Hello! Welcome! My name is Danika, and I run the kids’ section of a big indie bookstore. One of the things about working in the kids’ section of a bookstore is that you give out a lot of recommendations. A lot, a lot of recommendations. I get it–it’s overwhelming! There are so many to choose from! And it may have been a while since you’ve picked up a picture book. (Though you really should.) Don’t worry; I’m here to help. It’s my job!
A few of us Rioters have collaborated to give you recommendations for every kid on your list. They’re even sorted roughly by age, so you don’t have remember what kind of books 7 year olds usually read! You can rest assured that you’re getting a guaranteed good read. And everyone knows that books make the best gifts!
Happy shopping, and happy reading!
Ages 0-2 (Board Books):
Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee: This is a good, solid choice for a baby, whether as a holiday gift or a baby shower present. It has a great rhyme scheme for reading out loud, and it is inclusive in its depictions of families, including same-sex parents and biracial families. (Thanks to Raych’s Picture Books With LGBTQ Parents Just Being Parents post for making me aware of this one!) — Danika Ellis
Baby Animals by Gyo Fujikawa: I can’t get enough of Fujikawa’s delicate, comforting illustrations. Her most well-known title is Oh, What a Busy Day, which really demonstrates her illustration skill, but it also includes some odd stories–making it something you probably don’t want to give to someone else’s kid. Try this one instead! It’s a board book, so it’s sturdy enough for little hands, and what small child can resist cooing over all the baby animals? — Danika Ellis
Wiggle! by Taro Gomi: You might know Gomi from Everyone Poops fame, but he’s also written board books! This one is a winner for the interactive element: kids have to complete the picture by making their finger become an elephant trunk, a robot’s nose, and more! (Thanks to Rachel’s Baby’s First Library post for cluing me in about this title!) — Danika Ellis
A is for Activistby Innosanto Nagara: This board book is stunning in words and pictures. The bright, striking graphics and comfortable rhythm of the text make it a great read aloud, and the call to action through each letter of the alphabet will inspire adults and children alike.
Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett: Originally, the text for this wonderful board book came from Tłı̨chǫ author Richard Van Camp’s lullaby, but Orca Books Publisher decided to adapt it as a book for toddlers and parents with the help of Cree-Métis illustrator Julie Flett—and wow, was it a brilliant move. This is my go-to gift because the melodious words of welcome are so perfectly complimented by clean and bright illustrations. — Yash Kesanakurthy
3-5 (Picture Books):
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales: When you’re an adult and you’ve lived in your name for multiple decades, you can forget how central it is to your life as a child. Your name is on coat hooks and lunch boxes, you write it (once you can write) on a dozen papers a day, it’s used for roll call, and on and on. Thunder Boy Jr. takes a closer look at the relationship between name, identity, and family for a child whose name is continuing to evolve. He wants independence as well as connection with his family. When he gets it, readers will be as thrilled as he is. – Trisha Brown
Wild Berries by Julie Flett: In this sweet story about a child picking wild berries with his grandmother, Flett plays with languages and illustrations to great effect. Cleverly told in English and n-dialect Cree, Wild Berries is a bilingual celebration of nature, family, and belonging. The picture book is, in my opinion, the best medium for this kind of introduction to “different” languages since young readers often learn words through context and images. — Yash Kesanakurthy
The Answer (Steven Universe) by Rebecca Sugar: Sure, this probably makes more sense as a gift for a kid who already likes the show, but it could also be an introduction to the world of Steven Universe! Besides, I couldn’t not include this book. It’s beautiful: the illustrations and design is reminiscent of Little Golden Books. Plus, there is a story-within-a-story as Ruby and Sapphire in the border of the pages discuss what’s happening in the central story. That’s not even mentioning that as far as I know, this is the first picture book to have a love story between two female characters. It makes my heart ache (in a good way!) that this exists now. It’s a better world because of it. — Danika Ellis
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson: Someone gifted me with this book when I had my daughter. It tells an intimate, family tale that includes the strategy of using the patterns in quilts to direct slaves to freedom… and I literally can’t even look at the cover without crying. The writing is by Jacqueline Woodson so it’s touching and sharp and the illustrations by Hudson Talbott are gritty and beautiful. —Elizabeth Allen
Ancient Thunder by Leo Yerxa: This is a visually stunning book. Yerxa somehow manages to make paper art look textured and layered. Pair this with a child who loves horses, and the adult reading it and admiring the art will love it as much as the kid being read to. — Danika Ellis
4-7 (Advanced Picture Books):
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson: It’s not often that a picture book wins the Newbery Medal, which is usually awarded to a middle grade book. But Robinson’s perfect illustrations enhance Matt de la Peña’s gorgeous writing and a fairly simple story about a boy questioning his Nana on a bus becomes a book that has more depth than many novels 100 times as long. I didn’t discover Last Stop on Market Street until this year, but “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful” is one of the best lines I’ve read all year. – Trisha Brown
