As a wise guy once said: “Always be yourself—unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Well, most of us aren’t Batman, but we can still be pretty awesome; at least part of the trick seems to be liking who you are. Here’s a big stack of (mostly picture) books about finding yourself and finding your friends.
Piggy loves books and is really shy, but one day he sees a cat reading a book and decides he wants to be her friend. He tries all sorts of ways to step out of his shell to get her attention, but she doesn’t seem to notice … until he finally realizes the best way to befriend her is to share his real self. I mean, of course in this case it helps that Piggy’s real self isn’t a horrible jerk—but it is a cute story about two book lovers becoming friends. Hopefully the secondary lesson kids will take from the book is that before you make a fool of yourself, you should pay attention to the person you want to be friends, because maybe that will tell you something about them, instead of just guessing at what might impress them.
Nicholas has a lot of fears, but he wants to be brave like his dad—so he keeps a toy dinosaur with him all the time to make him brave. When he loses his dino, though, he starts being afraid again—until he tells his dad about his secret. I really love the illustrations, the way Santat incorporates a big T. Rex to show how Nicholas imagines the dino helping him, and I like the overall message that it’s okay for guys to be scared sometimes. However, I was a bit disappointed in the fact that both Nicholas and his dad feel it’s important not to reveal his fears to his mother—that it’s “guy stuff.” Does this imply that the dad never shows his own fears to the mom? If it’s okay to be scared sometimes, it’s also okay to let all your loved ones know that.
Here’s another lesson about being brave. Holly is an imaginative hippo and is always ready to help her little sister, but when her dad says it’s time to go to the pool, she gets cold feet. Her imagination goes into overdrive: What if it’s too cold? What if she gets water in her nose? What if there’s a giant snapping turtle? Her dad gently gives her suggestions for each one, but once they’re at the pool, Holly gets some extra motivation from inside that helps her overcome her fears.
Big the elephant and Little the mouse are best friends, even though they’re complete opposites. Big likes mellow music, hot weather, and is a bit timid. Little likes playing the drums LOUD, cold weather, and is bold. In a short, simple rhyming verse, Garland shows us how different Big and Little are, which sometimes causes a bit of conflict, but they always make up, and “they are who they are.” Not only is the book a fun look at opposites (perfect for younger readers), but I also like that the book focuses on their differences and their friendship, with only one line about their fighting—it sends the message that it’s possible to be friends with those who aren’t just like you, without having to pretend to be something else.
Colin the carrot stick and Lee the pea aren’t exactly opposites, but they certainly have some major differences, unlike most of Lee’s other pea friends. But Colin does have his own particular strengths, and Lee and his friends are wise enough to appreciate them. This is another short book about appreciating our differences, with very fun illustrations. Plus it’s just plain funny that one of the characters is a carrot stick.
Another story told in rhyming verse, this one is about a little mouse who is tired of being ignored and overlooked, so he decides he needs to learn how to roar—and who better to teach him than the lion who lives at the top of his rock pile? The mouse makes a journey, a little scared but determined, and when he finally meets the lion, gets a bit of a surprise. The lesson here? Not everyone may be the way they appear on the outside, and that sometimes it’s worth pursuing a change that you want to see in yourself.
And while we’re talking about learning to roar from lions, I’ve got to include this one from one of my favorite picture book creators, Jon Agee. Lion Lessons is a bit sillier—it’s about a boy working on getting his lion diploma, with lessons in Looking Fierce, Roaring, Pouncing, and so on. But, sadly, the boy has a bit of trouble with most of the lessons. Still, with the proper motivation, he finally manages to pass. Um, I admit that this one’s a little bit of a stretch about “being yourself,” but I like it.
And in another tale about finding your inner wild side, Homer the dog gets an invitation to Wolf Camp, where he and some other dogs will get to live in the wild for a week, learning to mark, howl, track, and hunt. It’s a bit daunting at first, but by the end of the week Homer and his fellow campers are honorary wolves. The story is particularly amusing just because the three campers are so goofy and harmless-looking, and it’s a clever parody of kids going to summer camp.
