Children’s Book Gift Giving Guide: Picture Books

*This list was originally published on The Kids Are All Right newsletter on December 10, 2017. Follow this link to subscribe to the newsletter for weekly children’s book lists, news, and recommendations!

Last week I gave you my favorite 2017 middle grade recommendations for the holiday season, and now it’s time to shout out picture books. Like the middle grade post, I have grouped my favorites based on themes from classic children’s books. (All book descriptions from Goodreads.)

If you liked Grimm’s Fairy Tales, try…

After the Fall by Dan Santat

Everyone knows that when Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. But what happened after? Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat’s poignant tale follows Humpty Dumpty, an avid bird watcher whose favorite place to be is high up on the city wall—that is, until after his famous fall. Now terrified of heights, Humpty can longer do many of the things he loves most. Will he summon the courage to face his fear?

Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca

Princess Cora is sick of boring lessons. She’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. She’s sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day. And her parents won’t let her have a dog. But when she writes to her fairy godmother for help, she doesn’t expect that help to come in the form of a crocodile who does not behave properly. With perfectly paced dry comedy, children’s book luminaries Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Floca send Princess Cora on a delightful outdoor adventure while her alter ego wreaks utter havoc inside the castle, obliging one pair of royal helicopter parents to reconsider their ways.

Brave Red, Smart Frog: A New Book of Old Tales by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason

There once was a frozen forest so cold, you could feel it through the soles of your boots. It was a strange place where some kisses broke enchantments and others began them. Many said witches lived there—some with cold hearts, others with hot ovens and ugly appetites—and also dwarves in tiny houses made of stones. In this icy wood, a stepmother might eat a girl’s heart to restore her own beauty, while a woodcutter might become stupid with grief at the death of his donkey. Here a princess with too many dresses grows spiteful out of loneliness, while a mistreated girl who is kind to a crone finds pearls dropping from her mouth whenever she speaks.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain and Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead

Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work.


La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Elya

El príncipe knows this girl is the one for him, but, as usual, his mother doesn’t agree.

The queen has a secret test in mind to see if this girl is really a princesa.

But the prince might just have a sneaky plan, too…


Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia O’Hara, illustrated by Lauren O’Hara

Hortense is a kind and brave girl, but she is sad—even angry—that her shadow follows her everywhere she goes. She hates her shadow, and thinks her shadow must hate her too. But one cold, dark night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, Hortense discovers that her shadow is the very thing she needs most.


Accident! by Andrea Tsurumi

When a clumsy armadillo named Lola knocks over a glass pitcher, she sets off a silly chain of events, encountering chaos wherever she goes. But accidents happen—just ask the stoat snarled in spaghetti, the airborne sheep, and the bull who has broken a whole shop’s worth of china.


If you liked Corduroy by Don Freeman, try…

Alfie by Thyra Heder

Nia loves Alfie, her pet turtle. But he’s not very soft, he doesn’t do tricks, and he’s pretty quiet. Sometimes she forgets he’s even there! That is until the night before Nia’s seventh birthday, when Alfie disappears! Then, in an innovative switch in point of view, we hear Alfie’s side of the story. He didn’t leave Nia—he’s actually searching for the perfect birthday present for his dear friend. Can he find a gift and make it back in time for the big birthday party?

Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero by Patricia McCormick, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

When a group of US Marines fighting in the Korean War found a bedraggled mare, they wondered if she could be trained to as a packhorse. They had no idea that the skinny, underfed horse had one of the biggest and bravest hearts they’d ever known. And one of the biggest appetites! Soon Reckless showed herself more than willing to carry ammunition too heavy for the soldiers to haul. As cannons thundered and shells flew through the air, she marched into battle—again and again—becoming the only animal ever to officially hold military rank—becoming Sgt. Reckless—and receive two Purple Hearts.

Philomena’s New Glasses by Brenna Maloney

Philomena needs new glasses. Her sister Audrey wants them, too. And if Philomena and Audrey have them, shouldn’t their sister Nora Jane also have them? In this utterly amusing tale of sisterhood, glasses, purses, and dresses, these girls soon make an important discovery. Not everyone needs the same things!

Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares

Red and Lulu make their nest in a particularly beautiful evergreen tree. It shades them in the hot months and keeps them cozy in the cold months, and once a year the people who live nearby string lights on their tree and sing a special song: O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree. But one day, something unthinkable happens, and Red and Lulu are separated. It will take a miracle for them to find each other again. Luckily, it’s just the season for miracles…

Inky’s Great Escape by Casey Lyall, illustrated by Sebastia Serra

In April 2016, The New York Times published an article about an octopus named Inky who escaped from the National Aquarium of New Zealand through a drainpipe and into the sea. In this charming fictionalized account, Inky, worn out from his exciting life in the ocean, has retired to the aquarium. There he quietly plays cards, makes faces at the visitors, and regales his tankmate Blotchy with tales of his past adventures. Then Blotchy dares Inky to make one more great escape: out of their tank. Will Inky succeed?


If you liked The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, try…

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall

Jabari is definitely ready to jump off the diving board. He’s finished his swimming lessons and passed his swim test, and he’s a great jumper, so he’s not scared at all. “Looks easy,” says Jabari, watching the other kids take their turns. But when his dad squeezes his hand, Jabari squeezes back. He needs to figure out what kind of special jump to do anyway, and he should probably do some stretches before climbing up onto the diving board.

Town Is By The Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith

A young boy wakes up to the sound of the sea, visits his grandfather’s grave after lunch, and comes home to a simple family dinner, but all the while his mind strays to his father digging for coal deep down under the sea.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui

A Different Pond is an unforgettable story about a simple event?a long-ago fishing trip. As a young boy, Bao Phi awoke early, hours before his father’s long workday began, to fish on the shores of a small pond in Minneapolis. Unlike many other anglers, Bao and his father fished for food, not recreation. A successful catch meant a fed family. Between hope-filled casts, Bao’s father told him about a different pond in their homeland of Vietnam.

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato

Together, a boy and his parents drive to the city of Havana, Cuba, in their old family car. Along the way, they experience the sights and sounds of the streets―neighbors talking, musicians performing, and beautiful, colorful cars putt-putting and bumpety-bumping along. In the end, though, it’s their old car, Cara Cara, that the boy loves best. A joyful celebration of the Cuban people and their resourceful innovation.

Me and You and the Red Canoe by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Phil

In the stillness of a summer dawn, two siblings leave their campsite with fishing rods, tackle and bait, and push a red canoe into the lake. A perfect morning on the water unfolds, with thrilling glimpses of wildlife along the way. Trailing a lure through the blue-green depths, the siblings paddle around a point, spotting a moose in the shallows, a beaver swimming towards its home and an eagle returning to its nest. Suddenly there is a sharp tug and the rod bends to meet the water. A few heart-stopping moments later, the pair pull a silvery trout from the water, then paddle back to the campsite to fry up a delicious breakfast.

Grand Canyon by Jason Chin

Rivers wind through earth, cutting down and eroding the soil for millions of years, creating a cavity in the ground 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and more than a mile deep known as the Grand Canyon. Home to an astonishing variety of plants and animals that have lived and evolved within its walls for millennia, the Grand Canyon is much more than just a hole in the ground. Follow a father and daughter as they make their way through the cavernous wonder, discovering life both present and past.


If you liked Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber, try…

Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara Di Giorgio

Mr. Crocodile loves his job. Every morning he gets up with an alarm. He brushes his teeth. He chooses the right tie to match his outfit, eats a quick slice of toast, and heads off to work on a crowded train. But what exactly is his job? The answer may surprise you! Readers will want to pore over this witty, wordless book again and again, finding new details and fresh stories with every reading.

A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider by Barbara Herkert and Lauren Castillo

When young Elwyn White lay in bed as a sickly child, a bold house mouse befriended him. When the time came for kindergarten, an anxious Elwyn longed for the farm, where animal friends awaited him at the end of each day. Propelled by his fascination with the outside world, he began to jot down his reflections in a journal. Writing filled him with joy, and words became his world.


If you liked I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, try…

Still Stuck by Shinsuke Yoshitake

Getting dressed and undressed can be difficult, especially for little ones. While getting ready for a bath one evening, a little boy gets stuck in his clothes. He panics and starts to fear what life would be like if he never got unstuck. How will he play outside? How will he stop the cat from tickling his tummy? It’s good thing that Mom is around to help. But when it’s time to put on his pajamas, the boy finds himself with a whole new problem…

Snappsy and His Best Friend Forever (Probably) by Julie Falatko, illustrated by Tim Miller

Snappsy the alligator wants nothing more than a quiet evening to himself, but a pesky chicken who insists he’s Snappsy’s best friend won’t leave him alone. Friendship bracelets? Matching shirts? The sleepover of the century? Snappsy did not ask for any of the activities the chicken—his best friend forever?—is planning.

