This is the latest installment in my ongoing series of The Best Books for Young Readers. As I noted in the first post, I’m trying to assemble the ideal library for my niece, who turns 2 this month. I recognize that what I consider “ideal” or “best” may be idiosyncratic, but since I do have some knowledge of children’s literature and since people often ask me about good books for children, I thought that a public list of my choices might be of some use to others.
Since Emily’s being raised in both French and English, you’ll also see some livres en français as well as the occasional Bücher auf Deutsch. She lives in Switzerland, near both France and Germany. Her parents speak primarily English and French at home, but she also encounters German at the crèche (day care). So, I’ve started to add some titles in German, too. Nearly all of these non-English books are also available in English; when they are, I’ve also included the English title.
As in the previous entry, when there are two copies of a book (i.e., the same book in two languages), I’ve only counted it once in the above tally.
Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod and Oliver Tallec, Rita et Machin (2006) [Rita and Whatsit (2009) in its original French]
A little girl in a bad mood, Rita doesn’t like her birthday presents. But the one box that is running away from her is at least different. Inside, is a dog with a strong personality of its own. But, by the end of the story, the two have become friends. Tallec’s spare, slightly squiggly cartoons provide just enough detail for Arrou-Vignod’s narratives: we see only what the story requires, and little more.
Jean-Philippe Arrou-Vignod and Oliver Tallec, Rita et Machin a la plage (2006) [Rita et Machin à la Plage (2010) in its original French]
In this book, Rita is the one who starts in the good mood: “Rita loves the beach. Whatsit [Machin] the dog doesn’t like it quite so much.” In particuar, what Whatsit [Machin] wants to do is not what Rita wants to do. They do play together, and by the end, “Whatsit [Machin] really loves the beach. Rita doesn’t like it quite so much.” (My quotations here come from the English translations.)
Gilles Bachelet, Mon Chat Le Plus Bête du Monde (2004) [My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World (2006) in its original French]
Thanks to Sandra Beckett for suggesting this book about the silliest cat in the world, Well, the text describes the animal as a cat, but all the pictures show an elephant — a metaphor, perhaps, for a particularly destructive cat. Or, perhaps the “cat” really is an elephant and this narrator should not be trusted. Thanks to J Nick (in the comments, below) for alerting me to the fact that there is an English translation. I had no idea! And I am now seeking a copy en anglais.
Ramona Badescu, Pomelo grandit, illus. by Benjamin Chaud (2010) [Pomelo Begins to Grow (2010) in its original French]
Pomelo, a small pink elephant, explores his world, and discovers that… he’s grown! This makes him feel special, but also raises questions. Will he “turn gray as soon as he grows up”? And “Does everyone in the world grow at the same speed, or do some grow more quickly than others?” Also, “does growing up mean one has to stop clowning around?” Benjamin Chaud’s bright, slightly loopy illustrations animate little Pomelo, as he ponders these questions. Thanks to Enchanted Lion Books, English-speaking readers (and English-speaking children) can enjoy the translations of both Pomelo books — and, yes, my quotations here are from the translations rather than the French original.
Ramona Badescu, Pomelo et les couleurs, illus. by Benjamin Chaud (2011) [Pomelo Explores Color (2012) in its original French]
I especially like the philosophical turn of these two Pomelo books. In this one, Badescu and Chaud do not tell us that, say, the colors are red orange yellow green blue indigo violet. Colors themselves have different feelings to them. There’s “the promising red of ripening strawberries,” “the hypnotizing red of love,” and “the surprising red of ripe tomatoes.” A lovely, warm, and gently comic journey through colors, featuring that diminutive pink elephant — Pomelo.
Anne Bertier, Mercredi (2010)
A delightful story in blue, orange, and white. Every day, little square and little circle get together to play games. Each can change or divide his shape, impersonating a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom. If you think it strange to have a blue square and an orange circle as the book’s central characters, then you haven’t read Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow. I would love it if someone were to publish an English-language version. Enchanted Lion Books? NYR Children’s Collection? Any takers?
Calef Brown, Polka-Bats and Octopus Slacks (1998)
Heir to Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein, Calef Brown writes (and illustrates) narrative poems that tell of pesky snails, Georgie Spider, a funky snowman, polkabats, and eight other curiosities. This is the first of Brown’s books for children; if you enjoy it, you might try Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers (2000) or Tippintown (2003). Emily’s current interest in the sounds of words inspired my choice of Polkabats and Octopus Slacks. Also, it’s quite funny. And funny is good.
