Awkward title on today’s post. “Books With a Message”. Be a lot cleaner if I just said “Didactic Books” or “Books That Try to Teach You Something.” No . . . no . . . that’s worse. I think you get the general gist of what I’m going for, though. Today we’re highlighting books that do something inordinately difficult, and do it well. There are few things worse to read than preachy children’s books that thwap young readers over the heads with whatever message it is that they’re trying to impart. Picture books teach and inspire, but to do so they must be smart and subtle and, above all, well-written. All the more reason to highlight and celebrate those 2016 books that have done just that. Done poorly and these books would be unreadable. As it stands, I consider them important works. Some would be considered bibliotherapy. Others just help parents walk their kids through tough concepts. All are of note.
2016 Message Books
Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Topic: Self-esteem, feminism, gender norms
You ever pick up a book and then find yourself uttering a sigh of relief midway through when it turns out it’s actually really good? That was my experience with McAnulty and Lew-Vriethoff’s latest. It sets up expectations by stating the stereotypical definition of what makes a girl “beautiful” and then uses its art to rend that assumption asunder. It’s a lot of fun and far better than a lot of those tired “girl power” books we used to drown in. Truly a beautiful book.
Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, ill. Laura Ellen Anderson
Topic: Gender norms
Man. I love this book. In fact, when someone was asking me for a readalike to something like William’s Doll I was quick to mention it. And talk about upsetting expectations! In this book a boy who loves stereotypical boy things (Big Bob) moves next door to a boy who likes things like dolls and dressing up (Little Bob). In a nice twist, Big Bob never berates Little Bob for his choices. No, that job goes to a girl who also moves in nearby and who sees it as her mission to reinforce gender norms. I know that girl. I’ve seen her at work at my kids’ daycares (and believe me, it is often a girl and not a boy doing this). The happy ending of this book is satisfying. Little wonder. In case you missed it, that’s author James Howe at the helm.
A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noah Z. Jones
Topic: Economic disparity
Because books about kids that have less money than their classmates tend to be over-simplified, it’s hard to find any that present their problems realistically. This book is one of the very few. Ruben doesn’t have a bike. Sergio does. And, as a result, Sergio really and truly doesn’t understand why Ruben’s parents don’t just buy him one for his upcoming birthday. When Ruben sees a woman drop some money he has a bit of a crisis of conscience. Boelts does a fine and dandy job with this. It would have been so easy to reward Ruben at the end of the book with his own bike after all, but that’s not how the world works. It’s hard to end a book on an upbeat note when your characters don’t attain their hearts’ desires, but somehow Boelts manages it.
Bingo Did It by Amber Harris, ill. Ard Hoyt
Topic: Lying, taking responsibility for your actions
To my mind, you can never have enough books on your shelves about taking responsibility for your own actions. I wasn’t so sure about this one when I picked it up, but it won me over.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, ill. Charlotte Pardi
We may have mentioned this in passing when we were talking about notable imports in 2016. Death has a tendency to be presented with a great deal of serenity when Europeans talk about it (see: Duck, Death and the Tulip). It’s a natural part of life, but the U.S. market isn’t quite ready to deal with it quite as regularly as other places. In our books we outwit death. In Europe, they invite it over for tea and then let it do its job.
Death Is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham
And speaking of death, welcome to one of my favorite books of 2016. My sole regret is that I wasn’t alerted to its existence until much later in the year. No matter! I would go so far as to say that of all the books on this list, this is the one that every single library out there should own. It smashes weak explanations and eviscerates the hemming and hawing that accompanies a death in the family. And it’s funny. So, pretty much, the whole package.
Elliot by Julie Pearson, ill. Manon Gauthier
Topic: Foster homes, adoption, autism spectrum
Earlier in the year I reviewed this book. Since it’s unlike any other on your shelves, it can be difficult figuring out where to put it. In my library, we cataloged it in the parenting section of the children’s room. There it will remain, until it is checked out to help some child realize why their sibling might have multiple issues to work out (and that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel).
French Toast by Kari-Lynn Winters, ill. Francois Thisdale
Topic: Racism, self-esteem
Picture books rarely confront racism straight on, but when they do the result is often impressive. Here, a bi-racial girl takes a name thrown at her and makes it a point of pride. With the help of someone older and wiser, of course. Naturally.
Home at Last by Vera B. Williams, ill. Chris Raschka
Topic: Same-sex families, abandonment, adoption
My God. What a good book. We’ve come a long long ways since the days of Heather Has Two Mommies. For a long time we’ve had books with same-sex parents where the two of them are perfect individuals without a blemish upon their sterling souls. Which is to say, ideals and not real people. Well, say goodbye to that idea! The dads in this book are deeply caring individuals who would do anything to make their new son, Lester, happy. Unfortunately he has a tendency to get up in the middle of the night. The moment when one of his dads just breaks down and yells was so real I felt I knew these guys. It’s one of the reasons that, in terms of the writing, this is one of the best picture books I’ve ever read, daring to turn a gay couple into complex human beings on the page.
