The Best Picture Books of 2018
2018 is over, and here at Dad Suggests we’d like to take a moment and look back on a wonderful year full of remarkable and memorable kids books. We gathered together all of our favorite picture books from 2018 for the first annual Dad Suggests Kids Book Awards. We reminisced, we argued, we threw things, and we created the ultimate list to wrap up the year - The Top 10 Picture Books of 2018.
It was actually quite easy to choose the nominees. When we love a book, we just know it. Explaining to someone else what you love about it and deciding which book will have a more lasting impact is another matter all together, but choosing all of the books that made a big impression on us came very naturally.
Just about every single nominee seemed to make an impression on us for a different reason too. Some of the books are simply hilarious. You know, the type of legitimate humor that really stands out when you find it in a kids book. Some of the books hit us in our soft spot for holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Some of the books champion values like empathy that I try very hard to impress upon my children. And some of the books are simply magical - magical works of art and masterful storytelling.
Perhaps most important of all, every book on this list is special to us. By listing them here, we’re not just saying that they come with our highest recommendation or that they’re the best of the year, we’re saying that we will likely remember them all for the rest of our lives.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of book titles and images will lead you to view the books' listings on Amazon.com.
These are all of the 2018 nominees that didn’t quite make the final Top 10 list. They were all strongly considered for our Top 10 right down until the very end, and they are listed here in no particular order.
Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and Illustrated by Jen Hill
Be Kind recently made our list of favorite picture books that teach empathy, and that’s saying a lot, because teaching my kids and students to treat everyone with kindness is very important to me.
I particularly love that this story focuses on a girl that knows she’s supposed to be kind (perhaps she hears it every day like my kids do), but she’s struggling with what it actually means to be kind. This leads to a wonderful exploration of what kindness can mean.
She finds herself in a situation where she knows she should be kind, because another student is feeling sad and embarrassed about spilling a drink on her dress. I love how this girl admits that she was about to laugh like everyone else from instinct, but she stops herself because she remembered that her Mom always tells her to be kind. This ability to step back and reflect and put somebody else’s feelings first is remarkable, and it’s exactly why we need to remind our kids constantly to be kind.
Written and Illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi
This is definitely the best Christmas book of the year in my opinion. It’s surprisingly touching and it really caught me off guard.
It starts out with a rambunctious kid named Jack running around saying how he wants this to be the best Christmas ever. He has big dreams of what that means - more decorations, more presents, and more snow. And in his rush to decorate more and more, he accidentally breaks a very precious ornament that belonged to his mother.
A Christmas fairy comes out of the ornament and gives Jack access to all sorts of awesome Christmas magic. This is when the illustrations really shine. The full-page spreads of Jack’s Christmas shenanigans are pretty spectacular. But Jack realizes in the end that everything feels wrong because of how sad his mom is. This ornament had a lot of sentimental value for his mother, because it was given to her by her grandmother when she was little. He asks the fairy if she can replace it, but she points out that only he has the power to fix things.
The ending is really beautiful and certainly makes me tear up. Jack does something for his mother that really warms my heart. Not only is The Broken Ornament a good lesson in empathy, but it’s a beautiful reflection on the memories and relationships that we build in our lives.
Written by Trudy Ludwig and Illustrated by Patrice Barton
I love the stories written by Trudy Ludwig, and the conversations that they inspire with my kids. She even provides questions in the back of the book to get you started.
Her partnership with illustrator Patrice Barton is a perfect pairing as well. I love how the kids look in these books. They’ve already made two of our favorite picture books to teach empathy of all time, and hopefully they aren’t done!
Owen McPhee teaches us about empathy in a way I literally never considered teaching to my kids before I read it. Owen McPhee talks too much. He’s well-intentioned, but he says things people don’t want to hear, and he hogs the spotlight. By learning to stop and listen he learns more about other people, and his relationships flourish.
I like to remind my kids what kindness means, and I often say things like “be nice to everyone” and “make sure you let everyone play with you.” Thanks to this book I’ve added “ask other people what they think” to my arsenal. You can read more about what we love about Quiet Please, Owen McPhee in our recommendation.
