Thursday, January 5, 2012

The 20 Best Picture Books of 2011

1. If I Never Forever Endeavor, by Holly Meade, Candlewick, $15.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages. A baby bird must decide whether to take a chance and try to fly, in this beautiful poem about daring to put yourself out there and risk failure. "If in all of forever, / I never endeavor / to fly, I won't know if I can." Meade writes, as a yellow fledgling timidly looks out from his nest. Then, turning the page, "I won't know if I can't. / I won't know / if or whether / a flight I / might fly, / should I choose / to not ever give it a try." Meade's words settle in your mind and without even thinking, you find yourself reciting the verses silently in your head, and feeling emboldened to get out there and try something new.

2. Migrant, by Maxine Trottier, pictures by Isabelle Arsenault, Groundwood, $18.95, ages 4-7, 40 pages. A Mennonite girl from Mexico dreams of living in one place, as her family migrates north to work as seasonal farm laborers. While they harvest tomatoes in Canada, the girl, Anna, compares what she sees, hears and feels to the way other living things exist. In migrant housing, she's a jack rabbit in an abandoned burrow. When she hears languages she doesn't understand, it's as if "a thousand crickets are all singing a different song." Later as her family prepares to return to Mexico, Anna is a tree, sinking roots into the ground as geese fly south without her. This is a wondrous book about yearning for a place to call your own -- that inspires understanding and casts stereotypes to the wind.

3. Fox and Hen Together and Rooster's Revenge, by Beatrice Rodriguez, Enchanted Lion, ages 4-8, 32 pages. These two followups to last year's The Chicken Thief were equally brilliant, so they appear here together. Both are wordless, yet you barely notice because the humor is so cleverly played out. In the first followup, Hen goes off to fish for dinner and finds herself in an all-out battle to hold onto the fish she's caught. Back home, Fox is left guarding their egg, but aren't foxes notorious for raiding chicken coops? In the second book, Rooster, Bear and Rabbit run aground by a cave, where Rooster finds a big, glowing egg. As you may know, Rooster was jilted by Hen for Fox in the first book, and in book 3, he's still pretty soured by it. Could this be just the thing to mend his wild heart?

4. I Want My Hat Back!, by Jon Klassen, Candlewick, $15.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages. Bear may be gullible, but no one messes with his hat, in this comic gem about two silly and devious animals. When Bear goes in search of his missing hat, he happens upon a rabbit with a hat just like his: it's red and pointy, and sits on the head like a party hat. But Rabbit is indignant and denies that he knows anything about it. And Bear? Well, he's so credulous that he doesn't give the similarities between the hats another thought. It isn't until later, after he continues to ask around about his hat, that Bear meets a deer who jogs his memory (and knocks a bit of sense into him). Now Bear has his hat back, but Rabbit has gone missing, and Bear is acting overly defensive about where he might be. Humor plays out with marvelous subtlety, as two silly animals try to be sly, but are hopelessly transparent.

5. The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China, by Ed Young, Little, Brown and Company, $17.99, ages 4 and up, 48 pages. As a child in Shanghai in the 1930s, illustrator Ed Young insulates himself from war in a house where exploration and the imagination run free, in this stunning autobiographical book. Young, the Caldecott-winning illustrator of Lon Po Po, uses collages, photographs, silhouettes and drawings to wondrous effect: they  capture both the austerity and uncertainty of the times and his feelings of joy and security. On one spread, his art has a haunting quality, and you get the sensation that you're flipping through a very old and fading scrapbook. On another, you see silhouettes of children leaping about the page as if they hadn't a care. Young created a world of wonder and security from the ordinary things around him. A rocking chair became a horse, and an empty pool a place to ride scooters. He made origami houses for silkworms, drew pictures in his textbooks, and roller-skated on the roof of his house. During air raids, he and his family, and the strangers who took refuge with them, huddled in the hallway, the safest part of the house, and told stories that transported them away from the dangers outside. There in the house that his father Baba built, Young knew nothing bad could ever get to him.

