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31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Picture Book Readalouds

My spellcheck always gets testy with me when I try to write “readalouds” as a single word. Sorry, spellcheck. My blog series. My rules.

So what constitutes a good readaloud these days? As far as I can ascertain, a good and true readaloud picture book is a thing of beauty. One of these years I think I’ll record little snippets of each of the books on this list, just so you get a taste of what I’m talking about. Something to look forward to in the future, eh?

For today’s books, these are the titles that I think would do particularly well in front of a group. Any picture book can be a lapsit title. It takes a singular flair, and special oomph to be a Picture Book Readaloud.

Of course, it behooves me to mention that for the past two years, readalouds have been very different. At the beginning of COVID they were entirely virtual. And let me tell you, it takes ALL the energy in a children’s librarian’s being to make a virtual storytime pop even half as much as an in-person storytime. Now some storytimes are starting up again, but I know that at least in my library we’ve yet to cram hoards of parents and children into a single space. Our storytelling room? I’ve literally turned it into a studio for one of my library video projects.

With all that in mind, consider these books for that blessed day when storytimes are allowed to bloom as bright and vibrant as ever.

Enjoy!

Boo Stew by Donna L. Washington, ill. Jeffrey Ebbeler

Nobody in Toadsuck Swamp can stomach the food Curly Locks dishes up. But when three Scares invade the Mayor’s home, her oddball cooking comes to the rescue. This is a twist on the classic Goldilocks tale. Donna L. Washington is, herself, a professional storyteller and with this “fracturing of a well-known tale” she’s given us a truly unique reverse Goldilocks story (one where the beasts invade her home to eat her cooking and not the other way around). Honestly, this reminds me of one of my childhood favorites, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp Creature by Mercer Mayer. Needless to say, this book has huge readaloud potential. I love the repetition and the attitude of the whole thing. Kinda pairs well with the middle grade novel Root Magic too. Overall, fun from start to finish.

Cat Dog by Mem Fox, ill. Mark Teague

Fox! Teague! Together! I like a good unreliable narrator in my picture books, but it’s a yen that is so rarely satisfied. This book isn’t quite that, but it’s not not that either. Essentially, the narration sets up a situation, then immediately changes it with a page turn. For example, the first sentence reads, “So there was a scary dog, right?” On the page you see a cat hiding behind a couch with a massive white dog, barbed collar, mean expression. Turn the page and everything changes. “No! But there was a cat, right?” The dog on the couch is now a pretty benign fellow, the cat regarding him impassively. The text on the next page reads, “Yes! And the dog was wide awake, right?” And so it goes. What’s interesting about all of this is how it challenges the young reader to try and predict where things are going next. In fact, the book ends on a question, challenging readers to continue the story in their own way (I smell a wonderful writing assignment for teachers…). What this truly reminds me of is Unfortunately by Remy Charlip. In both cases your expectations are shifted, until you learn to go with the flow. Still, I like that this has the extra added benefit of making you question who precisely is telling this story. The cat? The dog? Or could it be the mouse (who pops up periodically throughout the tale)? A book that raises more questions than it answers, and that is a-okay.

Croc o’ Clock by Huw Lewis Jones, ill. Ben Sanders

Eddie Izzard has an old routine where she talks about how fantastic “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is as a song. People are running in from other rooms just to sing the “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” part. Well, it seems strange to me that I haven’t seen more singable picture books take advantage of our very human love of that song. Why must it be relegated to Christmas alone? Couldn’t we just write a picture book that recasts it with a hungry crocodile instead? Enter Croc o’ Clock. It’s feeding time at the zoo and on the hour, every hour, our croc hero gets something tasty to eat. If you walk into this book not realizing that it’s set to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” you’ll catch on pretty quickly. Meanwhile the art is colorful, peppy, and has a lot of zing. If I do have a criticism to wield, it’s that illustrator Ben Sanders missed a golden opportunity with the zoo clocks. This could be more than a singing book. It could also be a telling time book, since it systematically works its way from one o’ clock to twelve o’ clock in the course of things. The other problem? It never gets dark! How the heck do you go outdoors from one to twelve and it’s still daylight? I don’t think either of these problems are big enough to keep you from belting this book out in storytime, though.