Written by Nina Laden and Illustrated by Melissa Castrillon
My wife discovered this book and told me it gave her goosebumps. And this collaboration by Nina Laden and Melissa Castrillon is indeed incredibly beautiful.
This is one of those books that is very useful in teaching children about beauty. It’s an impressive work of art for certain. The illustrations are dreamy and bright and they make us happy. In a way it reminds me of the whimsy of Adventure Time, and that’s certainly a feeling I like having.
Yellow Kayak is a poem that tells the tale of a little boy that goes on an adventure in a kayak. I always appreciate a good adventure full of imagination. And pairing it with these beautiful illustrations was a great choice, because it brings a whole lot of magic out of this childhood journey.
Written by Linda Bailey and Illustrated by Júlia Sardà
This is a really beautiful and well-crafted tribute to Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. I’m personally a big fan of horror and this biography is certainly right up my alley. Many of Júlia Sardà’s illustrations are very eerie and appropriately spooky, and I have to admit it’s the aesthetic of this book that makes it as great as it is.
But that’s not to say that you should underestimate how interesting the story itself is. The story behind how Shelley wrote Frankenstein is truly an intriguing tale, and it’s quite inspiring as well. And Linda Bailey does very well driving home that point to young children who might want to grow up to write their own stories one day. A great story must begin somewhere.
The Top 10 Picture Books of 2018
Written and Illustrated by Adam Rex
The first book in the top 10 is Are You Scared, Darth Vader?, because it’s laugh out loud funny. This book also tackles one of my favorite themes of childhood and children’s literature - fear.
It’s really quite an off-the-wall concept. Let’s expose the ultimate tough guy Darth Vader to lots of classic scary stuff like witches and ghosts and werewolves and try to figure out what he’s scared of. The fact that it’s a silly book that features Darth Vader is great for us, because it’s sort of a running gag in our house to use Darth Vader as a way to lighten the mood.
There are two things that I love about this book. First of all, the illustrations are wonderful. I really love the atmosphere and the style in which Rex draws all of those aforementioned scary creatures. And, second of all, Darth Vader’s deadpan humor is brilliant. I really enjoy getting into the character here and using my Darth Vader voice to deliver his hilarious quips. The first time I read it to the kids my wife was cracking up in the kitchen without even being able to see the book.
Written by Robb Pearlman and Illustrated by Eda Kaban
Pink is For Boys packs a powerful punch and delivers a very important message to children everywhere. And Eda Kaban’s illustrations always make us very happy.
It’s a short book, and it’s very straightforward, but that’s exactly the point. This concept should not be complicated.
As a parent and a teacher and a rational human being, I am exasperated with the idea that boys and girls aren’t allowed to like certain things or act certain ways. It’s absurd and I’m tired of it. Nothing sums this idea up more than the terrible concept that pink is for girls.
Pink is For Boys absolutely destroys this ignorant and, quite frankly, dangerous belief. Very matter-of-factly, this book uses its authority to show children how all of the colors belong to everyone. And it really works. Our son was starting to pick up disturbing ideas about pink belonging to girls from school, but, ever since reading this book, he absolutely understands how that is absurd.
I believe very strongly that eliminating these types of absurdities of societal expectations will lead to less bullying and more empathy. If you want to know more about what we love about this book, make sure to read our recommendation.
Written by Minh Lê and Illustrated by Dan Santat
It’s quite fitting that this story is published by Disney, because it absolutely feels like it could be a touching short animated film preceding a Pixar movie. It even starts out telling the story through mostly-wordless panels, so it’s very easy to imagine it as an animation.
This book is special because of the touching concept at its heart. A boy and his grandfather have trouble connecting because they don’t even speak the same language. The silence is deafening and uncomfortable and sad.
In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this book you have to empathize with these characters, particularly the grandfather. I think about my parents and my wife’s parents and their relationships with our kids. I think about my relationships with all of my grandparents. And I imagine how important my grandchildren will be to me one day. And then I imagine what it would feel like if we weren’t even able to talk to each other. The silence and discomfort is truly heartbreaking.
Through chance, this grandfather and grandson discover that they have a common interest in drawing, and they spend the day battling wizards and warriors and making beautiful and creative art. Art is their common language and the connection they finally make is incredibly heartwarming.
