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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Emily’s Library, Part 6: 35 More Books for the Very Young

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.

Rita et MachinJean-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.

Rita et Machin å la plageJean-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.)

Mon Chat Le Plus Bête du MondeGilles 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.

Pomelo granditRamona 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.

Pomelo et les couleursRamona 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)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?

from Anne Bertier, Mercredi

from Anne Bertier, Mercredi

Polkabats and Octopus SlacksCalef 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.

Calef Brown's "Snails" from Polkabats and Octopus Slacks

Quint Buchholz, Schlaf gut, kleiner BärQuint 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 BookMargaret 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!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.

A & B from Clo Casile, So Sweet Alphabête!

C & D from Clo Casile, So Sweet Alphabête!

E & F from Clo Casile, So Sweet Alphabête!

Marjorie Flack, Angus and the DucksMarjorie 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.”

from Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead, and then it’s spring

 

from Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead, and then it’s spring

Cornelia Funke, Der geheimnisvolle Ritter NamenlosCornelia 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, Mymble, and Little My (translated by Sophie Hannah, 2009)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 NumbersStephen 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 HatJon 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 MagicOle 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 BrownEdward 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 NonsenseEdward 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!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 BearsJames 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 MovePeter 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 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 NuitLuke 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 ZooFrancesco 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…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 AlphabetBen 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 RoadFrank 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.

from Frank Viva, Along a Long Road

Mo Willems, Goldilocks and the Three DinosaursMo 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 BeddowsTim 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 DogGene 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.

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 all for this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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Emily’s Library, Part 5: 29 More Books for the Very Young

Welcome to the fifth installment of “Emily’s Library,” in which I list books bought for my 13-month-old niece. As noted in the first entry in this series, my aim is to build for her a kind of “ideal” library of children’s books — understanding, of course, that ideals are impossible, and that my own criteria (see first entry) are fuzzy at best. Despite its shortcomings in theorizing its own criteria, this ongoing list does name good books, and thus may (I hope) be useful to other people seeking books for young readers. (At the end of this blog post, you’ll find links to other resources for finding good children’s books.)

I have not included in my tally (above) works in translation — that is, if a book is listed in both French and English versions, I only count it once (though I do list it below). I do realize that no translation is identical to its original. As Walter Benjamin writes, in translation “the original undergoes a change.”  Expanding on that idea, he offers the following simile: “Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.”1 So, perhaps I should have included translated works in my tally. I didn’t because I feel that, somehow, it’s a limitation of mine — choosing (usually) French translations of English-language originals. I need to find more French-language originals. (As noted in the original “Emily’s Library” post, Emily is being raised in both English and French.) For me, at least, absenting these translations (from the total) signals my list’s deficiencies. Hence, the slight “under-counting.”

Well.  On with the list!

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix ClousseauJon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)

René Magritte + Ernie Bushmiller = this book by Jon Agee. It’s a comic look at the power of art. It has rival painters whose names are puns on French cuisine. And, as in Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, the imagination is a source of both possibility and danger. But art is triumphant in the end.

Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)

In the first of Bemelmans’ books about Madeline, the title character is small but brave: “not afraid of mice,” says “Pooh-pooh” to the tiger in the zoo, and happily displays her post-appendectomy scar. (Does anyone know why her hair is red in the tiger scene, but blonde in all the other scenes?) In addition to enjoying this book on its own merits, I want to make sure that Emily reads books with strong female characters.

P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? (1960)P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? (1960)

A childhood favorite in our family.  Favorite line: “‘Oh, you are not my mother,’ said the baby bird. ‘You are a Snort’” (spoken after the baby bird is picked up by an earth mover).  For those 1 or 2 people who may not be familiar with this book, a baby bird falls from his nest, and seeks his mother, discovering that kitten, hen, dog, boat, plane, and “Snort” are all not his mother. The repetition of the question to increasingly absurd mother figures is fun (and comic). Of course, baby bird reunites with mother by the end.

P.D. Eastman, Go, Dog. Go! (1961)

An absurdist work, comparable to Dr. Seuss’ One fish two fish red fish blue fish.  However, instead of fantastic creatures, Eastman gives us ordinary creatures (dogs) in unusual colors and situations. Sure, the “party hat” dialogue (in which girl dog repeatedly asks boy dog whether he likes her party hat) might interpreted as endorsing the notion that women’s appearance needs to please men  — not a great message. On the other hand, the dogs of many colors playing together might be seen as an implicit endorsement of racial diversity (if dogs of different colors play together, so can children of different colors) — a much better message. I think, though, that this was a favorite book of my sister’s (when she was little) because it had lots and lots of dogs.  In cars!  In trees!  On a boat!

Lois Ehlert, Color Farm (1990)

As in Ehlert’s earlier Color Zoo (1989, included on Emily’s Library Part 1), you turn the die-cut pages to see shapes become animals. Bright colors, ingenious design, shows us the hidden geometries of the animal kingdom.

Antonio Frasconi, See and Say / Guarda e Parra / Regarde et Parle / Mira y Habra: A Picture Book in Four Languages (1955)

Ideal for Emily, who is being raised multi-lingual!  Frasconi’s book prints a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Given that it has an English pronunciation guide for each word (and the word always first appears in English), the book does imagine English-speaking children as its primary audience.  However, illustrated by bright woodcuts, the book is great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on the book.  Visit the site to see more.

Patricia Intriago, Dot (2011)

A beautifully designed concept book, in which a dot can be slow or fast, bounce up and down, be hungry or full, happy or sad.  Or shy.  The interaction between word and dot makes this work so well.  For “Dot here” on the left page, white words stand out on the upper portion of a large black dot.  For “Dot there” on the right page, much smaller black text (on white page) beneath a small dot.  In addition to the pun (“Dot” as “That”), the two-page spread conveys the concept so well. It’s almost impossible to convey, in words, the effect of Intriago‘s book. Better if you take a look at a few images.

2 pages from Patricia Intriago's Dot (2011)

2 more pages from Patricia Intriago's Dot (2011)

These images come from Joy Chu’s The Got Story Countdown (scroll down).  See also Jules Walker Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for more on the book.