I Have Cerebral Palsy by Mary Beth Springer
Topic: Cerebral palsy
When you are a children’s librarian and you have absolutely nothing on your shelves on a given topic, you find yourself grasping at straws. You’ll buy any schlock, just so long as it fills those gaps. That’s why it can be a real relief when you get a book like this one. Sydney’s story is told in simple language that’s easy for kids to understand. It’s straightforward, fun, and not a topic we hear a lot about in a given day/month/year. Highly recommended.
I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail
Topic: Gender norms, feminism
This girl is continually called a boy because she likes to do many of the things that boys do. Does she accept that? She does NOT! A good book if you want your kid to follow her example.
Jenny & Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring by Jewel Kats, ill. Claudia Marie Lenart
I’ve seen a lot of books about what to do when a parent or grandparent has cancer. Not a ton about kids with cancer. Lenart’s art in this book is the true showstopper, though Kats’s writing does a good job as well. You know me. You know I have a low tolerance for books that don’t live up to their highest potential, and I tell you now that this book is worth owning in your library.
Life Without Nico by Andrea Maturana, ill. Francisco Javier Olea
It strikes me as a little odd that I didn’t see more books about moving this year. Without being depressing, this book adeptly captures the sorrow a kid can feel when their best friend goes away.
Little Brother Pumpkin Head by Lucia Panzieri, ill. Samantha Enria
Topic: New baby
Sure, we’ve long since left Halloween behind. But this fun story of a boy coming to terms with his new little brother, and then doing what he can to make the kid happy, is lovely.
Luis Paints the World by Terry Farish, ill. Oliver Dominguez
Topic: Military families, urban renewal
I can be forgiven for occasionally getting this mixed up with Maybe Something Beautiful. That said, the book is an excellent choice for military brats. Here you have a kid carrying on as well as possible when his beloved older brother and father figure leaves to serve in the armed forces. Considering how many military families visit libraries these days, it would be nice to have something they can relate to.
Manners Are Not for Monkeys by Heather Tekavec, ill. David Huyck
Hope you like surprise endings, cause this one’s clearly a doozy.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez
Topic: Urban renewal
With the extra added perk of being based (to some extent) on a true story.
My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison
At some point here Hannah E. Harrison is going to start coming into her own. She’s already churning out great books. She just needs wider recognition. Particularly since few artists are quite so adept at animal feelings. This is a very realistic bullying situation too. Just a remarkable book through and through.
Newspaper Hats by Phil Cummings, ill. Owen Swan
I was going to say the topic was “Alzheimers” but that’s never made explicit in the text. For kids who have to visit older relatives that have “good” and “bad” days, this is a perfect book. It begins with the kid asking if her grandfather will recognize her that day. And he never does. Do you know how much guts it takes to write something like that? You go, Phil Cummings!
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson
Topic: First day of school
I’m calling it: My favorite first day of school book of all time. Throw in that towel now.
Somebody Cares: A Guide for Kids Who Have Experienced Neglect by Susan Farber Straus, ill. Claire Keay
Topic: Child abuse/neglect
A typical children’s librarian will see a lot of these books in a given year. They’re usually written by someone with a PhD. How many of them are actually good, though? I can say with certainty that this is the first I’ve seen to pinpoint neglect. And while it’ll never win any lofty literary awards, it does a truly excellent job at confronting a very big problem. This book could be a real help to a child. It does its job.
Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land by John Coy, ill. Wing Young Huie
Did you ever see that episode of Master of None where Aziz Ansari and his friend complain about their immigrant parents and then find out what they’ve actually been through? I love that episode. It reminded me a lot of this book. Too often kids are taught that immigration is historical. They have no clue that immigrants come to this country every single day. This book makes it clear and the photographs are fantastic.
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato
Topic: Gender fluid
Boy, this could have gone any number of different ways. In this story, two worms that don’t identify with one gender or another fall in love. When they attempt to marry, a bunch of other critters try to slot them into preexisting norms. Which, I might add, they reject with a great deal of style. Beloved for a reason.
Interested in the other lists of the month? Here’s the schedule so that you can keep checking back:
December 1 – Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Adaptations
December 3 – Nursery Rhymes
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Alphabet Books
December 7 – Funny Picture Books
December 8 – Calde-Nots
December 9 – Picture Book Reprints
December 10 – Math Picture Books
December 11 – Bilingual Books
December 12 – International Imports
December 13 – Books with a Message
December 14 – Fabulous Photography
December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales
December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year
December 17 – Older Picture Books
December 18 – Easy Books
December 19 – Early Chapter Books
December 20 – Graphic Novels
December 21 – Poetry
December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Titles
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books
December 29 – Novel Reprints
December 30 – Novels
December 31 – Picture Books