Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Favorite 30 (Fictional) Picture Books of 2014 (Alphabetical by Title)

The Adventures of Beekle:  The Unimaginary Friend, written and illustrated by Dan Santat.  This magical and highly imaginative charmer offers illustrations packed with lovely and humorous details that readers will enjoy exploring.  The story feels inspired by Miyazaki, yet it is its own unique self.  The tale begins with the little marshmallow-like (with legs and friendly waving hands) creature being born on the island where imaginary friends wait to be beamed up to the real world, paired with children.  But no kid dreams up this poor little guy.  Instead of giving up and waiting around, he takes matters into his own hands and travels "through unknown waters" to the real world, one that perplexes the critter.  Santat then gives us human society through the protagonist's eyes, and he gives us moments that are both sad and satirical.  Will Beekle ever find a child who will embrace him as an "imaginary friend"?   Santat has illustrated many fun books for children, but this might be his finest achievement yet as a picture book artist.  Funny, poignant, rich in detail, a real keeper.

The Baby Tree, written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.  Blackall's distinct, gorgeous illustrations please the eye in this story of a boy wanting to know where babies come from, and receiving a bunch of bizarre answers that puzzle him more than enlighten.  After his parents tell him a "new baby is coming," the young protagonist first asks for more cereal, but then after a second helping of cocopops searches for an answer to his baby-related query.  His sister says they come from a Baby Tree, and we see him imagine a tree with babies instead of leaves (the cover image).  Grandpa says there's a stork involved, the mailman says they pop out of eggs (causing the boy to see a baby hatching out of an egg in a nest).  Finally his parents give him a proper scientific explanation, one that gives him confidence to set Grandpa straight.  Lovely and whimsical.

A Bed for Kitty, written and illustrated by Yasmine Surovec.  This uproarious follow-up to I See Kitty tickles the funny bone as it captures a young girl named Chloe's attempts to convince her pet kitten to sleep in a newly purchased customized cat bed.  The bold striking graphics amuse as they show the cat sleeping everywhere but on the bed:  on the TV, Mom's favorite sweater, in the sink, and even in Chloe's sock drawer!  I love the little humorous touches throughout (the rejected bed at one point is covered with cobwebs).  What is the solution?  Chloe comes up with a cozy one.  The story is simple, but the comical illustrations contain many details that invite re-visits.

Blizzard, written and illustrated by John Rocco.  This triumphant look at a little boy who helps his family and neighborhood out during a huge snowstorm proves to be a worthy follow-up to Rocco's lovely Caldecott Honor title Blackout.  I remember the very blizzard Rocco talks about here, and the book transports me back to 1978 when the hills of snow towered over us kids.  After the titular event occurs, leaving everyone snowed in (and with dwindling food and supplies) the resilient boy (who would be great friends with Brave Irene) takes it on himself to travel by foot to help everybody.  I love how uses snow to spell out the changing days of the week (accumulated snow, tracks in the snow).  Touches of humor are a bonus, and despite the fact that the beautifully rendered scenes evoke an icy cold feel, the warmth of the story shines through.  Perfect for a wintry story time.

The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak.  Oh my word this is silly fun!  As promised, no illustrations appear in Novak's meta romp that ends up playing a wicked little trick on the grown-ups reading it to their little ones.  The book starts off on a modest note, employing a simple black font and several blank pages, as Novak questions the whole notion of a book with no pictures.  But then we find out:  there are benefits.  Silly benefits!  The book can make the grown-up reading it out loud say ridiculous things.  The font gets bigger and colorful as goofy words start taking over the book.  It all leads to an amazing spread where the hilarious words such as OOOOOmph! EEEEEmph! and AHEE! AHEE! AHEE! fill the pages.  This would make a good double feature with Antoinette Portis' celebration of goofy words, Froodle.

