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The 1619 Project: Born on the Water

Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illus. by Nikkolas Smith (Kokila)

In forthright poems by Watson and Hannah-Jones, a family offers a Black child “a proud origin story,” reaching back to the Kingdom of Ndongo, where their West Central African ancestors “had a home, a place, a land,/ a beginning.” Smith’s emotionally evocative art ranges from images of peace and joy to those of violence and grief in a powerful volume that emphasizes perseverance and hope.

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The Big Bath House

Kyo Maclear, illus. by Gracey Zhang (Random House Studio)

As Maclear remembers the local bathhouse she frequented during childhood visits to Japan, Zhang captures a child, her grandmother, and her aunties strolling along in yukata, entering a bathhouse, and soaking in the hot water together: “Ahhhhh.” Dazzling candid portraits portray groups of nude girls and women sharing the big communal pool in this treasured recollection grounded in a specific place.

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Chez Bob

Bob Shea (Little, Brown)

Shea puts a fresh spin on the villain reformed via Bob, a lazy alligator intent on gobbling birds. When he opens Chez Bob, a restaurant on his nose, it becomes so popular that Bob finds himself a pillar of the community (a “positive role model for the birds I’m going to eat”) in a book that spoofs contemporary rhetoric around communal good.

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Circle Under Berry

Carter Higgins (Chronicle)

As brilliantly hued forms appear against white backdrops, Higgins economically examines ways to observe color, shape, pattern, and position. Page turns build on the concept, presenting stacked objects alongside descriptions of them and their relationships to one another. Via “a stack of shapes” that “can make you think/ and wonder what you see,” Higgins offers seeds of conversation about naming and classification.

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Dad Bakes

Katie Yamasaki (Norton)

Inspired by families affected by incarceration, muralist Yamasaki conjures a deceptively simple picture book about a father who bakes bread—at work and at home with his child. Richly saturated, dynamic paintings showcase inclusive community, and intricately detailed spreads offer plenty to pore over in this meditative tale centering the significance of daily rhythms and familial love.

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Fish and Sun

Sergio Ruzzier (HarperAlley)

In this early reader comic by Ruzzier, Fish escapes a “cold and dark and boring” underwater world to spend a day of light on the surface, frolicking with Sun until the orb’s movements result in Fish’s sorrow—and eventual joy. An understated plot allows new readers to focus on the words and emotional arc, and Ruzzier’s slightly bonkers visual worldbuilding keeps things fresh.

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Have You Seen Gordon?

Adam Jay Epstein, illus. by Ruth Chan (Simon & Schuster)

As elaborately detailed spreads by Chan show anthropomorphized animals in various seek-and-find settings, Epstein’s chirpy narrator insists that readers spot an eager-eyed purple tapir named Gordon. But Gordon quickly grows disenchanted with the premise, foiling the search, then announcing he’s intent on standing out—a refusal that raises big questions about authority and autonomy, allyship and consent en route to the book’s sweetly affirming end.

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Keeping the City Going

Brian Floca (Atheneum/Dlouhy)

Paying tribute to the frontline workers helping to make New York City run during the pandemic, Floca brings precision and expert draftsmanship to renderings of working vehicles, centering the heroes striving to get supplies out and save lives, and the equipment that helps them do it.

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Let Me Fix You a Plate

Elizabeth Lilly (Holiday House/Porter)

A road trip leads to two different midnight kitchens, and a shared form of love, as a family visits their elders—the three young siblings’ paternal grandparents in West Virginia, and their large maternal family in Florida. With clear, bighearted text and an expressive ink line, Lilly offers an appreciation of memory and familial richness across generations and cultures.

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The Longest Storm

Dan Yaccarino (MineditionUS/Russo)

In decisive lines conveying instantly recognizable stresses, Yaccarino crafts an emotionally nuanced tale that delicately alludes to recent events: “It was unlike any storm we’d ever seen,” the volume’s narrator says; “We were going to have to stay inside.” As the event rages, domestic life unravels under the pressure of unrelenting proximity, until a moment gentles the family’s connection.

