Best Picture Books of 2008

As you may know, in addition to reading children's chapter books incessantly, I also read for story time three days a week at the bookstore and as often as my 4 year old will sit still when I'm at home. Even though I have been collecting and reading picture books since before my first child was born almost sixteen years ago, I still find myself at a loss for good (and fresh) reading material at home and and at work. At home, I run out of books that I want to read out loud because, by the third child I have read most of them several times already. At work, I run out of good reading material for two major reasons. First of all, despite the fact that there are an average of 50 new picture books published EACH MONTH (I learned this while collecting research for this review. I used the BookMaster computer program at work to search for all new, hardcover picture books by month. At the low point, there were about 55 published. At the high point, there were over 100 books published in one month alone in 2008!) Secondly, most of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. Because of this and the fact that my shelves are overflowing and my youngest only has a few more years of wanting to have picture books read to him, I have seriously curtailed my picture book purchases. This, and the fact that I am always looking for good story time books, made me look more closely at the books that crossed my path last year. Here is my list of the best books published this year starting with my top three favorites. These are all books I have not yet tired of reading out loud and also books that always hold the listener's attention from start to finish.

If You Could Only Buy Three Picture Books, Buy These:

Too Many Toys
by David Shannon

Another home run from Shannon and a circumstance that all parents can relate to. Also, a great twist at the end, which I love in a picture book. I won't divulge any more details since the title says it all! Don't miss Shannon's excellent holiday book The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, available in paperback.

by Elise Broach, pictures by David Small

A brilliant idea with a nice twist at the end. David Small is a superb illustrator and perfectly paired with Broach's delightful story. What would happen if when you bought a dozen doughnuts, got a hair cut or a check up at the doctor's you were given a free dinosaur? And not a toy one, either... Check out my reviews of Elise Broach's excellent chapter books, Shakespeare's Secret and Masterpiece. As was pointed out to me recently, technically, this book was published in 2007, but this is my story and I'm stickin' to it!

The Little Bit Scary People
by Emily Jenkins
pictures by Alexandra Boiger

The premise of this book can be summed up with the saying, "You can't judge a book by it's cover," but Emily Jenkins does so much more that with this story. Add to that Alexandra Boiger's graceful, engaging illustrations that tell a story in their own right and you have a spectacular, unique book. Jenkins has her narrator take us through the neighborhood pointing out people who seem scary from teenagers to principles, bus drivers and policemen. With each one, she turns the narrator turns her first impression around by imagining the generous, kind and gentle things these little bit scary people might do when she can't see them. Things like pet their cats, make fancy breakfasts for their kids and take tango lessons at night. Jenkins performs the masterful feat of writing a children's book with a life lesson in it that does not come off sounding stiff, forced or dogmatic like most that I come across. My kudos to Jenkins and Boiger for adding an important, gratifying book to the world of children's literature. Two other favorites of mine are Jenkins' picture books, What Happens on Wednesdays, illustrated by Lauren Castillo and the satisfying, especially for parents, and, may I say, an awesome counterpoint to the uber-saccharine, super creepy, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, Love You When You Whine, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier, whose artwork is like a cross between Wayne Anderson and Maurice Sendak.
While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat by Amy Reichert: Book Cover
Don't miss Boiger's other picture book, written by Amy Reichert, While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat. This is a superbly illustrated fanciful story about the crazy things that happen while a little girl waits for her mother to get off the phone. For a fascinating look into the world of picture book creation and collaboration, you can hear Amy Reichert and Alexandra Boiger interviewd by Michele Norris on All Things Considered.

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins: Book CoverToy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins: Book Cover
And, last but not least, Emily Jenkins also writes the chapter books with the most entertaining stuffed animals ever, Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgable Stingray, A Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic and the sequel, Toy Dance Party: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots Stingray, a Courageous Buffalo, and a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic. Both are illustrated by the magnificent Paul O. Zelinsky.

If You Could Buy All of The Picture Books You Wanted,
Buy These, Too!

There Are Cats
in This Book
by Viviane Schwarz

This book made my son laugh out loud. It has odd shaped pages, flaps to lift and lively, vivid illustrations. Great for any book and cat loving household like mine. My favorite book by Schwarz is Timothy and the Strong Pajamas. The illustrations are classically charming and the story well written and with that twist - this one a visual - at the end that I love. Perfect for any kid who likes to wear pajamas all day long... Shark and Lobster's Amazing Underseas Adventure is a silly story with great laugh out loud illustrations not to be missed either.

Cover Image

Who Made This Cake?
by Nakagawa Chihiro
pictures by Junji Koyose

Almost wordless, this book is a visual treat for any kid who likes construction trucks and cake! It reminds me of a childhood favorite, The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord.

Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu

Another beautiful, magical book without words. Check out my article, How To Read A Picture Book Without Words (Out Loud) for tips on how to get the most out of these unique books.

The Monster Who Ate Darkness
by Joyce Dunbar
pictures by Jimmy Liao

An engaging, creative story about a cute little monster under the bed who craves darkness to quiet his rumbling tummy. However, his appetite wreaks havoc for everyone else on earth, human and animal alike. This probably won't convince a child not to be scared of the dark, but it's a fun read with bright, detailed illustrations.

Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears
by Emily Gravett

Along with Mini Grey, Viviane Schwarz and Adam Rex, Emily Gravett is one of my new favorite illustrators. Her work is both delicate and painterly as well as playful. And, like Mini Grey, Adam Rex and Viviane Schwarz, she uses many different mediums, like photographs, graphic illustrations from other works and food wrappers in her books. With her latest work she incorporates a tromp l'oeil visual style along with flaps and cut-outs that make this sparsely written story worth every penny.

I absolutely love Gravett's simple, beautiful book for very young children, Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear. Meerkat Mail is another fabulously illustrated story about Sunny the meerkat who gets tired of his family and takes a trip to visit his relations. There are lift-the-flap postcards on each page with details of his travels.

Fanny by Holly Hobbie

This is a very sweet story about a girl who's mother won't by her one of the popular dolls and ends up making a doll of her own. This is a story that I would have embraced wholeheartedly as a child. While I was never denied a Barbie (Hobbie's dolls look like Bratz) I did make my own dolls as a child and sometimes imagined that they came to life and talked to me just like Annabelle, the doll Fanny makes. Even though she is shunned by her friends when she tries to introduce Anabelle to their Connie dolls, they eventually learn to play together despite their differences.

Little Hoot
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
pictures by Jen Corace

A twist on the "not wanting to go to bed" theme, Jen Corace's illustrations make Little Hoot the charming story that it is.

The Girl Inside the Castle
Inside the Museum
by Kate Bernheimer
pictures by Nicoletta Ceccoli

This is a gorgeously illustrated, dream-like story about a girl who lives inside a caste that is inside a glass globe in a museum. The girl is lonely when the visitors go home for the night and devises a way to find company.

Traction Man
Meets Turbo Dog
by Mini Grey

A follow up to the awesomely incredible part comic book, part action adventure, part science fiction, totally kid friendly book of 2005, Traction Man is Here, Mini Grey's newest work is yet another wonder of spectacular multi-media illustrations combined with another fabulous story. In this book we find Traction Man separated from his beloved sidekick, Scrubbing Brush, a wooden, oval shaped fingernail brush that saved Traction Man during an adventure in the first book that involved a dive in the ocean (kitchen sink) and an attack by a giant octopus (dishcloth.) The brilliance of of Grey's storytelling is the way the words and the pictures work for and against each other to create what feels like a genuine glimpse into the imagination of a child at play. I strongly recommend these books for everyone, but especially boys (and dads.) My husband loves reading them to our son and cracks up as much as our little boy does. Don't miss her other terrific book about a feisty cookie, Ginger Bear.

Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara

I don't often find holiday themed picture books that are worth buying, let alone reading, but I was pleasantly surprised this by this charming story with beautifully simple linocut illustrations. A clever little girl moves into a haunted old house at the edge of town. Being a witch, she knows how to take care of the ghosts. She washes them all and puts them to use as tablecloths, curtains and bedcovers. While we're on the subject of holiday books, the best Christmas themed books I have had the pleasure of reading over the last fifteen years are Santa Claus, The World's Number One Toy Expert, by Marla Frazee, The Amazing Christmas Extravaganza, by David Shannon and Mr Willowby's Chirstmas Tree by Robert Barry. Interestingly enough, these books were all illustrated by their authors, which often makes for the best picture book.

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever

James and Eamon go to Eamon's grandparent's house on the coast for a week of Nature Camp. But the boys, who come to be referred to as "Jamon," have other ideas about what's fun. Frazee does a magnificent job of following the short attention span, high energy boisterousness of two little boys having fun together. And, while their interests seemed to be elsewhere, the boys end their week with a delightful creation that shows they did learn something about nature! As always, Frazee's illustrations are detailed, colorful glimpses of the magical world

The Sea Serpent and Me
by Dashka Slater, pictures by Catia Chien

When a tiny sea serpent drops out of the faucet a the narrator climbs into her bath, a fast friendship ensues. Chien's illustrations are painterly and fluidly abstract at times and always filled with special details that add to the story. In a time of mermaids and dragons, a sea serpent is a refreshing alternative and the story of the little girl's attempts to care for her new pet and the eventual goodbyes the two friends must say is warmly touching.

