(Lots of) Picture Books for Grown Ups

Currently Reading: The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

A Useful Resource on Trans Language

I was recently tipped off about the Trans Language Primer by someone in a Slack, and when I was reminded about it during #IAmNonBinary Day on Twitter, I realized that it would be a great resource to share here. This is an extensive, ongoing glossary of trans-related terminology.

Blog Redesign and Relaunch

The final artwork by Ice for the blog’s redesign is done, and to celebrate, I will be hosting a giveaway on my Twitter when the full relaunch goes live in TWO WEEKS. On October 28th, I will have a new post, and the site will be fully redesigned. Check out my Twitter account that day to help me spread the word, and to get some spooky swag. The winners of the giveaway will be announced on my favourite day of the year: Halloween!

A purple book with a boney spine and ruffled pages.
A sample of the new artwork for the site, by Ice!

A Quick Personal Note…

Since we’re talking picture books this week, let me introduce you to Mia, a young girl who wants a puppy more than anything… but whose family thinks their city apartment is too small to accommodate a polka dot pet. In this new version of a traditional Yiddish folktale, Mia reminds her family that… there is always room for one more.

The cover of No Room for a Pup, which shows an open door, and in the doorway stands a black and white spotted puppy, holding a red leash in their mouth, with their head cocked to the side.

Spoiler alert: I am Mia. In this most literary of coincidences, No Room For A Pup, by Elizabeth Suneby and illustrated by Laurel Molk, was released on October 1st… on October 7th, my partner and I welcomed the newest addition to our family… meet Pavot!

A Dalmatian puppy lounging on a dog bed.

Pavot is a deaf Dalmatian puppy born on August 10th, whose name means “poppyseed” in French (one of my first languages). He joins D and Boom, two 11-year-old greyhounds, Whisper and Willow, our formerly feral cats, and my partner and I in our 500 square foot city apartment. It’s cozy in here, yall. To commemorate, both my partners and I have revamped a neglected Instagram account to showcase pictures of ALL the animals in our large, spread out, polyamorous family. Check them out!

Recommendations: Picture Books for Grown Ups

The Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, affectionately known as the FOLD, is my not-so-secret favourite literary festival. Since 2018, the indie where I work has been the festival’s official bookseller. This year, the FOLD launched FOLD Kids, and I had the pleasure of attending all weekend as the book vendor. After spending three days selling picture books, sometimes to caregivers or educators, but also to adult customers, I tweeted my love of picture books. Although I don’t have any children in my life in Toronto, I have a massive collection of picture books. Some of them are from my own childhood, but many are more recent. My partners and I love sharing them with the kids in our lives, but we also read them to each other, and sometimes to our pets. I also find them therapeutic to read myself, when my academic adult life gets too intense. They are nurturing works of art, and I would recommend every adult have a few favourites in their home.

My favourite picture book of all time is Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima. It’s a beautifully-illustrated story about a unicorn named Kelp who grows up believing himself to be a narwhal. He has to come to terms with his identities when he meets unicorns for the first time. This book is magical and engaging, but what made me cry when I first read it was that it is the most stealth book for affirming non-binary identity that I have ever encountered. I recommend this book – and the others by Sima – to everyone, and I handsell it all the time.

The cover of Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima. The cover depicts a unicorn wearing a scuba helmet, swimming in a ray of sunshine under the sea. There is help below and three fish swimming alongside.

After my tweet, I was approached by one of the FOLD organizers, who asked for more picture book recommendations

They told me:

  1. They were very behind on children’s lit.
  2. They like animals, nature, space, mysticism, and Halloween-themed books, and asked specifically for recommendations for books about sadness.

…and I wanted to focus on diverse books as much as possible, since that’s the focus of the FOLD, and on things that have come out recently. As far as I knew, these books were purely for the enjoyment of the person who asked, so this is not necessarily the same list I would offer if I had a child in mind. This is a much longer list than some of my previous lists of recommendations, since most of these books are quick little gems.

