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Best Picture Books of 2019 With Themes of Resilience

An incredible connector text for young readers eager to graduate to weighty conversations about our yesterday, our now, and...

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THE UNDEFEATED

Past and present are quilted together in this innovative overview of black Americans’ triumphs and challenges in the United States.

Alexander’s poetry possesses a straightforward, sophisticated, steady rhythm that, paired with Nelson’s detail-oriented oil paintings, carries readers through generations chronicling “the unforgettable,” “the undeniable,” “the unflappable,” and “the righteous marching ones,” alongside “the unspeakable” events that shape the history of black Americans. The illustrator layers images of black creators, martyrs, athletes, and neighbors onto blank white pages, patterns pages with the bodies of slaves stolen and traded, and extends a memorial to victims of police brutality like Sandra Bland and Michael Brown past the very edges of a double-page spread. Each movement of Alexander’s poem is a tribute to the ingenuity and resilience of black people in the U.S., with textual references to the writings of Gwendolyn Brooks, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X dotting stanzas in explicit recognition and grateful admiration. The book ends with a glossary of the figures acknowledged in the book and an afterword by the author that imprints the refrain “Black. Lives. Matter” into the collective soul of readers, encouraging them, like the cranes present throughout the book, to “keep rising.”

An incredible connector text for young readers eager to graduate to weighty conversations about our yesterday, our now, and our tomorrow. (Picture book/poetry. 6-12)

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-328-78096-6

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Versify/HMH

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

With lots to look at and a pleasing rhythm, this energetic repair project ticks along very nicely indeed.

FIX THAT CLOCK

Three young builders repair a run-down clock housed in a wooden tower.

The rickety wooden tower stands alone, paint peeling, stairs broken. The gears in the clock have rusted; most of the numbers have fallen off. Three determined young people clad in overalls and toting tools arrive to restore it. Two present as male—one tall, thin, and black, the other shorter and white. The lone girl has straight, dark hair cut in a short bob and olive skin. The rhyming text has an appealingly singsong nursery-rhyme cadence as it chronicles their arrival, the work they do, and the host of small animals that have made the clock tower their home. It also offers opportunities for interaction by describing details in ways that encourage children to observe closely and to count. Variations in the style, size, and color of the typeset add emphasis and visual interest and contribute to the playful feel. Crisp, colorful illustrations enhance and extend the text. In addition to depicting the action and individuals described (down to the last of 20 mice who race to escape the demolition), they reveal subtle patterns in the trees, shrubs, and clouds and the details of the clock face and its gears.

With lots to look at and a pleasing rhythm, this energetic repair project ticks along very nicely indeed. (Picture book. 4-8)

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-328-90408-9

Page Count: 40

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

Informative, empowering, and gorgeous

SURVIVAL

Twenty endangered species from around the world are highlighted in this picture book allied with the African wildlife charity Tusk.

Despite the spare title and black endpapers, it’s not all doom and gloom in this large, square, gorgeously illustrated picture book. This effect is accomplished by matching McNaught’s stunning illustrations with Claybourne’s concise text—a combination that delivers both visual and textual information, leaving readers feeling knowledgeable and empowered. The book’s appealing and effective design presents double-page spreads with a full-page illustration on the recto and text on the verso. The illustration shows a finely wrought portrait of the animal or insect emerging from a bright, solid-colored background even as areas of background color fill in as negative space within the portrait—a technique that brilliantly underscores the evanescence of the species. Upward drips of paint visually connect the animal/insect to the greater world at large. The verso presents a silhouette of the world with icons pegging the areas the species inhabits and concisely relates its Latin name, status, population, size, habitat, and location. Below, further paragraphs tell readers why the animal or insect has declined in population (always human activity). But hearteningly, each section ends with the conservation efforts now being undertaken. The final page, “How You Can Help,” sets black text against a bright, visually optimistic yellow background and lists accessible activities readers can participate in to promote conservation.

Informative, empowering, and gorgeous . (Informational picture book. 4-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7624-9637-2

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Running Press Kids

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

The cupboard is nearly bare of children’s books about the DMZ, making this an excellent introduction to the crises on the...

