What 2020 Children’s Book Roundups Are Missing: Sara B. Franklin on the Best Family Reads of a Very Hard Year

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I knew things were going to get hard when the library closed.

I am, by profession, a writer and a professor of storytelling. I’ve read to my twin children—now four—since their infancy. But as avid readers as we already were, 2020 upped our reading quotient, and markedly. Without the library to turn to, mid-March found me binge-buying picture books both online and from our local bookstore. And when, mid-summer, our library re-opened for curbside pickup, I instantly queued up more books than I was permitted. In September, when we were, at last, allowed back in the building to browse, my kids squealed with glee. I wept.

This year, I read to my kids when I felt overwhelmed by their questions or my inner anxiety wheel, or when I just needed a break from forming coherent thoughts. We read to find solace and connection through our disorientation; books put words in my mouth when I didn’t have any of my own to offer. We turned to books to make our sharply reduced worlds feel more expansive. Our house, which already teemed with books before March 16, has been overflowing since.

So I was disappointed when, paging through the pages of the New York Times annual “best of” roundup for children’s books, I found many of the most captivating, relevant picture books of 2020 missing, and some of—in my, and my now four-year-olds’ estimation, at least—the least successful titles singled out as exceptional.

The trouble is this: children’s picture books, as a genre, seem to be getting more and more adult. “Early childhood,” said renowned children’s book author and illustrator Mo Willems in a recent interview for the NYT, “Is a hard, confusing time.” Sometimes we, as parents, forget this as we’re rushing through the minutiae of our lives, telling our kids to hurry up and get their shoes on, or tiring of their endless questions. Willems’s observation rings true even in the best of times, when we’re not a society gutted by illness, racial unrest, political hostility, and a wider chasm between rich and poor than we’ve seen in our lifetimes. This year has demanded much beyond run-of-the mill patience and care-giving of parents; we’ve had to attempt to explain to our kids why we’re such a mess each time we glance at our phones, the travesties coming on so fast we can’t catch our breath. We need stories that can transport and comfort us, stories that help us feel seen and sane.

A book like I Talk Like a River (by Jordan Scott, ill. Sydney Smith; Holiday House) that made both the NYT and WSJ best of lists, didn’t do it for any of us. There was no narrative thrust, and the challenge the protagonist was struggling with—a stutter—was described in terms too ambiguous for my kids to relate to. The illustrations, while beautiful, were so abstract that my kids kept asking me to clarify what they were seeing.

To try to talk young kids out of their confusion and angst, especially when they see the adults they look to for stability so undone, is to be dishonest.

You Matter, by Christian Robinson (Atheneum), which the NYT called, “an anthem to self-worth that’s also about the history of life on Earth, and in 107 words somehow covers loneliness, death and rebirth,” disappointed, too; young kids don’t generally go for anthems and mantras other than those repeated in the chorus of Daniel Tiger ditties. Repeating “you matter” to my twins led to a glazed-over look; they didn’t get it. The pictures were charming and relatable, but, reading the minimalist text aloud one evening, I found myself feeling like I was at an AA meeting, or reading a self-help book; both of which are fine, if you’re an adult. (It’s worth noting that this is not a criticism of Robinson’s work at large; we have several other titles he’s illustrated and love many of them, especially Last Stop on Market Street, a collaboration with writer Matt de la Peña published by Putnam in 2016, which has long been a favorite).

Sophie Blackall’s If You Come to Earth (Chronicle), another newcomer that cleaned up in the year-end lists, is a variation on the well-worn theme of how we actually are and how we should be, the sort that always calls to mind Vonnegut: “Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” In If You Come to Earth, despite doing a mostly bang-up job of representing a range of races, ethnicities, and abilities, Blackall still centers a hipster-looking white kid, and the story contains a few lines that struck me as so off—ex: saying kids go to school “so we’ll know what to do when we grow up” and suggesting old people’s primary worth is in “telling stories about the world when they were young”—that I jumped in to editorialize as I read. Blackall’s growing oeuvre has a lot going for it—Hello Lighthouse (Little Brown, 2018) confronts the timely themes of isolation, yearning, change, and the slow trudge of time—and I have high hopes that her future work will center on good storytelling rather than such overt messaging.

