I run the risk of this week’s column looking a lot like a television clip show. But I’m working on a presentation for the University of Tennessee’s Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature on the best picture books of the year (from, to be precise, July of 2015 till now). As I’ve worked on my list, I’ve noticed what a good year it’s been for story-time picture books. I come from a school-librarian background, and I always like to find those books that make for an engaging read to a group of children. I thought I’d round up ten of those 2016 titles today for those librarians and other educators about to return to the classroom this Fall. (At least here in the South, we’re getting very close to the end of summer break.)
10. I find it’s always good to open a story time with some poetry (and close it with poetry, too). Even if you don’t read every poem in this collection, be sure to share with students Julie Fogliano’s When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons, illustrated by Julie Morstad. As I wrote here at Kirkus back in March, it’s Fogliano’s first collection of poetry for children (though not her first book), and the free verse poems play with figurative language, imagery, and personification in effective ways. When you’re done with story time, definitely put the book back in circulation so that students can pore over Morstad’s delicate, child-centered paintings.
9. When author J.J. Austrian wrote Worm Loves Worm, illustrated by Mike Curato, it was before that historic day in June of last year when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. A book he figured could be a protest book became one of celebration. Mind you, “gay” and “gay marriage” appear nowhere in this story—this is no heavy-handed morality tale—but it is about what happens when two hermaphrodites decide to marry and figure each can be the bride and the groom. Love wins, indeed, and the spare text, uncluttered illustrations, and engaging story (no pun intended) make for a great story time. (Here is my February write-up of the book, and Clay Smith talked to both author and illustrator here in January.)
8. As author-illustrator Barbara McClintock told me in this March interview, she was inspired by her older sister to create Emma and Julia Love Ballet. But the inspiration didn’t stop there: When her sister was in college, she took Barbara to see the legendary Judith Jamison dance at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. “I loved dance from that moment on,” McClintock told me, and it was Jamison who inspired the adult ballet dancer in this beautiful book, released in February. If you’re familiar with McClintock’s previous books, including Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, you know how well she portrays the parallel lives of two characters. In this one, we see the daily routines of a young ballet dancer and a professional one. McClintock’s elegant watercolor and gouache paintings are intricate and detailed, but that’s just an excuse to ask your students to scoot in closer for this one, sure to engage both boys and girls who have a passion for hobbies of any sort.
7. Children are naturally curious about tattoos. Alison McGhee’s Tell Me a Tattoo Story, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, will draw them right in, but it’s about more than just skin art. When a young boy asks his father to tell him the story of each tattoo on his body, he’s really telling—as I wrote here at Kirkus this year—the larger story of a man who loves and values his family, going back to his own childhood. It’s a great choice for story time – and a good conversation-starter in more ways than one.
6. Sergio Ruzzier’s This Is Not a Picture Book! is a particularly excellent story-time choice for your beginning readers or emerging readers, those on the verge of entering the world of independent reading. They may relate to the duckling protagonist’s frustration with the book he’s found that has no pictures – but then delight in his joy when he falls into the story, realizing that pictures in the mind’s eye, once you realize you do know the words, are just as good. (I wrote more about this one here in mid-May.)
5. As I noted here in April, there are a lot of picture books that give classic fairy tales a contemporary twist – with female protagonists who have been given some agency and aren’t so easily duped. Some work better than others, and Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red is one of those that does. With minimalist shapes and assured lines, along with a relatively spare text and a bit of delightfully macabre humor, she tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood. But this Red is not scared – not one bit. And she’ll make for a really fun story time.
4. There are also quite a handful of books about gender restrictions. In Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m a Girl!, a blue donkey has to remind more than one creature around her that she’s hardly sugar and spice and everything nice – in fact, she’s repeatedly mistaken for a boy. Reminding everyone that girls can be rambunctious too (“I’m a girl!” she declares, as she zooms by), she exudes a no-nonsense energy that is infectious for story time. This one is also a good conversation-starter. (I wrote about it here just last month.)
3. Thunder Boy Jr., illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is Sherman Alexie’s picture book debut, and I hope he writes more of them. This story of an American Indian boy who wants his own name will delight young children, as the boy runs through suggested names that celebrate cool things he’s done. As I briefly noted here in January, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Okay, my top two choices? You absolutely cannot go wrong at story time with Daniel Bernstrom’s One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. It’s story-time gold. Three words: Original. Cumulative. Folktale. And it’s mighty entertaining. Daniel and I chatted about it here just last month.
If I were returning to a school library this fall, I’d read Adam Rex’s School’s First Day of School (one of the year’s best picture books, story-time or not), illustrated by Christian Robinson, on day one to the kindergarteners. They are your sweet spot for this wonderful story of the start of a school year told from the point of view of a new (and apprehensive) school building. Your first-graders will enjoy it too; they may even feel world-weary and grown-up. (Ah, yes, I remember the kindergarten days of yore when I was also hesitant to come to school.) The writing in this one is exemplary, and Robinson was just the right choice for illustrator. (I wrote more about this book here.)
Happy reading, and may your story times be memorable.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.