100 Scope Notes
Inside 100 Scope Notes

The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2020

Here’s to keeping it interesting. Pushing the envelope. Pushing boundaries. Pushing buttons. Here’s to children’s books that expand our assumptions of what a children’s book can be.

Previously . . .

The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2019, 2018201720162015201420132012

The Inner Child by Henry Blackshaw

Cicada Books | August 4

Why It’s Unconventional: This book could just talk about how, yes, grown-ups were once kids too, you know. But the artistic device of actually showing the children inside the grown-ups adds an unexpected, visually arresting element to this wonderful book.

It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story about Marijuana (Updated Edition) by Ricardo Cortés

Black Sheep | April 20

Why It’s Unconventional: You’re kidding right?

The Tiny Chef and Da Mishing Weshipee Blook by Rachel Larsen, Adam Reid, and Ozi Akturk

Razorbill (Penguin) | September 15

Why It’s Unconventional: Where do I begin? Let’s see, it’s a picture book with an intentionally phonetically spelled title (1 Unconventional Point) illustrated with photography (Another Unconventional Point) about a tiny felted (and famous) woodland chef (Unconventional Point #3). While utterly different, it reminds me a bit of that other stop-motion-to-picture-book-oddball Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

Things That Go Away Beatrice Alemagna

Abrams | March 24

Why It’s Unconventional: Really, this book deserves its own post so I can go on and on about how great it is. It’s a simple, poetic text about how bad things tend to fade, but how love lasts combined with Alemagna’s rich, childlike oil paintings. But the element that takes it one step further is the use of vellum pages, that cleverly show the transformations described in the text (look closely at the two images above to see how the vellum page turn shows a transformation).

Sun Flower Lion by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow (HarperCollins) | September 22

Why It’s Unconventional: The weirdest book in Kevin Henkes’s hall-of-fame career and, as the kids say, I am here for it. Simple, psychedelic, and unforgettable.

I Wish by Toon Tellegen, illustrated by Ingrid Godon

Elsewhere Editions | March 31

Why It’s Unconventional: What we have here is a book of 33 prose poems (in response to the prompt “I wish”) paired with artwork inspired by old photographs. With emotion spilling off every page, this is the sort of book that reminds you that children’s literature can do anything.

Time for Bed’s Story by Monica Arnaldo

Kids Can Press | September 1

Why It’s Unconventional: In this masterful (and funny) perspective switcharoo, an anthropomorphized bed finally airs a lifetime of grievances.

Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake

Gecko Press | February 4

Why It’s Unconventional: I . . . I don’t even know how to describe this book. Okay I’ll try. A bunny with a potty mouth is eaten by a wolf. But that same potty mouth is what ends up saving the little rabbit. If you’re looking for a slightly naughty read aloud that is likely to bring the house down, this is the book for you.

Ellie’s Voice : or Tro¨o¨o¨mmmpffff by Piret Raud, translated by Adam Cullen

Yonder | August 4

Why It’s Unconventional: ESTONIA IN THE HOUSE!!! A voiceless creature (Ellie) finds an instrument that brings attention for its incredible sound, but when Ellie realizes it belongs to someone else, she sets out to return the horn to its rightful owner. Quirky black and white illustrations set a contemplative tone not often seen in picture books.

In the Half Room by Carson Ellis

Candlewick Press | October 13

Why It’s Unconventional: In a world of halves (literally, things seemingly cut in half), what does it mean to be whole? Another exquisite bit of the unexpected from the creator of perhaps the most unconventional Caldecott Honor book of all time (Du Iz Tak?).

Leafy Critters by Yvonne Lacet

Blue Dot Kids Press |May 26

Why It’s Unconventional: Photographic illustration is already a rarity in children’s books, but Leafy Critters takes things a step further, showcasing photos of animals made out of bits of nature.

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out edited by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa

Enchanted Lion | August 18

Why It’s Unconventional: How’s that for a title? Got your attention? It got mine. The word “poor” appears in the title of exactly ONE children’s book this year, and here it is. But it’s not unconventional for that reason alone. The text of this book is based on an actual speech delivered in 2012 by Uruguay President José Mujica (called the “poorest” president because he donates 90% of his annual salary) to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. His heartfelt plea? “Economic growth and progress must add to human happiness, not take away from it.”

There’s a Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak, illustrated by Julian Frost

Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan) | September 8

Why It’s Unconventional:

Fact! The skeleton is an icon of fear and horror.

Another fact! We carry one around with us wherever we go.

This book recognizes this odd truth and spins it into an excellent nonfiction book in the process.

I Go Quiet by David Ouimet

Norton | March 3

Why It’s Unconventional: You know how you read some picture books and they open on an eerie dystopian world, and everyone is wearing mouse masks, and then the protagonist finds an unexpected way to break free, changing your entire perception of the book you thought you were reading in the process?


Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War by María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Penyas

Eerdmans | October 27

Why It’s Unconventional: As you can see from the above image, this book doesn’t doesn’t shy away from the truth. I find Penyas’s illustrations so unique and beautiful, it took all my strength to not just turn this post into an image gallery for this one book (hello, NYT Best Illustrated judges). Well just a few more couldn’t hurt.

Hide and Seek City by Agathe Demois, illustrated by Vincent Godeau

Tate | March 24

Why It’s Unconventional: A exceedingly design-y interactive book, challenging readers to find hidden objects using an enclosed magical magnifying glass.

Tell Me: What Children Really Want to Know about Bodies, Sex, and Emotions by Katharina von der Gathen, illustrated by Anke Kuhl

Gecko Press | March 3

Why It’s Unconventional: This is the sort of book that compels me to make the Astonishingly Unconventional list every year. It’s about a topic that most wouldn’t expect a children’s book to cover, featuring unexpected illustrations and a unique design (spine on top). It also happens to be one of the best books on the topics of bodies, sex, and emotions that I’ve encountered.

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Thank you for this intriguing list. It’s wonderful to see new work by both Carson Ellis and Beatrice Alemagna. Ellis’s book immediately brings to mind Edward Eager’s Half Magic series, even if the concept is only similar. I am looking forward to Mexique: A Refugee Story. Few American young readers, or older readers, know anything about the Spanish Civil War, a rehearsal for the success of fascism in Europe. This book should get a great deal of attention. Older readers might want to go back to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Eyes of the World, about photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, who brought that conflict to the world’s attention.

  2. Thank you! Very intrigued by the yellow lion eating sun flower cookies

  3. gguuuuh i love this list, as i do every year. bravo!

    my wallet hates you.

  4. Fantastic books, thank you for the compilation!

  5. Robert Joyce says

    LOve this list !! will get some for next book order. unique

  6. Lisa Schoof says

    What a great and interesting selection of books. Went down the list and ordered several from my independent bookstore. I ALWAYS look forward to your 100 Scopes! Thank you!

  7. Could this list be alternately titled, “20 Books that Astonishingly Were Illustrated with Actual Art Instead of Software?” I don’t think the correlation is accidental. When there IS a list of non-digital illustrators, please let me know and I will invest all my school library purchasing dollars there.