The thing about a picture book is that it has to keep kids riveted on the first, fifth, tenth, and even twentieth reading. So when we say that these are good ones, we really mean it. These books are tried, tested, and wonderful.
The Princess and the Pony, by Kate Beaton
Superstar Kate Beaton (Hark a Vagrant, Step Aside Pops) brings her characteristic wit to the the picture book set, along with her signature roly-poly pony. The pony is a birthday gift for spirited Princess Pinecone, whose Viking Father and Amazon Mom have a knack for choosing gifts that are just a little wrong—certainly this is not a proper horse for a warrior princess. But as ever, Pinecone becomes determined to make the best of things, bringing her pony into the gladiator ring anyway, discovering that there’s more than one way to win a battle, and that there are surprising advantages to being cute and cuddly after all.
This is a princess book that will satisfy princess fiends and the princess-averse all at once. It’s an empowering tale for any reader, plus it’s got pony farts, so your kids are going to love it.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, by Danielle Daniel
At first glance, this is an uncommonly beautiful book about making connections between animals, one’s own identity and feelings, but it’s also an introduction to the Anishinaabe tradition of totem animals, with Daniel’s notes explaining the tradition further.
In our online conversation, Daniel tells us more: “As a former elementary school teacher, I hope the book serves as a teaching tool—a way for parents to remember and discuss the ways First Nation Peoples have been treated in this country. While I don’t expect parents to talk about residential schools with their five-year-olds, I do hope they will share the truth about Canada’s history with their children when the time is right.”
Young readers will find this book a vivid imaginative journey.
The Bus Ride, by Marianne Dubuc
The Bus Ride in its original French (L’autobus) has just been just awarded the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse, Canada’s foremost French-language children’s literature award, and no wonder. The charm of this book—which is loosely inspired by the Little Red Riding Hood story and which celebrates a young girl’s independence as she travels alone to her grandmother’s house for the very first time—is its illustrations: strangely, seemingly randomly, detailed. Nothing is ever made explicit—who is it reading behind the newspaper with its cheeky ever-changing headlines? What is the turtle hiding? Are the wolves really friendly? And what is inside that enormous box? Never mind the adorably misbehaving moles, swinging from the ceiling straps and eating candy off the floor. The amazing Dubuc has designed a picture book that’s a new adventure with every re-read.
Buddy and Earl, by Maureen Fergus and illustrated by Carey Sookocheff
It’s hard to put one’s finger on just what’s so good about Buddy and Earl, the first book in a brand new series about the surprising friendship between a dog and a hedgehog. It’s partly the perfectly defined personalities belonging to the respective creatures, and also the dead-pan dialogue (“You look like a sea urchin, Earl, but I do not think you are a sea urchin. You see, sea urchins are underwear creatures and the living room is not underwater”), and how the story is a marvellous celebration of imaginative play. The best thing about Buddy and Earl though, is how it demonstrates that a story that is silly can also be smart. This is one of those titles that grown-ups will love as enthusiastically as their kids.
Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale
Some might question why a book like Missing Nimama, with its disturbing content—the protagonist is the daughter of a missing Indigenous woman whose body is discovered at the end of the story—need be a picture book. The obvious answer is that life experiences don’t discriminate by age, unfortunately, and there are many young children for whom such a story is all too familiar. The picture book form also makes Florence’s story accessible to readers within wide ranges of literacy. But most importantly, this is the kind of book that could only be a picture book, and it’s a testament to the remarkable things that picture books can do. Thisdale’s gorgeous dreamlike images help weave together the girl’s own voice and story, and also the perspective of her mother, watching sadly and proudly as her daughter grows up to be a successful young woman. It’s heartbreaking, but also beautiful, and helps to make sense of the senseless.
Elephant Journey, by Rob Laidlaw, illustrated by Brian Deines
This book captures the real-life journey of three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to their new home at an animal sanctuary in California, the story also framing the difficulties of wild animals in captivity and our changing understanding of zoos and their purposes. From acclimatizing the elephants to their travel crates, to transporting the crates by crane onto transport trucks, and then those transport trucks’ long, winding journey across the continent (which includes the drivers dousing the wheels with water as the brakes start to overheat while they’re climbing up and down mountains in Utah and Nevada), Laidlaw’s words and Deines’ illustrations work perfectly together to bring this tale to life.
See You Next Year, by Andrew Larsen, illustrated by Todd Stewart
When we look back, so many of our memories are of summer, and those memories and rituals are celebrated in this beautiful ode to the summer holiday. You know the kind, where you head to the same place every year, and everything is always the same, and this kind of certainty and constancy are what great childhoods are made of. It’s about the simple things, digging holes in the sand, late-night bonfires, and concerts down at the bandshell, not to mention passing time on rainy days. Stewart’s drawings use light to evoke great atmosphere, and also to convey the slow/fast passage of time while one is on holiday. This is a lovely storm about comfort, and cycles, and about how going away sometimes can feel like coming home.
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith
This is the book that took the world by storm in 2015, and it only gets more magical with every reading. It’s about those small moments of goodness and wonder that colour our world, moments that most of us are too busy to stop for. Not the young girl who is Sidewalk Flowers‘ protagonist, however. Wandering through the city with her dad, who is distracted by his own grown-up business, she notices flowers growing in unlikely places, gathering a bouquet as they go. And as she started gathering flowers, she starts leaving them, too, small gifts for worthy souls that she encounters on her way. The magic of the story is its openness, the possibilities implied by the wordlessness—this is a book about generosity that is so generous in itself—and that openness achieves perfect balance with Smith’s intricately detailed drawings which anchor the story in the world.
The Specific Ocean, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Katty Maurey
Oh, those summertime books never seem more perfect than they do once the summer is gone. This one is about a young girl who is reluctant to leave home, to fly on a plane across the country with her family to see the Pacific Ocean. And even once she’s there, she’s determined not to enjoy herself, to stay away from the big blue water and all the hugeness. And then she swims, and falls in love with the sea, and feels like it’s a part of her. So that eventually the problem is, how is she ever going to leave her Specific Ocean behind? From a wise older brother, however, she learned that a thing need not be contained to be a part of one’s self, and that some things really are big and amazing enough to be shared with the whole wide world.
This is Sadie, by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstad
“The days are never long enough for Sadie. So many things to make and do and be.” This latest collaboration between O’Leary and Morstad is a gorgeous story about the marvellous possibilities of time’s expansiveness—and an imagination’s too. It’s a book about passing time, reading books, and how Sadie likes to make “boats of boxes/ and castles out of cushions./ But more than anything she likes stories,/ because you can make them from nothing at all.” The most important thing a child needs, Sadie shows us, is freedom and room to explore.
Swan, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad
And another one by Morstad! Swan is a picture book biography of legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova, a star who came from humble origins to capture the heart of the world. Over her career, Pavlova brought ballet to the attention of ordinary people who wouldn’t have normally had access to such elite culture. The story shows her in various roles (and fashion lovers will find much to appreciate in Morstad’s pictures of her costumes) though none are quite as triumphant as her role of The Swan. And it’s this role that she returns to in her final act, at the end of her life remembering her greatest performance. “Every day must end in night. Every bird must fold its wings. Every feather falls at last, and settles.”