Best Picture Books of 2009


Now that I have one Best of list under my belt, I felt like I could be a little bit less inclusive in my enthusiasm to share my favorites (and the many related titles) of the past year with you. Somehow, I still managed to end up with a lot of books on this list... For all the griping I did last year about how there aren't enough good new books being published to keep me stocked for two story times a week (and there still aren't), I am pleased to say that everything on this list is engagingly written and beautifully illustrated and can easily stand up to heavy rotation in any weekly story time, at a library, bookstore or lap.

I would have to say that the biggest change, both in my reading habits, my list and the world of children's books in general this year has been the rise of the comic book - graphic novel - sequential art - whatever you choose to call it. As I often say here, I never read comics as a child - not even the funnies in the newspaper. Because of this, my explorations into this world have been slow and measured but also greatly rewarded by engrossing stories and magnificent artwork. I think kids are gravitating to this genre on their own, but I strongly encourage you as parents and/or adult guardians of the gateway to reading to pick up one yourselves and develop your own appreciation of this sometimes underrated form of storytelling. I have grouped the books into the following categories this year: Best Picture Books, Best Picture Books that are also Comic Books, Best Beginning to Read Series that Can Double as a Picture Book, Best Series for the Four and Under Crowd, Best Story Collection, Honorable Mention and Best Old Book Made New Again.

Best Picture Books (in no order)

It's a Secret! by John Burningham. If you don't already know the work of John Burningham, please acquaint yourself and your children immediately, before all of his books are out of print in the United States. Born in England in 1936, his illustrations often are mulit-media (sometimes combining photographs and illustrations, as in Cloudland)and always uniquely his own. On top of this, Burningham gets kids and he especially gets imaginative play in a timeless way. In his latest book, It's a Secret!, Marie Elaine wonders what her cat Malcolm does when he goes out at night. When she sneaks downstairs and finds him preparing to leave, she invites herself along. But not before Malcolm tells her to put on her party clothes and shrinks her down to his size so they can go to a secret party with a very special guest. In Hey! Get off Our Train a mother comes in to tell her son to stop playing trains and get into bed. She hands him his pajama-case dog and tucks them in. From there, the two are off in a dream land, conducting a train, playing ghosts in the fog and yelling, "Hey! Get off our train," when wayward animals try to board. Each animal tells a story of shrinking habitats, diminishing food sources and inevitable endangerment (but in a very straightforward, non-dogmatic way that should neither bore nor trouble young listeners) before they are allowed to board. My favorite, and currently out of print, is Would You Rather. The concept may be an old one, but Burningham brings his imagination and sense of humor to it in a big way. Scenarios include: Would you rather... an elephant drank your bathwater, an eagle stole your dinner, a pig tried on your clothes or a hippo slept in your bed? Would you rather have... supper in a castle, breakfast in a balloon or tea on a river? Would you rather help... a fairy make magic, gnomes dig for treasure, an imp be naughty, a witch make stew or Santa Claus deliver presents? John happens to be married to one of my long time favorite illustrators, Helen Oxenbury, who illustrated the wonderful book by Mem Fox that made my Best of list last year, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes.

Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen is the fourth picture book he has written and illustrated. You might also recognize his illustrations from Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson series of early reader books. Based on true events, the story that Chris Van Dusen tells has a much happier ending than the real life story - you may want to keep the Author Notes to yourself when sharing with younger listeners. Circus Ship is the story of a group of performing animals who find refuge on an island off the coast of Maine after a wreck at sea. At first, the villagers are unsure about their new neighbors, but when the tiger saves a little girl from a fire, their minds are changed. So much so that they help to disguise and hide all fifteen of them when the cruel circus owner returns to retrieve them, making for one of the best spreads in the book. Van Dusen said that he went out of his way to add details to his illustrations, sometimes taking up to a month on a single painting. This deserved attention and obvious love for the story he is telling come through in Van Dusen's art and story, which is told masterfully in rhyme! Van Dusen has captured the spirit of master picture book auhtor/illustrator Bill Peet a lover of African wildlife and circuses alike. His sharp illustrative style, full of bright colors and details, is reminiscent of another favorite of mine, Marla Frazee.