Read the Book, Lemmings by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Aboard the S.S. Cliff, First Mate Foxy reads an interesting fact: “Lemmings don’t jump off cliffs.” But Foxy can’t get the lemmings on the Cliff to read his book, too. They’re too busy jumping off. After a chilly third rescue, exasperated Foxy and grumbly polar bear Captain PB realize their naughty nautical crew isn’t being stubborn: The lemmings (Jumper, Me Too, and Ditto) can’t read. And until Foxy patiently teaches his lemmings to read the book, he can’t return to reading it, either!

It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh Funk, illustrated by Edwardian Taylor

Jack is not fond of the bossy narrator of his fairy tale! When Jack is told to trade his beloved cow Bessie for some magic beans, throw the beans out the window, climb the ENORMOUS beanstalk that sprouts overnight, and steal from a GIANT, he decides this fairy tale is getting out of control. In fact, he doesn’t want to follow the story line at all. Who says Jack needs to enter a life of daring, thievery, and giant trickery? He takes his story into his own hands—and you’ll never guess what happens next!


If you liked Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated Bryan Collier, try…

Ruth Bader Ginsberg: The Cast of R.B.G vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Stacy Innerst

To become the first female Jewish Supreme Court Justice, the unsinkable Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to overcome countless injustices. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, Ginsburg was discouraged from working by her father, who thought a woman’s place was in the home. Regardless, she went to Cornell University, where men outnumbered women four to one. There, she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and found her calling as a lawyer. Despite discrimination against Jews, females, and working mothers, Ginsburg went on to become Columbia Law School’s first tenured female professor, a judge for the US Court of Appeals, and finally, a Supreme Court Justice.

Hey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Hey black child,
Do you know who you are?
Who really are?

Do you know you can be
What you want to be
If you try to be
What you can be?

This lyrical, empowering poem celebrates black children and seeks to inspire all young people to dream big and achieve their goals.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, illustrated by Evan Turk

Muddy Waters was never good at doing what he was told. When Grandma Della said the blues wouldn’t put food on the table, Muddy didn’t listen. And when record producers told him no one wanted to listen to a country boy playing country blues, Muddy ignored them as well. This tenacious streak carried Muddy from the hardscrabble fields of Mississippi to the smoky juke joints of Chicago and finally to a recording studio where a landmark record was made.

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Amid the scholars, poets, authors, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance stood an Afro-Puerto Rican named Arturo Schomburg. This law clerk’s life’s passion was to collect books, letters, music, and art from Africa and the African diaspora and bring to light the achievements of people of African descent through the ages. When Schomburg’s collection became so big it began to overflow his house (and his wife threatened to mutiny), he turned to the New York Public Library, where he created and curated a collection that was the cornerstone of a new Negro Division. A century later, his groundbreaking collection, known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has become a beacon to scholars all over the world.

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët

As a child in Pakistan, Malala made a wish for a magic pencil. She would use it to make everyone happy, to erase the smell of garbage from her city, to sleep an extra hour in the morning. But as she grew older, Malala saw that there were more important things to wish for. She saw a world that needed fixing. And even if she never found a magic pencil, Malala realized that she could still work hard every day to make her wishes come true.


If you liked The Story of Ruby Bridges, try…

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris

In this fascinating and fun take on nonfiction, Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris investigate a seemingly small trait of America’s most emblematic statue. What they find is about more than history, more than art. What they find in the Statue of Liberty’s right foot is the powerful message of acceptance that is essential of an entire country’s creation.

Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Wonderfully spare, deceptively simple verses pair with richly evocative paintings to celebrate the iconic imagery of our nation, beginning with the American flag. Each spread, sumptuously illustrated by award-winning artist Kadir Nelson, depicts a stirring tableau, from the view of the Statue of Library at Ellis Island to civil rights marchers shoulder to shoulder, to a spacecraft at Cape Canaveral blasting off.  This book is an ode to America then and now, from sea to shining sea.

That Is My Dream! by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done…

Langston Hughes’s inspiring and timeless message of pride, joy, and the dream of a better life is brilliantly and beautifully interpreted in Daniel Miyares’s gorgeous artwork.

