Stack Overflow: 20 Picture Books About Defying Expectations


Reading Time: 10 minutes

Stack Overflow: Defying Expectations

These picture books all have one thing in common: they all involve looking at the world a little differently. There are stories about kids who don’t fit expectations, about resisting prejudice, and about going against the flow. I like the fun surprise twists in these stories, and the kids who aren’t “normal,” and the celebration of diversity.

Doll-E 1.0

Doll-E 1.0 by Shanda McCloskey

Charlotte is a technological whiz, constantly showing her parents how to use or fix their gadgets. She even has a pet dog named Bluetooth. But when her mom gets her a doll as a present, Charlotte’s at a bit of a loss: the doll doesn’t play videogames or build banana keyboards or anything. It’s just a “human-shaped pillow,” as far as she’s concerned… until she realizes that the doll can say “Ma-ma.” Well, now there’s something to tinker with! It’s a fun story about a girl engineer who isn’t afraid to try new things.

Rot: The Cutest in the World!

Rot: The Cutest in the World! by Ben Clanton

Rot is a mutant potato who loves contests, so when he sees a sign for the Cutest in the World Contest, he can’t resist. But he doesn’t quite fit in with the other contestants, a bunny, a cat, and a pink jellyfish. And they’re not very nice to him, either. Rot tries his best to imitate the others, but it doesn’t really make him feel any cuter. In the end, he decides it’s best just to be himself … with some hilarious and surprising results.

The Ugly Five

The Ugly Five by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Speaking of not-so-pretty characters, this book is about five real-life animals from Africa who won’t be winning any beauty contests. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler are the creators of The Gruffalo—another great book about overturning expectations that’s been a family favorite for a long time—and they tackle this subject with some funny rhymes and cartoony illustrations. Each of the five beasts gets an introduction that describes the creature’s appearance and behavior, as they sing about how ugly they are. But is there anyone who finds them beautiful? You’ll have to read the book to find out. At the end, there’s also a section with a few lists of fives: the Big Five, the Little Five, the Shy Five, and the Ugly Five.

Perfectly Norman

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival

Norman had always been totally normal—but then one day he sprouted an enormous pair of colorful wings. Not knowing how his parents or friends would react, he covered them up with a heavy coat, which made life miserable. He was hot and uncomfortable and couldn’t do fun things like going swimming or playing at his friend’s birthday party. It’s only when Norman realizes that it’s not the wings that make him miserable, but the coat, that he’s finally able to be himself—and discovers that he’s not the only one who isn’t “normal.” The illustrations, which are mostly in black and white, really highlight Norman with some splashes of color, and it’s a celebration of being different—whatever that difference might be.

Captain Starfish

Captain Starfish by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys

It’s Alfie’s turn to lead the dress-up parade, and he’s all set with his Captain Starfish costume. But Alfie isn’t always comfortable being around other people, and isn’t sure he’s brave enough to lead the parade. And when the day comes … he just can’t. But it’s okay. His mom takes him to the aquarium instead, and gives Alfie time to process.

What I liked about this book—aside from its lovely, subdued illustrations—is the way that Alfie’s parents handle the situation. It’s never stated explicitly whether Alfie is just shy and introverted, or if he’s on the spectrum, but his parents don’t shame him when he’s not ready to get up and perform. Instead, they recognize that it doesn’t matter, and they find ways to help Alfie cope and grow.

Sarabella's Thinking Cap

Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner

Sarabella is always daydreaming, her head filled with all sorts of amazing thoughts, but nobody knows what she’s thinking about. Her teacher is nice, but he also needs her to figure out a way to focus on classwork. This book, which uses a combination of illustrations and collages to show what’s going on in Sarabella’s head, celebrates her imagination and shows how she finally manages to share her thoughts with her class. The only downside, for those parents of daydreaming kids, is that it still doesn’t offer any solutions for, say, getting math homework done.

