Christina Matekel-Gibson: Review of the best picture books and novels from 2020 | Lifestyles
2020 was a great year for books. I’ve discussed many of them here in previous columns, but it was impossible to share them all. I’m going to highlight some of the best picture books and novels that I haven’t shared yet.
DERRICK BARNES and GORDON C. JAMES ‘”I AM EVERY GOOD THING” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and perhaps one of the best picture books I’ve read in a long time. Barnes and James won a host of awards (including the Newbery Medal) for their latest storybook, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh, and they didn’t disappoint with the follow-up.
The past few years have seen many self-esteem picture books with many notable titles – including “Crown” and “I Am Enough” to name a few – but “I Am Every Good Thing” feels uniquely fresh somehow. Even the best self-confidence picture book runs the risk of relying on clichés or revised sentences. The power here lies in the mundane, in the personal aspects of what the narrator (in this case a young black boy) thinks is good, as well as in the audacity and confidence of the broader proclamations. I read this book as part of a library program to encourage children to think about what makes them special. Although I wasn’t the target audience, I read and reread passages of this book because it made me feel good. The best picture books are universal and offer something for every reader.
James’ illustrations are similar to those in “Crown” and stand out here for similar reasons. The oil paint portraits feel as great as the bold proclamations the narrator makes everywhere. James paints the children in the book as they see themselves or how they would like others to see them.
Another storybook I loved in late 2020 was FAN BROTHERS ‘THE BARNABUS PROJECT, which follows a group of mismatched pets (or “failed experiments”) trying to break out of Perfect Pets’ secret laboratory. Barnabus, a hybrid mouse elephant, is the leader of this epic escape story that begins in an underground laboratory where perfectly cute, fluffy and well behaved pets are created.
Barnabus and the other failed experiments sit alone under bell jars until they’re recycled into something cuter. The lush illustrations add weight to this (very cute) escape story, making Barnabus’ experience feel both real and serious. The Fan Brothers (Terry, Eric, and Devin) create delightfully strange neighbors for Barnabus too, including long-legged bird-like creatures with puffball bodies, a box turtle with a blurry body, and a tiny monster with the stripes, wings, and antennae of a bumblebee. The full-page spreads showing the underground pipes that connect the lab to the pet shop above, as well as the breakout scene, are layered, complex and beautiful. This is one to own.
JERRY CRAFT’s 2019 debut comic “The New Kid” has won numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal for best children’s book. I enjoyed the fun, funny, and insightful book well enough, but I have to admit that I loved the 2020 companion even more. “CLASS ACT” picks up where its predecessor left off, and the protagonist Jordan is leading his second year as one of the few black students at a respected, all-white private school. This time around, we hear from his new boyfriend Drew, a dark-skinned boy in Riverdale who is on a scholarship, as well as their wealthy white boyfriend Liam. Drew in particular struggles with what it means to be black and poor when most of his friends aren’t. His grandmother’s words echoed in his brain (“You have to work twice as hard to be as good”) as he works to get good grades, make friends, and figure out who he wants to be. If “Class Act” wasn’t a graphic novel, it would be a lot different. While the subject is often serious, the accessibility and humor of Craft’s illustrations makes it feel like a (really great) sketchbook about a weighty treatise. Each chapter illustration is taken from a popular comic or graphic novel (some favorites are Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and Shannon Hale’s “Real Friends”), and the award-winning writer / illustrator provides directional pointers when it can be difficult knows how you read.
The last middle class novel I loved this year was KELLY J. BAPTIST’s “ISAIAH DUNN IS MY HERO”. This book, which began as a short story for the middle class anthology “Flying Lessons and Other Stories,” follows the teenage Isaiah, a cute child who faces serious challenges as he and his family endure homelessness, grief and battle substance abuse. His writing and the notebooks his father left behind act as a buoy that keeps him from drifting. He spends Saturdays in the library, writing poetry and reading his father’s stories, all of which deal with Isaiah the superhero. The actual Isaiah may not be sure he’s a superhero, but his father’s love for him gives him the confidence to move on when it looks like life has turned against him. I love Isaiah as a character – he’s cute, a good friend, a good son, and a good big brother. Circumstances mean he must be stronger than a child, but Baptist still lets him be a child. Finally, while I may be biased here, I appreciate that the library is a haven for Isaiah, a place to get lost in books and in his writing. This is an excellent debut novel about growing up, loss, the power of words and the importance of community.
Christina Matekel-Gibson is the children’s librarian at Joplin Public Library.