Best 50 Picture Books This Library Girl Can’t Live Without
The summer of 2013 has been a bookworm’s dream come true. Not only did I get to read picture books, I got to read over 200 of them, most of them award-winners and honorees. The process of narrowing them down to my Best 50 is no easy task; I don’t envy those who compile best lists for a living!
As a place to start, I approached this project from a collection development point of view, selecting material that would be appropriate for any elementary school library. I wanted to make sure the books span across different genres and appeal to both younger and older readers and a variety of interests. (Note that some of these books can fall into more than one category.) The selected books have great stories and illustrations that draw readers in, take them back to their childhood, allow them to explore feelings associated with events and characters’ actions, or give a sense of wonder and discovery. At the same time, they are valuable resources that provide curricular support to classroom teachers and other school personnel (for example, counselor/psychologist, music or art teachers). Additional criteria are applied to the specific genres, as discussed below. I will also provide a short rationale for each of the titles selected.
- Multicultural/International Titles: I felt it was important that the collection reflected the increasing multicultural nature of our schools and communities. Research shows again and again that minority readers long to identify with characters they read about, so it is crucial that they have access to books that portray their culture and heritage with respect and authenticity. As well, as children – regardless of their ethnicity – learn about various cultures and traditions, they will come to recognize the many commonalities we all share as human beings and be able to celebrate the differences. The stories provide windows to other worlds, helping reduce ethnocentrism and increase understanding of difficult social and global issues. The books I selected in this category are authentic (both in text and images), void of stereotypes, and teach readers tolerance and appreciation of other cultures.
- Traditional Tales: Not only do folktales, fairy tales, fables, and other forms of traditional tales familiarize children with literary elements and lead to the development of their language arts skills, they also show kids that they can face the world’s many problems heads-on (G. K. Chesterton said it best: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”), that they are capable of handling tough times. These stories often cross international boundaries and show commonalities from one culture to another, and teach morals and life lessons. In short, traditional tales make up an important part of any school library collection. For this list, I selected both traditional adaptations/retellings of fairy tales, as well as a couple of examples of fractured fairy tales and metafiction.
- Informational Books: Thanks to the impending implementation of Common Core State Standards and its mandate on a 50/50 fiction/non-fiction reading ratio by the 4th grade (and 30/70 by the 12th grade), informational books have been brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention and interest. Because informational books can cover such a wide range, my selections included biographies, books about animals and science, books for older readers, and poetry. (Note again that some of these books — such as the poetry titles — could belong to one or two of these categories.) Criteria used for this category include accuracy and currency of data, readability and age-appropriateness of the text, and the design and availability of organizational aids (such as index, glossary, timelines, well-captioned pictures, references, etc.). Pages ideally provide well-researched information that are uncluttered and easy to find, and or the books should encourage further research or inquiry.
- Stories of Childhood and Friendships: I also wanted to include a variety of books that celebrate childhood and friendships. Many of these stories feature imperfect, tenacious characters who are brave enough to be who they are, even if this means being a little different from everyone else. Readers will see themselves in these books and realize that it’s okay and perfectly normal to be afraid of the dark (like the little boy in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark), to get mad (like Sophie in Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry), to be a little mischievous (like Max in Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things or Olivia in Ian Falconer’s Olivia), or to be serious and proper (like Elliot in Tony Buzzeo’s One Cool Friend). I also love books that showcase friendships, also at times imperfect, but so important in a young person’s life. These stories teach the true meaning of friendship and the art of compromise, forgiveness, and love.
- Special Curricular Interest: I included three books that didn’t seem to fit into any particular category but could be of special curricular interest to teachers.
Some Reflections About the Selection Process: As I mentioned before, having to choose 50 “best” books from what is already a best list of sorts has been quite the challenge. The books, first and foremost, had to be excellent representations for their categories. I also tried to have as much variety in the collection as I could, to appeal to different reading interests/levels as well as support the development of language arts, sciences, and of course, the Common Core State Standards. I also tried to showcase as many different authors and illustrators as possible, but had to make some allowances for some books that particularly stood out to me (e.g. Kevin Henkes, Allen Say). That said, I dare say that this list will continue to grow and divide and change as I dive further into the world of picture books, so that one day it is not just the “Best 50 Picture Books”, but “Best 50 Multicultural Books”, the “Best 50 Traditional Tales”, the “Best 50 Poetry Picture Books”, and so on and so on. I love that the possibilities are endless, that there are so many wonderful works out there that it’s nearly impossible to pick favorites, and I take back what I said in the beginning — I do envy those who get to do this for a living after all…I envy them very much.
Without further ado, here are the books:
- Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
- Tea with Milk by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
- Tree of Cranes by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1991)
- How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman; illustrated by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)
- Smoky Night by Eve Bunting; illustrated by David Diaz (Roaring Books Press, 1994)
- Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 2001)
- Blues Journey by Walter Dean Myers; illustrated by Christopher Myers (Holiday House, 2003)
- A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (Greenwillow Books, 1982)
- Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young (Philomel, 1989)
- Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House, 1983)
- Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton, 1997)
- Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky (Dutton, 1986)
- Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs retold by Randall Jarrell; illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1972)
- The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka; illustrated by Lane Smith (Viking, 1992)
- The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka; illustrated by Lane Smith (Viking, 1989)
- The Three Pigs by David Wiesner (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
Informational – Biographies, Presidents, Animals, Science, Poetry, Older Readers
- Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)
- John, Paul, George & Ben by Lane Smith (Hyperion, 2006)
- Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer; illustrated by Christopher Bing (Handprint Books, 2000)
- So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George; illustrated by David Small (Chronicle Books, 2000)
- The Wall by Peter Sis (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007)
- Moses by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, 2006)
- Electric Ben by Robert Byrd (Penguin, 2012)
- What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
- Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins; illustrated by Vicky White (Candlewick Press, 2011)
- Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)
- First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Books)
- Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
- Animal Poems by Valerie Worth; pictures by Steve Jenkins (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007)
- Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josee Masse (Dutton, 2010)
- Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars by Douglas Florian (Harcourt, 2007)
- Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems by Joyce Sidman (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
- Red Sings from Treetops, a year in colors by Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)
Stories of Childhood and Friendship
- Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (Harper & Row, 1963)
- Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1991)
- Owen by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1993)
- Olivia by Ian Falconer (Atheneum, 2000)
- Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam, 1995)
- A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, 2008)
- One Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo; illustrated by David Small (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012)
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead; illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, 2010)
- Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (Harper & Row, 1970)
- George and Martha by James Marshall (Houghton Mifflin, 1972)
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963)
- When Sophie Gets Angry–Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang (Scholastic, 1999)
- The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (Viking Press, 1936)
- The Dark by Lemony Snicket; illustrated by Jon Klassen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013)
Special Curricular Interest
- Black and White by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin, 1990)
- Hurricane by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, 1990)
- Tuesday by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, 1991)