Hello, friends! Happy New Year’s Eve! It’s that time of year again, when we take a moment to look back at some of our favorite reviews from this past year: the books that filled us with hope, brought us joy, made us laugh, made us think, and inspired us to be our best selves.
And just as it was last year, editing this list was EXCRUCIATING. But while we had leave out some incredible stories, we have decided on a list of the Top 20 books that made a lasting impression on both JJ and me.
So here are, in no particular order, our Top 20 Reviews of 2018! Each one features a short summary and an excerpt from our original review that captures what made the book so special to us. Please note: not all of these books were released this year, but 2018 is the year we reviewed them. We hope they entertain and inspire you and your little bookworms in 2019! Please enjoy, and we’ll see you in the new year!
This wordless picture books tells the earnest, compelling, and inspiring story of Vanessa, a new girl in school who suffers bullying, and nameless protagonist who decides to take a stand against it by showing empathy and kindness. Rather than a might-makes-right approach to fighting harassment, Kerascoët shows that sometimes, all that needs to be done is to show bullies that they will always be outnumbered by good and compassionate people.
“It speaks to the sheer perfection of Kerascoët’s art that words aren’t needed to tell a compelling, touching, and uplifting story; in the absence of text, the bully’s harsh words are still cutting and cruel, the downcast expressions of the two girls speaks volumes, and the reader can practically hear the chatter of friendly, supportive children during the final scenes. The simplicity of the story can speak to readers of any age: hatred and callousness always loses when good people come together to stand against it.”
“I dreamed of you, then you appeared. Together we became Amor – Love – Amor.” So begins a love letter from a mother to her baby, and the story of their journey together to a new land. The language spoken is unlike her own, but she tries, until the day when she stumbles upon a place of education and promise: a public library. As her son grows, she and he both use the books and resources to learn, to adapt, and to stretch their dreams ever higher. “We are stories. We are two languages. […] We are dreamers, soñadores of the world.”
“[…] Morales channels her immigration experience into a factual story with a fantastical look. Every word of the quietly powerful text has intent, each element of the mixed media art a nod to the author’s past, present, and future […]. It’s not just one love letter, but many – from mother to son, from patron to library, from reader to book, from immigrant to both home countries – all folded into a story that inspires, relates, and deeply moves.”
A pure, powerful, and deeply moving story about loss, grief, and supporting our loved ones in times of need or sorrow. Margot is sad because Tim is gone, but through the quiet and faithful support of her friends, she mourns his loss and begins to find peace. JJ adores this book – likely because of the soothing tone and color palette – and despite reading it dozens of times, it never fails to leave me misty-eyed by its gorgeous finale.
“Heartbreaking, uplifting, comforting, and dear all at once. The way the progression of Margot’s grief unfolds […] is a subtle and powerful way of letting kids know that mourning is just that: a process. Furthermore, in her friends’ gentle and thoughtful actions, it shows young children how they can be there for someone who is dealing with loss. Finally, the non-denominational depiction of Tim’s beautifully serene afterlife will give children comfort for their own losses.”
When Mackenzie is humiliated once again for her short, unruly hair, she runs to Miss Tillie for a cry. Mack’s hair has always been especially hard to style – even her own mother doesn’t know what to do with it. Miss Tillie listens sagely, then agrees to teach Mack how to care for her hair. Excited, Mack asks if her hair will one day look like Miss Tillie’s smooth, elaborate style. But using her lush and lovingly-maintained garden as a metaphor, Tillie shows Mack that the style of the hair is not what matters, but that her hair is healthy, well cared-for and, most importantly, loved.
“As many women of color can attest, the struggle of having “good hair” – and the social and body-image connotations therewith – starts early on. It’s what makes a book like this so vital: […] Cabrera give practical tips on caring for black hair […], but also provides an affirming encouragement for young girls of color to love and take pride in their hair. This tone is further explored in the gorgeous illustrations that give rich, emotional connections to the text: a vignette of a boy dumping sand in Mack’s hair is heartbreaking, inside covers depicting girls of various skintones and hairstyles are heartwarming, and the cover/inner illustration of Mack’s hair growing healthy, natural, and strong is spellbinding.”
