It’s easy to find out of print books these days, using Amazon or Abebooks or the like. I’m surprised by how many of our favourites are out of print, but happy to know that the digital age — death knell of the book! — makes them accessible.
The Rooster’s Gift is a bit longer than I’d normally like, but the writing is so well-crafted that it’s a joy to read aloud, and the illustrations are such vibrant pastorals that they feel like anthems to North America’s post-war richness and optimism. Young Rooster grows up somehow knowing that he has a special gift, and one day, inexplicably driven to get up early and crow at the sky, he discovers that his gift is to make the day. When he has to cope with the realization that his gift is, in fact, a much smaller feat, in the end he manages to accept the truth and own it, with the help of a very earnest and kind young hen. I can’t help but think of kids who, coming out of their toddler stage, must learn that they will no longer get applause and lavish praise for doing simple things like walking, using the potty, clapping, using words, and so on. Here is one of the book’s gorgeous bits: “[Smallest Hen] would wake as soon as [Rooster] did and follow him out of the coop into the darkness. She would stand there on the grass and watch as he’d bound up onto the roof, stretch himself high and high agains the stars and cry his call across the valley. Then the smallest hen would face the east and smile as the colors appeared, and the sun would answer. Even on rainy mornings she would stand there, the drops glistening on her soft feathers, and watch as the darkness would turn to mist and the pale tender day would begin.” Warning: you will be required to cock-a-doodle-do a few times, but your child might be eager to take over this duty on cue. For ages 3 to 8ish.
Giselle Potter, a popular illustrator of children’s books, does all the work on this one: The Year I Didn’t Go to School tells the story of the year her sister and parents spent as travelling performers in Italy. It’s remarkably well done, recreating how we remember childhood experiences in small details, like a fruit stand selling oranges wrapped in pretty crinkly paper. Completely genuine and enchanting, with distinctive and charming artwork. For ages 3 to 8ish.
We are woefully out of touch with Enid Blyton’s writing. She wrote hundreds of children’s books in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the most famous of which were her chapter books on the Famous Five and her Noddy books for early readers. If The Little Donkey is any indication, her picture books should be reissued. I’ve had this book since I was little, and now my kids love it, too. Neddy the donkey is getting old and his owner, a farmer, is planning to sell him off. Fate intervenes: one morning, the farmer is too sick to get up and do the milk rounds in the village. Neddy, waiting at the farmhouse door with the milk cans strapped to his back, filled as usual by the farmer’s daughter, finally decides to do the rounds himself, and off he goes, with delightful — and just — results. For ages 2 to 6ish.
Oh, how I love Phoebe’s Revolt by Natalie Babbitt (who you may recognize as the author of Tuck Everlasting, a children’s chapter book). I am always humbled by people who can both write and illustrate their own books with such skill, and Babbitt is certainly one of those rare people. It is 1904, and 8-year-old Phoebe has absolutely had it with girls’ fashion:
The trouble all began in June
While getting dressed one afternoon.
For Phoebe, who was mostly good
And often did the things she should,
Stepped forward in her underwear
With mingled passion and despair
And loudly said she hated bows
And roses on her slipper toes
And dresses made of fluff and lace
With frills and ruffles every place
And ribbons, stockings, sashes, curls
And everything to do with girls.
RHYME DIVINE! My God, if the last thing I hear in this life is a few lines from Phoebe’s Revolt I’ll call it a happy end. The illustrations are fine and expressive, framed as if they were photographs from the turn-of-the-century. Phoebe’s plight is, I think, perhaps even more relevant today than it was in 1968 when the book was first published: it is nearly impossible to shop for girls’ clothes these days without facing wall after wall of pink and its attendant butterflies, hearts, glitter, etc. My one problem is that the wisest voice in the story is the father’s, who sorts everything out with a clever plan and a kind reminder. Surely Phoebe’s mother could have worked this one out by herself? Or Aunt Celeste? Or the governess?! For ages 4 to 8ish.
I found Mr. Davies and the Baby at a second-hand shop and what a stroke of luck it was. Charlotte Voake does double duty here, and the story and illustrations are simple but charming. Mr. Davies the Scottish Terrier takes to following a mother and her baby on their walks, but fails to behave in proper walking manner. The moment when he bounds down the sidewalk dragging his dog house behind him never fails to make us laugh. Moreover: a book about the kindness of strangers and a dog’s devotion to humans. For ages 1-4.
Okay, okay — now one for the cat lovers: Captain’s Purr. It has such lovely artwork that my mother bought a copy of it for her friend (a fan of felines) to use as a coffee table book. Captain the cat spends most of the day sleeping in various spots, but at night he flits off to the waterside and takes his sweetheart for a moonlit boat ride. My three year old insisted that there should be a song to go with the picture of the young lovers boating on the moon-lit river, so I launched into an approximation of Mancini’s “Moon River,” naturally. Captain’s Purr has since been retitled “Da Moon Wivver” at our house. A mellow, peaceful story perfect for bedtime, with plenty of spots for purring. Ages 1-4.
I distinctly remember reading Steven Kellogg’s books when I was little, but the only one that’s held up under my grown-up scrutiny is The Mysterious Tadpole. Louis gets a tadpole in the mail from his uncle in Scotland, and names it Alphonse (as one would). Alphonse quickly outgrows the tadpole theory and becomes the most endearingly adorable Loch Ness monster ever imagined. In point of fact, the story is really beside the point — pictures of Alphonse would be enough. How Louis manages to keep Alphonse takes willing suspension of disbelief to new heights, but kids will have no trouble getting on board. The true heroine of the story: the librarian. Huzzah!