A pair of shoes serves as the constant in a grueling trek across three borders.
Young René and Papá together begin a northbound journey, by foot and bus, away from their native El Salvador. As they cross into Guatemala, then Mexico, and finally the United States, the story repeats a chorus of “Uno, dos, tres,” representing the number of borders they must cross. It is uncertain whether the father-son team is crossing these borders with required documentation until they are waist-deep in a rushing river before joining Mamá on the other side. If there’s a moment when readers realize the perils of their journey, it’s here. Nevertheless, Colato Laínez handles the narration gently. Framing the narrative deliberately and at the center of Vanden Broeck’s illustrations are René’s shoes, often depicted from low angles or bird’s-eye views. Brush-stroked spreads depicting various landscapes—lush, green scenes, muddy trails, mountains, cities, the river—are reminiscent of Central American artwork often depicted on murals, souvenir trinkets, or postcards. Not until the last spread does Vanden Broeck finally unveil René’s smiling face in its entirety. The bilingual narrative is told in short sentences and enlivened with repetition, running metaphors, and sound effects, easily engaging readers.
Inspired by the author’s own story, this tale of a young boy’s arduous escape serves as a crucial, insightful, and timely light shone on a sensitive, highly relevant subject.
(author’s note) (Bilingual picture book. 6-10)
A pale-faced, antennaed intergalactic explorer zooms through space in a red and blue rocket. Landing in the countryside on Earth, the visitor first discovers a colorful, welcoming world. But in town, the color disappears, and gray adult humans stride past one another, staring at their handheld devices. Only the explorer is still shown in color, staring up in bewilderment and lost in the sea of gray. Ignored, the explorer sits alone until an Asian-presenting human child offers a red crayon and paper. Together they draw pictures and fold them into paper airplanes that fly through the air, until the human’s becomes stuck in a tree. The explorer uses a gadget first to rescue the airplane and again when the child’s ice cream falls off its cone. When the explorer receives a message on the gadget and gets back into the rocket, the two friends say goodbye. Once home, however, the explorer misses the friend left behind on Earth and sends a star-studded message of greeting—the only word in the book. Vivid illustrations are often multipaneled, like a graphic novel, and vary in perspective for storytelling and cinematic effect. The presumably adult explorer and human child are similarly short and sturdily built, lending them a pleasing visual consonance.
Although wordless, this deftly expresses our simple need to build connections that can endure across a galaxy.
(Picture book. 4-8)
A woman travels the length of the Hudson River by canoe in Cooper’s (Train, 2013) latest, a 12-inch-square picture book.
“Morning, a mountain lake. A traveler, a canoe.” Cooper’s text is spare in style yet detailed and lengthy: Paragraphs on each spread compete with pencil-and-watercolor illustrations that alternate among double-page panoramic landscapes of impressive views, smaller scenes against white space, and miniature vignettes of the faceless traveler in motion. The 300-mile solo journey itself begins with a question: “Can she do this?” A rock rises out of the water—no, “a moose.” There are rapids to brave, thunder, cold, a bear cub to avoid, a dam around which to portage (such vocabulary is made clear in context), and many more challenges to face. There are also the peaceful joys of “paddling, sketching, eating, camping, paddling again,” friendly faces at stops along the way, and the assurance that “she is strong, and she knows what she’s doing.” The myriad details about the journey will interest slightly older, outdoorsy children interested in adventure and travel. At the conclusion of this beautiful book, when the water-weary traveler ends her journey in the arms of her loved ones, ready to turn her sketches and words into paintings and a story, readers will feel they have traveled a journey themselves, and they just may wonder if they would ever have the strength, endurance, bravery and know-how to undertake such an endeavor themselves.
Expansive content impressively and beautifully presented.
(author’s note, note on the Hudson River, sources, further reading, map)
(Picture book. 6-12)
From tiny discoveries to one big treasure, the natural world delights at every turn.
In simple yet engaging dialogue, two children set out on a treasure hunt, through a meadow and a wood, in search of something “shiny and mysterious and precious…and always hidden.” The younger one finds a feather (“not shiny enough”), an acorn (“not mysterious enough”), and a milkweed pod (“not precious enough”); all while they play in the grass and trees around them. Ready to give up, the younger child is sure they’ll never find the too-well-hidden treasure, but the tenacious older one takes a few steps more. At last, they discover something truly shiny, mysterious, precious, and hidden, which won’t fit in pockets but instead will live on in the memories of these young explorers. Softly muted, colorful illustrations feature treasures big and small to discover on each detailed spread. Perspective changes throughout, with close-ups, faraway landscape spreads, and a lovely look down at one child’s feet immersed in water as the two children hold hands. The children are depicted nearly constantly in motion, with the older child’s long, black hair often flowing sideways in the wind. (Both have pale skin and straight, black hair.) The companion French title offers a superb translation (also by Messier), with its own lively phrases—perfect for building language skills in young readers.
A gentle exploration, using a child’s words and told at a child’s pace, of a marvelous world
. (Picture book. 4-8)
A child navigates the city’s relentless sights and sounds.