Leonore Klein and Saul Bass, Henri's Walk to ParisLeonore Klein and Saul Bass, Henri’s Walk to Paris (1962)

A beautiful book illustrated (and designed) by Saul Bass, famous for his movie posters and film title sequences. This recently republished book is a visual delight. Its pictures animate the story of little Henri, who sets off for the city, has a nap en route, and, upon waking, resumes his journey… but in the wrong direction.

Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, Bears (2005)

The first version of Krauss’s 26-word story appeared in 1948, with pictures by Phyllis Rowand.  In this new version, Maurice Sendak brings back Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) and creates a parallel narrative, in which he (Max) chases a dog to rescue his kidnapped teddy bear.  Krauss’s pleasantly absurdist verse and Sendak’s detailed, exuberant illustrations create a great book for young readers. It recalls his early work for children — the Nutshell Library (1962), A Very Special House (1953) and his other collaborations with Krauss.

Ian Beck & Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussy CatEdward Lear, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, illustrated by Ian Beck (1995)

“They took some honey, and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five pound note,” which in Beck’s rendering, has a portrait of Edward Lear himself.  His version of “the land where the Bong-tree grows” has giant shrubs (or Bong-trees?), all carefully manicured, with the occasional large candy-cane sprouting up in their midst. Beck’s art gently evokes the affection and whimsy in Lear’s interspecies romance.

Leo Lionni, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (1969)

Alexander wishes he were more like Willy, the wind-up mouse whom the children love playing with. Perhaps the magic lizard can change him into a wind-up mouse, too? This, at least, is his wish until he finds that Willy has been tossed into a box of toys that are about to be discarded. As is often the case in Lionni’s stories, Alexander is a fable with a twist. Emily has this book courtesy of her mother’s and my childhood.

Leo Lionni, FrederickLeo Lionni, Frederick (1967)

As you read the book for the first time, you might think that Frederick is a version of Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper”: Frederick is the Grasshopper, gathering no food for the winter; the other mice are industrious like the Ant, preparing for winter’s dearth. Lionni invokes this famous fable in order to upset our expectations.  Though Frederick seems lazy, he is in fact gathering the dreams that will sustain his fellow mice through the winter.  When their food runs out, they have his art.  His words make them feel warm, paint visions in their minds, and give them hope.  Lionni’s fable is not a version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”  It’s about the ways in which art keeps us alive.

Leo Lionni, Frédéric (1975) [Frederick (1967)]

Frederick in French translation.

Leo Lionni, Swimmy (1963)

When Swimmy teaches the little fish to swim in the form of a big fish (with Swimmy as the eye), the many smaller fishes can move throughout the ocean unafraid of the larger fishes — who now see them, collectively, as a single large fish.  So, a parable about the power to be gained by organizing?  A pro-union fable?  Perhaps.  According to Leo Lionni, “The central moment is not so much Swimmy’s idea of a large fish composed out of lots of tiny fish but his decision, forcefully stated, that ‘I will be the eye.’  Anyone who knew of my search for the social justification for making Art, for becoming or being an artist, would immediately have grasped what motivated Swimmy, the first embodiment of my alter ego, to tell his scared little friends to swim together like one big fish. ‘Each in his own place,’ Swimmy says, suddenly conscious of the ethical implications of his own place in the crowd.  He had seen the image of the large fish in his mind.  That was the gift he had received: to see.”2

Robert McCloskey, Make Way for DucklingsRobert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings (1941)

McCloskey’s classic, in which Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, decide to raise their ducklings on an island in Boston Public Garden.  As Leonard Marcus reports in his A Caldecott Celebration (1998), a story (reported in the newspapers) of “a family of ducks that had stopped traffic as it made its way through the nearby streets of Beacon Hill” inspired the story. To make sure that he could draw the ducks to his satisfaction, he studied duck anatomy at the American Museum of Natural History.  And he bought sixteen live ducks to live with him and his roommate at the time, Marc Simont.  As Simont recalls, this was both noisy and messy, but it enabled McCloskey to draw the bids the way he wanted to. To find out what the underside of a duck looked like in flight, McCloskey “wrapped one of the ducks in a towel and put it so that its head spilled over the couch.  Then he lay down on the flor and looked up and sketched it,” Simont told Marcus.3  The result of his efforts was the Caldecott-winning book of 1942.

James Marshall, George and MarthaJames Marshall, George and Martha (1972)

As the book’s subtitle says, Five Stories About Two Great Friends.  The first in the series about these two hippos, George and Martha stages gently comic conflicts that conclude with a bit of wisdom. In the final story, while skating to Martha’s house, George “tripped and fell. And he broke off his right front tooth. His favorite tooth too.” The deadpan humor of “His favorite tooth,” amplifies Marshall’s minimalist drawing of a hippo not tripping, but launching himself aloft, suddenly weightless. Though distraught over his lost tooth, George gets a new gold one. When Martha compliments him for looking “so handsome and distinguished” with his new tooth, he says “That’s what friends are for…. [T]hey always know how to cheer you up.”  Martha reminds him, “But they also tell you the truth,” and smiles.

James Marshall, George and Martha Encore (1973)

The second (of seven) in the George and Martha books finds George learning to dance, learning French, and failing to disguise himself. Martha forgets her suntan lotion, and has trouble getting her garden to grow.

James Marshall, George and Martha Tons of Fun (1980)

Dedicated to Maurice Sendak, the fifth book focuses more on Martha than George — which, I suppose, may have influenced the dedication. In his introduction to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends (1997), Sendak “admit[s] to favoring Martha; she never forgets and rarely forgives altogether, and she gets the best Marshall lines” (4).

Richard McGguire, The Orange Book (en Français)

Richard McGuire, The Orange Book (1992)

Limiting his palette to three sharply different colors, McGuire creates concise, strong images. The bright orange spheres and slices almost hover above the surface of cream pages illustrated in blue — orange’s opposite on the color wheel, and likely chosen for maximum contrast. In pages full of visual humor and allusions, the book follows the trajectory of fourteen oranges on their journeys out into the world: “One was sent to a sick friend,” and “Two was used in a juggling act.” In this sense, The Orange Book merely uses the counting-book genre as a frame upon which to explore larger questions.  As McGuire has said, the book is “really the story of the paths of life.  I guess there is the general idea of ‘interconnectedness,’ too, which interests me.”4  The first of his four picture books, The Orange Book is a visual delight and ought to be brought back into print!

