Archive for Picture Books

Mundo Azul, Berlin

Mundo Azul, Choriner Straße 49, Berlin

This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.

And then there’s the space itself.

Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.

There are places for sitting and reading.

(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)

Ada Bieber and Philip Nel display 3 books: Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid; Megumi Iwasa’s Viele Grüße, Deine Giraffe (German translation illus. by Jörg Mühle); Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Löcher Gibt’s, Um Sie Zu Graben (A Hole Is to Dig in German).

And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?

Yes! That one! On the little easel.

“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.

I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.

This is the book Mariela showed me. It’s a wordless, anti-capitalist parable.
On the subject of anti-capitalist parables, I like this one even better. It has words — Karl Marx’s. (Thanks to Ada Bieber for directing me to it… and to the store!)

If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*

If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…

After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….

Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!


* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.

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Emily’s Library, Part 10: In Which I Recommend 27 More Good Books for Young Readers

Just in time for the holidays, it’s another edition of Emily’s Library — in which I display the books I’ve given to my now 5-year-old niece, and answer the frequently asked question, “What children’s books would you recommend?”  A few of these will be Christmas presents for Emily, who does not (yet?) read my blog. So, if you do see her, don’t spoil the surprise, OK?  Thanks.

Kate Beaton, The Princess and the Pony (2015)

Kate Beaton, The Princess and the PonyThe first picture book from the Hark! A Vagrant cartoonist does not disappoint. (I haven’t yet read her second, but Beaton’s King Baby was published this fall.) Princess Pinecone, “the smallest warrior,” would like warrior-suitable gifts for her birthday. Instead, she gets “lots of cozy sweaters.” So, this year, she makes it clear to her parents that she wants a “real warrior’s horse.” But they buy her a little pony, who turns out to be a prolific farter but poor substitute for a warrior horse. Yet, on the day of the contest, Princess Pincone learns that there is more than one way to be strong. My previous sentence makes sounds like a soppy moralistic book. But it isn’t. It’s funny. Warriors getting in touch with their cuddly sides and wearing cuddly sweaters is funny. So is the farting pony.  Bonus: though it makes no bones about it, the book subtly integrates a diverse cast of characters: the princess’s mother is a dark-haired brown woman, and her father a yellow-haired white (well, greyish pink) man. The warriors themselves represent a range of body types, races, and genders. In addition to being a fun book, it’s fine example of incidental diversity as well.

Lisa Brown, The Airport Book (2016)

Lisa Brown, The Airport Book (2016)Is it just me, or is incidental diversity (where a character is matter-of-factly non-White) becoming more mainstream? The bi-racial kids (along with their White mother and brown father) are among the many strengths of Lisa Brown‘s The Airport Book, a Richard Scarry-esque journey through airport travel. While we follow the main family of four through the airport, other stories are happening everywhere. Even better: Brown’s attention to detail conveys the sense that they are all real people, and not just there to fill the space.  That’s why I compare her pages to Richard Scarry: they’re full of meaningful details, featuring a range of foci for one’s attention. They’re pages to linger over.  They capture the simultaneous ongoing activity of these busy spaces.  While The Airport Book replicates the divided attention of airports and airplanes, it also offers a singular path forward, via a second-person narration aligned with the older child.  All those “yous” invite the child reader to see herself in the book.  As a child who travels a lot, Emily will — I predict — recognize herself in these pages.

Benjamin Chaud, Poupoupidours (2014) [The Bear’s Surprise (2015) in its original French]

Benjamin Chaud, PoupoupidoursIf you’re new to my “Emily’s Library” series, I should add here that I’m giving Emily books in French and in German (as well as English) because she’s Swiss and thus growing up tri-lingual.  Whether you read Poupoupidors in French, English, or another language, this book concludes the adventures of the Little Bear and his Papa — which began in (if I may use the English-language titles) The Bear’s Song and continued in The Bear’s Sea Escape.

With die-cut pages offering partial glimpses of what’s to come, Chaud again offers many enticements for curious eyes. In addition to the Where’s Waldo game of finding Little Bear on the busier two-page spreads, there’s the question of what the pages’ windows will reveal when we turn the page. In a twist from the previous books in the series, Papa Bear is not chasing Little Bear: instead, Little Bear (adventuring on his own) finds Papa at the circus.

Tim Egan, Burnt Toast on Davenport Street (1997)

Tim Egan, cover to Burnt Toast on Davenport StreetAs I wrote back in the early days of this blog,

Most of his characters are anthropomorphic animals — cows, pigs, dogs, etc. who walk upright, wear clothes, speak in complete sentences. Egan likes to have a little fun blurring the categories between people and animals. The dog protagonists — Arthur and Stella Crandall — of Burnt Toast on Davenport Street (1997) dress well, and live in a beautifully furnished house. They behave like humans. Yet, beneath an illustration of Stella sitting on the couch and Arthur adjusting the TV set’s antenna, Egan writes, “Arthur and Stella were happy dogs. They lived at 623 Davenport Street and had lived there for many years. They spent their days doing what most dogs do. Eating, walking, and sleeping.” Near the end of the book, when the Crandalls are happy, “They both smiled and wagged their tails.” Egan slyly reminds us that, though they dress and act like people, they retain their doggy natures.

Egan is a master. Like James Marshall and Arnold Lobel, his sense of humor arises from mater-of-fact depictions of the mildly absurd. He has a genuine affection for his characters and their predicaments. But, well, you might take a look at my full post on his work. And look for it (Egan’s books, not my post) in your local libraries and bookstores.

Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo, The Sound of Silence (2016)

Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo, The Sound of Silence (2016)With a color palette worthy of Herge, Kuo takes us through Tokyo with Yoshio (the book’s protagonist), searching for ma — the silence between sounds. Along the way, Goldsaito presents the noise of the city, which Kuo depicts, alongside moments of relative quiet — until we (via Yoshio) at last experience that moment of silence. A quest for quietude may seem an unlikely topic for a children’s book (and, yes, I do know Deborah Underwood’s The Quiet Book), but the color, layout, and design of The Sound of Silence immediately hold your attention. In any case, Yoshio’s search is as much about listening as it is about seeking actual silence. It’s about attentiveness to our environment. It’s about noticing.

Ben Hatke, Little Robot (2015)

Ben Hatke, Little RobotNarrated via the comics medium, Hatke’s gentle tale of a little girl and a robot explores the pair’s developing friendship, as she introduces him to her world, fixing him as needed. But Unit 00012’s creators (an anonymous government agency) want him back, and send a powerful one-eyed robot to capture him. Can our unnamed heroine keep him safe?  Its relatively low word-count make this ideal for beginning readers, and its technically savvy brown protagonist brings incidental diversity, as well.

After giving this book to Emily, I heard a fascinating discussion (at a conference) about how and whether Hatke’s portrayal of the little girl participates in stereotypes of strong black women (a criticism that has also been made of the Hushpuppy character in Beasts of the Southern Wild). I continue to find the heroine a compelling one, but mention this criticism to welcome your disagreement — I always read the books I give to Emily before buying them.  You should do the same for whomever you’re buying books.

Keven Henkes, Waiting (2015)

Kevin Henkes, WaitingOn an indoor windowsill, witness five sentient toys: the owl, the pig, the bear, the puppy, and the rabbit. Henkes’ pastel color palette, generous use of negative space, and subtle changes in each toy’s posture or expression swathes the pictures in the aura of a dream, leaving open the question of whether their sentience is real or imagined.  This ontological blurriness perfectly captures the reality of childhood imagination — the sense that make-believe is simultaneously real and not real. It also invites engagement with the book’s key question of what the animals await. An early two-page spread seems to answer the question for four of the five, but subsequent pages reveal arrivals for which they were not waiting. Even those events they did await depart from their imagined versions. For instance, “The pig with the umbrella was waiting for the rain.”  When it does rain, the observation that “the pig was happy. The umbrella kept her dry” bumps up against a different reality in the artwork. It is raining outside, but the pig is inside and so at no risk of getting wet.  They witness the changing seasons, and new arrivals to their windowsill — the last of which affirms their little family. This is a quiet, gentle book, ideal for reflection and dreaming.

Jory John and Lane Smith, Penguin Problems (2016)

Jory John & Lane Smith, Penguin Problems (2016)As we arrive at the end of a dark year, I invite you to embrace the gloom of John and Smith’s pessimistic penguin. Penguin Problems is a comic take on a bad mood. And, you know, some people (and penguins) are just not optimistic. Which is fine. In the hands of John and Smith, it’s also funny. Their penguin is cold. He doesn’t like the snow, being hunted by predators, or his flightlessness. Smith gives the penguin an expressive face — big eyes, with eyelids when he’s tired or annoyed. Though the penguin does look like all the other penguins (another complaint of his), readers can also distinguish him from the others. While reading this to Emily, she — unprompted — pointed to him in each crowd scene. Late in the book, a walrus delivers a pep talk, offering a fresh perspective on life. That changes the penguin’s mood for a few pages. But, like I say, some penguins (and people) are pessimists. Frankly, it’s a good time to be a pessimist — as long as you keep your sense of humor about you. Smith and John’s penguin does.

Crockett Johnson, Will Spring Be Early? or Will Spring Be Late? (1959)

Crockett Johnson, Will Spring Be Early? or Will Spring Be Late?This book — which, happily, has recently been reprinted by Harper — reads as a gentle parody of Johnson’s wife Ruth Krauss’s The Happy Day (art by Marc Simont, 1949). In the earlier book, animals emerge from their wintertime hibernation/austerity, jubilant to see a flower growing in the snow. In Johnson’s Will Spring Be Early? or Will Spring by Late?, an artificial flower seems to confirm the Groundhog’s prediction of an early spring — indeed, to confirm that spring is already here! The other animals greet the Groundhog’s news with excitement, delighted that winter is over. Skeptical, the Pig refuses to join the celebrations. Seeing them dancing around the flower, he strolls in, chomps on it, and declares (accurately), “The leaves are paper. The stem is wire. The petals are plastic. And the lot of you will freeze out here.” As the Bear demands an explanation and the Groundhog begins “to creep quietly away,” Johnson leads us to believe that the animals will turn on him. Instead, “They blamed the Pig, of course.” Will Spring Be Early? or Will Spring Be Late wryly transforms a story about welcoming spring (The Happy Day) into a fable satirizing the human tendency to blame the messenger.

Jon Klassen, We Found a Hat (2016)

Jon Klassen, We Found a Hat (2016)The third book in Klassen’s “hat” trilogy (Emily already has the first two, I Want My Hat Back [2011] and This Is Not My Hat [2012]), We Found a Hat finds a gentle solution to hat-begotten disagreements. If its peaceful resolution departs from its predecessors, Klassen’s deadpan humor and headwear obsession will please fans of the first two. Dividing the tale into three acts, We Found a Hat tracks two turtles’ discovery (Part One: Finding the Hat), unspoken disagreement on the fairness of single ownership (Part Two: Watching the Sunset), and dream of a shared hat-plentiful future (Part Three: Going to Sleep). It’s a satisfying and unexpectedly sweet conclusion to the series.

Brothers Grimm & Clementine Sourdais, Rotkäppchen (2014) [Sourdais’ version of Little Red Riding Hood (2015) in German]

Applying a spare color palette (red, black, white) to die-cut pages, Sourdais’ rendering of Little Red Riding Hood can be read two ways. You can unfold the entire book, from first to last page, and see the entire story at once, allowing whatever is behind the page to serve as your artwork’s background. Or you can turn each pair of glossy cardboard pages like a single page in an ordinary book. I confess: I bought this because the cleverness of the art enticed me.

Sourdais, Rotkäeppchen

Leo Lionni, Petit-Bleu et Petit-Jaune (1970) [Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959) in French]

Lionni, Petit-bleu at Petit-jauneLeo Lionni’s first book — invented, initially, to entertain his two grandchildren during a train ride —  tells of two colors who become friends. When they hug each other, they become green, and neither set of parents recognizes them. After crying themselves back to their original colors, they revisit the parents who (upon hugging both children) realize that blue hugging yellow creates green. Both families hug each other, and the story ends happily.  Given the date of its publication, it’s tempting to read this as advocating friendship between people of different races, and offering a visual metaphor of how such friendships change us for the better. However, the subtlety (and brilliance) of the book is that it doesn’t confine itself to that interpretation. The difference in color could represent any sort of difference, though — to me — the jubilant response to the color transformation suggests how friendships with people of different backgrounds enrich our lives.

Leo Lionni, Fish Is Fish (1970)

Leo Lionni, Fish Is Fish (1970)In another tale of friendship, a fish and a tadpole reckon with the latter’s transformation into a frog. When the now-grown frog describes all he has seen above the surface of the water, the fish’s imagination conjures up very piscine versions of birds, cows, and people. Lionni’s depictions of these fish-centric creatures are clever and amusing, and introduce a problem: the fish wants to see these sights, too!  His attempt to do so leaves him “gasping for air” on the bank. The frog, who happened to be nearby, pushes him back into the pond and saves his life. Are the book’s final words “fish is fish” an argument against curiosity, or a reminder to temper curiosity with caution?  Lionni never spells out a moral in so many words, leaving that up to us.