Quint Buchholz, Schlaf gut, kleiner Bär (1993) [Sleep Well, Little Bear (1994) in its original German]
Realism rendered via pointillism, Buchholz’s pictures are both concrete and soft, combining clarity with dreaminess. They are the ideal images to accompany a little bear who is not tired, and so looks out over the yard and back on the adventures of the day, remembering: when he was a pirate; his neighbor Mrs. Rose, who tells stories to her flowers; the scarecrow in the meadow; the circus in the next town over, which he glimpsed while on a shopping trip; and other notable events. Then, at last, the little bear succumbs to sleep. A lovely bedtime tale.
Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard, The Important Book (1949)
Inspired by spending time with Emily in December, I chose this book in response to her delight in identifying (what to adults are) ordinary features of the world. At the age of 20 months, she very much enjoyed learning the names of the nouns in her world. Brown’s poetic text and Leonard Weisgard’s art does precisely that, offering brief meditations on grass, wind, snow, an apple, the sky, and others.
Clo Casile, So Sweet Alphabête! (2011)
This Swiss-themed alphabet book was something of an impulse buy. I’m a fan of alphabet books (see Part 4 of Emily’s Library), and saw this one when in Switzerland with Emily and her family. It struck me as a comic idea to try to define an entire nationality in an alphabet book, and so — without thinking much about it — I bought this small picture book and gave it to Emily. It’s quite clever, but it’s also an example of a book bought more out of affection, and less because I thought “This is a masterpiece!” But, as you can see from the pages below, it’s fun.
Marjorie Flack, Angus and the Ducks (1930)
The book that introduces Angus finds the curious terrier facing off against a group of ducks. Flack’s pacing is excellent, as is the book’s layout and design. The first two-page spread to feature both Angus and the ducks has a hedge stretching diagonally across both pages, separating not only protagonist and antagonists but the text associated with each. Flack often places the text in different locations on the page, which creates a more dynamic reading experience, as the eye navigates the combinations of word and images. Most readers may not consciously notice these elements, but they’ll experience them in the well-told, funny tale of the inquisitive little dog… and the ducks!
Marjorie Flack, Angus and the Cat (1932)
The second book about Angus, who now goes chasing after a cat. The cat ultimately proves slyer than Angus, who regrets having chased her. A worthy sequel to the original tale.
Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead, and then it’s spring (2012)
It’s been a long winter in Switzerland, just as it has here in North America. As Anita Silvey wrote last month of this book, “I haven’t seen a picture book since The Carrot Seed that so brilliantly explores the idea of life and hope coming out of a seed.”
Cornelia Funke, Der geheimnisvolle Ritter Namenlos. Illus. Kerstin Meyer (2001) [Princess Knight in its original German]
In English, this is a full-sized picture book, but in German it’s a tiny picture book. I’m not sure why the size changes depending on the country. In Funke‘s tale, Violetta is as capable as her brothers, so why can’t she train as a knight also? She does, often practicing secretly, at night. And she gets very good. On the occasion of her sixteenth birthday, her father proposes a jousting tournament in which the winning knight will win her hand in marriage. Violetta is not pleased, and devises a plan to win her own freedom.
Tove Jansson, The Book About Moomin, Mimble, and Little My (1952, new transl. by Sophie Hannah, 2009)
As Moomintroll hurries home through the woods, the holes on the right-hand pages offer glimpses of where he’s headed, and those on the left recall where he’s been. The shapes removed from each page are precise, allowing the subsequent pages (and previous ones) to be read one way as a glimpsed fragment, and another when on its own page. On the second two-page spread, Moomintroll walks along a path that goes through the trees, and towards what seems to be a house in front of a blazing son. Turn the page, and the sun is the sun, but the house turns out to be Mymble’s hair. Clever design and Sophia Hannah’s new translation make the new (well, 2009) Enfant edition the one to get — well, for English-speakers, anyway.
Tove Jansson, L’Histoire de Moumine, Mumla et Petite Mu: Que crois-tu qu’il arriva?
The French version of The Book About Moomin, Mimble, and Little My, which (in Jansson‘s original Swedish) is Hur gick det sen? (What Happened Next?). I’m not sure why the English translation didn’t retain the original title — especially since it makes much more sense. (The French edition seems to have combined the two versions of the title.)
Stephen T. Johnson, City by Numbers (1998)
Following the same logic as his Caldecott Honored Alphabet City (featured in Emily’s Library, Part 4), Johnson finds numbers in New York. The Brooklyn Bridge (which gave us an “M” in Alphabet City) viewed from another angle is the number 4. Two adjacent wastebins — also on the cover — create an 8. Looking ahead to his As Is for Art: An Abstract Alphabet (2008), some of the figures are a little more challenging to perceive. To see the distorted 10 reflected in the side of a building, or the 15 in the cement between bricks, you need to know what you’re looking for and keep looking until the shapes emerge — which, of course, is part of the fun!