A gorgeous tale of pride and acceptance for a gender nonconforming boy. Julián imagines himself as a mermaid, growing a tail of his own and long, beautiful hair that waves gently through the ocean, making friends with the sea creatures who love and accept him. Left alone as his abuela bathes, Julián is struck with inspiration: he sheds his normal clothes and crafts a mermaid outfit for himself, with a headdress of flowers and palm fronds, a long flowing tail made from a curtain, and a pop of lipstick to complete the look. Enjoying his new ensemble, he doesn’t hear his abuela exit her bath, and finds her staring at him in silence. At first, the reader and Julián think he must be in trouble… until he finds that acceptance is not only found in the sea.
“The story is simple, subtle, but incredibly moving. The rich, earthy-colored illustrations need only minimal text to assist in getting the message across, but what is there is equally, perfectly understated. And the visual symbolism strikes a perfect tone, using texture, motion, color, and pattern to explore Julián’s hidden world of imagination and connect it to the reality of his quietly supportive abuela. […] A beautiful story for little mermaids of all genders.”
Finn loves the ocean, a love he once shared with his grandpa; he would have been 90 today. In honor of his grandpa, he has built a ship from scraps and flotsam – he hopes to one day take it on a voyage of his own, to find the mythical place his grandfather once spoke of, a place where ocean meets sky. After nodding off in his boat, he awakes to find that he has been swept out to sea – the journey has begun!
“Breathtaking yet touching and intimate. Once again, the Fan Brothers have created a detailed world straight out of a child’s imagination, with sights, landscapes, and creatures that fascinate and amuse. Every page is beautiful and inviting, and inspires the reader to share Finn’s wanderlust. The story is soft and gentle, but filled with meaning, working in concert with the art to explore themes of remembrance, family, and even Chinese culture.”
Following a gathering of families for a day at the lakeside, the text begins with the titular sentiment: “pie is for sharing.” It starts as a round thing, but it can then be cut into as many pieces as you need, so everyone can have a slice. Lots of other things are for sharing, too: books, toy boats, music, stories, climbing trees, hugs – there are so many things you can share with the people around you, and the people you care about. Night breezes, berries, the last slice of homemade bread, and fireworks – these are made for sharing too. “Just like pie.”
“At first, this can be read as a simple ode to summer – swimming, picnicking, playing in the sand with friends, enjoying a fireworks show as a community. The art certainly captures the joyful, carefree atmosphere of children in summertime, creating a lovely sense of nostalgia on every page. But not far beneath the surface appeal, there is a fantastic message about community and diversity to be found. […]With this, it becomes a story about sharing our world, our neighborhood, and ourselves with others, and experiencing the happiness that doing so brings. […]This is a warm summer’s day of a book: relaxing, bright, and leaving the reader with a sense of comforting hope.”
Welcome, new person! Here we are; this is Earth, a big globe spinning in a massively bigger universe, and carrying all of human and plant and animal life as we know it. There are pointy, cold mountains, and hot, flat grasslands, and deep, mysterious oceans. There are all kinds of people here, all different shapes and sizes and colors, but all of them people just like you. It can be a little overwhelming, but we’ll take it step by step as you grow. We are here, after all – you’re never alone on Planet Earth.
“Jeffers created Here We Are as a gift for his first child, and it shows in the care, humor, and affection that sing from each page. The art is positively lovely: gorgeous, sweeping land-, sea-, and starscapes blended with Jeffers signature quirky details and characters. A spread featuring dozens of animals makes for delightful identification practice; another featuring a tongue-in-cheeky look at the solar system informs and amuses. The text is clever, sweet, and full of wonder at the world around. The rare story that little ones can enjoy more and more and they grow, and that encourages us to be curious and kind.”