Five Little Ducks by Yu-hsuan Huang

[Previously seen on the list: 2021 Board Books]

Don’t be so quick to judge. Board books that read aloud well are just as important as books for older readers. And look, I’ll level with ya. You could probably take a cardboard box, rip off two flaps, scrawl the words “Row Row Row Your Boat” on one of the cardboard chunks, glue it to the other piece, and I’d declare it one of the finest board books of the year. Long story short, I adore board books based on storytime songs. This book does commit a single cardinal sin for which I forgive it, but only barely. As we all know, the song “Five Little Ducks” starts with “Five little ducks went off one day / Over the hills and far away.” But in this book the rhyme is written as “Five little ducks went swimming one day / Over the hills and far away.” Considering the fact that “swimming” throws off the scansion entirely, why would you make that change? Clearly the art shows the duckies swimming. Whatever the case, the interactive elements, like the moveable tabs, bring this song to life. You may have some difficulty doing the hand rhymes and singing this at the same time, but don’t worry! Grab a fellow storytime presenter and accompany the hand movements with the book. You’ll bring down the house every time, I guarantee it.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes by Annie Kubler and Sarah Dellow

[Previously seen on the list: 2021 Board Books]

What questions should you ask when considering readaloud board books? If you’re doing a baby or toddler or even preschooler storytime, how easily can you incorporate the book into your regular song routine? This book is particularly tricky since it requires so much movement. Here’s an idea: Read/sing the book first, showing the kids the art. Then you stand up and do it without the book. Then, what the heck, maybe read/sing the book again. You’ve the musical notes in the back if you plan to take your singing to the next level. I also appreciate that this book doesn’t try to change what I consider to be the song in its most perfect form. It’s super short, but if you know how to use it, it’s a great inclusion.

I Can Make a Train Noise by Michael Emberley, ill. Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

A delicious readaloud book follows a small child who uses the very words “I can make a train noise” to sound like a train! Inventive, fun, and interactive. So the whole trick with this book is that it is designed to read out loud. Now what’s so interesting about that is that this book works on both a group level and a one-on-one. There are lots of fun details in the art for the one-on-one, but when it comes to a whole room of kids there are so many participation elements built in. It’s clear that Emberley has been doing this for a while.

I Don’t Want to Read This Book by Max Greenfield, ill. Mike Lowery

On the one hand, I completely acknowledge that actor Max Greenfield is following awfully close in the footsteps of fellow actor-turned-picture-book-author B.J. Novak. To be frank, if you were to put the two men in a room together, I’d have a hard time distinguishing the two. But Greenfield recently had a role in A Series of Unfortunate Events and, as it happens, his book makes for a pretty darn good readaloud! Imagine a storytime where the adult reading gets all pouty and childlike, complaining that they don’t want to read this one. You could get a lot of good laughs if done right. Mind you, some of the heavy lifting here goes to illustrator Mike Lowery. I would like Mike Lowery to eventually just illustrate everything. Tweets. Grocery lists. Phone bills. He just go full R. Sikoryak and be done with it. The world would be grateful.

The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming, ill. Nicola Slater

It is a rare book that turns everything around for me with its last line, but The Leaf Thief is one of those miraulous few. Not that I didn’t enjoy reading it! I’m sure that you teachers and librarians out there are always looking for new seasonal fare to read in the fall. No doubt you’ve your favorites you turn to over and over again. Still, if I might be so bold, perhaps you might give this book a try come late September / early October. Told with catchy aplomb, it follows the anxieties of a panicked squirrel who is convinced that the trees’ leaves are disappearing thanks to a sneaky leaf thief. Attended to by a level-headed bird, the squirrel must grapple with the fact that leaves will fall and things will change. It’s a nice book but the true joy is in reading aloud Squirrel’s strangled cries of desperation. Children in your audience will feel that special thrill they get when they are smarter than a book’s protagonist. And, as I may have mentioned before, that last line is a doozy!

