Let’s start by committing ourselves to the lovely Icelandic custom of Jolabokaflod, giving books to loved ones as holiday gifts. The annual book extravaganza began during World War II when paper was one of the few things not strictly rationed on the island, and I can’t think of a better tradition than helping kids of all ages build a personal library. Even though it’s a cliché by now, there are very few things more rewarding or pleasurable than curling up with a child and reading together.
Here are some terrific books published in the last year for kids of all ages, from babies to teens.
BOARD BOOKS (Ages 0-3ish)
I don’t know how we all lived without the trio of board books by Steven Weinberg collectively called Big Jobs. ”Dishwasher’s Big Job,” “Washer and Dryer’s Big Job,” and “Fridge and Oven’s Big Job” each explain, at pitch-perfect toddler level, what your appliances do for you. The illustrations are perfectly wacky, and each book comes with at least one pair of googly-eyes embedded in the cover.
“What Do You Say, Little Blue Truck?” By Alice Shertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. A new book in the hugely popular Little Blue Truck series is always good news, but this one really hits it out of the, um, farm. Blue beeps, but what sounds do the farm animals make? Do they beep right back? This simple interactive story answers that question with uncommonly satisfying animal sounds. A perfect gift for very young kids.
PICTURE BOOKS (Ages 4ish-8ish)
“Fred Gets Dressed” by Peter Brown. Any parent who’s tried to get clothes on their squirming toddler who prefers to be “naked and wild and free” will relate to the hilarious tale of little Fred, who eventually does get dressed, but not in the clothes his parents had in mind. This exuberant tale by Caldecott Honor-winner and best-selling author Brown contains important messages about nontraditional gender roles, parental acceptance, and the value of personal expression.
“Dream Street” by Tricia Elam Walker; collages by Ekua Holmes. A joyful celebration of a close-knit, multigenerational Black community that resembles the one where author Elam Walker and illustrator Holmes, cousins themselves, grew up. Local artist Holmes has received acclaim for her dazzling collages and Walker’s text is upbeat and great fun to read aloud.
“Our Table” by Peter H. Reynolds. From best-selling author and local bookseller Reynolds comes a story about a family that is spending more time on their devices than with each other, and how the youngest child, “feeling quite alone,” hatches a creative plan to bring them back together. A timely and lyrical reminder of what matters most in life.
“The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess” by Tom Gauld. This fairy tale may begin conventionally enough (“There once lived a king and queen who happily ruled a pleasant land”) but it quickly develops into a highly unusual and magical story of two unlikely royal siblings created out of wood. The first picture book by award-winning artist Gauld is full of adventures, quests, determination, and a truly impressive example of sibling loyalty. The artwork is both meticulous and laugh-out-loud funny.
“Keeping the City Going” by Brian Floca. A profound tribute by a Caldecott medalist to the heroic essential workers who kept us going during the pandemic. From bus drivers to food deliverers to hospital workers to garbage collectors, he celebrates the people who kept us safe and helped us “feel so not alone.” Inspired by his personal experience in Brooklyn, Floca is skilled at depicting detailed urban settings and his gentle, minimal text makes this an important book to remind us what the pandemic felt like and to be grateful to those who helped us make it through.
A perfect place for young kids to get their S.T.E.M. on is “The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA,” a picture book introduction to DNA — in verse, no less! — by local author Rajani LaRocca; illustrated by Steven Salerno. LaRocca’s a practicing physician and a strong proponent of using S.T.E.M concepts in her books for kids. In this one, she makes the case for both nature (DNA) and nurture (your choices and behavior) in forming the person you will become.
PICTURE BOOK BIOGRAPHIES
2021 was a bumper year for nonfiction picture books. These are three biographies of people whose art was animated by activism. In addition to being enlightening, they’re a pleasure to read.
