The Coolest Picture Books of 2016

By Lee Littlewood

January 13, 2017 5 min read

These are some of my picks for the most outstanding picture books of 2016. These are simply cool and have remarkable artwork and quirky, unique stories.

"Grandad's Island" by Benji Davies: Candlewick Press; 32 pages; $16.99.

Benji Davies has lent his talented hand to many a fine picture book. In this beautiful, comforting tale festooned with vivid tropical illustrations, a boy named Syd regularly visits his granddad at his coastal getaway, which has an attic full of nautical treasures. With a high level of imagination, the attic turns into a large ship, and the pair sails to a wild island alive with colorful birds and foliage and a nice Tiki hut. But one day, after a visit to the swimming hole, Grandad reveals he wants to stay. Syd is sad but sets sail home after all the island inhabitants come to wave goodbye.

Though it's clear to adult readers that Grandad has died, kids will be comforted when Syd, back home in the attic, receives a postcard with a picture of Grandad and his orangutan friend living the island life.

This book — heartbreaking but at the same time lighthearted, adventurous and tropically cool — is a meaningful treat. Check out Davies' "The Storm Whale," too.

"There Is a Tribe of Kids" by Lane Smith; Roaring Brook Press; 38 pages; $18.99.

Lane Smith's artwork is quirky and famed and groovy. This is a tale of a child (could be a boy or girl) who ventures out in nature and encounters many groups of animals. The child follows a colony of penguins, a pod of whales, a band of gorillas and a turn of turtles. The child seems to keep trying to join each group — crawling around behind the turtles, climbing a tree to catch a butterfly — but at the end comes across a tribe of kids romping amidst a huge tree. The kids are decked out in leaves and branches and flowers, and they frolic with feathers and playfully dance and sing.

Smith's natural- but vintage-looking pages are subtly forest- and ocean-colored, and his characters are a mix of fairy-like and 1950s-style. Cool, woodsy and low-key, "There Is a Tribe of Kids" is top-notch.

"We Found a Hat" by Jon Klassen; Candlewick Press; 48 pages; $17.99.

With three different parts, Jon Klassen tells a mellow tale of a pair of turtle pals who find a big, rounded cowboy hat in the desert. Both love it and think they look good in it, but both can't have it. So they mutually decide to leave it alone and venture on. They keep thinking about it but leave it alone. In section three, they view the gorgeous desert sunset, and both dream of the other donning the hat. In a droll yet funny way, one turtle asks the other, "Are you all the way asleep?" The other answers: "I am all the way asleep. I am dreaming a dream." He reveals that his dream is that they both have a hat and they both look very good in it.

This story is a lovely lesson in sacrifices for friendship and sharing. Caldecott Medal-winner Klassen's gray-tinged book is visually a subtle but classy treat.

"Duz Iz Tak?" by Carson Ellis; Candlewick Press; 48 pages; $16.99.

Funny that though it's hard to tell exactly what's going on in this book, it's so fun to read aloud it doesn't really matter. With sparse, large pages and supercool detailed illustrations, Carson Ellis paints for us a backyard with exquisite adventures happening, from two damselflies peering at a tiny growing shoot, to some young beetles who want to help build a tree fort.

The language between the insects is a hoot. "Du iz tak?" asks one bug, and his friend answers, "Ma nazoot." When the tree fort is complete, readers can tell how excited the insects are. They shout, "Ho, Ooky!" and "Unk gladdenboot!"

Something about this book's look reminds me of "James and the Giant Peach." It's fun incarnate.

"The Perfect Tree" by Chloe Bonfield; Running Press; 32 pages; $16.95.

Jack goes on a journey to find the perfect tree to chop down, and the friendly forest creatures show him how beautiful and beneficial trees are. With magical, mystical artwork that's ethereal and kind, Chloe Bonfield's book takes kids on a lovely journey that's environmentally conscious, rustic and rich. In the end, Jack decides to hunt for the perfect tree, not a perfect tree to chop it but "a perfect tree to climb, a perfect tree to draw, and most of all...a perfect tree to love."

Bonfield's incredibly appealing debut picture book is a winner.

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