Also, a Short Essay on the Desperate Need for Friendliness and Civility on the Internet

From the Desks of Philip and Erin Stead:

Hello Friends,

This is Phil writing. Every year for the last three years Erin and I have compiled a list of our favorite books of the year. The internet is overflowing with best-of lists and worst-of lists and everything in between. We don’t claim that the books on our list are the absolute “best-ofs” of 2012. To be honest I’m not sure if it’s possible, or even productive, to limit books in that way. Books mean different things to different people. One book can mean drastically different things to the same person across the span of a lifetime. This does not diminish the power of books. It adds to their mystery. In assembling our list we’re merely trying to share the books that meant something special to us at this point in our lives. These are books that challenged us to be better writers and illustrators. There are hundreds of fantastic books that are released every year, many of which go unnoticed (including by us). That is the fault of chance or of Erin and I directly, not of the books themselves. Some books we failed to see. Some books we were not ready to see.

We make this post every year, in part, to add to the dwindling level of positivity and friendliness that exists on the internet. The internet has made us mean. It has made us bullies. For whatever reason it encourages our lesser angels to stand up tall and announce to the world: I AM ME AND I AM LOUDER AND SMARTER THAN YOU.

Believe me, nothing is sacred anymore. Consider this object lesson. Last summer I visited the website of my local newspaper. I clicked on a seemingly innocuous link:

Huron River calmer in weeks since spring storms, but flow still above average

Nothing glamorous. Just a little update on the local environment. Against my better judgment I scrolled to the comments section of the post. I’ve learned not to read the comments on news articles. Nothing good happens in that world. A complete stranger can ruin my day in a heartbeat. But surely an article about the water levels of the Huron River would be above reproach?

At 9:14 AM on June 22, 2011
People actually waste time measuring the flow of this drainage ditch of a river? LOL

Drainage ditch? Um, okay. Here is how I would describe the Huron. It’s a 130 mile long meandering river that invites you to slow down, wade in, walk its trails, canoe its ponds, fetch your binoculars and quietly watch for the hundreds of birds that call it home—Great Egrets, Snow Buntings, and Blue-winged Warblers to name a few. The Huron River encourages me to stand very still for a moment to better hear a birdsong. But even if I flinch I will be rewarded— a heron unfurls its massive prehistoric wings, breaking from the calm water, sending ripples from the point of takeoff slowly, slowly, slowly to the bank where I stand, reminding me that the heron and I are connected in some small way because we share this place, the Huron River.

Once while walking the trails along the Huron River I found a snapping turtle that must’ve weighed 70 pounds. Actually my dog, Wednesday, found it. She barked and barked as the turtle, not out of concern, but out of a desire to be left alone, slipped underwater and disappeared. I told everyone I saw that day (and for a week afterward) about the biggest turtle I ever saw.

The Huron River makes every day of my life better. Last week, out on my morning walk, I stopped to watch the ducks. One duck in particular was playing a game. He’d dive from a block of floating ice into the cold water, disappear for a moment, then climb back up and do it again. He did this for ten whole minutes. Clearly he was enjoying himself. He reminded me of the kids who at that same spot near Argo Dam every summer leap from the train trestle thirty feet overhead into the water below. They disappear for a moment then swim to shore, climb back up and do it again. I think they’re crazy. But also I can’t help but be infected with a little bit of their enthusiasm for life. The Huron River brings joy to me and to Erin and to Wednesday. It brings joy to kids and ducks alike who can’t help but hurl themselves into it. I would call the Huron River a lot of things. But whatever, I guess we can settle on “drainage ditch”.

I hope that this post encourages those who read it to find a great book and share it with someone—a simple act, but an important one. Afterward, maybe reward yourself with a quiet walk along the river, content in knowing that you added to the sum total of goodness in the world.

So without further ado we bring you the 2012 Phildecott Award winners.

Hopper and Wilson, Maria van Leishout
This was my (Phil’s) absolute favorite book of the year. I love this book. Erin and I taught a writing workshop this year as a fundraiser for 826 Michigan. We made sure to read this book aloud to a room of adults as an example of how to write a beautiful book.

Melvin and the Boy, Lauren Castillo
Speaking of that 826 workshop, this is another book we gladly brought along as a lesson in wonderful bookmaking. This quiet, unassuming picture book is a masterpiece that could easily go unnoticed. The writing and illustrations work together so perfectly, so seamlessly that those of us writers and illustrators that have ever struggled to bring a book into existence cannot help but marvel at the apparent ease with which Ms. Castillo brings us this gem.

A House in the Woods, Inga Moore
Erin fell in love with this book instantly. She showed it to me and I fell right behind her. Some books are destined to be pulled off the shelf over and over again when we feel stuck. This is one of those books.

