Spring Picture Books on the Radar

Why, hello there! We are running our fingers through a few months’ worth of cyber-dust here at the Calling Caldecott blog, given that our last post was in January.

Have you been reading picture books in 2019? You can trust that we have, and we thought it would be a good idea to check in a couple of times before we kick off the official Calling Caldecott season right after Labor Day. We’d love to share which picture books we’ve seen and loved this year, and we’d like to know what’s on your radar. Please do weigh in below in the comments section. We always like to hear from you.

Before I do that (Jules posting here), I want to take a moment to GUSH about the newest issue of the Horn Book. (Imagine me doing both jazz hands and spirit fingers, though I may not do the latter well, because I was never a cheerleader.) Because I am not on staff at the Horn Book, I can do so, right? Right! I had nothing to do with the creation of the issue, so I’m going to brag on them — and hope that, in the name of humility, they don’t edit me.

The issue I speak of is the May/June issue, which celebrates 50 years of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. If you don’t subscribe to the magazine, then hurry to your nearest bookstore to get a copy. It is an exquisite and informative issue, and kudos to the Horn Book staff for this beauty. There are articles by Rudine Sims Bishop, Kwame Alexander, Kekla Magoon, and many more. And the picture book coverage is strong. We figure you’re here at this blog because you like picture books, yes? You don’t want to miss this issue. It’s a special one.

Will any of the 2019 picture books listed below win a Coretta Scott King Book Award? It’s possible.

Here are some of the outstanding picture books we’ve seen thus far this year, ones that could maybe possibly perhaps get some Caldecott love and ones we may end up writing about here at Calling Caldecott in the fall. Which have you seen and loved? Which books would you add? Do tell us in the comments.

James E. Ransome’s The Bell Rang received a starred review from the Horn Book. Reviewer Monique Harris wrote that Ransome’s illustrations “communicate what words cannot: the tender love of family, the cruelty of enslavement, the emptiness left after the loss of a loved one, and the ever-present dilemma of self-emancipation for those who lived in bondage” — all without “sugarcoating or minimizing the complexity of human emotion.” Could this one bring the prolific Ransome some Caldecott recognition?

My Heart, written and illustrated by Corinna Luyken, features a group of diverse children whose innermost feelings are made manifest via a series of metaphors and softly rendered monotype illustrations. I’m particularly fond of the final spread, which communicates the empowering notion that children — whether their hearts are closed or open, broken or full — have autonomy over their own interior lives.

Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival is an excellent, visually striking piece of nonfiction. Lindsay Moore's vivid art is rendered via pencils, watercolors, ink, crayons, and colored pencils and is told from the point of view of a polar bear who, long ago, learned to be patient from her polar bear mother. “I wanted to give polar bears a voice,” Moore writes in the book's closing note, “to tell what life is like for a bear in a changing Arctic landscape.”

What Is Given from the Heart is the final book from the late Patricia McKissack. It is the picture book debut for South Carolina fine artist April Harrison. Her illustrations, rendered in acrylics, collage, pen, and found objects, call forth the dignity and grace of the African American community featured in this lyrical, emotionally compelling story. The muted, earth-toned colors give focus to Harrison’s textures and detailed patterns. She also captures body language splendidly. (And I hope we see her illustrate more children's books.)

In 2016, Sergio Ruzzier studied the sketchbooks and character studies of James Marshall and Arnold Lobel at the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection (and wrote about that experience a few years ago here at the Horn Book). The result of that research is Good Boy, a story about the bond between a boy and his dog. It is impressive how much Ruzzier does with such spare illustrations and copious white space. This is an affectionate (but never saccharine) story of friendship, written almost entirely in a string of simple, one-word imperative sentences, and it speaks specifically to the devotion children can have to animals.

I think it's remarkable what Andrea Tsurumi pulls off in Crab Cake. It's a story filled with understated humor (for one, a crab with a big tray of pastries); it's entertaining; it's informative; Tsurumi knows how to compose a spread well; and (after the tone shifts dramatically midway through the book) we encounter an environmental message that comes across loud and clear, yet is never too heavy-handed. At its heart, it's a story about a community banding together to make a difference and make themselves heard. When it first came out, I remember reading a review that called it "wholly original." Yeah. That.

Another is Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson's authorial debut. Made for twisting and turning in young readers’ hands, it's the story of a girl, falling asleep in her bedroom, who encounters a mysterious portal to another plane of existence. There are gravity-defying stairs, a rainbow-colored conveyor belt, and multi-dimensional doppelgängers. Robinson uses simple shapes to tell this multilayered adventure tale.

Who understands introverts better than Philip and Erin Stead? In Music for Mister Moon, we meet Harriet Henry (who might let you call her "Hank"), who has a cello in hand and long bangs hanging in her eyes. She loves playing her instrument, but she'd rather not play for crowds, thanks anyway. Her stuffed animals make just the right audience. How she ends up playing atop Mister Moon one night is the stuff of this story, elegantly rendered by Caldecott Medalist Erin E. Stead via monoprint illustrations done in oil inks, along with additional flourishes in colored pencil.

Hey, I wrote about Hey, Water! for the Horn Book, and that review is here. Antoinette Portis brings readers another playful and informative picture book with crisp, unfussy illustrations. This one is about about a young girl named Zoe, who considers the role of water inside and outside of her home.

