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Which Books Should Have Won the 2020 New York Times Best Illustrated Awards

Cue the sad trombone – there won’t be any New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list this year. As with so many (many) things in 2020, the pandemic is to blame.

In a typical year, I’d have already put out my predictions and been eagerly awaiting the early November announcement of the list. Due to the international nature of the the award, the winners are tough to predict. I’d usually go 2 or 3 for 10 on my picks.

But just because there won’t be a list this year, that doesn’t mean I can’t share the books that I think should have won, right? Hey – with no official list, this is the year I can go 10 for 10!

So here we have them, the books that SHOULD have won NYT Best Illustrated for 2020, (IMHO).

We Are Water Protectors illustrated by Michaela Goade, written by Carole Lindstrom

Stunning watercolors that pop off the page, I don’t know how you could deny this inviting, beautiful book.

I Talk Like a River illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by Jordan Scott

Here’s how it goes: Sydney Smith illustrates a book, the book is given an NYT Best Illustrated award (which has happened in ’15, ’16, ’17, and ’19). But here’s the thing: Mr. Smith isn’t getting this recognition based on reputation – every time out he earns it. And such is the case with I Talk Like a River.

The Old Truck illustrated by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey

With foam block printing and an ingenious design, The Old Truck is a master class in visual storytelling.

Migrants by Issa Watanabe

Peruvian author/illustrator Issa Watanabe turns in this meditation on immigrants. Wordless, finely detailed, and powerful.

Hike by Pete Oswald

Here’s the thing with the NYT list – it’s usually pretty balanced in terms of tone. There’s usually a couple more somber books balanced by more joyful stuff. Few books in 2020 are more full of joy than this.

My Best Friend illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Julie Fogliano

Toughest call of the year: which Tamaki book do you pick? Because she has two lovely books in 2020: Our Little Kitchen and this one. I’m picking My Best Friend because the pink and green digital artwork is completely mesmerizing.

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

A limited palette with a lot of pencil, I’m endlessly impressed with Penyas’s bold artwork.

Everyone’s Awake illustrated by Shawn Harris, written by Colin Meloy

Shawn Harris is due, and this is some of his most striking work to date. But the guy could also be on this list with another 2020 book he illustrated: A Polar Bear in the Snow.

When You Look Up by Decur

A sort of psychedelic dream come to life, When You Look Up is a totally unique visual experience.

When the Storm Comes illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, written by Linda Ashman

Check for the previous winners, because they might be up to something. Taeeun Yoo previously won a Best Illustrated award for Only a Witch Can Fly. And When the Storm Comes displays more of the same gorgeous picture book making.

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. Sad trombone indeed. But what a beautiful bunch of books! Thanks for sharing them.

    • Thanks, Jen, for letting me know about this. And thanks, Travis, for including WHEN THE STORM COMES among these beautiful books. I love Taeeun’s gorgeous art!

  2. YES to When You Look Up!! And excellent choices here. How did I miss Mexique? Off to find!

  3. Travis, thanks for this great list. There are several others I would add, but I have a more important question. Why was the award canceled this year? I don’t think we can only blame the pandemic. It seems that most other literary awards will continue, albeit under less than ideal circumstances. The PW report of the cancellation cited the inability to meet in person and other obvious problems, but I can’t believe that the three judges of this important award could not have done their best to bring this year’s best illustrated books to readers’ attention. How did this process become such a low priority for the Times and/or the NYPL?

  4. Amazing!! Congrats on going 10 for 10! (Hey, no one can prove you didn’t.)

    Emily, I have NO special info or insight, but as a former judge, I think the way the process works is different from any other committee. They really do try to look at EVERY SINGLE PICTURE BOOK published that year, and the illustrators can hail from any country. Three judges, one windowless conference room at the NYT, hundreds of books spread out over tons of tables. It takes a LONG time to look at every book, and then to argue (HEARTBREAKINGLY) about which should win. I see no way to manage this safely. And with picture books, you need physical copies. I’m on the Sydney Taylor committee this year, and that one’s *certainly* doable without meeting in person, with judges receiving a combo platter of print and digital books (I don’t feel strongly about reading non-illustrated books in digital form, but again, w/picture books, you GOTTA hold ’em) and then debating over Zoom. NYT/NYPL, not so much. Then there’s the fact that the NYPL (which sponsors the awards luncheon, meaning a ton of people eating in a fancy room in an old building) is dealing with a LOT right now, as it slowly starts to re-open branches. And I’d imagine the fact that there’s a new children’s book editor at the NYT, probably still finding her feet in a humungous job (she’s expected to pitch in on non-kidbook-related Book Review processes too!) is relevant.

    Just one more bummer in these hellacious times.

  5. Marjorie, Thanks for your insights; I know how committed you are to children’s books and to picture books specifically. I don’t claim to know the inside story about the collapse of this award, but it just doesn’t add up. No one hates reading ebooks more than I do (I guess I can’t actually prove that!), and reading picture books that way is the worst. However, I am doing it every day because the alternative is not to read or review them at all. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. Also, there are some print books making the rounds. Some awards committees are receiving them. I would think that the Times would be higher on the list than some of these other awards. I’m aware that there is a new children’s book editor and I’m sure that fact is part of the big picture. I’m just not sure which part of the picture it is. I tend to think that the NYPL is not the responsible party here, but that may just be an unrealistic inclination on my part to romanticize that institution and to let them off the hook Take care!