2018 was a fantastic year for picture books! Some in particular warmed my heart, made me laugh out loud, and conjured real man tears. Others straightened my spine, inspiring me get to work.
As a picture book author, a lot of these stories were guiding lights throughout the year. They showed me the kind of heart and humor I want to write and affirmed my voice, reminding me it's okay to take risks.
Check them out at your local library! Buy them online or at a bookstore! Give them to a teacher or a parent OR A KID!
Better yet...read them to a kid.
Here's to 2018 and looking forward to brand new stories just around the bend!
The following list is not in any particular order. Just 20 picture books that really stuck with me.
The Rough Patch
written and illustrated by Brian Lies
Before you read this one, make sure you have the tissue box handy. And buckle up. Brian Lies pulls no punches. Without spoiling things, this story handles the topic of grief with brutal honesty and zero emotional fluff. One of the more raw picture books I've ever read. Here's a hint...the title has a deeper meaning. Great for anyone dealing with a sense of loss. Or anyone that has ever loved a dog. Or anyone with a human soul. The Rough Patch, with its uplifting, cathartic and redemptive message of healing, is a must have that will stand the test of time.
I Just Ate My Friend
written and illustrated by Heidi McKinnon
This book. This book. Okay. They say not to judge a book by its cover but on this one you can absolutely take it at face value. Heidi Mckinnon's beautiful and hilarious story of a monster seeking a new friend after he just ate his other friend is pretty much a work of brilliance. Among books involving characters eating other characters (a big trend in 2018), this one was probably my favorite. Not many times do I like a book enough to go to the author's website and write them an email about how much I enjoyed their book...but this one made me do just that. Check it out and enjoy the logical yet dark conclusion!
The Rabbit Listened
written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld
How often in life do we need someone to just listen as we work through frustration? Not solve our problems. Or offer advice. Or make things worse. This story offers a wonderful reminder for adults and kids alike of the power of a listening ear, the significance in showing up for someone, and the need to let a friend feel their feelings.
The Remember Balloons
written by Jessie Oliveros
& illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Again with the tissues. So many man tears. Plot twist: This is NOT about balloons. They're a metaphor. Not many authors would be brave enough to tackle the delicate topic of aging and memory loss in a picture book, but Jessie Oliveros does just that. With dignity, creativity, and grace. But it's something we all are impacted by and kids need brave books like this to help them navigate end of life conversations. What a magnetic, universal message: we keep each other's memories alive by the stories we tell and pass down. YOU WILL CRY. Buy this book. Like yesterday.
A House that Once Was
written by Julie Fogliano
& illustrated by Lane Smith
Whimsy, mystery, and nostalgia are three words that come to mind with this unique, lyrical work of perfection by Julie Fogliano. The sheer poetry of the words and the creative, almost rustic art by Lane Smith tells a story of an abandoned house in the woods and the children that wonder about its former occupants. I love how risky this story was. The kids explore and break into this house out of sheer curiosity. BY THEMSELVES. No helicopter parents to be found in this one. There is something so refreshing about seeing kids be kids and do something a little "dangerous." But don't worry. They're back safe in time for dinner. By the end of this book you will want to cuddle up in your own home with a mug of something warm.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates
written and illustrated by Ryan Higgins
If you haven't heard about or seen the cover of this book, it's probably because you were living under a rock in 2018. And that's cool. Rocks are nice. Ryan Higgins does it again with a crowd and kid favorite that was a staple in probably every elementary school this fall. The story of an adorable young t-rex learning self control and empathy. But sometimes you don't fully learn a lesson until you get back what you're dishing out. This is a laugh out loud, wait-did-I-just-read-that sort of roller-coaster story that still carries emotional depth and a relevant message of the golden rule. Ryan's art and language come out of a place of play that's a joy from beginning to end. I'm hoping this character comes back for a recurring series like his Bruce stories.
Crunch the Shy Dinosaur
written by Cirocco Dunlap
& illustrated by Greg Pizzoli
I loved this book! Cirocco knocks this one out of the park after her other picture book, This Book with Not be Fun. There is something about her voice that I find very similar to my own. A dry, yet goofy tone. The art helps tell the story in a fun, interactive way that will have any kiddo giggling. Check it out! From a library! A real library! Run by humans!
Can I Be Your Dog?
written and illustrated by Troy Cummings
Dude. This book. What is it with dog stories that slice through my figurative and literal aorta like a hot, yet swift butter-knife of emotional jujitsu? So this story follows the adorable journey of a dog trying to find a forever home as he writes to various potential owners. They write back...with hilarious and adorably sad rejections. After rejection and rejection, perseverance pays off in an unlikely place as the person to be "his person" may have been there all along. SO CUTE. Loving the convention of first person letters as the primary narrative vehicle. Gets into the voice of the characters so well. Prime example: The Day the Crayons Quit.