I was so taken with The Clever Stick by John Lechner that I wrote a whole review of it, something I don't often do for picture books. In spirit, it reminds me of William Steig's books, which I count as some of the best picture books written - ever. Lechner tells the story of an intelligent stick who's world is not complete without the ability to communicate and share his knowledge with the flora and fauna around him. When he finally finds an audience, it is all taken away from him in an instant. But, the clever stick doesn't care because he has finally found his voice and he knows he will be able to use it again and again. Lechner also published a second book in his excellent, exciting and hilarious comic book for younger readers, Sticky Burr , The Prickly Peril.

I can't believe that I have not had occasion to mention Antoinette Portis and her incredible book Not a Box, (which is dedicated, "To children everywhere sitting in cardboard boxes") along with companion title, Not a Stick. Her first two books are as imaginative and entertaining as the rabbit and pig characters in them. A simple but brilliant premise, the main character (playing with a box or a stick) is continually asked by a voice (adult, no doubt) off the page, things like, "Hey, what are you doing with that box/stick?" and "Are you still playing with that box/stick?" To which the little creature always responds, "It's not a box/stick, it's a..." Portis' elegant black line drawings are overlapped by red or purple, depending on the book, to allow the reader to see what the main character is imagining. I LOVE these books! A Penguin Story (which made the New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 2009 list) has a more developed plot and expanded color palette than Portis' "Not a" books. I wish I had been able to find pictures of the interior artwork to add here, but trust me, Portis imbues the plain black and white birds, main character Edna, especially, with plenty of personality and inquisitiveness. Edna, tired of black, white and blue goes in search of something more - and finds it. There is a great twist at the end of the book, foreshadowed by the colorful endpapers.... I can't wait to see Portis' next book, Kindergarten Diary, due out in June of 2009.

Emily Gravett (who made my list last year with Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears) is just amazing. She is a magnificent artist, combining various media and textures (Spells, Meerkat Mail, Wolves, Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears) with her elegantly simple pencil and watercolor illustrations (Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear, Monkey and Me, The Odd Egg) who is always a wry storyteller. With Spells, Gravett goes one step further. In addition to her wonderful illustrations that tell the story of a frog who is trying to turn himself into a prince with the help of a spell book, the reader gets an extra treat - a three tiered flip book that allows the reader to mix up the words of the spells and the animals that frog gets turned into.

2009 also saw the publication of Gravett's book The Odd Egg, which is the story of a lonely duck who wants to be like the other birds who are all nesting on eggs. When the duck adopts an odd egg, a big surprise follows. As with most of her other books, a bit of engineering is involved. This time, cleverly cut pages allow the story to unfold visually.

Don't miss these other egg adoption stories. In The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg by Bill Peet, a dove hatches a gigantic egg that holds a griffin, much to the distress of the rest of the forest animals. And, in Guji Guji by Chih-Yuan Chen, a mother duck accidentally hatches an alligator egg but accepts him into her brood lovingly, despite attempts by other alligators to get Guji Guji to change his spots, so to speak...

Coming from Emily Gravett in February 2010 and sure to be a hit, Dogs!

Dinotrux by Chris Gall was another picture book that came out in 2009 and was so spectacular that it demanded a review of it's own. Combining dinosaurs and trucks to make Dinotrux is genius in and of itself. However, Gall goes one step further to tell the story the selfish trucks who almost went extinct and how they adapted over time and even changed their ways. There is a great spread at the end of the book where a dinotrux fossil is excavated from the middle of a busy city street. The final page of the book shows the fossil at home in a museum shining its headlight eyes on an unsuspecting night janitor sweeping away.

Mac Barnett: Writer and Strongman for Hire and Adam Rex published two picture books and a young adult novel, the awesome The Brixton Brothers and the Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity (watch for reviews next week!) They definitely make a great team - slightly subversive senses of humor paired with genuine storytelling talent (both with words and illustrations.) Guess Again! is just pure, hilarious fun. As the title suggests, the playful riddle rhymes and suggestive illustrations are not what you think. I NEVER get tired of reading this book at home and at story time. I have been known to pull kids aside and read it to them even when it is not story time at the book store where I work.

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem plays on the classic theme of responsibility in a very surreal way. When Billy will not clean his room, brush his teeth or eat his peas his mother decides to teach him a lesson by ordering a blue whale for him to take care of (which arrives via FedUp, who's motto is "Delivering Punishment Worldwide.) Of course Billy struggles to take care of his new pet - it's not easy to gather thousands of krill to feed the whale, after all. The ending is kind of funky but can also be read as the perfect solution to the whale care and room cleaning issues that plague Billy. I found new appreciation for this book when I read a quote from Barnett who said he was interested in the consequences of having a giant pet which were rarely explored in children's literature (see Clifford the Big Red Dog or Danny the Dinosaur, to name a few.) Rex's artwork is painterly and richly detailed as always. Besides some great diagrams regarding whales and their habits, he endpapers for the book include adds for squid repellent, a shrimp of the month club and instructions on how to order your own blue what and where to send your SASE...

