Art by Julia Kuo for I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne

To feel what characters feel is to understand them. This emotional connection opens our hearts to a story and makes us care. We are hooked and want to know what happens next. Picture books challenge their artists to show emotion, in all its nuances, through comprehensible images accessible to the very young. Pictures that a four- or a seven-year-old will return to again and again and think, “This is sadness.” “This is joy.” “That boy is a little scared.” In the process, young readers find much in stories to comfort them. Yes, life is sometimes scary or sad, but just beyond the next page turn, something good could await.

The bond between a Taiwanese girl who must move away from her beloved grandmother drives the poignant story of I Dream of Popo, written by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by Julia Kuo. Both the author and illustrator have strong ties to Taiwan. Blackburne emigrated from Taipei to New Mexico when she was five, while Taiwanese American artist Kuo spent extended time on the island as a child and has traveled back many times to visit family there. The two women know well the pang of leaving loved ones who one might not see again for a long time, if ever. Using a beautifully restrained complementary color palette, Kuo sensitively depicts the physical proportions of a child emigrating to America and her caring grandmother.

Their deep love is evident in every spread as the girl recounts how her Popo has always been there, rocking her to sleep, steadying her at the park, feeding her sweet New Year’s cakes. They always seem to be reaching out to each other. Every shape and line reinforces the closeness between the child and the grandmother, who knows she won’t always be there in this precious child’s life. As their lives diverge, the family must try harder to stay connected across so many miles. But they find that love transcends space and time.

Art by Molly Bang for her When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt

The sting of hurt – how quickly it hits us. One minute you’re in flow, and the next, someone – maybe even a friend – makes a comment or giggles, and a hot wave of embarrassment floods you. Molly Bang masterfully captures this volatile emotional ground in When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt.

A three-time Caldecott honoree and author of the ground-breaking PB design guide Picture This, Bang opens her story with extremely low and high points of view before hovering above a group of children. Their assignment: To paint a tree. Bang’s high-chroma palette contrasts with the white and gray newspaper and paint cups covering the round table. After the rollicking, vibrating colors of the previous pages, we feel the gentle quiet of the happily focused class.

Then we drop directly into Sophie’s closeup view as she thrills to her jaw-droppingly beautiful picture – a bright blue tree outlined in shining yellow against an orange sky. It’s a knockout, slanting diagonally across the spread, and, boy, is she happy. Of course, every table has a critic or two. The kids clustered around Sophie laugh and tell her, “You did it wrong.” It’s a visceral moment. Bang zooms us up just above Sophie’s head as doubt and hate for her artwork fill her.

Thank goodness there’s a Ms. Mulry on the next page to coax Sophie and her classmates into sharing the reasons behind their artistic choices. It’s a transcendent ending that suggests that misunderstandings can open a door to deeper community.

Art by Rafael Lopez for The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

In The Day You Begin, four-time Newbery Honor winner Jacqueline Woodson’s tender, hopeful words spring to life in the vibrant illustrations of Rafael Lopez. “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.”

Lopez invites us into those classrooms and shows us how it feels to not yet belong, and how the smallest things can be the start of a friendship. A two-time Pura Belpre honoree and Society of Illustrators medalist, Lopez captures a world of emotions in his close-ups of children’s faces, from curious to fearful, unsure to jubilant. With images evoking the warm colors and shapes of Disney designer Mary Blair, Lopez seamlessly blends everyday touchstones with glimpses into the children’s memories and imaginations.

A blackboard shares a spread with an abstracted Venezuelan hillside bursting with flowers. A cafeteria table mimics the sculpted flat surface of Asian rice terraces. Lopez works with acrylic on wood, pen and ink, pencil and watercolor and pulls his images together digitally. The final look combines lots of texture and glazing of colors with playful patterns that celebrate the characters’ delicate steps to connect.

Art by Francisco Javier Olea for Life Without Nico by Andrea Maturana

Life Without Nico, written by Andrea Maturana and illustrated by Francisco Javier Olea, brings us face to face with the loss Maia suffers when her best friend Nico temporarily moves away from Chile so his father can study in Australia. The exuberant opening scene of two children bouncing on a bed shifts quickly to bewilderment as Maia and Nico, stunned at the news, look up from their homemade spacecraft.

Before leaving, Nico gifts his friend with a small globe on a string that has Chile and faraway Australia marked with stars. The hanging globe and the shadows it casts appear across multiple spreads, along with other circular shapes and spheres.

Using a palette dominated by turquoise and umber, Olea sketches conceptual backgrounds that minimize the inessential and pull our attention to his fully painted main characters and their emotions and gestures.

We cheer when the bereft Maia breaks free of her loneliness and eventually reaches out to new friends. Then Olea treats us to a particularly joyous spread of the two friends talking by phone. Nico’s long-distance recounting of Australia’s flora and fauna burst into vivid colors in the most painterly and representational spread of the book – heralding spring and the resurgence of Maia’s spirit. Nico’s much-anticipated return brings one last insight into the nature of friendship.