Looking for the best picture books of 2020? Here are our favorites from a year that was totally outside the box!
The Best Picture Books of 2020 — Our Subjective Picks!
What . A. Year.
One thing is for certain: 2020 will go down as a year none of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams.
From Covid-19 plaguing the country to virtual school to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to the insane election and aftermath, this was a year that left many of us feeling anxious, exhausted, and questioning so much about this world of ours.
Leave it to stories to help ground and comfort my family! When life feels off-kilter, the one thing that has forever helped center me is a good book – and this is becoming true for my kids, too. And this year, despite the chaos all around us, we saw some incredible stories.
Our Favorite Picture Books of the Year.
When looking at our list of favorite picture books from 2020, remember that book reviews are totally subjective! What I love, another blogger may hate. What my family finds meaningful may not resonate with another. The books on this list are the ones that wowed my family and my students — the ones that moved us, spoke to our hearts, reflected on current challenges in our country, or inspired us to think bigger and deeper.
THESE ARE THE BOOKS THAT HELPED US WITNESS THE EXTRAORDINARY MAGIC OF STORYTELLING.
We hope you find these books as magical and meaningful as we do! Happy reading, friends!
An Ordinary Day, by Elana K. Arnold and illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic: Since the day I picked up this incredible book, it’s stuck with me and left an indelible mark on my heart. This is the story of one neighborhood, two houses, and two visitors who arrive to each house. Though the houses look similarly enough on the outside, what happens on the inside of each home at this particular moment in time is both ordinary and extraordinary — and extraordinarily different. This book is stunning, reminding each of us that we never know what happens behind closed doors, and even on a street where life seems the same for everyone who inhabits it, things may be very, very different under each roof. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Paper Kingdom, by Helena Ku Rhee and illustrated by Pascal Campion: This is the gorgeous story of a young boy named Daniel whose parents work in an office building as night janitors. One night Daniel must go with his parents to work because his babysitter is unable to watch him. Daniel is frustrated when he arrives, sneezing and confused and bothered by the mess his parents have to clean up. But when his parents take him on an adventure through the “Paper Kingdom,” complete with dragons and kings and thrones, Daniel’s imagination runs wild right along with that of his mom and dad. And one day, Daniel decides, he may become the ruler of the Paper Kingdom himself, with his own chair that reaches the sky. Tender, touching, and a wonderful Own Voices book that we fell in love with on the very first read! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
If You Come to Earth, by Sophie Blackall: This book is a work of art layered with a pitch perfect message of inclusiveness, equality and global citizenship, one that asks us to take care of our planet… and each other, too. Written from one little boy to an alien- yes, you read that right! – this is a child’s description of what the alien will find when he comes to Earth, from different families to different homes to different people, all of whom must learn to live harmoniously as one. Even with its powerful message, the book is full of humor and lightness yet still packs a tender punch. Why? Because even aliens must learn that no matter where or how we live, what we look like or who we live with, we are all inextricably intertwined on one single, precious planet. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
My Best Friend, by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki: This may be the most precious, authentic children’s book ever. We are so in love with this delightful story that celebrates new friendships — those times you meet someone and instantly “click,” knowing it’s the beginning of a long, joyful relationship. Whether laughing at each other when playing make believe, drawing each other encircled by hearts, or continuing to love one another even though your favorite ice creams are different, this book, with its vintage feel and glorious illustrations, is simply magical. Tender, emotional, and written in perfect kid-speak, this one is a must for every bookshelf. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
All Because You Matter, by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier: This is an outstandingly beautiful love letter to Black and Brown children, one that belongs in homes and schools around the world. ALL children should read this book, one that empowers kids everywhere to know and recognize their worth. Through stunning collaged illustrations and lyrical text, readers journey through first steps and first struggles while always being reminded that they matter, now and always. This beautiful book celebrates Black joy and links us all through shared experiences and emotions. This is the kind of book that helps us begin to eradicate stigma, challenge harmful stereotypes, and highlight important commonalities among all people, something we should strive for every single day as parents. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Evelyn Del Rey is Moving Away, by Meg Medina and illustrated by Sonia Sanchez: Evelyn and Daniela are best friends. Even cooler? They live in twin apartments across the street from one another. But then the day comes that Evelyn, her mami and her papi are moving away, and the two girls must say goodbye. This is such a tender book and its text and illustrations are spot on. Every page resonates, and readers can feel the beauty of the girls’ friendship, the anticipation of the move, the sadness that comes with saying farewell and the hope inherent in promises to keep in touch. A perfect book for any child who is moving! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Federico and the Wolf, by Rebecca Gomez and illustrated by Elisa Chavarri: We love fractured fairy tales over here- not only are they so much fun to read for kids who are already familiar with the traditional fairy tales, but they always feature clever and whip smart characters who showcase great courage and creativity to outsmart their evil opponents! Here, instead of Little Red, we have a little boy, Federico, in his red hoodie, traveling on his bike on his way to see Abuelo. But, oh no! El lobo is awfully sneaky! Luckily, Federico has a spicy surprise in his bike basket to keep this troublesome wolf at bay. With vibrant art, an awesome infusion of Spanish words, and a clever storyline, you will love this new tale! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Lalis Feather, by Farhana Zia and illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman: Lali finds a simple feather in the field and tries to return it to its rightful owner. Yet all the birds she speaks with reject that feather- it’s not big enough, beautiful enough, or powerful enough. So Lali takes matters into her own hands, showing everyone around her just how special this simple little feather is… and inviting others to recognize it’s awesome magic as well. The vibrant illustrations and charming text make this feel as if it’s an old Indian fold tale given a fresh and modern spin. It’s simply wonderful, and one I’ve shared with my kids again and again! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
I Talk Like a River, by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith: What a tremendously powerful book to convey that some children have words that get stuck in the back of their mouths, words that don’t come out the way they want them to. This story centers around a young boy who stutters and his loving father who uses the river to help the boy find his voice. Just as the river ebbs and flows, so, too, does the child’s voice. This important story pulls children into the world of those with dysfluency, written by the author’s own personal experiences. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
I am Every Good Thing, by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James: This is everything a kids book should be. Empowering. Affirming. An ode to childhood confidence, courage and imagination. The text is creative and lively, with sentences that stop you in your tracks and beg to be read again. The illustrations are luminous, showing Black boys of every shade under the sun achieving and playing and celebrating and going through their days with respect and love. Friends, this is a must-read. It is a powerful “mirror” book for Black boys around the world, a tremendously important “window” book for all other children, and a story to remind each and every one of us that Black Lives Matter, they always have, and they always will. What a remarkable masterpiece by this indomitable duo. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Your Name is a Song, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Luisa Uribe: This one is for all those children who feel upset or anxious when people mispronounce their unique names. It is also for everyone who has mispronounced someone’s name, shrugged it off with a casual “I’m so bad with names!” or, even worse, made no effort to correct their mistake. This beautiful story is a perfect, lyrical celebration of diversity. So much of our identities are wrapped up into our names, and when a new friend or teacher mispronounces that name, it can be crushing. This book beautifully encapsulates that just as every person is worthy of respect and honor, so, too, are our names. Every name has a story, no matter how common or unique it is, and each is worthy of music, magic and celebration. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Swashby and the Sea, by Beth Ferry and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal: Captain Swashby loves his life of solitude and saltiness by the sea, so when a little girl arrives with her grandma and a whole bunch of ruckus in the empty house next door, Swashby just wants them to go away! Swashby takes to leaving notes for his neighbor in the sand, but somehow, the sea always messes up the messages he tries to get across. Does the sea know what Swashby needs more than Swashby himself? This book is simply darling, and the balance between Swashby’s grumpiness and the child’s unabashed joy is perfection. