I generally introduce the first picture books to my kids after they’ve grown out of the Spontaneous Ripping Phase — say, somewhere between age one and two? There won’t usually be a lot of comprehension at this stage, but it’s critical to practice the reading experience, regardless, as part of early literacy, and there are always lots of things to point out and chat about. Some of these might be a bit too complex for a 2 and 3-year-olds to fully understand, but my kids loved them early on, and will still ask for them to be read as they turn three, four, and five. And six. Sometimes seven. Also eight. Overall, I’ve tried to arrange this post by age-appropriateness: the books at at the beginning are best for younger children, around 1 year old.
*Don’t forget to check out my post on “Why Gender Matters in Kids’ Books” — it has more picture book recommendations at the end!
Red is Best by Kathy Stinson and Robin Baird Lewis is a slim little celebration of a child’s preference for all the red things in her life — stockings, barrettes, a cup, boots…. Everything about it rings true: the language, the girl’s reasoning, and the pictures. It’s easy to understand and any child will relate to it. Who hasn’t had a favourite cereal bowl or pair of shoes?! And: how wonderful to see a representation of a girl whose favourite colour isn’t pink! But. There is a fly in the ointment. Why couldn’t the girl have at least one exchange with her father? This book is one of many that shows a world where only the mother interacts with children. I resort to my old trick: switching it so that sometimes it’s “My Dad says….” Easy to read three times in a row.
Kevin Henke’s is well known in children’s lit, especially for his very good mouse books (see Chrysanthemum, for example). My mum got the kids Kitten’s First Full Moon, which didn’t appeal to me at first. But the stark black and white, simply drawn pictures appeal to little ones, and it offers lots of opportunities for chats about milk and how cats lap it up, and the moon and how it can look like a bowl of milk, etc. It’s also rich in action: wiggling, springing, tumbling, bumping, chasing, climbing…certainly, kitten is like any toddler, exploring the world with energy and curiosity, falling down and getting back up again. I can hapily read it twice in a row.
Okay — a classic that you probably have in your library already: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Spare, poetic language that manages to sound real and mystical at the same time, paired with rich artwork that fills the page. The contrast works perfectly, and it’s a joy to read. Make sure your kids show their terrible claws along with the wild things.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crocket Johnson is almost like a philosophy book. Published almost 60 years ago, it remains popular and relevant and completely enjoyable to read. Harold uses his purple crayon, his curiosity, and his problem-solving skills to draw the world around him until it’s time for bed. An introduction to the idea that we make our own destiny (not that Harold would say as much in so many words). Lots of simple pictures to talk about with your child: a straight path, the moon, an apple tree, a sail boat, buildings, windows, etc. Best line: “But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon.” Words to live by!
Another oldie-but-goodie: Harry the Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham. The notion of mistaken identity might be a bit complex at first, but basically it’s about a dog who hates baths, goes out for an adventure, gets very dirty, and then gets a massive bubble bath. Most, if not all, of these things are readily applicable to a little one’s range of experience! But I max out at reading it two times in a row.
There isn’t much to it, really, but the concept it genius: How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague features gigantic dinosaurs at bedtime in traditional human homes. Like so many kids, the dinosaurs are very badly behaved, throwing tantrums and stalling — anything to avoid going to bed. But then, of course, they are reformed, their massive bodies trying to squeeze into little beds, puckering up for a kiss goodnight from their human parents. Succinct text that’s easy to read three times in a row, and easy to relate to your child’s own bedtime behaviours, be they easy or challenging.
More, by I.C. Springman and Brian Lies, is probably the perfect book for the youngest picture book readers. With spare language (only 45 words) and incredibly rich, detailed artwork, it tells the story of an acquisitive Black-billed Magpie (yes, I deduced this from Google Images) whose hoarding habit gets out of control. Luckily, a kind mouse and its friends come to the rescue and the Magpie learns that less is more. I think most kids go through a hoarding stage around age two-ish, stuffing bags full of random objects and carrying them around, so this book dovetails nicely with that stage. The bird and mouse’s expressions are easy to identify and there are so many familiar everyday objects in the bird’s collection for children to pick out with confidence that they’ll delight in chatting through this book with you. And, not to get too preachy, but I can’t think of a more timely or important topic than the value of limiting our conspicuous consumption.
Granted, as a terrier person from Scottish stock, I might be biased, but the Westie in Good Boy, Fergus! by David Shannon is so cannily, so irrepressibly, so colourfully drawn that he won’t fail to draw a reader in. Fergus is not, in fact a “good boy” if that means coming when called, sitting when asked, leaving the potted plants alone, or regarding cats and motorcycles with a “live and let live” philosophy. But he is adorable and hilarious and he has a kind of madcap, person-loving intensity, and isn’t that the essence of dog-ness? Lots of action and familiar elements for little ones to point out and chat about, and as with all books featuring a bit of naughty behaviour, make sure to “tut tut,” shake your head and say, “no no no!” I’ve never met a child at this stage who didn’t enjoy telling people (or characters in books) “no!”
There are many, many versions of Over in the Meadow, a traditional rhyming song more than a hundred years old that uses animals and their habitats (or habits) to teaching counting to ten. In Jan Thornhill’s version, landscapes and animals are made using photographs of everyday things, like rainbow sprinkles, combs, pecans, spoons, pretzels…the list goes on and on. I’ll admit the concept sounds a bit kitschy, but somehow Thornhill manages to pull it off, and very early on my kids have been fascinated by the illustrations, picking out what objects have been used to make what pictures. If you don’t know the song, there are quite a few recordings of it on YouTube! The most beautiful I’ve heard, though, is on The Wheels on the Bus collection DVD from Scholastic Video Collection.