David Litchfield, The Bear and the Piano (2015)

David Litchfield, The Bear and the PianoIf a piano falls in the woods, does it make a sound? As this book’s title character discovers, yes it does. He learns to play, attracting, first, ursine fans, and second, a boy and a girl. The two children invite him to the city (New York), where the bear “played sold-out concerts in giant theatres.”  But… he misses his home and his friends in the forest. Did they also miss him? He returns to find out. Though Litchfield (like many artists) draws upon digital tools as well as traditional artistic material, the art looks hand-made — echoes of Mary Blair, and classic Little Golden Books.

Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970)

Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970)Inaugurating Lobel’s best-known series, Frog and Toad Are Friends introduces the key elements that make a Frog and Toad tale work. First, our two main characters are complimentary opposites: Frog is more “adult,” patient, knowledgeable, grounded. Toad tends to be more childlike, impulsive, naïve, anxious. Frog is the optimist, while Toad is more pessimistic. Frog is the go-getter, and Toad is less energetic.  Second, the action revolves around a single event. In this book’s first story, Frog wants to celebrate spring, but Toad wants to keep hibernating. In the fourth story, Frog is happy to jump in the river and swim, but Toad is self-conscious about how he looks in his bathing suit. Third, they’re fables — animal characters satirize human foibles, offering a moral at the end. Arnold Lobel, Ranelot et Bufolet, une paire d'amis (2008)Fourth, they only imply that moral and, indeed, often subtly undercut it because, fifth, the books are funny. Lobel sees the humor in his characters and, gently, sympathetically reveals why their (especially Toad’s) choices are funny.  Sixth, and most important, the two are friends.  At a very basic level, all four collections of Frog and Toad stories are about friendship.

Arnold Lobel, Ranelot et Bufolet, une paire d’amis (2008) [Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970) in French]

I bought her the French edition because she’s being raised in an English-and-French-speaking household.

James Marshall, George and Martha Rise and Shine (1976)

James Marshall, George and Martha Rise and ShineI have already given Emily three other George and Martha books: George and Martha (1972), George and Martha Encore (1973), George and Martha Tons of Fun (1980).  But there are seven books in all.  And so,… I’ve added two more to her library — the third and the seventh!  In this (the third), George fibs until Martha calls his bluff, Martha’s scientific inquiry into fleas make her itch, Martha’s desire for a picnic collides with George’s wish to sleep late, George thinks the scary movie will frighten Martha but she loves (in contrast, he’s more susceptible to fear than he thought), and Martha discovers the focus of George’s secret club. In each story, either George or Martha learns something, but the comedy softens the moral impulse. At their heart, these stories are about the friendship of two slightly absurd and very endearing hippos.

James Marshall, George and Martha Round and Round (1988)

James Marshall, George and Martha Round and RoundMarshall’s comic timing is as masterful as it is understated. My favorite story in this, his final George and Martha volume, is “The Last Story: The Surprise.”  You think it’s over. But it ain’t over until it’s over, and Marshall gets in one final joke.  These books are required in any children’s library. As Maurice Sendak says in his introduction to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends, “The George and Martha books teach us nothing and everything. That is Marshall’s way. Just when you are lulled by the ease of it all, he pokes you sharply.” And, Marshall’s “simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page.”

Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko, The Paper Bag Princess (1980)

Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag PrincessLet me be frank (OK, now you say: “Hi, Frank!”).  I chose this and Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony — in part — because Emily likes princesses.  I want her to read books in which the princesses can save themselves.  Children’s books should introduce her to smart, active princesses, not dull-witted, passive ones.  And so,… this classic feminist fairy tale joins the group. When a dragon kidnaps (or prince-naps?) Prince Ronald, Princess Elizabeth sets off to find him — wearing only a paper bag because the dragon has “burned off all her clothes with his fiery breath.”  She outsmarts the dragon and rescues the prince! But Ronald turns out to be snooty and ungrateful. So — spoiler alert! — she does not marry him after all. The end.

Mark Pett, The Lizard from the Park (2015)

Mark Pett, Lizard from the ParkA charming example of incidental diversity (Leonard’s brown complexion plays no larger role in the story), Pett‘s The Lizard from the Park seems to be about a solitary boy (Leonard) who finds a lizard egg, which hatches, and soon grows into a dinosaur. However, as this narrative unfolds, some contrary clues emerge. When they are out in public, no one notices Leonard’s increasingly large lizard. Indeed, the only person who seems to notice either Leonard or Buster (his lizard) is a bespectacled boy who — though never mentioned in the text — keeps crossing paths with Leonard in the illustrations. But it’s not clear whether this boy is noticing Leonard or his lizard or both… until the book’s conclusion, which I won’t give away here.

Sergio Ruzzier, This Is Not a Picture Book (2016)

Sergio Ruzzier, This Is Not a Picture Book (2016)Ruzzier has created a clever, engaging book about learning to read — which, as you might expect, 5-year-old Emily will soon be doing. The narrative starts on the partially decipherable initial endpapers, which garbles most words but leaves some legible. Though we may not at first realize it, the pages subtly convey the partial comprehension of a beginning reader. Then, against a completely white background, a duckling finds a book, picks it up, opens it, notes that it has no pictures, and speaks the title (as the title, on the title page). As soon as the friendly bug prompts duckling to start reading, the blank landscape acquires color and sprouts visual metaphors for the duckling’s recognition of certain words. For the page indicating “funny” words, smiling bubbles drift by, a long-nosed large-footed fellow naps near a flowerpot, and many whimsical creatures look on. For “sad,” duckling and bug walk past smoldering houses and the craters of a recently bombed landscape.  By the book’s conclusion, the duckling can read — and the final endpapers have transformed into a legible typographic rendition of This Is Not a Picture Book!’s plot. Without any whiff of didacticism, the visual intelligence of Ruzzier’s book makes a subtle case for the pleasures of literacy.

Julia Sacrone-Roach, The Bear Ate Your Sandwich (2015)

Julia Sacrone-Roach, The Bear Ate Your Sandwich (2015)“By now I think you may know what happened to your sandwich,” the unseen narrator advises us. “But you may not know how it happened. So let me tell you. It all started with the bear.” So begins Sarcone-Roach’s very funny story of how a bear just happened to arrive in the city, and the park, and eat your sandwich. Though the tale is framed as an excuse, by concealing both the narrator and any evidence of sandwich-thievery, Sarcone-Roach invites us to be swept up into the improbable narrative. Her bright paint-and-pencil illustrations bring us along on the bear’s journey to, and then new experiences in the city. Only at the very end does she reveal that the whole story has been an elaborate set-up for the punchline — which, no, I won’t reveal here.

Francesca Sanna, The Journey (2016)

Francesca Sanna, The Journey (2016)This is one of my favorite picture books of 2016. It’s timely, yes, but its strength lies in Sanna’s deft visual storytelling — her sense of pacing, design, story. It’s very well done. As war arrives, a family loses its father, and must seek a safe harbor.  On the page where “The war began,” the darkness that (on the previous two-page spread) had represented the sea suddenly becomes menacing, overtaking the entire right-hand page, with giant shadowy hands reaching left, destroying buildings. Over a few subsequent two-page spreads, the gradual loss of the family’s baggage accrues the weight of a much deeper loss — of home, father, security. With relatively spare text and powerful, vivid art, the book takes us on their journey toward what they hope will be their new home. Wisely, The Journey ends before the journey is complete. Narrated from the perspective of one of the two children in the family, the book delivers a complex, emotionally layered story with economy and subtlety. It neither sugarcoats its serious subject, nor presents in a too emotionally charged manner. It’s a book you’ll return to.

Lemony Snicket & Jon Klassen, The Dark (2013)

Lemony Snicket & Jon Klassen, The DarkI bought this one because I noticed that Emily — at age 4, at least — needed a night-light. So, I thought: perhaps it would be helpful for her to read a story about making friends with the dark. That is precisely what The Dark is about. At the book’s beginning, Laszlo is afraid of the dark. Snicket and Klassen set up the dark as a character: “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo,” they tell us on an early two-page spread. When Laszlo greets the dark, it (the dark) is silent. Then, one day, it addresses him directly, luring him down to the basement, where it lives. The story invokes this horror-story trope so that it can bring us into darkness while it demystifies darkness. I won’t give away the ending, but — as you may have guessed — by book’s conclusion, Laszlo no longer fears the dark.

Helen Stephens, How to Hide a Lion (2012)

Helen Stephens, How to Hide a LionA book that feels like it could have been published decades ago — in the 1960s, or maybe 1930s. With a line that recalls Edward Ardizozne and watercolors that recall Marcia Brown, Helen Stephens tells of a lion who strolled into a market square to buy a hat, but frightened townspeople chase him out of town… and so he meets Iris, a brave small girl who befriends him and helps him hide. I haven’t seen this in the U.S., but it’s been popular enough in the U.K. (where I found it) to inspire a sequel, How to Hide a Lion from Grandma. (I haven’t read the sequel.)

Koen Van Biesen, Roger Is Reading a Book (2015; orig. published as Buurman leest een boek, 2012)

Koen Van Biesen, Roger Is Reading a Book (2015)Roger is reading a book. Or he is trying to. Next door, Emily is playing with a ball (BOING BOING). Roger asks her to please Shhhh! This pattern of different noises followed by Shhhh! repeats — until Roger puts down his book, and leaves. Then, a package arrives for Emily. It’s a book! Roger returns, and both read in silence . . . until WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF.  They both put down their books and take the dog — whom Roger has been ignoring for several two-page spreads — for a walk. In addition to the book’s spare illustration (not finishing the top of Roger’s head, for instance), I like how it takes both Roger and Emily seriously. Neither intends to be obnoxious to the other. Their interests differ. The character’s names also assert their independence. Never does Koen Van Biesen indicate their relationship to one another. Roger is not identified as Emily’s father or uncle or caregiver. He is just Roger. She might live in the apartment next to his, or might live in the same apartment. Her bedroom is adjacent to the room where he’s trying to read, and he always knocks before he enters. But that’s all we know. Also, yes, one of the main characters is Emily — which I thought would please the real Emily.

Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny Free (2010)

Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny FreeThe conclusion to Willems’ trilogy featuring Trixie, her bunny, and Trixie’s parents.  (Emily already has the first two: Knuffle Bunny [2004] and Knufffle Bunny [2007].) Using the now familiar combination of black-and-white photos (for the setting) with hand-inked drawings (for the people and select objects), Willems brings Trixie and her parents to the Netherlands to see Oma and Opa (Grandma and Grandpa). Guess what she leaves on the plane? Now older, Trixie learns to live without her knuffle bunny and even to consider that, perhaps, other, younger children may need him more than she does. If a bit more sentimental than the previous two books, Willems’ tale and its morals nonetheless arrive via the sharply observed humor that makes a Mo Willems book a Mo Willems book.


Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

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Mock Caldecott 2016: Manhattan, Kansas edition

This afternoon, a group of about 30 of us — undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, community members — voted on our choices for this year’s “Mock Caldecott.” Since we were guessing at the award results (announce in January), we read picture books by U.S. authors, published in the U.S. in 2016. Or, that’s what we intended to do — as you’ll see in a moment, we inadvertently admitted a beautiful Swiss-Italian book.  Another disclaimer: We did not get our hands on all notable works, and may have missed some important ones.  BUT!  Here are the books we chose.

The Winner*:

Francesca Sanna’s The Journey

Francesca Sanna, The Journey (2016)Though a timely story, its stunning realization is what persuaded us.  As war arrives, a family loses its father, and must seek a safe harbor.  On the page where “The war began,” the darkness that (on the previous two-page spread) had represented the sea suddenly overtakes the entire right-hand page, with giant shadowy hands reaching left, destroying buildings. Over a few subsequent two-page spreads, the gradual loss of the family’s baggage accrues the weight of a much deeper loss — of home, father, security.  With relatively spare text and powerful, vivid art, the book takes us on their journey toward what they hope will be their new home.  (Wisely, The Journey ends before the journey is complete.) Narrated from the perspective of one of the two children in the family, the book conveys a complex, emotionally layered story with such economy and subtlety.  It’s one you’ll return to.

And… remember how, above, I said we inadvertently admitted a book not eligible for the Caldecott?  According to her website, Sanna grew up in Italy and is based in Zurich, Switzerland.  However, including it proved to be a very happy mistake because it’s a beautiful, powerful book, and I’m glad to be able to recommend it here.

The Revised Winner:

Sergio Ruzzier’s This Is Not a Picture Book!

Sergio Ruzzier, This Is Not a Picture Book (2016)This came in exactly one point behind The Journey, and was originally our first Honor Book.  Ruzzier was also born in Italy, but is based in Brooklyn, and thus his book is eligible for the Caldecott.  So, This Is Not a Picture Book should be today’s winner!  It’s a clever, engaging book about learning to read.  The narrative starts on the only partially decipherable initial endpapers, which garbles most words but leaves a few legible. Against a completely white background, a duckling finds a book, picks it up, opens it, notes that it has no pictures, and speaks the title (for the title page). As soon as the friendly bug prompts duckling to start reading, the blank landscape gains color and sprouts visual metaphors for the duckling’s recognition of certain words. For the page indicating “funny” words, smiling bubbles drift by, a long-nosed large-footed fellow naps near a flowerpot, and many whimsical creatures look on. For “sad,” duckling and bug walk past smoldering houses and the craters of a recently bombed landscape.  By the book’s conclusion, the duckling can read — and the final endpapers have transformed into a legible typographic rendition of This Is Not a Picture Book!‘s plot.