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is an absolutely beautiful book. The story, of a boy who, through perseverance and love grows a garden in a wasteland, is a bit clunky, but Brown keeps it light enough that you easily get lost in the magical artwork and barely even notice. For a spot-on (and hilarious review) posted by the author of the excellent children's book blog 100 Scope Notes in the persona of "Mr Message," click here. For me, reading the book works best when I remind myself that this story is based on the actual, defunct High Line Elevated Railway in New York City that has recently been turned into a beautifully landscaped garden above ground where people can walk what used to be the tracks. Brown notes this at the end of his book, but I think it has been missed by most reviewers. I wish I had better images to share with you, but I definitely think that this is the kind of book that will stick in a child's imagination and memory well into adulthood and maybe even engender the desire to visit the real park!

Amy Krouse Rosenthal (who made my list last year with Little Hoot) is a wonder. She has added so many books to the shelves in recent years that my head spins. And, she always has the good fortune to work with excellent illustrators. She has four books coming out in the first half of 2010 alone, and four picture books that she published in 2009. Rosenthal is also the author of some of the best keepsake journals I have seen, including the Belly Book, the Baby Book, the Big Sibling Book, the Grandparent Book and Words of Wonder: A Journal for Your Child's Sweet and Amusing Saying, all of which have lovely graphics and illustrations.

In 2009 Rosenthal hit a homerun with Duck! Rabbit! illustrated most masterfully by Tom Lichtenheld. I love showing this book to people and asking, "What animal do you see?" while covering up the title. The text of the book consists of an argument between two off the page voices over what animal it really is. Like Mac Barnett and Adam Rex's Guess Again!, the joke is funniest the first time around, but that doesn't make it any less fun to tell over and over to new listeners. Spoon, illustrated by Scott Magoon is the story of a little utensil who begins to notice that there are a lot of things he can't do. Chopstick, Knife and Fork all seem to have it better until his mom sets him straight. She tells Spoon that his friends will never know the joy of diving headfirst into a bowl of ice cream, among other things, then she invites little Spoon to the big bed - to spoon, naturally. Magoon's illustrations are brilliant and expressive and joyful. I just love this story! With Yes Day!, Rosenthal brings to life every kid's dream - a day when yes is the answer to every request. Partnering with Lichtenfeld (who also illustrated the excellent partner to Yes Day!, It's Not Fair) Rosenthal's skill as an imaginative writer with a true gift for turning reality on its head to great effect and entertainment, her skills shine in Yes Day! and in It's Not Fair. She manages to allow the young protagonist to fulfill his every wish in a reasonable, doable way that united the whole family.

Rosenthal is also the author of this trio of topsy-turvy books, the third of which was published in 2009. Little Pea is a vegetable in a world where candy is what's for dinner. Little Pea gags down his ten pieces of candy for dinner before he is allowed to eat his favorite vegetables (ignore the quasi cannibalistic overtones here...) Little Hoot is an own who yearns to go to bed early. Little Oink, you guessed it, is a pig with a fetish for neatness. These books are always fun to read out loud and superbly illustrated by Jen Corace.

Finally, Rosenthal also added a new book to her COOKIES series. As I wrote in my review of Holiday Books, the COOKIES books are the kind I usually avoid - books with a message. However, I was persuaded to read one by someone I trust and I was pleasantly surprised. With each book, Rosenthal takes abstract ideas like love, empathy, cooperate, patience, respect, greedy, reciprocate, frustrated, perseverance and wise and folds them into a string of events that all relate to the making, baking, eating and sharing of cookies in one way or another. These books are truly ingenious and, for parents like me who are not great at teach these abstracts, extremely helpful. The newest book, Sugar Cookies, is illustrated by the magnificent Jane Dyer and her equally talented daughter, Brooke Dyer.

