Favourite picture books of 2015 combine storytelling, fun illustrations

I often don’t like kids’ books that are too obviously tackling a particular social issue.

Sometimes, they have great social-service-expert credentials but lousy writing.

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Sometimes, they just feel preachy.

Generally, my kids listen to them politely, then move on to something else. They don’t tend to pick them up again.

By “issue” books, incidentally, I don’t mean stories with a message. Good stories often have a moral or message, and in the best ones, it never feels forced. A good example is The Old Ways, a book that came out in the fall of 2014 about an Inuit boy who rebuffs his grandparents’ attempts to tell him old stories and teach him old skills such as how to build an igloo — until they get stuck out on the land in frigid temperatures when their snowmobile breaks down.

Suddenly, the “old ways” become a lot more relevant than video games. The book, by Susan Chapman and illustrated by John Mantha (Fifth House Books), tackles a topical issue but in a way that feels natural.

Here are a few of my top picks for 2015 out of the review copies the Times Colonist received this year. All have been lab-tested on my seven- and nine-year-old, are suitable for ages five and up, and combine good storytelling and clear writing with imaginative illustrations, and usually a little humour.

One of my favourites is A Year of Borrowed Men, by B.C. author Michelle Barker, about a German family’s complex relationship with French prisoners of war brought in to work on their farm in the Second World War. Based on a true story and illustrated by Renné Benoit (Pajama Press), A Year of Borrowed Men is told from the point of view of a young girl who likes the men and struggles to understand why they are not supposed to be “Freundes” or friends. If you like books that inspire lots of questions from your kids, this is a good one. Some of them might be hard to answer, though.

Elephant Journey: The True Story of Three Zoo Elephants and their Rescue from Captivity, by Rob Laidlaw with art by Brian Deines (Pajama Press), is another thought-provoking read for kids. Told in easy-to-understand language, it’s the story of a complicated effort to retire three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to an open-air animal sanctuary in California. As with Borrowed Men, this one will provide many opportunities for discussion with kids, starting with: Why would people want to keep the elephants in Toronto, even if it’s not good for them? It includes real-life photos, always a plus.

Another story that includes plenty of real-life documentation is Finding Winnie: the True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (Little, Brown) by Lindsay Mattick, whimsically illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Mattick is the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourne, a veterinarian who bought a baby bear at an Ontario train station while en route to war in 1914, and named it Winnipeg, after his adopted city. Colebourne’s fellow soldiers adopted the animal as a mascot, although before they headed to France, Colebourne donated Winnie to the London Zoo, where A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin became enamoured with the animal. And thus began the saga of one of the world’s most famous bears, Winnie the Pooh.

The book includes lots of fascinating historical bits and pieces, such as Colebourne’s offhand diary note the day he acquired the bear (“Bought bear $20”). The story raises many Big Topics for kids: Why did the trapper at the train station have the bear? What might have happened to it? Is it good to keep animals in captivity? Have fun answering them.

Stick and Stone definitely has a message, but it’s delivered with so much humour, wit and creativity, it goes down easily. It’s a simple story about friendship, told with few words in simple language, but it’s incredibly effective. Stick and Stone are thrown together when Pinecone starts being a bully on the playground. The book, by Beth Ferry with funny illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a favourite with my seven-year-old, and good for younger readers.

 

If you had to sum up the message of Henry Holton Takes the Ice by Sandra Bradley (Dial by Penguin), it would be an oldie: “Be who you are.” It’s a lovely story about a boy in a hockey-mad family who decides he would rather figure-skate, told in an engaging and funny way (Henry’s mom drives a Zamboni to work and when Henry is born, there is only one question: left wing or right wing?). Luckily, Henry finds an advocate for his ambitions in Grandma.

Me, Too! (Kids Can Press) is my seven-year-old daughter’s favourite. It’s about a seven-year-old girl (natch) who fears losing her best friend to a newcomer, a conundrum familiar to many kids. It’s also easy for kids to read out loud to you, for a change. It’s written by Annika Dunklee and illustrated by Lori Joy Smith.

Who can resist The Day the Crayons Came Home with its quirky, funny messages from disgruntled crayons scribbled on retro postcards? It’s a winning formula from Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, creators of the bestselling The Day the Crayons Quit.

“You’re probably wondering why my head is stuck to your SOCK?” writes turquoise crayon. “A question I ask myself every day. Well … it’s because last week you left me in your pocket and I ended up in the DRYER.”

As my kids get older, we encounter fewer books told in rhyme, which is a shame. So Pig the Pug, whose resistance to sharing with sausage dog Trevor gets him into a wee bit of trouble, is a real treat. Written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey (Scholastic Canada), it’s probably a must read for young kids who own pugs, but fun for the rest of us, too.

Worms, translated from the French, is also a hoot, about a boy who jazzes up his father’s stuffy dinner party by introducing worms to the menu. It’s by Bernard Friot, with illustrations by Aurélie Guillerey (Kids Can Press).

Also unmistakably French is Loula and Mister the Monster (Kids Can Press), with gorgeous ink and watercolour illustrations by author Anne Villeneuve that reminded me of the Madeline series. It’s about a little girl with a giant dog who tries to teach him better manners with the help of Gilbert the family chauffeur (yes, the family chauffeur) when she becomes convinced her mother wants to get rid of the animal.

And since we’re on a roll with books translated from the French — Kids Can Press seems to have tapped into a winning formula here — The Bus Ride, by Marianne Dubuc, is a simple tale of a girl’s first solo bus ride, told with Dubuc’s distinctive pencil-crayon drawings. It’s a little nutty, with a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters filling the seats.

Another charming and imaginative French import from Kids Can Press is the Bureau of Misplaced Dads, by Eric Veillé and Pauline Martin, about a boy who misplaces his father and goes looking for him at said bureau, which offers a selection of dad types and styles.

We also enjoyed the drawings in The Tea Party in the Woods, by Akiko Miyakoshi (Kids Can Press) and first published in Japanese, about a little girl who encounters a strange cast of animal characters when she sets out through the woods to bring a pie to her grandmother.

 

No 2015 roundup would be complete without Mustache Baby, who makes a repeat appearance in Mustache Baby Meets His Match, by Bridget Heos, with illustrations by Joy Ang (Clarion Books — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Baby Billy’s got a good-guy mustache — that is, until he tangles with the new kid on the block: Baby Javier, a lumbersexual-bearded preschooler. After many increasingly testy tests of mettle, involving train sets, rocking horses, Harley tricycles and fishy crackers, the two go head to head with bad-guy facial hair: an impressive curled handlebar cowboy mustache and a villainous long, pointy biker beard. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say this followup to Mustache Baby is a clever tale about friendship and competitiveness, with great illustrations.

My girls, who occasionally like to rock a fake mustache, love it.

And since I began by criticizing “issue” books, I must give a shoutout to Kids Can Press for its CitizenKid series, which my kids always enjoy reading.

This year it was The Red Bicycle by Victoria writer Jude Isabella, which follows the journey of a bike from the North American boy who outgrows it to the girl in Burkina Faso in West Africa who uses it to haul goods to market, and its service as a makeshift ambulance pulling a stretcher.

It’s a great story with information about bicycle donation and photos of working bicycles in Africa.

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