Leo Lionni was a master of the picture book, winning four Caldecott Honors in addition to major arts awards. He died in 1999, but his books are still in print — a remarkable feat. Most people know Lionni for his classic Frederick, but I’d start kids off with Tillie and the Wall because the plot is easier to understand, though no less important that the plot of Frederick. No one wonders about the giant wall except Tillie, who is determined to find out what’s on the other side. Pictures show very clearly how she perseveres through trial and error, and triumphs in the end.
Press Here is the perfect antidote to the ubiquitous app. In fact, it seems like it was written in direct response to the games kids play on iPads and iPods, and what a clever, original, fun response it is. Herve Tullet arranges coloured dots across the pages and tells us to press them, tip them, blow on them, shake them, and the dots change accordingly. Fun for learning colours and words, and truly, really, honestly interactive. My two-year-old and I had great fun shaking the book and watching the dots tumble on the next page, and she became very adept at tipping the book this way and that to slide the dots to one side of the book and then the other.
On the Farm caught my eye because the illustrations are woodcuts — uncommon in children’s books, which is surprising because one would think that the bold contrasts and lines would appeal to kids. But Holly Meade’s artwork isn’t the only reason to enjoy this book: David Elliott’s poems about animals on the farm somehow manage to be both obvious and thought-provoking. In other words: children will recognize the animals and the way the poems charcterize them, but they will also learn something new about those animals, or see them in a different way. Sometimes there’s rhyming, sometimes there isn’t, but everything, from line breaks to font size, thoughtfully reflect the meaning of the words. Ages 2 and up.
One of the best investments you can make is to buy Mo Willems’ seminal trilogy: Knuffle Bunny, Knuffle Bunny Too, and Knuffle Bunny Free. My second child had Knuffle Bunny memorized not long after she turned two (although she pronounced “laundromat” “law-mo-mat”). Funny for both children and grown-ups, these stories about a girl and her stuffed bunny hit the sweet spot of kid lit again and again. Imagine your little one being able to understand comic irony! Mo Willems makes it happen! Easy and fun to read, even three times in a row.
The classic French Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans stands the test of time, with charming lines and distinctive, stylish illustrations. Despite some occasionally wonky rhyme and metre, it remains a pleasure to read again and again. And if you happen to have a scar from an appendectomy, so much the better: you can illustrate the story’s dramatic climax with your belly. There are several sequels to the original Madeline book, but none are as good as the first.
Similarly, the first Strega Nona, by Tomi dePaola, remains the best. The poor, hapless Big Antony inadvertently floods the village with pasta due to his reckless disregard for the power of Strega Nona’s magic pasta pot. You know — that old chestnut. Every child’s library should have a dePaola book. As a bonus, this one lends itself to being read in my really bad, horribly fake Italian accent.
Now here is a book that I might love partly because I remember it so clearly from when I was little, but my kids love it too. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, originally published in 1963 and reissued in 2008. Have there ever been more memorable illustrations? The dark blue and black colour scheme with the yellow moon are so effective that they almost supercede the story, about an orphan girl ironically named Tiffany who encourages the robbers to trade their jewelry and other riches for a castle to house other orphans. One of the best things about this book is the language: the illustrations make it easy to teach words like “victim,” “plunder,” “threaten,” “cave,” “hide-out,” “loot,” “carriage,” “riches,” “wealth,” and “cape.” An owl makes an appearance (I think all kids love saying “hoo hoo!”), and why not get out some pepper and show why the horses sneeze?! A great book.
How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills only came out in 2010, but it’s quickly become a standard. It’s no wonder why: Rocket the dog has no interest in learning how to read until he’s cleverly drawn in by a little yellow bird. Kids will delight in being able to pick out the letters Rocket learns, and it’s a perfect book to introduce them to the idea that letter sounds, strung together, make words. Bonus: you can use this book to talk about the seasons, and if you’re into it, try meeting Hills’ challenge by delivering the bird’s lines in a singsong voice — Hills writes that she “sings” rather than “says.” The sequel, Rocket Writes a Story, is almost as good: it’s a bit on the sentimental side, and a bit more complex than its predecessor.
The only picture book that has made me cry: The Robot and the Bluebird, by David Lucas. But I think I was pregnant at the time (I was usually pregnant for almost 9 years), so hormones might have been a factor. The quirky, fanciful drawings express the plot beautifully, and I can’t think of a better introduction to the symbolic weight of the heart. In fact, there are major, important themes in this book: what do we do with things when they’re old? when we die, how do parts of us live on? what does the natural world give us that machines can’t? In many ways, the book is an illustration of Emily Dickinson’s beloved lines: “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings.” And yet these themes are treated with a delicate hand that will appeal to children and adults alike. Bonus: the changing landscapes can inspire chats about the differences between cities and natural spaces, and cold and warm climates. Kids will feel enjoy showing pointing out night, sunrise, snow, mountains, rain, and flowers, among other things.
Another book by Leo Lionni: An Extraordinary Egg, in which an over-confident Jessica-the-frog declares an alligator to be a chicken. Children love how the story keeps calling what is clearly an alligator a chicken; they are not only smarter than Jesssica — they are smarter than the book!
