns to find her people by running towards the things she loves with unbridled enthusiasm. There is so much to love about this story — interpretive dance, a longing for a secret handshake, and a delightful disregard for conformity— but what I enjoyed most about Sweety was the message: focus on doing what you love and you will find the people who make you feel the most like you.
Ohana Means Family written by Ilima Loomis and illustrated by Kenard Pak is a rich, poetic journey that explores the Hawaiian lu’au by celebrating the connection between the people and their ancient land. Pak illuminates the story with distinct color choices that add an earthy, realistic lens through which Loomis’s story can unfold. The poem, hits with a steady beat throughout, and in addition to the repetition (that my children love) the recognition of family and communal gatherings was very much appreciated, even longed for, especially now.
The One and Only Dylan St. Claire written by Kamen Edwards and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler is brilliant and so fun. Dylan is an actor, a dancer, and completely himself at all times, even when he’s a squirrel in space. He exudes confidence and his determination to shine in whatever role he is cast is inspiring. This is exactly the kind of kind of story I want my children to remember if they ever find themselves being asked to tone themselves down to fit someone else’s expectations.
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao written by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua is one of our most requested bedtime stories. We’ve done a great deal of cooking and baking through the pandemic, so Amy Wu’s story of the many failed attempts to create the Perfect Bao before finally getting it right was an absolute joy to read. Chua’s delightful illustrations seem to merge the magic of the best 1990s cartoons and a humorous, whimsical spirit that makes readers fall in love with Amy and her family instantly. My little readers did. And who doesn’t love a recipe at the back of a book about cooking? Genius.
Eyes that Kiss in The Corners written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho is superb. It is impossible for me to say what I love most about this story. The illustrations are sublime and my daughters spend so much time pointing out their favorite images on the page. The phoenixes and dragons are particularly stunning. But the language throughout is achingly beautiful. “Eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” There is a warmth to this message that celebrates diversity and empowers young readers. It belongs in every classroom.
After reading Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s other collaborations, Last Stop on Market Street and Carmela Full of Wishes, I expected to love Milo Imagines the World, and I did. I especially loved Pena’s description of nerves when Milo says he’s a “shook-up soda,” and the first lively, crowded subway car scene with Milo in his bright green hat. However, I did not expect the end! Bittersweet, beautiful, and such an important reminder to keep our eyes open and re-imagine the pictures we make in our heads.
Faith Pray’s gorgeous debut, The Starkeeper, gives us a sensitive look at what it means to bring light to others and how we can rise to a challenge even when we don’t feel ready to accept it. I was drawn to Pray’s beautifully imagined dark world studded with bright spots of light and was thrilled that my children understood that the story was about how we can bring light to others.
I understand that children are the target audience of picture books. With that in mind it makes perfect sense that many of them aim for that steady balance between humor and repetition, but those don’t need to be the only qualifiers anymore. Children can be introduced to big concepts. Then they can ask questions and the grown-ups reading the stories can answer them. Even though picture books alone will not do anything to open minds, they are a foundation for growth and adults can benefit from them too. In fact, let’s normalize giving picture books in lieu of cards.
Starting a new a job? The Day You Begin by Jacquelin Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.
Finding it difficult to manage your emotions while working with others? Big Feelings by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman.
Trying to lighten the mood when you hear someone at work ate your sandwich from the office fridge? The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach. (Okay, this one is specific but totally happened in my office when I worked in insurance. Also, my kids adore this book. It’s worth picking up.)
Picture books have been lights in the darkness this past year. I hope these books will be that for you as well. And I understand if there are nights where you do not give 100% to story time because it’s been… *gestures to everything that has happened this past year* exhausting. Great picture books like these help parents stay committed to the ritual with enthusiasm. One day I might even forgive my daughter for putting zero thought into her “favorite book choice” a year ago and thus bringing shame to her mother and family.
But am I?