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Emily Hanes and Sanjay Patel: I cannot gush enough about this book. The story is a twist on the traditional story of the Hindu god Ganesh. The text is lovely and simple (its accessibility extends to even younger kids). Hindu words and traditions are incorporated in the story and the illustrations. And OH, these illustrations! Bright, intricate, rich, and adorable. Every time I see this book, I have to pick it up and dive in. — Amy Diegelman
You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim: This book could easily work for younger readers as well as older ones, so consider this a recommendation for 3-8 year olds. I am a sucker for picture books with mixed media illustrations, and this title might just have perfected it. The dioramas are stunning, and they are combined with a narrative that sounds almost spiritual, but is actually scientific facts. For younger readers, they’ll be swept up with the illustrations and narrative, but for older readers, it can serve as an introduction to lots of scientific theories! — Danika Ellis
B by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall: This is one of the more unique picture books and for that reason, almost a collectible. Big Red Lollipop is mostly about belonging—sans the assimilation narrative—but at its heart, it is about sisters, the things that tear them apart, and the things that reunite them. The book not only has gorgeous illustrations, but has a great re-read quality to it; in that, once you finish the last page, your heart full of feels, you go straight back to the first page to get re-introduced to this family. — Yash Kesanakurthy
The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perara: My personal bias definitely shows with this pick: I just know that as a child my relationship with my faith would have been vastly different had I been introduced to The Boy & the Bindi. The book is an exploration of what bindis mean within the context of being Hindu, what it means for the protagonist to share in this somewhat feminine tradition, and how it binds the boy to his family. The story is simple but incredibly touching and the words are accompanied by the most vibrant illustrations, ones that truly suit the vibrancy of South Asian culture. This may also be a great book to reach for when introducing Hinduism to anyone who is curious or confused about it. — Yash Kesanakurthy
6-8 (Beginning Chapter Books):
I know, I know, there’s some age overlap here. And that’s because it’s a tricky age for reading levels!
Lola Levine Is Not Mean! by Monica Brown: (This is the first book in the Lola Levine series.) Lola is half Peruvian, half Jewish 2nd grader who loves soccer. Unfortunately, her competitive play ends up with her accidentally hurting a classmate. Even worse, she gets stuck with the nickname “Mean Lola Levine”. Now she has to prove that name wrong. This would be a good pick for fans of Judy Moody! — Danika Ellis
Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest (series) by Marti Dumas: There’s a funny category of protagonists for early chapter books, and it’s “kids who don’t like to read”. It makes sense, because this is the age where kids are expected to read alone (whether they like it or not) and the idea is to hook kids in with a narrator they can relate to. Jaden Toussaint fits into that, coming from a family of bibliophiles, but personally campaigning for more screen time. This might just convince your “reluctant reader”! — Danika Ellis
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look: 8-year Ruby Lu loves her life, especially putting on her magic shows! So why do her parents keep trying to change things, like having Ruby go to Chinese school or share her room? This acts almost like a short story collection, and kids will love the humor. Plus, there’s a flipbook magic trick on the bottom right corners! — Danika Ellis
June Peters, You Will Change The World One Day by Alika R Turner: June Peters is a kid who wants to help people, so she doesn’t see the problem in giving her lunch money to a homeless person she meets. Her mother applauds her intentions, but teaches her safer ways to be helpful. Whether you want to teach generosity or encourage an already giving kid, this makes a great gift for the tiny activist you know! — Danika Ellis
The Buried Bones Mystery (Clubhouse Mysteries) by Sharon M Draper: It’s a classic premise: a group of kids with quirky personality differences form a club (either of the detective or baby-sitting variety). In this case, the young adventurers call themselves the Black Dinosaurs, and they soon stumble on their first mystery: a box of bones buried behind their clubhouse! — Danika Ellis
9-12 (Middle Grade):
George by Alex Gino: I just finished listening to this as an audiobook, and what can I say? It warmed by heart. You can’t help but root for Melissa, both in her attempts to be Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web, and in her struggle to come out to her friends and family as trans. There are educational aspects, but they’re incorporated into the plot. Check out Constance’s review for more information, and Jessica’s post about this as a read-aloud for younger kids. — Danika Ellis
Saving Kabul Corner by N. H. Senzai: I understand that cozy mysteries are their own category, but when I think of a mystery that reads like a warm hug and characters with sparkling voices, I think of this middle-grade novel. The book is a companion novel to Senzai’s Shooting Kabul, but Saving Kabul Corner stands alone rather easily. Saving Kabul Corner revolves around Ariana, the protagonist, whose family’s store is tangled in a generations old feud with the family of a rival Afghani store. I’m resisting the urge to say “or is it”, but you understand there is much more to this story, right? At its center is three bright kids, the only ones willing to set aside their differences and investigate the feud. — Yash Kesanakurthy
Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange and Kadir Nelson: There is no other book I would recommend for any child who loves music, poetry, or history. Shange’s poem has an easy flow but a tough purpose, to question this strange habit of forgetting historic figures by commemorating them and never speaking of their achievements. The book introduces young readers to a variety of jazz musicians and their role in shaping history. Nelson’s illustrations add a feeling of remembering and celebrating to the text; what’s interesting is that the words and images work beautifully together, but they work just as wonderfully alone as well. — Yash Kesanakurthy
The Land by Mildred D. Taylor: This makes for an even more interesting read after you’ve read the author’s note, because it describes how much of the story is true to Taylor’s family’s history. I’ve been thinking about this as an alternative recommendation for Little House On the Prairie readers: a similar kind of survivalism and love for the land, but with racial commentary and education. It is more advanced than the Little House books, and can also be categorized as YA, but this will go over well with confident middle grade readers, and it would be a great one to read and discuss together. — Danika Ellis
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: I bought this book and planned on putting it in my TBR pile next to my bed but I peeked at the first page and next thing I knew I’d read the entire book and was turning back to the first page to read it again. Woodson’s memoir–written in free verse–is beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring, filled with family, love, friendship, and child’s curiosity. It is one of the very few books I can say that I have, and will continue to, read many times. — Jamie Canaves
13+ (Young Adult):
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova: Want a story about sisters and lady friendships and fighting in the face of creatures that seem like gods? You’ll want to hand Labyrinth Lost to all the teens in your life, especially the lady-identifying ones. Alex, trying to give away her magical powers, accidentally banishes her family to another world and must leap into it to get them back. It’s fun and fantastical, a light fantasy perfect for both those obsessed with magical stories and those new to the genre. It’s fun and motivating, something we definitely need right now. — Nicole Brinkley
Ask Me How I Got Here by Christine Heppermann: There’s probably a teen on your list who loves poetry and Ellen Hopkins and wants a book that doesn’t feel like it’s for a kid. Ask Me How I Got Here is that book. Told in verse, a girl accidentally gets pregnant, has an abortion, and life goes on – even when the rest of those who know her think her life should have stopped. It’s a beautifully written and feminist exploration of identity and sexuality, and a story perfectly timed for today’s political atmosphere. — Nicole Brinkley
March, Books 1, 2, & 3 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell: This is a worthy, stunning graphic novel that everyone should read. The March series begins with a scene in John Lewis’ congressional office, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. Through flashbacks, we get a most personal look into Mr. Lewis’ history with the civil rights movement and all that he has endured fighting for equal rights and equal voting opportunities. How grateful I am that he told his story. The graphic novel medium, and in particular Nate Powell’s stunning art, works perfectly to detail the brutal and heartbreaking work of the many people fighting for the most basic of human rights. March, Book 3 is the conclusion of the series, but John Lewis remains a larger-than-life political activist and Georgia Congressman whose wisdom will endure through countless generations. “We are one people, one family, one house–the American house,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “We must learn to live together as brother & sister or we will perish as fools.” — Karina Glaser
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older: This is a no-brainer to put on the list. It’s fun, it’s engrossing, and it keeps a lot of balls in the fair. It explores art, gentrification, sexism & racism, all while building its own mythology and balancing fantasy elemets while remaining firmly rooted in its Brooklyn setting. This is an engaging book even for the more casual or occasional reader on your list. — Danika Ellis
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera: For the young feminist in your life! This follows Juliet, a Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx. She’s just discovering feminism and takes the leap to leave her hometown for the first time in her life in order to work with her feminist mentor. She learns about feminism, but also about the fallibility and complexity of people, including ones who are supposed to “get it”. This probably wouldn’t be the best intro to feminism (maybe try You Don’t Have To Like Me by Alida Nugent for that), but it would be perfect for a teenager who is already becoming a feminist and is maybe ready for some critique of White Feminism. — Danika Ellis
by Shaun Tan: This is a wordless graphic novel that evocatively depicts the experience of being an immigrant. In fact, the wordless format blends perfectly with the protagonist’s initial struggle to communicate effectively, and you feel swept up in an overwhelming new world along with him. This works as a recommendation for just about everyone, to be honest, but it may be especially fitting for a teenager who insists they don’t like to read. Look, you don’t have to read a single word! And it just might surprise you. —Danika Ellis