A few years ago I taught a group of Early Childhood Education students, and one of their assignments was to find an “alternative” children’s book. That is to say, a book that tried to show kids something that is a part of our society but often left out of kid lit. The best of these had to be And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole. It’s a true story about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who partner with each other rather than with females, and through the resourcefulness and understanding of their zoo keeper, are granted a penguin egg to look after together. This book, along with The Family Book by Todd Parr, help to show young ones how loving, devoted families are created in many different ways. The Family Book is a bit kooky, but it’s short and sweet and kids appreciate the almost blindingly bright colours and the occasional silliness. By contrast, Tango‘s illustrations, while effective in communicating the story, can be a bit subdued and repetitive — maybe a result of the setting more than the artist’s ability.
Another penguin book: Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. Beautifully painted, soft-but-bold illustrations, and the simple story borders on the poetic. That a penguin would really rather be in a boy’s world is a problematic message, but I appreciate the notion that these two very different souls find each other, and the boy’s commitment to helping the penguin is endearing. A recurring gently comic tone saves the story from being treacly; the spare writing makes it an easy read.
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, might be the only story I can read four times in a row. That’s right! FOUR
TIMES. It is an absolute delight in which the kind-hearted, despite living in an unkind world, are rewarded in the end. Ferdinand the little bull is a pacifist who is mistaken for a ferocious specimen, and sent straight to the bull fights in Madrid. But Ferdinand won’t be persuaded to be fierce, even when the Matador cries in disapointment. As a vegetarian, I am particularly fond of this book. Wait a minute — fond?! No! I am ABSOLUTELY BESOTTED! Oh yes…and the kiddies love it too. Bonus: teach your child about corks, cow bells, head butting, snorting, bee stings, wagons, flags, posters, trumpets, bull fighting, and stadiums. There are also several pages where kids can practice their numberacy: count the funny hats, count the bulls, count the Picadores, etc.
The single Beatrix Potter book I’ll read is the one, the only, Peter Rabbit. I like to do it with an English accent. That naughty rabbit surely does get his just desserts, but he is so sympathetic! This classic is longer than I normally prefer, and I certainly max out at two readings (or one…it depends on the day), but for some reason the language charms me. Take, for instance, my favourite line: “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.” Implored him to exert himself — simply marvelous. As subtle as the watercolour illustrations, and as lovely as the English countryside. (Although: it’s a bit grating that Peter, as the only boy, is the contrary, troublesome bunny, while his three sisters are docile and obedient.)
Hairy Maclary’s Caterwaul Caper is by New Zealander Lynley Dodd. She’s an institution in that part of the world, and she should be far better known in North America. Hairy the dog and various other canines hear a scruffy cat wailing, stuck up in a tree, and so each sets off see what’s up. The rhyme and metre are perfect, but what’s more, the vocabulary is divine. The illustrations aren’t as inspired, but they communicate the story well. Warning: includes many yowling and barking sounds, so if this isn’t your bag then try the even better Slinky Malinki, about a black cat who burgles the neighbours’ at night, much to his family’s mortification. I can’t think of a better way to introduce your child to words like “lurking,” “cheeky,” “fiendish,” “pilfered,” and “rapscallion.” That’s right! Rapscallion!!! I am not a cat person, but I am most certainly a Slinki Malinki person. For some reason Dodd’s illustrations seem more accomplished and communicative here than in the Hairy books.
Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have collaborated on several successful books, but the only one I’d recommend without reservation is Room on the Broom. As you might have surmised, I am big on well-written verse, and Ms. Donaldson’s rolls trippingly off the tongue. The climax is clever and it’s fun for kids to keep track of the animals and the witch’s various things as she loses them and gets them back. If you’re feeling particularly animated, you can do voices for the animals and the dragon. I particularly like roaring “Buzz off! That’s my witch!” in a dragon voice.
Curious George is everywhere. The success of his show on PBS is undeniable, and though I cannot understand WHY the Man with the Yellow Hat cannot learn from his mistakes (why oh why would he send George out for groceries? ask George to look after a rare chamelon? leave George in a kitchen full of egg dye? let George pick up his hat from the dry cleaner’s?), I’ll admit I think the show is probably the best kids’ stuff on TV. However, the classic George storybooks pose a problem in that they are simply so retrograde. In other words, everyone’s white and all the people in charge are white men; when George goes to the hospital, for example, he’s seen by a “pretty young nurse.” However! New, updated George stories have been published in three volumes called The New Adventures of Curious George, and they are super. The stories are concise but entertaining, with lots of things to talk about and point out. I’ve been surprised by how much my kids have enjoyed the table of contents, or, as my son called it once, “the choosers list.” Every story on the, ahem, choosers list, is accompanied by a small illustration of an important part of the story, and so we open it up and ask them to choose which story they’d like, and they feel quite proud about doing this on their own.
Rosemary Wells’ very popular series on McDuff the dog begins with McDuff Moves In, and the nostalgic post-war illustrations are engaging (if occasionally distracting: what is up with the ugly wallpaper border in Fred and Lucy’s kitchen? and their giant art deco tea kettle?). The homeless McDuff is adorable and we sympathize with his plight completely. The writing is spare and charming, with just enough of a poetic touch to make it memorable: “Rain poured down. It swirled and swept around him. Suddenly the wind came up. It blew the clouds and rain away. And the moon smiled full on the world.” I love that line.