I Walk with Vanessa
While I may be a word guy, I wanted to give a shout out to a few picture-only books that really grabbed me. These types of books are great at helping kids develop critical thinking skills, honing visual literacy, drawing inferences, and bonding the adult and child in a mutual act of inquiry. "Reading" this story to a kid might look more like asking pointed questions about each page, and leading them to predict what may happen next. What a wonderful, timeless story of kindness. Strong anti-bully and power of leading by example message as well. Beautiful art. Perfect execution. Be kind, fellow humans.
written and illustrated
by Sophie Blackall
This story grabbed me in a weird way. There is something mysterious and intriguing happening here. Art work is phenomenal and incredibly detailed. It's a tall book. Physically. This plays to the strengths of not only the setting, but almost a character in the story...the lighthouse. The story follows the life of a lighthouse attendant and the harsh realities he and his family must endure to keep ships safe. An enduring reminder of how technology changes and we change with it. Nostalgic. Beautiful. Enigmatic as the sea after a storm.
story by Jeff Newman
& illustrated by Larry Day
Alright. This is the last emotional-ninja-heart-attack book about dogs I swear. Maybe. Another "picture only" story, this one will firmly grab you right in the throat and not let go until the final page. Similar in content to The Rough Patch, our main character navigates significant loss and is faced with a difficult choice. The healing process is on full display in this poignant tale of a girl and a pup. Again with the tissues. Unless you have no heart. In that case you're a robot. A robot somehow interested in kid lit. Hey robot, why don't you hop a twister and follow the yellow brick road to the emerald city so the wizard can get you a pretend-clock-heart so you can feel normal human emotions again. K thanks.
written by Bridget Heos
& illustrated by T. L. McBeth
This one is just too clever! One of those "how has anyone not thought of that before" kind of books. This fun play on words and dinosaurs introduces the concept of a thesaurus as our bowtie wearing stegosaurus uses all kinds of fancy words that his sheeple-like siblings don't know exist. Funny. Clever. Vibrant art. Don't just use common, peasant-like words everyone else uses. Be precise. Be sophisticated. Use a thesaurus, bro. And be yourself. Do you, boo.
written by Jason Gallaher
& Illustrated by Jess Pauwels
What a fun story! In this who-dun-it mystery the aloof owl, Whobert Whover, is his own worst enemy with hilarious consequences. Clearly a set up for a series (I hope), this one knocked it out of the park in terms of comedy. Kids will enjoy solving the mystery and pointing out what Whobert is doing wrong along the way. Love the title. Way to play with those words, Jason!
The Other Ducks
written by Ellen Yeomans
& illustrated by Chris Sheban
This story is really unique. It felt so fresh and different. Not an obvious kind of story. Inspired me to really think outside the box with a story. So creative. Our main characters don't know thing one about being ducks and as they learn what it means to be just that, their discoveries and hypotheses are hilarious. The circle of life in beautiful and silly display. So fun!
written and illustrated by Micahel Rex
Yes, another story about characters wanting to eat other characters in the story. Pete finally has a monster friend. But the monster thinks Pete might be tasty. As the boy distracts him from his ultimate goal, he may learn he doesn't want to eat Pete after all. I think it's important kids learn that some creatures (monsters, animals, etc.) actually do want to eat them and maybe they should be cautious about buddying up to them. Like bears. They aren't our friends. They will literally maul you to death. The sooner kids learn that everything on this planet eats everything else, the better off they'll be accepting that they aren't exactly at the top of the food chain in every scenario. Nature is brutal, am I right? The book doesn't actually teach that but it's where my twisted mind goes when I read it. Enjoy!
The Prince and the Pee
written by Greg Gormley
& illustrated by Chris Mould
A clever twist on the classic title of The Princess and the Pea, this story is for every parent who has ever taken a road trip. Especially with a boy. Our prince has to slay the dragon...but he has to pee! As the conflict evolves, our poor hero is prevented from peeing, staving off relief until a hilarious and logical (and problem solving) ending. Isn't potty humor the best? I think so. I mean we all do it. Unless you're a heartless, bladderless robot that is.
written and illustrated
by Daniel Miyares
This story is chalk-full of whimsy and magic. A lonely boy at a boarding school is invited to a night time journey with some unlikely friends. When he returns, the tale he tells may just help him find some real friends in the end. I loved the fantasy element of this book. I loved how the magical elements were never explained--they just existed in the world of the story. A powerful message of the strength of our imaginations...or did it really happen? Or did it? Or did it? Or...DID IT?!!! Check it out!
Zombelina School Days
written by Kristyn Crow
& illustrated by Molly Idle
I really dig the lyrical style and metrical rhythm in this one. A convention I am continually drawn to in my own storytelling. This book is full of fun, hip hop...and body parts falling off! Cause zombies. Zombelina loves to dance and can't wait to show off her moves during show and tell. She also helps a friend deal with his stage fright and starts a DANCE PARTY! Darkly hilarious and what kid doesn't like zombies!? Not any kid I want to know that's for sure.
But the Bear Came Back
written by Tammi Sauer
& illustrated by Dan Taylor
I LOVED THIS ONE! Such a wonderful and creative reminder for us to be careful what we wish for. And you don't know what you got till it's gone. And bears. An adorable story of a highly persistent bear, the boy who wants nothing to do with him, and what happens when the bear doesn't come back...will he come back? I don't know. Well, I know but I'm not telling you. Read it. NOW. Great work, Tammi!
written by Jim Averbeck
& illustrated by Amy Hevron
This story was so cute! A sweet take on a comedy of errors and mistaken identity. What happens when a canary thinks a lemon is another canary and his friend? Can their unique friendship last? What a fresh and essential question. The best books serve to answer a great what if. This story is overflowing with heart and humor. Please give it a read or two...or seven!
Thanks for stopping by my review of my favorite picture books from 2018. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! Now go grab some of them! If you liked my reviews, feel free to share this post with someone! Preferably someone with a human heart and a sense of humor.
Good luck, 2019! You got some big shoes to fill...
Brian Gehrlein is a theatre educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is currently querying picture books and seeking literary representation. He thanks you for reading this post. Even this sentence. And this one. Hey, are you still reading this?