20 Must-Read Picture Books From 2020

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Alison Doherty

Senior Contributor

Alison Doherty is a writing teacher and part time assistant professor living in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from The New School in writing for children and teenagers. She loves writing about books on the Internet, listening to audiobooks on the subway, and reading anything with a twisty plot or a happily ever after.

There are so many amazing 2020 picture books to read. Despite this fact, the bestseller list at most bookstores consists of mostly classics that were published before I was born. Don’t get me wrong, I love those books. I adore hungry caterpillars and wild things to and little girls that say “pooh, pooh” to tigers at the zoo. But a few years ago, I realized that if we just keep buying classic picture books there won’t be any new Eric Carles or Maurice Sendaks or Ludwig Bemelmans in the future.

When I started seeking out more recent picture books, I found so many amazing ones. And 2020 picture books are no exception. So when you are thinking of what to request at the library or buy for holiday gifts this year, consider picking a contemporary picture book to go along with your beloved classics. Here are 20 of my favorites from this year.

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi and Ashley Lukashevsky

Available in board book or hardcover, now the littlest readers can learn about antiracism too. Through rhymes, this book gives nine steps for babies to grow up to be antiracist, emphasizing noticing people’s differences, talking about the issue, and admitting when we make mistakes. This book feels equally important for child readers and their parents or teachers, who might feel awkward about how to talk about race. The diverse illustrations show babies of many different races and skin colors.

Are Your Stars Like My Stars? by Leslie Helakoski and Heidi Woodward Sheffield

A rhyming picture book that explores what things might look the same for children living in different parts of the world. With beautiful collage illustrations, this book looks at the world from the clouds in the sky to the dirt on the ground through the eyes of a child.

Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes and Elizabeth Zunon

Bright colors and a lullaby-like rhythm tell the story of a little one who isn’t ready for bed. In avoiding sleep, he turns into many different animals: growling like a bear and hiding like a snake. But his patient mother knows that all creatures get tired eventually. A lovely goodnight book to pair with (or even to replace) Good Night Moon.

The Big Sibling Getaway by Korrie Leer

When Cassie’s new baby brother won’t stop crying, she knows she needs to get out of there. An empty box becomes her hiding spot—an imaginative getaway that can turn into everything from a car that can take her to the beach to a rocket ship headed for the moon. And when Cassie is tired of being alone, the box will bring her back to her family. This book is truly a celebration of taking a break and the powers of imagination.

Butts Are Everywhere by Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox

With a title like this, can’t you just imagine the read-aloud chuckles that will accompany this book? It’s a celebration of butts. All the different things we call them. All the different ways they can look, on animals and people. And all the things butts—more formally known as the gluteus maximus—allow us to do, like run and jump and sit. With a nice mix of colorful illustrations, silly puns, and useful information, I can see this becoming a bookshelf favorite for many children.

Dozens of Doughnuts by Carrie Finison and Brianne Farley 

A bear is making a doughnut feast to eat before she starts her long hibernation feast. But when friends arrive, she makes batch after batch of delicious treats and gives them all away before realizing she didn’t leave any food for herself. This is a silly book with an important message about boundaries and not putting yourself last in relationships.

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James

A confident Black narrator proudly affirms his future plans, his positive attributes, and the way he learns from his failures. The tidal wave of positivity in this picture book proclaims that Black boys are worthy of love, respect, safety, kindness, and happiness. It’s an important mirror for young Black boys to read and a counterbalance against the society that too often fears and dehumanizes them.

Invent-a-Pet by Vicky Fang and Tidawan Thaipinnarong

This cartoonishly illustrated picture book introduces STEAM and coding concepts related to the one topic that seems to delight (almost) all children: animals! Katie wants a completely unique pet. Her mom gives her a machine that will help her do just that. After a few tries that don’t feel quite right, Katie figures out the criteria to form her dream pet.

Julián at the Wedding by Jessica Love

In this sequel to the moving Julián Is a Mermaid, Julián and his Abuelo travel to a wedding. There he makes friends with Marisol the flower girl, who’d rather wear a baseball hat than a flower crown. From both characters’ gender nonconformity to representation of two brides in a lesbian wedding, this beautifully illustrated book celebrates love and acceptance in all forms.

Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Vibrant illustrations and free verse poetry work together in this book to tell the stories of many different girls. This is a book that embraces the concept of diversity in every sense of the word. The illustrations show girls of many different races. But beyond that there are girls that are happy, sad, and scared. Girls that love their bodies and girls that don’t. Girls with pimples. Girls from the country and the city. Girls who wish they had a father. Girls who love being weird. Girls who are afraid of bullies. I could keep going. This book shows how it’s okay to be all of these things. In addition, it would make an excellent early introduction to non-rhyming poetry.

Lift by  Minh Lê and Dan Santat 

Iris is mad when her roll as designated elevator button pusher is usurped by her toddler little sibling. To compensate, she imagines a new magical elevator that only she can control that will take her to other worlds. This book mashes up a traditional picture book with a graphic novel style but is still wonderful as a read aloud for preschool-aged children and up.

Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math by Rajani LaRocca and Archana Sreenivasan 

Some math picture books hit readers over the head with numerical concepts. But this story, set in Ancient India, sneaks in lessons about binary numbers in a story of a young boy negotiating with an innkeeper while trying to win a position as singer at the royal court.

Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry and Juana Martinez-Neal

This is a hilarious story with sweet illustrations about how hard it can be to accept new people and new habits into our lives. Captain Swashby loves his quiet life living on the beach. When a young girl and her grandma move next door, he misses his quiet solitude. He leaves notes for them in the sand, but his old friend the sea washes away some of the letters to make them friendlier. Maybe the ocean waves know that what Swashby needs most of all is some new friends.

This Way, Charlie by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso

Inspired by a real life animal friendship about a grumpy goat and a blind horse. Jack the goat likes to keep to himself on the farm. But when Charlie arrives, he can’t see Jack to give him his space. Eventually the two get over their rocky beginnings to become friends, with Jack leading Charlie to his favorite spots around Open Bud Ranch.

To the Moon and Back for You by Emilia Bechrakis Serhant and E.G. Keller

This rare picture book was written by an author who struggled with fertility treatments and IVF before becoming a mother. Although it doesn’t go into specifics, it’s a poetic celebration of parents who need to work hard and overcome challenges to have a child. It also is a reminder to kids about how much their parents love them.

The Ugly Doodles by Valeria Wicker

This is a great story about the creative process and discouraging perfectionism. When Raven Rembrandt gets home from a trip to an art museum, she is inspired to make her own art. But what are supposed to be drawing masterpieces always end up as ugly doodles. She tries to get rid of them, throwing them on the floor and shoving them under her bed. But they keep coming back. Until Raven learns to keep creating and love her art even if it isn’t perfect.

Way Past Worried by Hallee Adelman and Sandra de la Prada

When venturing to a friend’s superhero birthday party, Brock finds himself overwhelmed with worries and fears. This book focuses on emotional intelligence skills to help kids like Brock move past their anxiety through ideas like deep breathing or finding a safe person to tell about your feelings. I’m so glad this book exists in the world. It’s exactly the type of read I wish I could go back in time and give to my child self.

We Are Water Protectors

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade

Inspired by recent Indigenous-lead environmental movements, including the water protectors at Standing Rock, this story mixes the legend of a black snake that will come to poison water with the current day reality of oil spills. The Indigenous author and illustrator team create a story that honors the sacrifices and hard work of many Native American activists. The book also includes a call to action for all readers to commit to protect the earth. A must-read for young environmentalists.

Wreck This Picture Book by Keri Smith

This is an interactive activity book that I think will be especially appealing to the youngest readers. Inspired by Smith’s big hit for adults Wreck This Journal, this picture book helps young readers explore all five senses, contribute their own unique ideas to the story, and reject perfectionism.

Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Luisa Uribe 

A perfect book to remind kids (and the adults in their lives) the importance of learning to pronounce every name in its correct, beautiful form. When a girl gets tired of teachers and students mispronouncing her name all day, her mother teaches her that every name is a song and that they are beautiful even if some don’t pronounce them correctly at first. African, Asian, Black American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names are discussed on their walk home. But one thing I loved about this book is that every name, from Ahlam to Olivia, comes with a pronunciation guide.