The Best Children’s Books of 2012

Happy New Year! In keeping with the CAPC tradition of year-end lists of our favorite things, I’ve been reviewing my reading of the past year. 2012 provided an array of delightful picture books for children. I tried my best to narrow them down to a Top 5, but ended up with 6. In any case, I noticed as I was compiling my list that each of them can in some way be classified as a meta-narrative—a story about stories.
Meta-narrative is one of my favorite ways to approach story, because it highlights the structure of the story itself in ways that help readers reflect on the stories we find ourselves in. Also, it gives us the opportunity to exclaim, “That’s so meta!” which is just good fun.

So I say, along with Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers, “Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?” No, says Mr. Frodo, “No, they never end as tales…But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.” And so I offer this list in hopes that you too will find yourself in a great story, this year, and for many many more to come.

1. The Adventures of Little Nutbrown Hare by Sam McBranty
Probably most famous for Guess How Much I Love You, McBranty reintroduces Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare in this collection of new stories. With the same playful interactions, the two hares weave a wider story, one that goes beyond their love for each other and stretches into the world around them. Just as the title suggests, these tales focus on Little Nutbrown Hare’s explorations of the world, and yet his story still returns to the same familiar, loving arms. Together, these two hares tell their story about a love that keeps them rooted at home as they branch into the wild world around them.

2. Bear Has a Story to Tell  by Philip Stead and Erin Stead
Brought to you by the same author and illustrator of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Bear Has a Story to Tell offers the same gentle, warm friendship as that excellent story. Bear prepares for winter along with his friends, but instead of actually telling the tale, he assists each of them and moves on because they are too busy to listen. Ever patient, Bear waits all winter, hibernating along with his story, but discovers in springtime that he has forgotten it. Winter, it seems, lasts longer than a bear’s memory. But his friends step in, reminding his that his story starts, and continues, in the same gentle way he’s lived it all along.

3. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Playing with the yarn reference in the title, Barnett spins a tale of magic, mystery, courage, and a very determined knitter. The brave Annabelle brightens and warms her town with her handmade creations and her generosity of spirit. Klassen provides muted and expressive illustrations for the same quirky feel as his laugh-out-loud funny book I Want My Hat Back. Yet while that book is a dry and precocious story of theft and revenge, Annabelle’s yarn illustrates the way love and kindness (and home-woven handicrafts) are gifts that keep on giving.

4. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce and Joe Bluhm
Mr. Morris Lessmore is a bibliophile to rival all bibliophiles, and his story mirrors the story so many of us find ourselves in. Each day, he writes in his book until a vague sorrow leads him to a building full of books that require his care. He tends to the books, caring for them and continuing to craft his own story, until one day, he flies off like his beloved books. Mr. Morris Lessmore’s immediate story of grief is gone—until a little girl comes to read the words he has left behind. The images move from big picture to the pages of the books within the book, providing depth and perspective along with the message that everyone’s story matters.

5. Otto the Book Bear by Kate Cleminson
Otto is a storybook character who lives in a storybook (yup, that’s meta). He lives to be read, until his book is left behind. Fortunately, Otto finds the perfect home, and a cast of storybook friends, in a public library. As part of the library system, Otto gets read more frequently (much to his delight) and also gets to share in the delights of reading others. A charming book about sharing the joy and wonder of stories, I only wish it came in a scratch-and-sniff edition that smelled like rows upon rows of old books.

6. Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear

Based loosely on the lives of Virginia Woolf and her sister, an artist named Vanessa, the vivid and fantastical illustrations in this text almost elide the story’s central darkness. Almost. But this is a story of depression, as Virginia sinks into despair, only to be rescued by the unfailing love and loyalty of her sister Vanessa. A powerful, moving tale, Maclear manifests the wolfishness in all of us, along with our need for redemption from the darkest recesses of ourselves. Like all great stories, Maclear’s reminds us that stories can heal, and, as Sam Gamgee says, remind us how much of life and love are worth fighting for.

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  • For kids, I’d also recommend taking a look at Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien. We got it for my three-year-old daughter for Christmas and she’s enjoyed it. It’s slight and in graphic novel format. It follows the whimsical Long Tail Kitty (who has a long tail) as he skates with Good Tall Mouse and has a baking party with the mouse and a local canine friend named Bernice. It’s backmatter inculdes instructions on how to draw Long Tail Kitty.