Spooky Season Picks

The cover of Lots of Cats, by E. Dee Taylor. Cover depicts in bright colours a small witch stirring a cauldron. Green smoke pours out, and cat eyes peek out from the smoke.

I started with some seasonal faves. I instantly fell in love with Lots of Cats by E. Dee Taylor when it was released in 2018. It was my staff pick Halloween book for that year. This book is bright, and colourful, and has a touch of 90’s nostalgia. The illustrations feature stunning neon colours that appear as though drawn by hand with coloured pencils. The story features an independent witch, who decides to conjure herself a furry friend, and ends up with more company than she bargained for. Let’s just say that I find this story… relatable.

The cover of Alfred's Book of Monsters. Depicts a small boy reading in a large armchair, with a tiny ghost beside him, frowning. In the background are the shadows of three, much larger, creatures, with glowing eyes.

Just in time for Halloween this year, Alfred’s Book of Monsters by Sam Streed is a new release that’s reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s work. It’s about a young Victorian boy who has an interest in monsters, despite his proper family’s objections. For those who enjoy a gothic Spooky Season aesthetic, this is my 2019 recommendation. My favourite Halloween season recommendation, however, remains How to Make Friends with a Ghost, which is written and illustrated by American Rebecca Green, who is currently making her home in Osaka, Japan. This book is a detailed guide for how to care for a ghost who you wish to befriend. A useful and delightful book for any lonesome ghost enthusiast.

The cover of How to Make Friends with a Ghost, which depicts a skeptical-looking feminine child sitting on a swing, and a blushing, hopeful-looking ghost hovering above the swing next to her.

My last recommendation is a recent release that stole my heart. Recently, middle grade author Ally Malinenko tweeted, “All stories about witches are stories about survival and all stories about ghosts are stories about grief. Children need scary stories to understand how to survive and to learn how to say goodbye.” This has certainly been true in my own life, both as a child, and an adult. Unfortunately, one of my 11-year-old dogs was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I’ve experienced a lot of anticipatory grief through the time that we’ve been recently spending spoiling her. When I came across Kevan Atteberry’s Ghost Cat, a picture book about a young boy who’s sure he has a haunted house, it felt relatable and poignant – and also made me giggle. This is a sweet book for anyone who’s ever lost a pet, who loves their cat, or who has a fondness for the spirits who’ve got our back. (Fun fact: Atteberry is also the creator of Clippy, the Microsoft paperclip!)

The cover of Ghost Cat. A boy on a cool-coloured background looks over his shoulder as a ghostly cat runs away.

Books About Animals

Next, I’ll write a little bit about some of my favourite recent books about animals – which are, let’s be clear, some of my favourite books in general. Some are a little more literal, like Little Brown, by Marla Frazee. This is just a book about a cranky dog. It’s just about being cranky, and being a dog. I found it utterly relatable and it felt really real to me. Not all dogs are Dug… you know? And sometimes, we all struggle to know how to fit in.

The cover of Little Brown, which just shows a small brown dog, frowning, a lot.

There’s something that feels like a hug when I’m reading All the Animals Where I Live, by Philip C. Stead. It feels like memories of my grandmother, and of places that are serene, and times that feel simple, and quiet. It’s just… lovely. I honestly don’t know if I would have appreciated this book as a child, but as an adult, it’s perfectly soothing.

The cover of All the Animals where I live, which depicts a red house in the background, a shaggy dog, and in the foreground, a tree branch, with green leaves.

Another book that is categorized as children’s literature, but that I wouldn’t necessarily handsell that way, is Australian author Shaun Tan’s heartbreaking, anti-capitalist picture book, Cicada. Nothing is particularly soothing about this book. It made my whole self ache for the little insect protagonist. I was simply relieved that the story has a positive ending. This book is unique, and heartfelt, and it feels like a grown up child’s tale for neoliberal times.

