The Best Children’s Books in Our Long Year of Pandemic Reading

Has it really only been a year? This is what I found myself thinking as I revisited a piece I wrote on reading with my twin children in 2020. Did I really write that before the Capitol was stormed? Before the beautiful, relentless snows of February? Before any of us had signed up for vaccines? Before Derek Chauvin was convicted? Before the ice storms in Texas, the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, the earthquake in Haiti? Before the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan? Before the summer’s brief, sweet weeks of elation and loosening? Before Delta? So many years in a year, it seems, when we live through a year like this one.

There was so much to metabolize, so much going on, all the time. In the dark hours after my children were asleep, and on mornings before they woke, I read books whose authors met me where I was at, emotionally, and intellectually. I mined the likes of Jenny Odell, Ross Gay, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Chet’la Sebree for mirrors to my experience and guidance on how to move through this strange time; what to do with all the loss, all the upheaval and grief, the uncertainty and waiting. The books I read to my children this past year plied the same deep waters.

Over the New Year, my kids’ preschool shut down for two months due to a spike in Covid cases. And so we began 2021 alternately alone in our house and bundled up against the cold in order to spend time with the people we love. With the realm of human society mostly off limits, we dove, headlong, into the natural world, strapping on snowshoes, sledding down hills, clambering on ice floes, and building backyard fires in the bitter cold. Several titles helped my children and me sink into this reality rather than shy from it.

River (Elisha Cooper; Orchard Books, 2019) emphasized that the possibility of adventure is always alive with a dream and a little planning, while On the Trapline (David A. Roberston, ill. Julia Flett; Tundra, 2021), with its depiction of an Indigenous family’s seasonal migration to a remote Canadian lake, helped my children understand that access to wild places is a privilege not available to all, and that knowledge of the natural world and ties of kinship must be nurtured in order to persist. Sometimes, socked in by snow or extreme cold, our range extended only as far as the backyard; On a Magical Do Nothing Day (Beatrice Alemagna; Harper Collins, 2017) and Du Iz Tak? (Carson Ellis; Candlewick, 2016) reminded us that we needn’t go anywhere at all to disappear into our imaginations, and that fellowship is readily available among the creatures alongside whom we live.

Two of our favorite woodland tales came from Emily Gravett, whose Tidy (Simon & Schuster, 2017) I stumbled upon in a tiny, wonderful bookshop in Dingle, Ireland in April of 2019, the last time my family of four traveled off the continent. That one, a cheeky tale about a badger named Pete who learns—the hard way—to live with the inherent un-tidiness of the world around him, has been in heavy rotation ever since.

So I was delighted this past summer when I saw that Gravett riffed on similar themes again in Too Much Stuff! (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Gravett’s books make my kids laugh uproariously, and humbly remind me to keep my proclivities towards control and accrual in check. For all three of us, these books bear important lessons about domesticity, consumerism, and acceptance, the sort that we must learn again and again before we begin to live them in earnest.

As the thaw arrived, and with it, vaccines for adults, we began to welcome friends and family back into our physical home again. Even within our small circle here in our small city, many families had undergone radical shifts over the previous year; partners had left or grown sick, employment had been lost. As the world began to speed back up, the margins seemed laughably thin. In practice, this meant making real my desire for more community parenting, cultivating more interdependence and less time spent isolated as a nuclear family. It also meant notions of sharing space and attention had to be navigated anew, a rocky transition.

When our first real playdates in over a year resulted in all-out brawls among my kids and their friends, we read Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day (Carmen Agra Deedy, ill. Pete Oswald; Scholastic, 2020) until we had it memorized. Oge Mora’s 2018 Thank You, Omu! (Little, Brown), a well-worn household favorite, helped my children soften their pandemic-induced impulses towards stinginess and resource-hoarding by portraying generosity as a pathway to togetherness and abundance.

And when, come fall, I began taking the kids of other single parents into our house to help care for them more regularly, The Cot in the Living Room (Hilda Eunice Burgos, ill. Gaby D’Alessandro; Penguin, 2021) helped my children see that we can always stretch and expand to make room for those we care about. Through it all, we talked about love of many strains, and how lucky we are that our lives are so full of it, aided by Mac Barnett’s What is Love? (ill. Carson Ellis; Chronicle, 2021).

