As inevitably happens when you start exploring a new field, I learned a lot about my picture book likes and dislikes in the past twelve months. The art is really important to how I respond to a picture book, which is part of why I want to put my text biases aside and learn to become better at visual critiques. Unsurprisingly, my preferences in picture books have turned out to be similar to my preferences in literature for older readers: I like smart stories; stories that can be read on multiple levels and which draw young readers into their complexity rather than talking down to them. The handful of picture books I’ve actively disliked all seem to have one thing in common: a certain forced cleverness and adult smugness that comes at young readers’ expense. They’re books that laugh behind their target audience’s back; not books that encourage readerly participation and invite children into the joke even as they acknowledge that it will become clearer as they acquire more knowledge and experience. Does that make sense?
For example, I disliked Lane Smith’s It’s a Book because it smugly establishes a hugely unhelpful dichotomy between reading and using new technologies, a dichotomy I don’t think readers of any age particularly need to have rammed in their faces. I was also not a fan of The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, a critics favourite whose humour I found awkward and forced (it saddens me to say this, as I really like Oliver Jeffers’ art). But the point of this post is of course to tell you what I did like. The following are, in no particular order, my favourite picture books of the year. As per usual with my year’s best lists, they’re books I discovered this year rather than necessarily books published in 2013. I’ll try to keep my descriptions brief and mostly use this list as an excuse to show you lots of gorgeous art.
What’s it about?: A rabbit who tries to confront its fear of wolves by reading about them (with limited success, I should add). I read all of Emily Gravett’s picture books this year and adored them all, but this and The Rabbit Problem are my favourites. Like Weasels, Wolves is smart and funny and slightly quirky in a way that never feels forced. It also has really interesting metatextual elements — it is, after all, a book about the act of reading, and furthermore it plays with reader’s expectations by providing two endings to pick from. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t think would work, but it very much does.
What’s it about? A girl who draws a door into another world with a crayon and steps in. A wordless picture book that will appeal to fans of Shaun Tan, and a wonderful tribute to the sheer pleasure of the imagination. The art is absolutely stunning, and of the kind you could easily lose yourself in for hours.
“In an old house in Paris that wasI can’t believe that up until this year I had never heard of Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic series of picture books, published between 1939 and 1956. As the rhyme above tells you, they’re about the adventures of a girl called Madeline, the youngest inhabitant of a small boarding school in Paris. The books are all written in rhyme, and they’re the kind of thing I imagine will make some young readers really fall in love with the rhythm of language. I really enjoyed the whole series, but I pick Madeline’s Rescue as my favourite because puppies:
covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth and went to bed.
They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine-
The smallest one was Madeline.”
Also, I hope to continue to learn about picture books in 2014, so if you have any recommendations, I’d be grateful to hear them.
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.