The cover of Cicada depicts a cicada in a business suit, holding a sheet of paper, standing on a gray backdrop, with similar sheets of paper all over the floor.

I recommend Moon, by Alison Oliver, as a lighter compliment to Cicada. This book is a heartwarming friendship tale of a young, feminine character named Moon (who is not explicitly racialized in the book) and a grey wolf. The relationship between the wolf and Moon teaches the overburdened child how to be free. I have recommended this book often, not only because I think it’s a lesson that bears repeating, but also because the colours and artwork in this book are a treat. I also appreciate that this story challenges the typical kidlit notion of a wolf as an inherently villainous animal.

The cover of Moon, which shows a young feminine character with purple skin, wearing a white dress, sitting cross legged in the grass, wearing a flower crown. She sits beside a serene gray wolf. Both have their eyes closed.

Lastly, this counting book is a complex narrative in disguise. Pretty Kitty, by Karen Beaumont and illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, is the story of a reluctant older man who has to confront an ever-growing group of felines in need of homes. This is a must-read for anyone who’s had a cat arrive in their life unexpectedly, but if you follow the silent storytelling in the illustrations, this book also tells the story of a man coming to terms with the loss of an old friend and learning to open his heart.

The cover of Pretty Kitty, which has a purple cityscape in the background and yellow text. An older man walks across the cover, and many cats are scattered across the letters.

Books With Whimsical Nature Themes

I didn’t choose as many literal nature-themed books as I did animal-themed books, although clearly All the Animals Where I Live and Moon have a lot of nature running through them. Most of my nature recommendations are picture books that are less story and more science, and for someone who had an appreciation for mysticism, I decided to go with a little more whimsy on the nature front.

Ocean Meets Sky is by Terry and Eric Fan, known as the Fan Brothers, who are probably best known for their titles The Night Gardener and The Darkest Dark. The Fan Brothers were educated in Toronto, where I live, and I’m always happy to give recommendations with a connection to my locale. Ocean Meets Sky is my favourite of all their books, and it regularly brings me to tears.

The cover of Ocean Meets Sky, by the Fan Brothers. In the centre of a large compass rose, there is a blue whale, surrounded by ships and hot air balloons that float on seas of clouds.

Ocean Meets Sky has exquisite illustrations, depicting the place where the ocean meets the sky. These include lush depictions of ships and sea creatures, clouds, and ocean waves. The narrative is about a child coming to terms with the loss of his grandfather, and finding ways to honour him through his reimagining of stories that they used to share.

Cover of Dream Friends, by You Byun. The image is of an orange sky over green water with flowers made of bubbles growing out of it. A young girl rides the back of a large white mammal wearing a red bowtie who soars through the sky.

Dream Friends is the debut picture book by Korean-American author and artist You Byoun. It is a soft, appropriately dreamlike story, depicting the dreams of a young girl named Melody, who is learning to make friends. The unique world that this book creates for the reader is reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for me, in that it combines down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy with sharp, vivid imagery.

I have long been an admirer of Jillian Tamaki’s work, and since she lives in the same neighbourhood as my bookshop, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting her and being involved in events with her. I love her graphic novel This One Summer, which she co-created with her cousin, Mariko Tamaki, who recently announced the launch of her own graphic novel imprint for LGBTQ creators under Abrams Kids. Tamaki is mixed-race Canadian, with Japanese heritage.

The cover of They Say Blue, which shows a young child reaching into a blue background, where black birds fly.

I was excited when we received They Say Blue at the shop, but I was also lucky to be the bookseller for the FOLD that year, where Tamaki read her book at a children’s event. She is a lovely reader, and she brought the simple story that revolves around the passing of the seasons and the colours that come with them to life for me. As such, I would recommend reading this one aloud, if you can.