Written and Illustrated by Francesca Sanna
Sometimes I’m sold on a concept very quickly, and this was absolutely the case with Me and My Fear. Just look at that cover! A girl is afraid, but her Fear is a living, breathing creature that protectively follows her around and grows and shrinks.
After a genius idea like that, all you have to do is nail the aesthetics and I am going to absolutely eat it up. And this book definitely nailed it. Fear looks like Baymax from Big Hero 6, and he’s adorable.
The story is brilliantly executed as well. When Fear was small, he was very useful, he just looked after his girl and kept her safe. But, ever since moving to a new country, he’s grown a lot. Fear doesn’t want her leaving the house and meeting new friends. Fear doesn’t want her going to school.
This is truly a beautiful and genius work of art. It’s the most adorable way to deal with the topic of social anxiety that I can imagine. Instead of just saying that this little girl is nervous about not knowing anybody in a new school, we get to imagine she has a protective, lovable marshmallow friend that wants to keep her all to himself. It doesn’t get much better than approaching important topics in beautiful and imaginative ways.
Written and Illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is a very funny book. I really appreciate kids books that teach high-quality humor. The timing and the gags and the deadpan in this book are all the real deal. I sleep better at night knowing my kids will be funnier because of it.
Humor like this would have already been enough to make it a pretty special book, but Higgins gives us a special bonus too - a great lesson in empathy. It turns out eating our classmates is not a nice thing to do. It’s kind of a golden rule issue - don’t eat people if you don’t want to be eaten.
At the end of the day we can replace eating our classmates with any mean behavior, and when we’re mean it’s harder to make friends at school. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love this lesson, but let’s get back to the important point. This is a baby dinosaur that goes to school with human kids and eats them sometimes because humans are delicious. This material is gold.
Written and Illustrated by Kerascoët
Definitely one of the best wordless picture books of all time - I Walk With Vanessa is a beautiful story.
Vanessa is new in school, and she’s clearly having a hard time making friends. On top of all of this, a boy is very mean to her after school and definitely hurts her feelings. Another girl sees the whole thing.
After this we follow the other girl home and get to see how lost-in-thought she is. We assume she’s thinking about Vanessa and what she can do to help. This part is the highlight of the book for me. I absolutely love imagining this little so deeply affected by what she witnessed. She’s literally so disturbed that she’s staring out of her window at night imagining how she can make another person happy.
In the end she comes up with the perfect idea. She decides to walk with Vanessa to school the next day. It’s a very simple act of kindness, and a beautiful plan. She makes a real difference too. Not only because it’s just what Vanessa needs, but her idea is also powerful enough to inspire the entire community.
Written and Illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld
The Rabbit Listened is another good example of a beautiful, well-executed concept. What do people need from you when they are sad?
Taylor builds his masterpiece out of blocks and he’s very proud of his accomplishment. But then it all comes tumbling down and Taylor is crushed. All of his animal friends have different ideas for making him feel better.
The chicken wants to talk about it, the bear wants to get mad, the hyena wants to laugh, the snake wants to knock down someone else’s tower - it’s really a very smart exploration of all of the different possible feelings we might have when something bad happens. And the animals are incredibly adorable.
None of the ideas are wrong necessarily - except maybe the snake’s idea - but that’s not the point. It’s not what the boy wants or needs. And then the last friend shows up - the rabbit. And the rabbit just quietly approaches, snuggles up next to Taylor, and doesn’t say a word.
Together they sat in silence until Taylor said, “Please stay with me.” The Rabbit listened.
Truly this is a very special book. It’s beautifully illustrated and it’s an incredibly important lesson for both kids and adults.
Written by Matt de la Peña and Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Matt de la Peña has an incredible talent for taking a short snippet of a life and developing some of the most amazing, multi-dimensional characters. This is not a simple task in a picture book, and it makes his books very special. Particularly his collaborations with illustrator Christian Robinson.
We seamlessly learn so much about Carmela in such a short time. We learn that her mother is a maid and her father is still in another country because he needs to get his papers fixed.
