2014 has been a great year for indie children’s picture books—from a creepy fairy tale by Lost and The Hobbit star Evangeline Lilly, to approachable stories about poverty, gender identity, agriculture, and friendship. Here are the ten best picture books that came across our desks at Foreword Reviews:
The Squickerwonkers by Evangeline Lilly, illustrated by Johnny Fraser-Allen (Titan Books)
A royal pain with a red balloon strays from a fair and into an abandoned marionette auditorium where several spooky kooky puppets (called Squickerwonkers) reside. A disembodied voice introduces to the impetuous young heiress each of the Squickerwonkers and their corresponding deadly sin, and she soon learns of the consequences of her own demise-inducing vice. Mystery, misanthropy, and mischief combine in this delightfully dark cautionary tale, written in an absorbing limerick style. The creepy, yet stunning visuals hint at surrealism with a Gothic air. Enter at your own risk! Ages four and up.
This Book Does Not Have Words by Ryan T. Higgins (Cocklebury Books)
This review does not have words—excepting: brainy, entertaining, and satirical. That and smart-alecky, comic, adorable, artistic, and snort-out-loud funny. This review does not have words in the same way the book doesn’t have words (let’s call it the in-your-face aggressive, combat-ready dialogue of three mice attempting to write a book without words), but don’t hold such trifling matters against Ryan Higgins, even as this review hopes to be half as clever and enjoyable as his book. Ages five to ten.
Lindbergh by Torben Kuhlmann (NorthSouth Books)
Extraordinary illustrations (with full two-page spreads) create a turn-of-the-century atmosphere and detail a spectacular story of a brave mouse who flew across the Atlantic on an aircraft of his own invention. The sepia-toned images astonish as they deftly portray the world of this ambitious protagonist. The precision and minimalism of the narrative perfectly complement the artwork to weave an adventurous tale that provokes a sense of awe. Readers, no matter their age, will be absorbed even upon their third, fourth, and tenth read. Ages four and up.
The Race by Edouard Manceau (Owlkids Books)
Life is a journey not a race, as these playful, bounding caribou will come to learn. This thoughtful book blends clever humor and paper artwork to convey a running race between six bright orange “guys” who sprint across a green landscape, dodging banana peels and competing against their friends. The vibrant colors and personable characters prompt young readers and adults alike to think more deeply about life. Ages three and up.
The Only Alex Addleston in All These Mountains by James Solheim, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler (Carolrhoda Books)
Rich in story and moving in message, this tale of two Alex Addlestons who met in kindergarten but are relocated half a world away from each other is an epic fairy tale for modern times. Part love story, part reminder to keep those you care about close to your heart, The Only Alex Addleston in All These Mountains will warm the hearts of children and adults alike. The narrative is loaded with vivid detail, and the illustrations bring depth to small-town American life, African savanna, and the emotive perspective of these two endearing Alexes who could not be kept apart. Ages five and up.
The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc (Enchanted Lion Books)
An unlikely friendship blossoms between a rosy-cheeked, gardening lion and a bird who is injured and unable to fly south with his flock. Marianne Dubuc’s pencil drawings characterize these kind, loyal, and wise companions as they keep each other warm through the winter. The seasons change, and so it goes, but this tender tale will touch the heart of children and adults alike. Ages four to seven.
Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case (Albert Whitman and Company)
Jacob loves dinosaurs, trucks, pirates, playing tag—and wearing dresses. When the other boys at school begin teasing him, Jacob decides to take a stand. Cute illustrations and realistic dialogue convey the struggles of this proud, determined young boy. Perfect for discouraging gender-nonconforming children from succumbing to bullying, this is a gentle introduction to societal norms and rebellion. Ages four to seven.
The Cow in Patrick O’Shanahan’s Kitchen by Diana Prichard, illustrated by Heather Knopf (Little Pickle Press)
In a clever answer to a child’s question—“Where does food come from?”—this goofy story will make kids think and help them cultivate healthier, more environmentally conscious lifestyles. From eggs from chickens to syrup from maple trees, curious Patrick O’Shanahan encounters surprising discoveries in his kitchen. The cartoonish illustrations charm and garner attention, as does the fascinating story behind the story. Ages four to seven.
Wild by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books)
A blooming floral forest; wideeyed and playful bears, foxes, and crows; a little girl with green, vine-infused hair—the colors and creatures that dance across these pages will bring joy to child and child-at-heart readers. This feral darling, when taken in by “civilized” strangers who do everything wrong—according to the rules of nature and the animals who raised her—elicits boundless empathy. The beautiful artwork and simple text reveals the happy wildchild of nature who lies dormant in all of us, and we are encouraged to understand and respect those who are different. Ages five and up.
Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt, illustrated by Vin Vogel (Flashlight Press)
This is more than a book about child hunger in America—this is a story of friendship. Maddi’s empty fridge and Sofia’s full one are juxtaposed in a subtle way, while scenes of modern New York elapse across the background: taxis and tofu, hipster cyclists and yoga studios. Maddi and Sofia take center stage in this adorably rendered tale, and that they are put so expertly in a social context with a definitive sense of time and place confirms that Brandt and Vogel are masters of their medium. Ages five and up.
Aimee Jodoin is deputy editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @aimeebeajo.