Bernice Gets Carried Away—Hannah Harrison
In some ways, Bernice Gets Carried Away is very typical: talking animals, bad attitudes, valuable life lesson about sharing, etc. Did someone pass a law saying every children’s book has to be about sharing? But BGCA stands out because the titular hero/antihero, Bernice, reminded me very much of one of my acquaintances—with her whiskery face, grumpy countenance, and unflinchingly crabby attitude, Bernice embodies disaffected managers everywhere. Every newsroom has one. Then I started noticing that each character in the book recalled someone I knew: a bespectacled turtle, a wise-eyed Fox, a neurotic-looking rabbit—each is deeply human. Combine that with the fact that the illustrations are lush and vibrant and gorgeous, and you have a children’s book that is unexpectedly gripping. 10/10, would read again.
This was far-and-away the children’s book fan-favorite in my office. The book doesn’t tell a story; rather, it’s a series of watercolor paintings of different homes, with very simple text talking about what home can be. The illustrations are muted and calming—if you’re stressed out and want to turn your brain off for a while, it does the job. It’s also on the large end for book-size, which makes the detailed pictures easier on the eyes.
Mitford at the Fashion Zoo—Donald Robertson
Mitford at the Fashion Zoo is great because it’s just absurdly fun. There isn’t really any deep existential meaning or message to be found (and no sermons about sharing) but that’s kind of an upside. The book is illustrated by Donald Robertson, a fashion industry mover and Instagram celeb-of-sorts, and it’s drawn in the style of fashion illustrations. So each page swims with surreality and color, and sometimes feels more like Ralph Steadman than kiddie lit. On top of that, it’s long—lots of text. But the fanciful animals (especially a row of multi-color ostriches prancing down a runway) makes it absorbing and weird and fun to paw through.
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation—Edwidge Danticat. Illustrated by Leslie Staub
This one is a little tricky to describe. On the one hand, it’s illustrated in a folk-art style, with vivid colors, a recurring nightingale motif, and fanciful imagery of a mother magically transported to her daughter’s side. Visually, it looks like a fairy tale. But the story itself is serious as a heart attack; the book tells of a young girl whose mother, an undocumented immigrant, is locked away in an immigration detention center. The book has a happy ending—it’s a kids’ book, after all—but it’s a stark and restrained reminder that the children of undocumented immigrants often don’t have such good fortune. Thousands of kids who are U.S. citizens live without a parent because of deportation or detention. The current Republican presidential frontrunner wants to increase this, and exponentially. Mama’s Nightingale is a sobering, tender depiction of what exactly that would look like.
Counting Lions—Virginia McKenna, Kate Cotton, and Stephen Walton (illustrator)
The best thing about Counting Lions is its refusal to underestimate little kids. Most animal-themed counting books are underwhelming and saccharine: purple hippos grinning garishly, cartoonishly proportioned jungle animals making improbable inter-species friendships, uncreative yet bizarre depictions of totally sterile barnyards, etc. There’s nothing really wrong with those books, but Counting Lions shows that counting books can be infinitely better. That’s because it’s a genuinely lovely, calming book. It doesn’t try to re-create garish Saturday morning cartoons on paper; rather, it includes large, monochromatic pencil drawings of wild animals with simple, accurate text about the different beasts. The oversize pages showcase the detailed drawings in a way adults can genuinely appreciate, along with toddlers.
The Moon is Going to Addy’s House—Ida Pearle
There is nothing about this book that isn’t wonderful. It depicts a family’s drive home at sunset as the moon rises with rich, arresting illustrations and simple text. It’s genuinely gorgeous. And it’s a nice step up from Goodnight Moon.
Last Stop on Market Street—Matt de la Peña
Last Stop on Market Street has a magical realist feel to it. It tells how a young boy and his grandmother take the bus from church to a soup kitchen, and it suggests the young protagonist finds a way to be both in a large, dirty city and not in it. After complaining about not having headphones and taking the bus instead of a car, young CJ finds himself transported by a song one of his fellow passengers plays. He sees “sunset colors swirling over crashing waves” and he learns how to find beautiful sights in less-than-beautiful places. Simple, bright pictures augment the story.
Leo: A Ghost Story—Mac Barnett and illustrated by Christian Robinson
One particularly great thing about this book is that the pictures are all drawn in different shades of blue. It taps into underlying melancholy of Leo’s situation: Leo, of course, is a ghost who haunts a house until its new inhabitants make it clear that they have no interest in sharing the space with him. So the ghost boy makes the sad decision to relocate, and finds—and then saves—a new friend in the process. The story doesn’t tell us how he became a ghost at such a young age, and it doesn’t promise that his imaginative new friend will always trust him. But that ambiguity keeps it from falling into the syrupy-sweet traps that make so many kids’ books so irritating.