100 Must-Read Picture Books from the Last 5 Years

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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.

This post about must-read picture books is sponsored by Libby, our presenting sponsor for the Read Harder Challenge, and the one-tap reading app from OverDrive.

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I love picture books. Now that my friends are starting to have kids, I’m thinking up more and more about what I want to read with the little people in my life. But a few years ago, I noticed something. The picture books I was buying for my new little friends or bringing to class to read with my students were almost all books that I read when I was a child. Many were even books my mom read as a child. Maurice Sendak. Eric Carle. Dr. Seuss. Madeline. Corduroy. Eloise. These were the authors and characters I wanted to share and relive out of a nostalgia for my own childhood.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but as someone who wants the picture book industry to continue I decided to start exploring contemporary picture books. And there are so many new favorites I’ve found in this exploration. Here are a list of one hundred books I’ve loved that have been published in the last five years. And if you’re picking up any picture books this holiday season, I’d suggest you think about mixing one or two of these in with some of your favorite classics.

  1. Akissi: Cat Invasion by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin: The neighborhood cats are trying to steal Akissi’s fish, but the spunky West African girl won’t let them intimidate her for long.
  2. Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales: In this beautiful story, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t like the fact that he’s named after his dad. Together, they try to brainstorm a new name for him that will be all his own.
  3. To the Sea by Cale Atkinson: A lonely boy befriends a lost whale and helps return his new friend to the ocean.
  4. Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, illustrated by Felicia Hoshino: Juna and her best friend Hector love to go on adventures and collect mementos in empty kimchi jars. When Hector moves away without saying goodbye, Juna uses the jars to try and find Hector in her dreams.
  5. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant: Morris’s classmates don’t understand why he likes the tangerine dress in his classroom’s dress up corner, because they think dresses are just for girls.
  6. Triangle by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen: Triangle has a plan to play a prank on his friend Square, but events don’t unfold the way he expects.
  7. Welcome by Barroux: An allegory about the plight of refugees, told through the characters of a Polar Bear and his friends who must find a new place to live after effects from climate change take him away from his home.
  8. The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton: Princess Pinecone learns to appreciate her cute little pony after she asks for a big strong warrior horse for her birthday. In the process, she learns to appreciate herself too.
  9. Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts: Scientifically minded Ada uses experimentation and the power of deduction to try and discover the source of the mysterious smell in her house.
  10. Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts: Rosie gets her chance to follow her secret dream of becoming a great engineer, when she attempts to build a flying machine to fulfill the last wish of her great-great aunt Rose.
  11. Crankenstein by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Dan Sanat: This book about the extreme level of crankiness a person can reach will relate to everyone and is almost guaranteed to make readers laugh out loud.
  12. One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel: This book uses rhymes to describe the plan of a young boy planning to escape the belly of the snake who just ate him.
  13. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by‎ Noah Z. Jones: Jeremy desperately wants the new trendy shoes everyone at school is wearing, even though he knows his family can’t afford them. When he tries to stuff his feet into a too-small pair he finds at a thrift store, he learns to appreciate the warm boots his grandmother got for him. 
  14. Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border: This picture book about a peanut butter bread looking for his food soulmate is hilarious and uniquely illustrated with photographs instead of drawings.
  15. Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol: Grandma has had enough. She leaves her large family and tiny home to go on an adventure in order to find the peace and quiet she needs to finish her knitting.
  16. My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) by Peter Brown: Bobby realizes he may have judged his teacher too harshly when he runs into her outside of the classroom.
  17. Imani’s Moon by Janay Brown-Wood: Imani is the littlest girl living in her Masai village in Africa. She wants to overcome the teasing and bullying from larger kids by reaching her goal to touch the moon.
  18. This Book Just Ate My Dog! by Richard Byrne: In this interactive picture book, Bella’s dog and everyone she calls for help get lost in the gutter of the book. It will take a creative solution to get everyone back safely!
  19. The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell: Minnow the curious mermaid goes on an adventure to try and figure out what the purpose of a shoe is.