Navigating Difficult Emotions

There are so many beautiful picture books about dealing with difficult emotions these days. At Another Story, we actually have an entire section of the store dedicated to children’s books about feelings – and as a person who has a lot of them, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it’s my favourite kidlit section. When I was considering recommendations for books about sadness, many came to mind, but the first one I thought of was Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip.

The cover of Duck, Death, and the Tulip is just a simple drawing of a duck looking skyward, on a beige background.

This book is at once haunting and serene. It is a simple story of the death of a duck, and has essentially two characters: the duck, and death. It’s gentle, and slow, and doesn’t shy away from a difficult subject. It’s heart wrenching in its way, and I’m very fond of it.

A similarly heart wrenching book is guojing’s The Only Child. This was Chinese artist guojing’s debut title, and is a wordless picture book. There is nothing that I can say that will do guojing’s evocative artwork justice. The Only Child is based on guojing’s own childhood experiences, growing up under the single child law in Shanxi Province, China.

The cover of The Only Child shows a small child curled up against a large, furry animal, with tall horns.

It is difficult to classify The Forest, by Riccardo Bozzi, illustrated by Violeta Lopiz, and Valerio Vidali. It is part contemplative picture book, part exquisite art book. Written originally in Italian, the text was translated by Debbie Bibo. This book depicts, through vibrant images, embossing and debossing, and die-cut pages, a journey through the wilderness, but also man’s journey through life. This book is a treasure to hold in your hands.

The cover of The Forest, which has no text. From the Kirkus review of this title: The book’s design is clever, instantly arousing curiosity with its translucent jacket (sans title) overlaying brilliantly hued vegetation onto a muted cover.

My next three choices are about how particular characters deal with specific, onerous emotions, and in these books, the emotions themselves are made tangible. In two of these books, When Sadness is At Your Door, by Eva Eland, and Me and My Fear, by Francesca Sanna, the emotions are anthropomorphic characters in the book. Julie Kraulis, on the other hand, turns difficult emotions into literal baggage to be managed in Whimsy’s Heavy Things – another pick from an author who is in my Toronto local.

A collage of three book covers. In Whimsy's Heavy Things, a blonde character wearing a striped dress pulls a wagon full of black lumps up a hill. In When Sadness Is At Your Door, a character wearing a red coat and galoshes points at a large, round, light blue figure whose head is hanging. In Me and My Fear, a character with long blue hair is being cradled by a large white character who smiles as they sleep. A village of houses sits upon their back.

All of these tender stories offer practical strategies for navigating tricky emotional waters. Kraulis’ Whimsy learns (through failure) to break down her problems into manageable blocks, Eland’s simple illustrations advise welcoming sadness as one might a guest, and in Sanna’s story, a young girl has to learn to relate to unfamiliar people, after moving to a new place and a new school. Although these stories have young protagonists, all of these stories are emotions that will be familiar to any reader, and it never hurts to have gentle insight into how one might move through them.

The cover of Jerome By Heart, which depicts two boys bicycling down the street side by side, holding hands.

Translated from the French, Thomas Scotto’s Jerome by Heart is a uniquely touching book about a child who’s learning about his emerging queerness. This book is illustrated by Olivier Tallec, and translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick and Karin Snelson. It’s so interesting to me that the pub copy for this book doesn’t explicitly recognize the character as gay, since this is one of the most quintessentially LGBTQ2S+ stories I’ve ever encountered. It’s simple, it’s sweet, and it’s full of age-appropriate adoration that will absolutely tug your heartstrings.

My last recommendation in terms of books about managing difficult feelings is a little bit easier to digest. There are a bunch of different versions of The Color Monster, by Spanish author Anna Llenas. My favourite, particularly for adults, is the pop-up book version. I have Big Feelings, and I love spooky creatures like monsters, so I find this book relatable and charming. Accompanied by intricate pop-ups, this lighthearted book is a great choice for anyone who’s going through a particularly emotional time in their life.

This video is a reading of the Color Monster pop up book, in which you get a taste of the three-dimensional details in the artwork.