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration, by Samara Cole Doyon and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita: Oh, how I love this book! This beautiful and poignant story is told by a variety of narrators who discover their own beauty as they witness the everyday wonders around them. It is both a celebration of the skin you’re in as well as community, family and play, told in rich poetry I fell in love with in an instant. As if the gorgeous prose isn’t enough, the illustrations make this one a standout, depicting an array of kids of all ages and abilities, instantly embracing every child within its warm pages. No matter what your children look like, you will adore this vibrant story, reminding us that beauty is all around — and if you look closely enough, you’ll find that beauty within you, too. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Nothing in Common, by Kate Hoefler and illustrated by Corinna Luyken: This one drew me in from the very first page! I love the notion that shared experiences can bring people together and bridge divides among people who believe they have nothing in common, and this sweet story of two children who help an old man find his lost dog is about just that. Though two neighborhood kids see each other every day, they never wave or speak. After all, they have absolutely nothing in common! But when the two are the only ones who realize they may be able to help someone in need, boundaries and mountains are crossed as the two connect through compassion and a common goal. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Me and Mama, by Cozbi A. Cabrera: This celebration of a mother-daughter relationship is so touching and so universal, which made me fall head over heels for this gentle and loving story! On a rainy day at home, one little girl wants to be everywhere her mama is, and the child’s exuberance and love for her mother are palpable on every page. From brushing teeth to picking cups to walking in the rain, the child finds her mom in every move she makes, and the bond between parent and child simply sings. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
That’s Life, by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld: This is a super fun and super timely story! This witty book reminds us that life is MESSY. It’s unpredictable, it’s got ups and downs, and we definitely don’t know where it is going to take us each day. Yet, despite all of this chaos, life is a journey, and there is beauty to be found in each and every day. The text’s wit and wisdom are perfectly paired with the lively illustrations, and it’s just an all around winner to add to your collections. The next time you want to throw your hands up and tell your kiddo “that’s life” for lack of any better response to their frustrations, have no fear… you now have the perfect tool to help you tackle a tough conversation. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Truth About Dragons, by Jaime Zollars: We were absolutely mesmerized by this book about one little girl embarking on a new adventure! Perfect for back to school, this is the story of a child who tentatively approaches a castle full of roaring and daunting dragons. But as the girl gets closer and closer, she notices that maybe the dragons aren’t as scary as she thought. After all, some have mismatched socks and others are playing tambourines… and some are coloring quietly alone. With every page turn, a dragon turns into a child, and the reader quickly comes to realizes that everyone encounters their own fears and nerves as school begins. While the story is unique and oh-so-clever, the intricate illustrations blew us away. An absolutely wonderful debut! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Old Truck, by Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey: I love books that creatively come full circle, and this one does just that! One old truck works hard on a farm and is the center of a young girls imagination. But as the truck gets older and older, it can no longer do the things it used to. Yet – the truck isn’t the only thing growing older. The young girl ages, too, and as she does, she begins her own work — and own family — on the farm. As the girl restores the farm around and celebrates her accomplishments, she also finds a way to breath new life into the old truck. Using 250 handmade stamps to create the artwork in the book, this quiet beauty is destined to become a classic! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
In a Jar, by Deborah Marcero: Be still my heart! This is another enchanting and tender book about moving that I fell in love with! Llewellyn the rabbit is a collector, and he gathers so many things inside little jars. When Llewyellyn meets Evelyn, the two begin to collect together, keeping everything from rainbows to the soound of the wind before snow falls. But soon Evelyn has to break some bad news — she is moving. Will the two be able to continue their friendship long distance — and capture the essence of their bond in a jar? This book is pure magic. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart, by Zetta Elliott and illustrated by Noa Denmon: WOW. This book left me moved and speechless. For those of you with elementary and middle school kids at home, this is a must. This book, which takes readers on a journey through one child’s days and experiences as a Black boy, is relevant, timely, and unbelievably powerful. It is an astonishing exploration of the boy’s emotions throughout a period of time, from joy to anger to pride, with gripping prose matched by illustrations that depict children in various situations — playing ball, watching news about a police shooting, and marching at a protest. This book moved me so deeply, I can not recommend it highly enough! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!