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The Best Children’s Books of 2019 That Are Really, Truly for Kids

What makes a truly great children's book? One that kids actually enjoy reading. That's what makes these the best books of 2019.

Every year there are a ton of children’s books that come out and it always seems to the ones that are awarded the superlatives from the cultural gatekeepers are rarely actually for children. That makes sense. Children don’t buy children’s books. Adults do. Nevertheless, from my experience both as a children’s book author and as a dad, kids are only marginally into the melancholic tales that seem to bewitch reviewers. I’m not advocating for crass dumb-dumb fart-based literature. Kids are smart, curious and creative creatures. These books honor that in innovative ways while never appearing as if they’re talking over the child.

This oversized book from Quarto is the fourth in a series using the Milan-based design duo Carnovsky’s cool-as-shit RGB wallpaper. The basic idea is that by looking through one of three included lenses — red, green and blue — you’ll be able to see different images printed on the same page. This being dedicated to all occult spaces including the Hermitage in Russia to the St. Therese shipwreck in Greece and Salem, Massachusetts. The red lens shows you the place, the green the personages and the blue all the creepy stuff. These spreads are followed by straightforward “case studies” that lay out, in black-and-white and non-scarily, all that you just saw.

While not technically a children’s book — it belongs to that rara avis: adult picture book — this beautiful meditation on aging by German editor Heike Faller and illustrated by Valerio Vidali contains 100 answers to the question “What have you learned in your life?” The answers range from a child’s (7 1/4 year old’s “Sometimes you get bored”) to a 76-year-old’s “Being in nature is the best.” Each answer is beautifully illustrated by Vidali. Strange choice, I know, to include in a list of children’s book but by happenstance Faller has created the rare bit of children’s literature that is wise, not twee, beautiful not precious and that holds values for everyone from 0-100.

It took me years of therapy to realize that the wounds I was carrying around as an adult were inflicted upon me as a child. There’s nothing that heavy in this debut picture book from Australian artist Henry Blackshaw. Just whimsical and beautiful drawings of the children adults carry inside them. The best part is it’s only $9, which gets you like about 30 seconds of therapy but hours of enjoyment here.

I love books that know they’re books. Great examples include The Monster At the End of this Book by Jon Stone and A Perfectly Messed Up Story by Patrick McConnell. Rubin and Salmieri’s latest collaboration — they’re the duo behind the hit Dragons Love Tacos — is essentially just an excuse to give a book a high five. The story, such as it is, is about a high five tournament but it’s mostly just a scaffolding to enjoy Salmieri’s brightly drawn and charming illustrations.

Book publishers often try to surf the longtail by releasing activity spin-offs of great books. Often these small beer sucks. In this case, the follow up to Matt Lamothe’s brilliant This is How We Do It — not to be confused with the very good Montell Jordan song — is even better than the original. The basic premise of that first book was to give a peek into the lives of seven children across the globe. In this follow up, Lamothe picks 59 kids, throws in a bunch of stickers, postcards and map and — and this is the brilliant part — blanks for your kid to fill in their day.

Children’s books based on blogs seem like they wouldn’t work and most wouldn’t but this one does. For four years Bruce Worden, author of Good Night Keith Moon and other dad joke bonanza products, maintained a blog as brilliant as it is simple: homophones weakly. This book is the book version of that, simple illustrations of raise, raze and rays or buy, by and bye. What I love about this for kids is that if you want to create a love of language, it pays to be playful about it. I’d take this modern somewhat mature book over any of those twee “O! The magical journeys of books!” bullshit that parents read and kids ignore.

This book hits the holy trinity: It has reached self-awareness. It is pleasantly macabre. It was written by a father and son. The father, in this case, is Michael and Finn the 10-year-old son. The story concerns Lenny the Lobster who, upon realizing that he is the dinner at the party, can choose to either put his faith in his hosts (bad idea) or jump ahead and escape (better idea.) With illustrations by Catherine Meurisse, the book flirts with David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster while also giving readers agency. (Or so it seems....)

My kids — who love Nana’s squishy arms — are inherently interested in the old. But few children’s books are populated with them. Like Hundred, this is a book that gently nods toward aging and mortality. French artist JR’s portraits of the superannuated grace buildings around the world. (He has a show up at Brooklyn Museum now.) The book version of that are beautiful black-and-white portraits of old people with simple text. As a bonus, and this is something the publisher Phaidon does a lot, there are short biographies of the subjects in the back of the book.