The child, light-skinned but with race and gender ambiguous under layers of winter outerwear, pulls the stop-request string inside the bus and trundles into the midtown maw. A savvy kid, but so small within the double-page spread of skyscrapers, commuters, stoplights, and construction. Text appears in the white space between buildings, “I know what it’s like to be small in the city.” Young readers will feel their hearts constrict, as they all know what it’s like to confront a towering, intimidating world. Hand-drawn frames, presented in quadrants, contain both powerful close-ups and wider scenes (taxi taillights, crosswalks, chain fencing, the child’s bobbing pom-pom) that mark time and distance. A page turn delivers full-page pictures of the looming city, with dizzying linework and detail. Cinematic scenes feel at once atmospheric and photorealistic. With snow accumulating and light dwindling, the narrator gives voice to the reader’s concern: “People don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you, and knowing what to do is hard sometimes.” This incisive language distills the hardest part of childhood: the precarious hold small people have on their own agency. A brilliant narrative twist reveals itself at the end of this tender picture book, which stretches readers’ concern painfully as the voice begins warning of dark alleys and dogs, and points to warm churches and free food.
Extraordinary, emotional, and beautifully rendered.
(Picture book. 6-10)
A berry-picking excursion turns potentially frightening when a girl wanders from her mother and encounters a wolf.
Despite her mother’s warning to stay close as night approaches, the girl finds herself lost in the woods and feeling “cold and scared.” In classic wolf-narrative style, a “tall grey wolf with big white teeth” appears, but unlike those in many traditional tales, this lupine offers help. Only by balancing experiential knowledge (identifying berries that are safe to eat) with instinctual trust (following the wolf’s guidance) can the girl hope to reunite with her family. Poetic descriptions and spare prose combine with simple yet textured mixed-media illustrations to create a story with a deeply cinematic quality. Readers will likely infer the girl and her mother are First Nations peoples due to illustrator Flett’s (Cree-Métis) visual cues of brown skin, black hair, and moccasins and through author Vermette’s (Métis) textual reference of tying tobacco in cloth to leave as a thank-you. Muted, earth-toned images give depth while allowing the girl to stand out in her red dress. Though similar to stories from the oral tradition or even the European canon, this is “a completely made-up story.” It’s got a worthy message for any reader to enjoy, and Indigenous and First Nations readers will especially connect with characters who nourish traditional ways of knowing while existing in an active, contemporary present.
A tale about knowledge, power, and trust that reminds readers we used to speak with animals and still do—it already feels like a classic.
(Picture book. 3-5)
A young Hmong American girl shares the small things of wonder that make up her world.
When Paj Ntaub moves into a new green house with big windows with her family, the garden grows with “tomatoes, green beans, and a watermelon as round as my mother’s belly.” Soon, the green house becomes their house. Paj Ntaub helps “Tais Tais hang the special story cloth about how the Hmong got to America.” She exchanges waves with her neighbors Bob and Ruth, an elderly white couple even older than Tais Tais. And changing seasons usher in life and death. In gentle prose, Yang’s picture-book debut explores nature, community, and connection. Twin brothers are born amid the summer bounty in the garden. On a snowy, cold morning, loss arrives, and bare gingko trees “[reach] for the sky with their thin fingers” against the new emptiness of the house across the street. When the world becomes green again, Paj Ntaub draws together these connections in a neighborly gesture of comfort. Using digital graphite, pastels, watercolor, and scanned handmade textures, Kim brings detailed dimension to the green house and the world around it. Alternating perspectives capture the expansiveness of the outside as well as the intimacy of Paj Ntaub’s observations.
Contemplative, curious, and kind.
(Picture book. 5-9)
Using just six words, Wohnoutka manages to spin a complete school story.
The sunshiny gouache illustrations do the heavy lifting, supporting the words “so,” “big,” “not,” “too,” “just,” and “right” that are repeated throughout. The first spread shows Bear waking up in a sunny bedroom. A red star marks Sept. 4 on the wall calendar, and there’s a backpack on the floor: “So big.” Bear continues to feel capable and confident while dressing, eating breakfast, packing a bag, tying shoes, and standing at the bus stop (there is nary an adult in sight) next to a nervous elephant and squirrel. Then the bus arrives, dwarfing Bear, and this contrast and the font indicate a change: “SO big.” The other students on the bus (rhino, hippo, giraffe…) are “So BIG,” and the school is “SO BIG!” Bear is suddenly “Not so big.” But then Bear spies Squirrel, who is crying and feeling even smaller and less ready than Bear. Wordlessly, Bear, a model of empathy, holds out a hand, and together, the two brave the hallways, which are “Not so big…,” meet their teacher, and find that their classroom is “Just right!” Wohnoutka’s animal cast is beautifully expressive, and his use of relative size within compositions is masterful, easily getting across to readers how the world feels to Bear and Squirrel.
Even the most school-ready kid can have doubts, but with a friend, nothing will seem too big to handle.
(Picture book. 3-6)