Construction, written by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock.  This follow-up to Roadwork and Demolition invites audience participation as construction workers and machines noisily team up to create something very cool.  It's fun to periodically ask the children "what are they making?" and hear the answers they offer.  This follows the same formula as the first two books:  each spread shows a machine at work (Lovelock's vibrant illustrations fill the page) and a staccato rhyme captures the sound of the process:  "Hoist the wood.  Hoist the wood.  Chain and hook and strap.  Swing it round, then lower it down.  THONK! CLONK! CLAP!"  The rhymes invite clapping and movement, and kids love shouting the sound effects with you.  I won't spoil the ending's surprise:  but it's one that brings big smiles from all.

Dangerous!, written and illustrated by Tim Warnes.  There are many words to describe this vocabulary-building romp, a British import:  lively, funny, touching, suspenseful.  A word-loving mole enjoys creating labels and sticking them on everything he sees:  mushrooms, flint, ladybug, even poop!  (Kids go ewwww on the latter and then guffaw.)  One day he comes across a bizarre green object that has him churning out label after label:  lumpy, chunky, muddy, ribbed, peculiar, whopping, and many others.  Turns out to be a crocodile and this terrifies the mole.  Instead of snacking on our hero, the croc starts munching all the labels and this ticks off the mole, leading to a confrontation that results in a delightful, satisfying twist.  A charmer.

Digger Dog, written by William Bee, illustrated by Cecilia Johansson.  Wow, do Johansson's illustrations, with their mix of polka-dots and construction vehicles, pop off the page.  This book practically begs to be read to large groups of kids bound to find Digger Dog's quest for a ginormous bone enormously entertaining.  The canine hero loves to sniff for and uncover bones.  One day he smells something good under the ground.  An ordinary shovel cannot reach what is bound to be a tasty treat ("the ground is too hard/and the bone is too deep").  So Digger Dog has to employ a digger to help him, but the construction vehicle is too small, so he needs to use a bigger one and so on and so on.  Cleverly rendered flaps capture the enormity of the situation, leading to a surprise ending that will have young readers shouting with joy:  Keep Digging Digger Dog!!!!

Draw!, illustrated by Raúl Colón.  This visually striking and playful wordless book begins with a boy sitting in his room, drawing a picture of himself walking, easel, pencils, and sketchbook in hand, across an African landscape.  He then befriends a realistically rendered elephant who befriends him, poses for him, and then serves as a guide through this wondrous natural world.  A lovely image shows the elephant appreciating the boy's impressive work, and then giving him a piggyback ride to meet and draw the other animals.  What I love about the book is the illustrator's charming use of perspective--we are looking over the boy's shoulder at his pencil drawings, and we can also enjoy the zebras catching the child's artistic eye.  Another spread shows the budding artist trying to capture the motion of running giraffes, and outrunning a charging rhino (so far my favorite cover image this year).  Another spread shows the boy far away sitting in a tree while we are up close to lions, or sitting on the elephant's back while drawing another creature.  The book ends with a charming coda: he hugs the elephant goodbye (such a moving image), and then we find out what the drawings are for on the final spread.  This highly personal work from Colón, who says in an afterword that he used to spend hours drawing in his room.  It's a great work from one of the best illustrators working today.

Duck in the Fridge, written and illustrated by Jeff Mack.  Mack continues his winning streak with this delightful and silly bedtime story.  A son asks his father why he always reads Mother Goose to him at bedtime, and the bespectacled pa responds "it all started when I found a duck in the fridge."  Say what?  What follows is an outlandishly goofy account of an incident from the father's childhood, perfectly captured in Mack's charming cartoon illustrations.  Ducks overtake the house, and calls to 1-800-DUCK-B-GONE prove fruitless:  they keep sending more animals who end up partying with rather than scaring the pun-spewing fowl, causing more chaos to ensue.  The resourceful lad comes up with the perfect solution to calm down these mischievous critters, and thus the son learns how Mother Goose comes to the bedtime rescue.  A blast!

