Bestselling author Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers an imaginative series of rhymed metaphors for love. Her text playfully twists colloquialisms (“you’re the wide in my world”) striking on heartfelt truths rather than cloying sentimentality. Illustrator Devon Holzwarth’s vibrant artwork matches the elegance and emotion of Capucilli’s prose and elevates All That Is You from very good to breathtaking.
The Birthday of the World
A young girl’s grandfather recounts how “the world of a thousand thousand things” was created when a beam of light pierced the darkness and scattered sparks into “everyone and everything.” Author Rachel Naomi Remen adapted The Birthday of the World from a tale originally told to her by her grandfather, an orthodox rabbi. Remen writes in unadorned, moving prose about the power in finding the lights inside ourselves and others, while illustrator Rachell Sumpter’s artwork is suffused with warmth and wonder.
The More You Give
Marcy Campbell’s deceptively simple The More You Give follows three generations of a family as they share gifts and plant seeds both literal and figurative. Campbell anchors the story in wonderful specifics (“big hugs, and bigger laughter, and the very biggest Sunday-morning pancakes”) and skillfully repeated phrases, such as the “wild and wooly caps” of acorns that each generation plants in the field surrounding their house. Illustrator Francesca Sanna’s bold colors and stylized figures enable readers to track characters as they grow from child to adult, their faces clearly expressing the love they feel for one another.
For a gift that can be enjoyed again and again, consider one of these picture books.
Winter arrives in all its glory in The Christmas Book Flood. Dating back to World War II, Jólabókaflóð (which translates to “Yule book flood”) is the Icelandic tradition of giving books to loved ones on December 24.
Author Emily Kilgore’s prose is expressive and poetic. As the book opens, she describes how the “northern lights dance and curtsy across a cold, black sky.” Later, she captures the thrill of searching for the perfect book as “shoppers glide through the aisles of towering shelves.”
Though Kilgore’s text speaks in general terms, illustrator Kitty Moss’ artwork tells the story of a biracial family, focusing on the wide-eyed oldest child as she sets off on her bike to find books for her family. She explores the nooks and crannies of a bustling bookstore, and her shopping expedition becomes an enchanted adventure. Frogs jump out of a book, which transforms into an owl that flies her to a fantastical world full of castles, hot air balloons and more magical creatures.
Moss creates glowing scenes—those northern lights, a snow-covered village, a dreamy bookshop, families reading by the fire—set against dark nighttime backdrops. She incorporates scraps of paper and newsprint into her collage-style art, offering further reminders of the transportive power of reading.
Bibliophiles will revel in this stunning celebration of the written word. The Christmas Book Flood sparkles with bookish excitement on every page.
Twelve Dinging Doorbells
A girl observes the growing number of visitors who gleefully fill her home as her family celebrates the holidays in Tameka Fryer Brown and Ebony Glenn’s Twelve Dinging Doorbells, a delightfully raucous riff on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Things begin calmly as the first dinging doorbell reveals a grandmotherly woman with “a sweet potato pie just for me.” Spread by spread, more friends and family arrive, and Fryer Brown’s clever variations on the cumulative rhyme will have young readers readily chiming in: “At the fifth ringing doorbell this holiday I see: BAKED MACARONI AND CHEEEEEESE! Four pounds of chitlins, three posh sibs, two selfie queens and a sweet potato pie just for me.”
Glenn’s illustrations draw readers into the festivities by playing with perspectives. Many spreads depict rooms through a bird’s-eye view as the house bursts at the seams, while other scenes allow the reader to feel as though they’re seated at the long yellow table, surrounded by plates of food. There’s so much to discover in these images, and Glenn captures plenty of action and an amusing variety of facial expressions, from sheer joy to utter annoyance.
The book follows the natural rhythm of any celebration. As the crowd of partiers begin to tire, the rhymes shift slightly; for instance, “seven brothers repping, six toddlers squealing” becomes “seven goofy men, six screeching babies.” At the 11th doorbell ding, the narrator notices with dismay that only crumbs are left on the sweet potato pie plate. Thankfully, the baker comes to her rescue in a lovely final scene. Twelve Dinging Doorbells is a stellar ode to rollicking family gatherings at any time of the year.
