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31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Caldenotts

Who knew that the New York Times Best Illustrated List would leave such a gap when it decided not to release a list this year? It’s annual accounting is one of the few places a person might find international illustrators lauded publicly here in the United States. Because the American Library Association has yet to update the rules concerning the art of people who are born and/or live in other countries and whether or not they can win our Caldecott Medal, we must often rely on alternate awards like those given out by the Society of Illustrators or the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, etc. In some places there are even “Caldenott” mock awards created for fun. What books, created by people ineligible for the Caldecott Awards, might otherwise win? Today I bring together some of my favorite books that fall into this category. And please be sure to also check out the Calling Caldecott blog’s list of 2020 Caldenotts as well.

2020 Caldenott Titles

Every Color of Light by Hiroshi Osada, ill. Ryōji Arai, translated by David Boyd

What is the purpose of the bedtime book? To lull the children to sleep is part of it, certainly, but what are you putting into those small brains in the process? On occasion, it might behoove us all to read to our children books that seep into minds. The evocative is not wasted on the young, no matter how often they yawn. To give yourself a sense of what I’m talking about, I recommend that you seek out this hypnotic Japanese import. Artist Ryōji Arai pretty much entranced me by the first page. Osada writes a simple, “Look, it’s raining” and on the bottom third of the page is a pond, surrounded by greenery, the thinnest of yellow pencil lines indicating the falling droplets. Arai has been in this game since 1990, by the way. In fact, in 2005 he won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. I’m just grateful we get a chance to see his work now. Taking his cues from Osada, he is perfectly capable of bringing sentences like, “Wetter and wetter, the blues darken. So do the greens,” to life. I shiver deliciously every time I read this book (can you tell I like it when I’m cozy inside and outside it’s raining?). After the storm passes the world revives, but the night has fallen. One could get so wrapped up in Arai’s exquisite writing that they miss Osada’s own gifts. With the aid of the talented David Boyd, the end of the book translates to a beautiful, “We’re all falling falling sound soundly asleep asleep . . .” I aspire to someday write a single sentence as succinct and perfect as this.

Garden Jungle by Hélène Druvert

I wonder. In the event that any American artist within the last decade did seriously commit to a book filled, as this one is, with the world’s most delicate and intricate paper cuttings, would it have a chance at the Caldecott? I suppose it would depend upon the quality of the writing and the storyline. Druvert, to her credit, does have a scarecrow of a plot on hand, for those who need such things. Young Tom is terribly bored, so when his mom tells him to play outdoors he doesn’t harbor much hope. Yet upon further inspection his yard becomes a jungle, his kitty a leopard, and a butterfly leads him deeper and deeper into his imagination. Druvert layers the images here, so that you truly feel that you too are pushing deeper into the trees and vegetation as you go. I also cannot stress enough the intricacy of the papercuts here. From the most delicate of fronds to the spaces between the leaves where light peeps in, this book feels like something ancient and precious all at once. And woe betide the child that is the first to rip it.

I Dream of a Journey by Akiko Miyakoshi

Boy. We’re all just dreaming of journeys this year, aren’t we? Suddenly the story of someone who yearns to visit different places around the world seems a lot more realistic and a lot less wistful than it might have another year. A furry hotel proprietor imagines himself someday visiting far of lands and distant friends. Dreamlike imagery accompanies glorious light-filled scenes of laughter, friends, and travel. This is Miyakoshi back to high form. Nobody shows contemporary life with fuzzy woodland creatures as well as she does. I wish I knew what medium this was published in because the art is the best she’s ever done. I love how it starts out black and white and then slowly the colors just bloom on the page. This may be the greatest tribute to solitude and travel for kids I’ve ever seen. And just look at what she’s doing with light! I could read this 100 times and never get tired of it. Don’t forget to look on the back cover when you get a chance.

I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, ill. Sydney Smith

I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me. And I can’t say them all . . .” This exquisitely illustrated story tells the tale of a stuttering kid who finds comfort in his father’s advice. Doggone it. Eventually we’re going to have to ask Sydney Smith to please do us a favor and take a year off. Every book he does is beautiful, but this one is important as well. And, since he’s Inconveniently Canadian (TM) he cannot win a Caldecott. Honestly, I have never ever seen a book of stuttering encapsulate it even half as well as this one does. But more than that, more than the lyricism of the writing itself, Smith’s art is the best he’s ever done (and that’s saying something). If you can look at that image of the sun setting between the trees and not squint, you’re made of different stuff than I. A friend of mine questioned the kid-friendly nature of it, but not all books are laugh riots. When it comes to teaching kids about empathy, and understanding, and care, this book blows them all away.

My Friend Earth by Patricia MacLachlan, ill. Francesca Sanna

Expert die-cuts and lush illustrations celebrate an Earth personified as a playful girl, in love with all the creatures of her world. This is the book that made me look up whether or not illustrator Francesca Sanna is eligible for a Caldecott (she’s not, so start your tears now). I think we’ve kind of seen books where Earth is personified before, but nothing quite as simultaneously intimate and complicated as this. I just loved how Sanna’s die-cuts move the story forward. They’re not just decorative, but useful to the tale telling. And, of course, there are roughly 5 million little tiny details all going on at once within a limited color palette. Gorgeous.

