Julie Danielson

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A child heads outdoors, walking through a verdant and hilly rural landscape, as the sun rises and a shadow appears as the “last hint of night.” Thus begins an evocative exploration of shadows, both literal and metaphorical, in There Was a Shadow, written by Bruce Handy and illustrated by Lisk Feng. 

Handy examines the omnipresent, big and small shadows of the natural world, from the noontime shadow a tree casts, to the subtle shadows that land on a face or water. Feng’s delicate, fine-lined illustrations bring these depictions to brilliant life on the page: The falling light casts the faintest shadows across the protagonist’s face as she stares straight at the reader. Feng then depicts sunlight shimmering upon rippling water, creating shadows in various shades of blue, which Handy describes as being “like a dance.” 

A “thinking shadow . . . you could feel but not see” also plagues the protagonist: the feeling of worry. But it’s momentary and soon darts away. As all the children head home, the shadows of late afternoon stretch until they disappear altogether with the setting sun. Dinner is served among cozy and comforting indoor shadows. Feng gives readers a peek of the night landscape with a palette of deep, rich cobalt and sapphire blues, while Handy closes the book with a satisfying and thought-provoking question about memories and dreams.

It is with tenderness and reverence for the interior world of children that Handy tells this multilayered story. There Was a Shadow flows like poetry and sparkles with Feng’s beautifully wielded, sun-dappled colors, which impart mood and mystery. It’s easy to get lost in these shadows, and when the journey ends, readers will want to head right back to the book’s beginning.

There Was a Shadow brims with Bruce Handy’s tenderness and reverence for the interior world of children and sparkles with Lisk Feng's beautifully wielded, sun-dappled colors.
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Cece Bell’s laugh-out-loud-funny Animal Albums From A to Z kicks off with a note about how she loves “finding and acquiring old albums, especially those created by animal musicians.” She then proceeds to present with wholehearted dedication and sincerity her collection of (fictional) animal record albums, starting with an armadillo on an accordion and ending with zebras playing zydeco.

In order from A to Z, the recto of each spread features a brilliantly composed album cover with rich colors, indelible characters and track listings, which offer song titles that alone hint at eccentric and enchanting settings and characters beyond what’s featured in the book. 

Lyrics for one song from each album are printed on the verso, and every set is a world of its own containing vivid characters, bizarre story lines and plenty of humor. There’s the armadillo with an “aromatic armpit”; the dramatic love triangle of Bud, Betty and Brad in the form of a barbershop tune sung by beagles; a “teeny tiny teacup toad”; and much more. It’s fortunate that the lyrics to “Whoa, That Weevil Is Weird,” which tell the story of Miss Tanya, who can juggle two fleas and a pea, make the cut for this collection. Expect giggles: Readers will struggle to keep a straight face during lyrics for songs like “Dare I Suggest a Different Deodorant” by Darryl and the Dodo Devilettes; “Edith’s Ensemble Is So Embarrassing” by Ella Fontaine; and “Our Umpire’s Out with an Ulcer” by Ursula Umbrellabird. 

Bell, who received a Newbery Honor for El Deafo, a graphic novel memoir about her hearing loss, demonstrates here that music is for everyone. She covers a wide range of genres: Western swing, surf music, rockabilly, jazz, folk and lots more. Backmatter includes biographies for each animal artist and a QR code that takes fans to recordings of the songs. Animal Albums, which will surely go down as one of the year’s top picture books, is the best kind of weird and wonderful—from A to Z.

Featuring songs with vivid characters, bizarre storylines and plenty of humor, Animal Albums from A to Z is the best kind of weird and wonderful.
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Angela is born “under the milky Arctic sunlight” and grows up with her father near a glacier. They hike there often and listen, with their whole bodies, to the glacier and its “universe of sound.” This is the enchanting opening to Angela’s Glacier, written by poet Jordan Scott and illustrated by Diana Sudyka in the same beguiling peacock, indigo and duck egg blue colors described as belonging to the glacier.