Lobstah Gahden by Alli Brydon, ill. EG Keller

Oh, my friends. You haven’t really encountered a readaloud picture book until you have encountered THIS readaloud picture book! Brush off your Boston accent because this is a title that’s going to put your tones to the test. Two lobsters battle it out for the top gahden prize. Walter’s a neatnik who always comes in second while his neighbor Milton is loud, brash, and a consistent winner. Yet when trash starts falling from above, cluttering up their yards, the two must band together to take down the polluter. Consider this an ideal Earth Day picture book readaloud! It would pair just beautifully with Andrea Tsurumi’s Crab Cake, come to think of it. And just listen to the text! Be sure to practice before you attempt lines of dialogue like, “Got any bright ideas how sump’in like dat finds its way inna my prizewinnin’ sea flowers?”

Aw, heck. I can’t resist. Watch how the Plain City Public Library reads it:

Wicked awesome indeed.

Looking for a Jumbie by Tracey Baptiste, ill. Amber Ren

“I’m looking for a jumbie. / I’m going to find a scary one.” If that little chant doesn’t conjure up memories of “We’re going on a bear hunt. / We’re gonna catch a big one,” then recheck your earholes. Tracey Baptiste, known far and wide for her marvelous middle grade Jumbies series, cranks the  age level way down with the creation of this book. A little girl in the Caribbean is determined to find herself some jumbies at night. In spite of her mother’s warnings, she strides forth, confident she’ll find some. And she does find something, but each time she accuses a creature of being a jumbie, it comes up with a convincing (?) denial. At last, after collecting around five such creatures, it’s time to turn in and get some sleep (and maybe convince the girl’s mama that jumbies aren’t a myth along the way). I last saw Amber Ren when she debuted with that Mo Willems title Because. Here she does a nice job of keeping the scary factor to a low boil. There are monsters in these pages but there is hardly anything monstrous. With all the trappings of a classic readaloud, try this one in tandem with your Halloween or other spooky fare for a bit of a fun kick. Bear hunts have NOTHING on jumbie hunts, after all.

Maybe by Chris Haughton

There are a lot of discussions out there about monkeys and how they pertain to children’s literature. I think the question on the table with this book is whether or not the monkeys in the story act like monkeys or act like people. If they act like people then they are in dangerous territory, traipsing over the line into potential offense. But if they act like monkeys then, well, perhaps it’s okay. I got some serious readaloud vibes in the same vein as It’s a Tiger when I read this book. In this tale, three monkeys with a particular penchant for mangoes attempt to get some, in spite of the warning of their elders. Haughton does a good monkey, no question, but he does a superb tiger. These tigers are the stuff of nightmares. All vibrant oranges, teeth, and amazing zig zags. The whole book is set against a backdrop of red (which will read splendidly across a room) but somehow the red when the tigers are close on the monkeys’ heels seems even brighter. There are great moments where you have to turn the book as the monkeys scamper up a tree, and as for the words themselves they’re fantastic. Good repetition and moments where you can inject some personality into the read.

Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor

Pack everything up and just go home, folks. You’re not gonna find a book half as charming as this one this year. Tabor’s pulling tricks out of his Peter Newell playbook here, mucking with the way you hold a book to make it not just a funny story (which it is – that snail at the end is fantastic) but a fantastic readaloud. Once you get comfortable turning the book the way it needs to be turned, I could see this just bringing down the house with certain storytimes. I like picture books that take risks, are funny, and have just a little bit of heart. This hits all those buttons, absolutely. There’s definitely a reason people keep singing the word “Caldecott” behind Tabor’s back.

