Dec 9, 2014

2014 in Review: Favourite Picture Books

2014 in Review: Favourite Picture Books

The time of year for list making is here again, and like in 2013 I thought I’d begin by devoting a post to all my 2014 picture book discoveries. As I explained last year, I knew next to nothing about picture books when I started my job two years ago, and learning about them as I go along has been an enormous and unexpected delight.

As per usual with my lists, this one contains books I discovered this year, rather than necessarily 2014 releases. If one pattern emerges when I look at my list as a whole, it’s that I seem to really enjoy picture books about storytelling and the imagination. It’s a good concept to build stories around, and it’s been great to come across so many excellent executions. Also, I was pleased I ended up with something close to gender parity after the concerns I expressed earlier this year. Many thanks to those of you who left me recommendations that helped make that happen.

Without further delay, here’s my list — whether or not you’re interested in picture books, I hope you’ll at least enjoy the pretty art:

  • 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert and Rex Ray

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    What’s it about? A trans girl who finds joy in her friendship with another girl. I especially love how the narrative voice pointedly validates Bailey’s pronoun choice after some of the dialogue doesn’t — it’s a loud and clear “these people are wrong”. The story does a great job of capturing the comfort of finding someone who sees you for who you are, and it left me with a big smile.

  • Nuts in Space by Elys Dolan

  • What’s it about? Nuts! In space! Or to be more specific, a group of furry critters on an intergalactic quest. Like Dolan’s Weasels, it’s a narratively complex book aimed at an older readership than some of the other books on this list; also like Weasels, it’s funny, smart, and a pleasure to reread.

  • Matthew's Dream by Leo Lionni

  • What’s it about? A painter mouse! Matthew’s Dream is to the visual arts what Frederick is to poetry, but it doesn’t feel like a rehash of territory Lionni has covered before. Instead, it’s another thoughtful and delightful affirmation of what the arts add to our lives. Matthew’s unforgetable “The world is all here” warmed my heart.

  • Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

  • What’s it about? The pleasures of the imagination (part one of many!). As I said when I wrote about it earlier this year, “the joy is in absorbing all the detail in each double-page illustration and then imagining all the dragons Morris doesn’t draw. I was somewhat reminded of Journey, another picture book that uses art to evoke all the joy and excitement and sense of boundless possibilities the best stories give us, and that leaves readers longing to explore all the worlds it hints at.”

  • That is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems

  • What’s it about? The dangers of underestimating a resourceful mother goose. From my mini-review: “Willems’ subversion of the damsel in distress trope is partially comedic, but the humour is never at the goose’s expense, and it just makes me so happy to know there are smart, funny children’s stories out there where a female animal is portrayed as competent, clever, and a force to be reckoned with.”

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

  • What’s it about? The delights of the imagination yet again. I’m glad I made the time for this classic at long last — watching young Harold bring a whole world to life was an even greater pleasure than I expected.

  • Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

  • What’s it about? Giving yourself permission to be who you are, only that makes it sound trite when it very much isn’t. Mr Tiger, a proper and suited up inhabitant of a Victorian-like city, learns that it’s possible to let go of stiff social protocols and still live harmoniously with others.

  • Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Camping Holiday by Kathleen Hale

  • What’s it about? Cats on a camping holiday! I absolutely loved the somewhat Louis Wain-ish art in this — cats in swimming trunks! wonderful colours! — and the general d’aww factor. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is a book from 1938 and its age very much shows. For example, Grace, the cat wife, “does as she was told” or “stays behind to clean the tent and make the beds”. There’s still plenty to enjoy here, but the gender roles are very strictly defined.

  • If by Sarah Perry

  • What’s it about? A series of imaginative possibilities — if frogs ate rainbow, if cats could fly, if toes were teeth — accompanied by illustrations that surprise and delight. A simple concept executed brilliantly.

  • The Paper Bag Princess by by Robert Munsch and by Michael Martchenko

  • What’s it about? Girls saving the day! A princess story with clear feminist sensibilities that I’d somehow missed up until now. Again, the premise is simple, but the result couldn’t be more satisfying. Hooray for smart girls who get to make their own choices.

  • Hot Dog Cold Dog by Frann Preston-Gannon

  • What’s it about? Dogs of all shapes and sizes wonderfully brought to life by Preston-Gannon’s art. The accompanying text is sparse, but there’s a wonderful rhythm to it. There’s no explaining this one, I don’t think — you’ll have to see it.

  • Hermelin the Detective Mouse by Mini Grey

  • What’s it about? A detective mouse, of course. This one is more like Elys Dolan’s work in terms of narrative complexity and text to illustrations ratio. It tells the story of an unexpected mystery solver and his struggle to find a place where he feels welcome and where his talents are recognised, and it’s full of humour and warmth.