That New Animal by Emily Jenkins is about two dogs who must suffer the loss of their primacy when a new baby is brought home. This is a common enough theme in kids books — Kevin Henkes does it in Julius the Baby of the World and Rosemary Wells does it in McDuff and the Baby, for example — but Jenkins does it best. The dynamic between the dogs is so funny you won’t mind reading it over and over again. Especially appropriate for those about to welcome a new sibling to the family, but really, I think all kids will get the idea and appreciate the story. Pierre Pratt’s pictures are wacky impressionist naif.
If your kids have learned that milk and eggs come from cows and chickens, and that the click clack of a typewriter (well, keyboard) makes words on a page, then they’re ready for Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. The cows and chickens are cold at night, so they decide to go on strike until the farmer gives them electric blankets. The ducks remain a neutral party…until the end.
I am thrilled to report that The Bear’s Bicycle by Emilie Warren McLeod and David MacPhail has been reissued; a few years ago I could only find a vintage copy online to replace the one from my childhood that had suffered an unfortunate mould affliction completely unrelated to my housekeeping abilities. A boy and his bear ride their bikes, and while the boy is the picture of safety and responsibility, the bear is recklessly foolhardy. On the left page, we see the boy setting the example, and on the right page, we see the bear doing the opposite with dire (although frequently comic) consequences. My fourth child loves to murmur “No no no, bear!” Bonus: a picture of a MAN walking his kids in a stroller and baby backpack!
Hildilid’s Night is so well crafted that it feels like a folk tale that’s been honed over generations. Cheli Duran Ryan tells the story of a woman who hates the night, and so she stays up and does her best to catch and get rid of it. Her attempts — stuffing it into a sack, boiling it away, tossing it to her hound, dunking it in her well, stamping on it, singing it lullabies, smoking it in the chimney, pouring it a saucer of milk — asks how we can hate something that is all around us — that we cannot hold in our hands. In the end, Hildilid is so tired from fighting the night that she must sleep all day, and so the energy she pours into a pointless task keeps her from enjoying what she loves. Brilliant.
I’d wager that The Incredible Book-Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers resonates with kids ages 2-5 in particular because they are surrounded by words they can’t read. Argh! If only words could be gobbled up like so many cookies! Which brings us to another resonant point: why on earth are parents always telling kids not to eat too much of the good stuff?! The book-eating boy learns why, and also that while there’s no shortcut to learning, the road paved with books is full of rewards. Jeffers’ mixed media creations are an edgy breath of fresh air in the picture book world, in a style that appeals to kids’ cut-and-paste sensibilities.
The story of The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant is perhaps better suited for kids in the 3-4 age range, but Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are so rich and compelling that they are enough to communicate the story with some help from the read-alouder. A car packed full of relatives drives to visit a house packed full of relatives; this feast of people is conveyed, amazingly, with pencil crayon drawings that show all the chaos and affection of a big family gathering. Lots of details to pore over. Completely endearing.
Most book-lovers will recognize Quentin Blake’s drawings from Roald Dahl’s novels, but he also wrote and illustrated his own picture books. The best of these, I think, is Mrs. Armitage on Wheels, in which the stalwart lady-of-a-certain-age rides a bike. Never satisfied with things as they are, she steadily adds accoutrements until the bike is barely visible under all its “improvements.” I love watching Mrs. Armitage rolling up her sleeves and getting out her tool box, her faithful companion Breakspear the dog always at her side. Oh, how I love going “Pa-HEE-ha-HURRRRHHH!” when she beeps her horns! But my absolute most favourite part, and I don’t care who knows it, is that Mrs. Armitage sounds exactly like Katherine Hepburn in her later years, which I happen to do everly so well that my husband recently queried, “Is there a reason why you’re performing On Golden Pond for the children?” (Please note that the other Armitage books are very similar to this one, so probably not good investments for your own shelves.)
The Stray Dog by Marc Simont is perfect in every way. A family has a picnic at the park, where they meet a stray dog. They spend all week thinking about the dog, and then they go back to the exact same spot the next weekend, hoping the dog finds them again. Simont’s artwork is the real draw, here: the red family car and its headlights at night; the family members in various states of inattention through the week as their thoughts drift to the dog; their surreptitious glances as they wait and hope for the dog to return; the dog trapped under the dog catcher’s net…. What a treat, that Simont communicates so much with such simple, lovely paintings. Very succinct text, with pictures that are easy to talk about with the youngest of readers.
Sky Color isn’t as well-known as Peter Reynolds’ other art-themed storey, The Dot, but it’s also very good, and it’s easier to convey to smaller children. Marisol loves to paint, but she really has to think about how she’s going to paint the sky when her class runs out of blue paint….
Christina Katerina & The Box by Patricia Lee Gauch has a bit more text than I’d normally recommend for beginning picture books, but the scenario is irresistible: Christina Katerina takes a massive cardboard box and turns it into a succession of props in her imaginative play. She uses it for a castle, a race car, a club house, and so on. Great validation for the value of play and the imagination.
Building Our House is another one that really has legs. This book is absolutely falling apart at our house – it’s been read to death. Jonathan Bean’s story is about a family building their house, and it’s told in such a way that the process seems fairly straightforward. The different steps taken in the process are presented clearly and logically, and so especially young kids can get a sense of how it all happens. There are other details that will work for the youngest kids: where are the windows, can you find the cat, this is a hammer, what is the truck pulling, etc. Bean doesn’t forget, however, that this is a story, taking the care to craft literary grace notes like alliteration and repetition. Bonus: the mother works on the construction too!