Through the North Pole Snow
A white fox digging in a snowdrift falls through Santa’s roof in Through the North Pole Snow, a lovely tale whose mixed-media illustrations and quiet, wondrous tone bring to mind Eric Carle’s Dream Snow and Jan Brett’s holiday tales. Polly Faber’s text doesn’t name the white-bearded, red-sweatered man until the very end of the book, instead offering a garland of clues that start with the man’s first comment when he frees the fox from his living room ceiling: “Stuck? Now that’s a problem I understand!”
Faber’s Santa lives a peaceful life alone in a cabin, marvelously free from all of the holiday hullabaloo. Fox watches him as the seasons change, slowly building up to Christmas Eve. The result provides children with an insider’s look at a year spent with Santa, from his long post-Christmas nap, his months of careful toy making, a flurry of wish-filled letters that fill the sky like snowflakes, the arrival of the reindeer and, at last, the loading of the sleigh.
Richard Jones’ exquisite illustrations underscore the subdued nature of this tale, with nary a “ho ho ho” to be heard and no elves in sight. Instead, this Santa is a lone, studious worker, surrounded by nature. He even chops his own wood. And yet there’s plenty of magic in the making as his shelves fill up with handmade treasures and the reindeer are decked out in brightly colored harnesses. Families feeling overwhelmed by seasonal excess will find Through the North Pole Snow a welcome respite.
Latkes and Applesauce
“Long ago in a village far away,” the Menashe family is ready to celebrate Hanukkah, but their plans are foiled by a blizzard so big it seems “as if all heaven’s featherbeds had burst.” Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story updates the text of a charming wintry tale originally published in 1989, replacing Robin Spowart’s illustrations with new artwork by Kris Easlier.
Mama, Papa and little Rebecca and Ezra usually dig up potatoes from their garden to make latkes and pick apples from their trees for applesauce. This year, Mama notes, “the blizzard has swallowed our feast.” As the days pass, the family’s food supply dwindles, yet they continue to celebrate as best they can.
Author Fran Manushkin’s evocative prose moves the narrative along, heightening the tension yet keeping the mood upbeat and reassuring. Excitement arrives in the form of two unexpected visitors, a stray cat and dog who delight the children but also mean more mouths to feed. “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” Papa repeatedly reminds his family.
Kris Easler’s illustrations lend a contemporary vibe to this “long ago” family. Every spread is bathed in warmth, the glow emanating from the Menashes’ home contrasting with the deep blue of the falling snow. The family’s faces are expressive as their occasional worried glances interrupt their optimism. The kindness they show the stray animals leads to a solution to the family’s dilemma that’s a bit predictable but still rewarding. Cheerful and cozy, this edition of Latkes and Applesauce has the makings of a new classic.
As long, dark winter nights set in, snuggle up with these sparkling festive tales.
The year’s best picture books reveal the power of simplicity—the perfectly placed word, the stroke of a paintbrush at just the right spot—to capture the most complex of emotions and stories. In other words, they’re exquisite.
As the sun sets and a full moon rises, three children venture outside, ostensibly to find their runaway dog but mostly to frolic in the nocturnal world beyond their gate. Author Dianne White and illustrator Felicita Sala’s Dark on Light is lyrical, charming and wonderful.
White’s text is more like a poem than a straightforward story. In lieu of lengthy descriptions, she creates a vivid world through concise statements that form rhymed couplets: “Silent the owl. Still the night. / Dark the meadow beneath its flight.” Once every four lines, the couplets resolve by using the book’s title as a refrain. This repetition, along with the text’s soothing, cohesive meter, lends Dark on Light the mood of a calming lullaby. It calls to mind the way we feel compelled to whisper among shadows, to hush our voices as we explore the realm of nighttime. It’s magical and awe-inducing, but never eerie or foreboding.