To try to talk young kids out of their confusion and angst, especially when they see the adults they look to for stability so undone, is to be dishonest. Willems again: “When parents come up to me and ask, ‘‘How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?’’ they’re asking me to be disloyal. They’re actually asking about a form of control… Show that you don’t know. Show them that you’re fumbling.” Willems names something I felt as I read You Matter, a sense that we’re forgetting what bollocks the adage “Do as I say, not as I do” is. Our kids know they matter—indeed, know anything—based on how we treat them and what they observe in us and the world around them, not by lines fed to them from pretty, oversimplified books.

Which is why I found this year’s reviews falling short, overlooking many of the most resonant new arrivals. Take, for example, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built (Angela Burke Kunkel, ill. Paola Escobar; Schwartz & Wade, 2020), which is lovingly known in our house as “José and José.” In this non-fiction(ish) story, a book-loving Colombian sanitation worker (José #1) collects discarded books and builds a free lending library for Bogotá’s children in his home. A boy (José #2) muddles through his boredom in class, mealtimes and chores, waiting until he can climb into bed with a book. Saturday, when Jose the elder opens his library doors, is the pinnacle of José #2’s week. The book treats resource scarcity lightly; its authors—like its protagonists—know that the escapism reading provides hasn’t a thing to do with wealth. The magical generosity and endless possibility offered by libraries is, here, equated to paradise, an analogy any book lover—my four-year-olds included—can relate to.

Another slam dunk around here was The Paper Kingdom (Helena Ku Rhee, ill. Pascal Campion; Penguin), the story of Daniel, a young brown boy whose parents work the night shift cleaning a white-collar office building. One night, with the sitter unavailable, Daniel’s parents take their son to work with them. The story is a tribute to the transporting power of make-believe, as well as a subtle but firm commentary on race, class and invisible labor. Daydreams loom large in the English translation of Akiko Miyakoshi’s visually stunning I Dream of a Journey (Kids Can Press), too, in which the attic-dwelling proprietor of a modest hotel admits to feeling envious of his guests’ travels, and fantasizes about one day disappearing out into the world without a word. In this year of restricted movement and armchair travel, this one struck a chord for all of us.

The need to get out was a theme that ran through two of our other 2020 favorites, both from Candlewick. The wordless Hike by Pete Oswald (Candlewick) and Jennifer K. Mann’s The Camping Trip helped us see our daily walks, a fox sighting in the woods, and backyard camping as grand adventures. Additionally, both books depict characters who don’t present as white enjoying nature (an all-too rare portrayal in American culture), and the former features an (ostensibly, at least) single dad. So does Almost Time (Elizabeth Stickney & Gary Schmidt, ill. G. Brian Karas; Clarion), a book about anticipation, waiting and the rhythms of the seasonal cycles (here, centered around the running of maple sap), which is so beloved and so overdue to the library at this point that I should probably just buy it.

Many of the books that helped us through 2020 were not new releases. Together, they make up what I’ve come to think of as my parenting narrative toolkit, a series of titles that have proven their ability to simultaneously explain, soothe, and provoke.

To help us wait—which, of course, we’re all sick of doing—we read Waiting is Not Easy (Mo Willems; Hyperion, 2014) again and again. The premise is simple: two friends wait, one patiently and one decidedly impatiently, for the arrival of something (select from the myriad of 2020 analogies: waiting for school to reopen, to visit a family member, for a vaccine, etc.) that cannot be rushed. The payoff is simple and universally accessible: the beauty of the night sky.

This year was full of familial and societal restructuring, both painful rifts and also a deeper understanding of our interdependence.