Anya wakes up on her first day of school to discover that she has grown a tiger tail! She tries all sorts of things to hide it, or to get out of going to school, but with no luck … but then it turns out she didn’t have anything to worry about, because (spoiler alert!) everyone has some differences. The illustrations are really adorable, and the writing has some clever wordplay, but the best thing may be the final illustration of the entire class, which has kids of all colors, some (but not all) with various animal features, and even a little girl in a wheelchair. It’s a celebration of what makes us unique.
Chee-Kee is a little panda who has just moved with his family to Bearland, and he just doesn’t quite feel like he fits in: his kites are different, his food is different, and he looks different from the other bears here. Eventually he’s able to overcome his fears to make friends, and Bearland is a better place when both the bears and the pandas are able to share their cultures with each other. I liked this one a lot because it’s about an immigrant story: the book is a love letter to Rim’s parents, who immigrated from South Korea and made a home for themselves in an unfamiliar place. I like that it’s not about changing yourself to fit in, but that it also shows the benefits to both sides when we share our traditions and practices.
The latest book in the Vampirina Ballerina series has Vampirina and her family taking a trip to the beach, along with various other monster families … at night, of course. Page’s story takes the usual tips and advice for visiting the beach and recasts them in a different light with Pham’s adorable artwork. The main reason this book belongs in today’s column, though, is a slight spoiler—but it has to do with a very unmonstrous-looking boy who needs some extra encouragement from Vampirina to join the festivities.
Pablo is a stunt boy—always active, always getting scrapes and scabs—and so somebody gives him a chair for his birthday: “So you’ll sit for once!” Well, he took his chair and hit the road, and soon became a famous chair acrobat, traveling the world and performing in the most prestigious venues, before finally returning home. It’s a bit of a weird story, sure, but it’s also an inspiring story about being true to yourself, using your strengths, and making the most of what you’ve been given. I love the illustrations, which are spare but expressive, and the way the story is told makes it seem perfectly believable that a young boy could become a world-famous chair acrobat.
I’ve enjoyed this series of books about geeky kids from Beaty and Roberts (the first two are Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer), and this one is sure to be a hit for GeekDad readers, particularly those who would love to see more girls involved in science. Young Ada Marie (named after Lovelace and Curie) is a scientist—she has questions, and uses the scientific method to find her answers: hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, repeat. There’s a lot to love about this book, from the catchy rhyming verse to the “can you figure it out before Ada does” mystery, to Ada’s Coke-and-Mentos classroom demonstration. And, having just read Hidden Figures recently, I particularly appreciated that Ada is a little black girl. The illustrations are marvelous (like the previous books), with lots of fun details to find.
Okay, so Pete the elephant may not quite have the observational skills that young Ada Twist does, but he’s still learning about who he is and how he fits in the world. He thinks maybe he’s a boulder (Big? Grey? Doesn’t wear pants? Check!) and then perhaps a squirrel … though his mom keeps finding him and making him put his pants back on. Okay, yes, it’s all rather silly, and I’m not sure if the moral of the story is that parents should let their kids run around with no pants on, but it’s good for some laughs.
This book features a little donkey who keeps getting mistaken for a boy because she can be messy and loud and fast and curious—to which she responds, “I’m a girl!” It’s a book about breaking out of stereotypes, and being proud and happy of who you are, whether you’re a boy or a girl, whether you’re “typical” or not. Ismail’s watercolor illustrations are colorful and exuberant, perfect for this confident little donkey.
This rhyming book starts by listing several differences between a stereotypical princess and a stereotypical dragon, but then concludes that sometimes princesses need a break from being dainty or wearing pink because she has a little dragon child inside. It’s a fun subversion of gender stereotypes, though it’s admittedly pretty simple and spends more time listing stereotypes than showing what happens when we’re freed from them. The ending does have a fun, silly twist, though.
In this book, a little girl asks her various animal friends what they love about themselves—each one answers with a feature about themselves and why they like it. The illustrations are sweet, and while there isn’t a plot per se, the book is about loving the things that make you special, the things that make you you. I thought the end of the book sort of fizzles out, but all of the animals are a lot of fun.
