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TURNING A SHACK INTO A HOME: Brightening colors help tell a story of hope amid tragedy

Picture books

WORLD’s Picture Book of the Year is Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 5-8), a hope-filled, true story of a family that survives and prospers despite tragedy. Adults will appreciate the enormity of the challenges the mother faces. Children will appreciate the simple story and luminous illustrations that show a family facing difficult circumstances with resourcefulness, tenacity, love—and fun.

The book begins with a monochromatic spread featuring Mum, 34, surrounded by cameo portraits of her eight children, including Eva, only 3 months old. The next page reads, “Dad lives with the angels now, and we need to find a new home.”

The home they find is a dilapidated shack in the woods. It has an old bedspring, a rusty stove, and dirty canning jars in the cellar. The narrator, Marvel, 6, says the shack “looks cold and empty, like I feel inside.” But Mum says, “You never know what treasures we’ll find.”

The story unfolds through the seasons. Some of those treasures become apparent: a pump that brings forth clear, cold water, and rich dark soil under a layer of rotting leaves. They plant seeds. “Some treasures take a little time,” says Mum.

They discover more treasures in the woods: an abundance of berries and wildlife. “Our laughter echoes through the trees.” 

When Mum goes to work in town, the children divvy up the chores at the shack. When they finish with chores, they invent games like General Store—again their laughter “echoes through the trees.”

By the time spring rolls around, Marvel the narrator sees the shack with new eyes: “The shack all wrapped in tar paper looks different now—warm and bright and filled up with love … like I feel inside.”

The illustrations begin with muted colors—grays, greens, and browns that reflect the family’s sadness. As the story progresses, as the family’s hard work yields its fruit, the palette brightens. By harvest time, the table is laden with orange pumpkins, yellow corn, purple eggplants, and red beets. Canning jars of jewel-toned fruits and vegetables line the shelves. By springtime, color bursts forth on every page.

While the brightening colors reflect the book’s hopeful story arc (beauty from ashes), Wheeler does not minimize the family’s hardships: You can hear Marvel’s disappointment after a trip to the store where they have just enough money to buy necessities: “We say nothing at all on the long walk home.” And you hear resignation when she describes the results of her brothers’ typical hunting trip: They usually “return with nothing at all.” One page shows the children asleep side-by-side in the bed, while Mum, holding the nursing baby, stares wistfully out the window. 

In an author’s note, Wheeler explains that she based the story on her grandmother Marvel’s childhood. 

Runners-Up

Frog’s Rainy-Day Story and Other Fables

by Michael James Dowling

Eight humorous fables offer proverbial wisdom in an inviting way. In one, bored barnyard animals decide to put on the play Little Red Riding Hood, but when each animal insists on going off script, the idea dies. As in Aesop, each fable ends with a moral—but here the morals are Biblically based. For the fable above: “Rules are sometimes hard to obey, But they keep us from going astray.” Each fable also concludes with a page contrasting “Wisdom of the World” with “Wisdom of the Word.” Expressive animal illustrations fit the text. (Ages 4-8)

Grandpa’s Top Threes 

by Wendy Meddour

Redheaded Henry and his grandpa are close, but for some reason Grandpa won’t talk. He just keeps gardening. Henry complains to his mom, and she says, “Give him time. … So Henry gave him six and a half minutes.” Eventually Henry’s “top three” game brings Grandpa out of his shell. They compare top three sandwiches, top three jellyfish, and top three animals at the zoo. When they get to “top three Grannies” the story lands an emotional punch. Bright, chaotic illustrations let us see the world through Henry’s eyes. The book shows the power of love and relationship to heal a grieving heart. (Ages 3-6)

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree 

by Jamie L.B. Deenihan

A young girl has six gadgets on her birthday wish list. Then Grandma gives her a lemon tree, which was not on the list. The girl knows how she should react to this unwanted gift, and a series of funny illustrations shows how not to act. When the lemon tree bears fruit, she and Grandma make lemonade and set up a lemonade stand. What will she buy with the profits? Bright, airy illustrations match the tone and tempo of the story. They show the girl’s transformed desires and portray a larger transformation extending to the whole neighborhood. (Ages 3 and up)

It Began With a Page 

by Kyo Maclear

This picture book biography tells the story of the Japanese American illustrator who convinced her publisher in the 1960s to print her “international set of babies”—babies of all colors—despite the typical all-white representations of the time. The book follows Gyo’s journey from lonely childhood in Southern California, to Japan, where she pursued her passion for art, to New York. Maclear, keeping children in mind, writes deftly about racial prejudice, World War II, and the internment of Japanese Americans. Delicate and expressive illustrations help tell the story of this unassuming hero who recognizes the power of a children’s book to change the world. (Ages 4-8)

The Crayon Man

by Natascha Biebow

This picture book biography tells the story of Edwin Binney, the inventor of Crayola crayons. When his children beg him to invent better, brighter crayons, he goes to work. The story and pictures show him testing various formulas to come up with the perfect nontoxic crayon. When he succeeds, his wife dubs them Crayolas (from the French words for waxy and chalk). Steven Salerno’s exuberant illustrations celebrate color and depict Binney’s turn-of-the-20th-century world. Binney’s creativity, determination, and ability to persist through failure led to the invention of something almost every child owns. (Ages 4-8)

—Megan Saben, Mary Jackson, Pamela Palmer, Courtney Holder, Sandy Barwick, and Kristin Chapman contributed to these reviews. The next story in the Children’s Books of the Year section is about WORLD's fiction winner, Pay Attention Carter Jones.

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @susanolasky.