There’s no science or logic when it comes to making a friend. Sometimes the best friendships in life are the ones you never saw coming. Connections that spark in the unlikeliest of places and in the most unusual of circumstances are a joyful accident of the cosmos, often forming at times and for reasons you’d least expect. Finding common ground—through laughter, comfort, or tears—with those from different backgrounds, lifestyles, cultures (and perhaps even habitats) can be the most joyful, enriching experience of a lifetime. My latest picture book, WHEN SPIDER MET SHREW, is full of unlikely meetings, merriment, and friendships, along with a gentle reminder about how helping someone in need can sometimes fulfill needs of our own.
As the saying goes, “Friends are family you get to choose.” Here are a few titles, from picture books to middle grade novels, that remind us how friends can come in many different shapes, sizes, and species—whether it’s a fish, gargoyle, elephant, duck, coal monster…or even a houseplant. All you need is an open heart.
Sonata for Fish and Boy, by Milan Pavlovic
A wordless picture book featuring a young violinist playing music by a flowing river and the fish he inspires with his song. Fantastical adventures abound. The whimsical illustrations explore the heights to which music can transport us and show how chance encounters and shared interests can prompt lifelong connections.
Luna’s Green Pet, by Kristen Pendreigh and Carmen Mok
This picture book about a young girl and her unique choice of pet underscores how love can come in many different forms. A sweet story about humankind’s boundless capacity for love and nurturing and a good reminder that plants are, indeed, great listeners—a highly important quality in any friend.
The Scarecrow, by Beth Ferry and the Fan Brothers
This is a tender story about the unlikely bond between traditional adversaries: a scarecrow and crow. Although, in this case, the crow in question is an injured nestling and the scarecrow a lonely outcast. This gorgeously-illustrated rhyming picture book about friendship, love, and caring for others will melt your heart.
The Old Man and the Penguin: a True Story of True Friendship, by Julie Abery and Pierre Pratt
A rhyming picture book based on the remarkable story of Mr. Joao Pereira de Souza and DinDim, the oil-soaked penguin he rescues. This is a charming book about nurturing, devotion, letting go, and the deep bonds that connect us all—regardless of our species. Based on a true story—which makes it that much more poignant.
Anthony and the Gargoyle, by Jo Ellen Bogart and Maja Kastelic
This one had me at baby gargoyle! Another wordless picture book for the list, illustrated in beautifully soft graphic novel-style panels. This sweet, fantastical tale of the unlikely connection between a young boy and a newly-hatched gargoyle runs the emotional gamut between joyful reunions and touching goodbyes. All that, and a trip to Paris!
Every Home Needs an Elephant, by Jane Heinrichs
Every book list about friendship needs a delightful hybrid graphic novel like this one. And everyone who reads this book is guaranteed to want their own pet elephant. Nine-year old Sarah and her pet elephant – the flower-loving Mr. Smith – are fast friends in this story about adventure, overcoming obstacles, and finding love in unusual places.
Skunk and Badger, by Amy Timberlake and Jon Klassen
Who’d want Skunk for a roommate? Definitely not curmudgeonly Badger! This middle-grade novel about a quirky animal pairing (think The Odd Couple meets Frog and Toad) is witty, warm, and utterly delightful. Accompanied by Jon Klassen’s winsome pen-and-ink illustrations, this offbeat book about unlikely friendships is a must-read.
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier
One of my favourite middle-grade novels of all time—if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, please get on it asap. This folk-tale style story is about friendship, courage, compassion, and saving yourself by saving others. Pure magic! Just be sure to keep the tissues handy.
Like a Duck, by Deborah Kerbel
Disclaimer time: yes, I wrote this book. But it fits the theme of this list so perfectly, I just had to include it. Twelve-year old Sarah’s best friend in the world is Webster, an emotional-support duck who’s helped her navigate through the toughest times of her life. This is a big-hearted story (if I do say so myself) about love, unexpected friendships, the search for identity, and the heartbreak of loss.
In the tradition of fun cumulative stories like The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this joyful story shows how helping someone in need can sometimes fulfill needs of our own.
When Spider meets Shrew, they are both down on their luck. Spider’s web has blown away, and Shrew’s home has just been paved over. What happens when they decide to help each other out? They meet Bat, who is lonely for friends. Then they meet Possum, who can’t find his mom; Dog, who misses her puppies; and Pony, who is out of a job. Everyone has problems, but this quirky new community is ready to lend a hand in creative and surprising ways.
This is a joyful story about an unlikely group of friends finding compassion and community in each other. Deborah Kerbel’s humorous, quippy dialogue is perfectly paired with Geneviève Côté’s endearing illustrations of the animal characters.