For an introduction to free verse poetry, try Once I Ate A Pie, by Patricia MacLachlan and Emily MacLachlan Charest. These poems express such a range of dog-ness — from the tiny barky Pomeranian, to the elegant dignity of the sleek Greyhound, to the industrious obsessiveness of the scent hound. Children will love following the letters and lines as they move across the page in ways that reflect the content: fat, thin, big, little, falling, climbing, hiding, wafting like scent, drifting like sleep, piling up like collections…. The artwork by Katy Schneider is a perfect match in that it, too, is accomplished and expressive (oh, those brushstrokes!), but completely approachable and engaging. A great introduction to free verse. Ages 4 and up.
A River of Words holds a special place in my heart because my son so loved the poems that he memorized some of them. Two years later, he can still recite them, and best of all, he still loves them. A River of Words, by Jen Bryant, tells the story of William Carlos Williams through biographical details, prose, and the poet’s own verses and quotes. Melissa Sweet’s illustrations use collage to integrate the images with the text more than in any other children’s book I’ve ever seen. Handwriting, typeface, paintings, and scrap art all coexist on the pages in perfect balance, creating a visual representation of what the poet saw: fragments, ideas, pictures, and feelings springing up amidst the elements of his daily life as a small town doctor. Wonderful. Ages 4 and up.
I’ve often felt that Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! wouldn’t be out of place in a high school English class because it makes such thorough use of poetic devices like internal rhyme, alliteration, and personification. Check this out: “Flute, that sends our soul a-shiver; flute, that slender silver sliver.” Just listen to all those s’s!!! Silver sliver! So good! Lloyd Moss write a short poem for each of ten instruments in a chamber group, and Marjorie Priceman’s colourful, exuberant paintings add to the excitement. Two cats, and dog and a mouse chase each other through the pages, only to prove the old adage that music soothes the savage beast. Ages 3 and up.
Stellaluna has been hailed as another new classic, and even turned into a stage production. The baby bat is separated from her mother and ends up in a bird’s nest, where she must learn how to be a baby bird. A great introduction to the idea that different animals have different ways of being, but share many commonalities, too: mothers teach their babies and love them dearly.
If you’re looking for a special Christmas book, please consider Winter’s Gift, by Jane Monroe Donovan. This is a gentle, moving, beautiful book that pays homage to all that the elderly have to offer, though they are so often overlooked. On Christmas Eve, a wild mare gets lost in a snow storm and is helped by a man who’s struggling to find meaning in his life after his wife dies. The snow, the forest, the Christmas tree, the barn, the ideas of cold and warm…all these and the gorgeous paintings make it a good choice for the especially young, but it’s such a moving, thoughtful story that it will resonate with kids in a wide range of ages.
Okay, the next ones are probably best for older kids — say, ages 3 and up?
Akiak: A Tale from the Ididarod by Robert Blake is exactly the kind of picture I’ve been waiting for…for about a decade. Akiak is positively indomitable: a ten-year-old female sled dog who’s run the Ididarod seven times already, and this race is her last chance to win first prize. Sidelined by a sore paw, she refuses to give up: on her own, without food for days, tracking through the wilderness to the checkpoints, she manages to rejoin her team and keep them from taking the wrong trail. Blake’s oil paintings are absolutely gorgeous — the paint is thick and textured to give a sense of the weight of the snow, the feel of the flurries, and the sled dogs’ fur. Masterfully done.
It’s true: I’m a complete sucker for all those stories on Facebook about animals from different species becoming best friends. The goat and horse…the turtle and the hippo…the fox and the dog…. But I don’t think my bias is at work here when I recommend Martin Springett’s story Kate & Pippin: An Unlikely Love Story. I think anyone who appreciates a gentle, well-written, succinct story about animals will love this one, and it’s a nice change to have photographs instead of artwork for illustrations. Kids are particularly intrigued by stories that are true, as is this story about an abandoned fawn who finds a mother in a Great Dane named Kate. There’s a sequel and an early reader versions, too. Absolutely lovely.
Measuring Penny by Lorraine Leedy is excellent for several reasons: engaging, bold artwork; two female protagonists; pages full of details; easy-to-replicate exercises to do with your own kids…. The protagonist is learning about measurement at school, and she decides to use her dog, Penny, to explore the concept. There are some very creative applications here, and the kids are compelled by all the different types of measurements because they can relate to and recognize the things being measured. AND there’s a sequel: Measuring Penny’s World. Bonus: it’s short enough to cover effectively even when you don’t have a ton of time or energy.
We love Winnie Finn, Worm Farmer by Carol Brendler! It was published in 2009, but we just found it via the Mighty Girl website in 2016. Too bad — I would have loved to have this in our library earlier, especially when my oldest kids were at the picture book stage. Winnie is obsessed with worms — she loves them and knows everything about them. And she’s clever and hard-working — she uses her worm knowledge to help three neighbours win prizes at the fair, and negotiates a dividend payment for her expertise so she can buy the best red wagon in town. Wait a minute — how can worms help people win first prizes for puppies, corn and chicken?! Read and find out. Bonus: teaches kids about how to start their own worm farm.
Another of our many Mo Willems favourites is Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, published in 2009. Naked Mole Rat’s quest for his own (clothed) identity is funny, clever, and sympathetic, done in Willems’ signature style; I honestly don’t know how he can convey so much character with such sparse drawings. Oliver Jeffers tried his hand at the same storyline three years later with The Hueys: The New Jumper but don’t be fooled! Naked Mole Rat is the better book.