More complex, and equally popular around here, is Jacqueline Woodson’s Comin’ on Home Soon (ill. E.B. Lewis; Penguin, 2004), in which Ada Ruth, a young Black girl, is left with her grandmother to endure a cold, shortage-stricken winter while her mother goes off to work the train yards during wartime. Time moves slow in this beautifully illustrated story, and most importantly, Ada Ruth’s grandmother gives the girl space to be grumpy, worried, and sad. She even, reluctantly, lets the girl adopt a stray cat (pandemic puppies, anyone?).

This year was full of familial and societal restructuring, rife with painful rifts and also a deepening understanding of our interdependence. Just Like a Mama (Alice Faye Duncan, ill. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow,  granddaughter of lauded children’s book author and illustrator, Jerry Pinkney) is the story of Clementine, who tells us she doesn’t live with her bio parents, but is bound to Mama Rose—with whom she has a never-named relationship—by love and daily acts of care.

A Family is a Family is a Family (Sara O’Leary, ill. Qin Leng; House of Anansi, 2016) is raucous and relatable, and helped my kids visualize their own parents’ separation, as well as the foster parent and adoptive relationships that unfolded in our chosen family this year. Otto and Pio by Marianne Dubuc (2019, Princeton Architectural Press) is a “love the one you’re with” story that reminds you that companionship can arrive unexpectedly and that there can be silver linings to having company even when someone’s driving you nuts. Oge Mora’s beautiful duo provided crucial perspective, too. Saturday (2019, Little Brown) orbits around a hardworking single mom and her daughter, and deals with disappointment and creativity; and Thank you Omu (2018, Little Brown) speaks of generosity and how, even if one lives alone, they needn’t be alone.

To help little ones understand and imagine their way out of adversity—be it lockdown or struggles with poverty and racism—I’ve rediscovered two favorites from my own childhood. Tar Beach (Faith Ringgold; Crown, 1991) is all about fantasy and transcendence, and reminds us of a child’s view of what makes us, their parents, happy—laughing, sleeping in, and a beer with friends atop an open roof (they’re not so far off, eh?).  A Chair for my Mother (Vera Williams; Scholastic) still feels as fresh today as it did when it was published in 1982, telling the story of a three-generation, all female family moving through unexpected loss and change, while celebrating neighborliness and the thrum of urban life.

When it comes to the daily need to bust out and find some space—both literally and  metaphorically—top of my list is Radiant Child, by Javaka Steptoe (2016, Little Brown), about the boundary-breaking artist Jean Michel Basquiat. The story promotes self-directed creativity, normalizes Blackness, and celebrates often scrutinized forms of public art like graffiti and paste-ups. The book is something of an obsession for my son who, this summer, when I caught him drawing on the wall in red magic marker and reprimanded him, shouted back at me, “I’m going to be a famous artist! I’m working on my masterpiece!” I couldn’t be mad anymore after that.

Roxaboxen (Alice McLerran, ill. by Barbara Cooney; Harper Collins, 1991) foregrounds imaginative play with found objects, reminding kids that their own worlds are as real and drama-filled as those of grown-ups. And perhaps our favorite of all in this vein is Get on Your Bike (Joukje Akveld, ill. Philip Hopman, trans. Laura Watkinson; Eerdmans, 2018). Bobby and William, animals both, are mad at one another. To blow off steam, Bobby gets on his bike and rides until his head clears. It’s a reminder that space is necessary, even in the most loving of relationships. Bonus: Bobby and William, the final pages shows, not only run a bike shop together, they cohabitate; on their wall hangs a photo of them donning tuxes. “They’re at a wedding!” my daughter crowed. Friends, lovers, husbands? We’re never told, and thus we’re left to wonder; or, if you’re my kid, to accept this more inclusive—if ambiguous—reality without giving it a second thought.

And this, of course, is exactly what picture books are meant to do. What they should do. Young children don’t need truisms, they need truth, a truth they can both see themselves reflected in and live their way into. A truth where every body and every feeling is welcome. A truth that reminds us all that we will all be tumbled and tested by life, and that we are, too, more resilient than we ever imagined ourselves to be.