High-concept picture books introduce the youngest readers to abstract ideas through engaging illustrations, inventive metaphors, and interactive formats. We’ve compiled a number of titles published in 2021 that defy convention and spark understanding.

The Barking Ballad: A Bark-Along Meow-Along Book

Julie Paschkis (Atheneum, Oct. 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-5344-9260-8). Ages 4–8.

A story about a dog and the cat who befriends and helps him recover from an injury, this interactive story encourages readers to bark along to the ballad of 100 barks (and one small meow). Per our review, “when readers see one of many red circles in the text, they’re invited to ‘yip, arrf, grrr, bow-wow’ or otherwise sound off like a dog; a yellow diamond, likewise, cues readers to make like a cat.”


Can You See Me?: A Book About Feeling Small

Gokce Irten (Kids Can Press, Sept. 201, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-5253-0837-6). Ages 4–8.

Through a mix of drawings, photographs, and collage showing readers the world through the eyes of those who see it much differently than they do, Irten offers a unique introduction to the idea of perspective and the importance of recognizing one’s own unique point of view while prompting discussions about feeling big or small in the world, empathy, and self-acceptance.

Cat Dog

Mem Fox, illus. by Mark Teague (S&S/Beach Lane, Oct. 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-4169-8688-1). Ages 4–8.

A cat and dog are shocked to find a mouse in the house in this high-energy, call-and-response style adventure with text that sometimes does, and other times doesn’t correctly describe the action in the illustrations, prompting readers to unravel the real story. The book received a starred review from PW.


Circle Under Berry

Carter Higgins (Chronicle, Sept. 2021, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-79720-508-3). Ages 2–4.

Deceptively simple with its seemingly straightforward illustrations and text, this engaging concept book shows that everything in the world can be seen from infinite perspectives. Per our starred review, “Via ‘a stack of shapes’ that ‘can make you think/ and wonder what you see,’ Higgins offers seeds of conversations about naming and classification.”


The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in its Mouth

Bruce Handy, illus. by Hyewon Yum (Enchanted Lion, Mar. 2021, ISBN 978-1-79720-508-3). Ages 5–8.

Through soft pencil illustrations and a philosophical approach, this picture book explores the many forms happiness can take well as the things that evoke disappointment and sorrow. According to our starred review, “Gently tinted spreads by Yum carry emotion and straightforward beauty, as in a portrait of a bird resting (“The stillness of a perch”), then taking wing (“The happiness of flight”). This work takes a place on the shelf of A Hole Is to Dig–style miscellanies as the collaborators trace how adverse experiences might be openings to learning and joy.”


Have You Ever Seen a Flower?

Shawn Harris. (Chronicle, May 2021, ISBN 978-1-4521-8270-4). Ages 3–5.

An exploration of perception, beauty, and the environment, this picture book centers the relationship between childhood and nature as a child experiences a flower through all five senses. Per our starred review, “Attention is paid first to the senses as ways of knowing nature deeply, and then to the idea of aliveness itself.”


A House

Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, Sept. 2021, ISBN 978-0-06-309260-0). Ages 4–8.

Through interactive, call-and-response questions, declarative sentences, basic shapes, and a limited color palette, Henkes invites readers to explore the subtle differences between a house and a home while tapping into themes of family, community, and belonging. PW called the book, in a starred review, “a bite-size creation that’s rooted in noticing.”


Inside Cat

Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, Oct. 2021, ISBN 978-1-4521-7319-1). Ages 3–5.

Encouraging imaginative thinking and observation and featuring a rhythmic narrative and refrains that invite participation, this story features a cat whose life is bound by the rules of an unusual house but who roams from room to room discovering new worlds and sensations. Per our starred review, “Wenzel’s multimedia spreads are loose and open-ended, rich and suggestive; they’ll leave readers wondering what’s out there beyond their own windows—and beyond their own experiential selves.”