Richard McGuire, Orange Book: 1, 2… 14 Oranges (2001) [The Orange Book (1992)]

French-language translation of McGuire’s The Orange Book.  (The cover to this version is above, next to the commentary on the English-language edition.)

Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells, My Very First Mother GooseMy Very First Mother Goose, edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells (1996)

Over 100 pages of Mother Goose rhymes, featuring the distinctive bunnies, cats, humans, and other animals of Rosemary Wells.  This book and its companion volume Here Comes Mother Goose (1999) — another book I ought to get for Emily — are bright, comic, and big!  (Nearly a foot [30 cm.] tall by 10.5 in [26.5 cm.] wide.)

Francesco Pittau & Bernadette Gervais, Les Contraires (1999)

En Français, a humorous exploration of opposites, using the elephant as its unit of measurement.  Items such as Big and Small or Long and Short may not surprise.  But some of the opposites are a bit… unusual.

Pittau & Gervais, Les Contraires (1999) Pittau & Gervais, Les Contraires (1999)

In English, the above are “Lit” and “Extinguished.”  Images from Brunette à Paris (and there are more images there, too).

Francesco Pittau & Bernadette Gervais, Elephant Elements (2001) [Les Contraires (1999)]

English-language version of Les Contraires.

Pittau & Gervais, Elephant Elephant: A Book of Opposites (2001)

Claude Ponti, Le A (1998)

En Français, Ponti‘s Tromboline et Foulbazar tickle, throw, and poke the letter A.  Full of humor and the sound of the A… when it is being tickled, thrown, and poked!

Claude Ponti, Le A (1998)

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)

Another book that reaches Emily courtesy of her mother’s (and my own) childhood, Potter’s classic picture book offers a satisfying combination of suspense, a moral, and dark sense of humor.  I particularly like the line “Your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”  Droll.  I remember, as a child, being quite worried on Peter’s behalf: how would he get out of Mr. McGregor’s garden?  Potter devotes most of the book to Peter either evading McGregor or trying to find his way out once more. Though Peter receives his punishment at the end (getting only chamomile tea, while his sisters get “bread and milk and blackberries for supper”), the fun of the book is his adventure. The well-behaved Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail merely provide a “safe” moral frame for his mischief.

Peggy Rathmann, 10 Minutes Till Bedtime (1998)Peggy Rathmann, 10 Minutes Till Bedtime (1998)

Peggy Rathmann, Au Lit Dans 10 Minutes

The countdown to bedtime has rarely been as diverting.  As the main character prepares for bed, a tour group of hamsters arrive to see the house.  So, of course, these guests must be shown around.  Particularly fun are the family of hamsters, each child of which has a different numbered jersey — and a distinct personality.  1 kicks a ball, 2 mimics the protagonist, 7 takes photographs.  With each page full of detail, the book offers much for the eyes to explore.

Peggy Rathmann, Au lit dans 10 minutes [10 Minutes Till Bedtime (1998)]

French-language edition of Rathmann‘s 10 Minutes Till Bedtime.

Richard Scarry, Best Word Book Ever, revised edition (1980) Richard Scarry, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, revised edition (1980)

Originally published in 1963, this version modernizes some of the gender roles — both rabbit parents prepare breakfast in the kitchen (instead of just mother), and so on. The extraordinary detail of Scarry’s pictures prompts slow, careful reading.  Each two-page spread contains so much detail, each of which bears a label: skyscraper, telephone booth, mail truck, fire hydrant, book reader, and so on. I particularly enjoy the pages that remind us that these clothed animals are in fact stand-ins for clothed humans, as when Scarry takes us to the zoo. Clothed mice children, each of which holds a balloon, visit the elephants, bears, monkeys, and other larger animals. The anthropomorphic cats do not chase the mice: one sells them balloons, another is a zookeeper, and the other is a veterinarian who “makes sure all the animals are healthy.”  I was going to buy Emily the French translation as well, but the French version is of the 1963 edition, which preserves all the “traditional” gender roles.

Charles G. Shaw, It Looked Like Spilt Milk (1947)

Like a Rorschach Test, but much more fun.  Shaw, a modernist painter with experience in poster design, presents a series of white shapes on a blue background.  Each shape resembles something in (white) silhouette — a rabbit, a birthday cake, a tree.  This imaginatively engaging concept book does, at the end, tell you what the white shape is: a cloud!

Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)

As the first page points out, “From there to here, / from here to there, / funny things / are everywhere.”  A concept book (and Beginner Book) of scenes loosely connected by the two children who become recurring characters after the first few fish-centric pages.

Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975)

On a recent business trip to the US, Emily’s mother bought this, Seuss’s ode to the imagination. It’s a celebration of creativity. As the final lines of the book advise, “Think left and think right / and think low and think high. / Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

Jeff Smith, Little Mouse Gets Ready (2009)Jeff Smith, Little Mouse Gets Ready (2009)

In a Geisel Honor book published by Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books, Smith — creator of the graphic-novel epic, Bone — has his title character dressing himself. Told in comics format, smith offers a charming look at one of a child’s first accomplishments (putting on clothes in the right order, managing those buttons!) with a great punch-line at the end… which I will not reveal here.

Ed Young, Seven Blind Mice (1992)

Seven blind mice, each a different color, try to figure out what has arrived near their pond. The reader soon realizes that it’s an elephant, but each mouse successively gets it wrong… until the final mouse. She figures it out.  Young‘s book won a Caldecott 1993.

________________________

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 73, 80.

2. Leo Lionni, Between Worlds (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 232.

3. Leonard Marcus, A Caldecott Celebration (New York: Walker & Company, 1998), 7-8.

4. Thierry Smolderen, “An Interview with Richard McGuire,” Comic Art 8 (Summer 2006), 25.

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 all for now, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features.

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Emily’s Library, Part 4: Ten Alphabet Books

Continuing my series on building the “perfect” children’s library (for criteria, see first post), here are some great alphabet books.  The first post listed Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963), Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC (1963), and Bill Martin, John Archambault, & Lois Ehlert’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989).  Here are ten more alphabet titles I’ve recently sent to my niece (Emily, currently 10 months old).

