At the end of each year I feel incredibly confident that the children’s books published over the course of the prior twelve months were the Best. Books. Ever. And every December, as I stand in front of my buckling bookshelves, I tell myself there’s no way the upcoming year will be able to top it. But, lo and behold, every year I am wrong. (Thank goodness!!) I find myself continually awestruck by the caliber of children’s literature as the seasons slide, whisper soft, one into the next. The scope and quality of picture books continue to skyrocket with every new catalogue.
This year, the stories written into our world have been replete with magic, humor and promise, evidenced so beautifully by the stars dancing in the eyes of the children (and parents!) that hug these books to their chests upon first reading. These stories contained characters more representative of our communities and neighbors, gave us hope when it felt like the world was crashing down at our feet, and inspired us in ways that only books – enchanting, wondrous books – can do. And now, without further ado, these are Happily Ever Elephants’ top twenty picture books from 2017 – the ones that touched our hearts, gave us wings when we needed to fly, and had us doubled over in laughter.
After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again), by Dan Santat: This is probably our favorite picture book of the year – one that is both effortlessly unique and poignant. It is the story of what happens after Humpty Dumpty gets put back together and how he manages to overcome his newfound crippling fear of heights. The themes embraced here, those of anxiety, resilience, and putting oneself back together after a fall, lend themselves well to didacticism, but Santat delivers this story with a light but brilliant touch which enables the story to speak to both children and adults at varied social and emotional maturity levels. This is a masterpiece and an instant classic.
Creepy Pair of Underwear, by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown: This has been on heavy rotation in our house since the day it came in the mail, so much so that when my son had to dress as a book character for a party at school he chose to go as Jasper Rabbit in his ghoulish, glowing underwear. I mean, take a pair of neon green underpants, smack a creepy, Frankenstein-esque face on them, and mail them to China, only to have them immediately returned with a pair of chopsticks. Need I say more? Your kids won’t stop laughing, and neither will you.
The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse, by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen: As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing this duo can’t do. Talk about turning option B into one heck of a party! I just adore how the duck and the mouse make the very most of getting eaten by the wolf- and how they manage to outsmart him, too. “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” This may just be one of my favorite picture book lines ever!
Nerdy Birdy Tweets, by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Matt Davies: If you refrain from making a nasty comment to a classmate, is it ok to post that comment online instead? This is one of the awesome questions sparked by Nerdy Birdy Tweets. Reynolds and Davies have given us the perfect book about what it means to be a responsible internet user. I fell in love with this story instantly and believe it should be required reading for students of all ages — especially those in upper elementary school who are just beginning to navigate the online world.
Wolf in the Snow, by Matthew Cordell: This nearly wordless picture book is such a beauty, and I can’t get over the emotion that is conveyed in every one of Matthew Cordell’s stunning illustrations. Wolf in the Snow is the perfect hero’s journey for those of you new to wordless stories. It is easy to interpret yet so richly evocative. You will be amazed at the way Cordell’s simplistic drawings – done in pen and ink with a bit of watercolor- tug at your heart strings and stay with you long after the final page.
Crown, An Ode to the Fresh Cut, by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James: Crown blew me away on the first read through, with its striking illustrations, its fabulous pacing, and its breathtakingly phenomenal voice. From the very first sentence, Barnes transports his readers right into barbershop culture through vivid details that come to life with brilliant authenticity. It is a celebration of self-confidence and self-worth, a beautiful window into a snippet of a boy’s transformation that enables him to feel recognized and powerful. The voice, the word choice, the rhythm – it is all astonishingly perfect.
On the Night of the Shooting Star, by Amy Hest and illustrated by Jenni Desmond: Everyone struggles with feelings of loneliness, and everyone has looked across a fence– or a classroom or a quad or a playground– and felt a pang of sadness when they realize there is one person– or even a group of people- they would love to connect with. Reaching out isn’t easy, though. In fact, it can be downright hard. But the rewards? Tremendous. Use this book to remind little ones that these feelings of solitude are universal– but we can’t overcome them until we make an effort and get just a little out of our comfort zone.
We’re all Wonders, by RJ Palacio: “I know I can’t change the way I look. But maybe, just maybe, people can change the way they see.” This is Wonder, the phenomenal middle grade novel about a boy with significant facial deformities, for the younger set. As a picture book, it is sensitive, insightful and so, so beautiful. Its message is compelling, forever timely, and one that is imperative to instill in children at a young age. It is an absolute must to get into every child’s hands.
Pandora, by Victoria Turnbull: If you love quiet, gentle stories that will tug just a little at your heart strings and stay with you long after the final page is closed, you must check out Pandora. A meditative story on the power of connection to heal our loneliest days, Pandora is a story to treasure and pull out on days when your children need to be reminded of the power of love.