Even as opportunities to congregate indoors returned, we found we still wanted to spend most of our waking hours outside; we had, it was clear to me, become more feral, and somehow freer, during the strange time. My children had come into their bodies in a way that was spectacular to behold: Completely unselfconscious. Bold. Physically strong and exuberant. Constantly in motion out in the elements, they added and shed clothes at will, often hiking shirtless or in their underwear, stripping down to wade into mountain streams. It Isn’t Rude to be Nude, an anatomically precise yet still whimsical book written and illustrated by Rosie Haine (Abrams, 2021), offered visual affirmation of this embodied freedom, pushing back against the tacit Puritanical mainstream notion that we should cover up. With no hint of the taboo, Haine’s book reminds us our bodies—with their skin and hair and freckles; nipples, scars and sag—belong in the world. Are of this world. Like stones. Like rain.

For all our physicality this past year—hikes and bike rides and mud, vaccines and masks and learning to play again with others—it was, above all, a year of feelings. Big ones. When summer ended, my children began kindergarten; new school, new kids. By the end of their first day, my children were reporting on a rapidly expanding sense of who their peers are. Overnight, they’d come into intimate proximity with children who don’t speak a word of English, children who’d never been in group care before. They were, too, confronted with the strangeness of sitting, masked, at a desk for hours on end. Suddenly, my babies were out of my nest and into the wider world. And truth be told, I was out of my depths.

A Kid is a Kid is a Kid (House of Anansi, 2021)—Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng’s follow up to their 2016 A Family is a Family is a Family, which made last year’s hot list at our house—helped depict and assuage myriad anxieties that crop up in and around school, all while resisting notions of “normalcy.” When my daughter complained that the public school day was too long—longer, she said, than their preschool days had been (this, reader, is patently untrue)—I found, in Julie Morstad’s Time is a Flower (Tundra, 2021), a response that validated her experience while also broadening her context of time as a whole. And when my son started being teased for wearing dresses, Christine Baldacchino’s Morris Michelwhite and the Tangerine Dress (House of Anansi, 2014) returned to the top of the frequently-read pile we keep on our kitchen counter, reminding us of the importance of self-expression and how to avoid succumbing to viewing oneself through others’ insecurities and fears.

Stability, we should know by now, is a fallacy. But reminders of that truth still sting when they come. Two months into kindergarten, my son was exposed to Covid at school and forced to quarantine. He was confused, and wanted desperately to go back; having tasted the life of a big kid, he was heartsick over missing it. At bedtime, for days, he requested The Canoe Maker: David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy Birch Bark Artisan (Jean Flahive and Donald Soctomah, ill. Mari Dieumegar; Maine Authors Publishing, 2019). When I asked why he wanted to read it on repeat, he told me that the story of a grownup teaching a kid how to do something—in this case, build a birch bark canoe—reminded him of school, “And I miss school,” he said as he wept.

That missing—and, with it, trusting that the missing can not only be tolerated, but integrated into our experience—was a throughline of our 2021. More than a year into their father’s and my separation, my children began to articulate new contours of their bewilderment about the changes in their lives; what they were holding onto from the past, and the worries they were projecting onto the future.

Both a new arrival, Many Shapes of Clay by Kaneesha Sneed (Prestle, 2021), and Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (Amy Noveski, ill. Isabelle Arsenault; Abrams, 2016), a longtime love around here, gave all of us permission to feel the ache, and to subvert language in favor of other forms of expression when grief became too much. Wounded Falcons (Jairo Buitrago, ill Rafael Yockteng; Groundwood, 2021) and Tough Like Mum (Lana Button, ill. Carmen Mok; Tundra, 2021) offered tenderly narrated examples of situations that often spark both sadness and shame in young kids, and reminded us that that we never, really, know what’s going on in another’s life. And Tracy Subisak’s Jennie Mei is Sad (Little, Brown, 2021) provided a sparsely narrated, beautifully wrought reminder that sometimes, simply walking alongside someone in pain is not only all we can do, but the best offering of all.

“What I would like to achieve, regardless of the particular story or poem,” wrote June Jordan in “The Creative Spirit: Children’s Literature,” “Is the offering of respect: an offering of the view that I believe you can handle it, that there is a way and a means to creatively handle whatever may be the pain or social predicament of your young life, and that I believe that you can and will discover or else invent that way, those means.” That twinning of pain and hope does not go away, I want desperately to convey to my children. Rather, its complexity evolves and deepens as we live, hungrily, into the future. What does that future hold? This, my loves, I cannot tell you.

We know much less than we often presume to, I thought, as we mused aloud together about Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s stunning Milo Imagines the World(Penguin, 2021). And, per the refrain in Aracelis Girmay’s gorgeous What Do You Know? (ill. Ariana Fields. 2021; Enchanted Lion), the only thing, really, that I need for my children to know is this: Trust your experience as truth. Let yourself love. What life holds for you is wilder and more beautiful than you—than I—can ever imagine.