The Farmer and the Clown, by Marla Frazee.  Frazee's glorious illustrations jump off the page in this wordless wonder about a child clown who bounces off a circus train.  Coming to the little one's aid is a caring farmer who gives the tyke a place to stay.  Frazee's evocative art work always seems to be in motion--it has a windswept feel to it.  And she masterfully uses shadows for dramatic effect.  The tenderness of the story shines through as these two lonely people become unlikely friends.  The ending feels both happy and bittersweet as the clown's family returns, and then Frazee delivers a hilarious punch line that will make young readers giggle.
 Gorgeous, one of her best!

Firebird, written by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers.  Myers' vibrant illustrations leap off the page in this inspirational ballet book written by the legendary American Ballet Theatre soloist (the second African American soloist in ABT's history and the first in more than two decades).  The opening shows a young girl feeling anxious because she wishes she could excel as a dancer, and Myers' expressive work conveys her feelings of fear and hope.  Copeland appears with a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder and to tell her "...don't you know/you're just where I started."  The author then says that with hard work and dedication, the girl (a stand-in for the reader) can achieve her dreams and "learn how to fly" and soar like a swan, a firebird "for sure."  A final note from the author offers a photo of Copeland in her amazing Firebird outfit, and Myers' brilliant drawing of her in this role lights up the facing page.  A striking work.


Hank Has a Dream, written and illustrated by Rebecca Dudley. In this wonderful follow-up to Hank Finds an Egg, Dudley's furry hero dreams that he can fly, and then reenacts this flight of fancy for his hummingbird pal (from the egg he saved in the first book). Dudley's painstakingly detailed miniature dioramas create a delightful atmosphere--Hank and his feathery pal burst with adorable cuteness but do so without feeling cloying. I love the layout and design of this story: each spread shows reality on the left side and the dream on the right (for example, we see Hank and the bird sitting on a bridge over a stream on one side of the page, and flying in a zeppelin over the ocean on the other). The first book is wordless; here Dudley uses spare language describing the journey to good effect. Another winner from a talented artist.

Hooray for Hat, written and illustrated by Brian Won.   Hooray for stories that invite interaction and audience participation!  Throughout this fun tale of sharing and cheering your friends up, young listeners love to shout the title "HOORAY FOR HAT!"  And even though the wild assortment of animals have a case of temporary doldrums, the story puts you in a happy mood by the end.  Never before has regifting been so therapeutic.  An elephant wakes up grumpy, not happy when someone rings the doorbell.  "Go Away I'm Grumpy" trumpets the beast.  A box containing a bunch of really cool hats greets the elephant's eye as it opens the door.  Instantly cheered up, the elephant decides to share its good fortune with a grumpy zebra whose mood lightens when elephant gives it a hat.  Then they both find a scowling turtle and so on and so on.  I love Won's expressive creatures, and the way we don't see the grumpy lion and giraffe when they are initially introduced, creating a bit of mystery and surprise.  There's a nice break in the formula when Lion explains why it is sad.  It all leads to the happiest and goofiest of endings.

Hug Machine, written and illustrated by Scott Campbell.  This instantly lovable romp introduces a boy who has declared himself the Hug Machine!  Campbell's delightful deadpan drawings serve as a comical contrast to the first person text.  As the wondrous hugger brags about how no one can resist his hugging and hugs everyone in sight, the rather perplexed expressions of some of the huggees tell a different story:  they look mildly confused by the hug and aren't really hugging back.  I love the absurdity of this book:  the hero hugs everything he sees, and that includes fire hydrants, trees, porcupines (hey you don't know what you're missing when you don't hug porcupines), and even whales.  Pizza fuels this perpetual hugger, but even hug machines tire out.  Does he have energy for one last hug?  A real delight.

Hunters of the Great Forest, illustrated by Dennis Nolan.  In this charming wordless delight that reminded me a bit of The Borrowers, a bunch of tiny people embark on what looks to be a dramatic quest.  What is the purpose of their journey?  Nolan keeps us in suspense.  The diminutive townsfolk see the brave hunters off on the very first spread (I love the various hairstyles and attire).  I enjoyed Nolan's use of perspective as these intrepid (and rather adorable) heroes encounter and overcome obstacles (a rocky terrain, animals that grow scarier on every spread--love the evil chipmunk!).  As nighttime approaches, we finally see the treasure they have been seeking and it's a...hey, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise!  All I can say is it leads to an ending that satisfies and also makes you just a little hungry.  And I dig the final image!