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, by Beatrice Alemagna: Remember the days when we didn’t worry about screens cracking or batteries dying and the only volume anyone was concerned about was whether kids were properly using their inside voices? If your kids are getting too much screen time, hide the phones, take away the iPads, snuggle up on the couch, and read this book. And then go outside, play hide and seek, and enjoy nature together. Sometimes we all need that reminder to unplug and look up — and this book will help you do just that.
The Book of Mistakes, by Corrina Luyken: What a stunner this is! The Book of Mistakes is a quiet masterpiece illuminating the inherent beauty underlying every misstep we make. So many kids are perfectionists, beginning a project again and again because they can’t get it just right. So how can we, the adults help to nurture their creativity and limit their insecurity? Use this book to show little ones that magnificence can be found in mistakes, even our biggest ones. An “oh no” can easily become an “oh wow!” with just a bit of endurance and a whole lot of heart and imagination. Kids will be amazed at the manner in which Luyken’s smudges and spills are transformed into something extraordinarily special. For our full review of The Book of Mistakes, click here!
Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall: Jabari is quite excited to jump off the diving board at the city pool – if, of course, he can first conquer his fears. In her debut, Cornwall created lovable, memorable characters in both Jabari and his compassionate father who together make a perfect pair. Couple the gentle story with mixed-media illustrations that both complement and accentuate Jabari’s fear and joy, and you’ve got a winning picture book to add to both school and home collections.
Rulers of the Playground, by Joseph Keufler: Have you ever stopped to think about playground politics? Believe it or not, they exist. Both my children and my students absolutely love this book for the manner in which it helps us discuss how to lead with kindness and respect. Couple the foregoing with beautiful — and beautifully diverse — illustrations, and you’ve got an instant hit!
Life on Mars, by Jon Agee: This book, about a boy searching for life on Mars, kills me every single time. I don’t know what it is that makes me love it so much, but it’s just ridiculously fun. For those of you that have been following me for a while, you know my favorite kinds of picture books are those where the text and illustrations tell different stories– and sometimes totally contradict each other. There is something so wondrous about watching kids read and interpret these books, and when they truly understand the interplay between the two different narratives, it’s like witnessing a little piece of magic.
Grandmother Thorn, by Katey Howes and illustrated by Rebecca Hahn: Accepting imperfection is not an easy task for many adults, much less many children. Yet Grandmother Thorn powerfully conveys the message that beauty can be found where we least expect it– or want it– when we learn to let go of our stubborn ways. The story reads as if it’s a time-tested classic or an age-old folk tale, with rich characters, lush prose and not a word out of place, sparking important discussions on the meaning of perfection, friendship and embracing fear.
Garcia and Collette Go Exploring, by Hannah Barnaby and illustrated by Andrew Joiner: If your kids love an adventure, they will adore this picture book about a bunny and a fox who can’t agree on which location is more spectacular – space or the sea. The book’s parallel structure perfectly emphasizes the differences in each character’s journey but also conveys the loneliness each feels without the other. When reunited, I love how the characters practice honesty and are not ashamed to admit the shortfalls of their respective journeys. The compromise the characters come to at the end of the book, and the recognition that a friend at your side makes every journey (even one that wasn’t your first choice) that much better, has us reading this story on repeat.
Life, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brenden Wenzel: What is life? Growth? And what do these concepts even mean? These are challenging questions for any child to answer- and even for some of us adults, too. This book is a new emotive beauty that seeks to answer these questions. The result is a moving meditation celebrating life’s many wonders, both big and small.
Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, by Camille Andros and illustrated by Brianne Farley: Calling all STEM lovers! Or, for that matter, calling any kid who loves science experiments (which basically means all kids, right?) This fun story about a rabbit who needs more space at home to conduct her science experiments teaches kids an important process for experimentation that will grow with them as their own questions and hypotheses become more and more challenging. Andros takes a practical skill and applies it to her story adeptly, with such charm and spunk, that kids won’t even realize how much they are picking up as they read. You can’t beat a book that is equal parts educational and adorable and will have kids laughing and learning at the same time.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, by Oliver Jeffers: Jeffers does it again! In his newest book, Jeffers writes a beautiful ode to his child in which he tells his son all the things he needs to know about the world around him. This book is gorgeous, and as much as the prose is perfection, Jeffers truly outdoes himself with the magical illustrations that showcase his extraordinary talent, not just as a picture book illustrator, but as a fine artist as well.
I Have a Balloon, by Ariel Bernstein and illustrated by Scott Magoon: This book never fails to crack us up, and my big one loves explaining away what happens at the end of the book – his conclusion changes on every read! This is a fabulous book to introduce wants and needs to your kids, and it is a sure fire story to elicit belly laughs from your little ones.