Mr. Complain Takes the Train by Wade Bradford, ill. S. Britt

When a crank in a Tyrolean hat boards a particularly wacky train, hijinks don’t just ensue. They explode! We’ve all seen enough interactive books in the last 15 years to last a lifetime. If you’re going to do it at this point then you’d better darn well have something to say. Delightfully, both Bradford and Britt do. The story of a crankety crank who finds his fun on a wackadoodle train line feels simultaneously British and deeply American. With all the movement this book goes through (at one point you have to turn it in circles three times to simulate a loop-de-loop) gear up your upper arm muscles for the ride of the century. This is one storytime readaloud you won’t mind putting on repeat.

Off-Limits by Helen Yoon

No home office is safe when there are little hands ready to try out all the binder clips, sticky notes, and other supplies. A truly hilarious story with a twist ending you won’t see coming. This book is Readaloud Gold (capital R, capital G), but it was my daughter who pointed out that this is a COVID book, albeit a subtle one (what goes on when a daughter gets into her dad’s workspace). I was completely taken with the art and the text and it just STICKS that landing at the end! One of my favorites of the year.

One-Osaurus, Two-Osaurus by Kim Norman, ill. Pierre Collet-Derby

You know a readaloud is on the right track when you find your right knee bouncing along gaily as you mutter the words out loud. Have a dino storytime in your future? Then meet your new best friend. This charming little number keeps everything gleeful and merry as a group of dinos play hide-and-seek. The art echoes whispers of mod 60s styles thanks, in no small part, to the plethora of turquoise on the page. Kim Norman may call herself a “bedtime book booster” but ain’t no one getting to sleep after reading this puppy. It’s got roars and funny twists and big, bright, beautiful pages that will show across a room. Don’t be surprised when your audience demands an encore.

Pop a Little Pancake! by Annie Kubler & Sarah Dellow

[Previously seen on the list: 2021 Board Books]

What kind of storytime reader are you? Are you the kind of person who likes to try new things all the time or are you, like me, the kind of person who zeroes in on what works and never deviates from it? Generally I like to stick with what I know, but Pop a Little Pancake may be one of those rare cases where I don’t know the song, but the book charms me so much that I’d be willing to try it in front of a crowd. Don’t worry. The music’s on the back if you need it. I love the repetition and rhythm of it. It’s got a “shake shake shake” part, a “squeeze squeeze squeeze” part (you could squeeze your baby with that!), and more. Consider me completely won over to the new. This book and song will spice up your routine, you bet.

Here. I’ll do you a solid. Kirstie Burns has 17K views of this video as I write. Watch it, and you’ll see why:

Roar! by Katerina Kerouli

Let the record show that this is not the first book of its kind I’ve ever seen. When my children were quite young I indulged regularly in a board book series that included such stirring titles as Do Cows Meow?, Do Crocs Kiss?, Do Cats Moo?, etc. That series was by Salina Yoon and I still consider those some of the finest storytime titles for young readers I’ve ever seen. Now another book has arrived that does exactly what Salina’s titles did. You read the rhymes and then lift the flaps to reveal a wide mouth. Then you make that animal’s sounds. So what could Kerouli add that Yoon didn’t already cover? I suppose Roar! offers us the chance to have that same experience but with a slightly different cast and a subtler energy. This book also struck me as just a little bit older. I imagine it would work well with Kindergartners a little better than with preschoolers. Part of its charm is that a child reader walking into the book would have no idea what to expect. The flaps for the mouths blend seamlessly in with the rest of the book. So when you first make the tiger roar, it comes as a complete surprise to your young audience. You could get some shrieks of surprise if you play it right. I am going to dock a few points for putting the lion in a jungle, but otherwise is a compelling, lovely book that will save more than one storytime in its lifetime.

Something’s Wrong! A Bear, a Hare, and Some Underwear by Jory John, ill. Erin Kraan

Jeff has a problem. He’s fairly certain he’s forgetting something, but what could it be? A hilarious tale of facing up to your mistakes and friends that will never let you down. The real takeaway from this book is that it has introduced us to the marvelous art of one Erin Kraan. I like this gal’s style! Apparently this is produced with a woodcut/printmaking style so I give extra points for how deftly she’s managed to create skeptical blue chipmunks. This book has some major readaloud potential, but be warned that you’re going to have to practice a LOT. Jeff has this tendency to launch into these magnificent one-bear soliloquies that could make for a fantastic read. The combination of writing and text are also hilarious, which is no small matter. I mean, the slug in underwear alone . . .

