Inside: It’s here, our best picture books of the year post! These are the books we found magical and meaningful this year, and we hope you all love them as much as we do. Check out the best picture books of 2019, here!
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Happily Ever Elephants’ Best Picture Books of 2019!
Some days, I can barely maneuver around my office because books are stacked all over the floor.
My desk, too, is piled high, the trunk of my car is packed with boxes, and my bookshelves at home are stuffed so full that the stacks in front of those shelves are beginning to compete with the city of Miami skyline in scope and grandeur.
Being a librarian and a book blogger has definite moments of insanity — days where I feel there are books coming out of my ears and I’m drowning in stories. But it is, without a doubt, the most phenomenal problem to have. I feel SO lucky to be surrounded by remarkable words and breathtaking illustrations at every moment!
How Do We Select the Best Picture Books of the Year?
It is never easy to compile a list of our favorite books of the year, especially when so many incredible stories are published on an annual basis. Nevertheless, this is something I’m frequently asked for, and it has become great fun to put together our list each December (to see our list of Best Picture Books from 2018 click here, and for the Best Picture Books from 2017, click here!)
Many of you ask the same question in connection with our yearly list:
What makes a book become a Happily Ever Elephants favorite?
We have two simple criteria: the book must be both magical and meaningful.
Magical books are those stories that have, in one way or another, wholly captivated my boys or my students. Through pitch perfect text and/or fabulous illustrations, these books have filled the children in my life with wonder, inspired awe and curiosity, or elicited those great big belly laughs that make my book-loving heart explode with joy.
Meaningful books are those stories that help kids better understand themselves and their worlds. Whether helping children navigate their big emotions or teaching them about different cultures or prominent issues in society, these books empower our children with confidence, nurture empathy, and help kids cultivate a strong sense of self and social awareness. They are also phenomenal tools for parents to use to spark important (and often challenging!) conversations with kids.
When looking at this list, please keep in mind that book reviews are totally subjective! What one person loves, another may hate, what one finds hilarious, another may find totally blah. The books on our list are the ones that resonated in our house and in my school library — the ones that touched our hearts or surprised us with fabulous twists or inspired us to think bigger and deeper.
These are the books that helped us witness the extraordinary magic of storytelling.
Happy reading, friends! We hope you find these stories as magical and meaningful as we do!
The Best Picture Books this Year
Lubna and Pebble, by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus: Lubna’s best friend and confidante is a small pebble, found the night she landed in the World of Tents with her father. A little boy arrives to the World of Tents shortly after Lubna, lost and cold. Lubna introduces the boy to Pebble, and the two become friends in their new, uncertain world. When Lubna learns she and her father have found a real home and will be leaving the World of Tents, Lubna knows she has the most perfect gift to leave with the boy. Stunning, poignant, and moving, this has become an all time favorite book. For our full review of Lubna and Pebble, click here!
My Heart, by Corinna Luyken: Each page in this gorgeous story is a metaphor for the heart’s various manifestations. As a diverse group of kids journey through numerous emotions, they learn the heart can be a puddle or a slide or a window opened wide. The children are happy at times and scared at others, remorseful on some pages and joyful on others. When faced with a tough emotion, they find companionship in family and friends to help them through. Overall, they learn one very important notion: whether their hearts are open or closed, tiny or large, each and every child has the freedom to decide how he or she feels at a particular time. For our full review of My Heart, click here!
Maybe, by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Gabriella Barouch: This is a story about the glorious possibilities that lie in each and every one of us. It recognizes our uniqueness and touches on all of the exhilarating possibilities that exist if we reach out and harness our own potential. We all have an abundance of gifts within us that, if taken advantage of, can offer something miraculous to others. Whether we are builders, dreamers, creators, inventors, entertainers or humans meant to flood the world with goodness, we can change the world if we do all things with love. From its perfect message to its luminous (and breathtaking) illustrations, to the warmth and tenderness that spill from each exquisite page, this story inspires more awe each and every time we read it. For our full review of Maybe, click here!