Jon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat (2012)
For his second in what I sincerely hope is a trilogy of “hat books,” Klassen manages to be even funnier than the first — which is listed in the debut post of this “Emily’s Library” series. A small fish steals a small hat from a big fish. In Klassen’s text, the fish assures us (and himself) that he’ll get away with it. The pictures tell a different story. The tension between words and images creates a drolly amusing tale that will serve as a warning to potential hat-snatchers. Or, possibly, not. Either way, it’s funny and you’ll enjoy it.
Ole Könnecke, Anton Can Do Magic (2011). First published as Anton kann zaubern (2006)
Rendered in clear lines and spare backgrounds, Könnecke’s story tells of Anton, his swami-style hat, and… magic! Or is it? Anton thinks it is. Könnecke’s text agrees with Anton, but the pictures tell a different story. A gently humorous tale of now you see it… now you don’t!
Edward Lear, His Shoes Were Far Too Tight, illus. Calef Brown & masterminded by Daniel Pinkwater (2011)
Indicative of that interest in language, she has lately been enthralled by Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat — Ian Beck’s version of this tale appears in the fifth installment of Emily’s Library. This book includes that poem, along with ten others, including “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” “The Jumblies,” “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat,” and “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear.” Calef Brown’s art is as “concrete and fastidious” as Mr. Lear’s mind.
Edward Lear and Fred Marcellino, The Pelican Chorus and Other Nonsense (1995).
The late, great Fred Marcellino did a beautiful job creating art for “The New Vestments,” “The Owl and the Pussycat,” and “The Pelican Chorus.” His animals manage to look like animals and people at the same time. Their gestures and facial expressions are somehow both human and not. I don’t know how he did it, but I wish he had been around to create more art. (He died in June 2001, at the age of 61.)
Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, Pippi Moves In! (2012). [Translation of Pippi Flytarr in Och Andra Serier (2010)]
First published in Swedish in 1957, this is the comic-book (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) version of Pippi Longstocking’s adventures. The stories have less text and are more brief than in the novel, but Pippi is just as unruly, subversive, and amusing. Like the Tove Jansson book (above), this is part of Drawn & Quarterly‘s new “Enfant” line of comics/picture books for young readers.
James Marshall, Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1988)
Marshall’s version begins like this:
Once there was a little girl called Goldilocks.
“What a sweet child,” said someone new in town.
“That’s what you think,” said a neighbor.
In this Caldecott Honor book, we’re rooting for the bears and not Goldilocks, who “was one of those naughty little girls who do exactly as they please.” But Marshall’s wit and deftly comic illustrations maintain a level of silliness that keeps us smiling. His retellings of fairy tales are well worth your while. Emily already has his version of “The Three Little Pigs” (see “Emily’s Library, Part 1”) and three of his George and Martha books (see Part 5).
Peter McCarty, Little Bunny on the Move (1999)
Though the book certainly reminds me of how Little Emily is often on the move (and increasingly independent), McCarty’s succinct language and delicate pencil-and-watercolor artwork create a work that is both gentle and a page-turner. We’re drawn into the softness of the picture, and wonder just where is this little bunny going?
Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells, Here Comes Mother Goose (1999)
The sequel to their My First Mother Goose (1996, included in Part 5 of “Emily’s Library”), Here Comes Mother Goose does not disappoint. The book’s many bright, funny illustrations compliment the poems’ silliness. She sticks with the original rhymes, except for one. With the sense of mischief exhibited by her animal characters, Wells revises the “What are little boys made of?” / “What are little girls made of?” rhyme, reminding us that little girls can also play in the swamp and little boys can make capable chefs.
Luke Pearson, Hilda et le Géant de la Nuit [Hilda and the Midnight Giant (2011) in French, transl. by Judith Taboy].
The French translation of the second book in Luke Pearson’s Hilda series is, perhaps, better suited for a 3- or 4-year-old (at the youngest). But Emily will grow into it, and, meanwhile, her father and mother can enjoy it. In an artistic style that is part René Goscinny and part Hayao Miyazaki, Pearson draws a thoughtful, resourceful heroine who will, I hope, take us on many more adventures. (The third Hilda book, Hilda and the Bird Parade is now out. I’m not sure if it’s been translated into French as yet.)
Francesco Pittau & Bernadette Gervais, Visite Au Zoo (2011)
Emily has loved this book of animals, but it has the problems that all flap books have. Small hands can easily tear the flaps off. I’m also not wild about the pages of stickers (designed to be added to the blank, negative-space animals — each is a white silhouette of the animal in question). I do like the way layout of the pages presents a panorama of different animals, their names, and the sounds they make. The bright, bold colors against the black background makes the animals and words “pop.” The book’s huge size (44 cm tall by 32 cm wide) allows for a truly immersive experience. But, despite my stated attempt only to give Emily the very best children’s books, I ultimately give this one a bit of a mixed review.
