WITH the holiday season upon us, you must—must!—be looking for the perfect picture books to give to your favorite children. And if you love Orion and compelling storytelling, if you love nature and raising or mentoring or auntunclegrandparentfriending the kids you hope will grow to heal the planet and in general be good humans, then I’ve got a list for you. These are some of the most charming, beautiful, moving, poetic, community-oriented, wonderstruck, goofy, creative, environmentally engaged books around. They are hand-picked stories my family reads again and again. There’s a book for every type of child here, and I hope you find something you can enjoy together. And of course, don’t forget to support your favorite indie bookstore or order through our Bookshop links below.
FOR ASPIRING NATURALISTS . . .
The Mushroom Fan Club by Elise Gravel
Trying to get your kid excited about foraging? Come for the turquoise elfcups, cat daperlings, giant puffballs, and cinnamon jellybabies, stay for the stinkhorn jokes. Gravel puts the fun in fungi. Pairs well with The Bug Club. And if you like those, spend some time with the unsung heroes of her Disgusting Critters series or Olga, the coolest girl scientist around.
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna
For the grandchild you think spends too much time on screens, I give you On a Magical Do-Nothing Day. Disaster strikes when a bored child is kicked outside for the day only to drop their precious gaming device in a pond. But soon enough they are following snails, smelling mushrooms, drinking raindrops, and rolling down hills in a brand new world.
The Hike by Alison Farrell
Three plucky girls hit the trail for a hike, their favorite thing to do. Along the way they make leaf baskets, follow animal tracks, take notes, get lost, cross creeks, carry each other, and eat too many berries. My ideal day in a nutshell. Sometimes I look up one-star reviews of books I enjoy, you know, to see what’s wrong with the world. One such comment griped that “nothing really happened” in the book. They so clearly missed the point. Abundant labels throughout help the reader learn native flora and fauna along the way.
The Specific Ocean by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Katty Maurey
First she didn’t want to leave her friends in the city for summer vacation on the coast. Then she preferred to work through a moping schedule rather than go down to the boring beach. But ah, on the third day, “grumping down the path” she gets her first taste of ocean wonder. By the end, she never wants to leave. For the reluctant traveler waiting to have their world rocked by a new experience. I’m also partial to The Wish Tree.
Mossy by Jan Brett
Mossy is a special turtle. A tiny wild garden grows upon her shell. When a naturalist discovers her one morning, she soon becomes the main attraction at the local natural history museum. Don’t worry, she eventually makes it back to her pond. Brett’s exquisitely detailed body of work speaks for itself—her illustrations are beyond, and I recommend everything she’s written.
FOR ANIMAL LOVERS AND WILD THINGS . . .
Hello, Hello by Brendan Wentzel
Go ahead and put every single one of Brendan’s books on your list. Think about how a flea regards a cat in They All Saw a Cat. Find out what a stone is to a seal in A Stone Sat Still. Then see how a chameleon is like a whale shark in Hello, Hello. Whether they are encouraging children to find commonalities between species or inhabit new perspectives in how they consider the world, you absolutely cannot go wrong with these colorful books.
Obsessive About Octopuses by Owen Davey
Did you know octopuses have three hearts and a donut-shaped brain? With awards for most fashionable (common blanket octopus), champion digger (southern sand octopus), and best on land (algae octopus), and chocked full of fabulous Charley Harper-esque illustrations in eye-popping tones, this book makes learning easy. See also Bonkers About Beetles, Fanatical About Frogs, Mad About Monkeys, and the rest of this bright reference series and check out Natural World while you’re at it.
How to Talk to a Tiger. . . and Other Animals by Jason Bittel, illustrated by Kelsey Buzzell
Farting fish, flashing worms, headbanging birds, hissing roaches—really, need I say more? Learn how over a hundred different animals communicate by sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch and round out your social skills with this charming guide.
Howl Like a Wolf by Kathleen Yale, illustrated by Kaley McKean
Yes, I’m including my own book. It’s fun! Learn all about the habits of skunks, bees, bowerbirds, and humpbacks. Follow their invitation to mimic movements, sounds, and behaviors as you sneak like a leopard, slide like a penguin, and joke like a raven. The paperback edition comes with eleven colorful, pop-out masks ready to get you into an animal mindset and expand your understanding of the animal kingdom.
Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey
A few years ago my mom sent a stack of old books from my childhood, reintroducing me to Kraus’s delightful work. Leo the tiger couldn’t do anything right. He couldn’t read, couldn’t draw, couldn’t eat without making a mess. His father worries, but his mother calls for patience: “A watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.” And of course, in his own good time, Leo flourishes. See also: Milton the Earlier Riser, Herman the Helper, and Owliver for solid content on insomniatic pandas, helpful crabs, and career-seeking owlets.
FOR GOOFBALLS . . .
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
Backyard drama unfurls as a local insect community observes a plant grow, flower, and eventually wilt, all while commenting in their own fictional language. Booby voobeck! This book is a delight. My kids love it. For more of Ellis’s unique style, check out Home as well.
The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse by Mac Burnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
“I may have been swallowed,” said the duck, “but I have no intention of being eaten.”
If you’re looking for something to get both children and adults guffawing, Burnett and Klassen are your dream team. Where else could you expect to find a duck and mouse spinning records and making soup in the belly of a wolf? I also highly recommend their Shape series and Klassen’s recent The Rock from the Sky.
Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe
For your little noisemaker, I recommend Pokko and the Drum. After gift-giving mishaps featuring slingshots, llamas, and giant balloons, Pokko’s parents give her a drum. Big mistake. Soon she’s banging away outside, leading a parade of motley racoons, rabbits, wolves, and mice through the forest. As the book’s official description boasts: this is “ a story about art, persistence, and a family of frogs living in a mushroom.” Oh, and the illustrations are bewitching.
I Am Bat by Morag Hood
The premise here is simple. Someone is stealing Bat’s cherries (a.k.a. Bat’s favorite of all things and reason for living), and Bat is real cheesed off about it. This book will bring the laughs, I promise.
Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson
Meet Escargot, the spunky French snail on a mission to make himself your favorite animal while pursuing the salad (with some croutons and a light vinaigrette) at the end of the table, leaving in his wake a line of—NOT slime! but—shimmery trails of . . . shimmery stuff. Prepare to be charmed. Note: French accent is required.
FOR OLD SOULS AND DREAMERS . . .
Frederick by Leo Lionni
Frederick the poet mouse shows us how one cannot live on bread alone in this children’s classic. While his friends gather food and supplies for the winter months, Frederick gathers colors and memories. This book has lived in my kid brain for decades, and I love passing its wisdom on to new generations. See also Swimmy, Geraldine, and so many of Lionni’s lovely characters.
Bertolt by Jacques Goldstyn
For the generous, thoughtful child who loves trees and often plays alone, I recommend this poignant little gem. What do you do when your best friend is a tree who does not wake come spring? Love, loss, sorrow, joy, imagination, acceptance, lost mittens—it’s all here.
The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson
“Here lies a bird that is dead.” Brown is, of course, best known for the perineal bedtime juggernaut Goodnight Moon, but I like this more obscure offering too. Yeah, it’s about some kids who find a dead bird in the park, and yeah, they cry (“because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead”) but it’s the gentlest lesson in taking the time to notice and honor fallen animals. Robinson’s bright collage illustrations breathe new life into the tale.
What Do You Know? by Aracelis Girmay, illustrated by Ariana Fields
“When love comes to the land and asks, what do you know: the land says, I know the joy of going on and on and on.” What do a farmer, a forest, a volcano, and a bear know about love? Poet Girmay and her sister Fields conjure hypnotic warmth over fields, under laundry lines, in whale eyes and beehives as they listen to how the world loves in this sweet book.
Me and My Fear by Francesa Sanna
So this one isn’t exactly environmentally engaged, but I love Sanna’s work so much (look for The Journey if you want to talk to your child about migrants and refugees), and let’s face it, fear is taking society to some dark places these days. When a girl moves to a new school in a new country with a new language, her Fear tries to isolate her at home. Friendship eventually comes through tenderness and sharing her fear with others.
