The Best Children's Books That I (A Professional Book Person) Read in 2020
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Time - what is it, really? Where does it go? What does it mean? If I'm supposed to get this plus three other posts done the next two days before 2020 ends but my executive function isn't there to actually do it, will these posts make a sound?
Nominally, this is, as all "Best of 2020" things are, a gift guide, but also it's not, really, because I didn't get my act together in time. So this is, genuinely, just the best books I as a professional book person read in 2020. They're all children's books because I've officially given up pretending I read anything else. You can consider this also a gift guide, if you want, because birthdays are still happening, or maybe you have gift cards you're looking to spend, or maybe you're still getting holiday gifts for people - I don't know your life, and also as we previously discussed, linear time is an illusion.
Best Board Books
The Cook in a Book series by Lotta Nieminen
Confession: I didn't actually find these at work. (Board books, in my experience, do not survive libraries very long and therefore have limited circulation.) My mom instead found them God knows where, but I assume on the local Buy Nothing Facebook page because that's where she finds everything. My nephew's favorite foods are ice cream and pancakes, so somehow the pancakes book appeared, and even though he's really too old for board books, he loved it. The entire text of these books are just a recipe. The parts in it you manipulate mimic the actual movements you make while cooking the recipe step-by-step, including in the pancakes book actual cardboard pancakes you actually flip to see what they look like "done". It's a great way to get kids interested in different types of food (others in this series are walkthroughs to make cookies, pizza, and tacos) and the process of cooking. It's good for any any pre-K age even if they're past most other baby books, and fun even as an adult to play along. These are fairly off the beaten path choices, and make fantastic new baby gifts for parents who are foodies but already have all the usual suspects in their library. Also, as a bonus, with this kind of cooking there's no dishes or cleanup after and no fishing eggshells out of anything.
Best Picture Books
Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson
Sometimes when things are slow at work, one of my supervisors will reward me by letting me go to the children's room and pull all the holds from the picture book section, with the understanding that the bottom half of the little wooden cart I take will be books I saw while pulling other books and decided I wanted for myself. This was one of those books, which I sat down to "just flip through and see if I wanted" and somehow ended up crying through my mask in an empty children's room like a normal person when confronted with a lovely picture book. Who hasn't, am I right? What a universal experience!
This book is about a dog who everyone thinks is a "bad" dog at the shelter until a family adopts him and realize he's not bad - he was trained in Chinese, and everyone around him only ever speaks to him in English. It's aimed at kids at an early elementary age with a lesson that I think is important at any age but at that age in particular, when kids are just trying to navigate starting school: not being immediately good at something doesn't make you stupid or unworthy of love and attention. It doesn't make you bad, nor does it make the person trying and failing to teach you a bad person. If you don't understand, it means, either literally or figuratively, that you and whoever is trying to communicate with you aren't communicating in the same language. There's no stigma or othering, just a family who wants to love their dog as best they can. It's a lovely sentiment wrapped up in a lovely, delicately-illustrated little book.
The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon by A. N. Kang
This year has been rough, like the kind of year where you want to read stuff that's just straight-up delightful. Fluffy, one might say. So fluffy it makes you feel like you could float, perhaps?
Papillon offers no real hard-hitting lessons. It's about a cat who keeps floating away until his owner discovers she can make him stay on the ground by putting him in outfits (which he hates). One day he escapes from the outfits and floats away, and freedom, it turns out, isn't quite as free as he was picturing. So he comes back home (and wears sweaters sometimes). The illustrations are the kind of cute that startles out a laugh. The plot is charming. It's about a cat wearing costumes. I have no notes. Five out of five gold stars.
Don't Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller
I made a real effort in 2020 to read more diverse books, but also to make a point to read more "issue" books focused on race. What I found, mostly, was that "issue books" for children - particularly when the issue is race - are very, very hard to do right. It's really important you begin to talk to kids about race at a young age, of course, but also you're trying to talk to kids early about things that are difficult and inexplicable and traumatic, but in an age-appropriate way and without imposing your own trauma onto them, and also as a bonus the subject you're trying to explain at an appropriate level for a five year old is so complex that most adults have a terrible time communicating about it properly even to each other. It's a real boondoggle.