Scott’s descriptive and evocative text makes this one especially delightful to read aloud: In describing the way Angela’s father would carry baby Angela on his back to visit the glacier, Scott writes that they hiked “through lava fields covered with silver mosses, past chocolate-brown arctic foxes atop raven’s glass, crowberry, and pixie lichen.” With each step they practice pronouncing the glacier’s name: Snæfellsjökull. As Angela grows, she takes the hikes herself. She puts her head to the ice and listens, even whispering her fears to it. In a palette filled with nearly every shade of blue and aquamarine, Sudyka uses textures and graceful, swerving lines to capture the landscape and cold winds of Angela’s favorite place to visit.

School, friends, homework and extracurricular activities consume Angela as a teen: “Time just melted away.” She feels somewhat lost, and her heartbeat sounds strange. Then her father asks, “Have you visited Snæfellsjökull?” Angela heads to that “ancient blue,” and despite knowing she’s not going to stop growing up or being busy, she makes a promise to the glacier to always visit.

Scott’s afterword describes how the story is inspired by his friend Angela Rawlings, who shares her own note about her experience listening to the “gentle” sounds of glaciers in Iceland. She writes how important it is that readers listen to themselves, to each other and “to the ecosystems and their inhabitants who sustain us,” particularly during a time of climate change and species extinction. A warmhearted ode to the colder side of the natural world, Angela’s Glacier gives readers everywhere a chance to ponder the “glacier’s music.”

A warmhearted ode to the colder side of the natural world, Angela's Glacier gives readers everywhere a chance to ponder the "glacier's music."
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“The best and worst thing in the world is other dogs,” muses the dachshund protagonist of A Pack of Your Own, written and illustrated by Maria Nilsson Thore and translated from Swedish by A.A. Prime. Wrapped in a fine robe, the dachshund stares out of an apartment window at other dogs, who seem to have so much fun in their packs. But those dogs turn the dachshund off with all their bottom-sniffing, running around on all fours, barking and peeing. This misfit—who walks on two feet, uses toilet paper, and wears a shower cap while bathing in a tub—assumes there must be something wrong with them: “I wish I could find someone like me. Someone who loves fancy hats, clever crosswords . . . or the aroma of coffee.”

Thore’s fine-lined illustrations utilize a subdued monochromatic palette, save for the caramel-colored dog and his rust-colored collar. She captures elegant details in the apartment the dachshund calls home, including the bathroom where they sit on the toilet, just like a human. When they bravely visit the dog park in an attempt to fit in, the other boisterous dogs are each visually distinctive and bursting with personality, their chaos captured in energetic yet careful compositions.

When a poodle who spots the dachshund wandering home alone decides to knock on the door and is invited in, readers know that life will change for the dachshund. The poodle is a bit wild and has a peculiar way of doing things, such as drinking coffee straight from the carafe while lying down across the back of the living room’s wingback chair. But they enjoy many of the same things as the dachshund, who comes to understand that friends don’t have to be “exactly like me!” Two spreads depict their budding camaraderie, and a smile grows across the dachshund’s face at having finally bonded with another dog. Every dog has its day, and this is the dachshund’s: the first day of an abiding friendship.

Maria Nilsson Thore captures the first day of an abiding friendship between two dogs through elegant details and energetic yet careful compositions that bustle with personality.
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“We are all just hearts / beating in the darkness.” In All the Beating Hearts, poet Julie Fogliano and illustrator Cátia Chien take readers on an impressionistic journey through a single day, capturing the interior and exterior worlds of humans. 

Fogliano’s text captures joy, wonder, tedium and sorrow. “Each day starts with the sun / and hopefully something to eat,” Fogliano writes, acknowledging food scarcity. Most of us spend our days on the move, spending our hours on “work / or play / or work AND PLAY.” Some days are filled with love, and “some days we will curl up / and wish to be / any / other / place.” 