“Like the sun, I’m here to shine,” the rhyming text begins, and each page that follows offers an affirmation of all the strength, talent, and promise that young girls have within them. While praising their inherent strengths and virtues, the text also encourages girls to show kindness, to be fighters, and to accept their fellow female for who she is, and embrace all the unique qualities that make her that way. And no matter what, to know that no matter what the world expects of her or tells her she must be, she needs only to remind herself of the truth: “I am enough.”
“Oh, but we do love a great girl-power book, and this one is PHENOMENAL. The text does a great job of encouraging girls to embrace who they are, both physically and personally; to support other women; to not be afraid of their strength or their empathy. The illustrations then bring the message to another level; there are girls of every color, every build, every ability, girls with hijabs, girls in wheelchairs – an absolute rainbow of young women working together, showing each other as friends and supporters. The one thing often missing from female-empowerment kidlit is diversity, but not here, and there IS a girl that looks like your little bookworm in this book.”
A young girl is collecting yellow flowers and bringing them back to her family, where they are holding a funeral for their recently deceased dog. She lays the flowers down over the large stone used to mark the grave and mourns. A short time later, the family leaves for a lakeside retreat. The girl is sad, watching other children play with their dogs, but at dusk she finds a small oval stone near the water. The art cuts to a large meteorite falling from space. It impacts, and the reader follows along as the stone takes an eons-long journey. As history plays out around it, the rock remains, until it finds itself at the shore of a lake, picked up by a little girl and brought to her home. She lays it on her dog’s grave in memory – a piece of time and the universe as the symbol of her love.
“I mean. Wow. This felt like a book as much for adults as it was for children. The story is so moving and passionate without a single word, the concept is profound and humbling, and the art is incomparable. It’s remarkable in scope, moreso that it never feels like it reaches too far or goes too big – it encourages the reader to think about life and death and the passage of time as something that is enormous and vast and small and personal, all at once. It’s breathtaking, awe-inspiring and yet comforting too.”
This was one of JJ’s presents from Santa this year, and every re-read reminds me of how special a book it is. Life begins as something small, and then? It grows. As days and nights pass, it becomes larger, and different, and more incredible than the day before. Life comes in many forms, from the smallest insect to the biggest whale. But life is hard sometimes, and there can even be times when it’s hard to find the beauty in it. But we must push through, because the morning will bring something new, something unique, something incredible – because life is beautiful, and so are you.
“Rylant and Wenzel have crafted something absolutely astonishing in its simple grace and powerful message. At the start, the story is a look at the animal kingdom through a different angle, and the detailed and eye-catching mixed media art sweeps the reader on this journey in a striking style. Then halfway through, the tone shifts, becoming a story about overcoming hardships and finding hope in troubling times. It encourages the reader that the dark and scary times will end, and that life is worth seeing and loving and experiencing. It’s an unexpected and deeply moving sentiment, […] and with suicides and self-harm among young children on the rise, it’s a message that all young readers should hear as much as possible. […]This is a must-read, and we strongly recommend it to anyone who needs a reminder to find hope in the storm.”
There are SO FEW kidlit books with ASD representation, and this one is a lovely one. From the start, Temple was different. At three, she had yet to say her first word, didn’t like noises or crowds, and hated to be hugged. A doctor recommends that she be institutionalized, but Temple’s mother refuses, instead surrounding Temple with supportive people who work to help her adapt, and eventually find the right diagnosis: autism. Under the right care, Temple begins to speak, learn, and invent. She becomes a world-renowned expert in animal behavior and earns three degrees, all because Temple and the people who loved her knew she was “different, not less.”
“We’re great admirers of Dr. Grandin and the feminist and ASD role model she is, and this story captured so much of what makes her story inspiring. Told in fun, bouncy, yet often quite powerful rhyme, it shows how the odds were stacked against Temple at many turns – an autistic woman working in the male-dominant STEM and livestock fields – but she refused be regarded as anything less than the genius that she was. The art is wonderful, using simple, adorable characters and plainly laying out complex ideas to connect with little ones, and a wealth of backmatter expands on the details of Temple’s life.”