WHEN SPRING COMES TO THE DMZ

This bittersweet picture book walks through the four seasons at Korea’s heavily weaponized demilitarized zone, celebrating the nature that thrives there while mourning the human cost of this border wall.

Although the story does not even define or discuss the DMZ or the Korean War, colorful illustrations reveal to young readers the long fences of razor wire hugging a beautiful mountainside. But because no humans are allowed in this 2.5-mile-wide, 150-mile-long buffer zone, the area has unintentionally become a nature sanctuary. The water deer, striped salmon, and mountain goats know no limitations to their habitat, crossing borders, swimming under barbed wire, and nesting near land mines. Their freedom, together with many references to home and family, stand in stark contrast to the military exercises that have continued through the cease-fire since 1953. Lee views this irony through the character of elderly Grandfather, who makes his way to the wall every season, gazing longingly upon his inaccessible former homeland. A foldout reveal at book’s end is symbolic of the hope of a reunified Korea, with a simple reunion embrace representing the dreams of families separated since the 1950s. The endnote provides needed background along with a plea for peace and freedom.

The cupboard is nearly bare of children’s books about the DMZ, making this an excellent introduction to the crises on the Korean Peninsula as well as a great choice for social justice collections, peace promoters, and animal lovers. (Picture book. 4-12)

Pub Date: March 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87486-972-9

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Plough

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Fry bread is much more than food, as this book amply demonstrates.

FRY BREAD

A NATIVE AMERICAN FAMILY STORY

A bright picture book invites kids to cook with a Native American grandma.

Kids of all races carry flour, salt, baking powder, and other supplies into the kitchen to make dough for fry bread. Flour dusts the counter as oil sizzles on the stove. Veggies, beans, and honey make up the list of toppings, and when the meal is ready, everyone is invited to join the feast. Community love is depicted in this book as its characters gather on Indigenous land across the continent—indoors, outdoors, while making art or gazing at the night sky. This is about more than food, referencing cultural issues such as the history of displacement, starvation, and the struggle to survive, albeit in subtle ways appropriate for young children. With buoyant, heartfelt illustrations that show the diversity in Native America, the book tells the story of a post-colonial food, a shared tradition across the North American continent. Broken down into headings that celebrate what fry bread is, this story reaches readers both young and old thanks to the author’s note at the back of the book that dives into the social ways, foodways, and politics of America’s 573 recognized tribes. Through this topic that includes the diversity of so many Native peoples in a single story, Maillard (Mekusukey Seminole) promotes unity and familiarity among nations.

Fry bread is much more than food, as this book amply demonstrates. (recipe) (Picture book. 3-8)

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62672-746-5

Page Count: 48

Publisher: Roaring Brook

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

A true celebration of the endless creativity and resilience of children.

LUBNA AND PEBBLE

Lubna navigates the challenges of being a refugee: keeping happy—or rather, surviving—and passing the courage on.

She arrives with her dad as refugees to their temporary home, “a World of Tents,” with no visible toys and perhaps nothing at all. Lubna latches onto a pebble she finds on the beach after their crowded boat arrives at the shore. After this find, she “clutched Daddy’s hand and gripped her pebble. Somehow, she knew they’d keep her safe.” The larger-than-life, almost dreamy illustrations show readers what Lubna sees and feels, and the rawness of both text and images penetrates the heart. Lubna and Pebble become best friends, and she and her lovingly understanding father even create a nice home for it to face the cold winter, a shoebox with a tea towel. Then she meets another friend, Amir, a little boy who is alone. “This is my best friend, Pebble,” Lubna says. Amir smiles, and together they play under the stars, the illustrations taking on jewel tones that contrast their imaginary play with the drabness of the refugee camp. When Lubna hears the happy news about resettlement to a better place, she is first happy, then sad about leaving Amir behind. She makes a hard and selfless decision that night, to share her treasure with her young friend who needs to hang on. Lubna, her father, and Amir have olive skin and dark hair; their circumstances hint at Syrian origins, but no country is named.

A true celebration of the endless creativity and resilience of children. (Picture book. 5-12)

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-55416-5

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

Special and splendid.