  • Counting Birds by Alice Melvin

  • What’s it about? As the title says, it’s a counting book: it uses Melvin’s gorgeous images of birds to illustrate different numbers. This is a Tate edition, and it shows — the book is a gorgeous object that you’ll want to keep around and look at again and again.

  • The Opposite by Tom McRae and Elena Odriozola

  • What’s it about? A little boy who conjures a contrary creature and has to find a way to outsmart it. This book is slightly reminiscent of Edward Gorey and will delight readers fond of tongue-in-cheek Gothic.

  • No Such Thing by Ella Bailey

  • What’s it about? Ghosts and assorted night terrors rendered charming but not saccharine. The small heroine, Georgia, and her faithful cat companion systematically search their house for the ghosts they don’t believe in, while attentive readers notice one hiding in each two-page spread.

  • Quest by Aaron Becker

  • What’s it about? The sequel to Journey, my favourite picture book of last year, bring us more of the same, but this is by no means a bad thing when what you’re doing is so brilliant. Now that I’ve read Harold and the Purple Crayon I can see how these books use the same basic concept with more colours, but again that’s not a bad thing when there’s scope for such richness and variation in the execution. Like its predecessor, Quest is a wordless picture book that pays tribute to the imagination with gorgeous art and leaves you hungry for the infinity possibilities of stories.

  • Matisse’s Garden by Samantha Friedman and Cristina Amodeo

  • What’s it about? Matisse and his work — the book illustrates his creative process and includes fold-out pages with reproductions of his paintings. This one is a MoMa edition, and like Counting Birds it’s gorgeous produced and a thing of beauty in itself.

  • On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies

  • What’s it about? Friendship and feelings — is it any wonder that I loved it? A little boy, Birt, learns to enjoy his new friend Shu instead of worrying that his presence will threaten what he and his old friend Etho share. D’awww.

  • Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

  • What’s it about? Annabelle, a keen knitter who finds a box of yarn that never runs out and proceeds to yarn bomb anything in sight. This is a Rumpelstiltskin type tale with a glorious ending, in which our young heroine pretty much goes “I’ll live my life in my own terms, thank you very much”.

    There. As always, I’d love some recommendations — what are the best picture books you discovered this year?


    1. It seems to me to be a shame that more adults aren't exposed to picture books unless they have kids in their lives. Some of the artwork is so gorgeous!

    2. I see a few old favourites here but most of these are new to me. My youngest is 11 but he still loves picture books for the art. Some of the spreads are so beautiful. I'll have to hunt down some of these titles for him.

    3. These are great! I work with kids and am always happy to see diverse, inclusive picture books. :) You said you learn about them through your job—are you a teacher?

      Speaking of diversity, I was proud of myself when I realized that, of my top 8 new-to-me authors this year, 6 of them were women! 3 of them were women of color!

    4. Jill, I agree! And if not for work that would be me too. I'm so glad I got to rediscover them!

      Belle: yay - I hope you both enjoy them :D

      Shaina: Librarian! And that's excellent about your 2014 author discoveries :)

    5. Wonderful list, Ana! So nice to see Jackie Morris out there on your list - I loved her book 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' that you had recommended. 'If' by Sarah Perry looks so beautiful. I would love to read that. It makes me think of a picture that I read last year called 'Let's Do Nothing' by Tony Fucile. Have you read that? (it is about two boys who decide to do nothing, but then discover that it is very hard to do that.) 'Hermelin : The Detective Mouse' makes me think of Ulysses in Kate DiCamillo's 'Flora and Ulysses'. Alice Melvin's 'Counting Birds' looks so gorgeous. 'The Opposite' by Tom McRae and Elena Odriozola has such a beautiful concept. It is another book I definitely want to read. The artwork in 'Quest' is so stunning. 'Matisse's Garden' is such a beautiful introduction to art. I wish I had been able to read it when I was a child. 'Extra Yarn' looks so beautiful. I was introduced to picture books by one of my close friends who used to be an elementary school librarian. My life has never been the same since - it has been richer and more beautiful and filled with envy for all the children who get to read these beautiful books every year. And I should say that I feel envious of you because you get to read all these books every year - your library is so awesome. So, my top favourites from your list are these - 'If', 'Counting Birds', 'The Opposite', 'Matisse's Garden' and 'Extra Yarn'. I will add Hermelin's story to my wishlist. I hope I can read them during the coming year. Thanks for sharing your list of favourites and introducing me to some beautiful picture books.

    6. I must RABIDLY agree with Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. It is so cute, thoughtful, and perfect.

    7. Woman, I live for these posts. Silly Sally is excellent, but you can only read it so many times. I have put like half of these on hold.


    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.