Sandra Boynton, A Is for Angry (1983): coverSandra Boynton, A Is for Angry (1983)

In a book subtitled an animal and adjective alphabet, Boynton illustrates “B is for BASHFUL” with a small bunny looking up at a bashful bear, who is partly concealed behind the letter “B.”  While a fox flees flying fish overhead, “F is for FRIGHTENED.”  As is ever the case, the remarkable emotional range of Boynton’s animals’ faces interacts perfectly with her words, and makes me laugh.  Accompanying “T is for Tangled” is a turkey tangled in a telephone cord.  The turkey is labeled “turkey,” and the telephone is labeled “turkey trap.”  More Boynton books are listed on the first “Emily’s Library” list.

Michael Cheswick, Alphaboat (2002)

A pun-lover’s picaresque which, yes, is undoubtedly too advanced for my 10-month-old niece. But, in a few years, she may appreciate the humor.  The story begins like this: “One day i chanced to stop for t / and listen to sweet Mellow D, / in her old H beside the sea, / sing of her long-lost Mister E.”  And off go the letters on a journey for hidden treasure, accompanied by abundant wordplay.

Donald Crews, We Read: A to Z (1967)

Perhaps best known for Freight Train (included in the first “Emily’s Library” list), Crews made his debut with this book… which was never intended to be a book at all.  A graphic designer, he made it to freshen his portfolio.  It’s less an alphabet book than it is an alphabetically organized book about space.  On the left page, c is for “corner: where the yellow is.”  On the right page, a field of orange, with a yellow square in the bottom-right corner.  Later, a left page gives us h for “horizontal: from side to side,” accompanied by a right page consisting of eight thick horizontal lines that alternate between a lighter green and darker blue.  This book should be brought back into print.

Donald Crews, We Read: A to Z (1967): Mm

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Bembo’s Zoo (2001)

This, too, should be brought back into print.  Using only the Bembo typeface, each letter names an animal, and the letters within that name create the animal.  J is for Jaguar, and iterations of “J,” “a,” “g,” “u,” “a,” and “r” get be rearranged to create the shape of a jaguar.  Ingenious.  Mr. de Vicq de Cumptich has a website devoted to the book.  Check it out.

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, "Jaguar" from Bembo's Zoo (2001)

Alison Jay, ABC: A Child's First Alphabet Book (board book version, 2005)Alison Jay, ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (2003)

The board book version (2005, pictured at right) is nearly identical to the picture book.  The only two differences (apart from slightly smaller size, & boards instead of paper) are minor: (1) the cover, and (2) the omission (in the board book) of the final page of text that lists all the other items named by the letter.  For instance, the “M” page tells us “m is for moon,” but it also shows a mountain, moose, and map…  and refers to other pages.  One of the many pleasures of Jay‘s book is following the recurring characters and motifs.  The “M” page also has the nest of eggs that appear on the right-hand page “n for nest,” and again on the “o is for owl” page, which itself has the young woman from the “n is for nest” page holding up what she was drawing — a picture of a panda.  The panda is on “p is for panda,” having a picnic with the man who was reading the map back on “m is for moon.”  And so on.  Anyway, I sent Emily the board-book version because it’s nearly the same as the standard picture book and she’s still more in the “chewing” phase of book appreciation.

Stephen T. Johnson, Alphabet City (1995)

I suspect one reason this book appeals to me is that it recalls my own childhood experience of letters. Having learned my letters at a very young age (thanks to Sesame Street and The Electric Company, on public television), I began seeing letters everywhere. A car’s tire contained an “O.”  Looked at from the right angle, a hardback chair revealed an “L” or an “H.”  In twenty-six paintings, Johnson’s book explores this idea, finding an “E” in a stoplight, “P” at the top of a railing, and a “Z” in a fire escape. In so doing, he encourages readers to seek the alphabet in the landscape.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Delphine Durand, Al Pha’s Bet (2011): coverAmy Krouse Rosenthal and Delphine Durand, Al Pha’s Bet (2011)

With words by Rosenthal and pictures by Durand, the book explains how the alphabet came to be in precisely that order.  See, this was back when things were just being invented — including the twenty-six letters. And there was this guy named Al Pha, and he made a bet with himself: he would find a way to organize this (at that time) pile of disorganized letters.  It’s both a joke on why the letters are in this accepted but seemingly arbitrary sequence, and an almost-plausible explanation of how they came to be in this order.  As is always the case, Durand’s pictures are perfect.  And a bit loopy.  I highly recommend her work — some of which you’ll see in the first post devoted to French books.  (Her work is also available in English translation.)  This is the second book by Rosenthal in Emily’s Library.  The first — Duck! Rabbit! — is on the initial list.

Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra! (1955)

She already had this one, courtesy of Linda (her mother’s) and my childhood.  But I wanted to list it here with the alphabet books because it’s not your standard A-B-C book.  One of Seuss’s bestiary books, this catalogue of imaginary animals invites you to invent your own alphabet.  It’s a lesser-known Seuss work that deserves a larger audience.

Paul Thurlby's Alphabet (2011): coverPaul Thurlby, Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet (2011)

Although new, this alphabet book is in the style of mid-twentieth-century advertising & graphic design. It’s also visually inventive.  As Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC does, Thurlby’s book incorporates the letter into the shape of the object it names.  In “J for Jazz,” the “J” is a saxophone being played by a musician.  The two circular parts of “B” contain balls that have just bounced there — because “B” is for Bounce. “Y” shows a man doing yoga, his body forming a letter “Y.”  “E for Embrace” shows two capital letters “E” locked in an embrace: the “E” on the right is flipped horizontally so that its three prongs (ending, respectively, in a head, hand, and foot) and slide in between the prongs of the right-facing “E.”  Very clever.  On the cover, you’re seeing “A for Awesome.”

William Wondriska, A Long Piece of String (1963)

William Wondriska, A Long Piece of String (1963): cover

Recently republished by Chronicle Books, Wondriska‘s nearly wordless story follows a piece of string around an alligator, a bird, a castle, a dog, an elephant,… all the way to zipper.  But the book does not name each animal until the very end of the book when, on a single page, it lists all twenty-six words.  So, as you read, you get to supply the name yourself.

