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Best Picture Books of 2016

12/12/2016 10:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2016
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While many people can’t wait for the year to come to a close, before turning the page on 2016 we should take a moment to recognize some of the wonderful picture books of the past year.

Every day, when the news seems overwhelming, our family finds no small solace in story time. Turning off the outside world for just a few minutes to huddle around a new book or a beloved classic can be incredibly powerful.

Whether the book inspires action like the “March Trilogy,” provides much-needed comic relief like “Leave Me Alone!” or shows new ways of looking at the world like “They All Saw a Cat,” readers can simultaneously lose themselves and find themselves in the pages of a book.

And that is always worth celebrating.

Best Overall: “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales (Little, Brown)

In perhaps the most anticipated pairing of the year, Alexie and Morales deliver a story that feels both modern and timeless, a joyous portrait of one boy’s struggle to (literally) make a name for himself in the world.

Alexie’s expertly paced text zips along with loving interjections from the boy’s entire family, led by a precocious little sister. Morales’s richly textured art crackles with boundless energy. Somehow, in her hands the color yellow radiates with a life of its own.

There is a crucial moment when the father recognizes his son’s struggle and concludes: “I think it’s time I gave you a new name. A name of your own.” The boy’s reaction — “My dad read my mind! My dad read my heart!” — breathes with an authentic mix of relief and exhilaration, the giddy thrill of being truly seen and understood by someone you love.

The fitting choice for his new name (I won’t spoil it for you) cleverly allows the boy to forge a unique identity without severing ties to the past. Morales shows him standing proudly upon his father’s broad shoulders, ready to reach for new heights. Sometimes, to take the world by storm, all you need is the power of the right word.

(Note: the above is excerpted from my review that originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review.)

Most Fun: “Leave Me Alone!” by Vera Brosgol (Macmillan)

Displaying a firm command of the picture book format and a strong sense of comic timing, “Leave Me Alone!uses the trappings of a traditional folktale as the starting point for this story about an old woman who just wants to be left alone to knit.

Delightfully, her quest for solitude gets more surreal with every page turn. The layout and pacing are so well-executed, it feels almost unfair that this is Brosgol’s first foray into picture books.

(Honorable mention: “Dragon Was Terrible” by Kelly DiPucchio, ill. Greg Pizzoli; “Hotel Bruce” by Ryan Higgins; “King Baby” by Kate Beaton; “Pug Man’s 3 Wishes” by Sebastian Meschenmoser; “Stop Following Me, Moon!” by Darren Farrell.)

Most Powerful: “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life” by Ashley Bryan (Simon & Schuster)

(Image credit: Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

A stunning achievement of imagination and empathy, Bryan uses a slip of paper listing the purchase of 11 human beings (among other “objects”) as the basis for creating these deeply moving portraits. Bryan does not shy from emphasizing how these individuals were considered property. This provides an important backdrop as Bryan reverses the dehumanizing process by breathing life back into these names; giving them a backstory, a voice… and perhaps most powerfully, dreams that somehow persist despite the horrors of slavery.

(Honorable mention: “Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story” by Arun Gandhi and Bethandy Hegedus, ill. Evan Turk; “Freedom in Congo Square” by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. R. Gregory Christie; “The Journey” by Francesca Sanna; “Return” by Aaron Becker; “Steamboat School” by Deborah Hopkinson, ill. Ron Husband.)

Best Design: “Little Red” by Bethan Woollvin (Peachtree)

A bold (both graphically and narratively) reimagining of the classic fairy tale, Little Red is truly subversive in that it subverts the concept of victimhood with a delicious twist. Sharp teeth or no, this is one little girl who has no time for your foolishness.

(Honorable mention: “Are We There Yet?” by Dan Santat; “Real Cowboys” by Kate Hoefler, ill. Jonathan Bean; “Spot, the Cat” by Henry Cole; “This is Not a Book” by Jean Jullien; “Tokyo Digs a Garden” by Jon-Erik Lappano, ill. Kellen Hatanaka.)

Best Bedtime: “Twenty Yawns” by Jane Smiley, ill. Lauren Castillo (Two Lions)

Smiley’s text uses a skillful repetition of the word yawn (taking full advantage of its contagious nature) to make the reader increasingly more tired with every page turn. Coupled with Castillo’s illustrations, which exude the comfort of a handknit wool blanket, this is a perfect bedtime book.

(Honorable mention: “Good Night Owl” by Greg Pizzoli; “It’s Not Time for Sleeping” by Lisa Graff, ill. Lauren Castillo; “Little One” by Jo Weaver; “Silly Wonderful You” by Sherri Duskey Rinker, ill. Patrick McDonnell; “Monsters Go Night-Night” by Aaron Zenz.)

