Self-empowerment and self-love

Here are seven new picture books meant to encourage and inspire young readers to set aside self-consciousness and embrace who they are, what they think, and what they can achieve. And in this month’s Five Questions interview, Vashti Harrison discusses how the heroine of her new picture book Big finds her voice when she needs to stand up to others’ judgments about her. See also the Guide/Reviews Database subject tag Self-actualization.

I Have a Question
by Andrew Arnold; illus. by the author
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
1/23    9781250838247    $18.99

“And that, class, is what we call metamorphosis…Are there any questions?” Our young protagonist does indeed have a question (per question-mark thought bubble) but is immediately plagued by self-consciousness and doubt. No one else seems to have one, and asking would just shine an unwanted spotlight. A series of what-ifs? goes through the child’s mind, played out in clear, lively digital cartoons with oversize, shout-y speech balloons: “YOU CALL THAT A QUESTION?…LOOK, EVERYONE! IT’S SILLY-QUESTION KID!…SILLY-QUESTION KID IS IN OUR CLASS!” After a brief imagined sojourn to outer space, where there’s no one to poke fun at question-askers — but there’s no one to answer questions, either — the child returns to the real-life classroom, cautiously raises a hand, and voices the query: “How do you know if a caterpillar is going to turn into a butterfly or a moth?” A very good question — and one that opens the floodgates for other classmates’ wonderings. (Who would win in a fight, a butterfly or a moth?) Reluctant queriers will relate to the issues raised by the story, which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and may well feel a sense of relief and reassurance. Although some of the questions are actually quite ridiculous (“Can I be a moth?”), the act of asking them isn’t. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Loud Librarian
by Jenna Beatrice; illus. by Erika Lynne Jones
Primary    Atheneum    40 pp.
4/23    9781665910545    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781665910552    $10.99

Finally, the secret’s out: librarians can be loud! Penelope is thrilled when she is selected to be her school’s student-librarian of the week. She’s been preparing for this moment all year by alphabetizing her home pantry and stickering any book she can find. There’s only one problem: Penelope can’t quite harness her “library voice.” Books fly off the shelves and computer screens shatter as Penelope innocently shouts curious questions at her classmates. After one great big bellow leaves students ducking for cover and the library in shambles, Penelope starts to question whether she’s meant to be a librarian after all. Her disappointment is short-lived, as she soon discovers storytime, where both her enthusiasm and her volume are of great benefit. Jones’s mixed-media and collage illustrations are playful and eye-catching, with a three-dimensional feel. Penelope’s shouts explode across the page in giant speech bubbles reverberating all the way to outer space (the astronauts know her by name). Brown-skinned Penelope sports a rainbow skirt with red-and-white striped socks — a style as loud as her booming voice. Although she may want to steer clear of a research library, Penelope’s eager attitude lands her the perfect gig. This one is sure to be a storytime favorite — especially for librarians. HILL SAXTON

Woo Hoo! You’re Doing Great!
by Sandra Boynton; illus. by the author
Preschool    Little, Brown    40 pp.
4/23    9780316486798    $17.99

Self-help gets the Sandra Boynton treatment with energetic antics, deadpan humor, and ear-pleasing rhyme. “Have you been feeling kind of low? / A little lost? / A little slow?” A well-meaning, loud-squawking chicken acts as a personal pep squad to Boynton’s familiar menagerie. “THERE’S SURELY NOTHING MORE FANTASTIC THAN SOMEONE WHO’S ENTHUSIASTIC!” the shouty narrator insists, proceeding to cheer on a roller-skating pig, ballet-dancing hippos, and others. But some activities — taking a nap, for instance — are best accomplished without a cheering section (“You. Woke. Me. Up!”), and the tale takes a turn as the chicken suffers an identity crisis: “Oh no!!! I made a mistake!!! I’m no good at this!!!” A mouse friend provides reassurance about mistake-making and own-bucket-filling through rest, self-care, and positive self-talk. The words of wisdom are at an appropriately preschool-ish level but can be taken to heart by anyone. Lest the message come across as heavy-handed, the endpapers close (as they opened) with the chicken’s extremely loud and boisterous cries of “WOO HOO!” ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

A Girl Can Build Anything
by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and Pat Zietlow Miller; illus. by Keisha Morris
Preschool, Primary    Viking    32 pp.
4/23    9780593463741    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780593463758    $10.99