Oh, sibling rivalry. You decide to have kids, thinking that they’ll play together and provide cherished company for one another, and then they push each other into walls and slam each other in doors. They antagonize, they provoke, they scream, they bicker. You start having Valium and Vodka with your morning coffee. Or maybe this is just in my family. Anyhoo: The Pain and the Great One by Judy Blume is one of the few picture books to tell it like it is when it comes to brothers, sisters and the bad feelings between them. First we get the elder sister’s perspective, and then we get the younger brother’s perspective. Both are sympathetic and familiar, and both end, cleverly and heart-breakingly, with the assertion that Mom and Dad love the other one more. Fabulously expressive pictures by Irene Trivas that capture both the charm and loathing of family life.
Robert Munsch is an institution in Canadian children’s literature, and I respect him because he creates such an ethnically diverse range of protagonists and puts girls at the centre of the story as often as he puts boys there. However. I do not like to read his books. They rely a lot on repetition and silliness, which admittedly, often appeal to kids, but leave me bored and a bit frustrated. The Paper Bag Princess is an exception: I remember reading it and loving it as a child, and my kids love it too. Elizabeth is the smartest of problem-solvers and her lines are fun to say. Perhaps it’s even better now, in a cultural space where our children are absolutely swamped with pretty pink princess narratives, and we need a way of talking back to those narratives. As Peggy Orenstein argues in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, it’s not ideal if the only alternative to the princess story is one where girls gleefully reject boys and dance into the sunset by themselves. But in this book, Prince Ronald really deserves it. Good for you, Princess Elizabeth. (A quibble with the illustrator, Michael Martchenko: how on earth would Elizabeth stick her whole head in that ear?!)
Another seminal text of my youth: Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight. I don’t care for her current watered-down, merchandised version — the original Eloise is an enfant terrible in a clever Noel Coward way, not a feature presentation Walt Disney way. I’ve read all the original Eloise books and while the illustrations in each are always fab, the only one I’d recommend is the first, the one, the only, about a 6-year-old little girl who lives at the Plaza with her Nanny. Now, I have to admit: Eloise is so wrapped up in my childhood memories that I can’t be objective, and the book is quite long to read aloud in one sitting. But the illustrations are so good that I’ve found my kids poring over them for ages, easily following Eloise as she skidders sticks along the hall walls, slomps her skates, maddens the hotel staff and her tutor, orders rooms service, plays make-believe, and swings wildly from horrific nightmare to precocious sprite, as most children do. Her wisdom is irrefutable: “Toe shoes make very good ears. Sometimes I wear them to lunch.” And: “I am all over the hotel. Half the time I am lost. But mostly I am on the first floor because that’s where Catering is.” And: “Philip is my tutor. He wears red garters and is boring boring boring. When we have our French lesson he reads in French about la petite cousine de Marie and her jardin and sometimes I listen to him but not very often.” (I am inserting punctuation here, up with which Eloise would not put.) So: if the above appeals, I’d recommend reading it to the kiddies once in a while, and they’ll take it upon themselves to go back to it — especially after they’ve learned to read it on their own.
There are a lot of pirate books out there, but none better than Roger, The Jolly Pirate by Brett Helquist. The story of the hapless Roger explains the origins of the pirate flag known as the Jolly Roger. Helquist’s illustrations are boldly striking. Normally I steer clear of any stories that feature warring without showing the very real consequences of violence, but in this case I think it’s historically educational for kids to know what often happened between enemy tall ships, and the canon is intrinsic to the story. The book is excellent for introducing terms and expressions like stem to stern, sea shanty, below decks, merchant ships, justice, abandoning ship, and striking fear into the heart.
Pirate Girl, while completely implausible from a socio-historical perspective, is a good counterbalance to the all-male likes of Roger, The Jolly Pirate and so many other books of the pirate genre. Molly’s tiny sailboat is captured by Captain Firebeard, who doesn’t realize he’s messing with the wrong kid until it’s too late: Molly’s mother is none other than Barbarous Bertha herself! There’s lots to enjoy here: Cornelia Funke’s artwork gives kids the chance to spy plenty of details; the story has lots of lines begging to be read in pirate voices, and the vocab (thanks to translator Kersten Meyer) is fun, if not perfect. Our favourite line: “‘Now, how nasty can we be to these piratical nincompoops?” Bonus: extremely useful for teaching children about the horizon, ship’s figureheads, above and below decks, rum and drunkenness, messages in bottles, wooden legs and other appendages, boot polishing, sail patching, the ship’s crow’s nest, and the presence of animals (goats, chickens, cats…) on board. Minus: the boys vs girls thing isn’t ideal. If you like this one, consider another Funke/Meyer collaboration with much the same idea: The Princess Knight.
James Herriott’s Treasury of Inspirations Stories for Children sounds awfully preachy, but it’s actually one of the best deals in kids’ books right now. Containing eight stories with lush, detailed ink and watercolour drawings, each tale resonates. Herriott writes about complex, important themes: hope, community, humanity, kindness, gratitude, respect…. But he treats them in such a way that children can understand them. Every story appeals — not a single note is off-key.
Saving Sweetness by Diane Stanley and G. Brian Karas is fabulous for several reasons.
1. The illustrations are mixed media marvels, dry and scratchy and patchy like the bleak desert setting of the story. I think it’s splendid how illustrator G. Brian Karas overcame the disadvantages posed by his awkward name to achieve this success: well done, G. Brian.