The Honor Books:

Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo’s The Sound of Silence

Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo, The Sound of Silence (2016)The color! The layout! The design! A journey through Tokyo, as Yoshio seeks silence. With a color palette worthy of Herge, Kuo takes us through the city with the book’s protagonist, searching for ma — the silence between sounds. Along the way, Goldsaito presents the noise of the city, which Kuo depicts, along with moments of relative quiet (not noted in the text), until we (via Yoshio) at last experiences that moment of silence.

Carole B. Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie’s Freedom in Congo Square

Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie, Freedom in Congo SquareThis one wasn’t originally one of our Honor books (because we inadvertently gave the prize to a Swiss-Italian book), but it could have been, because it received the next-highest number of votes after The Sound of Silence.  Congo Square offers the enslaved respite on a Sunday, but the rest of their lives are devoid of any such comfort. Prior to the Congo Square pages, Weatherford and Christie present the brutality that slaves suffered, rejecting any whiff of the “happy slave” narrative that still appears in children’s books.


There were many other great books published this year.  Here are three more that I think are Caldecott worthy (note: just my opinion, not the opinion of our little informal committee).

A few other great books from 2016:

  • Matt Phelan’s Snow White: A Graphic Novel
  • Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat
  • Jory John & Lane Smith’s Penguin Problems
  • Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book

And, yes, I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other good books here….

____________

* Actually not eligible to be the winner because the creator is based in Switzerland.

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Emily’s Library, Part 9: 14 More Books for Young Readers

Welcome to another installment in my attempts to build the perfect children’s library for my niece and, in so doing, guide others to great books for young people. Indeed, this post is being published as I depart to visit Emily — carrying three of the books mentioned below! (See if you can guess which three.)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail, One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)Averbeck and Ismail‘s book has a nice sense of humor, and a clever protagonist who loves words. What? That’s not enough for you? OK, well, it’s also a great example of what I call incidental diversity: it features characters of color, but race is not explicitly part of the story. (Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is the classic example of this type of book.) Indeed, the protagonist’s family might be all of African descent; or there might be some of African descent and others of European descent. It’s not clear, and it’s not important to the story. I’m thinking that Emily will like the book because it has a smart and determined heroine, fun wordplay, and good jokes. If you need more reasons to check this book out, take a look at my blog post devoted to One Word from Sophia.

Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)

Kelly DiPuccio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)Gaston does not quite seem to have his poodle sisters’ knack of behaving well, though he does his best. Then, a chance encounter with a family of bulldogs (one of whom is a poodle) makes Mrs. Poodle and Mrs. Bulldog wonder if there’s been a mix-up. A gently comic story about what it means to be part of a family, with an unexpected twist. Even better, because Robinson’s visual palette evokes classic children’s illustrators like Roger Duvoisin, the book feels like a classic from the moment you pick it up.

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)A gentle tale given to Emily by a friend of the family — but one I would have otherwise given to her myself. It’s about making a new friend, the joys of friendship, and the sadness that accompanies the inevitability of being apart. (We cannot always be near those we love. Or, as the book says, “And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that.”) With few words and beautiful art, Dubuc’s book communicates the joy and loneliness of having and missing friends.

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015)

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon's Story (2015)A big part of the fun of Hall‘s book is that the reader immediately knows something that the book’s characters fail to recognize. Though the main character is identified as Red, we can see that he’s just a blue crayon in a red wrapper. So, right away, readers understand that the words and the pictures contradict one another — the red wrapper does not accurately identify the crayon’s color. Of course, the metaphor is also hard to miss: superficial judgments based on labels fail to miss what’s inside a person (or crayon). But you don’t need to catch the tale’s allegorical elements to enjoy Red’s discovery that he is in fact Blue, and very good at drawing blue things, too!

Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (2014)

Ben Hatke, Julia's House for Lost Creatures (2014)The creator of the Zita the Space Girl comics directs his talents towards a new medium: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is Ben Hatke’s first picture book. In it, independent-minded Julia — who looks to be about five but has the confidence and responsibility of someone older — sets up her home right by the sea. The house is vast. It’s cozy. It’s got knick-knacks, lots of books, and a workshop where she can make things. But it’s too quiet, and so she paints a sign, hanging it up outside the front door: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” They start coming: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a mermaid, gnomes, and more! Soon, looking after all the lost creatures is wearing Julia out. So, she comes up with a plan. If learning to live and work with others is a message here, the book’s appeals reside in the quirky, spacious old house, the variety of creatures (each of whom has a distinct personality), and seeing resourceful Julia in charge of them all.

For more, including original sketches, see Jules Danielson’s post on the book.

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)Drawn & Quarterly has been republishing Jansson’s Moomin comic strips in two forms: (1) large black-and-white books, each of which includes several narratives; (2) small, single-narrative color books. (They’ve added the color to Jansson’s original strips.) The latter are ideal to introduce young readers to Jansson and to comics in general: single story, nicely colored, and, well… Moomins! So, I’ve been giving these smaller books to Emily. Some of these narratives appear — in a different version — in Jansson’s novels. Others do not. This is one of the latter.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)This is an early and quite different version of the events narrated in Jansson’s novel Moominpappa at Sea (1966). Indeed, for those interested in the way that Jansson’s Moomin universe evolved, a comparison between this work and the (considerably darker) Moominpappa at Sea would be interesting. For young people, though, just enjoy this installment in the Moomins’ ongoing quest to live life on their own terms.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

If you’d like to learn more about the Moomins, you might use my earlier blog post on them as a starting point. If you’re already a Moomin fan, then I highly recommend Boel Westin’s magnificent biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (2014).

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)To read this as a didactic story about not destroying others’ property is to miss all the fun. Sure, by the end of the book, the elephant does learn not to smash small cars. So, there is an appropriate ”lesson” here. But the joy is in the smashing. He smashes small cars and then sings about it:

Smashing cars! Smashing cars!

How I love to smash small cars!

Merrill — author of the classic children’s novel, The Pushcart War, which you should also read — even provides music for the song. Solbert’s crayon-and-ink artwork sets the playful tone for this tale of destruction and (ultimately, in the final few pages) reform. It’s a silly, joyous tale that offers an official advisory against smashing things, even as it embraces the impish impulse to destroy.

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)Like Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird, Sergio Ruzzier’s book is about two friends, one of whom is earthbound and the other of whom is only temporarily flightless. That is, Leo — protagonist, mailman, weasel (but the cute kind of weasel) — spends his days delivering mail, punctuated by short breaks to play bocce or to chat with friends. He never receives any mail himself, until he happens upon a bird, stuck in a mailbox and stranded far away from his flock. Like Groot, the bird only says one word — “Cheep” — but (also like Groot) his face tells us enough about what he wants or feels. Ruzzier’s faces give even his minor characters with a real sense of personality. There’s the joyous, loopy expression on the dog’s face, as Leo delivers a package that can only be a giant bone; and the kind, open face of the hen who pours Leo a cup of tea. And then there’s the fact that Leo plays bocce — most children probably don’t know the sport, but its specificity makes Leo that much more real. Little details like these make the book a delight to read and re-read. The story of Leo and Cheep is a warm tale of a friendship that transcends differences in language and species.

For original sketches and an interview, check out Jules Danielson’ post on the book.

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)I bought both of these Birgitta Sif books because I noticed that, on occasion, Emily has exhibited some shyness. I would not say that shyness is a dominant character trait, but it reminded me of my own childhood shyness, and how important it is for young people to know that it’s OK to feel shy. All of us feel shy sometimes. (Don’t we?) Even better, Sif’s work is wonderful — whether or not you’re afflicted by shyness. When no one is watching, Frances Dean dances in a joyous reverie, as she listens to the birds sing. However, “when people were around, all she could feel were their eyes on her” — even though the artwork shows people minding their own business, reading a book, talking the dogs for a walk, playing with a toy sailboat. (Each of Sif’s characters seems to have her or his own inner life; even individual birds have different personalities.) The gap between Frances’ awareness and Sif’s art hints at a way past acute self-consciousness: other people are paying less attention to you than you think. By the book’s conclusion, Frances dances. And some of the other characters dance with her, too.

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)The title character of Sif’s first book prefers the company of his imagination to that of other children. He reads, creates art, plays piano for his stuffed animals, invents his own (solo) version of tennis, and has a tendency to bring his stuffed animals with him. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that, in many of Sif’s two-page spreads is a girl, who also enjoys reading and tends to travel while carrying her stuffed-animal friend in the crook of her right arm. Sif handles this subtly; all the characters in these spreads are doing their own thing. So, the similarities between this girl and Oliver could easily be overlooked. However, by the book’s end, the two — her name is Olivia — have discovered one another, and a friendship has begun.

For both of these books, a merry tip of the hat to Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, where you can read an interview with Sif (as well as posts on other Sif books).

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)Clearly inspired by Ruth Krauss’s books of the early 1950s, What Can You Do with a Shoe? rises above other Krauss imitators via art from Krauss’s frequent collaborator, Maurice Sendak. I don’t know the story of the book’s creation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Schenck de Regniers also drew from her observations of children (as Krauss did). I chose it as a gift for Emily because I notice that she enjoys experimenting, combining clothes in novel ways, or using a household item in a way that it wasn’t intended. Featuring the gently mischievous, very real children of Sendak’s imagination, What Can You Do with a Shoe? honors a child’s impulse to experiment. And that’s good!

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)You probably know Tashlin for his animated cartoons (featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny) or his films (The Girl Can’t Help It), but he also wrote several children’s books: The World That Isn’t (1951), The Possum That Didn’t (1950), and The Bear That Wasn’t (1946). His former colleague Chuck Jones also created an animated adaptation of this one. The story’s premise? While a bear hibernates, men build a factory above his cave. When he awakens, the employees expect him to be working. He insists that he’s a bear; they don’t believe him. It’s a satire of conformity, and the absurdity of trying to be anything other than who you are. I mean, hey, if you’re a bear, you’re a bear!

Rowboat Watkins, Rude Cakes (2015)

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Rowboat Watkins‘ Rude Cakes is my favorite picture book of 2015. It has sentient pastry, cyclopses, and a delightfully off-kilter sense of humor. It’s classic in the way that Arnold Lobel or James Marshall are classic. I like the book so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it. Read the post and then, more importantly, read the book.

That’s all for now. There will be more “Emily’s Library” installments in the future! Meanwhile, here (below) are the previous posts in this series, and other links that’ll help you find good books for young people.

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

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The Cyclops Who Mistook His Cake for a Hat

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)The best picture-book debut of 2015 is Rowboat WatkinsRude Cakes. Yes, I know it’s only May 7th. And I don’t claim to have read every picture book published thus far. But it’s going to be hard to top this one.

(Spoiler alert! There are spoilers below! Lots of them!)

The notion of an ill-mannered, sentient cake is funny on its own. But Watkins goes further. In the first half of the book, the titular character — a pink, bratty cake — refuses to listen to its parents or to wait in line, bullies a cupcake and a Cake in bathtub. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)marshmallow on a playground, and glowers in the sudsy water of the bathtub before reluctantly going to bed. So far, it’s a comic didactic tale. Then, enter a Giant Cyclops. Really. The cake is jumping up and down on the bed, playing with the little stuffed toy blue Cyclops that it stole from the cupcake, when — through the open window — a giant blue Cyclops hand enters, plucking the cake from its bedroom, lifting it up towards its toothy open mouth… only to wear the cake on its head. As Watkins’ narrator explains, giant Cyclopses “LOVE to wear jaunty little hats.” And this Cyclops thinks that the cake is a hat.

Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Watkins’ doodley, expressive line and soft watercolors provide his cakes and Cyclopes with the necessary solidity and silliness. Think of James Marshall’s hippo duo, George and Martha. Or of Laurie Keller’s misunderstood pastry, Arnie the Donut. As in any book by Marshall or Keller, Watkins’ characters have a real presence, and joy. Lots of joy. When I read the book, it feels like Rowboat Watkins is standing just behind the illustrations (where I can’t see him), and he’s smiling happily to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at the fact that I am also smiling while I read his book.

He has imagined an oddly coherent universe populated by polite Giant Cyclopses, one rude cake, two beleaguered playmates (the cupcake and the marshmallow), and the rude cake’s exasperated parents (also cakes). In other words, Watkins understands Dr. Seuss’s principle of “logical nonsense”: as Seuss put it, “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation and so will I.” So, for instance, the Cyclops seems to come out of nowhere until you remember that the chocolate cupcake had a toy Cyclops, and the rude cake had a Cyclops poster over its bed. Later in the book, the child characters (rude cake, cupcake, marshmallow) frolic with Cyclopean balloons — each balloon has a giant eye. Theirs is a world in which Giant Cyclopses not only exist, but also are — in toy form — a cherished part of childhood. And why not? After all, we live in a world where we’d think twice about cuddling real live bears, but quite happily give children teddy bears to cuddle. In Watkins’ world, Giant Cyclopses are similar.

Rude cakes never say thank you. From Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)

By the book’s end, our bratty cake learns some manners. But, as in Marshall’s George and Martha or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Rude Cakes sublimates its didactic impulse, expressing its lesson via the pleasures of story. Watkins’ book has a moral, but what makes Rude Cakes work is its playful, loopy storytelling. In his baked goods and Cyclopses, Watkins offers an unusual but perfect metaphor for how larger forces can shake an obnoxious child out of its selfish egoism, revealing the kinder, gentle person within.