I Am Otter, written and illustrated by Sam Garton.  I think otters rock, so I was very happy to make this hapless otter's acquaintance.  Garton's wildly original tale introduces us to a furry little creature who shows up mysteriously on a guy's porch one day.  The otter dubs the human The Otter Keeper and grows to like the man after some trepidation.  All is well until the Otter Keeper has to go to work on Mondays, and poor otter flips out, not wanting him to leave.  Left to his own devices, the otter, along with his toys, decides to be productive and open a toast restaurant.  Why not?  Who doesn't love toast!  But it all goes very very wrong in hilarious ways.  I love the way Garton draws the otter, an instantly lovable character endearing even when he's being a bit of a klutz.  His toys are also quite amusing--I love the toy pig's surprised expression, and how the robot and giraffe both look guilty of the crimes otter accuses them of.


I Got the Rhythm, written by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison.  Frank Morrison's unique trademark illustrations, with his exuberant elongated figures, perfectly convey the infectious energy of Schofield-Morrison's vibrant prose.  While walking in the city with her mom, a young girl thinks of a rhythm in her mind ("think. think") and she soon hears the rhythm with her ears ("beat. beat") as a guy drums on some buckets on the sidewalk.  The joy of the music spreads through her body, and soon all the other kids join her in a triumphant dance.  Someone pushes the button on a boom box and soon everyone in sight claps, snaps, shakes, and stomps.  This glorious interactive book invites story hour participants to dance along and perhaps even form a parade!  I love the final image of the girl, seen from behind, in full dancing glory, with the words "Boom Box.  Beat Bop.  Kaboom.  Kaboom" accompanying her on the page.  A joyous rush of a book.

I'm My Own Dog, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein.  I had the pleasure of getting a first-hand look at Stein's latest at a conference.  I couldn't stop laughing in a hysterical way that reminded me how hard I laughed when I first read Stein's Caldecott Honor book Interrupting Chicken.  In this sly book, the average dog/owner relationship is wittily switched:  our very confident canine hero tells how it meets a rather hapless human adult male.  The guy begs the dog for companionship and our titular character acquiesces, letting the mustached dude hang out with him.  However, the dog has to put up with a  lot of problems:  the guy makes horrible messes and craves constant attention.  Stein's distinct humorous drawings playfully capture a memorable and topsy turvy pet relationship.  I love how the dog is drawn--when it says "I'm my own dog" you believe it.  But the furry fellow also has a gruff warmth and charm that wins you over as well.  Hey, I would ask this pooch to adapt me too!

Little Elliot, Big City, written and illustrated by Mike Curato.  This gentle friendship story stars a diminutive polka-dotted elephant who finds that living in the crowded, bustling city can be truly difficult.  Curato skillfully shows the struggles for this pint-sized pachyderm, so tiny he can take a bath in his sink!  An instantly lovable creature who enjoys collecting little things, Elliot captures the reader's sympathy right away, especially when he wants to buy a cupcake but cannot because the busy bakery workers do not see him.  One haunting spread shows a little girl watching Elliot with concern (he does not notice her), and just when you think the story will become about the two of them becoming friends, Curato's tale takes another sweet turn.  Elliot meets a creature, a little mouse, who is far smaller than he, needing help.  A gorgeous spread showing Elliot feeling great about himself after he helps Mouse follows.  Will this pair team up so Elliot can finally purchase his desired pastry product?  Curato's charming and skillfully rendered illustrations are a delight to behold.  Here's hoping there will be more stories starring Elliot and his new pal!