I'm not going to lie and pretend that I don't like this book in some part because as a redhead I, too, was traumatized as a child by strangers constantly touching and grabbing at my hair, but I also like it because it nails the landing on how to handle race and racial issues for kids. Rather than trying to tackle racism as a whole and somehow boil it down to fit into a picture book (which always turns into a very reductive good guys v. bad guys narrative), it focuses on one very specific racial microaggression. Using gentle humor and empathy, it affirms all the scary feelings that come with having your bodily autonomy violated, and gives kids appropriate tools for working through those feelings and asserting themselves and being respectful in the future. And most crucially, it's a book kids can enjoy reading because it's age appropriate. Elementary age kids might not be fully ready to parse through the complex web of various types of privilege and how they do or don't benefit from them, but if a kid is old enough to read a picture book, they're old enough to learn why not to touch people's hair - or any other part of their bodies - without permission.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
2020 could not have been designed to go worse for me if you constructed it in a lab. The only thing that went the way it was supposed to was that I was supposed to finish college and I did. After that, it went a bit off the rails, because I was supposed to finish college so I could start working full time. 2020 was supposed to be the year I could finally afford to not live with my parents (or have my only option for moving out be 12 roommates sharing 1 kitchen). I was going to learn to drive in 2020. I was finally going to have time when I wasn't balancing 30 hours a week of school and 20 hours a week of work plus a nebulous but constant 10 hours of babysitting and petsitting and various miscellaneous odd jobs to do things like "have a social life" and "go out" and "make friends". What a glorious time 2020 was supposed to be, with my over a decade's worth of relentless hard work and working terrible jobs and constant setbacks finally put behind me as I finally got the reward for all the putting my head down and working through it I was promised!
If telling people about how 2020 has gone for me has taught me one thing, it's that there are a lot more adults that could use this book. The central lesson of The Rabbit Listened centers around the singular idea that when something goes wrong for people the correct response isn't to try to fix it, or to yell and get mad about it, or encourage you to buck up and just work harder because clearly somehow the whole thing is your fault. Sometimes, there is simply no fixing a problem, not until someone listens and gives you space to grieve the loss of a thing properly. There aren't a lot of books preaching on a lesson that I find live up to the hype or don't make me roll my eyes, but this is one of the rare exceptions that does.
Best Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Flubby Is Not A Good Pet and Flubby Will Not Play With That by J. E. Morris There aren't a lot of good, compelling easy readers that aren't written by Mo Willems or Dr. Seuss, not because a lot of very good authors aren't trying their best, but because writing good easy readers is hard. (If you take nothing else from this post, please internalize that writing a children's book may seem easy, but in reality it's very, very difficult to get right.) The words need to be one or two syllables, have no confusing English spellings, and follow phonic patterns so kids learn the rules. They need to somehow be at the level of "the dog and the cat played with the ball/see them play with the ball" phonetically, but be more interesting than "the dog and the cat played with the ball/see them play with the ball" because a five or six year old is going to get very bored with reading something like that very quickly, and also you as a parent or teacher are going to get bored with having to listen to that be read aloud to you very quickly. It's like having a Project Runway challenge that's "design the most visually compelling plain white t-shirt you possibly can, but don't get too interesting because we're sponsored by Hanes".
Anyway, enter Flubby stage left. (Or stage right, or not at all: to be honest Flubby will enter where and when he wants to enter.) Flubby is a cat, and he is very recognizably a cat that does - or doesn't do - all the usual cat things. He's useless at fetch, he's persnickety with his toys, and he has his own agenda. Somehow in very few words (and very charming pictures), J. E. Morris manages o capture all the joy, frustrations, and humor of cats and all their inexplicable charm for the humans that love but will never fully understand them.
Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz
If you looked up "platonic ideal of a storybook" in the dictionary, it would probably be defined by Princess Cora and the Crocodile. I didn't realize until I read this book - which obviously takes visual cues from Queen Victoria instead of the traditional proto-Medieval princess aesthetic - how refreshing I'd find that, but I did! It's subtle tweaks like the change in time period, a crocodile instead of a dragon* as the haplessly destructive sidekick, and parents who are simply Trying Their Best instead of being evil and restrictive and expecting too much because as we all know in children's literature, parents are two-dimensional evil foes, or something. This book is a lovely, good-hearted, charmingly illustrated little slice of happiness that would make an excellent birthday gift for any kid who likes fairy tales (or hapless pet stories) and is straddling the line between having the skills to move to chapter books, but is still mustering the confidence to move away from the reassuring safety of a book having pictures.