We also know how much she loves her birthday bracelets, and how excited she is to be big enough to take the dirty clothes to the laundromat with her brother. And I really love what this exchange - after she finds a dandelion - tells us about her toughness and her relationship with her brother:
“Did you even make a wish? You’re supposed to make a wish. Everyone knows that.”
“Of course I made a wish,” she told him. But it was a lie. Carmela didn’t know.
When we first read this book, our son asked, “why is her brother so mean?”. A fair question, but truly it’s just an honest depiction of a sibling relationship, and it’s an incredible setup. Because the great ending is such a redeeming moment for the brother and a beautiful display of love. After this brief glimpse into this family’s life, I feel like I know them so well, and I’m left only with feelings of hope and wonder and love.
Written and Illustrated by Cale Atkinson
Sir Simon is a masterpiece from cover to cover. It covers just about all of the bases for me. It’s got a spooky theme, it’s funny, the art is beautiful, it’s sweet, and there are dozens of hidden references to famous scary movies. Seriously, it’s incredible.
There is wonderful art all over this thing. The dust jacket is great, the actual cover underneath is great, the endpapers are great - it’s all beautiful. The whole thing is just a very high-quality product.
I admit that I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, and Simon is definitely my new favorite ghost. Scaring is his job, and he’s getting his first job in charge of haunting a house. The funny twist is that all of the spooky things that happen are just mundane tasks to Simon - stomping in the attic, flushing toilets, moving things around. It’s really funny imagining a haunted house from the perspective of a ghost just doing his boring job.
The big change in the story comes when a kid, Chester, moves in to the house and Simon recruits him to do his ghost chores. But Simon inadvertently learns something about Chester’s past that makes him stop and reflect on how selfish he’s acting. Once again we see that I have a sweet spot for a good lesson in empathy, because Simon’s revelation and the relationship he builds with Chester definitely leaves a smile on my face.
Written and Illustrated by The Fan Brothers
I am officially incapable of thinking about Ocean Meets Sky without also thinking about Moana. Even if just for a moment. And to be perfectly clear that’s a very good thing. I think Moana is amazing. And when I think about that line where the sky meets the sea, I feel happy. I think it’s a spectacular metaphor for hope and wonder and endless possibilities.
A young boy named Finn has recently lost his grandfather, and today would have been his 90th birthday. Finn had a special relationship with his grandfather, and fondly remembers his stories about a magical place where ocean meets sky. In his memory we see his grandfather holding a whale, and a look of wonder on the boy’s face.
To honor his late grandfather, he builds a boat to take the journey they had planned together. He falls asleep inside, and he wakes up to find out the journey has already begun. He’s already in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by clouds that make familiar shapes in the sky. He’s on his way to where the ocean meets the sky, and he sees incredible, imaginative things along the way. The imagination and talent of the Fan Brothers really shines during this journey. He finds a giant golden fish to be his guide as he passes by an island of books, an island of giant shells, and a sea of moon jellies. He even gets to see that giant flying whale we assume his grandfather told him about.
This book is magic. Terry and Eric Fan have created a lasting masterpiece. The words are perfectly chosen, and they are paired with highly detailed art that is full of secrets to discover. After you read it, go back and look very closely at the early picture of grandfather’s study and you’ll see many objects that the boy sees on his journey - the golden fish, the jellies, the toucan, the pipe, and much more.
Suddenly, the realization comes crashing down on you that the strange, magical journey the boy is experiencing is not random at all. He’s very clearly visiting his grandfather, and he’s working through all of the beautiful little things he remembers about him, and all of the stories he ever told. Take a moment to reflect on the boy’s journey and his deep love for his grandfather, and I hope you’ll see why we think Ocean Meets Sky is the best picture book of the year.
Grandfather’s stories took place where ocean meets sky. That’s where the magic is. I love that concept. Like the horizon, we don’t even know if it really exists or if it’s even reachable, but that’s where the magic is. How do we help our kids get there? He built up the childlike wonder in his grandson - just like we should all do for our own kids - and made the magic obtainable. Ultimately, I like to think he was the magic in his grandson’s life.
What was your favorite picture book of 2018? Have you read any of the books on our list? Let us know in the comments!