  20. Gravity by Jason Chin: This book combines crisp illustrations and accessible language to explain the complex theory of gravity to children.
  21. Ninja! by Aree Chung: Structured as a how-to book for ninjas, readers get to see a young boy attempt to perform acts of stealth around the house with varying degrees of success.
  22. She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger: The former first daughter provides biographies for thirteen women in America’s history who changed our country by refusing to stay quiet.
  23. Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato: Little Elliot sometimes feels like his size puts him at odds with the big city where he lives. But when he makes a new friend during a quest for cupcakes, he learns that even in a big city there are others who can appreciate his small stature.
  24. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson: In this Newberry Award–winning book, CJ’s grandmother helps him see the beauty of their neighborhood on a bus trip across town.
  25. Wally Does Not Want a Haircut by Amanda Driscoll: Wally the sheep is afraid of getting his first haircut, but when his long hair starts getting in the way of him having fun it’s time to face his fear.
  26. Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora: It’s an adjustment for everyone when the Bunny family adopts a wolf son, especially Dot, who’s worried that her new brother will eat them all.
  27. Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López: A young girl living in Cuba challenges the status quo that says girls cannot be drummers and follows her dream to create music.
  28. Snappsy the Alligator by Julie Falatko, illustrated by Tim Miller: Snappsy the Alligator is trying to have a normal day when a narrator comes and tries to tell readers a bunch of lies about him. He did not ask to be in a story, but he feels the need to defend himself by throwing a party—which may have been the narrator’s goal all along.
  29. Quantum Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie: A board book with simple explanations for some very complicated scientific theories.
  30. Locomotive by Brian Floca: This Caldecott Medal–winning book describes the journey of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
  31. Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard: Exploring the impact of separating Indigenous children from their families in Canada, this is the story of a little girl trying to help her grandfather get back the words in Cree that he says were stolen from him as a child.
  32. Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Adam Rex: Chu is a hilarious little panda with a big sneezing problem. Reading this one aloud is guaranteed to get even bigger laughs.
  33. Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez: When the boys tell Lucia that girls can’t be super heroes, her abuela tells her the family secret that she’s a descendant of a long line of strong women in the lucha libre tradition.
  34. Princesses Wear Pants by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim, illustrated by‎ Eva Byrne: Princess Penelope Pineapple knows that princesses can wear whatever they want, but she has to get creative when Lady Busyboots declares no pants allowed at the annual Pineapple ball. 
  35. Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall: A blue crayon struggles to find an identity when they are mislabeled red.
  36. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison: This book introduces readers to forty amazing black women from America’s history, ranging from the poet Maya Angelou to the chemist Alice Ball.
  37. Waiting by Kevin Henkes: Five toys sit on a window sill, all waiting for different things. Will their patience pay off?
  38. Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins: A grumpy old bear’s life changes when three of his supposedly hard-boiled eggs hatch and the goslings think he is their mother.
  39. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers: Framed as the author’s guidance for his own child, this book lovingly covers topics ranging from the different terrains on the planet to treating all people with kindness.
  40. A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans: A tongue twister combining gorgeous pictures and wordplay centering around a meeting between a greyhound and a groundhog.
  41. All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis: This picture book tells the story of the first Juneteenth, a celebration on June 19th commemorating the day when the last of the slaves in the South received their freedom.
  42. We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen: Conflict arises when two turtles find a hat that looks good on both of them.
  43. Marilyn’s Monster by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Matt Phelan: In a world where all children have monsters, Marilyn is impatient for hers to arrive. Everyone is telling her to be patient, but she wants to defy convention and go looking for her monster instead of waiting for her monster to find her.
  44. Peace is an Offering by Annette LeBox, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin: A rhyming poem about how to find peace as a community in good times and during tragedies.
  45. The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton: The story of the nine-year-old little girl who was the youngest child to be arrested at a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.   
  46. Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso: Inspired by a pair of real bears in the Central Park Zoo, this story explores themes of friendship, death, and grieving when polar bear Gus finds out that his best friend is sick and isn’t going to get better.
  47. Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light: An intricately-drawn counting book where children hunt through city scenes to find the dragon.