Sala’s illustrations do much of the narrative work. We see the children run through flowery fields, traipse through a forest, turn cartwheels in the grass and eventually find their dog and make their way home to bed. Sala’s artwork has a classical look, with soft shapes and muted hues that are familiar, joyful and full of life. And while night is often a source of fear for children, Sala’s dark forest is beautiful and deep, populated with gentle, curious creatures, including a doe and her fawn, a fox and a squirrel nestled in the hollow of a tree. Enchanting details—the Canis Major constellation highlighted in the starry sky, a teddy bear peeking out from under a bed—give readers a further sense of security. This is a safe book for imagination and dreams.
Everything about Dark on Light makes it perfect for cozy time or bedtime. Actually, everything about Dark on Light makes it just about perfect.
Night can be a source of fear for children, but soothing text and joyful, lively artwork give this picture book the feel of a calm, reassuring lullaby.
Marlene dreads Sundays, when she and her mom, Paola, spend most of the day at the salon undergoing the excruciating (and excruciatingly boring) ritual of getting their hair straightened. Marlene, who is Dominican American, has an imagination as vivid and untameable as her naturally curly hair, so she survives each week’s torture session by imagining herself as the star of her favorite show, “Super Amigas,” with her stylist as a supervillain.
But Marlene’s creativity is no match for the hurtful comments that her relatives make about her cousin Diana’s “good hair,” which is showcased in all its glossy glory at Diana’s quinceañera. And unlike on “Super Amigas,” there’s no way for Marlene to win this battle. After encouragement from her best friend, Camilla, and a little help from a YouTube tutorial, Marlene decides to wear her natural hair to school, but she gets ruthlessly bullied by her classmates and punished by her mom. How can Marlene be proud of who she is if everyone around her constantly makes her feel imperfect?
For her first graphic novel, Claribel A. Ortega, the bestselling author of Ghost Squad and the Witchlings series, is joined by debut artist Rose Bousamra. The result is a spirited story of a girl’s quest to embrace who she is. Bousamra’s artwork skillfully portrays lively city scenes and cozy interiors alike. They use a palette of roses, plums and soft teals to play perfectly off the warm brown and russet tones of Marlene’s skin and hair. Scenes pulled from Marlene’s imagination break through panel outlines, reinforcing her exuberance and growing frustrations.
Frizzy is an intimate mother-daughter drama that sensitively explores the concept of so-called “good hair,” a manifestation of racist beauty standards, as well as how such internalized anti-Blackness gets passed down through generations. Eager to value her unique identity, Marlene eventually learns how to advocate for herself, and her journey to proud self-acceptance is nothing short of joyful. In the end, readers are left to imagine what new weekly adventures Marlene and her mom might discover together, outside the stifling walls of the salon.
In this intimate mother-daughter drama, the journey to proud self-acceptance is utterly joyful.
As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, we turn to all things cozy—and we can think of nothing more heartwarming than an unexpected friendship. Here are the platonic pairings that made the BookPage editors feel all snuggly inside.