There are a lot of things I like about Hayley Barrett's Babymoon, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. My hope is that people don't see it as only The Perfect Baby Shower Gift. (It very much would make a wonderful gift for such an occasion, though I also always buy new parents this, and no one at the Horn Book paid me to say that.) That is, I don't think this is one of those adult books disguised as a children's book; I think that young children (old enough to sit and listen to this story) will absolutely delight in considering the ways in which their parents cared for them during the years they were newborn and helpless. If you haven't seen this one yet, find a copy, come back here, and tell us what you think. I love how Martinez-Neal doesn't shy from the hardships of new parenthood (such as: the fatigue), and I love all the comforting curves in her sure and gentle lines. Oh, and I love all the circles, including the one the family of three forms on the cover as the parents shelter the baby. These circles communicate wholeness and love. Could this one garner even more Caldecott recognition for Martinez-Neal (who, last year, won an Honor)?

Richard Jackson spent many years as an editor, and now he's writing picture books (which I have consistently enjoyed). This new one, illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka, is told from the point of view of a puddle. (I love surprises! Have we had children's books about sentient puddles yet? I can't think of any.) Raschka's watercolor and gouache paintings are, as the Horn Book review notes, filled with humor and "help children grasp the idea of empathy and perspective."

Will the committee fall for Caldecott Honoree Kadir Nelson's dramatic, arresting portraits, rendered in oils, of African American luminaries (and more) in Kwame Alexander's The Undefeated? I feel confident we'll end up discussing it at Calling Caldecott this year.

In Kelly Starling Lyons' big-hearted Going Down Home with Daddy, a celebration of Black family reunion culture, illustrator Daniel Minter’s acrylic wash illustrations are layered and exquisite, teeming with patterns, details, and textures. This is a joyful, tender portrait of an exceptionally close family. I hope you've seen this one.

Caldecott Honoree Vera Brosgol is back with The Little Guys, which features clean, crisp lines; expressive humor; and an earth-toned palette. It is a story that goes down a road that may surprise you, and I love this about the book.

¡Vamos! Let's Go to the Market  is often likened to Richard Scarry’s Busytown — but with a Mexican American twist. It's from Pura Belpré Medal-winning illustrator Raúl the Third and has received multiple starred reviews, including from the Horn Book, who praised the book's detailed comics-style illustrations.

I reviewed Deborah Freedman's Carl and the Meaning of Life for the Horn Book, and that review is here. I like how much Freedman leaves to child readers to deduce for themselves, including the "meaning of life" in the book's title.

The starred Horn Book review for Miranda Paul's Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Jason Chin, is here. It is a wonder to see Chin's illustrations grow in scale, as the baby in the womb grows with each page turn.

Susan L. Roth gives us a bird's-eye view (excuse the bad pun) of the artistic process in Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me, which opens memorably with: "The differences between a bowerbird and me are fewer than you might expect.” To see the ways in she visually unites her work as an artist with a bowerbird's efforts to build a nest, find a mate, etc. is fascinating. It is all brought to life via her remarkably distinctive collage illustrations, which consist of assorted papers, fabrics, wires, beads, ribbons, and much more.

Maria Russo at the New York Times wrote that the "desert-sunset tones of [Zeke] Peña’s comics-inflected art feel like a revelation." She's talking about Isabel Quintero's My Papi Has a Motorcycle, an exuberant, affectionate story. Be sure to find a copy if you haven't seen this one yet.

Micha Archer's Daniel's Good Day reminds me, in all the right ways, of the books of Vera B. Williams. Her colorful and remarkably detailed collage illustrations are for poring over in this companion to Daniel Finds a Poem (an Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning book). This one has already received multiple starred reviews.

That's it for now. These are books that have been published from January to May. We've seen some other outstanding books, but they will be published later in the year. We hope to touch base again and do another post like this in a month or two.

What would you add?

Happy reading!

Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.
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Hayley Barrett

Thank you, Julie, for this beautiful, insightful review of Babymoon! Hayley

Posted : Jun 07, 2019 02:23


Yay! I was just wondering when there would be a post - it is been a long few months. Thanks for these excellent books - so many books, so little time. There are a few I haven't seen yet, so I'm off to check them out this weekend. My top two from this list: I really love What is Given From the Heart - so much - everything about it. And The Bell Rang - intense and beautiful and amazing. Please post more soon!

Posted : May 31, 2019 11:15

Kathryn Fredrickson

My first-grade son and I were both touched by Sea Bear. He wanted to keep it a little longer but after some contemplation decided he wanted other kids to have the opportunity to check it out. He declined my offer to renew. Such a lovely and timely book.

Posted : May 22, 2019 09:56

Micha Archer

Julie, Thank you for your kinds words about "Daniel's Good Day" A funny thing- Vera Williams was a good friend of my mom's in college, Nan Archer. They went to college together at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. I love Vera's work, such a nice compliment ! Be well, Micha

Posted : May 22, 2019 05:37

Julie Corsaro

Undefeated is majestic. It will stand up to multiple readings. (I don't know if the poem being previously performed will effect eligibility).

Posted : May 20, 2019 11:19

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