When night arrives, we slip into dreams, and our hearts beat with the message that “we are here / and alive / together but apart / the same, but exactly different.” Fogliano repeats that phrase, “the same, but exactly different” toward the end of the book as well, offering a refreshing antidote to the we’re-not-so-different platitudes of seemingly progressive picture books that, in practice, deny differences such as race, gender and disability. 

Chien meets Fogliano’s evocative words with lush, atmospheric illustrations awash with color. In a wordless spread depicting a night of dreams, children float in an abstract cloud rendered in warm shades of rose and yellow, surrounded by scribbled amorphous creatures. In another spread, a child illustrated in full color and backlit by a bright light stands in a crowd of people all drawn in jagged shades of gray. “Everyone is busy being / everywhere and everything else / and all those beating hearts / are still there, but struggling / to be heard above it all.” 

The connections between those hearts, which beat within us “strong and steady and sure,” is the stuff of life, Fogliano seems to be saying. This tender, compassionate picture book invites readers to ponder this notion with wonder—and all of their hearts.  

This tender, compassionate picture book invites readers to ponder how we’re all connected by “our beating hearts / strong and steady and sure.”
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This home-and-back-again adventure tale belongs to Evergreen, a wide-eyed squirrel who lives deep in Buckthorn Forest. Evergreen has a long list of fears, including but not limited to germs, loud noises, heights, swimming and thunderstorms. When her mother asks her to travel through the forest to take soup to Granny Oak, Evergreen responds, “I can’t do it!” But her mother insists (”I know you are afraid, but I believe you can do it”), so Evergreen puts on her shawl and heads out. 

In an era of picture books that often contain sparse text, Evergreen stands out for its lengthy, detailed prose. Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell treats readers to an epic tale in six enumerated parts, filled with lively dialogue and hand-lettered onomatopoeia. “SKREEEE-EEE!” and “GRRROOOAAARRR!” go the forest creatures who frighten Evergreen on her journey. In one remarkably spine-tingling moment, a red-tailed hawk named Ember swoops down toward Evergreen, picks her up “with razor-sharp talons” and soars into the sky. Cordell offers a dramatic, close-up view of the scene as Evergreen and another animal run toward the reader, the hawk just behind them, its majestic wings exceeding the edges of the spread. 

Fortunately, Ember just needs Evergreen’s help to remove some painful thorns after an unlucky encounter with a bramble. “I . . . can do it,” Evergreen whispers, a self-directed pep talk that becomes her refrain throughout the story. With each creature she meets, Evergreen faces one of her fears with courage (and deep breaths and trembling hands), and she prevails every time—even when she meets “the Bear,” whose identity is a gratifying surprise. 

Cordell’s world building is immensely satisfying, and Evergreen is packed with entertaining textual and visual details. Evergreen delivers Mama’s “magic soup” in an empty acorn with a screw-on cap; her tattered shawl is red like another well-known woodland food delivery courier; and earth tone borders that look like tree branches frame many vignettes. Cordell drops a number of hints to a sequel, including a delightful map beneath the dust jacket and another delivery request from Evergreen’s mother toward the story’s conclusion. Readers would be so lucky. 

Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell packs entertaining textual and visual details into Evergreen, an epic home-and-back-again adventure about facing your fears.
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Canadian author Kathy Stinson and illustrator Lauren Soloy’s A Tulip in Winter is a vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis from two creators familiar with the Nova Scotian landscape that Lewis called home. 

Although Lewis had a happy childhood, she was also “teased . . . for how she looked, her crooked walk, and how small she was.” Lewis’ hands grew stiff from a condition her doctors could not explain, revealed in the book’s back matter to be severe rheumatoid arthritis. The condition prevented her from playing the piano, so her mother gave her a paintbrush and launched Lewis’ life in art: “Red on white made its own kind of music,” the girl eagerly discovered. 

A Tulip in Winter touches on the many challenges in Lewis’ life: She struggled to find employment, and after her parents’ deaths, she moved in with her aunt, who discouraged her niece’s art. Eventually, Lewis moved into a small, plain house owned by a fish peddler named Everett and soon filled the house with color, painting floral and other natural motifs on the stairs, walls, tea canisters, dustpans and more. “Everett was strong in body. Maud was strong in spirit. They got along the way certain colours do,” Stinson writes. The book’s final spread acknowledges the fame Lewis achieved after her death: “So small was her house that it is now nestled inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.” 

