Top 20 Reviews of 2017

Copy of Top 5

Hello, friends! Happy New Year’s Eve! Let me start be saying thank you to all our friends and followers for supporting us this year – we’ve had a lot of big changes, a lot of exciting moments, and a lot of growth on this site, and so very much of that is because of all the people who support us. So thank you!

To celebrate the end of the year, we wanted to put together a list of our favorite reviews of the year. Let me be perfectly candid: this was supposed to be a Top 10! But the fact of the matter is that we read so many amazing, inspiring, moving, and important books this year that we simply could not par it down to less than twenty (and believe me, it was painful to leave out some of the runners-up!).

So here are, in no particular order, our Top 20 Reviews of 2017! Each one features a short summary and an excerpt from our original review that captures what made the book so special to us. Please note: not all of these books were released this year, it’s just the year we reviewed them. But every single one made a lasting impression on JJ and I, and we hope they do the same for you and your little bookworms. Please enjoy, and we’ll see you in the new year!

1. Little Bot And Sparrow (Jake Parker)

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A kind sparrow finds a little robot abandoned and alone, and the two form a dear friendship. But when winter comes, the two face an inevitable separation, and endeavor to cherish their remaining days together.

“[I]n splitting the friends up at the end, the story sends a candid message about what friendship must sometimes be: someone comes into your life, teaches and helps you, and is a wonderful friend, but sometimes you’ll also have to say goodbye. It’s honest, and could definitely help a child who is in the process of losing a friendship.”

2. The Bear And The Piano (David Litchfield)

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When a young bear finds a piano in his forest, he teaches himself to play, finding he has a rare talent for the instrument. His musical ability allows him to realize his dream of seeing the world. But when he returns home, will his friends and family accept him for who he has become? Is home still home for him?

“Leaving home is something we all must face, and this book perfectly captured the emotions that surround it while imparting the timeless message that home will always be a soft place to land.”

3. Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story About Gender And Friendship (Jessica Walton, illus. Dougal MacPherson)

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A teddy bear named Thomas is nervous about telling her best friend, a boy named Errol, that she would prefer to be known as Tilly the teddy from then on. But to her relief, Errol hugs his friend tight, and assures Tilly that no matter what name, appearance, or gender makes her feel most comfortable, Errol will always be Tilly’s best friend.

“Every detail related to gender identity is spot-on: there are no gender stereotypes (boys have tea parties, girls build robots), no extended questioning of Tilly’s gender (“But, why?”), no assumption that her preferred gender will affect her personality (Errol and Tilly go back to doing the same things every day that Errol and “Thomas” did). […]Best of all, it’s a story about being yourself, the right to feel comfortable in your own skin, and being a good friend.”

4. Love Is (Diane Adams, illus. Claire Keane)

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Told in delicate rhyme, a little girl adopts a lost duckling, raising and caring for it through midnight feedings, messy bathtimes, and quiet, fond moments. When it’s time for the duckling to move on to a pond of its own, the little girl learns that sometimes, love is letting go.

“On the surface, the tale of little girl and her tiny duckling is the story of the work and care that goes into both friendship and beloved pet. Yet adult readers do not have to look far below the surface to find a moving allegory for a parent’s love: dealing with the joys, frustrations and heartbreaks of watching your tiny love grow and change and, eventually, move on to the bigger world.”

5. Firebird (Misty Copeland, illus. Christopher Myers)

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The abstractly autobiographical story of Misty Copeland encouraging a young dancer to succeed by revealing it is not simply talent that got her to where she is – hard work, dedication, and self-confidence were just as crucial when learning to shine bright as a firebird.

“A wholly unique ballerina book that injects a little style and color into a well-worn genre. As Copeland notes in her afterward, while there are plenty of books about ballerinas, there are very few about ballerinas who look like her, and she wanted to write a book for them. The stylistic, lyrical text and bright, vibrant hues of the illustrations join the story in celebrating dancers of color (including boys in the final pages, a lovely surprise!) in a way that departs from the prim, pastel images of most ballet books […] If you’re looking for a ballerina book that breaks the mold, this is it.”

6. Little Big Girl (Claire Keane)

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When Matisse’s baby brother is born, she goes from being a little girl to a “little big girl,” deciding that it’s her responsibility to help the new addition to the family learn the ropes.

“[…] Keane takes a classic theme, introducing a new baby to the family, and infuses it with miles of heart. I loved that Matisse never shows jealousy or reluctance in the face of her big sisterhood, and is in fact excited to help and interact with the new baby. And the theme of Matisse finding her place in the new order of things, as both a little girl and a big sister, feels fresh and personal.”

