If you were a reader as a child, this post will be intensely nostalgic. The children’s literature community tragically lost numerous beloved authors and illustrators in the past year. It is difficult to fathom the full impact these artists had on the development of literature for young people. These creators managed to accomplish both widespread popularity and critical acclaim in the sphere of children’s literature. Some we lost way too soon, like Floyd Cooper at 65 and Steve Jenkins at 69. Beverly Cleary, the cherished author of the Ramona Quimby series, was with us until the impressive age of 104.
Eloise Greenfield, Jerry Pinkney, and Floyd Cooper will be remembered for their exceptional contributions to children’s literature representing African American experiences. Among their bodies of work, they garnered an astonishing 18 individual recognitions from the Coretta Scott King Award committees. Just last week, Floyd Cooper’s illustrations in Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre posthumously earned him his first Caldecott Honor from the 2022 American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards.
The featured books below are a wide range of works, from hilarious read-alouds to unflinching historical nonfiction, by these children’s literature virtuosos. All that is left to say is thank you.
Norton Juster, June 2, 1929 — March 8, 2021
Beverly Cleary, April 12, 1916 — March 25, 2021
Eric Carle, June 25, 1929 — May 23, 2021
Lois Ehlert, November 9, 1934 — May 25, 2021
Floyd Cooper, January 8, 1956 — July 15, 2021
Eloise Greenfield, May 17, 1929 —August 5, 2021
Gary Paulsen, May 17, 1939 — October 13, 2021
Jerry Pinkney, December 22, 1939 — October 20, 2021
Mitsumasa Anno, March 20, 1926 — December 24, 2021
Steve Jenkins, March 31, 1952 — January 11, 2022
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood. 2021 (Middle Grade).
This middle grade memoir gives readers a new perspective on the origins of Gary Paulsen’s popular books. His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival stories. Now, Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller.
The Little Mermaid. 2020 (Picture Book).
In this captivating reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, Caldecott medalist and bestselling artist Jerry Pinkney conjures a poignant friendship story and an epic tale of redemption. Melody, the littlest sea princess, is not content just to sing in the choir of mermaids like her sisters. She is an explorer who wonders about what lies above the water’s surface . . . especially the young girl she has spied from a distance. To meet her requires a terrible sacrifice: she trades her beautiful voice for a potion that gives her legs, so that she may live on land instead. It seems like a dream come true at first. But when trouble stirs beneath the ocean, Melody faces another impossible choice — stay with her friend or reclaim her true identity and save her family. Legendary artist Jerry Pinkney’s singular reinvention of this tale about love and sacrifice empowers young, twenty-first century girls with the strong message that “you should never give up your voice . . . for anyone.”
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Weatherford, Carole Boston
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. 2021 (Nonfiction Picture Book).
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, an armed mob looted homes and businesses as Black families fled the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The police did nothing to protect Greenwood, and as many as three hundred African Americans were killed, most buried in unmarked graves. Thousands were left homeless. No official investigation occurred until seventy-five years later. Unspeakable helps young readers understand the events of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. An illustrator’s note reveals that Floyd’s own grandfather was a survivor of the 1921 massacre. Floyd drew upon memories of his grandfather’s account in his artwork.
Illustrated by: Daniel Minter
The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives. 2019 (Illustrated Poetry Book).
This story highlights important aspects of the training and work of African American midwives and the ways in which they have helped, and continue to help, so many families by “catching” their babies at birth. The blend of Eloise Greenfield’s poetry and Daniel Minter’s art evokes heartfelt appreciation of the abilities of African American midwives over the course of time. The poem “Africa to America” begins the poetic journey. The poem “The Women” both heralds the poetry/art pairing and concludes it with a note of gratitude. Also included is a piece titled “Miss Rovenia Mayo,” which pays tribute to the midwife who caught newborn Eloise.
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The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest – and Most Surprising – Animals on Earth. 2013 (Illustrated Informational Book).
Animals smooth and spiky, fast and slow, hop and waddle through the two hundred plus pages of the Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins’s impressive nonfiction offering. Sections such as “Animal Senses,” “Animal Extremes,” and “The Story of Life” burst with fascinating facts and infographics that will have trivia buffs breathlessly asking, “Do you know a termite queen can produce up to 30,000 eggs a day?” Jenkins’s color-rich cut- and torn-paper artwork is as strikingly vivid as ever. The book highlights facts about over three hundred animals and offers a brief overview of the history of life on Earth. Dance with a blue-footed booby or stare down an eyelash viper. But mind your step — in the animal world, the name of the game is survival.
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Anno’s Counting Book. 1975 (Picture Book).
Every child is a natural mathematician, according to Mitsumasa Anno. Children are constantly comparing and classifying things and events they observe around them. As they try to bring sense and order into what they observe, they are actually performing basic mathematical feats. Gentle watercolor pictures show a landscape changing through the various times of day and the turning seasons, months and years, and the activities of the people and animals who come to live there. But the seemingly simple plan of the book is deceptive: look more carefully and you will see one-to-one correspondences; groups and sets; scales and tabulations; changes over time periods; and many other mathematical relationships as they occur in natural, everyday living. The reader is subtly led to see and understand the real meaning of numbers. Look at this book and look again. Each time you do so, you will find another application of a natural mathematical concept that you had not noticed before.
Planting a Rainbow. 1988 (Picture Book).
In this perennial classic by Caldecott Honor–winning author Lois Ehlert, little ones learn the colors of the rainbow as they watch plants grow in a beautifully vibrant garden. Through brilliant, textured cut paper collages, the story follows the progress of a mother and daughter in their backyard as they plant bulbs, seeds, and seedlings and nurture their growth into flowers. Bold, spare text and dazzling illustrations will inspire readers to take a closer look at the natural world and maybe even start a garden of their own.
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The Nonsense Show. 2015 (Picture Book).
Ducks growing out of bananas? A mouse catching a cat? What’s wrong with this book? Yes, there’s something strange, something funny and even downright preposterous on every page of this book. But it’s not a mistake – it’s nonsense! And it’s also surrealism. Nonsense lies at the heart of many beloved nursery rhymes. Children readily accept odd statements like “the cow jumped over the moon” and “the dish ran away with the spoon.” This fanciful bending of reality is also basic to surrealism. In this book, nonsense and surrealism combine to spark creativity and imagination. What’s true? What’s impossible? What’s absolutely absurd? The Nonsense Show will make children laugh and think, preparing them for a lifetime of loving both words and art.
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The Phantom Tollbooth. 1961 (Middle Grade).
This beloved story – first published more than fifty years ago – introduces readers to Milo and his adventures in the Lands Beyond. For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams. . . .
Beezus and Ramona. 1955 (Middle Grade).
Nine-year-old Beezus Quimby has her hands full with her little sister, Ramona. Sure, other people have little sisters that bother them sometimes, but is there anyone in the world like Ramona? Whether she’s taking one bite out of every apple in a box or secretly inviting 15 other 4-year-olds to the house for a party, Ramona is always making trouble – and getting all the attention. Every big sister can relate to the trials and tribulations Beezus must endure. Old enough to be expected to take responsibility for her little sister, yet young enough to be mortified by every embarrassing plight the precocious preschooler gets them into, Beezus is constantly struggling with her mixed-up feelings about the exasperating Ramona. This is the first in the Ramona series and the only book written from the perspective of Ramona’s big sister, Beezus.