2. The story is exceptionally well written. Sweetness is an orphan labouring under the tyranny of a cruel foster mother. She runs away (of course) and the caring-if-dumb sheriff must go after her. Sweetness proves an indomitable spirit and the sheriff proves a lucky man. American stories about down-on-their-luck orphans and well-meaning sheriffs are stereotypical in grown-up narratives, but to transplant the genre to a picture book is clever and fresh and it works.
4. Best of all: you can read the entire story in flagrantly overdone Texas drawl.
Jon J. Muth’s book The Three Questions is based on Tolstoy’s short story of the same name. Through his interaction with various animals, especially a wise old turtle, Nikolai comes to understand how to be a good person. The story is very gently paced, but it still pulls you along, and Muth’s artwork draws you in.
We’ve been reading Mirette on the High Wire for more than five years now and I never tire of it. In turn-of-the-century Paris a retired high wire walker comes to stay at Mirette’s mother’s boarding house. The performer reluctantly teaches the devoted, hard-working pupil, but doesn’t he just learn more from her? Uplifting.
Frederick is Leo Lionni’s best-known book, and with good reason: I can think of no better book to get children thinking about the value of the arts in our lives. Food, shelter — yes, these are important. But what Frederick brings to his mouse family’s long winter is ultimately just as important. And, it’s easy to make a Frederick with scissors, glue and construction paper.
We discovered Officer Buckle and Gloria first as a short film in a Scholastic Video Collection (fabulously narrated by John Lithgow). Peggy Rathman’s story is so well-crafted you have to wonder how it came to her. Officer Buckle’s job is to tour the local schools giving students safety tips, but he’s dead boring so no one every remembers them and accidents are rampant. He’s given a police dog named Gloria who likes to stand behind him during his presentations and act out his tips (or the results of not following the tips — her impression of electrocution is particularly shocking). Poor Buckle doesn’t realize that his sudden popularity is because of the dog. Oh! Pride goeth before the fall!
It’s a kooky idea, but for some reason it works. Brian Lies’ Bats series features lavish illustrations of bats meeting for big bat outings: Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, and Bats at the Ballgame are each packed with rich, saturated artwork, clever visual details, and perfect rhyme and meter. Bat-jokes abound: note the bats inserted into classic children’s stories at the library, the occasional upside-down scenes, and the bat snacks at the beach and ballgame, for examples.
Dayal Kaur Khalsa died in 1989, two years after the publication of her book I Want a Dog. Though she was born in New York, her last twenty years were spent in Canada, and that also where her books were published. Several of her books were bestsellers and award winners, and five of them are still in print, which is a testament to the quality of her work. I Want a Dog is the most popular of her oeuvre, and the National Film Board made it into a great short film that my kids have watched over and over again — it’s extremely well done and loyal to the original book. It goes like this: May tries to convince her parents to get a dog, but they’re adamant that she’s not ready for the responsibility. But May perseveres: she decides to show her parents she’s responsible by pretending that a roller skate is actually a dog. She ties a rope to the skate and walks it “every day, in rain or sleet or hail or snow.” The last picture in the story is absolutely priceless.
If ever there was a better picture book about multiculturalism than Spork, I sure haven’t read it. Author Kyo Maclear has drawn on her own experience as a child of dual ethnicities — her father is British and caucasian, her mother is Japanese. And her illustrator is from Montreal, lest anyone worry that Quebec has been left out! It’s a very Canadian book. Spork is half spoon-half fork, and increasingly nonplussed by reactions from the other cutlery and kitchen utensils: So, where do you come from? What are you, really? I love this book, and really it’s for anyone who’s ever felt out of place or left out. So, it’s for everyone.
What was I doing in 2008?! How did I miss the publication of Madeline and the Cats of Rome?! Hang on – that was the year I had my third child in as many years, but no excuses! It was an egregious oversight! John Bemelmans Marciano, grandson of Madeline author Ludwig Bemelmans, has written a fantastic tribute to his grandfather. Madeline and the Cats of Rome is perhaps not quite as good as the original Madeline story, but certainly just as good as its sequels, and some might even prefer it to the original. On a school trip to Italy, Madeline is drawn into a plot to save a group of stray cats. A brush with the criminal element gives things a little excitement, but all ends well.
In Chloe and the Lion Mac Barnett and Adam Rex break down the fourth wall, picture book style. It’s really about Mac and Adam’s relationship as writer and illustrator: the effects of their power struggle wreak havoc with the story, which often resembles a stage with characters taking on various guises depending on who has the narrative upper hand. A brilliant introduction to ideas about the messy, collaborative, lonely, thorny, joyful, disappointing, satisfying bugaboo we call the creative process. I think my third child got the idea, so I’d recommend it for ages 4 (and a half) and up.
For people who feel like their cat hates them, or at least disdains to tolerate them: The Amazing Hamweenie by Patty Bowman. The poor tabby is meant for greater things, but he’s forced to live with a devoted gradeschooler instead: “Fate has been cruel to Hamweenie.” Wearing his tiny top hat and cape, Hamweenie gets fat on treats, plays video games, and is routinely celebrated with tea parties, stroller rides and the like — in other words, he must suffer various and sundry forms of “agonizing abuse.” Good if you’d like to teach your child words like “grandeur,” “idolize,” “atrocious,” “sabotage,” “futile,” “wrath, “vain,” and who wouldn’t, really? What child hasn’t felt like they’re merely waiting for an “endless array of horrors and injustice to end?” Ages 5 and up?