FOR FIREBRANDS AND FUTURE ACTIVISTS . . .
Noodlephant by Jakob Kramer, illustrated by K-Fai Steele
Still bummed that Bernie Sanders isn’t president? Let me introduce you to Noodlephant, Rooville’s social justice heroine and pasta chef extraordinaire! Watch a ragtag band of animals fight the power in this hilarious, pointed, and pun-tastic tale of a community’s response to injustice. Continue the story and watch Noodlephant smash capitalism in Okapi Tale.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
A fearsome black snake burbling with dark poison threatens water and land until a young girl and her band of water protectors stand in its way. Winner of this year’s Caldecott Medal, and inspired by the many Indigenous-led protests across North America (and the world), this inspirational tale is a testament to the strength and resilience of Native people.
Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
When Sofia’s loving Abeulo gets injured on a pile of junk, she gets the idea to turn that dump into a park. When City Hall won’t listen, “that was the moment when Sofia first knew being brave means doing the thing you must do…,” she starts a petition, riles the community, and gets the job done. Beaty’s rhyming prose is great fun to read out loud, and Roberts’s illustrations are loaded with whimsical details. Meet more of Sofi’s sparky second grade classmates in Ada Twist, Scientist, Rosie Revere, Engineer, Iggy Peck, Architect, and Aaron Slater, Illustrator in this awesome series.
FOR KIDS WHO LOVE TO TRAVEL . . .
Everything and Everywhere by Marc Martin
Take a journey through landscapes and cultures in this detailed travel book. Curious readers can meander through cities, jungles, and beaches, or bop around foreign locations from Reykjavik to Ulaanbaatar, getting lost in chai markets and on subways, and between icebergs and flamingo flocks. Look for a special appearance by Bjork! Then pick up A River too.
Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers
A father introduces his newborn son to planet Earth in Here We Are. The tour includes land, sea, air, space, and the many humans one might encounter. “We may all look different, act different and sound different . . . but don’t be fooled, we are all people.” Sincere, moving, and slyly funny, Jeffers’s book reminds us we’re all connected, and it’s best to be helpful and kind. If all that feels too heartfelt and precious, and you prefer to see an angry dude who yells at everyone get his comeuppance (and who doesn’t?), check out The Fate of Fausto.
FOR KIDS WHO STAY CLOSE TO HOME . . .
Last Stop on Market Place by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
CJ’s grumpy about waiting for the bus in the rain. Why doesn’t his family have a car? Or an iPod for that matter? Why do they walk around the dirty part of town? Lucky his patient Nana is ready with an encouraging answer at every turn, eager to help him see beauty and grace in the people and neighborhood around them. Carmela Full of Wishes is nice too.
The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers
One morning, a boy wakes up to see the tree outside his house has become an owl. Someone is sneaking around this sad, gray little town at night, sculpting beautiful topiaries. As more and more wondrous creations appear—bunnies, dragons, parrots (rendered in gorgeous detailed illustrations)—the townspeople reinvest in their community, painting houses and hanging tire swings.
When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie Deenihan, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha
What would you do if you asked for a robot dog for your birthday but got a lemon tree instead? Hopefully, resist the urge to ditch it on someone’s doorstep and instead care for it through the seasons. You may be surprised how a seeming lemon of a gift can suddenly enrich your life.
Grandparents are sure to love this one.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Amos is a friendly old zookeeper who always makes time for his animal friends—reading to Owl, playing chess with Elephant, helping Rhinoceros blow his nose. One day he is too sick to come to work, and his friends come over (by bus, of course) to care for their caretaker. Pairs well with Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Zoboli, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Girorgio, a wordless but expressive story about a croc commuting to his day job at the zoo.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Every winter I clean out my local post office of their special edition Snowy Day stamps just so I can sit with the image of Peter in his red snowsuit, rapt (and wrapped) in wonder. The first book featuring a Black child to win the Caldecott Medal, at nearly sixty years old, it’s been checked out of the New York Public Library system more than any other book. Peter, his boot prints in the snow, the snowball in this pocket, his unbridled joy in exploration, remain infinitely lovable.
What would you add to this list?