In Tana French’s The Secret Place, Detective Stephen Moran gets his chance to join the Murder Squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him new evidence in an investigation into a murder that took place on the grounds of her boarding school. Stephen heads to Holly’s school to investigate alongside Antoinette Conway, the original detective assigned to the case. Their first interactions are anything but promising, given their diametrically opposed approaches to their work. Stephen masks his ambition behind a friendly, unassuming persona, but Antoinette, who is biracial, has long since given up on playing nice with people determined to hate her due to her gender, racial background or both. As they interrogate Holly and her friends over the course of one long day, a tentative respect begins to grow between the two of them, thanks to their mutual intellect and their common experience of clawing their way up the ranks from working-class backgrounds. It could be the start of a beautiful partnership, and French makes readers as invested in Stephen and Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship as they are in the mystery’s solution.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
Frank and the Bad Surprise
I’m going to cut to the chase here. The titular character in Martha Brockenbrough and Jon Lau’s Frank and the Bad Surprise is a cat who lives a good life with his humans, and the bad surprise is a new puppy. The puppy interrupts Frank’s naps, has gross puppy breath and eats Frank’s food, so Frank decides it’s time to move on. “Good luck with that puppy,” he writes in a note to his humans. “You will need it.” There’s so much to love about this illustrated chapter book, from the way Brockenbrough’s wry prose perfectly captures Frank’s feline perspective to the way Lau’s paintings bring Frank’s personality to life. In several images, you’ll swear you can almost hear Frank purring. But the best part is the way Brockenbrough engineers a moving reconciliation between the two former enemies, neatly sidestepping schlock and sentiment and going straight for understated emotional truth. It’s positively the cat’s pajamas.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, an aging woman breaks away from her grating London family and has a go at independent life in the countryside. After keeping house for her father and brother for over 40 years, Laura Willowes feels liberated in Buckinghamshire—finally free to take long walks in nature and enjoy her own company. Until her nephew visits. Suddenly she is reduced to her old Aunt Lolly self again—put upon and bedeviled—and she becomes so desperate that she calls out for help. Luckily Satan answers, and the novel transforms into a fantastical tale of Lolly’s burgeoning talents as a witch. Along the way, the devil turns out to be a chummy pal: giving Lolly the power to hex her nephew, listening to her complaints about society’s treatment of women. (Satan, as it turns out, is a compassionate and attentive listener.) It’s a darkly humorous novel of a middle-aged woman who is so desperate for autonomy that she’s willing to make a deal—or at least make friends—with the devil.
George Saunders’ first (and so far, only) novel brings together some odd characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, a group of ghosts works together to save Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, from a place between life and death. Here in the bardo, the ghosts know all of one another’s quirks and faults and dreams and regrets. They’ve come to love one another, and as a reader, I found it easy to love them too. The most unlikely best friendship in the bardo is between middle-aged, carnally frustrated Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, a heartbroken young man who took his own life and now bursts involuntarily into poetry about the beauty of the world he left behind. One of Saunders’ most remarkable gifts is his ability to make even unpleasant characters deeply befriendable. He outdoes himself with this book, crafting 166 distinct, compelling voices and interspersing them with excerpts from real and invented historical sources. He fantastically spins a moment in American history into a philosophical exploration of how grief can either isolate or unite us.
People aren’t all that different, even though it often feels that way, and therein lies one of the key superpowers of the “unlikely friendship” trope: bridging polarized experiences to discover where people actually overlap, where one person’s hand fits snugly into another’s. Nancy Johnson’s debut, The Kindest Lie, is one of the novels that most successfully encompasses both the political optimism of 2008 and the insidious racial divisions that were worsened by the economic stress of the Great Recession. Johnson’s protagonist, Ruth, is a Black chemical engineer who returns to her Rust Belt hometown to seek out the child she placed for adoption when she was 17. Upon her return, Ruth bonds with Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is mostly being raised by his grandmother but still hopes for connection with his neglectful, bigoted father. Ruth’s and Midnight’s experiences of race, class and privilege are very different, but they’re both lonely, lost and understandably flawed people, and together they find something akin to belonging in a heartbreaking world.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
You’ve got a friend in me! These books feature platonic pairings that made us feel all warm and snuggly inside.
A reverent and joyful celebration of berry picking, Berry Song is the stunning authorial debut of Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade, an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
As a girl and her grandmother pick berries in the Tongass National Forest, located not far from the author-illustrator’s home in Sitka, Alaska, Goade poetically describes nature’s many bounties and conveys the need for humans to be Earth’s stewards. All the while, she never loses sight of those yummy berries! Choral litanies of berry names (“Salmonberry, Cloudberry, Blueberry, Nagoonberry. / Huckleberry, Soapberry, Strawberry, Crowberry.”) keep the tone light and playful.
Once the pair return home, they transform their harvest into treats such as huckleberry pie and nagoonberry jam. The book ends by depicting how its wisdom continues to pass from generation to generation as the narrator, now an adult, leads her younger sister into the forest. “I have so much to show you,” she says.