7. Beautiful (Stacy McAnulty, illus. Joanne Lew-Vriethoff)

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What makes a girl beautiful? The answer is simple: everything that makes her her. Every unique look, style, skin tone, ability, interest, hobby, sense of humor or adventure; all these things and more. There’s no one way to be beautiful – every girl shows her true beauty simply by being herself.

“Is there a better, more necessary message for little girls these days? And this book imparted it beautifully: girls of every shape, size, color and ability are represented as being both physically and mentally beautiful. Girls are shown reading, playing sports, studying science, getting dirty, supporting their friends, and enjoying being ALL the things that little girls are made of. A fantastic celebration of girlhood in every sense[…]”

8. Thunder Rose (Jerdine Nolen, illus. Kadir Nelson)

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Inspired by American folktales, Thunder Rose is born in a night of thunder and lightning, and summons the power of the storm to wear as her crown. She has a voice and a spirit all her own from her first breath, and she uses them to show courage, ingenuity and dedication while facing down whatever challenges man or nature throws her way.

“WOW. WOW WOW WOW. I cannot tell you how much we loved this book. The American folk tale style of storytelling, complete with Western vernacular, the incredible WOC protagonist who embodies not only bravery and strength but kindness and wit as well, the abundance of feminist themes and metaphors that shows that a fierce storm of power rages in every little girl.”

9. Night Night, Groot (Brendan Deneen, illus. Cale Atkinson)

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Aboard the spaceship Milano, Baby Groot has had an exciting day, and is ready to be tucked in for a good night’s sleep. But his best friend Rocket isn’t having it. After all, there are more ships to crash, more bad guys to fight, and more feats of derring-do to be had!

“[F]ull of action-packed scenes of vanquishing villains and hanging with superheroes (favorites from both the movies and comic books make cameos, and adult Marvel fans will have just as much fun picking them out as their little ones). Cale Atkinson’s art is vibrant and fun, mixing comic-book style action with kidlit-style characters and layouts, creating some exciting illustrations with hilarious details.”

10. Not Quite Narwhal (Jessie Sima)

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Kelp isn’t quite like the other narwhals, but it’s never really bothered him. But when a storm sweeps him away to an island of creatures that look just like him, Kelp finds a new sense of belonging – but now feels caught between two worlds. Which should he choose?

“[B]est of all is the message: there’s nothing wrong with being different, even from your own family. Kelp’s experiences with the narwhals and unicorns can especially be read as a touching allegory for being LGBTQ or adopted, with both communities loving him, even his connection to each bringing the two groups together to bond. It’s a great way to show children that with supportive friends and family, being different can be the very thing that makes you special.”

11. Sam & Dave Dig A Hole (Mac Barnett, illus. Jon Klassen)

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On Monday, Sam and Dave decide to dig a hole, agreeing to stop only when they’ve found something truly spectacular. As the hole gets deeper and deeper, however, their journey begins to take some strange turns…

“This one was so strange, so clever, and so unexpected, and we absolutely loved it. The humor is outstanding, a mix between visual gags that will have kids both frustrated and amused […] and the dry, droll wit that both Klassen and Barnett are masters of. […] We can highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys a bit of humor, a bit of wonder, and a bit of weird.”

12. The Book Of Mistakes (Corinna Luyken)

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It all starts with one mistake: an artist, drawing a girl, makes one eye a bit larger than the other. From there, each attempt to correct the previous mistake makes a new one – and a drawing more unique and beautiful than each version that preceded it.

“What a fabulous lesson to teach children, that making mistakes is a natural part of life, and can help us to grow and change in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. And the way this was woven into the clever, then exciting, then absolutely majestic visuals of the illustrations was perfection. […] This is one that should be read to every little bookworm, encouraging them to take risks, create art, be themselves and – most importantly – make mistakes. 

13. Death Is Stupid (Anastasia Higginbotham)

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When you’re a kid, losing a loved one can be scary, confusing, and very sad. Grownups, even the ones that mean well, don’t always say the right thing. The fact is, losing someone you love is awful, and death is stupid. But it’s okay to feel bad, it’s okay to feel sad, and it’s okay to grieve.

“The text pulls no punches: grief is hard, it sucks, but it’s a normal part of life. But the story also provides a lot of wonderful suggestions for children to get past grief and remember those that are gone, even becoming a sort of workbook at the end that lets its reader express their own specific loss. I especially loved that it tells kids there’s nothing wrong with questioning platitudes, forming their own opinions about the afterlife, and not accepting lies[…]. It encourages children to have agency over their own grief, and was very moving.”

14. Star Wars: BB-8 On The Run (Drew Daywalt, illus. Matt Myers)

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Trying to make his way back to the Resistance after being stranded on the desert planet of Jakku, BB-8 is alone, afraid, and unsure of what to do. Remembering what his friend Poe has always told him – that “being kind to others will always been returned” – he sets off to complete his mission, make Poe proud, and maybe even learn that in kindness, there is strength.

