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Worth Reading: Excellent New Picture Books

Updated: Jan 3

an open book on a stool with stars coming out of it

Which picture books have you enjoyed reading to your kids lately? Would you like to read a picture book that’s new and excellent? Each year the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) team up to present the “Youth Media Awards” in late January. There are 21 awards in all, each of which often have both winners and honor books. Some awards go to audiobooks, and one is a tribute to the body of work a creator has produced in his or her lifetime. But the most well-known and oldest are the Caldecott Medal and the Newbery Medal. The Caldecott award goes to an illustrator whose effort in a book published in the preceding year defines the best of American illustration. The Newbery is presented to the author of the preceding year’s most distinguished children’s books.

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. 2020.

book cover for "the cat man of aleppo"

It’s difficult to imagine a picture book featuring a story from war-torn Aleppo, Syria. How could such difficult material be presented in a way that would appeal to young children? Enter The Cat Man of Aleppo. Ambulance driver Alaa comes across so many abandoned cats in his travels back and forth through the city that he decides to use his meager funds to help them eat. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a lovely story with both clear-eyed reality and hope for the future. *Note: this book was an Honor title (runner-up) for the Caldecott Medal.

Nesting by Henry Cole. 2020.

Simple, lovely illustrations highlight the life cycle of the humble robin. Nesting in an apple tree, the blue eggs are laid one by one, cared for, hatch and the little birds grow and fly away.

Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal. 2020.

book cover for "swashby and the sea"

Something about the style of the book cover didn’t intrigue me right off the bat. There’s an old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” so this dogged pursuer of excellence read through the book regardless. I loved this sweet, insightful tale with twists and turns galore. A story of friendship and determination.

Lift by Minh Lê illustrated by Dan Santat.

book cover for "lift"

With a graphic novel feel and sparse text, the creators of Lift manage to transport us into a magical world with the touch of an elevator button. Iris LOVES to push the button on the elevator. When she finds that she has been displaced as the family’s official button pusher, she finds a way to make up for her loss. With a button to push and imagination as her guide, she travels far and wide without leaving home.

Exquisite: the Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Carrera. 2020.

Do you know an aspiring young poet? Gwendolyn was just that. Words flowed from her pen, even from a young age. She faced many trials in her life, enduring poverty, the difficulties of America’s Great Depression, rejection from classmates and losses due to world wars. Still, nothing could stop Gwendolyn from pursuing her dream: sharing her poems with the world. The tenacity and grit of this African-American legend kept her working until one day she discovered she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry of 1950. *Note: this book was an Honor title (runner-up) for the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade. 2020.

book cover for "we are water protectors"

This stunning ode to water starts by sharing a seemingly simple concept: “Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me.” Throughout the tale, both water and a mysterious “black snake” wind through Native American tribal lands. It soon becomes clear that the “black snake” is, in reality, a threat to the very existence of the water upon which people depend. There is a political angle to this work that may not appeal to everyone, but it makes clear the connection that the book’s creators feel to the land around them. A worthy read for older preschoolers and young school-age children interested in contemporary Native American issues. *Note: this book is the ALA’s 2021 Caldecott Medal winner.

Next month

I’ll highlight some of the other excellent titles for children and teens that won awards in the 2021 Youth Media Awards. Can’t wait that long to find out who won? You can visit the American Library Association’s Press Center for the press release listing all the winners!

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