Dec 9, 2013

2013 in Review: Favourite Picture Books

This is the first in a series of posts about my reading and general media consumption in 2013, which will culminate in my traditional year’s best and stats post towards the end of the month. As I’ve mentioned before, this year I spent a lot of time learning about picture books so I could become better at my job. I’m still not great at writing about them, but I feel like I’m learning a lot (and, thanks in part to Liz’s very helpful comment last time I wrote about this, I feel I know where to go next). It makes sense, then, for picture books to get their very own favourites of the year list this year.

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.

  • Weasels by Elys Dolan

    What’s it about? A group of weasels who are plotting world domination. As I said before, it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, effortlessly clever, and the kind of story that rewards close reading and attention to detail (of the kind I think children are especially great at). Everything about this book is a complete delight.

  • Wolves by Emily Gravett

    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.

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni

    What’s it about? A poet mouse! This 1968 Caldecott Honour Book is probably the most thoughtful picture book I read all year. It’s about the sadly still common idea that the arts contribute nothing useful to society. This sounds like it could be heavy-handed, but trust me, it’s not. Instead it’s smart and philosophical and heartfelt and delightful. And did I mention the gorgeous and unique art?

  • Frank and Teddy Make Friends by Louise Yates

    What’s it about? A scientist mouse who creates a Frankenstein’s Monster-style creature to be its friend, with surprising results. A really sweet and d’aww-worthy story that never crosses the line into saccharine, complete with lots of literary allusions. Louise Yates’ pastel artwork matches the tone of the book perfectly:

  • Journey by Aaron Becker

    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.

  • Madeline’s Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans

    What’s it about?
    “In an old house in Paris that was
    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.”
    I 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:

    That’s all for this year. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

    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%.

    1. Oh my, you've totally made me want to visit the children's room at our "new" library. It's been too long since I've grabbed a stack of picture books and enjoyed. The kids and I didn't even remember to do our picture book bonanza for Halloween this year. :( The only ones of these you've talked about that I've read are Frederick and some of the Madeline books, which were books I read to Annie when she was a wee tot. Yep, next trip to the library, I will definitely be hitting the children's room! :)

    2. I've been learning more about picture books since we have a pretty extensive children's section at the store. My particular favorite is Peter Brown's Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, about a very prim tiger who decides to shed his Victorian duds and go be a naked wild tiger. Not only is the art just cute as a button, but its point is that there's a time for wildness and a time for civilized behavior.

      Madeline! Oh, Madeline. As a French-American kid, she and Asterix were my major cultural touchstones back to the motherland. Fearless little girls are my favorite, and Madeline is one of the most.

    3. We love Frederick! We're sort of on the cusp between board books and picture books here. And my library ... I'm so overwhelmed by how they have the picture books shelved, I've found myself incapable of browsing and picking any out. (They're shelved like records in a record store? Except often the spine isn't up, and they're too crammed to allow any casual flipping through ...)

    4. I have to agree with you about Journey. It's one of my favorite picture books of the year. It's so beautiful.

      My son loves It's a Book.I think it's because he can say the word "ass" without getting into trouble. ;-)

    5. I love Emily Gravett's books as well! From your description of "stories that can be read on multiple levels and which draw young readers into their complexity rather than talking down to them", it sounds like you would like Jon Scieszka's books as well (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man). Have you tried Phoebe Gilman's books? (The Balloon Tree, Something From Nothing, Jillian Jiggs)

    6. The art in all of them is so fantastic!

    7. I've never seen the Weasels book before, and I think I want to read Wolves just for myself! The Journey looks beautiful. Madline is an old staple at my house- was in my childhood, and now for my own kids. And I LOVE Frederick! It's my favorite of all the Leo Lionni books.

    8. I always have trouble with children's books, because I simply cannot know for sure how I would have reacted at an age appropriate to the book. Sometimes I can tell, but take Maurice Sendak. He can be quite scary I think. Do kids love him as much as their parents? And if they do, do they because they can tell their parents love his books? And all the Goodnight Moon parodies. Do kids appreciate the ironies, or is just that parents love them so much? In the final analysis, I think that no matter what, kids will pick up on how much a parent (or teacher) likes something, and therefore assume it is something to be liked. The same with people, like "favorite relatives." They tend to mimic reactions of adults. I suppose if we could put kids in a room who have NEVER seen a book, and without adults around, and add a bunch of books and see which ones they choose, it would be a useful experiment...


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.