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Best Picture Books that are also Comic Books

The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman is another book that earned a full review when it was released earlier this year. Fantastically, architecturally, maniacally illustrated by David Roberts, Fleischman tells the story of a group of uniquely talented kids who are pushed too far by their confiscating-crazy teacher, Miss Breakbone. The group bands together and, utilizing each of their talents, they retrieve what is rightly theirs and put one over on their teacher.

Don't miss Roberts' other picture book written by Andrea Beaty, Iggy Peck, Architect. The illustrations are elegant and hilarious, and the rhyming story is a treat. As a baby, Iggy builds the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of diapers, some of which are used...

My greatest discovery this year had to be the entire catalog of TOON BOOKS, a few of which I will highlight, all of which are eminently readable out loud. For a full review of the books and the interesting story behind the fascinating woman who started this publishing house, click here.

Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith is, I hate to use this word but it is so apt, adorable. Mom Mouse tells Little Mouse that they are going to the barn and he needs to get ready. Little kids who have ever had to or tried to dress themselves will relate to Little Mouse's struggles. The real pay off comes at the end when Mom Mouse tells him that mice don't wear clothes...

Stinky by Eleanor Davis is the story of a swamp creature who comes to appreciate the seemingly icky boy who wants to share his space. As with all books in this series, the illustrations are amazing and the details are many. I especially love the map of the swamp.

Benny and Penny: Just Pretend and Benny and Penny and the Big No-No are a treat. Besides being great sibling stories with an ring of familiarity, Geoffrey Hayes illustrations are evocative of the artwork of books from my childhood. Delicate colors and rich details remind me of Beatrix Potter, among others.

Best Beginning to Read Series that can Double as a Picture Book

I can't help it, I love Mo Willems' creations, Elephant and Piggie. Their over the top personalities combined with Mo's perfect timing and sense of silliness make for some excellent read out louds. Whenever I have a tough crowd, be they 2 - 10, I pull out an E&P book and everyone listens, laughs and then searches for the pigeon hiding in the endpapers of the book...

Best Series of Books for the Four and Under Crowd

Tilly and Friends Series by Polly Dunbar. Tilly and her friends all live in a little yellow house.... begins each book in this series. Tiptoe the bunny, Hector the pig, Doodle the alligator, Pru the chicken and Tumpty the elephant are each featured in a book along with Tilly. The illustrations are delightful, playful and expressions are exaggerated for laughs. The stories are gentle while at the same time exemplifying the mercurial nature of toddlers. My favorite, Doodle Bites, begins with the line, "Doodle woke up feeling bitey!" Doodle goes around biting things she shouldn't until she chomps down hard on Tumpty's bottom. As toddlers do, Tumpty retaliates and everyone needs bandaging by Pru.

Don't miss Dunbar's excellent book, Dog Blue, now available in paperback.

Best Collection of Stories
Yummy by Lucy Cousins is such a great collection of fairy tales for pre-schoolers that I hope it becomes a classic baby shower gift, like Goodnight Moon. For a full review of this book, click here. In brief, I will say that I know, from personal and professional experience, that KIDS LOVE FAIRY TALES. They love the good, the bad and the ugly in them and Cousins's book does a brilliant job of breaking these stories down into bite size pieces without distilling the impact and importance inherent in each tale.

Honorable Mention for one of my FAVORITE artists

All the World is the latest book illustrated by Marla Frazee. Written by Liz Garton Scanlon, it is a poem that follows a circle of family and friends over the course of a day. Rhythmic and gentle, the words in the book let the pictures tell the story. Frazee's detail and repetition, carrying an aspect of one scene and one illustration into the next, make the book fun to read.

Best Old Books Made New Again OR Best (and cheapest - $7.95 in hardcover!!!) Reissue of Classic Picture Books

Which Would You Rather Be, written by William Steig and illustrated by Harry Bliss illustrator of the Diary of a Worm/Spider/Fly series, is a fine stand in while we wait for Burningham's Would You Rather to be republished. Stick or a stone? Elephant or a mouse? Elbow or knee? Steig is very imaginative in his line of questioning and the boy and girl being questioned are equally thoughtful with their responses. A great springboard for a verbal game along the same lines that could make car rides or waiting in line go a little faster...

Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Krauss, illustrated by Jose Aruego is one of the sweetest stories I know. This book is ideal for parents of girls who then have a boy... Leo's dad worries about him as all the other animals in school learn to write their names, eat neatly, etc. But mom says he's just a late bloomer. The joy that fills Leo when he does acquire these skills jumps off the page.

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