When someone asks me to consider what I think are the best picture books so far of the year, I get embarrassingly excited, hyperventilate a little and have to gather myself together. I follow contemporary picture books with much enthusiasm and interest at my site.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on The Dodsworth series.
Yet it’s inherently challenging and tricky, these “best of” lists. I’ve studied children’s lit, and I know the drill when determining the quality of a picture book. However, crafting my list of favorites found me pitting, say, Lauren Castillo’s beautifully illustrated Melvin and the Boy against Claire A. Nivola’s captivating memoir Orani: My Father’s Village. I just get twitchy—which isn’t pretty to see—trying to compare such books. I also think about how “best of” lists are frequent this time of year anyway, not to mention how hard it is to narrow down titles. (See how sneaky I was in already slipping in two books in this intro?)
So I decided to make my own rules and take a cue from my recent 20-year high school reunion to craft a list of creative superlatives, if you will, in the realm of 2011 picture books. I’m going to narrow myself to only picture books that have been released to the public in 2011, not those for which I have been lucky enough to see an advanced copy. (That’s hard, too. I’m looking straight at you, Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green, and Lauren Thompson’s and Jonathan Bean’s One Starry Night. Mwahaha. Just snuck in a few more. Insert shifty-eyed look here.)
Please note, these don’t reflect any official Kirkus “best-of” list for 2011. These are my personal picks. So, with no further ado, my favorites so far in 2011:
I Must Have Bobo! by Eileen Rosenthal and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Most Likely to Induce Snort-Laughs, this very funny domestic drama features a showdown between a young boy and Earl, the family cat. If I could play the theme song right now from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I would. My wish is that folks don’t forget this early-2011 release.
In the Meadow by Yukiko Kato and illustrated by Komako Sakai. Most Has-the-Makings-of-a-Classic, this is the gripping story of a young girl who wanders from her parents and gets lost, figuratively and literally, in the swaying grasses of a meadow. Both author and illustrator put readers right in the center of the action, and Sakai’s lush spreads are eye-popping.
These Hands by Margaret H. Mason and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. To take a cue from one of my blog readers, this one’s the Most-Texture-and-Emotion-on-Every-Single-Page entry. Mason’s story of an oft-overlooked manifestation of racial discrimination in the U.S. during the 1950s and ’60s is nestled in a warm tale of grandfather and grandson. Cooper’s luminous art has never been better.
Tweak Tweak by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. Most Infectiously Joyful, this well-crafted tale is a kick to see for many reasons, but primarily to see the offbeat Ruzzier do cute for once. (Don’t worry. The wee elephant protagonist is adorable and you just want to hug his neck, but Ruzzier still treats us to his refreshingly askew style.)
Hopper and Wilson by Maria van Lieshout. With minimalist art and concise storytelling, van Lieshout brings us two new unforgettable children’s book protagonists with stuffing and seams in an emotional, though never cloying, tale of friendship. I’ll call this entry 2011’s Best Picture Book Case Study in Elegance and Simplicity.
The Quite Contrary Man: A True American Tale written by Patricia Rusch Hyatt and illustrated by Kathyrn Brown. With apologies to Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls, which I also really like, this is my favorite picture book biography of the year thus far, the tale of a relatively unknown 19th-century American folk hero. In this entry, titled simply Most Spirited, we have grace and spunk in both storytelling as well as artwork.
Blackout by John Rocco. Ah. Most Beautifully Designed, this book makes me long for my own summer blackout and a few moments off the grid. Never has a book with so many shadows been so luminescent.
Follow Me by Tricia Tusa. This is 2011’s Best Flight of Fancy, as Tusa invites us to join a young girl on a swing, which turns into a journey through the air. It’s what feels like a long, spacious interlude, which probably lasts only moments for the girl, not to mention a lyrical, evocative journey I didn’t want to see end.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. This picture book biography of Dr. Jane Goodall, possessing some of 2011’s Cleanest, Unfussiest Compositions, was one of the year’s earliest delights. McDonnell captures the joy and wonder of Goodall’s childhood and expertly incorporates soft vintage images into his spreads.
The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos and illustrated by Rafael López. Wait. I already used Most Infectiously Joyful? I call a tie! This bilingual take on “The House That Jack Built”—incorporating Spanish, a baking maiden, a goat churning cream, a duck heading to the market, a donkey plucking a lime and much more—sings with cheer. López’s acrylics on grained wood are accessible and warm, making the sophisticated look simple.
Along a Long Road by Frank Viva. Not so much a story as a case study in the use of picture book line, this sparsely worded tale chronicles one man’s bike journey along a single road, a smooth yellow line which propels the story with an almost palpable energy. This one I’ll call Most Heart in the Digital Art, Viva having created the book as “a single, continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art using Adobe Illustrator.”
Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat by Philip C. Stead. I’m saving the best for last. Yes, I said it: “Best.” Jules’ Very Best Most Favorite of All Most Superlative I Hope This Book Wins Awards My Gracious Does It Rock! 2011 Picture Book Title. The writing manages to be suspenseful and tender, and Stead’s multilayered collage illustrations are simply a wonder. My favorite part? Stead lets the raw materials shine and seems to be telling us that imperfections in our glossy, high-tech lives are not just allowed, but they’re also celebrated.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.