December 21, 2017

Best Picture Books of 2017

Written and illustrated by Dan Santat

Humpty Dumpty is just your average Joe. He enjoys sitting on the city's high walls and bird-watching, taking in the scenery and bustle of the crowds around him. But after his fall, his whole world is turned upside down. He's now terrified of heights, which unfortunately prevents him from being able to reach his favorite cereals on the top shelves at stores, sleeping in his bunk bed, and partaking in his very favorite activity of bird-watching. After all, accidents do happen, and it hardly seems worth the risk to ever be up that high again. But one day he gets an idea that helps him build up his confidence again and reminds him of the joys that come along with taking risks. The design of this book is on point. Take, for instance, the fact that we see HD sitting comfortably (almost jovially) on the wall on the front cover, but the moment we take off that dust jacket and peek at what's underneath, we see HD falling. We even get a bit more of it on the title page and endpapers as Santat builds out this world and life-altering event. The illustrations and book design perfectly frame the title "After the fall" because that's exactly what readers see — what happens after HD takes his fall. And the ending? The ending is perfection.

Written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C James

The inspiration behind the story in this book is magical in both its simplicity and its complexity. Author Derrick Barnes says he was inspired by a photo of a friend's son who had just received a hair cut. The boy's look reminded him of how he felt as a child sitting in the barber's chair: he felt like royalty. But as a young black man, that was one of the few places he felt that way, so it was extra special. Simple, yet complex. The magnitude with which illustrator Gordon C James brings Derrick's words to life is awe-inspiring: it's intimate and thoughtful, and it places readers in the barbershop chair with the boy. Not to mention that I was only about three pages into this book before I set it down to send Gordon an email about an interview.

To read my interview with illustrator Gordon C James, click here.

Written and illustrated by Katie Harnett

A Different Pond, written by acclaimed poet Bao Phi and illustrated by graphic novelist Thi Bui, is a lyrical, touching story about a father-son fishing trip in the wee hours of the morning. Bao Phi based the story on his own experiences of getting up early to go fishing with his father and reflecting on the future his parents were building for him and his siblings. Thu Bui panels the illustrations in the book much like a graphic novel so that readers hop from illustration to illustration in order to follow the story. The illustrations are inked, with what looks like gouache coloring, so they hearken back to traditional Vietnamese artwork while still maintaining a vibrant, modern look. The technique is a beautiful visual marriage between fitting in and maintaining tradition, the very two concepts the text explores.

To read my interview with illustrator Thi Bui, click here.

Written and illustrated by R√©mi Courgeon

Musically-inclined Paulina "Feather" Kovak lives with her father and three brothers, and as the only girl in the family, Feather is easily goaded into doing laundry, cooking, and grocery shopping. It's clear she has little to nothing in common with her family, but everything changes one afternoon when she gets a black eye. It's time for Feather to stand up for herself and prove once and for all that being a girl doesn't mean she's not strong. It's hard not to immediately start drooling over the beautiful design of this book. The front cover and back cover are mirrors of each other, so there's already an overwhelming sense of symmetry, and the dust jacket unfolds into an awesome fight-style poster with all of Paulina's family on it. Many of the pages that consist only of text feature a relevant object in the shape of the first letter of the sentence, like a boxing glove in the shape of an "f," or a jump rope in the shape of an "s." These details add so much fun to the text-only pages and allow for some fun object association.

Written by Marc Harshman and Anna Egan Smucker and illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Famous American Architect Frank Lloyd Wright is known for many buildings, but perhaps one of his most unique ones was Fallingwater, a home he built in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. It's perched atop a waterfall, and it is designed so that every detail –– from the acoustics to the lighting –– changes depending on the time of day. And who better to illustrate such a unique house than LeUyen Pham? Like every project she takes on, this one is unique in style, tone, color, technique, and texture. With watercolors, inks, and watercolor inks, her illustrations are sharp and rife with detail, which wasn't easy for her given that she had to rely mostly on memory and stock photos of the house as reference pieces.

To read my interview with illustrator LeUyen Pham, click here.

The Fog
Written and illustrated by Kenard Pak

The Fog serves as a visual ode to nature, time and memory. A small yellow warbler who lives on the island of Icyland loves watching humans go about their days. But when a fog rolls in one day and obscures his view, he begins to wonder about its larger impact. No one else seems to even notice the fog, and, as it continues to settle, it begins to impact the rest of the island: no one comes to visit anymore, and the more the fog is ignored, the more it spreads. When a Red-hooded Spectacled Female (Juvenile) appears, Warble discovers that he's not the only one who notices the fog, and the two find more than friendship in each other's company as they investigate the mysterious fog. The graphite and watercolor illustrations make every spread feel ethereal and like the fog is its own distinct character, a feat not easily accomplished. 

To read my interview with illustrator Kenard Pak, click here.

Written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for many things –– her self-portraits, her tragic accident –– but in this story readers learn about the animals she had during her life. Frida had two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn, and each left its own impression on the painter, influencing and changing who she was as a person and an artist. The illustrations in this book are fascinating, but the method that Parra used to create his art is even more fascinating. He applied layers of acrylic paint to illustration board and then sandpapered the layers to create a weathered look. Every layer of the illustrations is intentional and speaks to the many different layers that made up Frida Kahlo herself.

To read my interview with author-illustrator Katie Harnett, click here.

Written by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Shawn Harris

In this nonfiction book, readers get the opportunity to investigate the teeniest, tiniest detail of the Statue of Liberty: her right foot. Is she going somewhere? Why is she on the move? And what does this forward motion mean? There's so much that's incredible about this book –– the subject matter, the message, the delivery –– but before I even knew the story, it was the illustration style and design of the book that captured my heart. The illustrations were created from construction paper and India ink, and Harris layers them impeccably to create depth, color, and character in every spread. It's a thoughtful book that relies heavily on an unspoken interaction with its readers.

