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A horse and a lighthouse

Picture books of the year: Top choices show imagination, nobility

A horse and a lighthouse

Last January our committee of seven started on a hunt to find a picture book worthy of being WORLD’s Picture Book of the Year for 2018. Our mission: to find a book beautiful to look at, appealing to children, and full of wisdom.

This year when our committee voted, we found ourselves torn between two excellent choices: Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, with illustrations by Corinna Luyken (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018, ages 3-5), and Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018, ages 5-8).

Chloe is the elementary-aged narrator of Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse. She’s indignant because poor, red-headed Adrian insists he has a horse. She knows that’s not true and wants everyone else to know it.

The inside jacket flap reads, “Sometimes we have to learn to see with kindness.” That’s the message of this pitch-perfect picture book, but as in the best books, it shows rather than tells. 

Through pictures that perfectly complement the text, the book depicts children going about daily life, picking weeds at the playground, clumping together at the lunch table, messing with bike repairs—and gossiping about whether Adrian Simcox really has a horse. Chloe puts it plainly, “He can’t take care of a horse. Adrian Simcox can’t even take care of his own desk.”

We love Chloe’s authentic voice and feel her frustration as she insists on what she knows must be true. She complains to everyone, including her mother, who devises a clever way to deepen Chloe’s understanding.

Just as Chloe is about to let Adrian have it—“You. Do. Not. Have. A. Horse.”—she sees a sad expression cross his face, and she swallows the words. The book ends with Chloe enjoying hearing one of Adrian’s tall horse tales. She realizes that despite his poverty, the boy is pretty special: “I thought Adrian Simcox had just about the best imagination of any kid in our whole school. I also thought he had the most beautiful horse of anyone, anywhere.”

The illustrations have a hand-drawn quality that captures the children’s gestures, postures, and expressions. The pictures also hide secrets. Notice how the horses hidden in the grass become more visible as Chloe’s empathy deepens. This book should delight children and satisfy their parents.

Our second winner is Hello Lighthouse. It portrays the daily life of a lighthouse keeper as he faithfully tends the light that keeps passing ships from crashing onto rocks.

The book offers colorful, rich-in-detail illustrations that repeat motifs: the round rooms, views through round windows, spiral stairs, views through a round telescope lens. That visual repetition reinforces the repeated choruses: hello, hello, hello and clang, clang, clang. And then we see the daily chores required to keep the lighthouse working. The faithful lighthouse keeper records each day in his logbook.

The book contrasts the lighthouse, built to last forever, and the always-changing wind and weather. Inside the lighthouse, a growing family shelters within sturdy walls. Blackall offers a sweet view of family life—the wife cares for the keeper (and the light) when he is ill, and he cares for her when she gives birth.

One of our reviewers loved this book’s portrayal of a noble man living a simple and good life without accolade. It may be a life that our culture undervalues, but it is an example for our children. At the back of the book, Blackall includes many facts about lighthouses for those who want more.

Short List

Night Job

By Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

“On Friday nights when the sun goes down, I snap the clips shut on Dad’s lunch box and climb onto the back of his bike.” Together they go to Dad’s work as a school janitor. As they work, they carry the radio from room to room so they can listen to the baseball game. Dad reads to the boy in the library before he falls asleep on the green vinyl couch. The book is full of sensory detail. It conveys the magic of being awake when everyone else is sleeping. The book ends with a sweet scene of them asleep on a recliner together. (Ages 3-7)

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

By Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Chris Hsu

This fun read explores the history of the Band-Aid. At various points in the story, the author prematurely announces The End. And after each semi-stop we learn about a complication in the invention process. Simple retro illustrations take us back to 1917, with newlyweds Earle and Josephine Dickson. We learn that Josephine was clumsy with knives and often cut herself. The author shows how Earle responded with creativity to invent a bandage and then needed ingenuity to refine and market it. Boo-Boos is fun and offers an inspiring story of real people doing interesting things. (Ages 4-8)

A House That Once Was

By Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith

Two children come across an old house in the woods: “a house just a house that once was but now isn’t a home.” With poetic language Fogliano explores the mystery of the old house, which draws in the children just as it draws in the reader. We wonder about the people who left it so suddenly and imagine the lives they had in this house that once was a home. The impressionistic illustrations add to the mystery (though some children may find them confusing). A nesting bluebird flits from page to page. Children may enjoy finding it. (Ages 3-6)

Drawn Together

By Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat

A young boy dreads visiting his grandfather because they don’t speak the same language. When the grandfather sees his grandson doodling with markers, he brings out his ink and pen. Suddenly the two have a lot to say with their art. Vibrant superhero illustrations in dueling styles depict the cultural divide and also highlight the bridge that art provides. The comic-book-style art powers the story, making the book accessible even to those without much English. It’s a sweet story of going beyond words to connect and love one another. (Ages 4-7) 

Committee members: Pamela Palmer, Sandy Barwick, Megan Saben, Kristin Chapman, Mary Jackson, Courtney Russell, and Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband, Marvin, live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.