As a children’s author and former school librarian, I have a special place in my heart for picture books. When done well, they are beautiful, honest, and ultimately optimistic explorations of what it means to be alive. I can’t think of a form that better speaks to humans both small and big. Thankfully, each year introduces us to a whole host of new picture books.
As expected, 2023 brought many wonderful new releases, and it’s daunting to choose the “best” from such an impressive pool of candidates. So instead, I’ve simply selected 10 remarkable picture books from 2023. I highly recommend when incorporating these into your classroom consulting your school or public children’s librarian for additional excellent options.
Below are summaries of the books I’ve selected, along with suggestions on how you might use them in your classroom.
Memorable picture books to end the year
Beautiful Noise: The Music of John Cage, by Lisa Rogers, illustrated by Il Sung Na (nonfiction): This picture book biography of the highly unconventional composer John Cage is a dazzling, poetic exaltation of having a vision and seeing it through—even in the face of criticism. A perfect choice for music classrooms for students of all ages, this book can be used as a springboard for discussions about artistic vision, experimentation, and innovation across all disciplines. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Beneath, by Cori Doerrfeld (fiction): In this gentle, warm story, a grieving child named Finn and their grieving grandfather go for a hike together. As they walk, Finn’s grandfather encourages the child to consider what may be hidden underneath the surface of things—and people. After reading, students will be primed to write about a moment in which they realized there was more to something than met the eye. Students could also create their own “x-ray” art, in the style of the illustrations in this book, revealing something happening beneath what people can see on the surface. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Down the Hole, by Scott Slater, illustrated by Adam Ming (fiction): A laugh-out-loud story unfolds as Fox aspires to eat Rabbit by politely imploring him to come out of his hole. However, Rabbit has a plan, and he outwits Fox in a truly memorable fashion. This one’s a surefire winner as your next read-aloud. Older students will also enjoy discussing what makes the humor work, such as the use of dramatic irony (in the hilarious illustrations, readers see Rabbit’s plans for getting rid of Fox). (Pre-K to grade 3)
I Am a Tornado, by Drew Beckmeyer (fiction): With both humor and tenderness, this book explores big ideas, like handling intense emotions and the transformative power of letting go. There are plenty of SEL tie-ins, including how we can manage anger and support others who are going through something difficult. Additionally, the somewhat-ambiguous ending provides a perfect opportunity to have students discuss or write short reflections on what they think happens to Tornado, and why. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Make Way: The Story of Robert McCloskey, Nancy Schön, and Some Very Famous Ducklings, by Angela Burke Kunkel, illustrated by Claire Keane (nonfiction): A fascinating, vividly rendered dual biography of Robert McCloskey, author of Make Way for Ducklings, and Nancy Schön, the sculptor inspired by McCloskey’s book to create the bronze duck and ducklings in the Boston Public Garden. Both stories are inspiring, and the way they connect is fascinating. This book is a great conversation starter on how art draws inspiration from other art, especially right before students engage in exactly this kind of exercise. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Oh, Olive! by Lian Cho (fiction): A vibrant and humorous book about an eccentric young artist named Olive whose parents are “serious” artists and disapprove of her work. The parents ultimately come around, but it’s clear that Olive would have gone on doing her own thing either way. This is a great addition to not only the art room, but also any classroom aiming to explore authentic self-expression and how each student might find and embrace their own unique style. Invite students to reflect on the art forms they enjoy the most—poetry, architecture, murals, graphic novels, etc.—and then experiment with that form to create something eccentric or unique. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Tokyo Night Parade, by J.P. Takahashi, illustrated by Minako Tomigahara (fiction): A visually striking mythological adventure that’s both wildly imaginative and rooted in reality. Given the dynamic presence of yōkai, Japanese supernatural spirits, this one is an excellent contemporary addition to any unit on folklore or mythology. The story is set in both Tokyo and New York City, and the protagonist, Eka, is connected to both locales, prompting students to reflect on their own special links to different places. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Unflappable, by Matthew Ward, illustrated by Scott Magoon (fiction): A cleverly written and delightfully illustrated tale of a trio of flightless birds who are determined to find a way to fly. The illustrations of the various machines the birds create can serve as inspiration for imaginative creations in makerspaces, and the book as a whole lends itself extraordinarily well to writing exercises about persistence and finding joy in the process rather than just the final outcome or product. (Pre-K to grade 3)
Zora, the Story Keeper, by Ebony Joy Wilkins, illustrated by Dare Coulter (fiction): In this poignant homage to storytelling, family history, and relationships, we follow the stories of Zora and Aunt Bea. Zora cherishes her time with Aunt Bea until her illness and passing, after which Zora assumes the role of the family’s “story keeper.” This book invites discussions about how telling stories about our loved ones is a way to keep them present even when they’re not around. Consider prompting your students to become “story keepers” by having them ask their elders about memorable stories and then—with their elders’ permission—writing and sharing these narratives with each other. (Pre-K to grade 3)
My Strange Shrinking Parents, by Zeno Sworder (fiction): A gorgeous fictionalized tribute to the author’s immigrant parents that’s made even more moving by the visual metaphor. This book is a perfect introduction to any learning unit centered around immigration, and the details in both the text and images are ripe with opportunities for analysis. Students will find much to explore and appreciate here. (Kindergarten to grade 3)