Goade’s energetic artwork imbues the book’s natural setting with an enchanting, otherworldly beauty. The poster-worthy first spread welcomes readers with a spirit of adventure as the young narrator, arms outstretched in the wind, rides with her grandmother in a motorboat over a “wide, wild sea” toward the forest. Bright blue and red berries “glowing like little jewels” provide a striking contrast to the deep and verdant woods that teem with wildlife. In several illustrations, human and flora appear to merge, with leaves sprouting from hair or tree limbs extending from arms or hands, reflecting a call and response exchange between the girl and her grandmother: “‘We are a part of the land . . .’ ‘As the land is a part of us.’”
Excellent backmatter includes photos of some of the berries mentioned in the book, information about the role that berries play in the lives and culture of the Tlingit people and Goade’s personal reflections on some of the book’s key concepts including gunalchéesh, a Tlingit word spoken to express gratitude.
A modern-day Wampanoag grandmother tells her grandchildren the story of the first Thanksgiving from a new perspective in Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story. “Here’s what really happened,” she says.
Co-authors Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten set the stage effectively through two sections of text, titled “Before you begin” and “Important words to know,” placed between the book’s title page and the beginning of the narrative. They explain that the Wampanoag people lived in their ancestral homeland for 12,000 years, which is why they are referred to as “the First Peoples” throughout the book.
The grandmother narrates the story of the Three Sisters (Beans, Squash and Weeâchumun, or Corn), whom illustrator Garry Meeches Sr. portrays as spectral elders. When Seagull announces that newcomers have arrived, Weeâchumun asks Fox to watch them and report back. Fox relays that the starving newcomers have found corn seeds but don’t know what to do with them, so the sisters converse with Deer, Rabbit and Turkey about the best course of action. “We will send the First Peoples to help the newcomers,” Weeâchumun concludes.
After a Wampanoag man named Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, teaches the newcomers how to grow crops, they invite the First Peoples to celebrate Keepunumuk, the harvest. “That meal changed both our lives and theirs forever,” the grandmother explains to her young listeners. “Many Americans call it a day of thanksgiving. Many of our people call it a day of mourning.” “That’s different from what we learn in school,” one of the children replies.
Meeches’ illustrations incorporate familiar images of the Wampanoag people’s early encounters with the Plymouth settlers but stay focused on the First Peoples, their beliefs and the land itself. Many scenes unfold against deep blue skies and natural landscapes, and when the Three Sisters appear, they’re often accompanied by lovely curling, twining tendrils. A somber page that depicts the silhouettes of the First Peoples who were “taken by sickness” is particularly striking.
With a skillful balance of detail and simplicity that’s just right for young readers, Keepunumuk offers a vital viewpoint on the national Thanksgiving holiday.
Still This Love Goes On
To create Still This Love Goes On, acclaimed Cree Métis artist Julie Flett faced an unusual challenge: to illustrate a song from Canadian American musician Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 2009 album, Running for the Drum.
In an author’s note, Sainte-Marie explains that the images she describes in her song’s lyrics were “like taking photos with my heart of all that I see on the reserve.” As she wrote, she wanted to express her love “for it all, day after day, year after year—especially the people and our Cree ways, precious like the fragrance of sweetgrass.” The book’s backmatter includes complete lyrics and sheet music.
Flett’s vibrant presentation celebrates the power of family and the immense beauty of open spaces. In the first spread, a mother and child sit together, surrounded by a vast expanse of ice tinged with blue and pink, and watch “the winter grow.” Subsequent spreads evoke changing seasons and the passage of time amid wonderful vistas: A woman and child gaze at the ocean as a whale breaches the surface of the water; a child runs through a mountain meadow filled with yellow flowers; a herd of buffalo gallops toward a distant rainbow. A series of images that depict a drum circle, two jingle dancers and a girl singing and playing her guitar are almost audible as they echo both Sainte-Marie’s lyrics and the feelings evoked by her music.
