Is there anything better than sitting on the couch with your child or grandchild and reading one of the exceptional new picture books written and illustrated for the 3-to-8-year-old set? The only problem may be choosing among the seemingly unending possibilities.
Go to the children's section of your local bookstore and you are confronted with wall after wall of colorful covers and spines and intriguing titles. You face the same challenge in the children's section of your local library — shelf upon shelf of tall, skinny tomes with bright colors and strange titles. How do you decide what to choose to engage your precious one in quiet moments together?
I spent many hours over the holidays reading to my 4-year-old grandson, a gentle and curious little boy who is quite content to sit with me and listen to books while turning the pages and enjoying the illustrations. Though his attention span is much greater than mine was at his age, time is short, and I wanted to spend our time together reading the best of the best. So what to do?
To address this conundrum, I turned to my dear friend of many years, Susan Bloom, the emeritus director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University, and asked her to identify her favorite picture books from 2018. Her wonderful suggestions may help you next time you go to the library or bookstore.
"Julian is a Mermaid" (Candlewick Press, 2018) is the debut work of Jessica Love and is a moving story in a beautiful book. We meet Julian as he is riding home on the subway from his weekly swim with his abuela. When he spies three women on the platform, his imagination transforms them into mermaids, and upon returning home, he transforms himself into a mermaid. When his grandmother finds him decked out in houseplants, flowers, and a table cloth, she gives him some beads to complete his costume and takes him to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Beautiful illustrations highlight this tale of fantasy, reality, difference, and acceptance.
"Fox and Chick: the Party and Other Stories" by Sergio Ruzzio (Chronicle Books, 2018) tells stories of the give-and-take between two friends who are predator and prey in the natural world. Simple language allows the child to see that some of their own parent/child struggles are shared by other pairs — sitting still versus fidgeting, eating vegetables versus other food. The complexity of even the most simple language will delight the child when Chick "uses" Fox's bathroom for something other than the usual purpose. Adults as well as children will laugh at the result.
"Patchwork Bike" by Maxine Bereeba Clarke with illustrations by Van Thanh Rudd (Candlewick Press, 2018) tells the story of a young girl in Australia and her two brothers who love their bicycle, not a fancy ten-speed, but a bike that they've made from branches, tin cans, and other found materials. The illustrations were painted with acrylics on recycled cardboard, and when combined with the original words and symbols on these packing boxes, they make every page a spectacular collage of color and printing. Black Lives Matter initials on the bike's "license plate," the mother's Muslim dress, and the joy despite the poverty the children experience raise subjects for discussion to supplement the beautiful artwork.
"Baby Monkey, Private Eye" by Brian Selznick and David Serlin (Scholastic Press, 2018) provided many hours of fun for our family this winter. The inability of the monkey to get his pants on will keep your pre-schooler in laughs while you spend hours trying to figure out what the changing set of paintings, statues, and books in the monkey's office are all about. (Spoiler alert: The final pages give you all the answers.) This is a funny, clever, beautifully illustrated book that remains a treat even on repeated readings.
"Dreamers" by Yuri Morales (Neal Porter Books, 2018) is a lavishly colored tale of a mother and her 2-year-old who leave Mexico and settle in San Francisco via El Paso. The mix of English and Spanish, the butterfly motif on every page, and the life-saving and joy-giving role of the public library will appeal to young children and help them begin to understand immigration in today's world.
"Hello Lighthouse" by Sophie Blackhall (Little Brown, 2018) was recently named by the American Library Association as the winner of this year's Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture (Professor Bloom recommended this book before it won the award!). With exquisite illustrations, Blackhall compresses the story of a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and new daughter and the work of the lighthouse into a compelling story. The detailed illustrations will keep your young reader returning to find new details again and again in this slim book that manages to make family, work, changing technology, and nature interesting and fun.
"Blue" by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Book Press, 2018) is short on words and long on beauty. With only one or two words on each page, one of which is always "blue," Vaccaro takes us from a boy's childhood and his dog's puppyhood to the dog's passing and the boy's young adulthood. Using cutouts that turn balloon strings into the hands of a clock and jackets into umbrellas, the book is both a beautiful story of a boy and his dog as well as a gentle introduction to aging and death.
As Professor Bloom stated in her email to me: "Obviously, there are other books of considerable worth that were published last year, but these are my most favorite with an artistic, societal and political diversity that is pleasing." I couldn't agree more. Good reading!
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His more than 1,000 ideas for what to read next can be found at http://www.EpsteinReads.com Contact him there, as well.