This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids Around the World by Matt Lamothe

Follow the real lives of seven kids from Italy, Japan, Iran, India, Peru, Uganda, and Russia for a single day! In Japan Kei plays Freeze Tag, while in Uganda Daphine likes to jump rope. But while the way they play may differ, the shared rhythm of their days—and this one world we all share—unites them. This genuine exchange provides a window into traditions that may be different from our own as well as a mirror reflecting our common experiences.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

Featuring forty trailblazing black women in American history, Little Leaders educates and inspires as it relates true stories of breaking boundaries and achieving beyond expectations. Illuminating text paired with irresistible illustrations bring to life both iconic and lesser-known female figures of Black history such as abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash.


If you liked All The World by Liz Garton Scalon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, try…

Life by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel

There are so many wonderful things about life, both in good times and in times of struggle. Through the eyes of the world’s animals—including elephants, monkeys, whales, and more—Cynthia Rylant offers a moving meditation on finding beauty around us every day and finding strength in adversity. Brendan Wenzel’s stunning landscapes and engaging creatures make this an inspiring and intriguing gift for readers of all ages.

How to Be an Elephant by Katherine Roy

An infant elephant has precious little time to learn the incredible array of skills that are necessary to keep up, from projecting her voice across a 10-octave range to using the 100,000 muscles in her trunk to stay hydrated. But this giant-to-be has the perfect classroom—a family herd made up of her mother, sisters, cousins, and aunts. With their help and protection, she’ll learn how to survive, how to thrive, and how to be an elephant.

Round by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

If you look closely, you will find that the world is bursting, swelling, budding, and ripening with round things awaiting discovery—like eggs about to hatch, sunflowers stretching toward the sun, or planets slowly spinning together for billions of years.


The Boy and the Whale by Mordicai Gerstein

A boy and his father discover a whale tangled in their only fishing net. Is the whale dead? While the man worries about losing their net, the boy worries about the whale. He remembers the fear he felt when, caught in a net himself in childhood, he almost drowned before being rescued by his father. When the whale blinks an enormous eye, the boy knows that he has to try to save the creature, no matter how dangerous doing so may be.


If you liked Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, try…

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris, illustrated by Lane Smith

Harris’s hilarious debut molds wit and wordplay, nonsense and oxymoron, and visual and verbal sleight-of-hand in masterful ways that make you look at the world in a whole new wonderfully upside-down way. Adding to the fun: Lane Smith has spectacularly illustrated this extraordinary collection with nearly one hundred pieces of appropriately absurd art. It’s a mischievous match made in heaven!


If you liked Harold and the Purple Crayon, try…

Lines by Suzy Lee

It starts with a line. Whether made by the tip of a pencil

or the blade of a skate, the magic starts there.





How It Feels to be a Boat by James Kwan

Sometimes being a boat is full of adventures and it’s nothing but smooth sailing on the high seas, but sometimes arguing passengers can take you off course. When you run aground, will their teamwork give you the strength to make it through? Offbeat and imaginative, James Kwan gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to not only be a boat, but what it is to be human in both gentle and rough waters.

When’s My Birthday by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Christian Robinson

when’s my birthday?
where’s my birthday?
how many days until my birthday?

i’d like a pony for my birthday
and a necklace for my birthday.
i’d like a chicken for my birthday.
i’d like a ball to bounce and bounce.


Red Again by Barbara Lehman

When a young boy discovers an abandoned book on the side of the road, it opens a window to another world just as real as his own. But what happens when the two worlds collide? This imaginative companion to the Caldecott Honor–winning The Red Book works in a continuous loop, showing us that stories never really end.


If you liked Where’s Waldo, try…

The Lost Picnic by b.b. cronin

Follow a grandfather and his grandchildren as they head out for a day in the country not noticing items are gradually disappearing from their basket.





Look! What Do You See? by Xu Bing, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

Twelve traditional American songs, such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Yankee Doodle,” as well as five classic songs from Chinese culture, are written here in artist Xu Bing’s unique “square word calligraphy,” which uses one-block words made of English letters. From a distance, these pieces are beautiful but unintelligible art. Up close, they are a mystery just waiting to be solved—like the fine art version of “Magic Eye.”

Who Am I? An Animal Guessing Game by Robin Page and Steve Jenkins

Who Am I? gives reader clues so they can guess which animal will be revealed in a beautiful, full-spread illustration when they turn the page. Playful nouns, adjectives, and verbs describe the characteristics and movements of each animal. Minimal yet descriptive text encourages visual literacy and positions this title as a wonderful learning to read book. Extra facts are included at the back of the book.



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