Still This Love Goes On transforms a memorable song into a moving and heartfelt visual poem. A worthy homage to Cree people, lands and traditions, it’s a reassuring read-aloud that will encourage young readers to reflect on the places and people they love.
Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade's Berry Song leads a trio of picture books that convey stories written and illustrated by Indigenous North Americans, offering insights into cultural practices, history and heritage.
A cat must save the moon from being eaten by intergalactic rats in this graphic novel from author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Honor illustrator Shawn Harris. Its madcap silliness and accessible artwork will appeal to the legions of loyal fans eager for more of the laugh-out-loud humor and deceptively simple cartoon-style art sure to be found in Jeff Kinney’s 17th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Diper Overlöde.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most young readers can’t resist a good animal story. Readers hoping to receive Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate’s Odder this holiday season are sure to enjoy debut author C.C. Harrington’s touching tale of a girl and a snow leopard who find each other when they are both most in need.
Endlessly Ever After
This illustrated choose-your-own-adventure journey through fractured fairy tales from Laurel Snyder and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat is deliciously meta, which is why it’s the perfect choice to pair with the boundary-pushing graphics and nested metanarratives that await young readers in Cat Kid Comic Club: Collaborations, the newest release from Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey.
Help your pint-size bibliophile discover new favorites by pairing one of these fun, under-the-radar reads with the popular books at the top of their wish lists!
You only think you know the story of the three billy goats who wanted to cross the bridge and the troll who tried to stop them. In The Three Billy Goats Gruff, acclaimed author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen create a wickedly funny retelling that breathes new life into the classic story. The author and illustrator chatted with BookPage about transforming oral tales into picture books, their many years of collaboration and the interior decorating habits of trolls.
This is your seventh picture book together. Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with each other. What are your collaborations like? Has the process changed? Author Mac Barnett: Jon and I have been friends for 13 years now, and we still talk about picture books more than anything else. Like, it’s not even close. When we’re making a book together, it feels like an opportunity to continue that conversation, and in that way our books are documents of friendship and expressions of our mutual love for this art form.
Illustrator Jon Klassen: I don’t know if it’s changed much in terms of how we talk. We’ve always had this kind of creepy shorthand where we start sentences and the rest is understood.
Our collaboration does change a fair bit from book to book because we mix up how they come about pretty often. Sometimes we beat out a story together, then Mac writes it and then I draw it, and I go back to him for changes in the text to solve problems we hadn’t thought of initially. For this one, he’d written the text without me specifically in mind, so it was much more about treating the text as almost unchangeable. I think maybe there were one or two tweaks, but it wasn’t as much of a hands-on collaboration. But that’s very enjoyable too. I like constraints, and that’s a big one.
This is the first volume in what will be at least a trilogy of picture books that retell fairy tales. Why did you begin with “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”? Barnett: Foremost on my mind was ensuring that the stories work as picture books. I wanted to create entertaining read-alouds that make good use of page turns and set up dynamic relationships between text and image.
It was a delicate but significant act of adaptation: Fairy tales began as an oral tradition and then were set down as straight prose (sometimes with decorative illustrations, which function way differently from the images in a picture book). Fairy tales are such crowd pleasers. Over countless retellings, these stories evolved to maximize reactions from groups of children sitting and listening.
Picture books work differently than any other form of storytelling. And “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” just made so much sense as a picture book—it’s such a visual story, and all about scale. I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws.
Klassen: This story is a tricky one to tell because a lot of times it’s included in some kind of anthology and it only gets one page and one illustration or something. But Mac understood that the pleasure in the story is in the page-turn reveals, and in drawing it all out and then doubling down over and over again when it gets to the part where the troll gets punished. The pacing of it is perfectly suited to a picture book, and Mac divided it up that way and got maximum impact out of the beats. It was a real pleasure to work over.