General Picks

Finally, I wanted to suggest a couple of general picture book favourites of mine, in the same vein as Not Quite Narwhal, since the person I was writing recommendations for had already requested that title from the library. The first is Little Robot. Ben Hatke is one of my go-to children’s authors. Little Robot is a short, wordless graphic novel that he wrote and illustrated for children, about a main character of colour, who is never gendered, who makes friends with a small robot in a junkyard. The robot is confused, and needs a little help from the MC as he navigates the world beyond the robot factory.

The cover of Little Robot, by Ben Hatke. A young person of colour and a small robot sit on a grassy ledge overlooking a junkyard. A black cat climbs on discarded tires, and an angry eye peers up from the trash.

Peripherally, Hatke’s family recently suffered the tragic loss of their four year old child, Ida, after a sudden accident. There is a fundraiser that is ongoing for the Hatke family.

The last book I wanted to recommend is a must-read for any animal-loving bookworm with a deep sense of imagination. Franklyn’s Flying Bookshop is a deeply relatable tale by Jen Campbell, and illustrated by Katie Harnett.

The cover of Franklyn's Flying Bookshop, which shows a dragon silhouetted against the full moon. A young redheaded feminine character sits with the dragon, reading a book with them.

This book is the first in a series of books, which includes Franklyn and Luna Go to the Moon, and the forthcoming Franklyn and Luna and the Book of Fairy Tales. I realize that I didn’t give any space-themed recommendations in this list, although that was among the interests that I was taking into account when I made this list. Unfortunately, space isn’t a big one of my interests, although there are so many picture books about space. For that reason, I hope that Franklyn and Luna Go to the Moon might be a good lateral move from this book!

In Franklyn’s Flying Bookshop, Franklyn is a lonely, bookworm dragon, who’s struggling to make friends, who meets Luna, an isolated bookworm herself. They bond, and then decide to build a bookshop on Franklyn’s back in order to share their love of books with others. As a (somewhat isolated) bookseller myself, I found Luna to be one of the characters who is most relatable to me in any picture book I’ve encountered, and I imagine that this would be the case for many bookish folks (although, unfortunately, Luna appears to be a white character).

2018 Trans Affirming Picture Book Wrap Up

Currently reading: The Wicked and the Divine vol. 2: The Fandemonium, by Kieron Gillen
Image is part of an illustration, showing a black child wearing a headdress made of ferns and a town tied around their waist, with a hand in the air, smiling.
From Julián is a Mermaid.

Working in the book shop, I constantly encounter customers who are surprised at the range of books available that include LGBTQ+ content, especially for children. I am always pleased to tell them that there are more and more coming out every year – especially because I love picture books, and have a growing collection myself. That said, it can still be hard to find the books that are affirming for trans and enby children, if you don’t have access to a brick and mortar shop that can identify them. The following are my picks for gender-affirming books for children published in the last year. Please, if I’ve missed any here, visit my contact page, and let me know!

Picture Books Published in 2018

Julián Is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love, appeared on lots of best-of lists for 2018. This affirming book is Love’s debut, about a young Afro-Latinx boy who experiments with dressing up as a mermaid in his abuela’s house. In the conclusion, they attend and join in the mermaid parade, an annual event at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The lush watercolour illustrations and positive representation of non-white characters is what make this book stand out for me. Love says that this book was in part inspired by a trans family member of a boyfriend she had while writing the book.

Neither, by Airlie Anderson, is a colourful fever dream of a picture book suitable for the youngest audiences. It features a cast of misfit creatures who learn that they can reject binary identities and find happiness and friendship along the way. This book features a lot of rainbows, which is great for Pride season, and is perfect as an affirming springtime gift, as the main characters are reminiscent of the Peeps marshmallows.

Image is an illustration of a rainbow of chimera animals, all holding each other, and looking happy. A speech balloon reads "exactly!" in rainbow letters.
From Neither.