“Dear Girl,” each page begins, before imparting bite-sized wisdoms to its reader: “Keep that arm raised! You have smart things to say!”, “Look at yourself in the mirror. Say ‘thank you’ to something that makes you YOU”, and “Find people like you. Find people UNLIKE you.” Readers are encouraged to form supportive friendships, to ask questions, and to trust their instincts. And if they ever need encouragement, they can turn to any page in the book, and remember that they are appreciated, celebrated and loved for the dear girl that they are.
“The late, great Rosenthal’s books are always tinged with a bit of sadness – each a reminder of what a lovely and profound writer she was. […]So many positive messages are woven in: confidence, loyalty, kindness, wonder, individuality, inclusion, hope and more. It encourages girls to think and speak for themselves, and a particularly powerful page reminds them that they always, in any situation, have the right to say “NO”. The art keeps it simple and does exactly what it needs to do, using ink lines with mixed-media and paint embellishments to keep the art minimalist yet impactful.”
A stylish and empowering book that pays homage to black boys and men, and the unique kingdom of the barbershop, a place of majesty and wonder where true works of art are created. It’s where a black boy can go and be treated like royalty, draped in robes and given a cut and/or style that makes him feel his best self. He can look around to see men – and women – who look like himself being fitted with their own fresh styles: flawless fades, a lion’s mane of locs, a shining wave, a razor sharp part, and the vitally perfect line. Each patron leaves looking and feeling regal, ready to take on the world with their power, grace, intelligence and soul, and the young man is no different. For each black boy has within him a king, and “the shop” is where he is crowned.
“[…R]epresentation in kidlit is still extremely lacking for people of color. So to see a book like Crown is revelatory: from the first page, it bursts with unapologetic pride, each page singing with black excellence and effortless cool. The illustrations are vibrant, colorful, and full of the style the story evokes. The text is rhythmic and energetic, with a perfect flow and a liberating dynamic. It’s a story that both celebrates black hair and style while also assuring boys of color that their hair is a mere reflection of the limitless capability and potential they possess within.”
A moving true story from one of the darkest moments in American history. Librarian Clara Breed’s young patrons come to turn in their library cards; she provides them stamped postcards in return. “Write to me,” she says, “and tell me where you are.” It’s WWII, and they are being forced into imprisonment by the US government for being of Japanese descent. Through the letters, Clara learns of the children’s lives: sleeping in deplorable conditions in internment camps, suffering extreme weather and limited food. Clara sends them books, school supplies, and always more postcards – giving them a voice in their time of tragedy.
“By the fourth page of this book, I was openly sobbing. The tragic and infuriatingly unjust treatment of the Japanese-American detainees is brought to devastating reality by the excerpts from the actual postcards to Clara Breed. Reading the children’s words as they describe their inhumane conditions is heartbreaking […]. The art is delicate and soft, yet illustrates the bleak, uncertain lives the children led. Please, read this book. Read it and discuss it with your children. It celebrates a good person we should know, and remembers a shameful event we should never forget.”
Franny’s father is a feminist. What does that mean? Well, Franny’s father believes that his daughter (and everyone else’s daughters too) can do anything boys can do, and that they deserve to have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Franny’s father is a feminist, because he believes that boys and girls deserve a world in which they are treated equally.
“Seeing as the definition of “feminism” is something that even some adults have trouble with, this story is perfect for introducing the concept to little ones, as well as the fact that feminists are often men. The story remains light, but still touches on many topics relating to feminism in a way that is easily understood and encourages further conversation. The cartoonish illustrations are bright, colorful, and eye-catching, and filled with wonderful details. […A] fabulously feminist family tale[…]”
In 1977, Harvey Milk became one of the first openly gay elected government officials. The next year, he and his friend Gilbert Baker came up with a symbol to unite their community and the people who supported it, and to show pride: they created the first rainbow Pride Flag. Then later that year, the unthinkable: Harvey was assassinated because of one man’s hatred and fear. Yet despite his life being cut short, the seed of hope, courage, and pride that Harvey and Gilbert had planted with their flag had already taken root, and was beginning to grow.