Grumpy Monkey

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang, illustrated by Max Lang

Jim Panzee (okay, yeah, chimpanzees aren’t actually monkeys) is having a bad day—despite the bright sun, blue sky, and sweet bananas. His friend Norman suggests that maybe he’s grumpy, but Jim insists that he isn’t. As they go through the day, encountering various animals, everyone points out the evidence that Jim is grumpy: his hunched back, his furrowed brow, his frown … but despite changing those things, Jim still doesn’t feel quite right. And he’s tired of all the advice he’s getting, because HE’S NOT GRUMPY.

Well, maybe he is. But sometimes it’s okay to be grumpy, and sometimes things will get better later. That’s really the lesson that Norman and Jim learn—that maybe you can’t just fix grumpy, but you can acknowledge it and be friends through it.


Elmore by Holly Hobbie

Elmore is a prickly porcupine who wishes he had more friends. But despite his best efforts, nobody really wants to get too close to him. What’s a lonely porcupine to do? Elmore comes up with a clever solution. It’s a cute little book and the illustrations of Elmore (and the other animals) are adorable. I particularly like the way that Elmore, with a little inspiration, turns his liability into a strength.

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse

Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken

Adrian Simcox tells everyone at school about his horse, the most beautiful horse anywhere. But Chloe knows better: Adrian doesn’t have a yard big enough for a horse. He gets free lunches—how would he afford a horse? He can’t take care of his desk—how would he take care of a horse? When she calls him out, and complains to her mom about his lies, her mom decides it’s time to take their dog for a walk, and Chloe ends up learning a bit more about Adrian Simcox. It’s a book that surprised me because it’s neither about the dangers of lying nor the importance of getting all your facts first. Instead, it’s about looking at people from a different perspective and with kindness, and how that can change what you see.

Fruit Bowl

Fruit Bowl by Mark Hoffman

It’s time to put away all the fruits and veggies! Fruits go in the fruit bowl, and veggies go in the crisper in the fridge. But what’s Tomato doing in the fruit bowl? Well, Tomato explains what makes him technically a fruit, and what parts of a plant are vegetables. The book is filled with plenty of fruit and veggie puns, and a lesson about what else is actually a fruit. Perfect for the little know-it-all in your life!

The Book About Nothing

The Book About Nothing by Mike Bender, illustrated by Hugh Murphy

What’s this book about? Nothing! But, as this book argues, nothing is actually something. There are plenty of uses for nothing, as it turns out. This book is a clever exploration of the concept of “nothing,” with lots of wordplay and funny animal illustrations.

Mixed: A Colorful Story

Mixed: A Colorful Story by Arree Chung

The world started with just three colors: Reds, Blues, and Yellows, each with their own tendencies and quirks. But then things fell apart: each color felt that they were the best, and eventually the city was segregated, with little interaction between colors. That is, until a Yellow and a Blue met, and realized they complemented each other, and they decided to mix, creating a new color in the process. And you can guess where it goes from there.

Mixed is a story about the barriers that separate us, and about breaking them down. Of course, in reality it’s not so easy to overcome prejudice—everyone falls in love with Green, and the story doesn’t describe Reds, Blues, and Yellows who still want to stay in their own communities. But for kids, it’s a cute story about being stronger together, and that’s an idea worth sharing.

A Very Late Story

A Very Late Story by Marianna Coppo

It starts with a blank page, and then a few characters show up—but they don’t know why they’re there. Eventually they agree that they’re waiting for the story to show up. One little bunny asks to play, but the other characters are too busy watching for the story. And as they stand, staring off to the right of the page, the bunny gets out some markers and creates its own story, populating the left side of the page with a tree and birds and all sorts of other things. I like the way Coppo plays around with the text—both the part that is printed like a story, and the dialogue bubbles of the various characters as they try to figure out what to do.

Where's Halmoni?

Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim

Joon and Noona have shown up to visit Halmoni—their grandmother—but she’s gone missing! They discover a strange cabinet in her room that leads to another world, where they encounter all sorts of strange characters: a bunny, some goblins, a tiger, and a nine-tailed fox. But where’s Halmoni?