Rowboat Watkins is an original, singular talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

P.S. If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it again. Mr. Watkins has thought very carefully about picture books. You could learn a lot from him.

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Emily’s Library, Part 8: 25 Fine Books for Small People; or, Further Adventures in Building the Ideal Children’s Library

In this installment of my Emily’s Library series, I notice there are more contemporary books than usual. I didn’t plan it that way — there are certainly more classics I’d like her to have! But, as noted in earlier posts, my goal is to give my three-year-old niece a personal library of really good books, mixing classics and contemporary, well-known and more obscure. Growing up surrounded by beautiful books increases the likelihood that she’ll not only learn to read, but enjoy reading. And by “reading” I of course mean reading both words and pictures. Since (at this stage) nearly all of the books in Emily’s library are picture books or comics, she also has a small art museum right there in her bedroom. When I think of her shelves of literary-visual art, and choosing books for her parents to read (or perusing them herself), I am happy.

I share these titles in my Emily’s Library posts because (since I’m a scholar of children’s books) people often ask me to recommend books for children. Though the selection does of course reflect my own idiosyncrasies, I hope my brief synopses for each title help direct you to good books for the young people in your life.

Note to Emily’s parents: a bunch of these are Christmas gifts. So, you’ll see ’em soon! (Note to others: Emily does not yet read this blog & so I won’t be spoiling her surprise.)

Ronan Badel, The Lazy Friend (2014)

Ronan Badel, The Lazy Friend (2014)This wordless picture book shouldn’t work, but it does. For all but one page, the title character — a tree sloth — is sound asleep. Apart from clinging (to a tree branch or to his friend, the snake), he only sleeps. That’s it. As the back cover boasts, the book is a “wordless adventure story about a sloth who does absolutely nothing.” Badel sets up the sloth as the straight man (or straight sloth?): his friends’ responses make the book work. When the tree to which he clings gets cut down and loaded onto a logging truck, the snake sneaks on board, as toucan and tree frog (the other two friends) bid them both a sad farewell. The book then follows sloth and snake on an adventure — of which only the snake is aware. I don’t want to spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that the book is a comedy.

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et la grande aventure (2012) [Pomelo’s Big Adventure (2014) in its original French]

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et la grande aventure (2012)Another adventure with our favorite little pink elephant. So far, Enchanted Lion Books has translated four of Pomelo’s adventures into English. Here’s hoping they keep on going — there are many more Pomelo books en français! In this installment, Pomelo discovers the pleasures and challenges of travel. A story that is by turns philosophical and whimsical, Pomelo et la grande aventure manages to capture a child’s sense of excitement and uncertainty in facing new things. Chaud’s artwork offers the eye much to explore: sometimes, tiny Pomelo is nearly hidden; always, he appears in a new location in each two-page spread. Pomelo drives a car, and sails a boat. He meets a rat who swindles him, and a large grey elephant who shares his food. He makes a new friend. It’s a tender and sometimes amusing tale of what we learn when we travel.

Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky, Z Is for Moose (2012)

Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky, Z Is for Moose (2012)If you ask Emily whether “Z” is for “Moose,” she will respond, “No! ‘Z’ is for ‘Zebra’!” Like Mike Lester’s A Is for Salad (2000), this book also creates a kind of absurdist pedagogy, as it presents false claims and readers respond with corrections. Its premise: referee/director Zebra is presenting a theatrical performance, in which each item or animal (one per letter) takes the stage in alphabetical order. Moose, however, finds it difficult to wait his turn, and keeps entering at the wrong moments, upstaging the others. When the performance reaches the middle of the alphabet, “M is for Mouse” and Moose is upset. From the narrative conflict between Moose and Zebra to the game of finding the actual thing named by the letter (behind or displaced by Moose), Bingham and Zelinsky‘s Z Is for Moose is a fun read-aloud.

Cécile Boyer, Rebonds (2013) [Run, Dog! (2014) in its original French]

Cécile Boyer, Rebonds (2013)A book of few words, Rebonds follows a friendly dog’s adventures, as he pursues a ball in a park. He chases it onto a trampoline, through a picnic, interrupts young lovers on a park bench, and generally creates a little (or adds to the) chaos wherever he goes. The dog is in one color palette, and the rest of the book uses a different one. The vibrant yellow dog’s body, his dark blue collar, and red tongue contrast nicely with the mostly mono-chromatic other creatures: humans (all in dark blue silhouettes), birds (pink, light blue, dark blue, grey), park bench (pink), trees (light blue), and cars (grey). On the right side of every other two-page spread, Boyer has two small pages — one, a third of a page, and the other, two thirds of a page. Echoing a slowly paced flip-book, turning these pages-within-pages creates movement, as ball and dog disrupt each scene. Like her earlier Ouaf Miaou Cui Cui (2009) (Woof Meow Tweet Tweet [2011], featured in an earlier Emily’s Library post), Rebonds is a beautifully designed book.

from Cécile Boyer's Rebonds (2013)

Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House (1942)

Virgina Lee Burton, The Little House (1942)A classic story about time and change, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House places its title character at the center (well, bottom center) of nearly every right-hand page, while the expanding metropolis gradually transforms the pastoral landscape into a bustling, noisy cityscape. Burton identifies the house as “she,” but — apart from her pink color — does not gender the house, visually. The two windows on either side of the front door serve as eyes, with the gaps at the bottom of the pair of closed curtains acting as pupils. The curved front doorstep smiles, or does not smile, when Burton flattens its curves. But the book’s genius is in its design: Burton manages to tell a dynamic, engaging story about a house that (except near the end) does not move. Tracking the many changes in the house’s environment is as compelling as the narrative itself. Required reading for all students of the picture book, and highly enjoyable reading for the graphically inclined of any age.

Benjamin Chaud, Coquillages et petit ours (2012) [The Bear’s Sea Escape (2014) in its original French]

Benjamin Chaud, Coquillages et petit ours (2012)If you enjoyed Une chanson d’ours [The Bear’s Song] (included in the last Emily’s Library post), then you’ll certainly want to check out Coquillages et petit ours [The Bear’s Sea Escape]. Picking up the narrative where the last book left off, Papa Bear and Little Bear are in the city but need a place to hibernate. Papa Bear chooses the toy section of a department store. As he starts to sleep, a little boy adopts Little Bear and heads out of the store. Papa Bear awakens and begins his pursuit. As in Une chanson d’ours, each two-page spread has a degree of detail reminiscent of Richard Scarry or even Martin Hanford (Where’s Waldo?). As Papa Bear looks for Little Bear, readers, too, can scan the pages until they find him as well.

Benjamin Chaud, from Coquillages et petit ours (2012)

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big City (2014)

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big CityIn vivid illustrations whose use of space and perspective really draw you in, Curato’s tale of a small cupcake-loving polka-dotted elephant (Elliot) has heart. As he walks through a 1940s New York City, Elliot is dwarfed by the others in the subway, and can’t be seen over the countertop in the bakery, but enjoys “the little things” (a flower growing between cracks in the sidewalk) and “small treasures” (a top, jacks, roller-skate key, playing card).  I think that the book’s treatment of the central character’s height will resonate with younger readers: to be a child is to exist in a world designed for giants, where everything is too large, too wide, or out of reach. Curato captures that experience well. It’s sweet without being pat — and that’s a delicate balance to achieve.

To learn more about this book and Mike Curato’s creative process, see Jules Danielson’s post over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)

Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)Emily is 3 years old. But she has relatives in their 90s — including one relative she’s quite close to. For that reason, I’ve given her parents both this book and Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip (see below). When the time comes or when Emily starts asking questions, I want them to have stories to help her understand. Stories help families talk about difficult issues — like the fact that we are all mortal. One day, people she loves will die.

In Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, Tommy has “a grandmother and a great-grandmother,” both of whom he loves “very much.” Since grandmother “always seemed to be standing by the big black stove in the kitchen” and great-grandmother “was always in bed upstairs” (because she was 94), he called them “Nana Downstairs and Nana Upstairs.” The book talks about the time they spend together — talking, eating candy, telling stories. Then, Nana Upstairs dies. Tommy asks what the word means. His mother says, “Died means that Nana Upstairs won’t be here anymore.” Tommy confronts her empty bed, begins to cry, and asks, “Won’t she ever come back?” His mother tells him, “No,… Except in your memory. She will come back in your memory whenever you think about her.”

Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death, and the Tulip (2008) [Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007) in English]

Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death and the Tulip (2008)This is the second book about death I’ve given to Emily — the first is Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (see above). Where de Paola offers realism, Erlbruch provides allegory. Duck meets Death — represented here as a person in a housecoat with an oversized skull for a head. When Duck stands upright (as she does when they meet), the two are the same height. Visually, Erlbruch has set them up as equals. Understandably, Duck is nonetheless at first unnerved, asking “You’ve come to fetch me?” Death responds, “Oh, I’ve been close by all your life — just in case.” But, as the two get to know each other, they become friends. They talk about life and what (if anything) may come after. When Death is damp after being in the pond, Duck offers to warm him, spreading her feathered body over his housecoat-clad one. Near book’s end, she also feels cold, and dies. Death carries her to the river, and, placing a tulip on her chest, “laid her gently on the water and nudged her on her way.”

penultimate 2-page spread from Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip

The book concludes:

For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

It’s a gentle, profound book that asks the right questions, and helps us think about the answers.

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Hurst‘s Imagine a City invites readers to a “world without edges,” where anthropomorphic animals and people coexist, the subjects of paintings reach beyond their frames, buses are giant flying fish, and bears ride bicycles. The art makes the book feel both very contemporary and classic. Her pen-and-ink drawings seem to have time-traveled from another era — that of Edward Ardizzone, E. H. Shepard, or maybe Winsor McCay. The visual motifs (especially the flying fish) recall Shaun Tan and David Wiesner. It’s as if she’s brought her sketchbook into a parallel, surreal world, and — in this book — collected sketches of what she saw during her travels. To the best of my knowledge, this book has been published only in Australia. So, attention publishers of North America and Europe (and other locations): publish this book in your countries!

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005)

Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005)In the decade since this book’s appearance, it’s sold very well and even become an animated film. So, there’s s a good chance that you already know Lost and Found. Actually, I’m hoping you do because I’m finding it hard to talk about it without giving away the ending. It begins like this: One day, a boy finds a penguin at his door. He decides the penguin “must be lost,” and so “will help the penguin find its way home.” Since the penguin does not speak, we’re invited to assume that the boy’s intentions match the penguin’s wishes. But what does the penguin really want? And what does the boy want? Who is lost? Who is found? (There — I’ve avoided the conclusion!) Jeffers’ watercolors give the story warmth, and his pages range from spare (boy and penguin in the center of a white page) to detailed (boy and penguin at sea, a gigantic wave threatening to crash over them). His representational style has a comparable range — often on the same page, or even in the same character. The boy’s legs are one-dimensional (a pair of straight lines), his torso two-dimensional (a rectangle in a red-and-white-striped rugby shirt), and his head three-dimensional (a pink sphere wearing a hat). Oscillations between realism and abstraction suggest the happy accidents of an untrained artist, and, in this sense, align the art with the young boy protagonist. But, of course, Jeffers knows what he’s doing here — his sense of composition, of when to oscillate, reveals an artist sufficiently in command of his craft to make you forget his skill.

Crockett Johnson, Harold et le Crayon Violet (2013) [latest French translation of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)]

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2013)Unlike the last French translation of Harold, the crayon is purple (well, violet) in this one. In the translation prior to this one, the crayon was rose (pink). Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon is available in at least 14 different languages: both the crayon’s color and the protagonist’s name varies, depending on the translation.  (I’ve already given Emily all seven Harold books in English.)

Laurie Keller, Arnie the Doughnut (2003)

With her typically loopy sense of humor, Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut plays with children’s culture’s love of personification. Margaret Wise Brown populated her books with cute little furry animals, but evidently saw no contradiction with her hobby of hunting cute little furry animals, presumably because the animals in her books were people, and the animals she shot were game. In giving us a protagonist whose destiny is to be eaten, Keller ups the ante a bit. As Arnie observes in a moment near the end of the book, “I guess doughnuts really are only good for eating, aren’t they?” I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I do want to call attention to Keller’s jokes and commentary, usually from unnamed characters on the periphery of the scene — she offers a parallel show running concurrently with the main narrative. When we meet the jelly-filled doughnut, another doughnut exclaims, “Eeeooo! His brains are oozing out!” Jelly-filled replies, “It’s not brains, silly — it’s jelly!” But she doesn’t end there, adding a bonus two-panel “double-checking,” in which jelly-filled puts a finger in his jelly to confirm what he’s just said.

Laurie Keller, from Arnie the Doughnut (2003)

There are several Laurie Keller posts over at Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, but why not start with “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Laurie Keller”?

Ole Könnecke, The Big Book of Words and Pictures (2012)

Emily has already recieved this book in French (Le grand imagier des petits) and in German (Das große Buch der Bilder und Wörter) — see Emily’s Library, Part 6. I thought she should have it in English. Rather like Richard Scarry’s books, it features scenes in which all the main items have a label, thus helping to children learn the names of objects. I imagine Emily and her parents placing the books side by side, to compare them. (Emily speaks English, French, and Swiss German.)