SATURDAY

Caldecott Honoree Mora (Thank You, Omu!, 2018) returns in this sophomore offering about a mother and daughter’s special Saturday.

Young protagonist Ava and her mother love their Saturdays together. Ava’s mother works, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” so Saturday is their special day. The pairs’ smiles and Ava’s outflung hands convey excitement, while realistic details such as Ava’s mother’s sleep scarf add authenticity. In vignettes, Mora’s collage art chronicles some of their past adventures and shows them performing various actions in a circle of repeated figures (clearly intended to convey the passage of time), preparing for their day. Discerning readers may spy something left behind as they head out. Things start to go awry almost immediately, but Ava’s mother is full of reassurances, and they have a strategy for dealing with disappointment: pause, close their eyes, breathe deep, and move on. But after the biggest disappointment comes at the end of a daylong string of them, it’s Ava who brings comfort to her mother in a touching moment that may bring tears to readers’ eyes. Though not a preachy book, it offers lessons that are both beautiful and useful. Ava and her mother are black, with skin of different hues of browns, while other characters are an array of skin tones. How wonderful: a book with both racial diversity and class diversity that feels authentic.

Special and splendid. (Picture book. 4-9)

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-43127-9

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

With spare text and gorgeous illustrations, this work represents a unique and engaging perspective on enslaved families.

THE BELL RANG

A girl’s family life and plantation routines are interrupted when three enslaved boys run away.

Most days start the same way: The bell rings, Daddy collects wood, Mama prepares breakfast, they eat together. The narrator’s brother, Ben, her parents, and the other slaves go to the fields while the girl stays with the young ones to play. On Wednesday, Ben surprises her with a handmade doll. On Thursday, Ben and his two friends are gone. There are tears; the narrator’s parents are beaten, and other slaves look mad or sad. On Friday, the girl cannot eat or talk. On Saturday, there are horses and dogs; Ben’s friends have been caught, but there is no sign of Ben. “Out comes the whip. / All night we cry and pray for Ben.” On Sunday, Big Sam preaches near the creek, “of being free. / We sing. / We hope. / We pray / Ben made it. / Free like the birds. / Free like Moses. / No more bells.” The final spread shows the girl looking out, with the single word “Monday…” and a bird flying away on the endpaper. The richly textured paintings make masterful use of light and space to create the narrator’s world and interior life, from the glimmer of dawn as her father chops wood to her mother’s fatigue and her own knowing eyes. Ransome’s free-verse text is as accomplished as his glowing acrylics.

With spare text and gorgeous illustrations, this work represents a unique and engaging perspective on enslaved families. (author’s note) (Picture book. 4-8)

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4424-2113-4

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

A beautifully rendered tale of loss, love, grief, and gentle healing.

THE PHONE BOOTH IN MR. HIROTA'S GARDEN

When tragedy strikes a Japanese fishing community, a young boy navigates grief with the help of a neighbor.

Every day, Makio and his elderly neighbor, Mr. Hirota, play a game spotting family members working on the shore cleaning the catch of the day. Suddenly an earthquake strikes, and the two watch in horror as their loved ones are caught in the ensuing tsunami. “Everyone lost someone the day the big wave came. / Silence hung over the village like a dark, heavy cloud.” Makio has not spoken since but curiously watches as Mr. Hirota builds a telephone booth in his garden to talk to his lost daughter, Fumika. Soon other members of the community use the booth to talk to their lost ones: “Hello, cousin. Today I fixed the boat. I will fish again soon.” Intrigued, Makio sneaks into the booth, finding a disconnected phone and the courage to finally say aloud, “I miss you, Dad.” Basing her story on the tsunami that struck Otsuchi, Japan, in 2011, Smith uses a reverent, poetic tone that is heightened by Wada’s mixed media illustrations. Wada uses a hybrid of Japanese art styles to mirror the grieving process, with the tragedy expressed in a dark gray palette, gradually underlined by pops of color and eventually giving way to a warmly colored pastel spread.

A beautifully rendered tale of loss, love, grief, and gentle healing. (author’s note) (Picture book. 6-8)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4598-2103-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Orca

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

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