*Not a dig against dragons, who have been my very favorite mythical animal since The Enchanted Forest Chronicles turned me from a reader to A Reader when I was six or seven. My last college class was actually an overview of dragons in world mythology that was chosen arbitrarily and somewhat grumpily to fulfill a diversity requirement that I'd already filled and then had rescinded, and it turned out to be easily one of the top three college courses I took in my entire degree. This review doubles as also a recommendation to take more classes outside your major in college just because the professor seems nice (because all my favorite courses in college had very little to nothing to do with my major and all came down to excellent professors) and also an eternal recommendation for The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which I sent my professor in my final course as a thank you for a much nicer than I probably deserve grad school recommendation. (For the after times when I can once again consider things like "affording grad school".)
The Mouse and Mole books by Wong Herbert Yee
Because I assume everyone has spent the vast majority of 2020 fantasizing that they were a small woodland creature living in a tree trunk drinking berry tea out of acorn caps and going on gentle adventures, I have good news: there's an entire easy chapter book series on this exact premise!
I mean, I assume there are a lot of book series based on this very Wind in the Willows/the best parts of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (which are obviously the badger parts and anyone who says otherwise can fight me) premise, because on a primal level it's very appealing. But I find this series particularly charming, which I think comes down to the watercolor illustrations and the characters of Mouse and Mole, which are very well-defined without ever feeling like caricatures, and who share a genuine, warm bond where you never question why they're friends because you see them so often being kind and caring and thoughtful with each other.
Also they never drink milk, which is now an integral part of any tiny woodland creature fantasy ever since someone who up until this point I considered a dear childhood friend texted this tweet to the childhood friend groupchat, thereby ruining the very foundations of our shared childhood forever. I'm now I'm ruining yours too. You're welcome.
The Mouse Adventure Books by Torben Kuhlmann
I checked these out because, due to my own personal interests, if I see a children's book with a mouse on the cover, I automatically check it out to myself.
What I love about these even more than I love the pitch-perfect lushly detailed mouse illustrations is how they explain science and engineering, which is as an interactive learning process. By necessity, a lot of the science kids learn is already, well... facts rather than processes. I don't say that as a bad thing - you need a solid foundation of fact to move on to the interesting creative and process-oriented part of any discipline, like how in order to do any kind of art you'll have to paint a million color wheels and to understand math you can't really get around drilling times tables. But these books manage to neatly circumvent that by explaining very, very complicated physics and engineering principles and why things work the way things work by posing them as problems.
In these books these mice will need to, say, breathe underwater, or propel themselves quickly enough to get off the ground without going so quickly they lose control of steering. Instead of trying to explain the answer, instead what follows is a series of experiments: they try this thing and it fails because of this, then they try that thing and it fails because of that, and then they try a third thing and it works because of this, that, and the other thing. This type of science is easily my worst subject that I have the hardest time understanding, and I understood all of it perfectly. What's more, these experiments were all things that, if I were a bored and curious kid, I could have safely tried doing myself with things lying around my house and felt or seen with my own senses why they didn't work. These books lead without being obvious, educate without hitting you over the head that THIS IS EDUCATIONAL CONTENT, and for kids who don't really want to learn science but might absorb something through osmosis anyway, it offers a compelling story to follow.
Also, the mice are very cute.
Best Graphic Novels
Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley
"But do we need ANOTHER solid middle grade graphic novel about a teenage girl trying to find out how she fits in when moved to a new -" just going to stop you there, yes. We need infinity, especially when they're as charming and painfully realistic as Stepping Stones. What stood out to me about Stepping Stones, in particular, was the realistic way all the characters in it are genuinely trying their best and yet still failing to meet each other's needs or to communicate with each other. Rather than fall into the easy tropes that could come with a narrative about two families attempting to blend into a modern day farming Brady Bunch, all the characters - including the main character of Jen, who is not spared from having her own adolescent foibles - are believably flawed. Too often in middle grade fiction there are the one dimensional characters of "the bully" or "the parent who's too busy and caught up in their own problems to take time to try to know their child", but in the case of Stepping Stones, the characters are all fleshed out to give a realistic, kind-hearted take on the challenges of navigating how family dynamics change with divorce, re-marriage, relocation, and of course, adolescence. Lucy Knisley's clean, colorful cartooning style sets the storyline off perfectly, and if you enjoy it I strongly recommend as an adult (particularly if you have close first or secondhand experience of pregnancy and its many ups and downs and mostly, if we are honest, downs, but boy what an up you finish with!) her painfully realistic graphic novel Kid Gloves, which follows her own pregnancy, and also following her (and her very cute son and her especially lovely cat, Rhino) on both Twitter and Instagram.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
The thing I miss the most about my job from The Before Times is, easily, the patrons. I chose to go into library work specifically because I love books and music and all the sorts of things people find at a library, and I get excited talking about them. I will happily wade through hours of re-shelving and checking in if it means I can help one person find a thing that gets them as excited about books and music and movies as I am. I'm the difficult to balance combination of an introvert who's also a people person (so I love people, but also having the interactions I love means I need an equal amount of time to shut myself away and NOT have those interactions to recover from them), and this sort of gentle interaction is one of the few types of ways I can spend time with people where not only do I not need any silent recovery afterwards, but it makes me feel, uh, energized? It's a very strange and addictive feeling, to be energized by human interaction rather than just blandly emotionally fulfilled by meeting my the needs I have as a social animal, and it kind of makes me get why extroverts are so... extrovert-y.