Jamie is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way, by Afsaneh Moradian, challenges gender stereotypes through the story of a child who encounters confusion among their peers when they want to play with a wide variety of toys. The book includes a section for adults who are interested in using playtime as a learning tool for children to learn about gender and related constructs. This book is written by an author of colour, and illustrated by Maria Bogade, who has worked on award-winning projects such as the Gruffalo.

I am including Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders because I wanted this list to be thorough, but this wouldn’t be my first recommendation. It’s an American-centric book that tells a whitewashed, gay male focused history of the rainbow flag. But also? Trans people are part of that rainbow, so. Make your own choices about this one. My alternate recommendation for this would be This Day in June, or M is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book.

While Today I’ll Be a Unicorn, by Dana Simpson, does not feature openly trans characters, this book is trans affirming in that it is written and illustrated by a trans woman. Along with this book for young readers, Simpson also released Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theatre in 2018, the eighth and latest instalment in her wildly popular middle grade graphic novel series. The ninth book will be released in 2019.

Image is of a little girl putting on a headband with a unicorn horn, and a unicorn watching her. Text reads, "Today, I'll be a unicorn. I'll have a tail and a magic horn."
From Today I’ll Be a Unicorn.

There are lots of picture book options for people seeking stories about boys and other masculine characters openly defying gender norms and embracing traditionally feminine aspects. King Alice, by Matthew Cordell, tells the story of an imaginative young girl who invents a story in which she is a king.

Jack (Not Jackie), by Erica Silverman, explores the complicated emotions that a cis sibling might navigate upon discovering that their sibling is trans. It has been criticised by some trans readers as it uses the MC’s deadname and the wrong pronouns in the book. It has also been criticised for ciscentrism, and use of stereotypes about trans people. For all these reasons, it would not be my recommendation for a trans reader, but it could be a useful learning tool for a cis audience. I also give this book bonus points for being the only book, to my knowledge, featuring an explicitly transgender child.

Pink is for Boys, by Robb Pearlman, encourages readers to think of colours as being for people of all genders, and to move away from the pink/blue representation of the gender binary. This book features a diverse cast of characters, including racialized and disabled youth. For me, this book is a 101 level book, suitable in particular for children who may be learning about gender for the first time.

Last but not least is Love, Z, the newest offering from Jessie Sima. Sima is the author of several LGBTQ affirming and representative picture books, including Not Quite Narwhal and Harriet Gets Carried Away. In this latest book, Z, a young robot, searches for the meaning of “love”, and along the way encounters a charming cast of characters, including a feline boat captain. Although this book is not explicit in having trans subject matter, it does have meaningful queer representation, and the main character, Z, is never gendered in this story. (It’s perfect. What I’m saying is, it’s perfect.)

Two pages from Love, Z, in which the robot goes through his nightly bedtime routine, wondering "What is love?"
From Love, Z.

Other Trans-Affirming Books for Children Published in 2018

Aquicorn Cove, by Katie O’Neill, and The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, are middle grade graphic novels that were released this year. Both have affirming representation of non-cis characters, and The Prince and the Dressmaker was created by an author of colour. Both of these books make fantastic read-aloud stories for younger readers, as they both feature vibrant illustrations, and the former has valuable environmental messages as well.

Panels from Aquicorn Cove, in which one character gives another a necklace. The character asks, "Er, if I wanted to come back, without falling overboard this time...", and the second character responds, "Here, wear this into the water, and the Aquicorns will guide you to me."
From Aquicorn Cove.

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, by Archie Bonglovanni and Tristan Jimerson, is a short, charming, 101-level graphic primer for adults in the lives of non-binary children or other children choosing to use gender neutral pronouns.

When I read the Gender Identity Workbook for Kids, by Kelly Storck LCSW, I found myself wishing that I had had this book as a child. This is a great workbook for children in the early reader range who are exploring the ways in which they experience gender, and for the adults in their lives. I recommend this educational tool highly.

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