What is Given from the Heart, by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by April Harrison: James Otis and his Mama don’t have much, but they have their health and strength, so Mama believes they are blessed. One Sunday, their reverend makes an announcement that a family new to their church has lost everything in a fire, and they will be collecting items to place in a Love Box to help this family in their time of need. James Otis wonders hard – what can he give this family that will be meaningful, especially when he has so little himself? He eventually comes up with an idea from the heart, but will it be enough? Powerful and incredibly touching — this one got a round of applause from each elementary class I read it to this year. *Note this book does speak of death, as James Otis lost his father; thus, it may not be appropriate for (or may need to be modified when reading aloud) with young children. For our full review of What is Given from the Heart, click here!
The Neighbors, by Einat Tsarfati: A girl climbs the stairs to her seventh story home, and with each apartment she passes along the way, she imagines what is going on behind the closed door. Thieves? Tigers? Circus performers? Her own apartment is just sooo boring – unless boredom is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, when we see certain things so frequently, it becomes challenging to remember that there may be magic— oh, so much magic! — hiding just below the surface. Or perhaps some things are actually truly hidden from us, secrets kept until we are just a tiny bit older? Whatever you think, however you feel, The Neighbors has one ending you won’t see coming! For our full review of The Neighbors, click here!
All the Ways to be Smart, by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys: A diverse group of children celebrate all the ways in which they are all uniquely smart. From readers to builders, creators to healers, this book showcases all of the various ways children display their own unique forms of intelligence. Intelligence manifests itself so differently in all of our little ones, and every child’s smarts — whether in the form of creativity, ingenuity, or sensitivity — should not just be recognized, but honored, celebrated, and applauded, too! For our full review of All the Ways to be Smart, click here!
Maybe Tomorrow?, by Charlotte Agell and illustrated by Ana Ramirez Gonzalez: Elba, a pink hippo, drags around a great big block, greatly limiting her potential. Norris happily dances wherever he goes, surrounded by a cloud of butterflies. Norris tries to convince Elba to join him on his adventures, but the block often gets in Elba’s way. Norris never gives up though, patiently and compassionately cajoling Elba to join him, all the while following her lead and helping her manage her block. Little by little, Elba’s block becomes smaller and her burden is lifted. This is, without a doubt, one of the most perfect books about grief I have ever read. For our full review of Maybe Tomorrow?, click here!
Be a Maker, by Katey Howes and illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic: The book begins with a simple query: “Ask yourself this question in the morning when you wake: / in a world of possibilities, today, what will you make?” It then brilliantly delves into all of the things you can make in a day— from making towers and telescopes and spaceships to making friends, plans and gifts, from making pledges to help others to making a difference in the community. Though this story is perfect for STEM lovers as it focuses on ingenuity and innovation, it is so much more than that. In a remarkable twist, it also speaks to the broader notion of using the things you make to make a positive impact on the world. For our full review of Be a Maker, click here!
A Boy Like You, by Frank Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren: This fabulous book walks kids through all of the things that make a boy unique, and it doesn’t shy away from conveying to children that there is more to being a boy than sports, putting on a hard exterior, and being tough or daring. Instead, it beautifully describes all of the ways a boy can be brave and courageous, which includes letting his tears flow, raising his hand, and asking for help when he needs it. This book elegantly and perfectly combats gender stereotypes, allowing all readers to see that being a boy has many different and awesome meanings other than the ones that first come to mind. For our full review of A Boy Like You, click here, and for our amazing list of the best books for boys, click here!
Just Because, by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault: It’s time for bed, but one little girl is so full of questions, there is just no way she’s going to sleep. Why is the sky blue? What happened to the dinosaurs? Why, what, why, what? There were so many books about curious children this year, and while they were all phenomenal, the combo of the father’s creative answers and the whimsical artwork made this one pure magic in our eyes. If your kids won’t settle for a “just because” answer, this is the book for you!