Oh, life can be cruel sometimes. In the appropriately-if-unimaginatively titled Big Little Brother, an older brother must deal with the fact that his younger brother grows bigger than him. Older brother (imagine a very young Woody Allen) must suffer this indignity in a world of indignities (i.e. childhood), but eventually learns that a big little brother can come in handy as a slightly intimidating wingman at the local play centre. I am mildly uncomfortable with the idea that we should value our siblings because they can pose a physical threat to bullies, but kids seem to relish the idea of “saving” and “rescuing” and “danger,” and no one said the schoolyard was a neutral zone…. Kevin Kling’s story is a perfect match with Chris Monroe’s illustrations — kind of sketchy and shaky thanks to life’s disappointments, but occasionally the lines wobble into happy faces. That’s really it in a nutshell — finding the big heart in the middle of all the vulnerabilities. Here is my favourite line: “That’s when I see my little brother standing next to me. With his largeness and his fists full of donuts.” Ooooo I love that line.
I wonder if Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith were surprised when The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales became a commercial and critical hit? Who would have thought that a book with such a title would be included in the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature?! Not only does it play with classic fables and fairy tales, it plays with the structure of the book itself — title page, narration, dedication, endpaper, typeface….it’s all fair game. The illustrations have a kind of disturbed wackiness to them that suits the likes of a Little Red Hen who runs roughshod over the stories, demanding to know who will help her with the wheat and (upon seeing a blank page across the way) the writing and illustrating. Chicken Little, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Princess and the Pea, Little Red Riding Hood, and many others are spoofed here, and it’s funny for kids and parents alike. Probably best for ages 6 and up.
It’s fun to help kids learn about cities by their landmarks, and City I Love has been useful in that regard. Lee Bennett Hopkins’ poems about various cities around the world are paired with Marcellus Hall’s illustrations of identifiable city scenes. Not all the poems are great, but there are enough good ones to make it worthwhile, and the pictures provide so much to chat about; we’ve gone to the computer several times to search for photographs of the landmarks in Hall’s illustrations.
Kevin Henkes’ best known books are his anthropomorphic mouse selections, and I have three favourites. Wemberley Worried is about a young mouse who’s scared. A lot. If there’s anything that could possibly go wrong, she’s thought of it. And fretted over it. And now she has to start school! So much more to worry about! In Julius, the Baby of the World, an older sister must learn to contend with her baby brother, and her attitude is deliciously imperious. In Sheila Rae The Brave, two sisters (one shy, one bold) learn that their roles can be switched and they can actually help each other.
Beatrice’s Goat is a great story for many reasons. It features a black female protagonist; it highlights the reality of children in the Third World; it demonstrates respect and gratitude for animals; and it shows clearly how people can be lifted out of poverty not only with help, but also with their own hard work and planning. Despite all these honourable and socially-conscious attributes, it’s a well-told tale that holds kids attention and is enjoyable to read. Beatrice’s family is given a goat, and this gift improves their health and income so that Beatrice can attend school. I struggle with the task of making sure my kids understand how lucky they are — books like Beatrice’s Goat are helpful in this area.
In Gracie The Public Gardens Duck, we learn how animals need to learn to look after themselves and not rely on people, but the story is told with humour and affection. Visitor’s to Gracie’s park are told not to feed the ducks anymore — what’s she going to do for food?!
I like the inter-generational aspect of Three Cheers for Catherine the Great: a daughter and mother plan a birthday party for a grandmother who has insisted that no one buy her anything. What will they give her?
A Chair for My Mother is another that champions the strength of multi-generational families of women: after a house fire, a daughter, mother and grandmother find a new home with the help of their community, and work together to save up enough money for a beautiful chair they can share.
The Boy of the Three Year Nap is about a mother’s cunning plan to turn her son into something more than a lousy, lazy layabout. He has his own cunning plan to extend his life of leisure, but the mother one-ups him, but good! Beautiful drawings and story-telling style that reflect a Japanese cultural aesthetic — very well done.
When we got Bloom from the library, it had been quite a while (possibly a year or more) since I’d been genuinely excited about a new picture book, so I was especially thrilled to find this brilliant book. Doreen Cronin has written a beautiful story here. Bloom the fairy is messy and muddy, but she might have the solution to the glass kingdom’s problems. Neither the king nor the queen are successful in getting help from Bloom so that they can fix their crumbling buildings, so it falls to a servant girl. The contrasts here – between the delicate and the sturdy, the clean and the dirty, the forest and the castle, the quiet and the loud, the useful and the decorative, the measured and the mystical – are plentiful, and the final secret for saving the kingdom will get kids thinking. There is a distinct current of empowerment here for girls, but it’s not so heavy-handed that boys would feel excluded from the story, because there’s just so much going on that all children can relate to and connect with. In the end, I think the central idea of the story might be that some human beings can be magic in and of themselves, just through their sheer ingenuity and hard work.
Niko Draws a Feeling, by Bob Raczka, is a keeper for several reasons. First, it addresses an important theme in art: how do we communicate how things feel? How do we draw emotions? Niko is compelled to try and draw sounds, and temperatures, and feelings, and no one really understands his art. Second: the book addresses those feelings of loneliness we often encounter, but proposes an artistic way of dealing with them. Third: Niko’s parents are Black and Asian, which provides some much-needed diversity in the picture book genre. Fourth: Niko’s drawings offer something to talk about with your child – how does this drawing look like how sadness feels? Fifth: it’s not a long read, so it’s perfect for those times when you’re too tired for a long sit-down. Sixth: lovely, original art work from illustrator Simone Smith.