The lovely thing about this book, and why I love to recommend it, is how much it says by not saying anything. The basic premise is that there's a prince who likes to dress up as and take on the persona of a beautiful, ultra-confident princess, and he slowly lets in on his secret an apprentice dressmaker struggling to make a name and express herself through fashion. Together, they fight crime, and by crime I mean societal gender norms and kind of fall in love? Or form a romantic friendship, at least. It's never stated what the prince(ss) "is", what their pronouns are, or if one identity is more "real" than the other. It's never discussed if the prince is trans, or non-binary, or what in turn that makes the dressmaker for caring so deeply for him/her/them. The story boils down all of these extremely complicated nitpicky definitions to the simple truth that the prince feels beautiful and confident in dresses and makeup, and the dressmaker loves and cares for him because she is also able to express herself through making the fashions that make the prince feel so special. Not only does this humanize a whole host of issues that people try to make complicated or scary, but it makes it so kids who are wrestling with a bunch of different questions about their own sexuality and gender identity have something they can point to as a starting point and say "that's how I feel".
Sometime around February (who remembers when exactly anything in the Before Times happened any more) I had the absolute joy of recommending it this year to a teenager who came in to change her/their pronouns and name on her library card, and then asked me where the YA graphic novels were and what the call number was for fashion design. I even got the rarest thing of all - she loved it so much she sought me out and thanked me. If you're not a library person it's hard to truly understand the high that comes with that (people never remember the anonymous person who recommends them stuff!) or how good it feels to see a kid who's been only reading shonen mangas with their brothers come to you with a look on their face that says they have discovered a book that makes them feel seen and understood, but it's potent, narcotics-level stuff. Withdrawal has been brutal, and I can't wait until the day when I'm back to getting my regular fix again.
UPDATE: Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz
Time to pull back the curtain: you know when you're about to buy something or check out somewhere or even just leave your house and you spend twice as much time trying to decide if you're ready to go as you do actually getting ready because you are absolutely sure you've left something vitally important and you don't want to leave without it but you also know you won't remember what it is until you leave and it's too late to go back and get it? Yeah, that was why this post took so long. I was absolutely, 100% sure I had forgotten a book - one of my very favorite books all year - and I could not, for the life of me, remember what it was other than "a graphic middle grade novel". By mid-Tuesday I'd convinced myself to just post because I'd never ever remember what that middle grade graphic novel was, and then at 1:00 AM I sat bolt upright in bed and went "FUCK".
Please don't mistake my forgetting Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer as a sign of anything other than that without things happening to define one day from another I've developed the memory of a goldfish. If I had to choose a favorite graphic novel out of this section, it would be Shirley and Jamila. When you think about the sort of platonic ideal of what you'd want from a middle grade graphic novel about two girls solving Kid Crimes, you'd make a checklist: diversity that doesn't seem forced, low stakes mystery shenanigans, the same warm fuzzy feeling watching Recess on Saturday mornings used to give you, engaging characters, interesting family and interpersonal dynamics. Shirley and Jamila nails them all, and makes doing so look easy. So easy you might even be tempted to think you yourself could do the same thing. But you can't. You forgot your favorite graphic novel of the entire year on your list. Also, you spent a week staring at your Amazon order only to remember two days later you'd forgotten to add clear nail polish. Get ahold of yourself. And by yourself, I am of course referring to me.