Mac, what well-known elements of the story did you want to preserve? Which ones did you want to play around with? Barnett: In this story, I leave the original plot pretty much intact. I love revisionist storytelling and fractured fairy tales (The Stinky Cheese Man made me want to write picture books), but that’s not really what we’re up to here. This book feels more like how Jon and I would tell this story about a troll and some goats that we remember hearing as kids. That said, every telling of a fairy tale is a retelling, and I think this version feels very much our own.
In “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the good guys don’t get much stage time. The goats file by, one by one, but we spend most of our time with the villain. So I wanted to give a little more sense of who this troll was and what he wanted, and I probably inevitably ended up sympathizing with him a bit.
I changed the ending too. Here’s the original text, as set down in the middle of the 19th century (translated from the Norwegian by D.L. Ashliman): “And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade.”
For me, that doesn’t work in a picture book. It’s too violent. Mind you, I’d have no problem telling the story that way—out loud, without pictures—to a group of young kids. It works great without pictures! You can feel the storyteller stoking the crowd, getting squeals and screams, upping the ante. But as soon as you add pictures, it gets too gross. It breaks the spell. A famous Jon Klassen eyeball flying from its socket, a little optic nerve wiggling behind it? No thank you. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the ending—gratuitous, escalating, funny—and I like where we landed very much.
Jon, as you set out to illustrate this book, what scene were you most excited to bring to life? Klassen: I really liked the beginning spread, where we first meet the troll. The illustration only takes up like a fifth of the page space and you barely see him. Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off. Even though, on its own, that first spread doesn’t show very much, it’s got a lot of tension and promise, and I like that a lot.
What was challenging about illustrating the goats and the troll? What was enjoyable? Klassen: The goats were very fun because they are the straight men in this story. Their job is to play it cool and look at the troll like he’s ridiculous. From the start they’ve got a solid, coordinated plan to deal with him, and they’re never scared, so they get to be almost like statues of goats that move on- and offstage when the story tells them to, and that’s about it.
The troll took a minute to figure out. My first few stabs were a little too human. The main thing I wanted to keep about him was my impression, from illustrations of trolls when I was growing up, that they almost look like they’re part of the ground they inhabit. It’s not as much about the details or a specific anatomy as it is about them almost being hidden, and then you see their eyes in there somewhere.
Mac, the troll speaks mostly in rhyme, a technique you haven’t often employed. How did you arrive at this? Barnett: I love poetry and poetic forms. I studied poetry and for a long time, well into college, I thought I might become a poet. Fairy tales often move from poetry to prose, so I thought it’d be fun to do that here. Jon’s staging of this story is very theatrical, and I think the troll’s poetry feels similarly performative: He’s chewing the scenery and really inhabiting his trollness . . . until it all breaks down.
We spend most of the book in one location: the bridge beneath which the troll lives. Jon, how did you decide what this would look like? Klassen: When I first took on the book, I bought an old book on bridge design. I was all excited about doing it in this historical way, but then the more I sat with the story, the more it seemed like the right answer was actually a very, very simple bridge that was probably made by hand and maybe wasn’t even used by people anymore. The troll had claimed it long ago, and he’s not much on upkeep. Like the troll, the planks of the bridge almost merge with the ground, and they’ve got grass and vines growing on them. I wanted the wood to feel soft.
The troll’s decor started with the skull hanging from the bridge, and then I added some bones around him. The team at Scholastic liked this direction and kept embellishing on what else he’d have down there, so now we have some playing cards and a boot and an old can—just stuff that might’ve floated downriver at some point. I think there’s a lot of downtime under there between potential meals crossing the bridge.
What are your favorite illustrations in the book? Klassen: My favorite is the page where all three goats are eating in the meadow near the end. They look safe and satisfied, and it’s just a really strong moment. The story is mainly about justice against this antagonistic force, which is simple enough, but the result ended up hitting me harder than I expected it to. I think it’s one of the better spreads Mac and I have done together in any of our books.
Barnett: He texted [that spread] to me as soon as he’d finished it, which he only does when he’s really excited about something, and it totally knocked me over.