  48. The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton: Brian often feels invisible. He isn’t invited to birthday parties or to play on the playground. But when a new boy moves to town, a new friendship and a very cool group project give Brian a way to stand out.
  49. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken: This book examines how mistakes are often a vital part of the creative process and can lead to amazing ideas.
  50. Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo: A boy and his pet elephant try to overcome exclusion from their local pet club.
  51. Night Animals by Gianna Marino: Possum, skunk, wolf, and bear are all afraid the noises they hear are frightening night animals, until bat points out that they are all night animals.
  52. Life Without Nico by Andrea Maturana, illustrated by Francisco Javier Olea: Maia must adjust to life without her best friend Nico when his family moves away. When she makes new friends and discovers new interests, Maia worries that there won’t be room in her life for Nico anymore.
  53. Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal: A look at the ways the ecosystems of the mountain and pond are both different and connected to each other.
  54. Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, illustrated by Kadir Nelson: This book pairs sparse, poetic language with beautiful paintings to portray America’s most iconic images and celebrate our country’s diversity.
  55. Circle, Triangle, Elephant: A Book of Shapes and Surprises by Mayuko Takeuchi and Meagan Bennett: An innovative board book to introduce shapes to toddlers, while mixing in some quirky silliness.
  56. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara: An alphabet board book that introduces babies and toddlers to politically progressive concepts using rhyming and alliteration.
  57. Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon: A unique grandparent story, about a young girl who’s scared of her glamorous but prickly grandmother Nell.
  58. The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak: The title might suggest that this book doesn’t belong on this list, but this celebration of words and imagination makes up for the lack of illustrations.
  59. This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstad: Sadie is a young girl with a big imagination, who thinks up stories ranging from her being raised to wolves to imagining that her dresses can talk to her.
  60. Draw the Line by Kathryn Otoshi: This wordless picture book is a great opportunity to talk to kids about fighting with friends and peaceful conflict resolution.
  61. A Poem for Peter by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher: A celebration of the author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day, the first mainstream book to feature and African American child.
  62. On the Ball by Brian Pinkney: Owen learns to keep his eye on the ball and not be distracted from his goal of becoming a better soccer player.
  63. The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Jerry Pinkney: In this retelling of the three goats trying to pass over the troll’s bridge, Pinkney combines his always amazing images with a new anti-bullying message.
  64. The Tortoise & the Hare by Jerry Pinkney: This beautifully-illustrated book retells Aesop’s fable about the slow tortoise who is able to beat the quick hare using his focus and determination.
  65. Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli: Sam is used to winning every race. When his friend Maggie comes in first, he must learn how to handle being in second place for the first time.
  66. The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli: A young crocodile loves watermelon but grows increasingly anxious about what will happen if he accidentally swallows a watermelon seed.
  67. Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown: Now that Jasper Rabbit is a big boy bunny, he begs his mom to let him get a pair of creepy underwear from the store, but once the lights are off they might be too creepy for him after all.
  68. School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, by Christian Robinson: On the first day of school at newly built Frederick Douglas Elementary, even the school is a bit apprehensive about what to expect when students arrive.
  69. My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo: A child refugee from Syria worries about what’s happened to his beloved pigeons.
  70. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno: Benjamin Franklin uses the Scientific Method to discredit the magical claims and scams of Dr. Mesmer in Paris.
  71. I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by‎ Tom Lichtenheld: A book of uplifting wishes for all good things from friendship and love to peace and laughter. 
  72. Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri: Things go wrong when a sauce is invented that can turn anyone into a robot.
  73. Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri: Raccoon LOVES pizza so much he plans an elaborate SECRET pizza party, because everyone else always chases him away from their pizza with a broom.
  74. Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison: The story of the childhood of Melba Doretta Liston, who would overcome obstacles of race and gender to become one of the great jazz musicians of the 20th century.
  75. Would You Rather Be a Princess or a Dragon? by Barney Saltzberg: A clever story examining the tropes of dragons and princesses, then ultimately proclaiming that we can all be both.