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Mel Fell

Corey R. Tabor (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)

With Mama temporarily away from the nest, a chick named Mel strides to the edge of a tree branch and announces that she’s going to fly. Tabor’s art shows Mel executing an impressive aerial somersault before blithely hurtling downward, toward a visual surprise that shows she’s a kingfisher through and through. “Hope” may be the thing with feathers, but Mel proves that “gutsy” can be, too.

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Milo Imagines the World

Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson (Putnam)

On a long subway ride through New York City, a Black boy named Milo imagines existences for other passengers in his sketchbook until an interaction transforms his perspective. De la Peña and Robinson celebrate a city’s kaleidoscope of scenes, offer a glimpse at a child’s experience with parental incarceration, and convey that child’s keen observations about his circumstances and surroundings.

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The Night Walk

Marie Dorléans, trans. from the French by Polly Lawson (Floris)

In this graceful, perfectly paced appreciation of nature by Dorléans, a family takes a blissful summer night walk into the countryside. Prose shines with sensory acuity as the family leaves a village behind them, and suspense builds as sparse beams of light illuminate the darkness, each spread carrying the family forward through the night—and toward a breathless conclusion.

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Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

Traci N. Todd, illus. by Christian Robinson (Putnam)

In this skillfully paced portrait, Todd traces Simone’s journey from her childhood in North Carolina to later years as a performer, protest song pioneer, and civil rights activist, while Robinson contributes distinctive vignettes of historical scenes. An engaging, affecting, and powerful biography that aptly situates Simone’s enduring legacy in musical and social history.

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The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

Cynthia Levinson, illus. by Evan Turk (Abrams)

Levinson’s smooth, well-researched profile of Jewish artist and activist Ben Shahn, who emigrated from Lithuania to America in 1906, highlights the threads of compassion and social justice that ran through his work. Bold, richly layered multimedia illustrations by Turk feature abstracted characters in Shahn’s style in this comprehensive introduction to a justice-minded painter.

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The Rock from the Sky

Jon Klassen (Candlewick)

In this pleasurably tense five-episode volume that’s just right for uncertain times, Klassen provides 96 pages of dark, Beckett-caliber comedy and proves himself a top-notch student of the way that conscious beings seek to take charge of their own realities while facing inexorably advancing events—efforts that nearly always fail and are sometimes punctuated by falling rocks.

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Soul Food Sunday

Winsome Bingham, illus. by C.G. Esperanza (Abrams)

In Bingham and Esperanza’s abundantly satisfying picture book, as a large family—“Mommas and Poppas,/ aunts and uncles,/ nieces, nephews, and a whole lot of cousins”—gathers for Soul Food Sunday, the child narrator follows Granny into the kitchen to learn how to cook each of the meal’s elements. A nourishing story for anyone who’s experienced how food and tradition can strengthen bonds.

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Thank You, Neighbor!

Ruth Chan (HarperCollins)

Each day, Chan’s protagonist trades “Thank you!” with neighbors: a firefighter, a person sweeping leaves on a sidewalk, a garbage collector. As text reminds readers that connection is “what makes our neighborhood// feel like home,” crisp art highlights a range of apartment dwellers liaising on narrow sidewalks—the book’s strong sense of community is as invigorating as a brisk walk.

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Watercress

Andrea Wang, illus. by Jason Chin (Holiday House/Porter)

In a multilayered autobiographical narrative employing elegant free verse, Wang conveys a car ride, portrayed in muted watercolors by Chin, that’s interrupted when a child’s parents notice watercress in a roadside ditch, and stop to pick it. Though her older brother readily picks, and subsequently eats, the watercress, the narrator is resistant—until her mother shares an affecting childhood memory that makes “a/ new memory of/ watercress.”

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