To read my interview with illustrator Shawn Harris, click here.

Written and illustrated by Katherine Roy

How to Be an Elephant takes a close look at family dynamics in a typical African elephant herd. We begin –– and I literally mean begin, like from the title page –– with a baby elephant still in the womb, on the verge of being born. The book carries us through the life of a typical elephant as it learns to walk, play, and find its place in the herd. Interspersed throughout are diagrams and blocks of text that shed light on information like how elephants keep cool, build themselves homes, and more. The endpapers are magnificent, with night and day scenes of the herd moving along their path. And I love that the elephants on the back endpapers are walking back into the book. It represents exactly how I feel every time I finish the book: I want to dive right back in. The illustrations are watercolor, and Roy's use of color and light in each spread is masterful.

My Beautiful Birds
Written and illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo

When Sami's village is bombed, he is forced to leave home with very few belongings. And the worst part of all is that he has to leave behind all of his pet birds. When Sami and his family arrive at the refugee camp, everyone begins to settle in except for Sami –– who is he now that he doesn't have his birds anymore? But one day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp and change Sami's perspective on his situation, helping him to begin the process of healing and rebuilding himself. As beautiful as the story is, the illustrations are even more so. Del Rizzo created her illustrations from acrylic paint and polymer clay, so the texture is out of this world. With each page flip it feels like we can reach out and touch the illustrations. We can even see Del Rizzo's fingerprints! But of course she doesn't stop there: each illustration also features rich colors, thoughtful composition, and a keen sense of light. I would love to talk about each and every spread (and I would love to show you more of them!) but this is a book worth seeing for yourself. Trust me, it will stick with you for a very long time.

To read my interview with author-illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo, click here.

Written by Michael Mahin and illustrated by Evan Turk

Muddy celebrates the life of blues musician Muddy Waters, whose innovative sound paved the way for what became rock and roll. Muddy had always been set on being a musician. Even when his grandmother told him that being a blues musician wouldn't make him money, his boss robbed him of his pride, and record producers told him he was too country, Muddy resolved to ignore them all, and, instead set out on a journey to learn more about the sounds around him and the song he heard in his heart. There are few illustrators who I've witnessed grow so much and from book to book, taking on new challenges and pushing their own boundaries. Evan Turk is without a doubt one of the most talented illustrators of our day, capturing motion, culture, mood, color, and texture so aptly that readers are automatically pulled into every one of his stories based on what they see on the page. Turk's illustrations are simultaneously minimalistic and highly detailed, striking a fine line between simple lines and shapes to convey space, and layers upon layers of color to bring out tone and light.

Written by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Gilbert Ford

This book tells the true story of the songs soldiers used to sing during the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate soldiers relied on the songs they sang to lift their spirits and remind them what they were fighting for. There came a point after the battle at Fredericksburg when songs were actually hurled as insults back and forth between the two competitors. And, eventually, there also came a point when their songs merged, longing for the same thing. Levy does a creative job of weaving together narrative text with soldiers' letters and journal entries from the war. The book demonstrates just how unifying music can be and how important it is for morale during times of war. Soldier Song presents a nonfiction story of the Civil War in such an engaging way, and so much of that is a result of Ford's silk screen illustrations. They are rich in color, texture, and layering, which makes each scene feel like it's popping right off the page.

Written and illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

This adorable counting book teaches addition, subtraction, and even multiplication and division as the narrator adds cats into the illustrations and moves them around. We see cats playing and sleeping, all the while building up in number as they're stacked together in groups of three (anything more and they teeter and totter!) And when we hit 10, it's time to subtract and divide, all the way back down to a stack of three. It's so much fun, especially because the cats are accompanied by funny words, numbers, rulers, and gestures that add even more energy to the illustrations. The text is minimalism at its best, carrying readers through the story in a rhythmic and educational manner without taking away from the fun. The illustrations are crisp and colorful. Ghahremani painted in gouache and colored the illustrations digitally, and though the cats continually stand out against the background, they stay within the same warm color range: we see oranges, yellows, and golds contrasted with blue walls, carpets, and stairs. And, of course, each illustration is hilarious to boot: all the cat stacks will have readers laughing out loud as they look at the cats' reactions to their own progression in number.

Written and illustrated by Kelli Anderson

Readers open this book to find different experiences on each spread, from an infinite calendar to a speaker to a musical instrument that needs strumming. Each experience shows not only how these feats of engineering work, but also how paper can make a book, well, more than "just a book." Each spread is interactive and either provides or encourages the use of extra tools to participate with the experience. For example, readers need to bring a cell phone in order to light up the planetarium, which requires that users turn on the flashlight on their phones and place it underneath the pop-up in order to cast constellations onto the ceiling. Or the instrument page, which provides a guitar pick for readers to pick up and strum the strings that have been sewn into the book like a guitar. This book walks the finest of lines between being a book to read and an event to experience.

Written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell

In this book a girl is lost in a snowstorm and soon finds a baby wolf, who is also lost. The two find hope in each other as the girl sacrifices her own well-being to ensure that the wolf arrives home safely. I’m drawn to wordless picture books for a million and a half reasons, but one of them is that the narrative of a wordless picture book is entirely reliant on the illustrator’s ability to convey story and emotion through art. The design of The Wold in the Snow is on-point overall (case cover and dust jacket, the paneling), but I want to make special mention of the parallels Cordell creates between the two main characters: the little girl consistently moves from left to right, while the wolves move from right to left; and though the girl helps the wolf in the beginning, the wolves save her at the end. 

To read my interview with author-illustrator Matthew Cordell, click here.

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