Mary Wears What She Wants, by Keith Negley: This fabulous book is inspired by Mary Edwards Walker, a trailblazing doctor who rebelled against the traditional clothing typically worn by women and girls in the 1800s. Why? Because girls were supposed to wear dresses, and only boys could wear pants. But pants were more comfortable – they allowed for more freedom and movement. So what did Mary do? Supported by her parents, she had a novel idea — she would wear whatever she wanted! We love the way this fabulous story conveys that our single, individual voices have so much power to make positive change and can even challenge restrictive societal norms. For our full review of Mary Wears What She Wants, click here!
I’m Worried, by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi: Poor Potato, he is so worried about everything! How do you possibly prepare for the future when something bad might happen? Potato thinks his friends will make him feel better, but his pals can’t promise that nothing bad will ever happen. They do, however, remind Potato that even when they have experienced tough things, they always make it through to the other side — and have some fun along the way. This book — and the entire I AM series, is a total gem! For our full review of I’m Worried, click here!
Rabbit and the Motorbike, by Kate Hoefler and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby: Ohhhhh man, did this one kick me in my gut! If you are looking for a book to share with your kids about taking risks after loss, living your own story, and finding acceptance after grief, this book about a rabbit who is not sure he will ever be brave enough for his own adventures after losing a friend will speak to you deeply. It’s tender, emotional, and so authentic, speaking directly to grief and the fear of living our own lives after standing in the shadows of someone else’s for so long. Simply put: stunning.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, by Ibtihaj Muhammed, S. K. Ali and illustrated Hatem Aly: At the beginning of a new school year, Faizah knows it’s going to be a special one. After all, the first day of school means its Faizah’s big sister’s first day of hijab. Her sister chooses a hijab of luxurious blue, but Faizah quickly learns that not everyone views the hijab as beautifully as she does. This extraordinary book shows children how to stand strong in the face of bullying, and that family bonds — especially those shared between sisters — are unbreakable. We love this breathtaking story — it is a necessary and important mirror book for some children and a powerful window book for others.
Saturday, by Oge Mora: With tenderness, humor and gorgeous collaged artwork, this is the story of a mother and daughter who set out to spend a special day together, only to have it all turned upside down. Mother and daughter have an entire day planned, but when their new hairdos, storytime date and an afternoon picnic all get ruined, Mom is on the brink of despair. Leave it to the child, with warmth and a healthy dose of optimism, to remind Mom that being together is all that matters and their Saturday dates are always a gift even if they don’t go according to plan. Between the mother-daughter relationship, the child’s resilience and the exquisite illustrations, this one is an absolute gem!
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal: What a treasure of a book! This beauty uses fry bread, a staple food among many tribes around the country, to describe family, community and even history. Fry Bread is a celebratory ode to tradition, while simultaneously depicting the important role this food continues to have as a means to promote unity among Native Americans. Beautiful prose, beautiful illustrations, and beautiful sentiment abound in this story that has a significant place on childrens’ bookshelves around the country!
Truman, by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins: Truman the tiny tortoise lives with his best friend Sarah. One day, Sarah straps on her backpack, leaves their home, and boards the number eleven bus for school! Truman is distraught, and after waiting for what seems like forever for Sarah’s return, he eventually can wait no longer. Truman sets off on a journey to find her, even though that journey seems downright impossible for a tiny tortoise. We simply adore this heartwarming book that beautifully conveys how the devotion we have for those we love most can help us embark on courageous feats we never knew we were brave enough to undertake.
Here and Now, by Julia Denos and illustrated by E.B. Goodale: Oh my goodness, how I love this beauty! This stunning read encourages children (and, let’s be honest — adults, too!) to stop and truly contemplate where they are and what is happening around them. This beautiful lesson in mindfulness inspires kids to think about the bed they may be sitting on, the soft blanket touching their face, the warmth of a caregiver snuggled next to them, the sound of the voice reading to them. It is a reminder to slow down, an ode to connection, and a testament to the power of being wholly engaged in the present moment. An absolute treasure that I am so thrilled to add to our bookshelves both at home and school!