“The story is surprisingly nuanced: BB-8 struggles repeatedly with doing the right thing for others vs. doing the right thing for himself, but always chooses to help those in need. Near the end of the story, this actually leaves him disadvantaged […] and he wonders why doing the right thing left him even worse off than he’d started. But he is, of course, rescued […], showing that being kind truly did come back to him. It’s a subtle and honest lesson in why we must be kind even when it’s hard to be.”

15. A Different Pond (Bao Phi, illus. Thi Bui)

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A subtle, powerful slice-of-life story that follows an immigrant father and son as they embark on an early morning fishing trip to help feed their family that explores themes of family, poverty, and the American dream along the way.

“The text on each page is chosen carefully, openly appealing and interesting to little ones yet conveying meaningful subtext to older readers in an economy of words. It’s beautiful and powerful, and leaves those of any age with much to think about. The art is perfect, capturing the mood and emotions of the characters and environments in soft, soothing tones, making the reader feel as safe and at home as the little boy in the story. […] This is a piece of art in picture book form[…]”

16. Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau (Andrea Beaty, illus. David Roberts)

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A shy young milliner is the finest maker of hats in Paris, but leads a lonely existence in her off-hours. One day, when a freak accident causes her to lose a hat that was a sentimental prize possession, she finds that there is remarkable kindness in the hearts – and on the heads – of the people who surround her.

“On the surface, the tale of Madame Chapeau opening her heart after strangers show her the utmost kindness (and I won’t spoil the ending, which is devastatingly sweet), is a wonderful lesson for children in empathy. But through the use of subtle visual clues, and the hats as a metaphor for love, it also becomes a story about overcoming grief[…]. This detail makes the events of the story all the more crushing, and then uplifting. Once again, Beaty and Roberts have crafted a quietly powerful story that stays with you long after the final page.”

17. Malala’s Magic Pencil (Malala Yousafzai, illus. Kerascoët)

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When Malala was little, she dreamed of having a magic pencil that could erase the hardships of the world, drawing one of peace and equality instead. As she grows and is faced with dark oppression invading her home city, she realizes that the magic of the pencil was always hers: in her words, and the courage to speak them.

“[H]earing Malala’s story in her own voice gives it a passion and authenticity that is incomparable. It also manages to distill her story down for its youngest audience yet: the length is fine for smaller bookworms, and while the more violent aspects of Malala’s life are not glossed over, they are handled with sensitive subtlety. […]And the message, that of the power of words, courage, and education, is both timely and timeless. A gem of a book that encourages little ones to fight for their rights and the rights of others[…].”

18. She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed The World (Chelsea Clinton, illus. Alexandra Boiger)

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Being a girl in this world can be harsh. All too often, people tell you to be quiet, to keep your head down, to aim smaller. But when the world’s got you wanting to give up, there are incredible American women to look up to, including these thirteen pioneers who changed the world and left great legacies of inspiration for future girls… all because they persisted.

“How could this one not be a hit with us? A book that celebrates feminist icons for their work? That encourages young girls to find role models in women who refused to give up on their dreams or aspirations in the face of adversity? We loved every page.”

19. Jabari Jumps (Gaia Cornwall)

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Jabari is ready to jump off the high diving board like the other kids. Or, at least he thinks he is. Well, he will be, with a little mental preparation and okay, yes, some stalling. In the end, however, all it takes is a few wise words from dad: sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath, tell yourself you’re ready… and jump.

“[A] wonderful example of how a classic concept or lesson can be made stunning by the right hand. Facing one’s fears and challenges is a timeless lesson for little ones, and the story conveys it in an honest and guileless way that young readers will appreciate. From there, it’s the choices and details that give the book a quiet radiance[…], down to the much-appreciated choice to making the main characters a black family – there are extremely few swimming books that include people of color. […] A wonderful story of being brave, and the people who encourage us to be.”

20. After The Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again (Dan Santat)

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How do you get back up after the worst fall of your life? How do you recover when your fear gets in the way of enjoying the things you loved most, and the person you used to be? Well, you take it step-by-step: you find patience with yourself, you learn new ways to cope, and eventually one day you wake up to find that your experiences have made you braver, stronger, and ready to move forward.

“Using the famous story of Humpty Dumpty, Santat explores a bold theme for a picture book: the aftermath of trauma. Humpty is scarred from his experience, physically and mentally, and it’s treated with surprisingly delicacy; the audience is made sympathetic to his phobia and how it prevents him from enjoying life as he once did. It makes the climactic climb to retrieve his model all the more dramatic, leading to an astonishingly stirring ending that is surprising, gratifying, and inspirational. […] This is an amazing book, and it will move you.”

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