Best Picture Books 2020 | SLJ Best Books

Twenty-four exceptional titles made SLJ's list of the best picture books published in 2020.


Picture Books


I Am Every Good Thing

by Derrick Barnes. illus. by Gordon C. James. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9780525518778.
PreS-Gr 3 –Oil paintings bursting with energy and exuberance are the foundation for a layered manifesto of affirmation and industry, celebrating an empowered Black child while also briefly addressing and rejecting the painful sting of others’ insults and dismissals.


All Because You Matter

by Tami Charles. illus. by Bryan Collier. Scholastic/Orchard. ISBN 9781338574852.
K-Gr 3 –A parent conveys a loving message to a Black boy who will be challenged by school, injustice, and more. Still, as a descendant of kings and queens, he is ready to take on his destiny and grow. Spirited, thoughtful illustrations depict a luminous journey from past to present.


Overground Railroad

by Lesa Cline-Ransome. illus. by James Ransome. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823438730.
K-Gr 2 –In this picture book that spotlights a relatively unsung part of American history, the Ransomes focus on details large and small, in resplendent scenes that don’t gloss over the sobering facts of the Great Migration but show the promise ahead through the eyes of a young girl, a daughter of sharecroppers.


One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey

by Henry Cole. illus. by author. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338359978.
Gr 1-3Wordless, accessible, and eco-friendly all apply to this lovely invitation to one small gesture—reusing a humble lunch bag—that, repeated over decades, holds the story of a boy’s life, his family, his future. An economy of line and storytelling sets this tale in a resilient, diverse America.


Magnificent Homespun Brown

by Samara Cole Doyon. illus. by Kaylani Juanita. Tilbury House. ISBN 9780884487975.
PreS-Gr 3 –Small girls (some in hijabs, others who use wheelchairs) romp in Juanita’s radiant world that includes golden leaves and steaming hot chocolate. This book features tones of honey and amber, the gray brown of snow shadows, and more. A joyful ode to childhood.


Out the Door

by Christy Hale. illus. by author. Holiday House/Neal Porter. ISBN 9780823446445.
K-Gr 2 –In a journey through New York, a blend of illustrations and simple text provides a great lesson in prepositions and so much more. The protagonist is an energetic brown-skinned child, and the city is vast, as readers find out that words give a journey its direction and its heart.


Stand Up! Speak Up!

by Andrew Joyner. illus. by author. Random/Schwartz & Wade. ISBN 9780593301586.
Gr 2-4 –Relying on a limited palette with seemingly unlimited energy, this guide to believing in a cause addresses emotions effectively, showing kids what it means to take part in something that’s meaningful and the pain of being discouraged, while always emphasizing perseverance.


The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

by Thao Lam. illus. by author. OwlKids. ISBN 9781771473637.
K-Gr 2 –A deeply personal, soul-baring story showcasing a mother’s love at the face of horrific events, never shying away from the truth that has happened. In emotional cut-paper scenes, the plight of immigrants today connects with the harrowing refugee stories from the past.


I Do Not Like Stories

by Andrew Larsen. illus. by Carey Sookocheff. OwlKids. ISBN 9781771473781.
K-Gr 2 –The curmudgeonly title and overlapping story lines in this heir apparent to David Macaulay’s Black and White invite readers to interpret subtexts accordingly. While a small boy disparages stories, the evidence that he is an honest-to-god smoke-and-mirrors storyteller of the first order surrounds him in panel illustrations.



by Minh Lê, illus. by Dan Santat. Little, Brown. ISBN 9781368036924.
Gr 1-3 –Panel art and spare text bring to vivid life the many meanings of the word lift, from an elevator to weightlessness in a space station to the act of picking up and soothing a new sibling.


We Are Water Protectors

by Carole Lindstrom. illus. by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook. ISBN 9781250203557.
K-Gr 3 –With the line “We are still here,” readers are firmly reminded that Indigenous people are centered in the present. Water-hued, captivating colors and a lyrical, resounding text guarantee this title a spot on every shelf.


Woodpecker Girl

by Chingyen Liu & I-Tsun Chiang. illus. by Heidi Doll. Reycraft. ISBN 9781478869542.
K-Gr 4 –“Woodpecker Girl” has a limb difference and uses a paintbrush attached to her head with a band to peck away at paper, creating exuberant pieces of art. The message that personal expression knows no boundaries will speak to all children in a true story that reverberates with emotion and freedom.


Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away

by Meg Medina. illus. by Sonia Sánchez. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536207040.
K-Gr 4 –Part friendship tale, part meditation on grief, but, mostly, a love story—two BIPOC girls face the unbearable loss of one of them moving away. The storytelling has the spare emotional weight of Ezra Jack Keats’s work, and the details affirm the depth of feelings they share.


Salma the Syrian Chef

by Danny Ramadan. illus. by Anna Bron. Annick. ISBN 9781773213750.
K-Gr 2 –Facing loss and change, Salma wants to cheer up her mother, who is working hard in Vancouver while Salma’s father is still in Syria. Members of a community center rally around her, and a message of love and acceptance is served up right on schedule.


You Matter

by Christian Robinson. illus. by author. S. & S./Atheneum. ISBN 9781534421691.
PreS-Gr 1 –A hug you can read! From microorganisms going their own way under a microscope to a dog separated from its owners by a busy street, Robinson’s message is emotional and resounding—you matter. The pacing is impressive, the message simple and ringing.


13 Stories About Harris

by Amy Schwartz. illus. by author. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823442492.
Toddler-PreS –An impervious toddler named Harris, in 13 exquisite stories from his point of view, creates chapter after chapter about the here and now as a wonderful place to live. The book is told in short, pithy prose, and sometimes the illustrations have the punch line.


I Talk Like a River

by Jordan Scott. illus. by Sydney Smith. Holiday House/Neal Porter. ISBN 9780823445592.
Gr 1-4 –While the hero’s challenge is stuttering, a loving father and glorious natural surroundings create the resonant message that not everything expressive is a straight line, but can be a tumble of water, words, even ideas in streams. This title is for every outsider who has ever been teased—it’s for everyone.


A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India

by Meera Sriram. illus. by Mariona Cabassa. Barefoot. ISBN 9781646860616.
K-Gr 1 –Visit an Indian market for its vibrant hues, scents, and sights through the stalls as a young girl searches for the perfect gift for her Amma. It’s a picture book extraordinaire with a glossary about the evocative marketplace. An armchair shopping trip, just right for pointing and sharing.


From Ed’s to Ned’s

by Gideon Sterer. illus. by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Knopf. ISBN 9780525648062.
PreS-Gr 2 –A valentine to adventure, this raucous, rhyming, spot-on collaboration has a ready audience of first graders who recognize the many imaginative modes of transport in these pages. The rhyme inspires, the illustrations transport, and everyone ends up safe at home.


Sugar in Milk

by Thrity Umrigar. illus. by Khoa Le. Running Pr. ISBN 9780762495191.
K-Gr 4 –Part folklore, part immigrant story, all contemporary in addressing a young Parsi girl’s adjustment to her new home in America. This story will resonate with children of all backgrounds, especially those facing change and misunderstandings and struggling with outsider status.


Every Little Letter

by Deborah Underwood. illus. by Joy Hwang Ruiz. Dial. ISBN 9780525554028.
K-Gr 3 –This gem of a story starts with a “hi” and ends with a party, and that’s all the invitation readers need. This alphabet book spells world peace and provides a light, sparkling, even fizzy sense of well-being.



by Tomi Ungerer. illus. by author. Phaidon. ISBN 9781838661595.
K-Gr 3 –The late Ungerer was often called visionary and prescient, even avant-garde, and for this tale of seeking shelter in a world gone mad, he’s left us a map of jarring angles, sinister alleys, and a pop art color scheme.


The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom

by Colleen AF Venable. illus. by Lian Cho. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. ISBN 9780062494375.
PreS-Gr 2 –If Lloyd Moss’s Zin! Zin! Zin!: A Violin met kawaii, a term that describes a Japanese-style aesthetic that is cute and childlike, this would be the silly, informative result. Music education is not part of every school, but this glimpse should be on every shelf.


Nana Akua Goes to School

by Tricia Elam Walker. illus. by April Harrison. Random/Schwartz & Wade. ISBN 9780525581130.
K-Gr 2 –Nana Akua bears the ritual marks of her family back home in West Africa, and her loving granddaughter finds a way to bridge the reactions of others to these raised scars in a story soaked with symbols and grace. A generous look at acknowledging and celebrating differences.


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