Ella May Does it Her Way, by Mick Jackson and illustrated by Andrea Stegmaier: This book made me laugh out loud the first time I read it with not one child around me! Ella May is a little girl with one strong head on her shoulders. She wants to do things her way, even if others think she does things a bit — funny. One day Ella decides to do everything backwards just because… from reading her book to walking up the stairs to walking down the street. And because it makes it easier to chat, Ella’s mom starts walking backwards with her. Before you know it, half the town is walking backwards, all because of Ella May. When will it end? And what will Ella do next? We love the story of this unique child who doesn’t let anyone stop her from doing what she wants!
Where Are You From, by Yamile Saied Mendez and illustrated by Jaime Kim: This book is exquisite! A little girl of color is continuously asked a question by her peers. “Where are you from?” Though it should have a simple answer, the girl always struggles to reply. One day, she seeks enlightenment from her loving Abuelo, and she gets the most beautiful, thorough answer she could have imagined. Abuelo takes her on a journey under water and through the fields, evoking heritage, family bonds, and the love that exists from generation to generation, carrying us through challenges and giving us answers to age-old questions about self-identify and home. An absolutely beautiful multicultural picture book!
The Scarecrow, by Beth Ferry and illustrated by The Fan Brothers: Oh man. This book is powerful, emotional, and a must have for your shelves! All the animals know that Scarecrow is not something to mess around with. But one day, when a a scared little crow falls from the sky, Scarecrow surprises everyone with his tender actions. This is a stunning exploration of affection and friendship that reminds us of how fulfilling it is to help others. Absolutely in love with this one!
Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!, by Cori Doerrfeld: Friendship comes with its ups and downs, of course. But one of the hardest parts of finding a best friend is having to say goodbye to that friend. This beautiful story shows two friends saying goodbye and hello to various things — goodbye to snowmen is hello to jumping in puddles, goodbye to the sun is hello to the stars — and then shows the difficulty inherent in saying goodbye to a friend when she has to move away. Sensitive, gentle and profound, Doerrfeld conveys to readers that even the most difficult goodbyes open us up to brilliant new hellos — and though it may take time to heal, a new day with many new hellos is always on the horizon. For our full review of Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend! click here!
My Grandma and Me, by Mina Javaherbin and illustrated by Lindsey Yankey: In this exquisite true story of a girl and her grandmother in Iran, it becomes readily apparent that no matter where you live or what religion you practice, the love between a grandparent and grandchild — and the adoration children feel for their grandparents — is universal. Here, a young girl and her grandma are never far apart. Whether it’s going to the mosque, visiting neighbors, or getting lost in grandma’s chadors, the girl’s memories of growing up with her grandma are filled with a depth, tenderness and emotional resonance that make this book a treasure for children and grandparents in every corner of the world. For our full review, click here!
Just in Case You Want to Fly, by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Christian Robinson: The second I saw the cover of this book, I knew it would be a winner. I have forever adored Fogliano’s whimsical and pitch-perfect writing. Her new story celebrates the beauty of trying new things, boldly going out into the world, and taking off on magical adventures. It is totally enchanting, and we especially love the subtle manner in which it encourages children to spread their wings while also reminding them their loved ones will always be there to catch them should they need it. With a diverse cast of characters, vibrant illustrations, and lyrical text, we fell head over heels for this beauty!
Underwear!, by Jenn Harney: Oh my goodness, I laughed so many times reading this book, and my boys thought it was absolutely hilarious. I love stories that play around with language, and this zany and fabulous conversation between a dad and his bear cub will have you giggling from start to finish — and learn homonyms and conjunctions along the way. If you love the old “Who’s on First” comedy routine, this one will quickly become a family favorite. It’s humor, amazing wordplay and adorable relationship between a father and cub make this one a winner! Admittedly, it may not be as meaningful as some of the other books on this list, but it was so darn fun, I couldn’t not include it here!