This book is a blend of picture book and comic book, and the characters are inspired by Korean folktales. In fact, there’s even a lot of Korean dialogue throughout the book—translations are provided at the back, but it’s also great the way you can grasp the flow of the story even if you can’t read the text. There are some fun surprises throughout the book—keep your eyes peeled for them!

Drawn Together

Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat

A boy goes to visit his grandpa, but it seems they have nothing in common. He speaks English; the grandpa speaks Vietnamese. He eats a hot dog for lunch; his grandpa has noodles. He’s not interested in watching the same TV show, so he gets out his colored markers and decides to draw … and that’s when the magic happens. The grandpa gets out his own sketchbook and a brush, and suddenly they find a way to bridge the culture gap.

The illustrations by Dan Santat are fantastic: he depicts each character in their own style of drawing as they imagine themselves: the boy as a colorful wizard, the grandpa in a traditional costume, rendered in black and white. But the world they create is a mix of both styles. It’s brilliantly done, and a touching story about reaching across cultures and generations.

The Crocodile and the Dentist

The Crocodile and the Dentist by Taro Gomi

The crocodile has a toothache and needs to visit the dentist, which isn’t pleasant for either of them. This funny book has the crocodile and dentist sharing the same lines of dialogue: the crocodile doesn’t want to have its tooth touched, and the dentist doesn’t want to reach into the crocodile’s mouth. Everything turns out okay in the end, of course, with a lesson about taking care of your teeth.

Company's Coming, Company's Going

Company’s Coming and Company’s Going by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by David Small

Shirley and Moe are an older couple who live in Bellmore, looking forward to having family over for dinner, when some unexpected guests arrive: two bug-like aliens in a flying saucer. Terrified, they let the aliens use their bathroom. In her nervousness, Shirley inadvertently invites them for supper. Moe, meanwhile, invites some others as well: the Army, the Air Force, and the Marines. Are the aliens there to take over the Earth? Will they be able to just enjoy a nice, quiet supper?

Well, okay, the spoiler is that things turn out all right, but it’s a very funny story about mixed messages and false assumptions. In the sequel, the aliens invite Shirley and Moe to their sister’s wedding, insisting that Shirley cater because of her incredible cooking. Moe’s a little doubtful, but Shirley is excited. As it turns out, the other aliens are just as mistrustful of these strange new visitors as Shirley and Moe were on Earth.

These books aren’t new, but have been newly reprinted, and they’re just as delightful and silly now as they were originally.

Quiet Wyatt

Quiet Wyatt by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Arthur Howard

Wyatt is really quiet, which makes him great at ninja camp but not so enthused when paired with not-so-quiet Noreen for a field trip. Most picture books I’ve read seem to encourage kids to be outgoing and exuberant, and depict shyness as something to be overcome. In this book, even though there is a moment when Wyatt needs to speak up, his quietness is celebrated and shown to be its own sort of talent.

The Wall in the Middle of the Book

The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee

Jon Agee is back with another fun book (coming in October): this one features a brick wall right down the center of the book. On the left is a little knight in armor, repairing the wall and explaining how the wall keeps this side of the book safe. On the other, big animals approach the wall: a rhino, a tiger, a gorilla. But the worst of all? The giant ogre who would eat up the knight if he ever got past the wall.

Of course, things aren’t what they seem. As the knight tells the story, the left side of the book starts filling up with water. Maybe it’s not so safe after all? And what does that mean about the animals and the ogre on the other side? I’ve always enjoyed Jon Agee’s picture books, which often subvert the characters’ expectations.

My Current Stack

I’ve been adding to my pile of comics and trying to organize some huge stacks of middle grade books into more manageable groupings, though I suppose I’ll still need to make time to actually read the books. Some days I think I spend more time reading about books and rearranging books than reading them, which is sort of a sad thought.

Aside from the comics, I finally started reading Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman, an ARC that I got years ago and … well, I guess you could say it became something of a hidden thing itself. It’s a murder mystery of sorts … among the mysteries is that the murder victim managed to make a phone call after his alleged death. I’ll report back when I’ve finished!

Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.

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