One thing we do in this book is make the third goat ridiculously large. Most of the time, the progression of goats in this story goes small, medium, large. Sometimes you get an extra-large goat at the end. But we go small, medium, enormous—absolutely gargantuan, bigger than any goat in the history of picture books. We thought it would be funny.
Our version, like the original tale, ends with all the goats together, eating on the grassy ridge. And this picture is of three goats, one of whom is just ridiculously huge, enjoying a nice meal at sunset, completely at peace. And while the visual joke is still present, the image is so sweet and peaceful and moving. I cried when I saw it.
In a lot of our books together, Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story? The answer, often, is the sublime.
This book contains a litany of ways in which the troll dreams of preparing and eating goat. If you were a troll, what would be your favorite way to eat goat? Klassen: I don’t think it’s a secret that neither Mac or I give too much thought to the overt lessons our books might teach, but if there is a lesson in here anywhere, it’s that we should probably lay off the goat-eating.
If you encountered a troll beneath a bridge you needed to cross, what would you do? Klassen: I’d probably deliberate on the edge for a little while, then suddenly make a run for it across the bridge, be caught three steps in and eaten immediately.
Barnett: I’d try to sneak across while the troll is eating Jon.
Photo of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen courtesy of Carson Ellis.
Two award-winning children’s book creators reveal how they told their story about some goats and a troll under a bridge.
This deceptively simple picture book explores the emotions we feel when friendships end. Deborah Underwood’s story focuses on Walter, a rodent-ish fellow with white fur, round ears and a long pink tail. Walter’s best friend is Xavier, a yellow duck-like creature whose feet and flat beak are green.
The two friends do everything together. They hike, paint pictures, float in a rowboat and just enjoy sitting quietly. Their friendship changes, however, when a hedgehog named Penelope appears, and she and Xavier begin spending more time with each other.
Gradually, Walter’s world is transformed. He experiences anger, loneliness and sadness as Xavier gravitates more and more toward Penelope. Especially evocative is a scene in which Penelope and Xavier have invited Walter to a ball game. It rains, and the new friends share an umbrella while Walter sits apart from them, miserable and wet.
Underwood’s spare text provides ample space for illustrator Sergio Ruzzier’s surreal, otherworldly landscapes and bright pastel color palette. Ruzzier depicts the impact of Walter’s loss in approachable, moving images. For instance, we learn that Walter is quiet, “but it was a sad quiet. Not best friend quiet.” The accompanying spread shows Walter sitting alone on a dock; a dangling rope nearby suggests that the rowboat has been launched without him. He has lost not only his friend but also the pleasures they enjoyed together.
Just as Walter loses his friendship with Xavier slowly, his recovery is also slow, But he misses the activities he used to do with Xavier, so one bright day, when rays of sunshine beam through the closed curtains at his house, he just can’t resist the urge to go on a hike. Instead of taking the old trail, he strikes out on a new one—and discovers the promise of a new friendship along the way.
The book’s gentle pace, engaging artwork and lyrical yet straightforward text make this a comforting, reassuring read for young readers experiencing transitions at school or with friends. Walter Had a Best Friend is a gem.
When Walter’s best friend finds a new best friend, Walter’s world is transformed in this comforting, reassuring picture book.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.
In Southernmost, novelist Silas House tells the story of Asher Sharp, a young preacher living in rural east Tennessee with his wife, Lydia, and their adolescent son, Justin. After a violent flood tears through their town, Asher provides shelter for a gay couple despite the religious conservatism of the area. Asher’s generosity is influenced in part by the immense guilt that remains from rejecting his gay brother, Luke, many years prior.
Laura Amy Schlitz’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, immersed readers in the sights, sounds and smells of medieval life, warts and all. Her masterfully constructed Amber & Clay transports young readers to ancient Greece, a place with serious inequality and injustice where young people could become part of history and where ghosts and gods walk the mortal world.
Three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated charts the rise of Jim Thorpe, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and All-American fullback for the Carlisle Indians, one of the most innovative football teams ever to take the field. Despite its focus, readers need not be sports fans to enjoy this book.