This joyful depiction takes readers throughout the creative design and construction processes, from imagining and planning all the way up to large-scale buildings. Simple, rhythmic text features girls developing skills with small projects before moving on to the big and complex, adding knowledge and hands-on experience with new tools and materials as they go. Setbacks happen, frustrations and failures are acknowledged — and then seen as opportunities, “because failure isn’t final. / It’s where new ideas are made.” Morris’s cheerful, inclusive art was created with digitally collaged tissue paper. The contrast between the textured paper and the projects’ sharp lines is eye-catching and adds another layer of connection to the text. The girls of this story imagine, learn, try, and persevere until they’ve built something new, beautiful, and useful. This ode to girl power should inspire tinkerers and future builders alike. LAURA KOENIG

by Matt de la Peña; illus. by Corinna Luyken
Primary    Putnam    48 pp.
8/22    9781984813961    $18.99
Spanish ed.  9780593532348    $18.99

A rhythmic text speaks to an unnamed child in the second person, describing what “we see” and how that trait or characteristic may inform a young person’s future identity (for better or worse) and how they might see themself. In the first vignette, readers meet a child identified with “blue” at a gender-reveal party. With the page-turn, we learn they are “blue dressed in blue,” but their paintbrush at times “hovers above the pink.” As the character matures, though, “the color you will come to love most / is brown” — presumably the brown of their own skin. De la Peña’s text does not specify whether it’s directed at one figure or many, but Luyken illustrates each vignette with a different child, all part of a multiracial cast: a dance-loving tot grows up to find rhythm in computer code; a young athlete (“You are basketball-baseball-fútbol-any-kind-of-ball”) becomes a bilingual poet; a class clown becomes a compassionate teacher. Luyken’s backgrounds feature brushy squares, a visual motif that plays on the title. The “we” that observes and speaks to each character becomes broadly expansive at the end, enfolding narrator, characters, and readers: “We are beautiful.” Gentle and affirming. VICKY SMITH

by Nadine Robert; illus. by Qin Leng; trans. from French by Nick Frost and Catherine Ostiguy
Primary    Milky Way    64 pp.
9/22    9781990252143    $19.99

“I simply can’t decide what I want to do.” Standing frozen on the doorstep, young Clover struggles to choose — should she go mushroom picking? Or to the river to look for mussels? There are so many things to do around her family’s goat farm. Reminded by her brother that there are no wrong answers, Clover opts to go to the river, where she sees her goat, Peony, disappearing into the forest. To find Peony, Clover journeys alone into the forest, making important decisions along the way. Keep going or turn back? Go left or right? She asks a tree, a stream, and the wind, but they don’t offer any advice. Still Clover finds strength and learns to act quickly and decisively in the process. Leng’s engaging ink and watercolor illustrations add an inviting visual narrative. This story about decision-making and self-trust is also an homage to nature and its power — sometimes wild and scary, at other times soothing, calming, and inspiring. WEILEEN WANG

Something Wild
by Molly Ruttan; illus. by the author
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.
2/23    9780593112342    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780593112359    $10.99

Hannah loves playing the violin, but she dreads performing in an upcoming recital. Mixed-media illustrations (charcoal, acrylic paint, pastel, and digital media) deftly swing between the girl’s reality and her fantasies as the time of the recital looms closer. “She secretly wished something wild would happen,” and after the page-turn, a bird outside her window (highlighted with a visual spotlight) becomes an entire flock whisking her recital outfit out the door “so she wouldn’t have to go.” The next page reveals the truth and a narrative refrain: “But nothing wild happened.” The rabbits she conjures up from under the kitchen floor do not run away with her violin, nor do the outdoor fountain dolphins carry her away on their backs. Pastel shades become vivid swirling colors in Hannah’s imagination but always dull again to recall her real-life plight. Soon she finds herself heading onstage, where art and text work together to manifest her nervousness, and the spotlight that has signaled magic throughout the story now centers on her. When Hannah starts to play, the art turns bold and fantastical again as she loses her self-consciousness in the joy of playing her violin. Small visual details throughout, including Hannah’s lively siblings and her father’s quick stop to buy flowers, make the book especially warm. It closes with a family celebration; however, some of the swirling lines and bold color remain, leaving Hannah and readers awash in the heady glow of a memorable and inspiring performance. JULIE ROACH

From the May 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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