Stinson emphasizes that the foundation of Lewis’ distinctive art was her ability to notice things, even when she was unable to leave her home. Her admiration and respect for Lewis permeate every page, while Soloy’s thick-lined, brightly colored illustrations capture the essence of Lewis’ joyous art. Full-bleed spreads bring Lewis’ childhood to life with period details such as horse-drawn carriages and historical clothing, and many spreads are overlaid in white-lined drawings of the things Lewis observes in nature, including flowers, birds, trees, ocean waves and more. The book’s seamless blend of text and art provides a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.” 

This vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis is a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.”
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This exquisite etiological story, originally published in a wordless format by David Álvarez in Mexico in 2017, blends multiple Mesoamerican tales to tell a story of how the sun came to be. 

“At the start of things, the elders say,” begins award-winning author David Bowles’ text, which was composed for this edition, “the universe was hushed and still.” Teal-gray Rabbit perches atop the moon, which takes the form of a round jug and provides the sky’s only light aside from the minuscule stars. In order to keep the moon “forever a-glow,” Rabbit crosses the world to secure more aguamiel, nectar that “brims in the heart of the first and holy maguey,” an agave plant. 

But clever Opossum wants to taste the aguamiel, so he uses his walking stick to crack open the moon and siphon off some of the nectar. Later, ashamed that the moon has been depleted of the substance that made it glow, Opossum journeys deep into the earth to fill another jug with fire and, in the process, burns the tip of his tail. Afterward, with a “blazing sun” in the sky, Rabbit and Opossum become the “Guardians of Light.” 

Bowles’ spare, evocative text flows like poetry: “Rabbit made her way down the Great Ceiba’s trunk and trekked across the sea-ringed world.” He seamlessly captures the nuances of the traditional tales from which this story draws, which are discussed in a detailed note that closes the book. 

Álvarez’s compositions are sophisticated and uncluttered as he arranges visual elements with elegance and balance. Most of the spreads feature a pitch-black background punctuated by gleaming pinpoint stars. Layered atop are the subdued, earth-toned colors of beautifully crafted, gently stylized figures so remarkably textured that you can almost count the number of hairs on Rabbit’s body. 

Ancient Night is wondrous, sparkling and easily one of the best picture books of 2023. 

This wondrous, sparkling story conveys how Rabbit and Opossum became “Guardians of Light,” providing the moon with its glow and the sun its fire.
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Alison James and Jennifer K. Mann’s inversion of The Giving Tree begins with a nod to Shel Silverstein’s enduring, controversial classic: “Once there was a tree who was very lonely.” Things change when a distressed girl named Rosemary rushes, in tears, across the field to the sugar maple. Children at the nearby school have hurt her feelings, and Maple offers her friendship. Their bond deepens as Rosemary visits daily; she even plants some maple seeds beneath her friend’s branches.

When Rosemary suddenly stops visiting, Maple grieves, but as seasons and years pass, she manages to bloom and grow anyway. The eager saplings shooting up under Maple’s brilliant leaves also mature. Finally, Rosemary returns, now a grown woman, to tell Maple that she’s become a teacher at the school. She hangs a swing from one of Maple’s branches and introduces her students to her old friend. In the end, we see Rosemary as an older woman, her dark hair white with age. She settles next to Maple with a book and, beneath the sheltering leaves, reads aloud to the tree.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship and the promises it entails. James portrays conversations between Rosemary and Maple in straightforward dialogue, as though Maple is actually speaking and Rosemary can understand her. When Rosemary’s visits cease, James writes that Maple “ached with loneliness,” because “once you have a friend, you know what you are missing when they are gone.”

