December 12, 2023

Favorite Children’s Books of the Year

(From 2023 Newsletter Book Selections)

By Leonard Chan

This is the third edition of our year end review of favorite children’s picture books we featured in our newsletters during the course of the year (article from 2021 and article from 2022).

I was able to read 72 of 79 children’s books that were available to me. Not all of these books fit the criteria that we stipulated in prior years. The book needs to be in the category of a picture book or a story picture book (usually books with 40 pages or fewer). The book cannot be an anthology (books with more than one story), older than five-years-old, an activity book (such as origami or language), or a book that does not have a story to it.

In prior years, I included nonfiction children’s books such as biographies and memoirs that were often presented in fiction-like story form. I include these books again for this edition of the series, but I’ll present them as their own group this year. It’s hard to really compare the merits of a nonfiction book with those of an original story.

And here are the favorites -

Original Stories

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Today is Different

By Doua Moua (Author) Kim Holt (Illustrator)

In this story, a Hmong American girl named Mai and her brother Tou support their African American friends by joining a Black Lives Matter march. Mai demonstrates to her mother with coloring pencils that if you take one pencil alone, it can be broken easily. If you hold them together, they become much harder to break. With the coloring pencils being a metaphor for different ethnicities, it becomes a powerful message of supporting others outside your immediate community.

Whether you believe in the Black Lives Matter movement or not, this book is about activism and how movements become stronger when they can find allies to the cause.

This book is written by actor Doua Moua (Po in the live action version of the movie “Mulan”). In the book’s back note section, Moua includes a lot of really good information about Hmongs, his own family’s experience with the Black Lives Matter movement, a glossary, and a wonderful guide on “Ways to Be an Ally.”

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Stillwater and Koo Save the World

By Jon J. Muth

This is the latest book in Jon Muth’s Stillwater and Friends Series of books. The book features a Zen Master giant panda bear named Stillwater and his nephew Koo.

In this edition of the series, Koo wants to save the world, but isn’t sure how to do that. With some guidance from his uncle, Koo learns that “each time you do something good, you save the world a little bit.”

In Muth’s end note, he says “The woes and burdens of the adult world don’t exist separately from the world of children… Children want very much to make the world better, and they look to adults for guidance.”

Although the problems of the world may seem too enormous to solve, we do what we can to make things better and those small things add up if we all contribute. So as Muth says in his note, “the smallest acts of kindness may save the world.” What a nice message.

As in his other books, Muth’s writing and illustrations in “Stillwater and Koo Save the World” are Zen-like in its simplicity and beauty. Oddly enough, I never noticed before reading this book in the series that Koo speaks in haikus. Koo’s dialogue is so normal, that it is easy to miss the exquisitely crafted details of Jon Muth’s writing.

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You Are Life

By Bao Phi (Author) Hannah Li (Illustrator)

Many other children’s books use rhymes and may even follow the melodies of traditional songs, but with different lyrics. Often times the rhymes may seem awkwardly created and forced. Not so with “You Are Life.” This story is one complete elegant original poem written by award-winning poet and children’s book author Bao Phi (author of a “Different Pond”). It was written in answer to Bao Phi’s thoughts and feelings about the current anti-Asian climate we’ve been experiencing.

The book supplies numerous answers to the question of what we are. In so doing Bao Phi has humanized us. What better way to counteract hate than by educating everyone to understand who we are and that we are not so different from them. Hate stems from ignorance and seeing others as sub-human and monolithic stereotypes.

In Bao Phi’s end notes, he says “we must celebrate our lives… life in the multitudes of how we exist, outside the boxes that we are squeezed into.”

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Love Makes a Garden Grow

By Taeeun Yoo

I was first alerted to this book by Angela Zhao, one of our board members and volunteers. We were taking a break at an event and reading some of the new books. I had agreed with her about this one being good. I did not fully understand how this book was superior until I had a chance to read it in comparison with all the others.

So many of the books we featured this year are about the relationships of grandparents with their grandkids. It’s a common theme among authors probably because they’ve had such memorable fond memories of their own grandparents.

This book is a simple story about a granddaughter and her grandfather. Like the plants of the grandfather’s garden, the granddaughter and her grandfather grow and change with the times. As time passes the grandfather gives peonies on several occasions to her as reminders of their bond together and to cheer her up in times of need. By the end of the story, the grandfather has continued the practice with his granddaughter’s daughter.

There’s no grand message as far as I can see, but it encapsulates life and love over the course of a lifetime.

In the author Taeeun Yoo’s end note, she says “There is always growing and downsizing in our lives as time passes and family shifts. But I believe love and support can make us keep walking forward no matter what as love makes our life grow.”

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Sora’s Seashells

By Helena Ku Rhee (Author),  Stella Lim (Illustrator),  Ji-Hyuk Kim (Illustrator)

This year, there were four books that dealt with names (My Name, That’s Not My Name, Say My Name, and this book) – usually the book had something to do with the awkward situations that kids faced in school when their names were difficult for some of their classmates to say. “Sora’s Seashells” was my favorite among them. To say that “Sora’s Seashells” is a story about names would not do it justice.