“The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art” by Cynthia Levinson; pictures by Evan Turk. Award-winners Levinson and Turk are the ideal team to create this moving, timely, and gorgeous portrait of Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn. Levinson’s skillful narrative and Turk’s expressive paintings offer readers a perfect introduction to the brilliant artist for whom art was always political and who famously “shed light on Americans who lived in the shadows.”
“Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma” by Joanna Ho;Illustrated by Teresa Martinez. This illuminating biography of international superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma focuses on the concert of Bach cello suites he performed at the US-Mexico border on the Rio Grande, “accompanied by an orchestra of wind and water.” It interweaves Ma’s own life, the story of his cello, Petunia, and how he uses music to bring people of different cultures together, turning his concerts into inspiring displays of harmony and hope.
“Nina: A Story of Nina Simone” by Traci N. Todd; pictures by Christian Robinson. A visually stunning introduction to the life of Eunice Waymon, a kid from small-town North Carolina who grew up to become the indomitable protest singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Simone learned to sing before she could talk and grew up to perform “the whole story of Black America for everyone to hear.” A story of resilience, triumph, and history still in the making.
FAMILY GIFT SET
As J.R.R. Tolkien once observed, “Not all who wander are lost.” With “The Ultimate Waldo-Watcher Collection” by Martin Handford, a deluxe slip-cased gift set of all seven “Where’s Waldo?” books, you’ll know exactly where to look for your favorite flaneur.
MIDDLE-GRADE (Ages 8ish-12ish)
“The Beatryce Prophecy” by Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Sophie Blackall. It’s not surprising that when a two-time Newbery medalist and a two-time Caldecott medalist team up for the first time, the result is extraordinary. In this gentle feminist medieval epic, DiCamillo’s signature precise and elegant language and Blackall’s lustrous black-and-white illustrations combine to create Beatryce, an unforgettable heroine who demonstrates the power of knowledge, kindness, determination, and what it takes to change a sometimes dark and confusing world. For Beatryce, the answer is simple: “Love. Love, and also stories.”
“Frankie and Bug” by Gayle Forman. In her middle grade novel, best-selling author Gayle Forman has created a heartwarming and hard-hitting story about family (both given and chosen), self-discovery, and trying to make the world a better place. The summer of 1987 doesn’t start well for 10-year-old Bug, when her beloved older brother’s “need for space” translates into needing time away from her. But a visit from Frankie, a brainy and unusual kid from Ohio, sets in motion a series of events involving beach days, a serial killer, subtle and overt racism, and important lessons for Bug and her new friend.
“Stuntboy, in the Meantime” by Jason Reynolds; drawings by Raul the Third. In his first graphic novel, Newbery medalist and best-selling author Jason Reynolds joins forces with award-winning local artist Raul the Third. Protagonist Portico Reeves (alter ego: Stuntboy) has one main superpower: to keep everyone he cares about super-safe. But whenever he faces a call to action, his parents ask him to visit a neighbor “in the meantime.” It’s enough to give Portico/Stuntboy an ever-increasing case of the “frets,” his mom’s name for his anxiety. Raul the Third’s bright and colorful drawings and Reynolds’ treatment of a young man dealing with a lot make this a hilarious, high-energy, and thought-provoking read.
YOUNG ADULT/TEEN (Ages 14ish+)
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo. Best-selling local author Malinda Lo has written a gripping and brave coming-of-age story dealing with issues of gender, sexuality, immigration, and discrimination. It centers on Lily Hu, a 17-year-old in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s, as she falls in love — dangerously — for the first time. This beautifully written novel won the National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature this year, and, as a bonus, has one of the most magnificent book jackets I’ve seen in ages. A must-read for teens.
“Graceling (Graphic Novel)” by Kristin Cashore; adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds. The perfect gift for any fan of the best-selling Graceling fantasy series that exploded on the scene over a decade ago. Award-winning artist Gareth Hinds’ dazzling illustrations make the beloved story of Katsa by local author Kristin Cashore come alive in a brilliant new way.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.