Charming picture books will delight children and impress adults with important themes

Reading a picture book to a child—whether that child is three or thirteen—can be an important way to discuss some vital life lessons while also sharing the enjoyment of reading a good book. These picture books will accomplish just that. The stories are lovely—emotional and touching—and there are important messages in each.

“Witch Hazel” is a unique picture book thematically, artistically, and emotionally. It almost requires reading more than once to really understand and appreciate what is happening in these sepia-colored pages. The illustrations are simple, but also brilliant, as the colored paper and graphite drawings pop with the addition of bright white. And it’s what the white represents that is also brilliant—the memories of one of the main characters, the grandmother, Witch Hazel. We see her with her granddaughter (and her granddaughter’s kitten) as Hazel teaches Hilda about life as Hazel sweeps the front steps with her broom and describes growing up with her own cat. The stories are told in the sparkling white images that almost seem to interact with the real-life graphite ones. We see the passage of time as spring gives way to summer. Clever text shows that Hazel is aging. “The old piano bench creaked a bit as Hazel sat upon it. Hazel creaked a bit, too.” In the fall, instead of Hazel dusting, Hilda dusts while Hazel tells her a long-ago story of being belle of the ball. And we see the story play out in sparkling white, and when the story is over, perplexingly, there is a white image of a glass slipper left on Hazel’s ottoman, obviously a memory. It leaves us wondering whether the slipper is a subtle reference to Cinderella, also a belle of the ball. And then it’s winter, and Hazel keeps to her bed. Hilda takes over and tidies and tells Hazel stories. And the next spring, we see Hilda alone, caring for the house, thinking and remembering Hazel. This is a story that children would really enjoy reading a few times and discussing. Love and loss. I can imagine myriad different points of view about this imaginative and poignant treasure. (Little, Brown and Company)

Another thoughtful book, “The Seasons Within Me,” by Bianca Pozzi explores how our feelings can color our days. The first person narrators wakes up in the morning, and we see the sun shining outside, but she says, “One day I woke up feeling gray. It was raining a lot, but it was only raining at me.” To illustrate that point, we see the rain falling only inside her umbrella. Her day is gray and sad until, on the way home from school, she sees another creature suffering from a gray day, a homeless dog. “We had found each other.” And as she helps the lost dog by bandaging its wound, bathing it, and playing with it, her gray skies start to clear up. Having a friend, a faithful friend, may not make everything perfect, but it sure makes things better. And this story of emotions and feeling depressed really does strike at a universal truth. Kids (and adults) often need the unconditional love offered by a dog (or a cat) to bring cheer and chase away loneliness. It’s why, as a teacher, I recommended that every family with the ability to care for a pet adopt a dog or cat for their children. Many children find themselves able to talk to their four-legged siblings in a way that they can’t to their parents or even their friends. This book would be a great tool for social workers and parents to use to talk about emotions with children who might have a difficult time expressing their feelings. (Rise x Penguin Workshop)

And last is a fairy tale turned upside down in my favorite way—with the inclusion of dogs! “Cinderella—With Dogs!” by Linda Bailey and Freya Hartas is a darling fairy tale romp that will brighten everyone’s day. My grandson laughs hysterically each time he reads this—of course, he dearly loves his two dogs and thought this was the best! We first meet Cinderella in the mansion where she is cleaning while the stepsisters have gone to the ball. She’s in a room filled with cats, sweeping up. Suddenly, her fairy dogmother appears. Accent on the “dog.” When Cinderella questions the reversal of “fairy GODmother” to ‘fairy DOGmother,” her dogmother feels unwanted. “Cinderella knew how it felt to be unwanted. She also happened to be very fond of dogs.” (Right here, teachers, stop and ask your students what that means. Why did Cinderella know what it felt like to be unwanted? Where is the evidence in the story?) Soon Cinderella is outside running and chasing squirrels with her fairy dogmother. When it’s time to get ready for the ball, her fairy dogmother has some very unusual ideas about how Cinderella should dress and what her hair should look like. But Cinderella is easy-going and happy to go along, even to the extent of running and howling at the moon on the way to the ball. And when they get there? No spoilers here, but the ending is perfect. Happy ever after? Certainly Cinderella and the dogs and even the cats will be, but she’s willing to take things slow with the prince. Just as it should be. Teachers: use this in combination with a traditional Cinderella story and have your students write a compare/contrast essay about the two stories. They’ll love it, and the results will be entertaining as well as great writing practice. I’d love to hear a class discussion about how this ending differs from the traditional one! (Nancy Paulsen Books)