I have to admit that I haven’t actually watched any Steven Universe yet (I know, I know) but this picture book is based on the episode of the same name. It’s about Sapphire, an aristocratic Gem who can see the future, and Ruby, a soldier Gem sworn to protect Sapphire. Sapphire knew that she would be defeated by Rose Quartz and some rebel Gems, and then taken away to the Gem Homeworld—that’s how the story goes, and she knew the ending. But Ruby couldn’t just stand by and allow that to happen, no matter what the story was supposed to be—which leads to a surprising and unexpected ending. The book has a very clever structure, with Sapphire and Ruby in the margins of the book telling the story and reacting to it, making it sort of a dual story. Although it’s a picture book, the structure of the story may be a little sophisticated for wee kids, but I did find it fascinating and beautifully illustrated.
I’ve been a fan of David Wiesner ever since I came across his book Tuesday while I was in college: he has a way of taking fantastic ideas and making them look real. So his artwork is a great match for Donna Jo Napoli’s story about a mermaid who lives at Ocean Wonders, an aquarium near the sea. Her job is to let visitors see just enough of her to wonder if they really saw something, to keep them coming back to look for her again, without giving them too much evidence that she’s actually there. The proprietor calls himself Neptune, and tells Fish Girl stories about her past. But is Neptune her protector … or her captor? When Fish Girl meets a human girl named Livia, she starts to wonder what else there is outside the aquarium, and starts looking for answers.
Fish Girl is the first graphic novel by both Napoli and Wiesner, and both the story and the artwork are beautiful. It’s a story about discovery, as Fish Girl learns both about herself and about the world around her.
Okay, okay, I know that Squirrel Girl is old news to many of you, and that even my fellow GeekDad and GeekMom writers have mentioned her several times, but I finally got around to picking up a copy and then ended up binge-reading all five collected volumes, plus the graphic novel The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. (And I still have the Squirrel Girl novel on my shelf to read next!) It’s hard to encapsulate briefly what makes Squirrel Girl so amazing, but here goes. First, in case you didn’t know, Squirrel Girl is a superhero in the Marvel universe who is part squirrel, and has the proportional strength and speed of a squirrel, plus the ability to communicate with squirrels, plus a big bushy tail (which she hides in her pants in her alter ego form, Doreen Green).
Doreen/Squirrel Girl is all about being herself, being confident in who she is and what she is capable of, and helping other people be their best selves. She’s geeky, has some amazing friends, and is just as likely to defeat bad guys by listening to them and figuring out their issues as she is by punching them—and while that may sound kind of lame when I write it out here, it is hilariously wonderful when Ryan North does it. My oldest daughter started reading them right after me and plowed through all of the books also, and I’m working on getting my wife (who doesn’t read a lot of comics) to try them out, too, because I pretty much want everyone to experience how awesome these books are.
Shannon Hale (also the writer of the wonderful Princess in Black series, as well as the aforementioned Squirrel Girl novel), teams up with LeUyen Pham (featured earlier for Vampirina at the Beach) for a touching and sometimes poignant story about growing up and making friends. The book is a comics-style memoir, and Hale shares her experiences being part of “The Group,” a small clique headed up by the most popular girl at the school. Young Shannon was sometimes included in The Group because of her friendship with Adrienne, but she knows that she’s the tag-along and is constantly worried about losing Adrienne to the popular crowd.
The book follows Shannon through elementary school, as she deals with the constantly shifting relationships and finding where she belongs. It’s moving, and it’s also sort of scary how mean some kids can be, but it is also hopeful. Shannon does eventually find her own place and figures things out, and Hale’s author’s note gives a little more insight into the true story behind the book. Real Friends is fantastic, and I would highly recommend it to young readers, particularly those who may struggle with fitting in and need a bit of encouragement.
Okay, until next time: keep being you! (Unless you can be Squirrel Girl, though maybe the world only needs one Squirrel Girl, so on second thought just stick with being you.)
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.