The 10 Best New Picture Books for Spring

Filed under: Books for Kids, Cabin Fever

Every season brings bright new picture books, and Cabin Fever has the great pleasure of choosing from among the riches the very best. With help from my personal focus group of readers (and pre-readers), here's what made our shortlist of top new picture books.

Which Way? by Marthe Jocelyn, with illustrations by Tom Slaughter (Tundra). Simple directional text is complemented by bold illustrations in bright colours. Some pages ask questions: "How do we know which way to go?" My four-year-old loved declaring answers and making choices.

Another book that asks readers to make choices proved universally popular: Hot Rod Hamster, by Cynthia Lord, with pictures by Derek Anderson (Scholastic). A tiny hamster needs a race car built for speed and the junkyard dog customizes the perfect hot rod out of spare parts. "Smooth wheels, stud wheels, driving through the mud wheels... Which would you choose?" My two-year-old was charmed by the adorable hamster; my four-year-old was thrilled when she guessed what the hamster would choose; and my eight-year-old thought it was an awesome way to imagine his own hot rod.

Speaking of eight-year-olds--they're not too old for picture books. Mine isn't even too old for a picture book composed almost entirely of illustration. The Red Scarf, by Anne Villeneuve (Tundra Books), won the 2009 Governor General's Award for Children's Illustration (French language). "'Another gray day,' says Turpin, the taxi driver." Instead, a mysterious red scarf leads him on an unexpected, colourful, and wordless, adventure.
Another book greeted with appreciation by my older readers: Young Zeus, by G. Brian Karas (Scholastic). An intelligent and entertaining retelling of Greek myth, the playful illustrations and insightful text bring the ancient story to life. Scary moments had my four-year-old covering her eyes (Zeus's father Cronus eating his children)--she still claimed to enjoy the story--but the seven- and eight-year-old were deeply intrigued. Young Zeus is a brilliant introduction to Greek myth.

Also deeply intriguing: Petit, the Monster, by Isol (Groundwood), an Argentine children's illustrator and author. Distinctive line drawings illustrate a text that asks a difficult existential question: "Do you know Petit? Petit is a good boy who plays with his dog. Petit is a bad boy who pulls girls' hair." How, wonders Petit, can he be both good and bad? My children were puzzled but made thoughtful by the question, which is never resolved: a rare ending in children's literature, and in this case an appropriate one.

Lessons from Mother Earth, by Elaine McLeod, with illustrations by Colleen Wood (Groundwood) brought tears to my eyes. Grandma shows Tess her garden, which turns out to be much larger than Tess imagines. "We will go down the trail along the creek. You are just about old enough to learn the rules of the garden." The story is gently told and softly illustrated, the wisdom and lessons lovingly passed on. We were all quieted as we read the words and looked at the pictures.

Another more serious story, of a people's displacement and relocation, is alight with vivid artwork by indigenous illustrator and storyteller, Domi. Napí Makes a Village, by Antonio Ramirez with illustrations by Domi (Groundwood/Tigrillo) is the third in a series based on Domi's own experiences. Text is in both Spanish and English, and incorporates elements of magic realism to ease what is in many ways a heart-breaking tale. Despite everything, the young girl, Napí, remains courageous and creative and joyful: a true role-model.

For lighter fare, we turned to Toronto illustrator Patricia Storms, whose comic touch in The Pirate and The Penguin (Owlkids) had us laughing out loud. While Penguin longs to travel the world, Pirate craves inner peace: can either find what he is searching for? With humour both broad and subtle in the text and the illustrations, this book will be read again and again at our house.

Princess Pigtoria and the Pea, by Pamela Duncan Edwards, with illustrations by Henry Cole (Orchard Books) is a playful reworking of the familiar fairy tale (one I've always disliked, truth be told), which subverts the hierarchical misogyny of the original. Princess Pigtoria is a delight: plucky, impoverished, and up for a pizza party with the hired help; and she falls in love for reasons that make sense. In her own small way, she gives girls a princess to cheer for. We were charmed.

Finally, our list would not be complete without a book for bedtime, and this one will have everyone cuddling together to explore the beautiful and calming illustrations. Marie-Louise Gay is one of our family's favourite Canadian author/illustrators, and her latest book in the beloved Stella and Sam series is sublime: When Stella Was Very Very Small (Groundwood). This tells the story of Stella as a toddler, before little brother Sam came along (though he makes an appearance at the end), and it is rich with nostalgia and a pint-sized view of the world, in which the backyard is a jungle, and the bathtub an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The best of the best.

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