William Wondriska, Sur Le Fil: Mon premier imagier anglais-français (2011) [A Long Piece of String (1963)]

William Wondriska, Sur Le Fil: Mon premier imagier anglais-français (2011) [A Long Piece of String (1963) in French]

A bilingual edition of A Long Piece of String, this version writes the English and corresponding French word on the string near each item.  Some of the English and French words share an initial letter, but not all do — which, I suspect, may have inspired the decision to include the word with each picture.  Interestingly, the book works just as well with the word accompanying the image.  The bilingual edition uses the same typeface as Wondriska’s original, and places the word so that it rests precisely on the string.

Incidentally, I’m on the look out for good ABC books — and good children’s books generally — that were originally published in French. (Emily is being raised in French and English.)  Part 2 of Emily’s Library lists most of the French books I’ve sent so far.  And, at the end of that post, Clementine B & Deborah Freedman both offer promising suggestions, which I’m in the process of checking out!

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 it for this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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Emily’s Library, Part 3: En Français

section of Emily's Library, Emily's Room, Switzerland. Photo taken 31 Dec. 2011Here are a few en français.  For each, I also provide the title as translated into English.  As noted in Emily’s Library, Part 1, I read the books in English (since I don’t speak French) and then send the French originals to my niece (whose parents are raising her in English & French).  I agree that this section of the library needs to expand at a faster rate, and especially welcome further suggestions.

Ramona Badescu, Gros Lapin. illus. Delphine Durand (2007) [Big Rabbit's Bad Mood (2009)]

Badescu writes, “Big Rabbit had a big, bad hairy mood that stuck to him like glue,” and Durand draws a grey, furry oblong creature following big rabbit around.  Big Rabbit spends much of the book trying to evade the bad mood, but to no avail.  In the end, though, the bad mood leaves. Very funny, and evocative of what a bad mood feels like.

Boyer, Ouaf Miaou Cui Cui (2009): coverCecile Boyer, Ouaf Miaou Cui Cui (2009) [Woof Meow Tweet Tweet (2011)]

Brilliant use of typography to tell a story.  Boyer represents each animal using the word for that animal’s characteristic sound; each sound gets its own typeface.  Ingenious.

Sylviane Donnio & Dorotheé de Monfreid, Je mangerais bien un enfant (2004) [I'd really like to eat a child (2007)]

A funny story about a crocodile who won’t eat the food his parents get him because he’d prefer to eat a child.  Of all the books I’ve sent, this one is a particular favorite of my sister’s.

Delphine Durand, Ma Maison (2000) [My House (2007)]

Non-narrative book that explores the many rooms and creatures that live in the house.  Lots of detail with much to examine on each page.

Durand, Bob & Cie (2004): coverDelphine Durand, Bob & Cie (2004) [Bob & Co. (2006)]

A story about life, the universe, and story, Durand‘s Bob & Cie is one of my all-time favorites. It asks the big questions. It’s funny.  It has philosophical and theological implications, which can be pondered or ignored (depending on the interests and cognitive abilities of the reader).

Jean-Luc Fromental & Joëlle Jolivet, 365 Pingouins (2006) [365 Penguins (2006)]

An oversize book about math, the environment, and… penguins!  Its bold contrasts and limited color palette recalls mid-twentieth century poster design.

Catherine Graindorge & Fiona Land, Mon tout premier livre d’éveil (2005)

This is the sole book featured here — or, indeed, on any of these “Emily’s Library” lists — that I didn’t buy for my niece.  In the tradition of Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny (1940), Mon tout premier livre déveil is a tactile experience, with textures to rub, flaps to pull, even a mirror to look in.  I’m including it here because Emily loves it.  One caution: it might be more sturdily designed.  She’s already torn off two of the flaps.

Marcellino, Le Chat Botte (1999): coverFred Marcellino & Charles Perrault, Le Chat Botte [Puss in Boots] (1999)

The late, great Fred Marcellino did amazing work.

Beatrice Rodriguez, Le voleur de poule (2005) [The Chicken Thief (2010)]

This one is wordless (and so should really be included in yesterday’s list), but I purchased the French edition. Curiously enough, I first saw the book in Germany, where it is published under the title Der Hühnerdieb (2009)

Tullet, Un Livre (2010): coverHervé Tullet, Un Livre (2010) [Press Here (2011)]

New York Times bestseller, Tullet’s picture book reminds us that books are interactive.  Who needs an interactive ebook when you can read this?  Note that, in French, the title is simply A Book, but in English it’s Press Here.

Dorothée de Monfreid, Nuit Noire (2007) [Dark Night (2009)]

Felix, walking home through the forest in the dark, sees many scary creatures — and meets a brave rabbit who shows him how to deal with his fears.

Yes, I am aware that all of these are recent, and I do know Babar and The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry’s book does not strike me as being for very young readers — a point which, admittedly, also might be made regarding a few other choices I’ve made. Emily has already been given a few Babar books. Regarding recency: as noted at the top, I’m seeking suggestions!

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

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

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

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Emily’s Library, Part 2: Wordless Picture Books

section of Emily's Library, Emily's Room, Switzerland. Photo taken 31 Dec. 2011As mentioned in Emily’s Library, Part 1, one reason for including these is that they’re multi-lingual, but another is that they’re compelling works of narrative art. They highlight art’s centrality to the picture book itself.  To restate what I noted in yesterday’s post, art is so central to the picture book that, as part of his final revision process, Shaun Tan removes all of the words (to make sure that the pictures carry the story) and then restores just enough words.

Suzy Lee, Wave (2008)

Wordless tale of a girl, at the beach, facing off with the waves. Her movements and facial expressions tell you all you need to know. One of the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books of that year.  Lee is one of my favorite contemporary illustrators.

Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010)

A near-wordless picture book. You open it with the spine at the top, so that the fold is in the middle of your reading experience, dividing the upper half (a basement) from the lower half (a shadow).  The shadow transforms ordinary objects into an adventure.

Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010): cover

Barbara Lehman, The Red Book (2004)

Lehman, The Red Book (2004): cover

Probably Lehman’s best-known work, this wordless tale is about friends, books, and the unexpected.  You can’t go wrong with a Barbara Lehman book. This one won a Caldecott Honor.