Cover ImageCover ImageCover Image
Another wonderfully illustrated picture book with a sea serpent as the star is Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet. With a different "pet," but same theme is the amazing, gorgeously illustrated adaptation of an Octavio Paz story by Catherine Cowan and illustrated by Mark Buehner, My Life with the Wave. And, while the star is a dragon, the story and the pictures are just too good not to mention The Best Pet of All by David LaRochelle with fantastic pictures by Hanako Wakiyama.

The End by David LaRochelle: Book Cover
Don't miss David LaRochelle's brilliant book illustrated by the Caldecott winning Richard Egielski, The End. Beginning at the end with the prince and princes living happily ever after, this fun book works it's way backwards to the beginning of the story seamlessly, detailing the cause and effect that brought the two together. My favorite part of this book is reading it from back to front which, with a little text-tweaking is really quite easy and kids love it!


Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
by Mem Fox, pictures by Helen Oxenbury

A sweet little rhyme about different babies from all over the world with the repeating chorus, "And both of these babies, as everyone knows,/ had ten little fingers and ten little toes." Mem Fox is a genius story teller and a master with rhymes, as well as an active advocate for children's literacy and love of reading. Helen Oxenbury's illustrations, as always, are colorfully delightful and her babies are adorable without being too precious. My all-time favorite Mem Fox book is Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild, and is about a mom trying not to yell at her little girls as she creates increasingly messy situations throughout the day. Part of what makes is book are Marla Frazee's better-than-real-life illustrations. Marla Frazee also happens to me the illustrator of my ALL TIME FAVORITE book for babies, also rhyming, titled Everywhere Babies. This is the most detailed, sweetly illustrated, book about babies and their families. What I especially admire about the book is Frazee's subtle, natural presentation of all the different kinds of families there are out there.


Ella Sets Sail by Carmela D'Amico: Book CoverCover ImageCover ImageCover Image
Ella Sets Sail
by Carmela D'Amico
pictures by Steven D'Amico

A little bit of Jean DeBrunhoff's Babar, a little bit HA and Margaret Rey when they weren't doing Curtious George, and maybe even a little bit Bemelman's Madeline, the Ella books by the D'Amicos are a delightful throwback to children's books of that era. The stories are about a shy but brave little elephant are sometimes predictable, but the illustrations of the island world that Ella and the other elephants inhabit, combined with the bakery that Ella's mother runs, makes for very readable books. With "Ella" being such a hip new-old baby name over the last 5+ years, all the little Ellas running around out there should be quite pleased to have these books bearing their name on the shelf. I believe there are also Ella dolls and pajamas that can be purchased on line. As far as namesakes and picture books go, I'd pick Ella over Olivia any day...



Voyage to the Bunny Planet

Originally published as a three book boxed set, Voyage to the Bunny Planet tells the stories of three "day[s] that should have been" for two boys and a girl who are having a rough time of it. Island Light, Moss Pillows and The First Tomato are charming stories of children who, when things go wrong, find themselves carried to the Bunny Planet in the arms of Janet, the Bunny Queen, where they are surrounded by comfort and love.

George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends, with an introduction by Maurice Sendak
by James Marshall

Above all else, George and Martha are subtly funny. Their stories are masterfully told in short and simple chapters. They get on each other's nerves, they over eat, they have bad habits, the are thoughtful, caring and forgiving. Like Frog and Toad, they are teachers without being preachers.




Adam Rex authored and illustrated Frankenstein Takes the Cake in 2008, a follow up to his Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, both of which are a collection of stories, poems, fake advertisements and more. They are a little hard to read out loud at story time, but absolutely gorgeous and hilarious to devour on your own. However, my two favorite Adam Rex picture books are Psst! and Tree Ring Circus. Tree Ring Circus is rich with detail and painterly illustrations that take center stage away from the simple rhyme that makes up the framework for the art. Psst! is a brilliantly conceived story about a young girl who is hailed by animal after animal as she walks through the zoo, every one asking her to fetch them something different from the outside world. My son laughed hysterically at the illustration of the hippo popping out of the bat cave (he wants a flashlight) and the sloth falling out of his tree (he wants a bike helmet.) Rex includes a plethora of details presented in new and unusual ways in his illustrations for this book, so many that it requires several readings to do it justice. In fact, you really have to pore over it, from the frontspiece to the endpapers. And, above all else, Rex includes two of my favorite things in this book - narwhals and sporks. Also, in my pile of books to read is Adam Rex's book for young adults, The True Meaning of Smekday. After reading a review of the book in the New York Times Book Review I ran right out and bought it. My daughter read it and loved it and Adam Rex has created a very cool website, Smekday to go with the book in addition to his already existing website, adam rex, where he shares rough drafts and sketches of his work as well as other very cool multimedia things, including the supercool
Abraham SuperLincoln

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