Maple, written and illustrated by Lori Nichols.  A delightful and lovingly illustrated addition to both nature and new sibling collections.  A couple name their little girl Maple in honor of the tree planted in the yard.  The child loves playing in, around, and under her beloved tree.  Nichols' gorgeous illustrations are beautiful to behold, and her prose mixes in some funny lines with the sweetness.  Some drama enters the picture when Maple notices a little Willow sapling next to the tree, and a little bulge in her mommy's tummy.  What could this mean?  Everything turns out OK, leading to a truly cute ending.  A charmer from start to finish.  And there's a sequel called Maple & Willow Together!

One Busy Day, written by Lola M. Schaefer, illustrated by Jessica Meserve.  Packed with lovely illustrations, this ode to sibling drama is a delight from start to finish.  It's also a tribute to the imagination as Mia tries her best to engage her older brother Spencer who always claims to be to busy to play with her.  So she entertains herself by painting, dancing, and exploring.  The effective book design shows Mia engaging in an activity, and then revealing how she sees herself on the next page.  One page, for example, says "She danced" and we see Mia alone in her room posing in front of a mirror, and then with a flip of the page we read "like a twirly, whirly ballerina" and we see Mia in front of an adoring crowd in a fancy theatre.  She's truly a special character, and Spencer rediscovers this about his cute, multi-talented sister, becoming more and more curious in what she is doing.  This emerges as a moving story, an excellent match of text and art, sweet without being too cloying.

Quest, illustrated by Aaron Becker.  Becker continues the wordless adventure first started in his Caldecott Honor title Journey and gets the action started right on the first page.  The girl and boy  first introduced in that intricately designed book travel to a city park.  Suddenly the king appears, startling them (I almost jumped too!) and then hands them a mysterious map--then they watch with bewilderment armor-clad guards capture him and pull him away.  Using multicolored crayons they try and find ways to help the whisked away royal, only to keep finding discover more perilous adventure.  I love the underwater sequence!  Becker's imaginative, intricate illustrations impress throughout.  Very very cool.

Rules of Summer, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan.  Lush, surrealistic, nightmarish, and witty, Tan's latest, about two brothers playing in a bizarre landscape filled with robots and strange creatures, is an instructional and etiquette book like no other.  A rule appears on the left page, while a brilliantly rendered painting illustrating the consequences of breaking the rule fills the right.  Some of the rules make perfect sense.  "Never leave the back door open overnight," for example--yes, who would want to let in the giant lizards and overflowing plants that can take over the house?  But others tickle the brain and eye--"never step on a snail" more than implies that if you do so, a raging tornado will come your way.  Some of the very best books for children have their own internal dream logic that children are wise enough to understand, and this is one of them.

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen.  Another book that has a dream logic to it is this surrealistic collaboration between the hilarious Barnett and Caldecott winner Klassen, who truly has become one of the most unique children's book artists working today.  The titular heroes have that striking deadpan Klassensque look as they dig a hole with their dog helping (the cat watches from above).  Readers will surely become exasperated (but in a good way) with the boys, who keep missing the giant diamonds buried in the ground.  Excellent perspective shots show the kids switching directions right at the very worst possible moment, just as they are about to discover the impressive treasures.  Oh yes, and there are bones for the pooch as well.  It all leads to a strange scene that involves them falling falling falling.  Where will they land?  This talented duo has given us a lot of great books; this one ranks among their very best.

Some Bugs, written by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrations by Brendan Wenzel.  Even those who fear or loathe these little critters will find much to enjoy in this delightful tribute to bugs.  DiTerlizzi's bouncy, terse, rhyming sentences tell the reader "Some bugs click. Some bugs sing.  Some bugs do a buzzing thing."  Meanwhile, Wenzel's truly wonderful, humorous illustrations give the reader an eye-popping array of insects:  crickets with open mouths singing, colorful lines filling the air, or squiggles surrounding buzzing bees to indicate a buzzing motion.  All of the stinging, biting, stinking, fighting bugs come together on one dynamic spread.  DiTerlizzi then instructs us to kneel down close and look very hard for bugs in our backyard.  One last, informational spread reveals all the bugs introduced in the book.  I love love love Wenzel's drawings!

