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Our Favorite Picture Books

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One of the lovely things about working in a bookshop is getting to be around kids’ books. Since I don’t have any kids of my own, I was out of the loop on what toddlers and preschoolers get to read these days. But now I have a dream job putting books in people’s hands as well as doing a lot of the social media for East City Bookshop. I get to write the tweets for our weekly new releases, and our book buyer alerts us to any new and notable books that I should especially pay attention to when I do that. One of our weekly tasks is also to do what we call shelf-reading, which means checking the shelves are alphabetised correctly. We do this so that customers can find books, but it’s also a great way for us to keep up to date as to what’s there, since not every bookseller can read every book. And of course, we get to handle the books: from shelving them when they come in to calling customers when their order has arrived. 

Last year, before I picked up the phone to let a customer know their book was ready for them, I was intrigued by the title – Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev  and Taeeun Yoo – so I read through it first. I should have had tissues ready! It’s a sweet story about friendship and acceptance and I teared up a little. I think that’s what I love about picture books: how positive and life-affirming they are. That’s true whether they’re an invitation to bravery like Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps, in which a dad helps his kid find the courage to jump off the diving board, or, in the case of BJ Novak’s wonderful The Book With No Pictures, just a joyful exploration of language. Picture books are a great way to help develop a child’s imagination and sense of wonder, as well as helping them to learn about and make sense of the world around them, including the vast diversity of people that make that world. 

I asked my fellow Book Rioters to share their own favorite picture books. Here’s what they said.

Guri and Gura by Rieko Nakagawa cover

Guri and Gura by Rieko Nakagawa and Yuriko Yamawaki

This classic Japanese children’s book series is about twin field mice named Guri and Gura and their adventures. In this first book, they find a giant egg in the forest and decide to make a cake out of it, sharing it with all their woodland creature friends. I grew up with my mom reading this to me in Japanese, and I would study the illustrations closely, especially taking delight in the detail of the one with all the animals eating the cake together at the end — even the snail has a tiny piece in front of it! Over countless repeated readings, my mom even turned the first few lines of the book into a song, which we can both still sing to this day. I continue to love this book just as much as I did as a kid, and to really crave a taste of that cake!

—Patricia Thang

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett cover

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett

This was one of my favorite childhood picture books, so much so my dad probably got tired of reading it to me. The idea of food falling from the sky and becoming weather always piqued my imagination. It always felt so fantastical! And I loved seeing how the townspeople used the increasingly ridiculous and oversized food to make life easier or else changed to deal with the havoc it wreaked. Give me a restaurant-sized pancake any day! 

—Rachel Brittain

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love cover

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

A short, sweet picture book that is as full of love and acceptance as it is of lush, eye-popping illustrations. Julián wants to be a mermaid, like some ladies he and his abuela saw on the bus, which requires a glorious costume of fern hair and a certain tail, of course. It’s his sweet exuberance and his abuela’s immediate acceptance and encouragement that make this book such a touching addition to picture book canon. 

—Rachel Brittain

You are Stardust by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim

You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim

This is a picture book that works on several levels: it’s a science book, but it also has a narrative and a great read-aloud style. Older readers will appreciate the facts woven in. I love that this reads almost like a spirituality message, except that everything is scientifically backed. (We are made of the stuff of stars! We are part of the kingdom of creatures, and we are all interconnected!) What really steals the show, though, are the illustrations, which combine watercolor and multimedia dioramas. This is the first picture book that had me searching out the illustrator just to stare at some of her other illustrations!

—Danika Ellis

GHOSTS IN THE HOUSE! BY KAZUNO KOHARA cover

Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara

If I were to make a list of wishes for what qualities I want in a book, this one ticks off all the boxes. It’s funny, sweet, and scary. That’s the trifecta for kids who will grow up to love horror novels with happy endings. With bold orange, black, and white illustrations, the book depicts a girl who finds ghosts in her house. Cleverly, she catches them, runs them through the washing machine, and repurposes them throughout her home. What a fearless hero! Reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose your ghosts. There’s probably a metaphor in this for all of us about how to take control of what scares us. I will decline to examine that any further, to my own detriment no doubt. But I will absolutely be revisiting this book as Halloween rolls around again.

—Isabelle Popp

Drawn Together by Minh Lê and Dan Santat cover

Drawn Together by Minh Lê and Dan Santat

This story uses limited text and beautiful illustrations to tell a nuanced story about families, culture, and connections. A young Vietnamese American boy and his grandfather struggle to spend time together because they don’t speak the same language, but eventually they discover that they can communicate through a shared enjoyment of drawing. Once they begin to share their art, it becomes easier for them to feel bonded. A very sweet, uplifting story about the power of art to cross divides, and it’s told expertly with vibrant, intricate art.

—Rachel Rosenberg

If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall cover

If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

Caldecott winner Blackall’s most recent book is beautiful and inclusive, with diverse illustrations and meaningful, well-written text. In this creative picture book, a child wants to put together a guide to Earth. Aimed at alien visitors from space, the guide contains bits of everything — emotional stuff, like how people live and ways to be kind; but also factual information about weather, animals, bugs, and much more. On top of that, it does it all with charm and humour. Adults will enjoy this just as much as kiddos will. Added bonus: sneak a look under the book jacket to see the front and back cover pages for extra fun.

—Rachel Rosenberg

Fortune Cookie Fortunes by Grace Lin cover

Fortune Cookie Fortunes by Grace Lin

Grace Lin is one of my favorite authors, and I always try to check out at least one of her picture books when my son and I visit the library. Her characters are always so endearing and the illustrations are gorgeous works of art. I recently checked this one out of the library, and it has completely won me over as my favorite picture book now! Pacy and her family open fortune cookies at the beginning of the story, and every family member gets a different fortune. Pacy wonders if these fortunes actually come true, and yet as the adventure continues we do see the surprising ways these fortunes blossom into reality. Pacy holds a soft spot in my heart because like her, I have always felt awe over the fortunes I receive, and I look for them in my life too.

—Megan Mabee

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe cover

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe

This beautifully written and illustrated book is based on a traditional African folktale. Murfaro is proud of both of his beautiful daughters, Manyara and Nyasha. Manyara is spoiled and mean and everyone but Murfaro knows this. On the other hand, Nyasha is generous and kind. When it’s time for the Great King to pick a new wife, only one of the girls will be chosen. This is an older book, but still very much a must-read in children’s literature. It’s the first book I can think of where the main characters looked like me, and for that reason, as well as the story itself, it has always stuck out in my mind.

—PN Hinton


Find even more outstanding picture books with these must-read 2021 picture books, as well as this guide to the best children’s books by age.

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