Blogger Suzi Wackerbarth

Diverse picture books don’t disappoint, focus on the individual and the universal

Three picture books and a yellow legal pad. The first book is "There was a Party for Langston" which features a blue background and a crown holding Langston Hughes, carried by dancing people. The second book is "Words between us" and features a Grandmother looking lovingly at her Grandchild. The third book is "Skating Wild on an Inland Sea" and the title words seem to be made by a skating child at the bottom of the title image.

One of my favorite things about being a children’s librarian is seeing new picture books. 2023 was an amazing year for picture books, and in today’s post I wanted to focus on three diverse picture books, two of which are overtly diverse. Who knows, maybe one of these will be on a Caldecott or Newbery Awards list! 

I’ll start with an October title, There was a Party for Langston, by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Jerome Pumphrey and Jarrett Pumphrey. The front endpapers are a veritable who’s who of Black writers from the Harlem Renaissance to modern day, including Ashley Bryan and Toni Morrison. Each person is depicted as a book on two shelves, listed alphabetically. What kind of book will this be?

Read more: Diverse picture books don’t disappoint, focus on the individual and the universal

We see people entering a building on the title page, all dressed up in finery. It looks…promising. And then the fun begins. The artists and the authors are having a blast! The pictures go all over the place (in a good way) and so do the words. There’s even a two page spread that just has the words, “Like Maya,” and the illustration is three images of Maya Angelou dancing! You’ll have to find this book on the library or bookstore shelf for yourself, because I don’t have room for all the superlatives this book deserves. My favorite part of the book comes at the end, on the back endpapers, where we learn the genesis of the book: Jason Reynolds saw a photograph from February 1991 of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing. And he wanted to know more. And so this book was born!

The next book I want to describe is also about words, but it is about words in translation, and how words are important in the relationship between a grandmother and her grandchild. Words Between Us, by Angela Pham Krans, illustrated by Dung Ho, tells the story of Grandma and Felix, who have always lived far apart. One day, Grandma arrives by airplane from Vietnam. I love the spread of the first two pages, an airport somewhere in America, with diverse people coming and going, wearing hijabs and baseball caps, beads and braids, and all colors of skin. Felix and Grandma get to know each other and Felix teaches Grandma a few English words. A trip to the nearby festival is the first big event in the book, and Grandma gets lost, and both Felix and Grandma feel scared. Felix asks Grandma if she wants to learn more English and the remaining book is about their language lessons. What happens when Felix’s iguana goes missing? You’ll have to read the book to find out! A recipe for “Vietnamese pizza” is featured on the back endpapers. 

Three picture books and a yellow legal pad. The first book is "There was a Party for Langston" which features a blue background and a crown holding Langston Hughes, carried by dancing people. The second book is "Words between us" and features a Grandmother looking lovingly at her Grandchild. The third book is "Skating Wild on an Inland Sea" and the title words seem to be made by a skating child at the bottom of the title image.
image by Suzi Wackerbarth

The last book I want to highlight is a winter book. I’m a big winter fan and miss the snow now that I live in Northern Virginia. (I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for about 25 years.) Skating Wild on an Inland Sea reminds me of Owl Moon (Jane Yolen’s 1987 Caldecott Medal book, illustrated by John Schoenherr.) The book tells a story of two children who wake up in the cold of winter and observe nature as they go on their way to ice skating. The diversity here is subtle–the skin color of the children is not clear in the illustrations, as they wake in the blue winter light. We are very aware of the children’s connections to nature. I cannot confirm that this book is diverse, in the standard definition, however the publisher, Groundwood Books writes this on their website, “We believe that by reflecting intensely individual experiences, our books are of universal interest.” The words and illustrations in concert make this a must read.

What were your favorite picture books of 2023? Does your library run a Mock Caldecott/Newbery awards contest? 

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