Thank You, Octopus, written and illustrated by Darren Farrell.  What a glorious nonsensical joy this book is.  A young boy lives on a boat with his buddy, an octopus who tries to be ever so helpful but, uh, kind of fails.  Octopus announces at the story's start that it's bedtime and says "I made you a nice warm bath" (Thank you Octopus!) "of egg salad!!!!" (No Thank You Octopus!!!)  The octopus then apologizes and offers to dry the boy off...WITH A TUBA!  And so it goes.  Each page turn offers an unpredictable surprise.  What will octopus do next?  And will the boy get the octopus back for all this bizarre behavior?  Farrell's whimsical humor and hilarious illustrations make this a rollicking addition to story times.

This Is a Moose, written by Richard T. Morris, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.   This sly delight employs a truly inventive approach to telling its story about smashing stereotypes and expectations.  Presented as the making of a documentary about the Mighty Moose (the title appears on a clapboard on the title page), the book introduces the titular character, standing on two feet in all his majestic glory.  However, when we learn that the moose wants to be an astronaut, an unseen director yells "Cut" and scolds the beast saying that moose "cannot be astronauts" and orders someone to remove the creature from his space suit.  And the inspired goofiness continues.  During Take Two we learn that the moose's grandmother used to rock at lacrosse, and a later take has a regal giraffe, who also happens to be a doctor, interrupting the story.  As the story grows out of control, with characters trying to help launch the Moose into outer space, the director becomes increasingly agitated, leading to a hilarious reveal and punchline and a pitch perfect ending.  The great Lichtenheld's illustrations are filled with rib-splitting comical touches, and Morris' prose, with its excellent comic timing, tickles the funny bone.  Each reread brings about new surprises.

Three Bears in a Boat, written and illustrated by David Soman.  "Their voyage was not without incident," deadpans the narrator of this exquisitely rendered adventure from the co-creator of Ladybug Girl.  Isn't that the truth?  After a trio of mischievous bears break their mother's prized blue seashell, the panic-stricken group takes to the seas to find a replacement.  Their quest becomes increasingly more eventful as the search for an island in the shape of a lumpy hat.  Soman's illustrations offer a wide variety of inventive perspectives, taking us above the sailboat and under the waves.  One stunning spread shows the boat receiving some assistance from a herd of whales.  The bears argue and point fingers and then a raging storm adds some peril.  It all ends happily but the final line is also refreshingly startling.

Wild, written and illustrated by Emily Hughes.  My vote for most subversive recent picture book has to be this idiosyncratic, witty, and surprisingly haunting tale of a young feral child who loves living in the wild and rebels when taken into so-called civilized society.  Bursting with vibrant illustrations as crazy as the girl's out-of-control hair, Hughes' story shows the girl learning how to speak from Bird, hunt from Bear, and play from Fox.  Suddenly a bunch of new creatures, humans, discover her and take her away from this ideal paradise.  I love how she resists their attempts to civilize her because, after all, humans Ate Wrong, Spoke Wrong, and Played Wrong.  It all climaxes in a major act of rebellion that may raise some eyebrows, but feels right.  Pair this with Peter Brown's Mr. Tiger Goes Wild and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

A great year for picture books!

Other fictional picture books I loved this year (alphabetical by author):  My Grandfather's Coat (Jim Aylesworth; illustrated by Barbara McClintock); Flashlight (Lizi Boyd); Lion Lion (Miriam Busch, illustrated by Larry Day); The Troublemaker (Lauren Castillo); Hello Airplane! (Bill Cotter); A Dance Like Starlight (Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper); Weasels (Elys Dolan); Vanilla Ice Cream (Bob Graham); Shh!  We Have a Plan (Chris Haughton); Flight School (Lita Judge); Swim Duck Swim! (Susan Lurie, photographs by Murray Head); Hi, Koo! (Jon J. Muth); Number One Sam (Greg Pizzoli); Froodle (Antoinette Portis); Sebastian and the Balloon (Philip C. Stead); Sugar Hill (Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie); Blue on Blue (Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes)and The Pigeon Needs a Bath (Mo Willems).

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