What makes up a family is a topic covered by preschool and elementary classroom teachers all across the country. Fortunately for them, picture books about families are easy to find, though sometimes you have to dig to find the good ones. Here are three upcoming ones well worth your time.
Coming in mid-May is the exuberant My Papi Has a Motorcycle, written by Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Peña. It comes from Penguin Random House’s Kokila, a brand-new imprint committed to “centering stories from the margins.” (You can read more here.) The author bases the story (a Spanish edition will also arrive on shelves) on her own fond childhood memories of taking a spin with her father on his motorcycle on the streets of Corona, California.
The story is told from the point of view of a young girl, whose carpenter papi likes to pick her up, put her (in her unicorn helmet) atop his motorcycle, and head out for a ride to show her the new houses he is building. Quintero fills the story with animated details of the sights and sounds the girl experiences (“the shiny blue metal of the motorcycle glows in the sun”), and she uses figurative language and hyperbole to great effect: “We become a spectacular celestial thing soaring on asphalt. A comet. The sawdust falling from Papi’s hair and clothes becomes a tail following us.”
The father and daughter “zigzag” through town, passing by landmarks and people they know and love—Joy’s Market, murals that tell the town’s history, Abuelito and Abuelita’s old yellow house, the last of the town’s citrus groves, and much more. Peña’s kinetic illustrations feature strong lines, occasional speech bubbles for dialogue, a bit of onomatopoeia (“VROOOM!”), and a soft, primarily earth-toned palette; occasional inset illustrations on full-bleed spreads bring us close-up illustrations of the girl and her father—and the joy on their faces as, wordlessly, they bond while they zoom down the streets. The girl is perceptive and capable of a precocious introspection in this tale that is both exhilarating and affectionate: “No matter how far I go from this place, or how much it changes, this city will always be with me,” she thinks at one point.
As the title tells you, When Aidan Became a Brother—written by Kyle Lukoff (an elementary school librarian), illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, and coming to shelves in early May—is about a child enthusiastically, and a bit anxiously, awaiting the arrival of a sibling. But before we get to the new addition to the family, we spend some time looking back and learning about Aidan.
When Aidan was very young, “everyone thought he was a girl,” Lukoff writes. He grew uncomfortable with the “pretty name” given him, as well as many other aspects of his gender, and realized he was not any kind of girl. “He was really,” Lukoff writes, “another kind of boy.” In a book filled with precise wording from an author who has lived the experience (Lukoff came out as trans in 2004), the most honest line (of many) may be: “It was hard to tell his parents what he knew about himself, but it was even harder not to.” After some adjustment, his parents accepted their child’s identity, and after some exploration, Aidan transitioned to a boy. And then we, as readers, transition in the story to the family’s preparation for the new baby.
Given what they learned from their first child and determined to avoid the same mistakes, Aidan’s parents make a concerted effort to prep for the baby’s arrival differently than they did for Aidan; Juanita brings the loving family’s world to vivid life in her detailed, warm illustrations. His mother answers eager questions from strangers—such as, "are you having a boy or a girl?”—with “I’m having a baby”; Aidan responds to “Are you excited for your new brother or sister?” with “I’m excited to be a big brother”; the family picks a name that avoids gender specificity; and the celebration given when the baby is born features balloons that spell out “IT’S A BABY.” Not “boy” or “girl”—just “baby.” I love this.
All the while, Aidan worries the baby will feel like he did when he was little, and he fears he is doing everything wrong. Aidan’s mother assures him that he taught them how to love someone for who they are—and that all will be well. “Maybe,” Aidan realizes later, “he would have to fix mistakes he didn’t even know he was making. And maybe that was okay.” As you can see, Lukoff purposely doesn’t include elements of bullying or hardship in the book. The young protagonist is fully accepted in his transition. In an interview at Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production, Lukoff shares: “Yes, putting Aidan through some kind of transphobia, from family and peers, wouldn’t be unrealistic. But I wanted to model other possibilities; that when your kid comes out as trans you can kiss them on the cheek, and tell them you love them.”
As the Kirkus review notes, “Aidan’s story is the first of its kind among books for welcoming a new baby.” Indeed. Don’t miss it.
Hyeon-Ju Lee’s The Happiest Tree: A Story of Growing Up, originally published in Korea in 2016 and coming to shelves here in the U.S. at the end of this month, is about an altogether different kind of family, the deciduous kind. It is told from the point of view of a ginkgo, who watches as tenants’ lives play out in their homes, right next to where the tree stands. “I moved to this building when I was ten years old,” the book opens, and we see the tree about to be planted next to a multi-story apartment building. As the tree grows, it witnesses, through windows with open drapes, various people living their lives—Rose, who teaches a piano class, on the ground floor; Mr. Artist on the second floor, whom the tree sees as it grows taller and turns fourteen years old; the Kong family and their many puppies on the third floor; and “a lonely grandmother” the ginkgo sees at twenty years old when it’s tall enough to see through the fourth-floor window.
The tree experiences a wide range of feelings as it watches these people. It even feels pain when the groundskeeper trims its branches—“but it helped,” we read, “so that I could grow up quickly!”—and it suffers a pronounced loneliness when it grows as tall as the top floor. It spends years alone, seeing nothing. But in the end, when its branches stretch above the rooftop, it can “hear the greetings” of other trees. This is a satisfying resolution to this thoughtful story about reflection upon one’s life, marked by its ups and downs (as human lives are). Best of all, one gets the sense that the ginkgo has formed its own new kind of family in these other trees it can see beyond the building. “I am the happiest ginkgo tree in my town,” the tree declares at the story’s close. Lee’s illustrations are spare and elegant; I look forward to what she brings readers next.
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.