Ole Könnecke, The Big Book of Words and Pictues (2012)

Lena and Olof Landström, Boo and Baa Have Company (1996) [English translation of Bu och Bä får besök]

Lena and Olof Landström, Boo and Baa Have Company (1996)Another gently humorous entry in the LandströmsBoo and Baa series of picturebooks about a brother and sister sheep — well, anthropomorphic sheep (they’re children represented as sheep). I particularly enjoy the Landströms’ trust in their readers. On the first page of the book, the text reports that it’s “autumn. The tree has dropped its leaves.” In the art, Boo and Ba are raking beneath a nearly bare tree, and the Landströms introduce the beginning of another narrative strain: a cat, strolling by the yard, looks up at the bird in the tree above the children’s head. The children won’t see the cat for several pages yet, but the cat-vs-bird story continues on the fringes of the book for a few pages. After Baa gets the oilcan to grease the wheelbarrow’s squeaky axle, Boo notices that “Now it meows when I push it.” Baa replies, “It meows when you’re standing still, too.” As the cat looks down from above, Boo and Baa inspect the axle, and the Landströms’ narrator reports, “Boo and Baa think this is weird.” When read alongside the art, that line’s deadpan silliness makes me chuckle. As they attempt to coax the cat down, the children’s problem-solving skills provide more humor — but the book doesn’t make fun of them. Their ideas are good, even if they don’t always work out quite as planned. Also, though Baa wears pink and Boo wears blue, each child is equally capable of doing whatever needs to be done: Baa greases the axle; Boo opens the sardine tin to coax the cat down. A funny book that avoids gender stereotypes = win!

Lena and Olof Landström, Pom and Pim (2014) [English translation of Pom och Pim (2012)]

Lena and Olof Landström, Pom and Pim (2014)A gently humorous story of the ups and downs in the life of young Pom and Pim — a child and a much-loved pink blob of a stuffed animal. Cleverly, Pom’s gender is never identified — so she can be he, or vice versa, or none of the above. That said, I only noticed the character’s gender neutrality as I was trying to use a pronoun in writing the first sentence of this description. Reading the book, I was more taken by the Landstroms’ keen and sympathetic observation of a young child’s emotional experience. Via color, body movement, Pom’s facial expressions, and very few words, the Landstroms evoke the moment-to-moment changes in moods that small children face. Lacking the experience to place things in perspective, they feel each joy and each catastrophe with greater intensity than we adults do. Pom trips over a rock (“Ouch! Bad luck.”), but finds money (“What luck!”), buys an ice cream, gives Pim a taste, eats the ice cream quickly, “gets a tummy ache” (“That’s bad luck”), lies down, but sees his balloon hovering over his bed (“What luck!”). Summarizing twelve of the book’s pages in prose, my previous sentence doesn’t do justice to the Landstroms’ artistry, but I hope it conveys at least a glimpse of the book’s considerable charm and insight.

Lena and Olof Landström, from Pom and Pim (2014)

Lena and Olof Landström, from Pom and Pim (2014)

For more art and for thoughtful commentary, see Jules Danielson’s post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Jöns Mellgren, Elsa and the Night (2014) [English translation of Sigrid och Natten (2013)]

Jöns Mellgren, Elsa and the Night (2014)Elsa can’t sleep. The Night — a tiny, purplish blob — is shivering under her sofa. Outside, endless daylight makes people sleepless and quarrelsome. As she tells the Night her story and nurses it back to health, it grows in size. Since Mellgren’s Night character is translucent, the city scenes viewed through its body show the dark blue night sky, the white stars, and yellow lights through the buildings’ windows. Beyond the boundaries of its body, Mellgren shows a white sky, no stars, and no lit windows. It’s a striking visualization of the sharp contrast between night and day. The book’s art drew me to it immediately, but its story is strong, too. Elsa’s insomnia — spoiler alert! — comes from a need to mourn her elephant friend, who has died. I expect that adult readers will feel the melancholic undercurrent of these pages, but those for whom death is an abstraction (many, but not all young readers) will understand why she is sad without feeling it quite so acutely. Fortunately, the expanding Night provides comfort, and sleep returns — to Ella, and to everyone.

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)How do you find your way home? This question is both practical and philosophical. For Baby Bear, it is practical. As he says on the narrative’s first page, upon encountering Mountain Lion, “Excuse me dear Mountain Lion. I’m lost. Can you help me find my way home?” The answers provided by Mountain Lion and all the other animals underscore the philosophical ideas at play. Mountain Lion says, “when I am lost I try to retrace my steps.” Frog says, “Do not be afraid…. Trust yourself.” Moose says, “When I am lost, I sit very still and try to listen to my heart.” However, one need not ponder the meaning of life in order to enjoy the book. Nelson’s vivid paintings, shifting visual perspective, and striking use of light — for example, unusually bright green grass contrasted with the green-tinged black night sky, when Baby Bear consults Owl — draw us into the story. And whatever larger implications Baby Bear’s questions might have, our title character speaks in the voice of a child. When he follows the Squirrels’ advice to “hug a tree and think of home,” Moose asks, “What are you doing?” Baby Bear answers, “Uh, nothing.” Moose asks, “Are you lost?” Baby Bear replies, “Yes, I think so.” Baby Bear’s tentativeness in that exchange is evocative of a young person, feeling a bit unsure of his way. Nelson’s Baby Bear can help people of all sizes find their way, literally and figuratively.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors (2014)

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors (2014)At long last, the second Bow-Wow picture book! The first, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug (2007), and the six concept books that followed it (Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites, Bow-Wow Orders Lunch, etc.) are all favorites of Emily’s. Indeed, they may be the first books she read herself. At age one-and-a-half, she would sit there, book in her lap, turn the pages and chuckle. And she’s not the only small person I’ve met who has been transfixed by Bow-Wow. The picture books are wordless, their narratives rendered legible via the pictorial language of the comic strip. You don’t need to be able to read text to read these books. With a sense of humor that is both daffy and deadpan, the Bow-Wow books have much to entertain readers of all ages. In the latest adventure, Bow-Wow faces off against ghost cats in a haunted house, but — I hasten to add — the book is funny, not scary.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, from Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors (2014)

For a glimpse behind the scenes of Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors, check out my Comics Journal interview with Newgarden and Cash.

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011) [At the Same Moment, All Around the World (2014) in its original French]

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011)Perrin‘s beautiful book takes us to all 24 time zones, one after the other. We begin at 6 am in Dakar, Senegal, where “Keita wakes up early to help his father count the fish caught during the night.” Turn the page and it’s 7 am in Paris, where “Benedict drinks hot chocolate before school.” On the right-hand page of this two-page spread, it’s 8 am in Sofia, Bulgaria, when “Mitko chases after the school bus.” And on we go, to Yasmine in Baghdad, Nadia in Dubai, and so on. At the back, the book includes information on time zones, and a fold-out world map, where you can see where all the children live. In its original French edition, the entire book unfolds like an accordion. Since Emily is a world traveler, I thought she should have a book that better acquaints her with the world.

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011)

Andrew Prahin, Brimsby’s Hats (2014)

Andrew Prahin, Brimsby’s Hats (2014)Brimsby makes hats, his best friend makes tea, and they have “the most wonderful conversations.” When friend decides to pursue “his dream to become a sea captain,” the hatmaker gives him a captain’s hat, wishes him good luck, and waves goodbye. In a two-page spread of a dozen illustrations each showing Brimsby making hats by the window, Prahin shows the passage of time — the seasons changing beyond the window pane, likely one pane for each month of the year. At the end of this sequence, Brimsby realizes he’s “become awfully lonely.” So, he puts on “his favorite hat,” and sets out “to make new friends.” I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, but suffice it to say that it’s an eloquent tale of making new friends, missing old ones, and the worthwhile effort required by both endeavors. It’s Prahin’s debut picture book. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.

Jules Danielson has a great post on this book at her Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Head over there to see Prahin’s original art for Brimsby’s Hats.

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)Where do imaginary friends come from? Dan Santat, who understands that what children imagine can be as real as the so-called “real world,” answers this question from the perspective of the (un)imaginary friend. Beekle tires of waiting for his friend to choose him, and so ventures off to the real world on his own. There, he discovers adults, who — like those busy citizens of Reality in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or the grown-ups in Shuan Tan’s The Lost Thing — have stopped paying attention to their surroundings. So, he sets off for the playground…. Santat offers a vividly imagined story of the challenges and rewards of making a new friend.

Also, I presume you like to laugh? You do? Good. Then, you might also take a gander at Jules Danielson’s hilarious interview (with lots of art) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  (The interview is with Dan Santat.  Obviously.)

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Sendak’s classic tale of unruly emotions, tamed via fantasy, and expressed without punishment. (Mother may send Max to bed without supper, but he returns to find dinner waiting and “still hot”: evidently she changed her mind.) The book is famous for many reasons, including the “wild rumpus,” when Sendak abandons words for three consecutive two-page spreads, rendering the story solely through his art. It may also be the best example of the Caldecott Committee getting it right, giving the award to the most distinguished book of the year — and in this case, one of the most distinguished books of the twentieth-century.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Not that awards should persuade you to give any book to a child. Sendak loved to tell the story of the mother who told him, “I’ve read Where the Wild Things Are ten times to my little girl, and she screams every time.”

He asks, “Don’t you like your child?”

She says, “Well, yes!”

He says, “Then, why do you continue reading it to the child?”

She responds, “But, Mr. Sendak, it’s a Caldecott book, she ought to like it.”

Sendak thought this was ridiculous: “If a kid doesn’t like a book, throw it away. Children don’t give a damn about awards. Why should they? We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like the will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak 106-107 & in conversation with me, 2001).

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)A rainy day, mother away, and two bored children wish they “had something to do.” Then, Seuss’s insouciant cat and his two Things introduce some anarchic “fun” to the household. The cat juggles, the Things fly kites, and chaos reigns. The fish — the children’s caretaker, while mother is out — protests, but the Cat persists. Meanwhile, tension mounts: if mother comes home to find the house in a shambles, the children (and, presumably, the fish) will be in trouble. In 236 different words, Dr. Seuss turned the world of reading primers on its head. Goodbye, Dick and Jane. Welcome, Cat in the Hat.

Bob Shea, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (2008)Bob Shea, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (2008)

Shea’s dinosaur — who, in stature and attitude, resembles a young child — is invincible! Or is he? A pile of leaves? Dinosaur wins! A big slide? Dinosaur wins! A bowl of spaghetti? Dinosaur wins again! But what about … bedtime? Drawn with Shea’s expressive, sketchy minimalism, this small red dinosaur is determined. But he may have met his match. Fans of Mo Willems (and Bob Shea) will enjoy this.

Mo Willems, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (2006)

Mo Willems, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (2006)She plays with the neighborhood kids, helps old ladies across the street, and bakes chocolate chip cookies for everyone. So, of course, everyone loves Edwina. Everyone except for Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie. He spends most of the book trying to prove that dinosaurs are extinct. But no one will listen to him. Well, almost no one. In a slightly Syd Hoff-ian style (or is that just my imagination?), Willems offers another great battle of wills. (See also: Willems’ pigeon books.)

Willems’ books are so beloved by Emily that, as she began a recent trip to the U.S., she began “reading” her passport to her mother, noting that it was “signed by the author, Mo Willems.” (Thanks to my friends who write children’s books, I have given Emily a few signed books — though not one with Mr. Willems’s signature.)

When possible, I’ve bought each of these books locally, ordering via Claflin Books & Copies.


Amazon.com is a sweatshop, and (when I can) I prefer to buy from places that are not.

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

That’s the end of this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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Mock Caldecott, 2014: Manhattan, Kansas edition

Just back from our Mock Caldecott, held today at the Manhattan [Kansas] Public Library, and again organized by KSU’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (special thanks to Allison Kuehne and Becca Rowe!). In anticipation of the Caldecott Awards (held in January), we spent a few hours looking at and discussing what may or may not be the best American picture books of year.  That is, we try to look at the best, but we can’t always get everything we need in time.  (For example, omitted this year were Sergio Ruzzier’s A Letter for Leo and Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors — both books that I expect other Mock Caldecott groups, and the Caldecott Committee itself, are looking at.)  The process is imperfect, but it’s still fun to spend the afternoon looking at picture books, and debating their merits!

The Winner:

Marla Frazee, The Farmer and the Clown 

Marla Frazee, The Farmer and the Clown (2014)

Wordless tale of an unlikely friendship. In well-designed, dynamic layouts, Frazee‘s book tells the story of a young clown who falls off the train of a traveling circus, and gets adopted by a farmer.  The friendship that develops between the unlikely pair touched our group this afternoon, as did the unexpected resolution of the tale.  (I don’t want to give anything away here….)

The Honor Books:

We had quite a few honor books.  Here they are, in the order of how many votes they received.

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend

Where do imaginary friends come from? And what if some imaginary friends fail to get imagined by children? In answer to both questions, Dan Santat has Beekle — an imaginary friend — set off in search of a young human who will befriend him. A book that bears a bit of influence from Shaun Tan (especially The Lost Thing), The Adventures of Beekle is already in Emily’s Library.  (Coming later this week: a new installment in my attempt to build for my niece the “ideal” children’s library.)

The next two books were tied with the same number of votes each.

