According to a recent Scholastic Reading Report, children from the ages of 6-17 read an average of 23 books a year. That’s a lot, but given that there are approximately 339,000 children’s book titles published in the US each year, it pays to be a little choosy. As a children’s book author and reviewer, as well as a father, I read a lot of children’s books — tons and tons of children’s books. I will say this: Many are very bad, some are good, and very few are genuinely great. All the more reason to get excited when there’s something worth looking forward to on the horizon.
Here are the seven books I’m pumped to read to my kids (and also myself) in 2018. There is, I’m happy to report, some good stuff coming.
Love by Matt de La Pena
Due Out In… January
Poem books can be a hard sell for kids, especially when they are about love. (They are a demonstrably easy sell for parents, which is why there are so many of them.) Though there’s no arguing that the prolific de la Pena’s latest book is a mushy poem about love, it is, notably, a good mushy poem about love. The book is successful because de la Pena is a good writer and a great observer who documents love in all its forms, from a baby hearing his parents’ voices to a child looking in the mirror. The poem dances on the precipice of precious, but sticks the landing. And even if you think love is a battlefield, the illustration by Loren Long — famous in my house for Otis and the Puppy — will soften you enough to let this one in.
Islandborn by Junot Diaz
Due Out In… March
Junot Diaz could write the phone number of his local dry cleaners on a Post-It Note and I’d buy it. Fortunately, this is not that. The novelist’s latest is a meditation on memory and the immigrant experience, but, you know, for kids. It follows Lola, a young girl on an assignment from school to portray the land of her birth. To her sadness, Lola, who left the Dominican Republic as a baby, has no memories of that country. She gathers them from her family and neighbors. Of course it’s not that simple. There’s a familiar magical realist thread here, beautifully captured by the colorful illustrations of Colombian artist Leo Espinosa. Sidewalks fill with sleepdancers. People are made from rainbows.
The aspect of the book I like the most is the monster, a fanged bat who is seen driving the exodus of many Dominicans. Clearly, but not explicitly, the monster represents Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator who ruled the island for 30 years before being assassinated in 1961. Under Trujillo’s rule thousands of Dominicans died and many fled. Admirably, Diaz does not feel the need to name Trujillo or explain the history. There’s just one clue: an illustration of a man holding a photograph of himself with a sign reading “Salcedo“, a town famous for its resistance to Trujillo. But mostly Trujillo is just a fanged bat heroes fight and flee. I don’t think there’s been a book more terrifying for my kids — because the tone changes to abruptly — or one that has driven me so directly to learning more about a history I knew only tangentially.
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
Due Out In… March
As adults we think kids don’t understand time. Take this morning, for instance, when my son celebrated the 15 minutes he had to get to school by starting to organize his Pokemon cards. “Dad,” he said, “we have time!” “What are you talking about?” I said. “We’re out of time!” But, as Sarah Jacoby, a talented Brooklyn illustrator , reminds us in her first picture book, he might have had a point. The book is kinda poem-y and you’ll have to explain a lot of words — i.e. idyllic — but it does a nice job of exploring how elastic time can be. Want to explain why 15 minutes waiting for the bus for instance can feel like a forever? Here’s how.
Circle Rolls by Barbara Kanninen
Due Out In… March
Shapes are cool and much should be written about them. Last year Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen scored a hit with Triangle. They’ll follow that up this year with Square. But I’m really looking forward to Circle Rolls by environmental economist Barbara Kanninen with illustrations by Serge Bloch. Generally I think anthropomorphizing shapes is much more tasteful than imbuing human qualities to animals (mice in particular) and to food (meat in particular). This breezy story starts with Circle rolling, bumping into Triangle then popping, turning thereby into smaller circles that cause Square to sneeze a flurry of shapes — Diamond, Star, etc.. — that bounce into and bend Line. Eventually, Octagon has to break everyone up and Heart has to straighten Line and repair Circle. The illustrations are as simple as the story, playful and clear. It is clearly a book written to conform to the wishes of children, not how we wish children to be, but nonetheless adeptly communicates both geometry and personal responsibility.
Thirteen by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner
Due Out In… May
This is a reissue by the heroic resurrectors of arcana at the New York Review of Books. The author, Remy Charlip, is the least heralded genius in children’s literature. Charlip achieved some fame as an illustrator with Fortunately in 1964, but mostly weirded people out. Originally a choreographer and co-founder of the Merce Cunningham Dance Theater, Charlip wrote and illustrated 29 children’s books. This one, a nine-year collaboration with another brilliant illustrator named Jerry Joyner, consists of thirteen stories told sequentially but all on one spread. If that sounds strange and complicated, that’s because it is. But strange and complicated is what makes Charlip’s work worthwhile.
Brick, Who Found Herself in Architecture by Joshua David Stein
Due Out In… June
Well, look, I wrote this book so clearly I’m stoked about it (Editor’s note: Eye roll emoji). This is my third book. My first two, Can I Eat That? and What’s Cooking? were both about food and what might be called divertissements (Editor’s note: Eye roll emoji number two). This one is not. This is about architecture and the nature of being. The story follows a young Brick as she finds her place in the world. Spurred on her journey by the realization that “Great things begin with small bricks,” she visits castles and churches and walls and apartments and houses around the world, searching for where she might fit in.
On the one hand, the book, which features illustrations by Julia Rothman, is about architecture. On the other hand, it’s about choices and impermanence. It was influenced by both high rises and Buddhism and I’m really, really proud of it — probably the proudest I’ve ever been of something that isn’t one of my sons. So, you know, I’m excited about it and maybe you should be as well.
El Chupacabras by Adam Rubin and Crash McCreery
Due Out In… March
Dragons love Tacos and I love Dragons Love Tacos and I love Dragons Love Tacos 2 too. I’ve read these collaborations between Adam Rubin and Dan Salmieri more than any other children’s book because my kids dig ’em. The phrase “dragons love tacos” has becomes a sort of soporific mantra that I can chant to put my family to sleep. Still, I’m really excited (and awake) to see Rubin collaboration with a new illustrator — and especially this one. Mark “Crash” McCreery is a Hollywood creature creator. He’s the dude behind the creatures in Rango, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Simply put, much of how we as a culture see monsters and the fantastical comes directly from the mind of Crash. Now he and Adam tell the story of El Chupacabras, the legendary Mexican goatsucker. The book is written both in English and Spanish in an interesting interlocking way. For example: “This all happened a long time ago, en una granja de cabras. Todo esto ocurrió hace mucho tiempo, on a goat farm.” And the text maintains the Rubinesque whimsicality of DLT and DLTII, now is realized with a fully cinematic vision.