It’s a big world out there, and it’s easy to get lost as we try to find the right path. If we’re lucky, we find special books that can show us the way. These four books take the big-picture view and shine like beacons, beaming out a simple message: “Here we are, together on Earth. This is a big place. Sometimes it can be scary. But there’s always hope. And there is so much beauty.”
What We'll Build
Oliver Jeffers has a gift for crafting quirky stories that are deceivingly straightforward and disarmingly moving. His talents are on full display in What We’ll Build, as a father and daughter envision the world they’ll create together. Pages flooded with color capture the grand scope of their shared dreams, while poignant scenes set against white backdrops draw us close. Love and time, comfort and forgiveness take the forms of a clock, a teacup and a plush pig that appear throughout.
This may not seem like a typical bedtime book, but Jeffers’ rhymes and near-rhymes have a propulsive forward motion, their imperfections perfectly suited to the story. Jeffers isn’t interested in lengthy descriptions or flowery language. His uncomplicated sentences shoot straight while opening imaginative possibilities like doors in the mind, and waiting behind every door is love.
If You Come to Earth
If someone asked you to write a book that explained the entire world, where would you start? When Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall met a child named Quinn while working with the nonprofit organization Save the Children, she knew she’d found her beginning. Told from Quinn’s perspective, If You Come to Earth is a letter to extraterrestrial visitors that takes an expansive but intimate look at life on planet Earth.
Blackall writes in honest, uncomplicated prose, her unpretentious statements all the more resonant for their frankness. She covers nearly every aspect of existence, from enormous mountains to creepy-crawly bugs, from the music we share with others to the feelings we keep deeply hidden. She leaves nothing out, even gently touching on difficult topics such as catastrophic weather, illness, war and displacement.
Blackall’s colorful, clever illustrations feel as though she has focused a giant microscope on the planet. You could spend hours poring over the details on every page. A spread depicting humans on the move is a wry look at our brilliant yet convoluted modes of transportation. An overview of avian life is breathtakingly drawn inside the shape of a lark. Wearing a red cap, Quinn appears on most pages, providing a touchstone to seek out with every page turn. It all makes for a sprawling, ambitious take on some of life’s biggest questions.
Child of the Universe
For every young person who asks those big questions, who dreams of flight and imagines themselves among the stars, Child of the Universe brings the universe close enough to touch. In this astronomical lullaby, a father’s words to his daughter inspire a journey to the place where all of this—and all of us—began.
Acclaimed astronomer Ray Jayawardhana infuses the book with scientific majesty as well as the adoration every parent feels for their child. As a nighttime read, its soothing song of stars and spiraling galaxies will send listeners drifting off to twinkling dreams, but by day, curious minds will demand answers to its fascinating ideas. Do we really have stars inside of us? Are there actually oceans on other planets? A comprehensive afterword provides just enough information to spark further inquiry—which is, of course, the point.
If Jayawardhana’s words are a lullaby, then illustrator Raul Colón’s colored pencil art is a vast symphonic underscore. Every page from edge to edge is awash with soft colors and almost imperceptible textures. Atoms and oceans and light waves and whales crash upon each other in gorgeous chaos. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in it all. Child of the Universe is expansive, inspiring and full of radiant cosmic brilliance.
Rain Before Rainbows
Perhaps the most affecting picture book of 2020, Rain Before Rainbows grows in the heart like a seed of hope. It opens with a striking illustration of a castle in flames opposite the title page, immersing us in David Litchfield’s art even before we meet our protagonist. Page by page, we follow a little red-cloaked girl and her fox companion on a journey out of the fog and rain, through mist and shadow, over mountains and across raging seas, their odyssey chronicled in author Smriti Prasadam-Halls’ spare couplets.
Litchfield’s brushstrokes and textures create palpable emotions. We feel the numbing isolation of the rain, the heaviness of night, the shivers of smoky specters. Immense mountains loom, and crashing waves threaten. But even through the dark and the disquiet, friendship curls around the fox and the girl as they look out for each other. We crawl onto the shore with them, and we see hope on the wing with a flock of birds. We know, instantly, that bravery stands before us in the form of a majestic elk. As sunlight breaks through the forest trees and beams across the land and streams, the warmth it brings is overwhelmingly beautiful.
This is the image I want to leave you with: the girl and her forest companions walking toward the light to greet the new day. We don’t know where they are going or why. All we know is that they are moving forward, together, with hope in their hearts. That, dear reader, is enough.