Mann’s artwork seamlessly complements James’ vivid text. When we first meet Rosemary, James describes her from Maple’s perspective as something “raining from its eyes” and moving “bright and fast like a shooting star.” Mann brings the story to the page with lush landscapes filled with greens of every shade. She captures Maple beautifully throughout the seasons, and her occasional use of panels expertly progresses the pacing as needed. “Leaves bloomed, burned, then fell,” we read as Mann depicts pink-tipped buds, then verdant green leaves and finally the fiery reds of autumn.  

This tender story is essential reading for tree-whisperers everywhere.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship between a girl and a sugar maple tree over the seasons of their lives.
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Carter Higgins delivers another superb concept book in Some of These Are Snails, a natural companion to her elegant 2021 creation, Circle Under Berry. Higgins invites readers to linger over these pages as they classify, sort and organize simple shapes in bright colors. 

The book opens with a double-page spread dominated by two circles: one green, one yellow, with simple embellishments that transform the green into a turtle, the yellow into a snail. “Turtle is a circle,” we read, then, “circle is a snail.” The next spread features six green and orange circles on the verso, while the recto repeats the images of the turtle and the snail, then introduces a yellow square. “Circle circle square” rests below these three shapes. In the spread that follows, the yellow square becomes an elephant; next to it, a square, now blue, is an owl. 

As we continue to turn the pages, Higgins’ text encourages readers to sort by color and shape, and to ascertain how these classifications overlap. We see nine variously colored circles arranged in a three-by-three square; a square whale; triangle birds and mice; a series of circles grouped by both size and color; and more. Occasionally, Higgins addresses readers directly: “can you sort by color? can you sort by size?” then, striking a playful note, “can you sort by shape or find the animal with eyes?” Perhaps the most sophisticated puzzle of all features six animal shapes and asks, “what is one? what is some? where is all and where is none?”

Though the text includes sparse punctuation and no capitalization, it’s satisfyingly rhythmic and filled with pleasing rhymes, both true and slant. It absolutely begs to be shared aloud. Meanwhile, Higgins renders the shapes and the creatures built from those shapes with vibrant collage illustrations. The figures rest on copious white space and evoke the palette and textures of the work of Eric Carle. It all makes for an utterly delightful, visually rich package that will have readers engaging in the types of classification work that form the basis of math skills and enhance memory and problem-solving abilities, too. Best of all, they’ll learn to see the world and its patterns in eye-opening ways. Some of These Are Snails is a must-have for every young reader’s bookshelf.

Discover how Carter Higgins’ created the ingenious art in ‘Some of These Are Snails.’

This must-have picture book for every young child is an utterly delightful, visually rich creation that invites readers to classify, sort and organize shapes.
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In When You Can Swim, readers explore the joys of swimming in various bodies of water—oceans, ponds, lakes, rivers and more—in a text set primarily in conditional statements (the “when you can swim” of the title), as spoken by a parent to a child. This phrase is a refrain that conveys the abundant possibilities and delights of moving in the water: the “clinking / of waves passing in and out / of a million pebbles,” the ripples on a pond, the whitecaps on a river, “the smoke on the lake” and much more. 

In Jack Wong’s breathtaking watery landscapes, strong currents surge beneath “rushing waterfalls,” and sunlight shimmers on ocean waves and the surface of a river. Text and illustrations merge seamlessly to illuminate the ways in which swimming animates all the senses, and Wong writes with beguiling lyricism and figurative language: “When you can swim, / you’ll reach landscapes as foreign as the moon / no spaceship required / except the craters are squishy and filled with reeds / ready to swallow loose sandals / but like good explorers, we’ll leave only footprints.”

Wong’s playful perspectives are captivating. In one spread, from the perspective of lying on our backs in the water, we see “treetops drift by” and a dragonfly buzz near. In another, we turn the book for a stunning vertically oriented image of two girls who dive down after breaking the surface of a lake. A rich apricot-colored light adorns the top of the spread with darkness below, and Wong describes “tannin-soaked lakes / pitch dark from tree bark / like oversteeped tea.” The book’s ending features the same child in the book’s opening, ready to take swimming lessons at a public pool. 