Yvan Pommaux, Un nuit, un chat… (1994)
With a tip of the hat (the cat’s hat, perhaps?) to Sandra Beckett for recommending this one, which follows a cat’s adventures during the night. To the best of my knowledge, this one is not available in English translation.
Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You! (1959)
Emily already has this one, courtesy of her mother’s (and my) childhood. I’m listing it here in honor of her second birthday. In it, as you may know, “You” travel with the Birthday-Bird, to Katroo, a place where they really know how to celebrate a birthday.
Ben Towle, Animal Alphabet (2012)
A small, handmade book of 11 cm (wide) by 9 cm (tall), Animal Alphabet is 26 pages of ink-and-watercolor illustrations of animals, from Alpaca to Zebu. Towle focuses on the lesser-known mammals, fish, and insects. Though his website labels it a “minicomic,” it’s really more a very small picture book. As of this writing, his website is the only place to get it.
Frank Viva, Along a Long Road (2011)
Travel by bicycle, around a small town, into a tunnel, over a bridge, and then turn back to the beginning and do it again. Viva takes you on a trip, using: 5 colors, bold graphics evocative of mid-century posters, and spare, poetic language. It’s dynamic, precise, fun. It’s also his first picture book. A stunning debut.
Mo Willems, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (2012)
“Once upon a time, there were three Dinosaurs: Papa Dinosaur, Mama Dinosaur, and some other Dinosaur who happened to be visiting from Norway.” Willems offers his Fractured-Fairytale version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” complete with a Matisse allusion, Norway jokes (a calendar reads “Norway ‘Gateway to Sweden’”), and 2 morals (one for Goldilocks, the other for the Dinosaurs). Once again, Willems does not disappoint. How does the man write so many books, and make all of them really good?
Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny, Too (2007).
The sequel to Knuffle Bunny features mistaken identities, mystery, and a late-night exchange. If you think I’m going to try to summarize the plot of this one, guess again.
Tim Wynne-Jones, Zoom, illus. Eric Beddows (1997). Contains Zoom at Sea (1983), Zoom Away (1985), and Zoom Upstream (1992).
A cat who likes to play with water, Zoom dreams of going to sea, and finding his Uncle Roy, captain of the Catship. So, he goes to Maria’s house, which, in each book, proves to be a kind of portal that leads Zoom (and Maria) to distant places: the ocean, the North Pole, Egypt. Beddows’ crisp black-and-white pencil drawings make these travels seem not only real, but possible. When Maria turns the wheel, we do not ask how a house could contain an ocean. We simply follow along.
Gene Zion & Margaret Bloy Graham, Harry the Dirty Dog (1956, re-colored 2002)
I’d have preferred to get the 1956 (non-recolored) version. I doubt that Emily will mind (and Graham did the recolorization herself), but I do wish that the original were still available. Anyway. Harry, “a white dog with black spots,” hates baths. So, he buries the scrubbing brush in the backyard, and runs away from home. In the many places he plays (which Graham renders full of activity, with many places for our eye to alight), Harry gets so dirty that “he changed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots.” Rendered in thick lines and with an expressive cylindrical eye, Harry is a very expressive dog. But his expressiveness seems to fail him when he returns home, and the family doesn’t recognize him! (And, just in case you haven’t read the book, I’m not going to spoil the ending here.)
Gene Zion & Margaret Bloy Graham, No Roses for Harry! (1958)
Another in the Harry series. As this edition has (happily) not been recolored, it preserves Graham’s contrasts between three basic colors — which, in this case, are green and orange. Harry’s sweater is green, and the roses on it are orange. It’s a present from Grandma (the children’s grandmother, not his). And he detests it. He spends the first two thirds of the book trying and failing to get rid of it. He succeeds, and in an ingenious manner.
Looking for other great children’s books? Try these blogs:
Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:
- Emily’s Library, Part 1: 62 Great Books for the Very Young (2 Jan. 2012)
- Emily’s Library, Part 2: Wordless Picture Books (3 Jan. 2012)
- Emily’s Library, Part 3: En Français (4 Jan. 2012)
- Emily’s Library, Part 4: Ten Alphabet Books (24 Feb. 2012)
- Emily’s Library, Part 5: 29 More Books for the Very Young (22 May 2012)
- How to Find Good Children’s Books (April 2011)
- Desert Island Picture Books (Oct. 2011)
- Mock Caldecott, 2012: Manhattan, Kansas Edition (Dec. 2012)
- Mock Caldecott, 2011: Manhattan, Kansas Edition (Dec. 2011)
- Mock Caldecott, 2010: Manhattan, Kansas Edition (Dec. 2010)
That’s all for this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.