New picture books—great gifts for young readers

And just like that it’s December again. Some things have changed since this time last year, and some things, alas, are still with us…but regardless, the holidays are upon us, and it’s time to cozy in with some beautiful picture books. In honor of Covid, this list comes with a caveat – if you have tried to buy an appliance in the last two years, you may know what is coming. Thanks to ‘supply chain issues’, a couple of my top picks are not available until early 2022. But they were just too good to leave off the list, so I’ve added them at the end. For the most part, you will find the titles on this list at our own Flying Pig.

We All Play: Kimêtawânaw, written & illustrated by Julie Flett. This book is a poem of motion, with each spread dedicated to different animals that hide, hop, peek, peep, sniff, seek, rumble, and roll. The animals’ spreads are punctuated by the refrain “We play too!” translated into Cree as “Kimêtawânaw mina” and illustrated with children who make the human versions of all the animal motions, ending with yawns and yips and “slowly, side by side,” falling asleep. The drawings are soft suffusions of pastel and pencil, and the addition of the Cree words (there is a glossary in the back of the book) is a lovely way to widen the idea of language for a young child. This book is listed for 3-7, but I would recommend it more for 2-5. If you have an older child, try Flett’s gorgeous 2019 book Birdsong, which is in constant rotation in our house.

Amos McGee Misses the Bus, written by Philip C. Stead & illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Amos McGee, the beloved zookeeper from the Steads’ 2011 Caldecott award winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee is back. This time, Amos misses his morning bus to work at the zoo. When he finally arrives, he falls asleep on a bench while his gently concerned animal friends pitch in to help. The magic of the Steads’ collaboration lies in the loving kindness of the friendships depicted, and in Erin Steads’ moving woodblock and pencil artwork. I never tire of reading the first Amos McGee book aloud, and I expect I will enjoy this one on repeat as well. Ages 3-6.

Cat Problems, written by Jory John & illustrated by Lane Smith. For an entirely different tone, I give you the uproarious Cat Problems. Anyone who lives in Vermont is familiar with the indoor cat conundrum: Let the cat out and it gets eaten by a coyote/bobcat/ambitious owl; keep it inside and it becomes cantankerous, destructive and, in the case of Cat Problems, a hilariously curmudgeonly bully. Kids will delight in the cat’s atrociously bad behavior, as it yowls for attention, demands “a little bowl service around here” and terrorizes the other resident cat. Ages 3-7.

¡¡Manu!! Written & illustrated by Kelly Fernández. I bought this graphic novel for my eight-year-old nephew, but my five-year-old daughter latched onto it and absolutely refused to let it go. I can see why it intrigued her so much. ¡¡Manu!! is enrolled at La Academia de Santa Domingo, a school for girls learning magic. She is wild and daring, but also struggling to find her place amid her formidable but chaos-creating magical powers. Get this empowering graphic novel for the 8-12 year-old girl in your life, but also for the boys – I’m buying a second copy for my nephew.

The Night Before Christmas, written by Clement Moore and illustrated by PJ Lynch. If you celebrate Christmas, I’m delighted to introduce you to PJ Lynch, an award-winning Irish illustrator. This year, Lynch offers a true classic – The Night Before Christmas. The illustrator does not reinvent here – he merely imagines, in superbly rendered watercolor and gouache paintings, each scene of the beloved poem in loving detail. This is a book to gift, or to add to a collection. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, check out Lynch’s 2020 Haunted Lake, a ghostly love story that Kirkus reviews calls “Satisfying and visually superb” (Ages 8-12 for Haunted Lake).

And here are two of my absolute favorite picture books of this year that you will not be able to get by Christmas. If you are willing to wait, these can be yours in January 2022, right about when all the books that you bought in December have begun to lose their charm…

Night Walk, written and illustrated by Marie Dorléans. In an exquisitely rendered reversal of the picture book about nighttime fears, this book opens instead with Mama “interrupting the night-time darkness” to wake her children, whispering, “Let’s go, so we get there on time.” What follows is a hushed and lovely family ramble through the sleeping village and out into the countryside. Led by the moon, accompanied by night sounds, and washed in watercolor blues, the family moves through forests, fields, and over rocks to their mysterious destination. I won’t give that away, because I really want you to experience this lovely, quiet, nighttime adventure for yourself. What a beautiful bedtime book. Ages 3-8

The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, written & illustrated by Tom Gauld. I admit, I resisted this book. Robots and log people? Not so sure. But after seeing it on just about every ‘best of’ lists this year, I gave in and got it, and I am so happy that I did. This book is a fantastically creative mix of the familiar (once upon a time, a king and queen wanted a child, so they went to a witch), and the new (they also went to an inventor, and they ended up with a very unusual pair of children). A fairy tale, a hero’s journey, and a tale of love and perseverance, this story finds its own very entertaining way to “happily ever after.” As an important aside, the cast of this fairy tale, as with “We All Play,” is racially diverse. Ages 3-8.

So there you have it. It was a challenging year in many respects, but it was a great year for books, even if you may have to wait to get your hands on a few of them. But how wonderful, as the weather turns, to curl up with the small people in your life and share the world through pages. Happy Holidays, everyone. Enjoy your giving, your receiving, and your reading!