Most Mysterious: “The Night Gardener” by Terry and Eric Fan (Simon & Schuster)

The Fan brothers have crafted a quietly quirky tale with a wonderfully old-school feel. Ostensibly the story of a mysterious gardener’s fantastical topiary, the hidden mystery is this: Is the gardener’s true love artistically pruning shrubbery... or carefully maintaining his magnificent moustache?

(Honorable mention: “Batman’s Dark Secret” by Kelley Puckett, ill. Jon J “Muth; The Darkest Dark” by Chris Hadfield, ill. “The Fan Brothers”; “Coyote Moon” by Maria Gianferrari, ill. “Bagram Ibatoulline; Friend or Foe?” By John Sobol, ill. Dasha Tolstikova; “Mr. Moon Wakes Up” by Jemima Sharpe.)

Best Read Aloud: “Du Iz Tak?” by Carson Ellis (Candlewick)

(Image credit: DU IZ TAK? Copyright © 2016 by Carson Ellis. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

Ellis pulls off quite a feat by telling an entire story in a made-up bug language. (Note: I’m assuming it’s made up, but I apologize if I am underselling Ellis’s first-hand knowledge of entomological linguistics.) At first it’s pure silliness as readers try to wrap their tongues around these bizarre syllables (my son literally fell out of the bed laughing the first time we read it together). But with repeated readings, the meanings of the words reveal themselves in a surprisingly effective statement on the nature of language… or is it the language of nature?

(Honorable mention: Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes; Hooray for Today! By Brian Won; I Am (Not) Scared by Anna Kang, ill. Christopher Weyant; One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. Brendan Wenzel; Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen)

Best Concept Book: “The Airport Book” by Lisa Brown (Macmillan)

For many, the airport has become routine and banal (and sometimes tantamount to purgatory), but Brown skillfully reclaims its magic and a sense of childlike wonder in this detailed and thoughtfully constructed exploration of the modern airport. By weaving together a number of different narratives throughout her text (the main family, a stuffed monkey swept along the luggage carousel, and the other passengers aboard the flight), Brown has created a modern tapestry that captures the intricacies and intimacies of air travel.

(Honorable mention: “Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building” by Kurt Cyrus; “City Shapes” by Diana Murray, ill. Bryan Collier; “The Cookie Fiasco” by Dan Santat; “How Do You Say?/Como Se Dice?” Angela Dominguez; “The Opposite Zoo” by Il Sung Na.)

Best on Perspective: “They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle)

There were a number of books this year that did interesting things with perspective, the most noteworthy of which is Wenzel’s captivating “They All Saw a Cat.” Both simple and ingenious in concept, Wenzel’s book feels like a gamechanger. Showing one cat as seen through the eyes of different characters (a mouse, a bee, a person, etc.) this is a memorable visual lesson in the fluidity of perspective. Don’t be surprised when we all see this cat take home some serious hardware come award season.

(Honorable mention: Dear Dragon: A Pen Pal Tale by Josh Funk, ill. Rodolfo Montalvo; Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson; Marta! Big & Small by Jen Arena and Angela Dominguez; School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson; Stripes the Tiger by Jean Leroy, ill. Berengere Delaporte.)

Best Family: “In Plain Sight: A Game by Richard Jackson, ill. Jerry Pinkney (Macmillan)

A playful portrait of the daily ebb and flow between a grandfather his granddaughter. Jackson, a highly-regarded children’s book editor, employs a light touch with the text, leaving room for the legendary Pinkney to bring the story to life with warm and painstakingly detailed illustrations.

(Honorable mention: A Brave Bear by Sean Taylor and Emily Hughes; A Family is a Family is a Family by Sarah O’Leary, ill. Qin Leng; Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies; A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, ill. Christina Forshay; Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley.)

Best on Creativity: “Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead (Macmillan)

As a first time author, I’m quickly learning that the first question children ask is “How do you get your ideas?” Now, instead of fumbling awkwardly with clichés, I just tell them to read this beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the creative process. A helpful reminder that when it comes to creativity, you don’t have to know where you’re going to end up where you need to be.

(Honorable mention: The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, ill. Sophie Casson; The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield; Edward Gets Messy by Rita Meade, ill. Olga Stern; Louise and Andie: The Art of Friendship by Kelly Light; Puddle by Hyewon Yum.)

Best Metafiction: “How This Book Was Made” by Mac Barnett, ill. Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion)

The duo behind Chloe and the Lion are back, mixing in a dose of good information within a swirl of madcap adventure, as they push picture book metafiction to its hilarious limit.

(Honorable mention: Henry & Leo by Pamela Zagarenski; Let Me Finish! by Minh Lê, ill. Isabel Roxas; Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) by Julie Falatko, ill. Tim Miller; Surf’s Up! by Kwame Alexander, ill. Daniel Miyares; This is not a picture book! by Sergio Ruzzier.)