This Book Can Read Your Mind by Susannah Lloyd, ill. Jacob Grant

When Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was released it instigated a whole host of interactive picture books like never before. It was not a new idea. I mean, The Monster At the End of This Book pretty much covered similar bases back in the 70s. Still, the combination of interacting with a physical book and the sudden and massive change to our day-to-day lives by the internet (something that, at its heart, you really CAN’T hold in your hands) meant that Pigeon was a phenomenon where before it would merely have been a quirk. Since its publication in 2003, however, the number of interactive picture books has slowly decreased. They never quite go away (The Book With No Pictures being the most recent phenomenon) which explains why we still see books like Lloyd and Grant’s. I’m giving this one credit, though, because it takes the old “Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant” idea and manages to create a legitimate story with a beginning, middle, and end out of it. As readalouds go, this book works a bit better than others because it’s asking children not to THINK certain things. Other books ask them to do, or not to do, physical activities like pressing dots or turning pages. This one is entirely intellectual, setting it apart from its fellows. Jacob Grant’s art is, naturally, the best possible combination. A bit more farts than I think are strictly needed, but well worth a storytime inclusion, you betcha.

The Tiny Woman’s Coat by Joy Cowley, ill. Giselle Clarkson

I got some serious Teeny Tiny Woman vibes (courtesy of Paul Galdone) off of this book, and I’m okay with that. Sometimes I think that half the reason fairies are so popular is that kids finally have someone smaller than they are to watch. The woman in this book isn’t a fairy. She’s just trying to get by and make herself a warm coat before the weather turns. Believe me, I know how she feels. This is an ideal book to read aloud in the fall season. Aside from the obvious autumnal details, there’s all kinds of sound effects that come up naturally as you go through the book. When the trees offer something as cloth it reads, “ ‘You can have our leaves,’ said the autumn trees. Rustle, rustle, rustle.” Joy Cowley’s been in the readaloud game for a while (Red-Eyed Tree Frog is still maybe my favorite of her books) and Giselle Clarkson’s art is just fantastic. This would pair beautifully with Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl. All told, this book is a small delight from start to finish.

A Tree for Mr. Fish by Peter Stein

A bossy fish who lives in a tree (!) alienates his Bird, Cat and fishy pals. After feeling lonely, he realizes he must make things right. But how? Okay. I officially love this book. Like, LOVE love it. It’s the kind of illogical logic book where the kid reader is smarter than the characters on the page that I adore. And the readaloud potential is through the roof! It’s deeply silly (the pissed off looking fish guests who are in the tree saying calmly “I can’t breathe” just floored me) and the solution is just so inane that I ended up loving it even more. So wonderfully weird. Definitely needs more reads.

What Does Little Crocodile Say? by Eva Montanari

It’s just so easy to fill a list of recommended Readalouds with picture books for older storytimes. Unfair since, in many ways, picture books written with a younger audience in mind are much harder to write, let alone find. The danger of loving WHAT DOES LITTLE CROCODILE SAY is that it could easily get lost in the midst of much flashier picture books in 2021. Yet this story of a little crocodile going to preschool with its mom is filled with delicious sounds to read out loud. This might work particularly well with preschoolers in a large group. You could ask them what they think the car says or the food (food goes “nom nom nom” obviously). An unobtrusive little winner.


Interested in other readaloud lists I’ve compiled? Then check out the previous years:

And here’s what else is on the docket 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 – Books with a Message

December 11 – Fabulous Photography

December 12 – Wordless Picture Books

December 13 – Translated Titles

December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books

December 16 – Middle Grade Novels

December 17 – Poetry Books

December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books

December 19 – Older Funny Books

December 20 – Science Fiction Books

December 21 – Fantasy Books

December 22 – Informational Fiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*

December 26 – Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers

December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids

December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

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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.