“Like many luminaries that have tragic – and tragically short – lives, it’s hard to tell Harvey Milk’s story in a child-friendly way, but this book does so with grace and a sense of hope. As Milk’s life story ends, the story of the flag becomes the focus, elegantly showing how it grew across the nation, then the world, ending with the note that on the day gay marriage was finally legalized in the United States, the White House itself wore the colors of Pride. It’s a delicate balance of history, tragedy, then encouragement and possibility, and it all fits together perfectly.”
A father speaks to his daughter about the big things in life, the questions and revelations we all share as we grow and discover who we are. He warns her that there are other questions that we will asked of her: “What are you? And where are you from?”. He sadly notes that these questions will not always be asked in kindness. Still, he encourages her to simply reply, “Yo soy Muslim.” This statement encapsulates generations of history, culture; proud hardworking people and her own future as it lies ahead. He urges her to say it proudly, and to define the words in her own way as she defines herself. “Yo soy Muslim,” he says, “Our prayers were here, before any borders were.”
“Taking an exceptionally personal sentiment, the text and art weaves the father’s words to his daughter into a larger lesson about how we treat people who are “other” than us. Quiet, powerful language emphasizes the importance and value that every child possesses, even as the world makes groups – especially children of those groups – feel small and powerless. The vibrant, strikingly colorful art fits this tone perfectly, drawing from both indigenous Latin American and Middle Eastern art to paint a world of explosive color. […] A gorgeous book to share with any little one to encourage understanding and pride, and for children of Latin and Muslim backgrounds, an astounding gift of representation.”
Perhaps not as weighty or serious as the other books on this list, but let me tell you: Huggy The Python was 100% JJ’s FAVORITE book this year. Aiming to help little ones learn basic social skills, both books introduce adorable characters with lessons to learn. For instance, Huggy the python loves to hug the things he loves, but he finds that when he hugs things too tight (such as a balloon or an ice cream sundae), he can break or hurt them. Similarly, Roary the lion loves to let loose his big roar, more often than not startling his family members. In both cases, the reader is employed to help teach the character how to calmly interact, making these wildly entertaining and interactive books stand out.
“The lessons were well-imparted, necessary, and used the interactive elements in both fun and educational ways. The characters and illustrations were absolutely charming, and the friendly conversational text made reading them aloud a joy. The lengths were perfect, and JJ had an absolute blast with them, especially the interactive pages and the art. Even the clever twist at the end of Roary was perfect. I hope to see more of this series very soon[…]”
We end our list with love. The first voices we hear, and the first faces we see, wide-eyed and smiling down at us in wonder: these are love. So, too, is the sunset sky over a happy home, no matter how modest. It’s in music, in words, in gestures of kindness. Love guides us when we are lost, comforts us when we are scared, supports us as we grow. And when the world is cold or cruel or darkened by hate, don’t despair – love will still be there to chase away the darkness once again.
“It’s really, really hard to describe what makes this book so special. It sounds like a pretty simple concept, and could have made for a very generic book in less-skilled hands. But this is a wonder, and I have teared up at least ten times just thinking of it. The text is simple to read yet filled with quiet depth. The illustrations are earnest and grounded in reality yet carry an overall sense of hope: a spread depicting a nightmare shows a bright light leading the dreamer away from fear, a boy hiding under a piano during an argument between his parents is comforted by his dog. It’s… real, but a reality that encourages hope and understanding and inclusion and connection in terrifying times, with the belief that these things MATTER, and will lead us into the light as well. It’s breathtaking. Please read it. We loved it. You will too.”