As we round the bend toward the final season of 2014, I wanted to put together a collection of my favorite children’s picture books that came out this year. That’s not to say these are the ten best picture books, or even the ten best-selling books, just that they’re my favorites, for the singular reason that my children love them. I have a four and a six-year old, and while they’re often happy with the simple act of snuggling up and being read to regardless of what the book is, the best books, I think, are ones that are not only enjoyable for them but for me, the reader, too. These are all books that are clever, well designed, funny, and inventive. And they all came out in 2014.
Here we go, in no particular order:
1. Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts, is hands-down my favorite rhyming book of the year. The exceptionally stylish milliner, Madame Chapeau, has the gift of being able to match perfectly each hat to its owner. However, in her personal life, she is rather lonely and even on her birthday, she dresses up and goes out to dine alone at “Chez Snooty-Patoot.” When a crow makes off with her beguiling birthday bonnet, her many Parisian neighbors are compelled to offer her their own hats—but Madame Chapeau recognizes that the gorgeous headpieces proffered are perfectly suited only to the heads they came from. “She knew that each hat—with its feathers or fur—was made for someone who was simply not her.” It’s not until a young girl gives her a hat “knitted with love,” that she feels complete, and everyone joins her in a colorful and jaunty celebration.
2. Do you remember how awkward it used to be when you’d run into your school teacher at the local grocery store, or in line for the bank? To think they (gasp!) actually had a life outside of school! This could be especially off-putting if one didn’t particularly like said teacher, if that teacher was…well…temperamental. In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.), Bobby can’t bear his teacher, Ms. Kirby. But when the two meet unexpectedly at the park one Saturday, and a gust of wind sends Ms. Kirby’s hat into the lake, Bobby fishes it out. The dreadful (and green) Ms. Kirby is very grateful. As they sit and chat, Bobby comes to find his teacher gradually becoming more human as he learns more about her. The pictures of Ms. Kirby’s transformation are funny and sweet.
3. Amy Krouse Rosenthal is one of my favorite children’s book authors. Her newest, Uni the Unicorn, is a role reversal of the unicorn fairy tale—Uni is a unicorn who, though all the other unicorns tell her that little girls are a myth, really believes in little girls. She just knows that somewhere out there is a little girl who will be her friend, and they’ll frolic in meadows and slide down rainbows together. It’s a lovely and funny story of friendship and dreamers with bright, vintage-y illustrations by Brigette Barrager.
4. I’m not usually a huge fan of wordless picture books, but Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle is so sweet and retro I couldn’t not include it. Drawn in a rather bleak sepia-scale but for the shiny green bicycle, we see a little girl fall in love with the bike through the store window. She rushes home to see if she has enough money for it in her piggy bank—alas, she does not. She begins to do chores for an elderly lady and over the course of several months finally earns enough money for the bike—just to find that it’s been sold. I won’t spoil it for you, but the book ends with an endearing act of kindness. There is a wide range of emotions covered in this book— yearning, determination, disappointment, selflessness. Equally wonderful are the themes to discuss—hard work, saving, delayed gratification, and giving. It’s a heartwarming and creative book.
5. Scott Campbell both wrote and illustrated Hug Machine, about a little lover of a boy who will hug anything. Sure, some things are awkward or uncomfortable to wrap your arms around, but the hug machine is up for it, he may just need to do a little engineering. A whale, for instance, will need hugs in increments, a porcupine hug requires protection in the form of a face mask and oven mitts. Finally, when he’s all hugged out, his mom scoops him up in her own arms. Warm fuzzies all around.
6. Two books about hats on this list! Brian Won’s Hooray for Hat! shows us how easy it is to pull out of a grumpy mood—simply don a hat. We see a menagerie of grumpy animals joining the parade of their newly-cheered friends wearing super fun hats. That’s all there is to it, and with the bold, colorful pictures and the appealing theme of sharing good merriment, nothing else is really necessary. Would that it were so simple.
7. I’ll admit that I have a crush on Oliver Jeffers. He has a respect for children that flows onto the pages via a wry sense of humor and a broad vocabulary not always found in picture books. Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters gives each letter its own alliterative scenario in a free form style—sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. Some of the stories are a little dark, some are absurd, all are inventive. A’s story is of Edmund the Astronaut who was afraid of heights, B is about burning bridges, E is the Enigma, in which we’re asked how many elephants will fit into an envelope, finishing later on in N’s story, “The answer to the enigma is: nearly nine thousand. Sort of. You could never actually fit an elephant inside an envelope. But you could fit nearly nine thousand envelopes inside an elephant.”
8. Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett are in classic form with Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Told in a deliciously droll voice, it is the story of two boys’ adventure digging a hole with their dog. The hole becomes so deep, and they get so dirty, but the boys find nothing. The reader sees how unfortunately close they were to reaching buried jewels as they continue to dig, but the boys do not and miss them entirely. Eventually the boys plummet through the bottom of the hole, landing right back where they started. Sort of. The deadpan humor and the side-eye facial expressions make this book.
9. Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio, is perfectly illustrated by Christian Robinson. Seriously, frame-worthy art in this switcheroo tale about nature vs. nurture. Gaston never seems to fit in with his poodle sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. He tries to be dainty like they are, but just isn’t as naturally refined as they are. It’s because he’s a bulldog, of course. When they come across Antoinette, a proper little poodle with three brutish bulldog brothers (Rocky, Ricky, and Bruno), they realize there had been a mixup at birth and trade pooches. It quickly becomes clear who belongs where, though, as the ever earnest Gaston doesn’t feel at home with the rough-and-tumble crowd. Much to everyone’s relief they switch back, but remain friends and learn toughness, tenderness and individuality from each other.
10. Last on my list of favorite picture books is The Book with No Pictures. Did you see what I did there? Actually, it’s what B.J. Novak (the guy from The Office) did. True to its title, there are no pictures, just words. Words that, according to the rules of read-aloud books, must be read out loud. Words like BLORK. Entire sentences like “I am a monkey who taught myself to read…and now I am reading you this book with my monkey mouth in my monkey voice.” With asides of protest throughout the book (“Wait, what? That doesn’t even mean anything!”), it’s a book that relies on being read out loud with a fair bit of enthusiasm to crack kids up.