Best Non-Fiction (Nature): “Polar Bear” by Jenni Desmond (Enchanted Lion)

Desmond won me over last year with her excellent The Blue Whale and she succeeds again in this latest non-fiction offering. Gorgeously illustrated, Desmond’s book places the reader right in the thick of the action, which can be cold, despairing, sometimes even bloody… but always fascinating. Along with the cinematic Giant Squid, this book sets a high bar for modern picture book non-fiction.

(Honorable mention: Circle by Jeannie Baker; From Wolf to Wolf: The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott; Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann; Olinguito, de La A a la Z!/Olinguito, from A to Z! By Lulu Delacre; Pink is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating.)

Best Non-Fiction (History/Biography): “March: Book 3” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, ill. Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions)

History’s greatest triumphs and its greatest tragedies often lose their sense of urgency when relegated to history books. Great historical narratives like the seminal March Trilogy rescue these stories from the false trappings of inevitability by restoring the moment to moment drama. March reminds us that history is made up of discrete moments of action and inaction. This not only brings the past back to life, it reminds the reader that the present is just a historical moment waiting to happen… and it’s our action (or lack thereof) that will determine how this story plays out. Lewis’s story begins and ends on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009 and provides a valuable reminder that citizens should always be prepared to take a stand because past progress does not inoculate the future against injustice.

(Honorable mention: I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, ill. Elizabeth Baddeley; Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe; Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet; A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 by Matthew Olshan, ill. Sophie Blackall; Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, ill. Don Tate.)

Best Quiet/Meditative: “The Sound of Silence” by Katrina Goldsaito, ill. Julia Kuo (Little, Brown)

It’s ironic that I haven’t been able to shut up about this book about a boy searching for peace and quiet. You can read more about it from me at the Horn Book and NPR's Book Concierge, but the basic description try to I leave everyone with is this: The Sound of Silence is like a guided meditation led by Christopher Robin. Okay, now just go get the book already so I can stop blabbering on about it.

(Honorable mention: Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead; The Shady Tree by Demi; Shy by Deborah Freedman; The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead; The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, ill. Sydney Smith.)

Best Friendship: “We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick)

(Image credit: WE FOUND A HAT. Copyright © 2016 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

Klassen follows his successful I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat with a final book that again grapples with the nature of desire (and fashion). However, while the first two were darkly subversive, this is a redemptive story about the sometimes difficult bonds of friendship that ends on a dreamy and surprisingly transcendent note.

(Honorable mention: Be a Friend by Salina Yoon; Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, ill. Shahar Kober; Ella and Penguin Stick Together by Megan Maynor, ill. Rosalinde Bonnet; It Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton; Where’s the Party by Ruth Chan.)

Most Heartwarming: Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood” by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A young artist and a seasoned muralist team up to infuse their community with beauty, inspiring their neighbors (and local law enforcement) one magical brushstroke at a time.

(Honorable mention: Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, ill. David Roberts; Ada’s Violin/El Violin de Ada by Susan Hood, ill. Sally Wern Comport; Pond by Jim LaMarche; Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim, ill. E. B. Lewis; Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato.)

Best Poetry: “A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, ill. Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson (Penguin)

Children’s publishing has made important strides since the days of Ezra Jack Keats, and while there’s still a long ways to go, it’s helpful to remember the origins of the groundbreaking The Snowy Day. Told in lovingly lyrical text by Pinkney (an accomplished author and editor) and accompanied by stylistically appropriate illustrations, A Poem for Peter brings fresh perspective to a beloved classic--opening the book is like throwing back the curtains to see a familiar landscape covered in a fresh layer of untouched snow.

(Honorable mention: Echo Echo: Reverso Poems About Greek Myths by Marilyn Singer, ill. Josee Masse; Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer; Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, ill. Francis Vallejo; Jumping off Library Shelves by Lee Bennett Hopkins, ill. Jane Manning; When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano, ill. Julie Morstad.)

Best Miscellaneous: “Armstrong: The Adventurous Journey of a Mouse to the Moon” by Torben Kuhlmann (NorthSouth)

The last thing I expected to find in a story about a mouse traveling to the moon was a foreward from the Chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum vouching that the story “is true, mostly.” Indeed, Kuhlmann’s opus manages to condense the detailed history of early space travel within a singular story of one intrepid mouse. Charming, thought-provoking and beautifully rendered, think The Mouse and the Motorcyle meets Apollo 13... with cinematography by Ken Burns and you’ll begin to get a sense of the magic of Armstrong.

(Honorable Mention: Egg by Kevin Henkes; The Knowing Book by Rebecca Kai Dotlich, ill. Matthew Cordell; Ooko by Esme Shapiro; Pinocchio: The Origin Story by Alessandro Sanna; Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland by Jon Scieszka, ill. Mary Blair.)

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