Barbara Lehman, Trainstop (2008)

Another lovely wordless tale from Lehman. It appeals to that sense one has (or I had, when I was a child, and still retain) that, when the train doors open, you might step out into… anywhere.  I need to write a full-length blog post on Lehman.  Her work ranks among the best contemporary children’s books — and, indeed, children’s books in general.

Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Bugs a BugMark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug (2007)

As Lane Smith says, “What an odd, sweet, surreal and hilarous adventure from Newgarden and Cash. It’s what Crockett Johnson, Ernie Bushmiller and Rod Serling might have come up with if they shared a bench at the doggie park. I love it!” See also my longer blog post on Newgarden and Cash’s Bow-Wow books, and the board books listed with Emily’s Library, Part 1.

Stephen Savage, Where’s Walrus? (2011)

A comic tale of a walrus on the run, combining the find-the-character game of Where’s Waldo? with a playful narrative and plenty of joie de vivre.  Savage‘s design recalls posters from the 1930s, and the work of Richard McGuire (whose work will make an appearance in a future “Emily’s Library” post).

There are other great wordless books, of course.  These are just the ones I’ve sent so far.

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

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

 Tomorrow: Emily’s Library, Part 3: En Français!

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Introducing Emily’s Library. Part 1: 62 Great Books for the Very Young

section of Emily's Library, Emily's Room, Switzerland. Photo taken 31 Dec. 2011Welcome to a new feature on Nine Kinds of Pie: “Emily’s Library.” It’s named for my eight-month-old niece, and it will highlight only the very best children’s books. When I learned that my sister was expecting, I decided to create for her child an ideal library of children’s books. She and her spouse could read them to her, and, eventually, Emily could read the books herself.

Since I began this project, I’ve found myself sharing my list of “Emily” books with other parents or parents-to-be. With “Emily’s Library,” I will now be sharing it with you.

What do I mean by “ideal” or “the very best”?  I’m still developing my criteria, but here’s what I have so far.

  1. Old and new. Classics, but also more recent books.  I want neither to reify the past, nor to dwell solely in the present.  Rather, I’d like a range of works from then and now.
  2. Difference. This is fairly broadly defined. I’m thinking of different types of stories (different genres), different nationalities, different ethnicities, different artistic styles….
  3. I want some emphasis on children’s books originally in French. Emily and her parents live in Switzerland. My sister and brother-in-law speak English, French, German, and Spanish, but they’ll be raising Emily primarily in English and French.  Since I don’t speak French, I’ve been reading French books in translation, and then sending Emily the original French-language editions. A broader implication of this criterion is a need to read children’s books that originate in countries (and languages) other than one’s own.
  4. The theme of wordless picture books is (in part) a response to the language issue. Art is legible in any language. Readers can create their own words, changing those words with each reading if they wish. Or they can experience the story fully through the language of pictures. Wordless picture books also feature on this list because they’re great examples of narrative art: they prove, definitively, that a story does not require words. Art is so central to the picture book that, as part of his final revision process, Shaun Tan “test[s] for wordless comprehension. I remove the text and see if it works by itself. And if it does I feel that that’s a successful story.”  And, finally, wordless picture books are here because I happen to like them.
  5. Which brings me to the question of taste. Since it reflects my likes and dislikes, the list will be somewhat idiosyncratic. So, for example, you’ll notice that I’m drawn to humor.
  6. Politically acceptable, inasmuch as possible. The list will not be strictly “politically correct” because: I’m inherently suspicious of orthodoxies, some classics that don’t reflect contemporary social values remain worth reading, and books can be interpreted in many ways. By this last point I mean to say that (with a few exceptions) a book is not a tract: whatever political messages it may harbor, there’s no guarantee that a reader will discern them… simply because literature doesn’t work that way. Having said that, I am interested in books that may teach Emily to respect those who are different from herself, to be receptive to ideas that challenge the status quo, to think critically, and to imagine… whatever she wants.
  7. All of these books are for Emily, and thus reflect my own imagination — what I think she or her parents may enjoy, what might make her smile, give her pleasure, or grant her some insight. Since she is only eight months old, I am of course projecting onto her my own sense of who she is or might become.

I’ve listed these points to underscore the subjectivity of this endeavor. I have written books and articles on children’s literature, I teach courses on children’s literature, and I have amassed a certain amount of “expertise” in the field.  However, I’m acutely aware of how much I have yet to learn, I recognize that tastes vary, and I know that my aesthetic criteria are (as yet) rather vague. If this list does represent a literary canon of sorts, it also acknowledges that canon-formation is an idiosyncratic, flawed, and tricky business.

In sum, I think all of these books are good. You may disagree, or have favorites of your own that I’ve failed to list. Please feel share your disagreements and suggestions in the comments section below. As I say, I know that I’ve much to learn, and would be delighted to learn about other great children’s books.

Without further prologue, here are some of the first 62 books I’ve sent to Emily.  I’ll post more tomorrow and Wednesday, continuing with semi-regularly posts throughout Emily’s childhood.

Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (1978)

Enjoy the rhymes, have fun finding nursery-rhyme characters.  Great for very young readers.

Sandra Boynton, Hippos Go Berserk! (1977, rev. 2000)

A counting book featuring the humor and hippos of the inimitable Sandra Boynton.

Boynton, Snoozers: 7 Short Short Bedtime Stories for Lively Little Kids (1997)

Sandra Boynton, Snoozers: 7 Short Short Bedtime Stories for Lively Little Kids (1997)

“I’m not tired!”  The reliably funny Sandra Boynton offers tales for bedtime.  Also features words and music to “Silly Lullaby” (later recorded for Philadelphia Chickens).  I’ve bought Emily quite a few Boynton books — in part ’cause Emily’s mother likes them, and in part ’cause I do.  Here are the other titles I’ve sent:

  • But Not the Hippopotamus (1982)
  • Pajama Time (2000)
  • 15 Animals (2008)

Jeff Brown, Flat Stanley, illus. Tomi Ungerer (1964)

Brown, Flat Stanley, illus. Ungerer (1964): cover

A favorite of mine when I was in first grade. Then, this book appealed to me because it suggested that the imagination could alter the physical universe — Stanley’s near two-dimensionality seemed so real to me. As an adult, I love the book’s dry humor, sense of the absurd, and its silliness. There’s also one joke that Emily may appreciate far sooner than children who only speak English. The “head of the Famous Museum of Art” is Mr. O. Jay Dart. Get it? His name puns on objet d’art (French for “work of art”).

Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon (1947)

Brown’s verse and Hurd’s post-impressionist art combine to deliver the pleasures of evading bedtime. (For more about the book, see Leonard Marcus’s biography of Brown or his The Making of Goodnight Moon.)

Peter Brown, Children Make Terrible Pets (2010)

The central conceit — swapping human and animal roles — is both comic and instructive. If animals saw us as we see them, what would they see?

Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943): coverVirginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943)

Along with Keats’ The Snowy Day and Takao’s A Winter Concert, this was one of a trio of winter-themed books sent to Emily in late October 2011.  It’s another favorite from my own childhood.  As I did then, I love the images of Katy plowing everyone out, the paths she cuts across the landscape, discovering roads where there had been only snow.  There’s something powerful in the book’s presentation of a relatively small being (Katy) remaking a vast snowy landscape.  It suggests that strength need not derive from size.

Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969, rev. 1987)

You know this one, don’t you?  I’d be surprised if you didn’t.  It’s a great example of Carle’s vibrant collage-style illustration and storytelling.  Check it out.

Chih-Yuan Chen, Guji Guji (2003, English translation 2004).

When the title character (a crocodile raised by ducks) meets crocodiles who want to eat his family, he realizes that — though he may not be a duck — he needs to defend those he loves. Told with a gentle sense of humor, the book addresses difference without being preachy.

Donald Crews, Freight Train (1978)

Bold colors, clean layout, a “simple” idea beautifully realized.  Those last five words identify a key part of my aesthetic criteria.

Tim Egan, Friday Night at Hodges Café (1994)

I’ve previously devoted a whole blog post to Tim Egan’s work.  He deserves much, much more attention than he has thus far received.  And this book contains one of my favorite lines in all of children’s literature: “Too bad his duck was so crazy.”

Lois Ehlert, Color Zoo (1989): coverLois Ehlert, Color Zoo (1989)

Turn the die-cut pages to see shapes become animals.  See also Ehlert’s companion book, Color Farm (1990).  Bright colors, clever design.  A Caldecott Honor book. In its board book incarnation, great for the youngest readers.

Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000)

The book that launched the literary career of that precocious pig, Olivia is an Eloise for contemporary children. In addition to his sense of humor, Falconer is also great at using white space to pace his narrative.  I imagine him making detailed sketches, and then reducing those to just the vital visual information.

Hoban, Black and White (2007): coverTana Hoban, Black and White (2007)

This book — and its companions Black on White (1993) and White on Black (1993) — show black shapes on white backgrounds and vice-versa.  Buttons, a sailboat, a fork, a flower, a banana.  The pages unfold accordion-style so that you can stand the book up around a baby, and she can look at the images.  The sharp contrast between black and white make the shapes especially vivid to infants (whose eyes are still developing the capacity to focus). This is one of the first books that really interested Emily.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverCrockett Johnson, the Harold series (1955-1963):

  • Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)
  • Harold’s Fairy Tale (1956)
  • Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957)
  • Harold at the North Pole (1958)
  • Harold’s Circus (1959)
  • A Picture for Harold’s Room (1960)
  • Harold’s ABC (1963)

Quite possibly the best children’s books ever written, and certainly the most succinct expression of the power and peril to be found in the imagination. When I talk to people about Johnson‘s Harold books, they either (a) have not heard of them, or (b) know them and love them. Very rarely do I meet someone who knows the books, but is indifferent.  In sum, if you do not know these, you should.  Start with Harold and the Purple Crayon and Harold’s ABC.

Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day (1962)

Keats, The Snowy Day (1962): coverThis Caldecott-winning book is a favorite from my childhood. Yes, Peter (the book’s protagonist) was the first child of color I had met in literature.  But what left a longer, more lasting impression was the affinity I felt — and feel — for him.  As I was, Peter is a contemplative, curious child.  He makes snow angels, he explores his neighborhood, discovers that his feet can make different kinds of tracks in the snow, and pretends to be a mountain-climber.  As I did, he (or so it seemed to me then) often feels more comfortable in the company of his imagination than in the company of other children.  He does not join in the snowball fight.  After the day is over, he reflects on his adventures.  The bold colors of Keats’s collages, and the thoughtfulness — the inwardness — of his protagonist make The Snowy Day a great book for any child who, like Peter, sees in snow a sense of wonder and possibility.

Laurie Keller, The Scrambled States of America (1998)

I thought Emily might like to learn a little bit about the country where her mother was born. Well, that was part of the reason behind choosing this one. Mainly, I think Keller’s work is hilarious. Sure, there’s a geography lesson here, but there are far more jokes.

Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back (2011)

A masterpiece of economy and wit.  Each detail works perfectly.  And its deadpan humor knocks me out each time I read it.

Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, The Carrot Seed (1945)

A little boy plants a carrot, everyone keeps saying “it won’t come up,” but every day he keeps “sprinkling the ground with water.” This story has been interpreted as being about faith, persistence, or simply ignoring the nay-sayers.  Maurice Sendak calls it a “perfect picture book.”

Karla Kuskin, Roar and More (1956)

Poet Karla Kuskin’s first children’s book.  Dynamic layout and typography introduces animals and the sounds they make.  Visually compelling, fun to read aloud, and nice humor (she also provides the sounds of giraffe and fish).

Munro Leaf & Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936)

I expect you know this one, but, if not, then you might like to read my earlier post, “Ferdinand at 75.”

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): cover (for paperback edition, 1996)Three versions of three pigs:

  • James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989)
  • Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989)
  • Eugene Trivisas & Helen Oxenbury, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig (1993)

Three versions of the fairy tale. Marshall’s stays closest to Joseph Jacobs’ original, but his illustrations add great comic timing and general daffiness.  Scieszka and Smith tell the story from the wolf’s point of view.  Trivisas and Oxenbury swap the roles of protagonist and antagonist.  Note: be careful of what edition you get of the Marshall.  There’s a re-formatted hardcover version you want to avoid.