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear

In his hyperreal artistic style, Nelson paints an animal story that is at once an adventure of a lost bear trying to get home, and a philosophical meditation on how we find our place in the world. It’s a different kind of book for Nelson (I don’t think he’s done other animal books), and he does it very well.  Sustained by its striking artwork and compelling child surrogate (baby bear, of course!), this beautiful book is also already in Emily’s Library.

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big CityMike Curato, Little Elliot, Big City

With illustrations that really draw you in, Curato‘s tale of a small cupcake-loving polka-dotted elephant (Elliot) has heart. I think, too, that its treatment of the central character’s height will resonate with younger readers: to be a child is to exist in a world designed for giants, where everything is too large, too long, or out of reach. Curato captures that experience well. It’s sweet without being pat — and that’s a delicate balance to achieve.  It’s a future addition to Emily’s Library.  (I hadn’t seen it until today.)

J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley, Harlem Hellfighters (2014)J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley, Harlem Hellfighters

Also a book I encountered for the first time this afternoon, Harlem Hellfighters was my top pick of the 25 we looked at today. In spare, poetic text, and striking images, the book tells the story of the most decorated African American combat unit to serve in the First World War.  With a great use of comics layout, and words both suggestive and specific, it does the impossible job of conveying historical detail and nuance all within the confines of a picture book.  It shows how the same group of people who were being lynched here in the U.S. were serving abroad with valor and distinction — juxtaposing their European heroism with American lynchings. And, though it has a strong moral message, Lewis and Kelley convey that without moralizing. Probably not a book for the youngest readers, Harlem Hellfighters should be required reading for American children of 7 and up in the Ferguson Era. (I don’t know if we have a term for the legal murder of people of color, as practiced in contemporary America — so, I’m using “Ferguson Era” as shorthand.)

Kate Samworth, Aviary Wonders, Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual (2014)Kate Samworth, Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual

This one — the last of our Honor Books — blew me away, and was also on my short list. I’d read about it before today, but had never actually seen it.  In the guise of a catalogue for the (fictional) Aviary Wonders Inc., Samworth teaches us about anatomy, flight, and extinction. With a dark sense of humor and design evocative of both contemporary catalogues and nineteenth-century science, Aviary Wonders Inc. tells the sad story of our loss of biodiversity. In offering instructions for how to make birds, Samworth commemorates those species that humans have destroyed. If this sounds impossible to you, then all I can say is check it out. It sounds impossible to me, too — only because I’ve read Samworth’s book can I report that it’s not only possible but a remarkable achievement.  One of the year’s best picture books.

What are your favorite picture books from 2014?  (Though the Caldecott recognizes excellence in American picture books, there’s no need to restrict yourself to ones from the U.S.)

Related links:

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Emily’s Library, Part 7: 31 Good Books for Small Humans

Welcome to another installment in my ongoing list of the Best Books for Young Readers.  Admittedly, any such list will reflect the list-maker’s (in this case, my) idiosyncracies. But, since people often ask me about great books for small humans, I’ve been creating the “ideal” library for my nearly three-year-old niece, Emily, and writing about it in this “Emily’s Library” series. I hope it may be of use to other children and the book-buying adults in their lives.  Since she’s growing up speaking English, French, and a little Swiss German (Basel Deutsch, to be precise!), you’ll see some — though not enough — French books, and the occasional German book. English-speakers, don’t panic: all (or nearly all) can be found in English translation as well.

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et les contraires (2011) [Pomelo’s Opposites (2013) in its original French]

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et les contraires

A small book starring our favorite little grapefruit-colored elephant, Badescu and Chaud’s Pomelo et les contraires explores not just pairs of opposites but the very concept of opposites.  Not just high and low, but handsome and weird.  Not only black and white, but gastropod and cucurbit.  Not merely hard and soft but everything and nothing. Because Pomelo (or a transformation of Pomelo) illustrates most pairs of opposites, you get the sense of a world measured in units of little pink elephants.  (For more Pomelo, see Part 6 of the Emily’s Library series.)

Istvan Banyai, ZoomIstvan Banyai, Zoom (1995)

A wordless book about perspective. With each turn of the page, we have zoomed out, further away from the view on the previous page. What the Eames’ Powers of Ten does for mathematics, Banyai‘s Zoom does for perspective.  Even after you’ve read it once and so know what’s coming next, it’s nonetheless satisfying to see how each page makes the next page possible, and then the following page, and so on.

Aaron Becker, Journey (2013)

An homage to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon and one of the best books of 2013, Aaron Becker‘s Journey follows a young girl’s imagination into a world of Miyazaki-esque wonder. It’s a beautiful wordless picture book that rewards re-readings.

from Aaron Becker's Journey

Peter Brown, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013)

Peter Brown, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild

Since Emily is already a fan of Squeaker (from Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets), the latest Peter Brown book was a natural choice. Echoing Sendak by way of Charley Harper and Mary Blair, Mr. Tiger finds that he has a bit of a … wild streak.  And so, off he goes, streaking into the wild.  It’s a book about sloughing off the expectations of civilization, a tale of releasing one’s inner wildness, and resisting conformity.  It’s also funny.

John Burningham, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing (1970)

Burningham, Mr. Gumpy's Outing

Classic tale of a boat ride that, with each addition of a new animal, sets up the inevitable capsizing. Children can join the boat ride, as long as they “don’t squabble.” A rabbit can get on board as long as it doesn’t “hop about.” A cat may come, but it’s “not to chase the rabbit.” And so on. A gentle, whimsical tale, told with economy and humor.

Those who are not academically inclined should skip this paragraph. The rest of you should read Perry Nodelman’s “Decoding the images: how picturebooks work,” from Peter Hunt’s Understanding Children’s Literature, Second Ed., pp. 128-139. It’s a magnificent close-reading of the book, and a great example of showing how rich and complex the apparently simple picture book really is.

Benjamin Chaud, Une chanson d’ours (2011) [The Bear’s Song (2013) in its original French]

Papa Bear is getting ready to hibernate, but where has Little Bear gone?  On each giant two-page spread, Chaud’s Little Bear is running along chasing a bee, but there’s so much more to see: other animals, hunters, cars, bicyclists, dancers, and much more. So, each two-page spread offers not only the game of finding Little Bear, but also of identifying as many other items (and the subplots they imply).  I think that telling you about the chanson [song] would spoil the surprise.  So, I’ll let you find that for yourself.

from Benjamin Chaud's Une chanson d’ours

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit (2013)

A gift to Emily from my stepsister Janet, Daywalt and Jeffers‘ book imagines crayons in revolt. White feels ignored, blue over-used, black irritated by only being used for outlines. And what happened to peach’s wrapper? He feels naked without it. These are among the box of problems that Duncan faces. How can he make all the crayons feel involved?

from Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit

Ed Emberley, Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals (1970)

This one is a favorite from my childhood. Emberley shows how, with just a few simple shapes, you can draw all sorts of animals: dogs, cats, birds, a dragon.  The instructions unfold rather like those for assembling Lego: one picture at a time, and each new one clearly indicates what you’ll be adding. At present, the book is an occasion for the (not yet 3-year-old) Emily to ask others to draw the pictures for her.  But, eventually, I think she’ll be drawing the animals herself.  She loves to draw, though — in this phase of her artistic development — most of her art tends to be non-representational.

Ed Emberley's Drawing Book of Animals

Régis Faller, Le Voyage de Polo (2002) [The Adventures of Polo (2006) in French]

Régis Faller, Le voyage de Polo (2002)The first in Faller’s books about a small anthropomorphic dog who (generally) lives on his own, and then embarks upon an adventure. The Polo stories have an associative narrative logic evocative of the Harold stories’ structure.  In this one, he opens the door of his island tree home, walks over to a tightrope, and then starts carefully to make his way along it — shades of Harold’s tightrope act in Harold’s Circus (1959). The tightrope suddenly becomes stairs, which Polo then climbs — reminiscent of the stairs in Harold’s Fairy Tale (1957).  Beyond those direct visual allusions (or, at least, they feel like allusions), the story’s art manages to link each panel to the next, and then to the next. You don’t quite know where Polo is going, but he’s traveling with a purpose, and fun to accompany for the duration of his journey. Like the Harold stories, Le Voyage de Polo recalls the mode of storytelling favored by creative young people: there is a logic, but it makes sense only to the storyteller. However, Faller and Johnson tell the tale in a way that it all makes sense to readers, too.

All wordless (save for the occasional sound effect), the Polo books are among Emily’s favorites. A tip of the virtual hat to Julie Walker Danielson for introducing me to them.

Régis Faller, Polo et le Dragon (2003) [Polo and the Dragon (2009)]

At the onset of winter, Polo dons his coat and hat, and sets off in his boat — only to find himself snowbound and icebound. Fortunately, because he is Polo, he’s able to draw a doorway in the ice (another echo of Harold and the Purple Crayon), open the door, and walk through it.  I could summarize the rest of this story, but why would you want me to?  Just go and read it.

Régis Faller, Polo et la flute magiqueRégis Faller, Polo et la flute magique (2003) [Polo and the Magic Flute (2009)]

In which Polo travels by sea, on foot, atop a snail, and learns that music can make you fly. Which, of course, it can. 

Régis Faller, Polo and Lily (2009) [Polo et Lili (2004) in English because the French edition was unavailable]

Lovely story about Polo and his friendship with the free-spirited Lily [Lili in French]. The two quickly become close friends but — spoiler alert! — Lily stays true to her independent nature, and continues traveling. For me, this book is about having a close friend whom you rarely see in person.

Régis Faller, Polo and the Magician! (2009) [Polo magicien! (2004) in English because the French edition was unavailable]

Régis Faller, Polo and the Magician!A rainstorm! A flood! And Polo drifts into a starring role in the circus. Though it shares the earlier book’s associative logic, Polo and the Magician! features different adventures than Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s Circus (1959). Indeed, one contrast between the two is that while Harold’s adventures are always solitary, Polo frequently makes friends, such as the magician in this book, or Lily in the last (she also makes a cameo appearance in this one). But all other characters Harold encounters are the creation of his crayon.

Régis Faller, Polo: À la recherché de Lili

Régis Faller, Polo: À la recherché de Lili (2010)

As yet unavailable in English, this nearly wordless tale finds Polo seeking Lili [Lily, in English], and is in this sense a sequel to Polo et Lili. A larger-sized Polo book, it’s also a sequel to many of the other books in the series, referencing the Dragon, the Magician, and some new characters, too.

Don Freeman, Corduroy (1968)

Don Freeman, CorduroyThis one is a gift from what we’ll call Emily’s grandmother-in-law once removed (I have no idea if there’s a word for what my mother-in-law is to Emily). If you live in North America, I’ll hazard a guess that you know this one already. But, in case not, Corduroy is a teddy bear whose overalls are missing a button, and so Lisa’s mother elects not to buy him for Lisa. This prompts Corduroy, after hours, to wander all over the department store, seeking a button. And that’s a big part of the fun here: getting to explore, unsupervised, a vast place full of stuff. Corduroy fails in his quest, but Lisa returns the next day, buys him with her own pocket money, and stitches a button on his overalls.

Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith, Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) (2009)

Florence Parry Heide and Lane Smith, Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated)

Brought to life by Lane Smith’s art and Molly Leach’s dynamic book design, Heide’s final story (she died in 2011) tells of a young girl who is happiest when she’s floating. Her parents worry about her floating off, and so find ways to tether her to the ground. But she resists being tethered. A fine tale that, in the spirit of other books by both Smith and by Heide, celebrates the non-conformist.

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Winter Follies (1955/2012)

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Winter FolliesDrawn & Quarterly have been releasing Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics (1954-1959) both in large format, featuring the original black-and-white daily strips, and in smaller format, featuring colored versions of the daily strips. This book and the two listed below are the smaller-format ones.

Since the comic strip told a series of (mostly) self-contained stories, dividing them up into these smaller books both makes narrative sense and offers a great introduction to the world of the Moomins and their friends. The comics are a bit looser than the novels, and include characters and situations that never appear in either the picture books or the chapter books. This one introduces the irritatingly enthusiastic Mr. Brisk, who loves winter weather and sports. (As you might expect, the Moomins don’t entirely share his love for competitive athletics.)

Tove Jansson, Moomin Builds a House (1956/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin Builds a House

Introducing the character of Little My (whose first line is “I’m Little My! And I bite because I like it!”), this story finds the Moomins coping with trying houseguests, too many small children (Little My’s siblings), and an irritatingly careless parent (the Mymble, mother to Little My). Tired of always having to yield his room to others, Moomintroll decides to build his own house … which proves trickier than he thought it would.

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley Turns Jungle (1956/2012)

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley Turns JungleAfter a drought, Moominvalley gets thunderstorms, watering the tropical seeds that Little My has found. Then, Stinky liberates animals from the zoo… and the Moomins have an adventure in their own backyard (and in their own home). Transforming the home — via flood, winter, absence, or (in this case) plant life — is a recurring theme in the Moomin books. It’s both an exciting transformation of the everyday, and makes the characters even fonder of the home they’ve lost… and which they get back, by story’s end.

Crockett Johnson, La Plage MagiqueCrockett Johnson, La Plage Magique (2006) [French translation of Magic Beach (2005/1965)]

An unusual book, and one of Crockett Johnson’s most developed examinations of the thin boundary between real and imagined worlds. The book is probably better suited for children slightly older than Emily (I’d say 5 or 6), but when I discovered a French translation of something to which I’d written the Afterword, I couldn’t resist sending it to her.

