Picture Books for Graduation and Other Milestones

As the school year winds down, the air is full of possibility. May brings bittersweet endings and exciting new beginnings. And if you have a graduate in your life, whether kindergarten, college or anywhere in between, a few things are certain:

  1. The graduation cap will most definitely fall off their head. (Does anyone actually know the proper way toThe cover of the book Oh, the Places You'll Go! features a child in a yellow suit and cap standing on top of colorful, concentric circles. wear one? Asking for a friend.)
  2. Pomp and Circumstance” will be stuck in your head for the next week.
  3. The graduate will receive a copy (or two or three) of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Since its publication in 1990, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has remained one of the most popular graduation gifts, evidenced by the fact that it shoots to the top of the children’s bestseller list each spring. As this clever Washington Post article observes, it’s the perfect (if cliché) choice for all ages: kids can’t resist Dr. Seuss’ whimsical rhymes, while older graduates appreciate the encouraging message and the nod to their own childhood nostalgia. It’s no wonder that nearly three generations have unwrapped a copy for each of their major life milestones.

As I approach my own master’s degree commencement, I’ve been reflecting on what these educational milestones have meant to me over the years. For me, these are times not just to revel in my own accomplishments but to remember all the love and encouragement that brought me here. I remember my parents staying up late with me as I struggled through school projects, first by my side at the dinner table and now from miles away over the phone. I remember my grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members who met me at the finish line with parties, flowers and cards. And I remember classmates, friends and now my husband who have commiserated with me through it all.

The common denominator, for me at least, is that all of these people knew how to say exactly what I needed to hear, sometimes in words and sometimes with a thoughtful gift (and yes, sometimes with a copy of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”). And while I can appreciate Dr. Seuss as much as the next children’s librarian, I must admit, I’m ready for something fresh. What better way to celebrate this momentous time of year than with a book list?

While I selected these books with graduation in mind, they’re appropriate for all sorts of occasions, from birthdays to baby showers. And in the spirit of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!,” the messages within ring true for recipients of all ages. Give the gift of a book or save a tree (and some space on your bookshelf) by checking out a library copy to read with your loved one on their special day. Without further ado, here are my favorite titles:

What Will You Be?” by Yamile Saied MéndezThe cover of What Will You Be features a grandmother and a child looking up and pointing at the night sky with a large crescent moon and shooting stars in the background.

A little girl ponders what she will be when she grows up. She seeks counsel from her abuela who seems to have been “everything under the Sun and the Moon” in her lifetime. But much to the girl’s surprise, Abuela is still figuring out who she is! The pair then close their eyes and take a moment to listen to the quiet voice within. Amidst a flurry of colorful brushstrokes, they imagine themselves as builders, helpers, dreamers and more. This lyrical story highlights the potential of each child and the wisdom of those who came before us. The perfect gift for a beloved grandchild!

Sometimes You Fly” by Katherine ApplegateThe cover of the book Sometimes You Fly features a boy on his mother's shoulders followed by a small dog. They fly through the sky with a kite and leaves surrounding them.

Billed as “a natural successor to Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, this simple storybook illustrates all the “befores” we must face before finally reaching those glorious “afters.” Sweet and quirky illustrations trace the everyday milestones of growing up. Before we learn to swim, we must test the waters in the shallow end. Before we make a new friend, we must learn to reach out. And before we make the team, we must step up to the plate. The book ends on the loveliest, most quotable note: “Remember, then, with every try, sometimes you fail, sometimes you fly.”

In You I See” by Rachel EmilyThe cover of the book In You I See features the outline of a child holding hands with their grown-up. Their arms are outstretched towards a colorfully painted landscape with a waterfall, trees, and sunset.

Those who love us most have an uncanny ability to peer into our very souls. What a special moment it is when they can tell us exactly what they see! In this book, a faceless grown-up compares their child to the wonders of the natural world. The child is like a tiger, brave and bold; an oak tree with strong roots reaching into the earth; an ocean with unknown depths to explore. Like portals to another world, the pair step into these vivid landscapes exploding with color and light. Simple as they are, the richly painted illustrations are absolutely enchanting. A lovely ode to the multitudes within all of us.

The Amazing Idea of You” by Charlotte Sullivan WildThe cover of the book The Amazing Idea of You features a little girl with her arms outstretched, crouched within a circle of green branches. There is a baby duck and an half-eaten apple beside her.

The Earth and everything in it is bursting with potential, if you know where to look for it — including you! Using the natural world as a metaphor, this picture book ponders the in-between moments while we wait to make our way in the world. The adorable protagonist of the book was once just an idea, and as she grows up, she learns to share her own ideas with the world. She plants an apple seed, caring for the tiny tree over the years. Eventually, that seed turns into an orchard. And like the orchard, the little girl who once tended that tiny seed has grown into something entirely new and wonderful. With its tender, lyrical prose and green leaves curling around each page, this quiet story is sure to bring happy tears to kids and grown-ups alike.

What Do You Do With a Chance?” by Kobi YamadaThe cover of What Do You Do With a Chance? features a child holding a net standing alongside a fox. The child and the fox face a glowing sunset on the horizon.

This story is set in some magical, far-off land, where life-changing chances arrive in form of a gleaming, origami butterfly. When the chance arrives, the protagonist doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Unsure of himself and riddled with fear of failure, he lets the chance slip through his fingers. But the grand thing about chances? Sometimes the stars align at the perfect moment, and we can finally muster the courage to take hold of our chance. As the child embarks on his journey, color gradually seeps into the pages, lending the story a fantastic, otherworldly quality. A wondrous title for sending your loved one out into the world with confidence to seize whatever opportunities come their way.

Still searching for the perfect congratulatory message? Check out this book list: Picture Books for Graduation and Other Milestones