The Seedling That Didn’t Want to Grow by Britta Teckentrup

Out of all the Teckentrup books out in 2020 (and there have been a slew) I have to say that this one is the most beautiful. The title is a bit odd (the seed never shows any reluctance to grow that I can see). Teckentrup is at her most evocative with this book. It’s a captivating paean to the wild unpredictability of nature. Anyone who has ever gardened will instantly be at home with this book and anyone who hasn’t will be able to feel what it’s like. Strange and lovely.

A Story About Afiya by James Berry, ill. Anna Cunha

Ah, Anna Cunha. Your Brazilian roots alas make it impossible for you to win any ALA awards for this truly lovely little outing. For a deeper dive into the art of this book, please head over to Seven Impossible Things and check out what’s going on inside. The mixed-media art helps tell the story of a girl who, wherever she may go, collects the environment around her on her very dress. It’s white every morning and patterned by the end. Basically, this is the gorgeous little number you need to hand to those kids that really only want books about girls in pretty dresses. Sure as heck beats those insipid princess tales.

Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, ill. Khoa Le

Vietnamese illustrator Khoa Le isn’t new to the picture book scene, even here in America. Books like Sun and Moon Sisters and The Lonely Polar Bear have been around for a couple years. With Umrigar’s Sugar in Milk, however, she outdoes herself. I honestly wasn’t sure whether or not I should put this in the picture book section or in the fairytales/folktales/religous tales category instead. The framing storyline centers around a girl from India that has come to live with her Auntie and Uncle in America. She’s miserable, so her Auntie tells her the story of refugees from Persia, forced to seek refuge in India. When they arrive, the king feels there is no room for the strangers. To illustrate this, he displays a cup of milk, filled to the brim. Yet a clever man amongst them takes a spoonful of sugar and stirs it into the cup to show that there is always more room (and sweeter besides). Umrigar’s tale is told with incredible elegance, yet it’s Khoa Le’s incredible art that blows us all away. If the New York Times Best Illustrated list had been released this year, this would have definitely have been a strong strong contender. Upcoming Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, anyone?

Under the Great Plum Tree by Sufiya Ahmed, ill. Reza Dalvand

In 2019 I noticed a significant uptick in the number of Iranian and Iranian-American illustrated books. Intrigued, I wondered if this would continue through 2020. Alas, I did not find the same number of books this year, but at least I found some true goodies along the way. Initially, I had hoped that Ahmed’s story of a clever monkey who outwits an old crocodile was a traditional folktale that I could add to my Fairytales, Folktales, and Religious Tales list. Twas not to be, but I hardly cared when I read the lovely story and witnessed Dalvand’s art. Though he doesn’t come from India, Dalvand’s method of incorporating Indo-Persian patterns and designs into his art is thoroughly unique. I adored his dainty monkey, with her tiny feet and elaborately brocaded dresses.This book is a thorough delight to page through over and over again. It may not win any awards, but it’ll win your heart (I freely grant that that was a cheesy thing to say and I stand by it).

The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang, ill. Khoa Le

Kalia’s grandmother has one tooth, but her smile is the most beautiful her granddaughter has ever seen. A moving picture book memoir filled with jaw-dropping art about growing up with little money in a Hmong-American home. Yeah, it’s Khoa Le again. Way back in October of 2019 I attended a book festival (remember those?) in Minnesota. While there, I met with some reps from Lerner and they showed me amazing titles like All of a Sudden and Forever and Bowl of Peace (look for them on my upcoming non-fiction picture book lists). Those books stayed with me but this one ingrained itself in my memory. Something about the art and the writing. Gorgeous and searing and amazing. The rare picture book memoir about growing up poor in Minnesota from a Hmong-American perspective.

The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende

A little paper boat goes on an epic journey across the sea in this wordless marvel of visual storytelling. This reminds me so much of David Wiesner’s Flotsam, I can’t even begin to tell you. This is another Dutch import and honestly maybe this belongs in the comics and graphic novels section. I say that because it’s this dreamy, wordless story that follows a little paper boat through all kinds of surreal, wonderful moments and places. This import was brought to us by Arthur A. Levine, the same guy that brought America Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. I was reminded of Tan’s art more than once here. As I read it to my kids we began to pick up on all kinds of tiny details. I enjoyed discussing various theories with them about one character or another. This is a book you can get lost in for vast amounts of time. Stunning.

Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!

December 1 – Great Board Books

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Funny Picture Books

December 7 – CaldeNotts

December 8 – Picture Book Reprints

December 9 – Math Books for Kids

December 10 – Bilingual Books

December 11 – Books with a Message

December 12 – Fabulous Photography

December 13 – Translated Picture Books

December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 15 – Wordless Picture Books

December 16 – Poetry Books

December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books

December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books

December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels

December 20 – Older Funny Books

December 21 – Science Fiction Books

December 22 – Fantasy Books

December 23 – Informational Fiction

December 24 – American History

December 25 – Science & Nature Books

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers

December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids

December 30 – Middle Grade Novels

December 31 – Picture Books


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Hi Betsy, Katrina from Lantana here. We’re absolutely thrilled you included A Story About Afiya. Truly agree that it’s a shame it can’t be included in any ALA Awards! Thanks for the shout-out!

  2. Judy Weymouth says

    I’m sure many were disappointed that there is no list this year from the New York Times to showcase the Best Illustrated. In 2020, where so much has been eliminated, what remained has even more value, such as this annual 31 Days 31 Lists. Thank you for finding these to share with your readers. I’m not surprised that the original rules specified USA, USA, USA. However, we have grown to recognize and respect the contributions of citizens from other nationalities. To not be more inclusive, it seems to me, a mistake.