Bill Martin, John Archambault, & Lois Ehlert, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989)

Bold colors, swinging verse, and … the alphabet!  One of several ABC books I’ve given thus far.  See also Dr. Seuss’s ABC and Crockett Johnson’s Harold’s ABC.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, the Bow-Wow board books (2007-2009):

  • Bow-Wow Naps by Number (2007)
  • Bow-Wow Orders Lunch (2007)
  • Bow-Wow Hears Things (2008)
  • Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites (2008)
  • Bow-Wow 12 Months Running (2009)
  • Bow-Wow’s Colorful Life (2009)
Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Orders Lunch Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Naps by Number Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Hears Things Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow 12 Months Running Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow's Colorful Life

I’ve written an entire post on Newgarden and Cash’s Bow-Wow books. The first, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug, is listed in tomorrow’s post on wordless picture books. During her first year, the Bow-Wow board books have been Emily’s favorites.

Antoinette Portis, A Penguin Story (2009)

Penguin seeks something new,… and finds it! Love Portis’ graphic style, humor, and how she honors the title character’s curiosity.

Peggy Rathmann, Goodnight Gorilla (1994)

Peggy Rathmann, Good Night, Gorilla (1994): cover

A clever riff on Brown and Hurd’s Goodnight Moon. Rathmann has great comic timing, knows how to let the illustrations tell the story, and includes lots of fun details. The baby giraffe has a toy giraffe, the baby elephant has a toy Babar, and the baby armadillo has … a toy Ernie. Why would the little armadillo have not a toy armadillo, but the Muppet from Sesame Street?  Well, why not?

Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1989)

Exemplifies the dynamic relationship between words and images that sustains any good picture book.  And it’s a fantastic read-aloud.  For more Oxenbury, see the entry for James Marshall (above) — it contains three versions of “The Three Little Pigs,” one retold by Trivias and Oxenbury.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld, Duck! Rabbit! (2009).

Based on the metapicture that fascinated Wittgenstein, two unseen persons debate whether we’re looking at a duck… or a rabbit.

Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (1960): coverDr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (1960)

Using only 50 different words, Seuss creates a nonsensical classic & his own best-seller.  See also an earlier blog post on this book.

Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963)

The third of Seuss’s alphabetically themed works.  The first two are The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) and On Beyond Zebra! (1955).

Maurice Sendak, The Nutshell Library (1962)

A collection of four books: Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre.  All are made for tiny hands, and are what Sendak was working on just before he created Where the Wild Things Are (1963).  In other words, this is prime Sendak.  Wild Things will be a future purchase for Emily, but these seemed a better fit for her first year.

Sendak, The Nutshell Library (1962)

Esphyr Slobodkina, Caps for Sale (1940).

A peddler, a nap, and monkeys.  The repetition, the bright colors, and the satisfying resolution have helped this book endure for the last seventy years.

Lane Smith, It’s a Little Book (2011)

Smith, It's a Little Book (2011): cover

For the board book version of the picture book It’s a Book (2010), Smith tones down the joke at the end. He makes other changes (the three main characters are all much younger, for example), but retains much of the original’s sense of humor and mischief. For more Smith, see my longer blog post on him, and the entry for James Marshall (above) — it contains three versions of “The Three Little Pigs,” one retold by Scieszka and Smith.

Toby Speed, Brave Potatoes, illus. Barry Root (2000)Toby Speed & Barry Root, Brave Potatoes (2000).

Why is this book out of print?  It’s one of the best children books published in the new millennium.  A verse tale of vegetables and revolution.  The poetry pops, and the pictures make the “death-defying spuds” seem almost human. Vegetables of the world, unite!  See also my tongue-in-cheek post on this book for Lane Smith & Bob Shea’s blog.

Jon Stone and Michael Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book (1971)

Thus far, the sole Little Golden Book on this list. Grover (the Muppet) is worried that he’s going to face a monster at the end of the book, and pleads with the reader to help him.  Metafictional humor for beginning readers.  See also Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie: We Are in a Book (scroll down).

Yuko Takao, A Winter ConcertYuko Takao, A Winter Concert (1995, trans. 1997)

Along with Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow and Keats’ The Snowy Day, this was part of a trio of winter-themed books I sent Emily in late October 2011.  Rendered in black lines on white paper, a mouse goes to a concert, where she hears “beautiful music” (rendered in small colored dots), which she and the other concert-goers carry home with them — brightening the wintry landscape.  An evocative sense of how music transforms experience.  See also my brief blog post on the book.

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing (2000)

A modern classic about paying attention, and what happens when we don’t. Later adapted into an Academy Award-winning short film, this book is probably for slightly older children (early grade school, rather than pre-school), but Tan is one of the greatest narrative artists working today — and I thought it important for Emily to have his work in her library. Also, it’s visually rich, with much to reward rereading.

Shaun Tan, Eric (cover)Shaun Tan, Eric (2010)

When a foreign exchange student stays with a family, they try to make him welcome. But what does he think of them? A slightly different version of the story in Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), this has Tan’s sense of mystery, wonder, and warmth. If there’s a Tan story for the youngest readers, this — despite its more “advanced” vocabulary — is the one.

Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? (1988)

This book launched Waddell and Firth’s Little Bear series (no relation to the Little Bear books by Else Homelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak).  A gentle tale, in which big bear helps little bear face his fear of the dark, and get to sleep.

Ellen Stoll Walsh, Mouse Paint (1989)

The pleasure of combining colors, transformation, and evading the cat. The sharp contrast between colors appeal to the eye.

Mo Willems, Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus! (2003)

Perfect illustration of the “less is more” principle of storytelling. Altering the background color to reflect the title character’s changing mood, Willems provides just enough detail to convey the pigeon’s character — and nothing more. Sympathetic to a child’s desire to be in charge and a great read-aloud, Willems’ book never fails to amuse me.

Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2004)

Mo Willems, Elephant & Piggie: We Are in a Book! (2010): cover

The book that gave us the phrase “aggle flaggle klabble” and the term “to go boneless” (as in “She went boneless”).

Mo Willems, Elephant & Piggie: We’re in a Book! (2010)

Metafictional tale about reading, starring Willems’ duo.  My favorite of the Elephant & Piggie books, and a worthy companion to Stone and Smollin’s The Monster at the End of This Book (see above).

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

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