Ole Könnecke, Das große Buch der Bilder und Wörter (2011) and Le grand imagier des petits (2010) [The Big Book of Words and Pictures (2012) in German and French]

Ole Könnecke, Das große Buch der Bilder und WörterWith the enthusiasm and scope of Richard Scarry, Könnecke fills his pages with labeled anthropomorphic animals and their daily lives. Also like Scarry, Könnecke’s two-page spreads tell lots of small stories. There’s a child (represented by a little bear) getting dressed.  There’s an energetic toddler (represented by an elephant) playing a pot like a drum, running around, and merrily heedless of the parent trying to sleep. There’s the cycle of life, told via a bird and his vehicles (baby buggy, scooter, bicycle, car, walker, wheelchair). There’s even an allusion to Harold’s purple crayon. Unlike Scarry, the art is a bit more ligne claire, and the pages are both fewer and thicker — not quite “board book” but headed in that direction. So, a great title for the three-and-under set.

I bought Emily the original German edition, and the French translation.  I should probably send her a copy of the English-language translation also. Then, as she begins to read, she can put all three books side by side and compare the different languages.

Barbara Lehman, Rainstorm

Barbara Lehman, Rainstorm (2007)

Another wordless tour de force from Barbara Lehman, Rainstorm unfolds in comics panels and bright colors. During a rainstorm, a lonely boy in a big house finds a key. The key opens a trunk, revealing a ladder that descends to… where? I’d rather not summarize. If you’ve enjoyed Lehman’s other works (The Red Book, Museum Trip, Trainstop), you’ll enjoy this one — and, I expect, whatever book she publishes next.  Lehman’s one of my favorite contemporary artists of books for children.

Andy Runton, Owly: Just a Little Blue

Andy Runton, Owly: Just a Little Blue (2005)

The second of Runton’s wordless narratives finds the titular protagonist — and his companion, Wormy — wanting to help some smaller birds. Though he has the best of intentions in building the birdhouse, the smaller birds don’t trust him. This makes sense to me: owls are raptors; they prey on smaller animals. Owly, of course, does no such thing. But the birds who don’t know him are wary.

Andy Runton, Owly: Flying Lessons (2006)

Andy Runton, Owly: Flying LessonsAnother peculiarity of Owly is that, though he is ostensibly an owl, he does not fly.  He walks everywhere. The flying in this book gets done by the flying squirrel. Another tale of friendship and attempts to make new friends. And, as always, it all happens without words — or, rather, with only the occasional sound effect or (when speech is required) pictograph. One reason I’ve been giving Emily wordless books is that I like wordless books, but another is that they’re international — you can read them in any language.

Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (1962)

Will a book full of so many fantastic creatures excite the imagination into wakefulness or lull the mind into slumber? I’m not sure and (as with all books) results may vary. But I’ve fond memories of this book from my own childhood, from the brushing of teeth at Herk-Heimer Falls, to the notion of a yawn (and sleep) spreading, to the Chippendale Mupp who bites his tail at bedtime as an alarm clock: “His tail is so long, he won’t feel any pain / ’Til the nip makes the trip and gets up to his brain. / In exactly eight hours, the Chippendale Mupp / Will, at last, feel the bite and yell ‘Ouch’ and wake up.”  As each day and my endurance wanes, I still think of — and feel a bit like — the Collapsible Frink, about to collapse in a heap.

Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book

Dr. Seuss, Fox in Socks (1965)

Dr. Seuss, Fox in Socks

I’ve long thought that Dr. Seuss intended this book as a prank on parents and other adults. Beginning readers, who read more slowly than adults, actually have a much better chance of pronouncing these tongue-twisters correctly. In contrast, the confident grown-up, sure of his or her ability, begins reading this book aloud, but immediately stumbles. And then stumbles again, and again. This, of course, is one reason the book is so much fun: children get to see adults struggling with words.

Dr. Seuss, Hop on Pop (1963)

Dr. Seuss, Hop on PopGiven (some) small children’s proclivity for seeing the adults in their lives as sophisticated playthings, I expect many a “Pop” has been hopped upon, thanks to this book. Yes, the Pop in the book says, “STOP / You must not / hop on Pop.” But the children do hop on Pop, and the book’s title can be read as advice, supplemented by a demonstration (the cover shows the brother and sister hopping on Pop). That said, the book does of course contain a variety of silliness. As one of Seuss’s concept books, Hop on Pop collects mostly unrelated couplets, some of which sustain narrative over a few pages, but most of which do not. One of the multi-page tales tells of sitting connoisseur Pat. He sits “on hat,” on “cat,” and balances rather precariously on the handle end of a baseball bat. Happily, a character arrives to keep Pat’s sitting mania under control. Just as he’s about to sit on a cactus, this character intervenes: “NO PAT NO / Don’t sit on that.” Mischievous, and fun to read aloud.

Paul Thurlby, Paul Thurlby’s Wildlife (2013)

Since she was an early adopter of Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet (“A is for Awesome!”) and she loves visiting animals in the zoo, Emily seemed the ideal candidate for Paul Thurlby’s Wildlife. Like its predecessor, the book’s bold, humorous art recalls mid-twentieth century posters. In this one, however, each animal is accompanied by an unusual fact. Beneath the poster of a disco-dancing bee, Thurlby’s text tells us that “Bees talk to one another by dancing in patterns.”

Paul Thurlby's Wildlife

Mo Willems, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late (2006)

Yes, yes, you know the formula — the direct address from the pigeon, monochromatic backgrounds that convey mood, and the expressive minimalism of the pigeon himself. And Willems knows the formula, too. Happily, with each new pigeon book, he manages to keep it fresh and funny.

Mo Willems, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late

Mo Willems, Time to Pee (2003)

Sign-wielding mice help children learn what to do when they “get that funny feeling.” With gentle humor and a keen consideration of children’s feelings, Willems helps young people learn what to do when it’s time to pee! As Emily is currently potty training, this book is of particular interest to her.

Mo Willems, Time to Pee

Jennifer Yerkes, Drole d’oiseau (2011) [A Funny Little Bird (2013) in its original French]

Jennifer Yerkes, Drole d’oiseau

With ingenious use of negative space, Yerkes creates a character who is nearly invisible — on a white page, he only appears when contrasted with other, colored items. Though he at first feels sad, a risky experiment in gathering colorful accouterments teaches him that the ability to avoid detection is in fact a powerful gift. Lovely graphic design aids the book’s gentle moral.

Note: I’ve borrowed the term “small humans” (used in the title of and elsewhere in this blog post) from my friend and colleague Erica Hateley.

When possible, I’ve bought each of these books locally, ordering via Claflin Books & Copies.


Amazon.com is a sweatshop, and (when I can) I prefer to buy from places that are not.

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs:

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

That’s the end of this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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Mock Caldecott 2013: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

Time again for the Mock Caldecott Awards, at which we convene not to mock Caldecott-winners, but to predict what the winners will be.  This year, we’re of course predicting the 2014 awards, which will be announced next month. A big thanks to Kansas State University’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (especially Allison Kuehne and Melissa Hammond) for organizing this event, and to the Manhattan Public Library for hosting it.

The Winner:

Aaron Becker, Journey (2013)Aaron Becker, Journey

An homage to Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon and (as some of my colleagues pointed out today) to David Wiesner‘s work, Aaron Becker‘s Journey invites us to travel along the line of our imaginations, transporting us into a world of Miyazaki-esque wonder.  According to our votes, it was the winner by a good margin.  My own opinion is that I’d be surprised if the Caldecott committee failed to grant this at the very least an Honor.

The Honor Books:

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons QuitOliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit (text by Drew Daywalt).

As one of our group observed today, the Caldecott is about telling a story through pictures, and in this book the tools of art are our narrators.  They write letters of protest to their owner, citing misuse (often overuse), and seek redress.  Spoiler alert: By the end of the tale, the child artist hears their grievances, and finds a new way of using color in his work.  Like the above book, Jeffers and Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit is also a meditation on the artist’s process.  Only this one is funnier.

Molly Idle, Flora and the FlamingoMolly Idle, Flora and the Flamingo

With beautifully expressive drawings, a line as smooth as Al Hirschfeld’s, and a magnificent use of white space, Molly Idle‘s Flora and the Flamingo offers much to admire.  Flora, a little girl whose physique does not suggest “ballet,” aspires to that sort of physical grace. With the help of the flamingo, the two dance a sublime, gently comic, duet.  Lifting the flaps (on the pages on which they appear) allows the reader to better “see” the movements of both girl and bird.  I’d read nearly all of our finalists prior to the Mock Caldecott conversations, but today was my introduction to Idle’s work. I look forward to reading more of it.

Should’ve Been Contenders!

Peter Brown, Mr. Tiger Goes WildAs is always the case, there were many great books that don’t get the votes.  Peter Brown‘s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild came in fourth in our voting.  It’s an hilarious, well-designed story of the need to, well, go a little wild every now and then.  (I read it is a kind of a riff on Where the Wild Things Are.)  Our other finalists were Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (text by Michelle Markel), Jon Klassen‘s The Dark (text by Lemony Snicket), and Eliza Wheeler‘s Miss Maple’s Seeds.

I really wanted to see Bob Staake‘s Bluebird, Frank Viva‘s A Long Way Away, and David Wiesner‘s Mr. Wuffles among the contenders, but none of these garnered a majority’s worth of votes.  Nor, sadly, did Lizi Boyd‘s Inside Outside, and, ah, I could go on.  But I won’t.

There were many beautiful picture books published in the U.S. in 2013.  As my colleague Joe Sutliff Sanders observed, this has been a great year for book design.  I’m paraphrasing him — but that was the gist of his comment.  And he’s right.

People reading picture books, at the Mock Caldecott, Manhattan, KS, 7 Dec. 2013

What are your favorite picture books from 2013? Which one do you think deserves the Caldecott Medal?

Related links:

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It’s a Wild World: Maurice Sendak, Wild Things, and Childhood

My fellow Niblings (Betsy Bird, Julie Walker DanielsonTravis Jonker) and I decided a few months ago that it’d be fun to coordinate some blog posts today in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are. It’s 50 years old, having been originally released in Fall 1963. After some research, we figured out that its release was in October of that year. Here’s my contribution.


Maurice Sendak’s work makes adults uncomfortable, and these adults then consequently worry about how children will feel. Will a Sendak book make children uncomfortable, too? they wonder. Or What sort of child does the Sendak book expect as its reader?  Or, even, What is a child? The Sendak book that got us adults asking these questions is Where the Wild Things Are, published 50 years ago, in October 1963.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In his infamous 1969 Ladies Home Journal piece, Bruno Bettelheim — who had not then read Where the Wild Things Are (1963) — worried about the book’s effect on “the child.” As he said, “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion. To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion. The combination is the worst desertion that can threaten a child” (48). Yet, as Maria Tatar points out, Bettelheim shares Sendak’s view that reading stories about childhood anxieties can be potentially therapeutic, a way for children to (in Sendak’s words) tame wild things through fantasy. One of our foremost scholars of fairy tales (the darkest genre within children’s literature, and a genre originally not for children at all), Tatar herself wonders whether Dear Mili (1988) — Sendak’s version of a Wilhelm Grimm tale — is suitable for children. “There are good reasons why we do not start out stories with descriptions of widows who have lost all their children but one or end them with images of mother and daughter lying down and dying,” she writes, and then partially disavows this criticism in her next sentence: “This is not to say that children should be shielded from descriptions of material hardships and death, only that they are not necessarily better off when entertained with stories that reflect or take as their point of departure the social and cultural realities of an age other than their own” (220). Kenneth Kidd, Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children's Literature (2011)In an essay on allegory in Sendak, Geraldine DeLuca considers In the Night Kitchen (1970) “true to a child’s experience” but Outside Over There (1981) unsuitable for children because “we — particularly children — are left at the end of this work with too much pain” (14, 22).  Kenneth Kidd, whose chapter from Freud in Oz (2011) is one of the sharpest analyses of Sendak, also codifies his notion of childhood in contrast with his assessment of Sendak’s. As he writes, “While Sendak neither romanticizes the child nor minimizes the child’s experiences with trauma, his makeover of monstrosity amounts to a kind of gentling of the child rather than a celebration of childhood’s radical alterity” (131). In other words, for Kidd, childhood is a state of radical alterity, but Sendak minimizes that, offering instead (as Kidd says later) “the domestication of wildness” (135).

While a good deal of literary criticism reveals as much about the critic as it does about the work, Maurice Sendak’s work is especially adept at calling forth our emotional responses. Or, to put this another way, the effect of Sendak’s art is affect. His books are good at making us feel. So, while appeals to emotion or to vaguely defined ideas of “the child” can mar scholarship of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak’s work actually requires us to venture into these potentially risky areas.

As I argue in an essay forthcoming in the January 2014 issue of PMLA, Sendak’s affective aesthetic derives from several sources. (What you are reading now includes only what I had to cut from that essay, plus a few new ideas.)