An appended note from Wong, striking in its tenderness, explains his hesitancy as “an immigrant kid” in Canada to swim at public pools and his desire to tell a story with “differently colored characters” because “representation is power”—a point he makes incisively and beautifully in this splendid picture book. 

The text and illustrations of When You Can Swim merge seamlessly to illuminate the ways in which swimming animates all one’s senses.
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Bestselling picture book author Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat, We Found a Hat) takes a traditional Tyrolean story and makes it his own in The Skull, a five-part folk-tale retelling that is both spine-chilling and touching. 

A girl named Otilla leaves home and runs through the forest at night. Bewildered, she trips and falls in the snow and hears someone calling her name. After a short cry, she finds her courage, gets up and keeps running until she spots a house whose only occupant is a skull. The skull agrees to let Otilla rest there. She explores the home, which includes a dungeon with a bottomless pit; gets to know the skull, whom she carries around; and learns she’s the first person in a long time to find the house. The two even don traditional Tyrolean carved masks and dance in the ballroom. The skull then reveals to Otilla that a headless skeleton visits the home nightly, chasing the skull. That night, Otilla takes matters into her own hands in order to defeat the skeleton and help her new friend. 

In a closing author’s note, Klassen describes how he first read the folk tale that The Skull is based on at a library in Alaska and how, after a year had passed, he’d forgotten some of its basic plot points. His brain, he writes, had rewritten the tale, and he liked that version better. He adds, “[Folk tales] are supposed to be changed by who is telling them, and you never find them the same way twice.” Thank goodness for the story that came from Klassen’s singular imagination. It is funny (pretty much any time the skull eats), mysterious (why did Otilla run away from home?), eerie (“GIVE ME THAT SKULL,” the skeleton shouts), tender (Otilla’s determination to bravely help her new friend) and macabre (Otilla’s impressive skills with rolling pins and fire) all at once. Klassen brings much beauty—the rays of sunlight on the ballroom floor, the shadows thrown by warm candlelight in dark rooms, and the pair’s breakfast in the garden room—to this genuinely (and delightfully) weird tale. 

Bestselling picture book author Jon Klassen brings much beauty to this genuinely (and delightfully) weird tale.
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Rubin lives in a tiny town next to a large forest, and at school, he likes to listen to the orchestra, including his sister and her cello. He leans through an open window, resting his arms and head on the sill, listening reverently and wishing he could join. Rubin is thrilled when the maestro hands him a violin and suggests he learn to play. Although Rubin can only produce screeches, the maestro assures him that he’ll soon play at a concert.

Eventually, Rubin heads into the forest to practice, where a crowd of cats gathers around him to hear him play. Zhang writes with verve about the cats and their impassioned singing: “Miiaaoooo,” goes the feline crowd in a “thicket of cacophonous sound,” their howls “a leaping crescendo.”

When at last Rubin performs with the school orchestra at their concert, the pace quickens and the mischief ramps up as a group of waltzing cats appears. Delightful depictions of cats crowd the pages—sometimes nearly every inch—with their leaping, dancing and singing, and soon everyone gets “caught in the whirlwind of Rubin’s sound, flying.”

Ezra Jack Keats Award winner Gracey Zhang (Lala’s Words) fills the illustrations of When Rubin Plays with vivid colors: plenty of scarlets, blues and greens, as well as backgrounds of vibrant yellow and orange. There is an infectious energy to Zhang’s loose lines, particularly the hand-­lettered “eeeeiiii” sounds of Rubin’s violin.

Zhang states in her author’s note that she was inspired to set her story in Santa Ana de Velasco, Bolivia, after learning about the rich tradition of baroque classical music in the Chiquitos Province and its former mission towns. As a tale about the joys of creating music, When Rubin Plays lands a triumphant ending.

Gracey Zhang fills the illustrations of When Rubin Plays with vivid colors and an infectious energy that crescendos throughout a triumphant tale about the joys of creating music.

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