With over 100 children’s books to his name, Dan Santat is one of the biggest names in the business. When not writing and illustrating his own, he is a regular collaborator with other author’s providing his stylish illustrations for their titles. Born in 1975 to Thai immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, Santat was raised in California. He studied microbiology at the University of California in San Diego but entered the Art Center College of Design immediately after that. While there, he befriended Peter Brown, author & illustrator of The Wild Robot.
Aside from children’s books, Santat created the Disney Channel animated series The Replacements (2006-2009), which came from an idea he had for a children’s book that never developed. He would later talk about how difficult working on a series was, citing the need to constantly get approval from executives, and would say that he felt his creativity was stifled by the desire to appeal to broad audiences. Santat has also provided commercial illustrations for numerous publications, from The Wall Street Journal to Esquire and The Village Voice, to name a few.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
For ages: 3-7
Beekle is one of many imaginary friends living on a remote island, waiting for a child to dream them into the world. He watches his friends off into life until he’s left alone and doesn’t believe he’ll ever be picked. So, instead of waiting for a child, Beekle hops in a rowboat and makes his way to find a friend. The real-world surprises Beekle; it’s so drab and lifeless, unlike his bold and colorful island home. When he stumbles across a playground, everything changes, and he sees this place through the eyes of the imaginative kids.
Santat’s style feels like contemporary children’s animation, which will help engage readers immediately. Faces are full of expression, and you can tell a lot of time & thought has been put into character design. This story is also a great example of Santat’s commitment to social-emotional development through his books. On the surface, we have an exciting fantasy straight out of a Pixar movie. Beneath it are explorations of loneliness, the wonder of being a child, and the importance of making friends.
Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
For ages: 4-8
A young boy is bored out of his mind during the long, arduous drive to Grandma’s house. It feels like it is taking forever to get there. The child’s mind begins to wander, and so does the book’s structure. Readers will have to turn the book in a spiral to keep reading and end up with it upside down to continue as they go “back in time.” The family car passes through ancient Egypt, the Wild West, Medieval England, and even prehistory to visit some dinosaurs. Our young protagonist is in awe of what he sees, but it’s not over yet.
Another clever twist and turn has the family hurtling into the far future, where we witness remarkable technological developments while also seeing how similar people’s lives are to us here in the present. Grandma’s house is missing in the future, so the family has to find their way back to the present. Santat takes what seems like a mundane, generic story and spices it up using his knowledge of graphic design. This is a fantastic book to hand a child without telling them beforehand. Watch as they figure out that reading this won’t be like anything they’ve seen before.
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again (Roaring Brook Press)
For ages: 4-8
We are all feeling a lot of anxiety these days. The world is a particularly uncertain place, and our kids are feeling just as much, if not more, than us. Dan Santat understands that feeling. His wife struggled with postpartum depression after the birth of one of their children, which led him to write this book. The familiar character of Humpty Dumpty is given a backstory; we come to see what led him to get up on that wall. After his fall, the Eggman is reasonably scared to go back up again. Through the text, we watch as Humpty builds up his confidence and works through his trauma. The ending will likely have the adults in the room in tears.
This is one of my favorite children’s books of all time. So much so that I made an entire packet on Teachers Pay Teachers to go along with it. It’s deceptively simple when you look at the word count, but the ideas within are essential and touch on every single person’s life. When a children’s book can speak to not just its target demographic but adults as well in a manner that seeks to encourage, show empathy, and promote healing, it’s pretty incredible. I think After the Fall is a must-have in every school library.