Part I. A Book is to Feel: Ruth Krauss’s Influence

A major source is Ruth Krauss. Sendak illustrated eight of her books between 1952 and 1960, often spending his weekends at the home of Krauss and her husband Crockett Johnson — a period of time Sendak has referred to as his apprenticeship into the world of children’s books. One thing he learned from her is to embrace the wildness of children. As Sendak told me in a 2001 interview, “Max has his roots in Ruth Krauss. You know, her phrase that kids were allowed to be as cruel and maniacal as she knew they were.  Studying them at Bank Street, she knew what monstrosities children are.”

advertisement for Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, New York Times, 1 Dec 1963

Indeed, Ruth Krauss’s A Very Special House (1953) — the second of her books illustrated by Sendak — might be read as the first version of Where the Wild Things Are. As George Bodmer puts it, each book has “a solitary child who falls into fantastic adventures that spring up from his thoughts” (181). The unnamed child of A Very Special House climbs the chairs, jumps on the bed, and draws on the walls, allowing him (through his art) to bring home “a turtle / and a rabbit and a giant / and a little dead mouse / — I take it everywheres — / and some monkeys and some skunkeys / and a very old lion.” Though the boy wears overalls throughout, in one scene he dons a white smock and a “Valkyries” style horned helmet, a costume that echoes the horns on Max’s white wolf suit. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max is comparably transgressive. He hangs his teddy bear, hammers a nail into the wall, chases the dog with a fork, imagines his room into a forest, and sails off to the land of the wild things — who, like the giant and old lion in A Very Special House, are both much larger than he is and willing to be ruled by him.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)

Contemporary reviews also noted both books’ celebration of rule-breaking. The Atlantic Monthly’s reviewer praised A Very Special House’s “unorthodox” qualities and suggested that, while it is “no handbook for deportment,” “in the blowing-off-steam department, it deserves an award” (qtd in Nel 137). Wild Things’ reception was more mixed, but, writing of Max’s “fantasy of rage,” the New York Times noted that the book “projects, releases, and masters a universal experience for the child” (qtd. in Lanes 107). Though neither child faces punishment for his unruliness, there’s more conflict in Wild Things than in the earlier book: in A Very Special House, “NOBODY ever says stop stop stop”; in Wild Things, Max’s mother sends him to bed without supper, though ultimately relents — Max finds “his supper waiting for him” at the end.

Ruth Krauss: Harper advertisement, 1954

One reason that people respond to Max as if he and his adventures were real is that Sendak also learned from Krauss to “keep it real.” As he said, Krauss’s “The Carrot Seed, with not a word or a picture out of place, is dramatic, vivid, precise, concise in every detail. It springs fresh from the real world of children, the Bank Street world of listening to children and recording and re-creating their startling speech patterns and curious, pragmatic thinking processes” (“Ruth Krauss and Me” 286). He’s wrong about the book’s composition: The Carrot Seed (1945) derived from Krauss’s imagined conversation with a 5-year-old neighbor. But he’s right about Krauss’s compositional methods during the period she worked with him. Beginning with A Hole Is to Dig (the first book of hers that he illustrated), Krauss used children’s spontaneous utterances in her books.

As Kenneth Kidd has pointed out, Sendak’s own experience in psychoanalysis (which he entered at roughly the same time he began working on Krauss’s books) also played a role in his art’s realism, as it helped him both access his childhood emotions and use them in his work: “His books also resemble the child-adult playwork practiced by child analysts, which is hardly surprising since Sendak imitates some of their techniques. Sendak, in short, is the consummate picturebook psychologist” (105).

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Hole Is to Dig (1952): "Mud is to jump in and slide in..."

Krauss, who also saw a psychologist, also taught Sendak not to repress his emotions. As he told me in that same 2001 interview, she taught him how to curse. Most interviews with Sendak excise the cursing, but his use of profanity was fluent, even exuberant. His and Krauss’s child characters don’t say “fuck” (as Sendak did), but they do shout at us.  In A Hole Is to Dig, a two-page spread of sixteen muddy children inform us: “Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo!”  In the Krauss-Sendak collaboration I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954), an older child stands between two warring smaller children, and asks one “Is there something you want to say to Dickie?” With his fist raised and an angry eyebrow slanted downward, Dickie answers, “Yes! I want to put him in the garbage can.”  In his own work, Sendak also conveys the understanding that using a large, loud voice can be a small person’s main source of power. Where the Wild Things Are alleges that Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once,” but that “trick” begins with Max’s voice.  He shouts, “BE STILL!”  And they obey.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): til Max Said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with the magic trick

The impulse to draw from real children also grants Sendak access to a wide range of childhood experiences. Though Max has come to symbolize the Sendakian child, there is no single Sendakian child, no unified field theory of “childhood” that emerges in his work. Nor is there any unified style — in part because Ursula Nordstrom (his editor) and Krauss insisted that he try different approaches. As he told me, “I had to keep changing styles, and this is something Ruth did too.  Beating me over the back not to become a stylist.” I replied, “Don’t fall into a rut.” He said, “Yeah. Don’t get a style where you’re always recognizable.” So, as Leonard Marcus notes, for Sendak, “the visual manner and medium of a book mattered far less than the emotional truth it had to tell” (19).

Part II. The Emotional Landscape of Childhood

Though drawing on his own early childhood, Sendak managed to create books that resonated (and continue to resonate) with readers’ sense of their own childhoods. He understood that, as Mo Willems observed just after Sendak’s death, “However life changes for children, and how childhood is defined over generations, there’s still an inner life. Everything that you do as a child is for the first time. So, when you fail — even by walking and tripping — that’s your first failure.  And it’s massive” (Andersen). Amplifying parts of his own particular experience, Sendak was able to convey something from this shared “inner life,” something that felt universal. This feeling is one reason why critics tend to read his work as saying something definitive about “the child” or childhood. We recognize experiences from our childhoods in the art inspired by Sendak’s.

Maurice Sendak, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993)Granting us access to that “inner life,” the faces of Sendak’s characters telegraph their emotions. In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s face conveys a full range of emotions — anger (at his mother), joy (as he sets sail on the boat), imperiousness (as he becomes king of the wild things), and melancholy (when he longs for home). When he gets home, his light smile and half-closed eye conveys contentment. But many of Sendak’s later books do not end quite so happily.  As the rat tries to carry him off stage right, the “poor little kid” in We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) has a black eye, and his mouth open to cry out — likely the word “help,” the sole thing he utters in the book (five times in all). To the left of him, “THE MOON’S IN A FIT”: an angry-faced moon has lifted Jack and Guy up by their newspaper robes; their feet dangling over the ground and their mouths downturned, the boys’ eyes look out at the reader, uncertainly. Just left of them, the other homeless children flee off to the left of the page, defying the typical left-to-right movement across the page.  It’s an unsettling scene in a book that ends with children only temporarily safer, sleeping in a sidewalk shantytown. The ending of Outside Over There is ambivalent at best. Armed only with a “wonder horn,” Ida travels into “outside over there,” defeats the goblins with her music, rescues her younger sister and brings her home to mother. However, as playwright Tony Kushner observes, “The reunion of Ida and her sister with their mother at the end of Outside is reassuring, though … Sendak has taken pains to limit that comfort”: the baby is tearful, and Ida and her mother “look resigned rather than joyful at the news that their absent husband/father will return ‘one day,’ which is not, of course, especially reassuring news — when, exactly?” (The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 22).

Of course, as Sendak observed, “Children know about death and sorrow and sadness” (Zarin).  And attempts to protect them from books that address dark subjects may underestimate them.  Sendak again: “We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like they will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes 106).

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): That very night in Max's room a forest grewSendak was wise to defend the right to tell stories that may upset us and Bettelheim was unwise to criticize a book he had never read. (Sendak never forgave him for that, either. In conversation, he referred to him derisively as “Benno Brutal-heim.”) However, Bettelheim is also not wrong to suggest that Where the Wild Things Are may upset young readers. I was one of those children who found the book terrifying, though not for the reasons Bettelheim mentioned. The book frightened me because I knew it was true: The boundary between real and imagined worlds was perilously fragile. When the lights went out, my bedroom could very easily turn into a jungle, bringing me far too close to the land of the wild things, who “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” As an adult, I realize that the wild things’ googly eyes make them look more goofy than threatening. As a child, I focused only on their size, their talon-like claws, and their sharp teeth. As a result, I read Where the Wild Things Are once. After that, I kept my distance. Mine may be a minority opinion. During his childhood, Mo Willems thought it “an empowering book” (Andersen). The vast majority of my students recall enjoying the book during their childhoods. But the book does have the power to frighten.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963): the wild rumpus

However, that power is what makes Where the Wild Things Are such a great book. That power is what has made it endure, and is what helped to establish Sendak not just as one of the great artists but as one of the great interpreters of childhood. Sendak understood the sometimes scary complexities of being a child. He had the courage to convey those truths both in his work, and in his role as spokesperson for both children’s literature and children themselves. As Kidd points out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the picture book author-illustrator began to assume the role of “something like an expert on childhood, even a lay child analyst,” whose expertise “came from proximity to childhood” (123).  For example, those who do not study, read or write children’s literature were a little scandalized by Sendak’s appearance on the Colbert Report, during which the author suggested that the mouse of You Give a Mouse a Cookie “should be exterminated,” claimed that “Most books for children are very bad,” and conceded that it was “a miracle that I have lived this long without having destroyed a person.”  But those of us who do study, read, or write children’s literature laughed and applauded Sendak’s grumpy wisdom. We thought: That “Mouse” book is so relentlessly average — good riddance! And: Children’s literature is art! And: He speaks for us!

Whether we knew him personally or not, he was a giant. He had come to define the field of children’s literature.  So, when Sendak passed away in May last year, we all gathered on the web to mourn his passing and celebrate his work.  As Daniel Handler (best known by his pseudonym Lemony Snicket) said, “It’s almost impossible to overstate his importance. He’s a North Star in the firmament of anyone who makes children’s books, in particular for his dark and clear-eyed view of the world that was kindred to me when I was in kindergarten and kindred to me now. He gives neither the comfort nor the horror of sentimentality” (Italie). Novelist Gregory Maguire, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, picture-book legend Tomi Ungerer, scholar Maria Tatar and dozens of others all wrote or drew tributes. Neil Gaiman wrote two. As Kenneth Kidd noted at the time, “my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake” (“Goodbye, Maurice”).

Sendak has sailed off on the journey from which none return, but his books continue to provide safe passage for us to explore the land of the wild things. The creatures of his imagination speak to the realities of our world — a world in which children shout at adults, get lonely, and dance the wild rumpus. A world in which they are misunderstood, frightened, and (we hope) loved by their caregivers.  It’s a wild world, and it’s getting wilder every day.


Works Cited

Andersen, Kurt. “Mo Willems remembers author Maurice Sendak” Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen 13 May 2012 <http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/books/mo-willems-remembers-author-maurice-sendak-9853.html>.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Care and Feeding of Monsters.”  Ladies Home Journal Mar 1969: 48.

Bodmer, George. “Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Early Illustration.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.4 (Winter 1986-87): 180-183

DeLuca, Geraldine. “Exploring the Levels of Childhood: The Allegorical Sensibility of Maurice Sendak.” Children’s Literature 12 (1984): 3-24.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 1.” The Colbert Report 24 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1>.

“Grim Colberty Tales, Part 2.” The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 25 Jan. 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406902/january-25-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–2>.

Grimm, Wilhelm. Dear Mili.  Translated by Ralph Manheim with pictures by Maurice Sendak.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Michael di Capua Books), 1988.

Italie, Halel. “Writers Remember Maurice Sendak.” Chicago Sun-Times 10 May 2012: <http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/12430172-421/writers-remember-maurice-sendak.html>.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

—. “Goodbye, Maurice. And Thank You.” University of Minnesota Press Blog. 10 May 2012: <http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2012/05/kenneth-b-kidd-goodbye-maurice-and.html>.

Krauss, Ruth. A Hole Is to Dig. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1952. New York: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins), 1989.

—. A Very Special House. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. 1953. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. I’ll Be You And You Be Me.  Pictures by Maurice Sendak.  1954.  HarperCollins, 1982.

—. The Carrot Seed.  Illustrated by Crockett Johnson. 1945.  New York: HarperFestival, 1993.

Kushner, Tony. The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. 1980. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Marcus, Leonard S., editor. Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, September 2012.

—. Telephone interview with Maurice Sendak. 22 June 2001.

Numeroff, Laura Joffe.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Illustrated by Felicia Bond.  New York: HarperCollins, 1985.

Sendak, Maurice.  In the Night Kitchen. 1970. HarperCollins, 1995.

—. Outside Over There. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.

—. “Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90.

—. We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

—. Where the Wild Things Are. 1963. HarperCollins, 1988.

Tatar, Maria.  “Wilhelm Grimm/Maurice Sendak: Dear Mili and the Literary Culture of Childhood.” The Reception of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Responses, Reactions, Revisions. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 207-229.

“Uncensored — Maurice Sendak Tribute & ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!)’ Release.” The Colbert Report 8 May 2012. <http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/413972/may-08-2012/uncensored—maurice-sendak-tribute—-i-am-a-pole–and-so-can-you—-release>.

Zarin, Cynthia. “Not Nice.” New Yorker 17 Apr. 2006. Literary Reference Center. Web. 2 July 2013.


A different variation on the argument presented above will appear as “Wild Things, I Think I Love You: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, and Childhood” in PMLA 129.1 (Jan. 2014).


The Niblings on Where the Wild Things Are at 50


More on Sendak (mostly on this blog)

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