Like “Love Makes a Garden Grow” this is a wonderful story about family relationships and love - in this case, between a Korean grandmother and her granddaughter Sora.

One of the activities that Sora and her grandmother would do is collect seashells at the beach. At the end of their searches, Sora’s grandmother would leave the prettiest shell on a bench for someone to find. “Finding a perfect shell is like receiving a wonderful gift.” It was her gift to the world - she was passing her joy and good fortune on to the next person.

At the end of summer Sora’s grandmother goes back to Korea and Sora starts her first day of school where some of the kids tease her about her name.

Sora eventually learns that her grandmother suggested her name when she was born because it means seashell in Korean. Sora was a perfect gift to their family.

I may have revealed too much of the story, but there’s more, including wonderful illustrations which appear to be mixed media of watercolor and something else (color pencil?).

In a relatively simple story, “Sora’s Seashell” has all the elements that make this one of my very favorite books of the year - a good message, moving story, and beautiful illustrations.

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Original Stories Honorable Mention


Be sure to watch the animated short film the book is based on. 

Last Flight

Making Happy

Brown is Beautiful: A Poem of Self-Love

Chloe’s Lunar New Year

One Day

A Gift for Amma: Market Day In India

My Name

Silly Green Mask

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day: Seollal, A Korean Celebration of the Lunar New Year

Doña Esmeralda, Who Ate Everything

Lolo's Sari-Sari Store

My Day With Gong Gong


Nonfiction Favorites

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The Untold Story of Larry Itliong: Labor Rights Hero

By Cristina Oxtra

This book is probably more appropriate for older kids - maybe 3rd or 4th grade and up. There are no illustrations, just photos, but they support the telling of union leader Larry Itliong’s life and work well. There's even a glossary and further reading suggestions in the back.

Larry Itliong’s life is worth examining and honoring, and this well written and informative book does the job.

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How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock-Climbing Champion

By Ashima Shiraishi (Author),  Yao Xiao (Illustrator)

This book was written by rock climber Ashima Shiraishi about some of her experiences.

I first saw this book last year when I found it in the library while looking for some other books for my 2022 year end review article. At that time I knew I needed to feature it in one of this year’s newsletters.

One of the things I learned from the book is how rock climbing requires lots of thought and planning. Ashima approaches a climb as a “problem” to be solved – she visualizes the climb like a 3D puzzle with nicknames for the spots and paths along the way.

The illustrations are at times, fanciful and would be completely fitting in a children’s work of fiction.

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Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service

By Annette Bay Pimentel (Author) Rich Lo (Illustrator)

This book is about Tie Sing, the chef on the camping trip that helped to create the United States National Park Service. Tie Sing was a 30 plus year worker for the US Geological Survey. That was where he got his experience doing fine cooking on camping trips. The quality and notoriety of his cooking got him on the Stephen Mather’s 1915 Mountain Party.

The goal of that journey was to show some dignitaries and influential people around a national park and convince them of the need for a national agency dedicated to managing the national parks.

Sing’s work was of such value that they named a mountain in Yosemite after him.

This book is the best researched and informative children’s book I have read this year and perhaps ever.

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A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth

By Christina Soontornvat (Author) Dow Phumiruk (Illustrator)

Life story books about people who are still alive and actively doing what they are known for can be a little problematic – what if something they do down the road is contrary to what we would find honorable and or admirable? As for politicians, like Tammy Duckworth, they are sure to rankle some feathers some time in their careers.

Nevertheless, Tammy Duckworth has lived a remarkable life and this book helps to highlight it. Most noteworthy was her time in the Army Reserves and National Guard where she learned to fly helicopters and became a battle captain tasked with planning and organizing helicopter missions during the Iraq War. During one of these missions she was shot down and suffered life threatening injuries that resulted in the amputation of both of her legs. After she had recovered, she eventually became a member of the House of Representatives and then a US Senator.

The book is wonderfully illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, the same illustrator of “Last Flight” which was one of the honorable mention books listed above.

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Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX

By Jen Bryant (Author) Toshiki Nakamura (Illustrator)

Unlike “A Life of Service,” “Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight” is about Patsy Mink, a pioneering Japanese American politician from Hawaii that is no longer with us. With her career and life now ended, we can comfortably reflect upon her amazing life and this book does a great job of doing that.

From her early struggles of getting the education that she desired, to her eventual change to becoming a lawyer, activist, and then a politician and US Representative – Patsy Mink faced opposition and setbacks, but she always got back up.

Her crowning legislative victory was the passage of Title IX – the law that required schools to treat men and women equally. The law gave males and females equal opportunity to all school programs, both as students and as teachers. Another consequence of this law was that women’s college sport garnered equal footing with men’s sports, which would ultimately change the world of women’s sports in America forever.

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Nonfiction Honorable Mention

Two at the Top: A Shared Dream of Everest