In the decade since I began working in publishing, it feels harder than ever to compile a best-of-the-year list; with so many more titles being published each year, the piles of excellent books to sort through just get bigger and bigger. It’s the best (so to speak!) kind of problem to have, though—one that ensures a list brimming with gems. You’ll find the complete list of 100 best picture books here; below is an introduction to some of our selections.
Though kids may not understand everything making the news over the last few years, they’re likely picking up on the stress their grown-ups are feeling. Several titles offer comfort—and ways to start dialogues on difficult topics like racism, death, and mental illness. In Abuelita and Me (Annick Press, April 12) by Leonarda Carranza, illustrated by Rafael Mayani, a Latine child watches helplessly as their grandmother is treated with derision by others—nevertheless, this forthright exploration of the impact of microaggressions is laced with hope.
Children will also be buoyed by books like If You’re a Kid Like Gavin: The True Story of a Young Trans Activist (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, July 12) by Gavin Grimm and Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by J Yang. As trans rights continue to be eroded, this account of Grimm’s coming-out journey and path to activism will be a light in the darkness to children worried about what lies ahead.
There are still reasons for joy—and reasons to laugh, as many books on the list remind us. Creepy Crayon! (Simon & Schuster, Aug. 23) by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, follows the bunny protagonist of the Caldecott Honor book Creepy Carrots! (2012) and Creepy Pair of Underwear! (2017) as he encounters a crayon that may grant him everything he desires, or so he thinks. This one is guaranteed to give readers both goosebumps and the giggles—no mean feat. And with Two Dogs (Michael di Capua/HarperCollins, June 28), Ian Falconer introduces a devilishly funny dachshund duo whose shenanigans manage to rival those of his porcine heroine, Olivia. (Read our interview with Falconer.)
Our list also boasts forays into the great outdoors, titles that let readers vicariously climb trees, trek through snowy forests, and, in the case of Kim Jihyun’s wordless South Korean import, The Depth of the Lake and the Height of the Sky (Floris, April 19), dive into a sumptuous watery world. Still This Love Goes On (Greystone Kids, Sept. 27) is another stunning ode to nature—though with words…and what words! The lyrics of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song blend with Julie Flett’s textured artwork for “a love letter to family, home, and Indigenous traditions,” to quote our review. (Read our interview with Sainte-Marie.)
It was a robust year for nonfiction, particularly books spotlighting historical topics that have gone unsung. Pairing his signature, pre-Columbian–style illustrations with contemplative text, Duncan Tonatiuh’s A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters (Abrams, Nov. 15) offers a glimpse into the world of Mesoamerican bookmakers. With Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (Roaring Brook Press, Sept. 6), author Angela Joy and illustrator Janelle Washington recount a horrific chapter of U.S. history, displaying respect and empathy both for their subjects and their young audience. (Read our interviews with Tonatiuh and Joy and Washington.)
While many of these titles take on lofty topics, others are rooted in the quotidian—the concerns likely to be top of mind for the littlest readers. How We Eat (Little Feminist Press, Oct. 18) by Shuli de la Fuente-Lau is filled with crisp, inviting photographs; what sets this board book apart is its inclusivity—feeding tubes, adaptive cutlery, and chopsticks are just a few of the tools used to nourish little ones. And in Nikki Grimes’ Playtime for Restless Rascals (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, Sept. 6), illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, we see a Black child swept away by a vivid imagination, to joyful effect.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.