6. The Scar, by Charlotte Moundlic, illustrated by Olivier Tallec, Candlewick, $14.99, ages 5 and up, 32 pages. A little boy desperately tries to hold onto traces of his mother just days after her death, in a picture book that tugs at the heart, then makes it glow. Her death leaves him angry and hollow, and he worries he'll forget her. He refuses to open windows in his house for fear her smell will escape. Then he falls and scrapes his knee, and hears words his mother used to say to comfort him. "It's just a scratch, my little man," she'd say. "You're too strong for anything to hurt you." The boy doesn't want the scar to heal because he's afraid her voice will go away. But then his grandma puts her hand on his heart, and tells him his mother is there and will never go away. The words ease his longing just enough to buoy his spirit. He races around the room so he can feel his mom beating hard in his chest, and soon, before he even notices, the scrape has turned into a scar. This is a beautiful book that expresses grief just as it is: raw and inescapable. Then it adds beautiful metaphors and a trickle of humor to show readers that even the worst hurt can heal.

7. Wake Up, Sloth!, paper engineering by Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud, text by Sophie Strady, Roaring Brook, $16.99, ages 4-8, 16 pages. A sloth dozes in a tree as his rainforest home is devoured by iron clawed machines. Will the sloth stir in time to get away? At first, the forest rises serenely, as birds trill back and forth. Then a menacing blade pops up, and animals and people begin to flee. In a few destructive runs, the forest is no more, and the last machine rolls over to the only tree that remains, where the sloth sleeps. "Wake up, sloth!" Strady calls out. "Run away! Run." Did she stir the sloth in time? Did he run? As readers turn the page, only broken branches remain; the land looks lifeless and sterile But wait, who is that? A lone man walks into the eerie quiet at the end of a pull tab with a bag of seeds. Could it be, all is not lost? As readers pull the tab, seedlings spring from the soil, and there in the back, that brilliant, sleepy sloth climbs a branch once again. Incredibly moving, the story rolls like a coaster to a terrible low then brings us racing back up, exhilarated with hope.

8. The Man on the Moon (The Guardians of Childhood), by William Joyce, Atheneum, $17.99, ages 4-8, 56 pages. A boy on the run from a nightmare king hides out on the moon and vows to guard Earth's children from bad dreams, in this magical new series by a treasured author-illustrator. The boy, MiM, has lost his parents and his devoted friend Nightlight in a battle with Pitch, the king, but he's not alone. Lunar robots, mice, worms and moths scoop him up and care for him as he grows. Life with them is sweet and for a time, being watched over is enough. Then one day, MiM peers through a telescope and sees children on Earth and feels the draw of friendship. But the children are far away and the years pass. Soon, MiM is a grown man. As balloons float up from Earth, MiM holds them to his ear, and hears the children's hopes and dreams. Yearning to answer them, he finds five guardians to watch over the children and summons lunar moths to transform his moon into a nightlight to chase away their nightmares.

9. Blowin' in the Wind, by Bob Dylan, illustrated by Jon J. Muth, with CD of Dylan's original recording, Sterling, ages 5-8, 28 pages. A paper airplane blown by the wind becomes a breathtaking metaphor for the role we all play in making a better world, in this stunning visual accompaniment to Dylan's celebrated protest song. Four children of differing skin color are taken by skiff across expanses of water and shown scenes that make them at turns reflective, sad, uncomfortable, and ultimately, ready to face up to a difficult truth: That unjust things occur in the world and it is up to each of them to do something about them. On their journey, a paper plane glides overhead and guides their way to understanding. To read my full review, click here.

10. Ladder to the Moon, Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages. One night a golden ladder unrolls from the moon to Suhaila's window sill and her late grandmother climbs down the rungs to show her how to make the world a little more kind, in this breathtaking book about the connectedness of one life to the next. Grandma Annie leads Suhaila up to the moon, where they drink moon dew from silver teacups, and guide children caught in natural disasters and a woman dying of old age skyward. Here on the moon, their spirits are at rest, and they join together in stories and songs of hope. But many prayers below on Earth still remain unanswered. Can all of those who've found their way to the moon now embolden those on Earth to heal their hurt and hardship? From Soetoro-Ng, sister of President Obama, comes a spellbinding folktale that reminds us that loved ones lost are never far from our hearts.

11. The Great Bear, by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder, Candlewick, $16.99, ages 5-10, 32 pages. Day after day a circus bear is poked and prodded to dance on cue as trumpets, drums and cymbals build anticipation in a crowded square. Then one night, the bear refuses to move. All of the pent-up sadness and anger, all of nights of taunting, overflow and he lets out a roar that sends handlers and villagers scattering for cover. Seeing a flagpole a few paces away, the bear lumbers over, climbs it paw over paw, then at the top, reaches his arms skyward and launches into a mythical place where no one can reach him. Gleeson and Greder tell a triumphant story of a mistreated animal who takes back his dignity and gets free.

12. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, by Jerry Pinkney, Little, Brown and Company, $16.99, ages 4 and up, 40 pages. A mischievous chipmunk sets sail in a robin's nest across the night sky, only to tumble off his boat to Earth and find comfort on the downy back of a swan, in this magical interpretation of the beloved lullaby, "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Pinkney reimagines this tender song as an atmospheric story about a young animal working through his anxiety of going to sleep. As the chipmunk embarks on his journey to slumber, which he unavoidably must travel alone, he is watched over by nature and finds reassurance in its wild embrace.

13. Bee & Bird, written and illustrated by Craig Frazier, Roaring Brook Press, $16.99, ages 2-6, 40 pages. A bee and bird travel on an epic journey from tree and truck to boat and beehive, in this wordless book of exploration. Saturated colors and inventive perspectives give this simple premise the feeling of high adventure. View the book trailer below!

14. This Baby, by Kate Banks, pictures by Gabi Swiatkowska, Frances Foster Books, $16.99, ages 3-6, 40 pages. A girl flutters about her mother asking questions about her unborn sibling, in this lyrical picture book that bubbles with the excitement of a new life. The girl wants answers that Mama can't yet give: Will the baby like stars, peek-a-boo, me? Mama listens patiently, knitting row after row of baby clothes. Even though she knows the answers will come in time, she doesn't quiet her daughter, but lets her say everything she needs to say. Swiatkowska's paintings beautifully capture the girl's anticipation and restlessness, while Banks' poem swirls around the page with a wonderful cadence. "This baby, a tiny bud of life nestled in a womb, kept and coveted like a tightly held secret," the poem reads, as the girl rests her head on Mama's tummy. "Will this baby like red boots? Knit, Mama, knit / row after row. / The rain is tapping. / Soon. / We'll know."

15. The Conductor, by Laetitia Devernay, Chronicle, 2011, $18.95, ages 5-8, 72 pages. A maestro stands on the top of a tree and conducts the leaves into a melody of flying birds, in this wordless masterpiece by an award-winning French artist. When the conductor lifts his wand, clusters of leaves flap like wings and sail off trees, leaving cookie-cutter shapes of themselves behind. Devernay creates music from silence with lyrical illustrations. Read a full review here.

16. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade, by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, ages 4 and up, 40 pages. A man with a knack for making things move turns the concept of marionettes upside down and creates one of the greatest parades on Earth. Combining photos of homemade toys, buttons and more with whimsical paintings, Sweet delivers a picture-perfect tribute to Tony Sarg, the puppeteer behind Macy's balloons. Read a full review here.

17. Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith, Roaring Brook Press, $16.99, ages 5 and up, 32 pages. As Grandpa Green's memory fades, his grandson clomps happily through a garden where bushes are clipped into fantastical shapes, from giant carrots to exploding canons -- each preserving the most meaningful moments of his great-grandfather's life. Read a full review here.

18. Goodnight iPad, by Ann Droyd (David Milgrim), Blue Rider Press, $14.95, all ages, 30 pages. A grandmother solves her family's late-night obsession with gadgets by hurling all of their devices out the window, in this hysterical parody of Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, the best twist yet of this beloved classic. Read a full review here.

19. Squish Rabbit, by Katherine Battersby, Viking, 2011, $12.99, ages 2 and up, 40 pages. A little bunny struggles to be noticed in a world much bigger than him, in this adorable debut. Squish is tired of being overlooked and stepped on, and he longs for someone to play with. So he sews himself a friend and tries to befriend cherries on a tree. But none of these things can play back. Then, just as he loses hope, a friend bounds into his life and accepts him just as he is. Read a full review here.

20. The Little Red Pen, by Susan Stevens Crummel, illustrated by Janet Stevens, Harcourt, $16.99, ages 6-12, 56 pages. An arsenal of desk supplies rescue a correction pen from the dreaded "Pit of No Return," just in time to correct a pile of papers and save the world, in this delightful spin on Little Red Hen. Read a full review here.

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