  76. The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Sanat: This whimsical storybook describes Beekle’s journey away from the island where imaginary friends are born in search of a child to become his friend.
  77. After the Fall by Dan Santat: The story of what happened to Humpty Dumpty after he fell of the wall. Faced with new limitations and a fear of heights, he must adjust to a new way of life.
  78. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach: The fantastical story of how a bear wandered into the city and stole a half-eaten sandwich is almost too much to be believed.
  79. Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History … and Our Future! by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl: An alphabet book that will introduce readers to extraordinary women, from A is for Angela Davis to Z is for Zora Neale Hurston.
  80. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea: Unicorn keeps upstaging Goat. How is Goat supposed to compete with someone who can make it rain cupcakes? But when they bond over a shared love of pizza, Goat rethinks his feelings about Unicorn.
  81. Tiger in My Soup by Kashmira Sheth, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler: When a boy is left with an older sister as a babysitter, he just wants her attention. But she refuses to be distracted, even when the boy finds a hungry tiger in his soup.
  82. Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown: Stella has two daddies, so she isn’t sure what to do when her class throws a Mother’s Day party.
  83. Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima: Kelp has lived his whole life thinking he was a narwhal. But the differences between him and his family start to make sense when he discovers a creature above land that looks just like him—unicorns.
  84. Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by John Hendrix: Clever and often funny poems about each of the forty three presidents, from George Washington to Barak Obama.
  85. Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents) by Eline Snel, illustrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn: An introduction to mindfulness and meditation with accessible images and metaphors for children.
  86. The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen: Lazlo and the dark have a deal. The dark will stay in the basement and Lazlo will stay in his room. But when the dark visits Lazlo’s room one night, the little boy must face his fear.
  87. The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires: A girl inventor and her dog assistant try to make the most magnificent thing. When it doesn’t turn out the way she wants, a walk helps her clear her head and gain the perspective she needs to finish the project.
  88. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe: This winner of the 2016 Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award takes us back to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s childhood. Before making his mark on the art scene, Jean-Michel was a young boy who was able to find art all around him, even if other people couldn’t see it.
  89. Noodle Magic by Roseanne Thong, illustrated by Meilo So: A grandfather tries to teach his granddaughter how to make his family-famous noodles, with some unexpected and downright magical consequences.
  90. Looking for Bongo by Eric Velásquez: A mixture of Spanish and English are used in this search to discover where a boy’s beloved stuffed dog, Bondo, has gone and how he got there.
  91. Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie: A poetic, rhyming tale of a little-known piece of African American history, where slaves in New Orleans were briefly given the freedom to come together and make music on Sunday afternoons.
  92. Glamourpuss by Sarah Weeks, illustrated by David Small: A very glamorous cat struggles with losing the attention of her owners when an unwelcome, tacky dog comes to visit.
  93. Sector 7 by David Wiesner: When a boy befriends a cloud, his new friend takes him to Sector 7, where clouds decide what shape they wish to become.
  94. Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems: Nanette the frog has been given the job of going to the bakery alone and buying a baguette. She worries her mother won’t understand when she’s involved in a baguette-related accident on the walk back home.
  95. The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems: Pigeon needs a bath, but he’s got plenty of excuses to avoid getting clean.
  96. Lucinda Belinda Melinda McCool by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by‎ Tony Ross: Melinda loves giving everyone around her unsolicited advice about their appearance, but when she tries to give a monster in the forest a makeover, she’ll be forced to learn not to judge people based on what they look like. 
  97. Ninja Potty Break by Alexandria Wiltberger: A fun potty training board book.
  98. Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Grace Zong: This Chinese American retelling of Goldilocks ends with Goldy taking responsibility for the chaos she causes in the Panda family’s home and making a new friend just in time for Chinese New Year.
  99. Be a Friend by Salina Yoon: Dennis is a committed mime, even though it sets him apart from his classmates and makes him feel lonely most of the time. He discovers the power of communication and acceptance through a new friendship.
  100. Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoët: Malala, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and advocate for female education, tells her story of learning she didn’t need magic to try and make a difference in the world.

What are your favorite, must-read picture books from the last five years?