Stuck, Oliver Jeffers
Did someone say “stuck”? We gave this book (among others) to our niece and nephews for Christmas. Books can sometimes get lost in the battery-operated-robot excitement of Christmas morning. But once the batteries have run out those books start to look pretty interesting. I was really happy the other day when my sister called to let me know that all three kids have gone crazy for Stuck. Seriously crazy. Wild screaming, laughing, jumping up and down crazy. And how could you not? Expertly illustrated. Expertly written. Funny is not easy, but Stuck pulls it off with ease. As does our next book…

A Place to Call Home, by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Vivianne Schwartz
Quite honestly, one of the funniest picture books of the year. Nay, one of the funniest ever. To quote the illustrator’s website: An epic picture book about a brave band of brothers, lost and looking for a new home. Will they find it, across the sea, the mountains, the desert, through endless labyrinths and beyond the edge of the world where strange beasts are lurking? And will they stay together? And how will they know where they are going if they are all wearing protective helmets?

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Eric Carle
Erin and I came across this book in a unique way. We were driving back to Michigan after attending the Rhode Island Children’s Book Festival. Along the way we took a little detour to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. On display were original illustrations from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. Just fantastic. This book is a shot in the arm to any artist, of any age, who has ever felt creatively blocked. This book just makes you want to go make something. And that is a good thing.

Duck, Death, and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch
This is an unusual book, and tough to sum up. Give this book a chance and I guarantee it will affect you in some way. In our desire to make every book mean everything to everyone we can forget that some books will have a smaller audience, and that’s okay. This book will mean a lot to someone who needs it at the exact moment it falls into their lap. And shouldn’t we celebrate that?

George Flies South, Simon James
Just a great story that’s near impossible not to love instantly. The illustrations call to mind the best work of Quentin Blake, but with an added softness that perfectly suits the narrative.

My Name is Elizabeth!, Annika Dunklee, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
I made a horrible mistake by not buying this book the moment I saw it. For some reason I was feeling frugal that day. That was months ago and the book is still rattling around in my head. Frugality is not always a virtue. My New Year’s resolution: Be less frugal. And go buy My Name is Elizabeth!.

Stop Snoring, Bernard!, Zacharia OHora
Just a nice, simple book, lovingly made. This book is primarily responsible for the cameo appearance of giraffes in a picture book that I’m working on right now in the studio. There are few animals more fun to draw than a giraffe. Yet they so rarely appear in picture books. Why? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Conference of the Birds, Peter Sís
This book is not technically categorized as a children’s picture book. However, this book defies any kind of categorization. It is a stand-alone work of art. Some adults will love it. Some children will love it too. Hold it in your hands and you can sense that you are holding something Important. Important with a capital “I”.

Well that concludes this year’s Phildecott Awards. Surely there are books that we’ve forgotten or overlooked. Likely, next week we’ll stumble on something great and shout Oh, man, how did we miss this?!

Which brings us to this year’s Steadbery Awards

We are absolutely positive that we missed loads of great potential Steadbery winners this year. This was the busiest year of our professional lives and we couldn’t help but get a little behind on our reading. With that disclaimer I would like to present to you the works of writing that really stood out to us, and most challenged us to be better at what we do.

And the 2012 Steadbery Awards go to:

Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanha Lai
This was one of the first books I read this year and I knew instantly that it would be on this list. I read the entire book in one sitting on a train from D.C. to New York. I finished it, turned to Erin and said: This book is perfect. It has no flaws. I am blown away by what she’s done here. Isn’t it great when that happens?

Where Things Comes Back, John Corey Whaley
This book is a true work of art in that, if you are open to it, upon reading it you will become a different person, seeing the world through slightly different eyes. Sometimes we need to remember that the primary mission and function of any work of art is to do just that.

Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos
Gantos has a knack for creating worlds and characters so slightly-strange and compelling that you end up feeling a little sad when the book is done and you have to say goodbye.

The Lying Carpet, David Lucas
Erin and I are David Lucas fans plain and simple. This book was not easy to track down. Thank goodness for local independent stores that will go to the ends of the earth to make their customers happy and well-read (I’m looking at you Nicola’s Books). This book will be unlike anything else you’ve read in a long, long time. Don’t be afraid to do something nice for yourself and ask your local bookseller to help find you a copy.

We Need A Horse, Sheila Heti, illustrated by Clare Rojas
This is probably a good time to officially thank our local bookstore, Nicola’s Books. We would have missed so many of these books without their help. Having true booksellers in your community—people who know their customers and know what books they will love—is an amazing gift. Some books find a wide audience on their own. But others need help. They need to be handed from one person to another. They need to be shown face out on a book display in a well-lit cozy environment like the children’s nook at Nicola’s Books. We Need a Horse, maybe the most beautifully written text of 2012, is a book that we would not have found without the help of Nicola and her staff. We Need a Horse is a perfect example of why We Need Great Bookstores.

Until Next Time, Happy Reading,

Phil (and Erin) Stead

Ducks on the ice, Barton Dam, Huron River, Ann Arbor


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