Best Picture Books of 2011

In a year that was notable for the uproar over the demise of the picture book (Julie Bosman's article for the New York Times) and the voracious response from authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, parents and publishers (Proclamation! and Challenge!, to name a few) it was surprisingly difficult to narrow my "best of" list down to twenty, let alone ten books. This is especially exciting for me because I have been reading picture books to my own children for the last eighteen years and, as a children's bookseller, to other people's children for the last sixteen and a half years and I am continually saddened by the lack of good books to read. Admittedly, I have some pretty high standards for both the story and the artwork in a book since I have been reading and collecting them for so long. This year, I found myself reading a book over and over not because of the usual dearth of good picture books to read out loud, but because a book was just that good.

What follows is a list of twenty-one of the best picture books I read this year, including two highly readable non-fiction picture books. Pam Smallcomb and Robert Weinstock's I'm Not came out in December of 2010 but I didn't read it until January, 2011 and it is so darn good that I couldn't pass up the chance to call it to the attention of picture book lovers again! Descriptions of books are brief, please click on the title for my full review as well as some of the interior illustrations.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This book is getting a lot of well deserved attention. Dead-pan, droll and subtly subversive are all good descriptors for this unique and very funny book.

Ice by Arthur Geisert. If you have never seen one of Arthur Geisert's book, especially if you have boys, you MUST click his name to learn all about him. While pigs are his frequent character of choice, all his books include detailed illustrations made from engravings that usually involve one kind of contraption or another and frequently a Rube Goldberg device. Ice is a wordless picture book and part of publisher Enchanted Lion's Stories Without Words series.

King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bentley and Helen Oxenbury. A playfully rhyming story about boys playing pretend that has a great ending. Oxenbury is one of my favorite illustrators - her children are always sweet, even when they are dirty and their pants are falling down, and her dragons do not disappoint! 

This + That by Amy Krouse Rosenthal with illustrations by Jen Corace. Amy + Jen = Awesome Picture Book. Verbal equations brought to life by exuberant illustrations make these little life lessons (good days + bad days = real life, once upon a time + happily ever after = pretend, chores + everyone = family and my favorite, anything + sprinkles = better) very palatable. Tasty, in fact! 

Press Here by Hervé Tullet. This book is PURE GENIUS and SUPER FUN! Basically, Tullet has written an app in book form, using paper and paints instead of code. If you know nothing about this book you MUST click on the title and watch the trailer. 

The Secret Box written and illustrated by Barbara Lehman. Lehman a masterful storyteller, especially when you realize that she does it all without words. All her books are marvelous journeys that bring people (usually kids) together. If books without words befuddle you, check out this article that I wrote back in 2008 How to Read a Picture Book Without Words (Out Loud).

The Lonely Beast by Chris Judge. A lonely beast goes great distances to find a friend. The story may sound simple, but Judge's illustrations tell the tale with vivid colors, whimsical details and a big heart.

I Had a Favorite Dress by Boni Ashburn with pictures by Julia Denos. What do you do when your favorite dress gets too small? Don't have a cow, mom knows how to take care of that! Denos' elegantly playful illustrations and Ashburn's quirky rhymes make this book a treat to read, especially if you ever had a favorite dress.

Shark vs Train written by Chris Barton with pictures by Tom Lichtenheld. Two boys head for the toy box, one grabs a shark the other grabs a train. Which one is the best? Lichtenheld's animated illustrations bring this battle to life.

The Red Wagon written and illustrated by Renata Liwska. Liwska's timeless, animal filed illustrations bring this imagination filled story to life beautifully and brilliantly.

Hurry Down to Derry Fair written by Dori Chaconas with pictures by Gillian Tyler. If you are a fan of the pastoral, detail rich illustrations of Beatrix Potter of Tasha Tudor then you and your kids will love Gillian Tyler's artwork for this book about the excitement of going to the county fair.

Cloudette written and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. A straightforward story about one of the timeless troubles of childhood - being too little to do big things. Lichtenheld makes this story fresh with the character of Cloudette, the cheerful little cloud who just wants to help out.

The Best Birthday Party Ever written by Jennifer LaRue Huget with pictures by LeUyen Pham. Believe it or not, there are very few picture books about celebrating a birthday. Huget and Pham's joyful, imaginative, boisterous book goes a long way to making up for the lack of birthday books. The text and illustrations are perfectly matched. 

To Market, To Market written and illustrated by Nikki McClure. McClure's paper-cut illustrations, which, remarkably, are made from a single sheet of paper, are enough to carry any story. What makes this highly readable book unique is that it is about going to the farmer's market! 

Look! A Book! A Zany See-and-Find Adventure written and illustrated by Bob Staake. Staake's artwork is amazing and entertaining in and of itself. What makes this book irresistible to kids and adults are the crazy things hidden in each picture, from hammers to ice cream cones to bowling pins, you'll be reading this book again and again. Written in short rhymes, it also is great for emerging readers to tackle.

Under the Hood by Christophe Merlin. Besides the fact that this book has a short but funny story, it is so unlike anything I have read in a long time, from the illustrations to the use of flaps, that I will never forget it. For any little (or big) guy who likes cars...

Beautiful Oops written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg. Brilliant. Just brilliant. For readers of all ages, I strongly suggest you click through to the book trailer that is part of my review to see just how amazing and wonderful this book is. A pop-up about how mistakes, in Saltzberg's words, can be "an opportunity to make something beautiful." You will be truly amazed by what he makes from his "mistakes."

Once Upon a Baby Brother by Sarah Sullivan with pictures by Tricia Tusa. A wonderful story that is equally about sibling rivalry and creativity. How Sullivan weaves the two together is as superb as Tusa's illustrations. No doubt readers will be inspired.

I'm Not written by Pam Smallcomb with pictures by Robert Weinstock. The narrator of this book may not be exactly like her outgoing, innovative, dramatic best friend Evelyn, but, by the end of the book she realizes what she is - a true blue best friend.

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero written by Marissa Moss with pictures by John Hendrix. The title says it all. What it doesn't say is that Edmonds dressed as a boy so that she could serve in the army and fight for the North. Hendrix's illustrations are detail filled and reflect the research that went into them.

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature  written by Joyce Sidman with pictures by Beth Krommes. Newbery winner Krommes and Newbery Honor winner Sidman team up for this deceptively simple, infinitely beautiful look at nature that reads like a story.

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