Is Was

Deborah Freedman (S&S/Atheneum, May 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-5344-7510-6). Ages 4–8.

Depicting change over the course of a single day, Freedman follows the way a small child experiences the natural world shifting from sun to rain and from day to night as things transform from is to was. “Addressing the puzzle of impermanence,” our review notes, “Freedman finds the beauty in transitional moments through a book that also offers a quiet way to begin conversations about loss.”


Once Upon a Time There Was and Will Be So Much More

Johanna Schaible (Candlewick, Sept. 2021, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-5362-2213-5). Ages 5–9.

Through collage artwork that reflects the passage of time as gradated pages, readers journey from the distant past into the future. As the story progresses, the pages become gradually smaller—showing more and more borders from the past—until they reach the present moment and pages again grow larger as time expands into a future of possibility.

Opposites Attract

Mo Willems (Hyperion, Oct. 19, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-368-07097-3). Ages up to 2.

Color, shapes, lines, and textures are brought together in this all-ages, image-focused picture book that, per our starred review, “explores the fundamentals of so-called opposites and playfully interrogates nonfigurative images’ associations.” See our q&a with Willems.



Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Holiday House/Neal Porter, Oct. 2021, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-8234-4712-1). Ages 4–8.

From the two-time Caldecott Medalist, and  author-illustrator of Green and Blue, comes Red, a story about a lone fox told through vivid red illustrations, die-cut pages, and simple text that explores how color evokes emotions like fear, love, and anger. See our q&a with Seeger.


Marianna Coppo (Tundra, Jan. 18, 2022, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-7352-6579-0). Ages 3–7.

Coppo suggests that if you aren’t one thing, you can be everything and anything in this story starring a small, shapeless orange protagonist called Thingamabob, who, per our review, “proves unsuited to everything it tries.” Failing attempts to be ice cream, a hat, or a kite, Thingamabob “soon encounters a pale-skinned child, to whom it can be both useful and a good friend.


Time Is a Flower

Julie Morstad (Tundra, Sept. 2021, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-7352-6754-1). Ages 3–7.

Addressing a difficult-to-grasp concept through the eyes of a child, Morstad explores the marvels of the world through the lens of time. Per our starred review, “This ethereal book of ideas captures variations on how time passes in lyrical writing and images that offer moments of wonder and change. Multimedia spreads capture the way that time can be seen in the movement of sun across the floor, the rising of bread dough, the growth of flora.


The Tree in Me

Corinna Luyken (Dial, Mar. 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-593-11259-5). Ages 4–8.

A conversation-starter about self-esteem, community, and living a meaningful life, this picture book explores the various ways we as humans are strong, and the enduring link between humanity and nature. Per our review, “Humans contain shade, sun, and even delicious flavors, the text posits, ‘part apple,/ part orange-pear-almond-plum,/ part yummm!’ In the spreads, a vibrant rose pink, the gold of light, and a shadowy black predominate, focusing on passion and inner truth rather than examining trees themselves.” 


We Are One: How the World Adds Up

Susan Hood, illus. by Linda Yan (Candlewick, Nov. 2021, $17.99, ISBN 978-1-5362-0114-7). Ages 3–7.

Unity and connection are celebrated in this look at early math concepts like part/whole relationships, fractions, and addition that explores the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. As noted in our review, “Combining rhyming lines with context beneath, this counting picture book offers a summation of things that exist in the world.”


The Wordy Bird

Julie Paschkis (Enchanted Lion, Sept. 2021, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-59270-353-1). Ages 6 – 10.

Wordy, surrealist paintings featuring unexpected juxtaposition encourage readers to explore how a word’s sound, form, and context can shape its meaning. According to our review, questions posed throughout “lead only to more questions,” with the narrating voice asking, “What does a word think about?” in one spread and, in another featuring an ouroboros, a snake with its tail in its mouth signifying the circle of life and death, “When does the end turn into a beginning?”