8 Librarian-Recommended Picture Books for Summer Reading Challenges

We’re in the thick of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and elementary students everywhere are keying into some sort of summer reading challenge or other. Public libraries are blessing their communities with summer reading programming, school librarians and teachers are crossing their fingers that at least one student hung onto The List of suggested books—there are so many Reading Bingo sheets floating around. It’s a whole thing. As a parent of elementary aged kiddos and a school librarian to boot, I feel a lot of pressure to make sure that the spirit of positivity does not get lost in this summer reading challenge madness.

The perfect summer reading book can be a lot of things, but the most important aspect is this: does your kid enjoy reading it? This counts if they’re scouring the pictures with a smile on their face, snuggling up while someone reads aloud, or buckled in, listening to the audio version on a road trip. Almost every summer reading challenge understands that “reading” means interacting with a preferred book (physical, digital, or audio—IT ALL COUNTS!).

With this summer wisdom in mind, I’ve rounded up eight of my favorite recent picture books that can help the child in your life check things off the list while still embracing the sweet, silly, emotional, goofy, engaging, transporting magic of reading, whichever way works best for them.

High Five by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Samieri

The team behind Dragons Love Tacos is back with this interactive book about the best greeting/celebratory motion of all time. The gorgeous neon illustrations caught my eye, but the chance to practice the “make eye contact with your partner’s elbow and you can’t miss the palm slap” trick is a second awesome reason to read this book. Rubin and Samieri never disappoint—tuck this one in your back pocket to spice up a dreary, low-energy day.

My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña

A gorgeous father-daughter story about family tradition, neighborhood connections, and a purple, unicorn-emblazoned motorcycle helmet. Drawing from her own childhood experiences, Quintero’s trademark vivid writing style brings you into Daisy’s heart, and Peña’s bright, engaging illustrations bring Daisy’s world to life. There is a lot of depth in a book that is also about a simple evening ride—the joy overflows. It’s one of my favorites of 2019—you’ll hear about this title again.

Another by Christian Robinson

It’s a wordless sci-fi picture book. You’re welcome! A little girl and her cat disappear into another dimension, encountering identical versions of themselves on their adventures. I’ve always been able to stare at Robinson’s illustrations for extended periods of time, and now they’re the point of the story. It’s amazing. Do not miss.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raúl the Third III

This English/Spanish language hybrid has drawn comparisons to Richard Scarry’s Busytown, but I find it more appealing—I think it’s the use of comic book imagery, or maybe the search for Lobo in the writhing illustrations full of life. I’ve used it as a read aloud and also as a partner read, perfect for early readers picking out some words they recognize. Spanish-speaking students get to take leadership when gently helping me pronounce words I trip over, and the role reversal is very powerful. It’s a graphic picture book, a “my first words” compendium, a celebration of the magic of bilingual speakers, and a really cool personified wolf main character selling the whole thing.

When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland

Social emotional literacy is a buzzword in education right now—are we teaching our students to recognize and name their emotions? This gentle, bittersweet picture book takes that call a step further by walking through the steps of being with a feeling of sadness. Readers are encouraged to sit with sadness, to avoid hiding it or getting angry at it, and then to share some calming activities together. Lots of stories explore dealing with fear or anger, but the tender, non-judgmental tone of Eland’s book is one to add to your toolkit.

Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller

This book has opened up so many conversations about self-respect, respecting others, and the basic concept of consent. Aria knows her hair is very beautiful, thank you very much, but that is not a reason to touch it! Especially without asking! Aria goes to the highest high and the deepest deeps, but cannot find a space where she can wear her hair as she likes it without getting unwanted head pats. Finally, she loudly and clearly says “No!” and explicitly explains that she does not want to be touched. After reading, I always discuss that a) touching someone without asking is never okay and b) after Aria speaks up, no one is mad or stops being her friend. It’s fun and light with aliens, mermaids, and sunny illustration, and the message is so important. A must read.

Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley

This was another book that drew me in first with it’s charming, color pop illustrations, but as soon as I read that it was inspired by a historical feminist (Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who was arrested many times for wearing pants in public) I was sold. Mary’s fictionalized story tells of freedom and independence and standing up for what you know is right. Just like the right of all people to wear pants (or whatever makes them feel comfortable), this book is kind of a no-brainer.

The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol

I know Brosgol primarily for her graphic novels, but the adorable factor is ratcheted up in this celebration of the smallest woodland creatures. The little guys are fierce and they know it, but as they work together to prove their strength, a new question arises: are they treating the rest of the forest with the respect they want for themselves? Great themes and to die for illustrations—throw this on your list and then maybe go for a hike to try and spot some little guys in the wild.


Need some more great reads to finish that summer reading challenge? Check out this list for some throw back suggestions, and remember that EVERYTHING counts. Wishing you a happy bookish summer.

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