Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In the Beginning There Were Picture Books

Okay, so it's not the absolute beginning of the The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children, but the Picture Book section is close enough and whether anointed by some list or merely a parent's childhood favorite, picture books are the beginning of many a childhood milestone: first book at laptime, naptime, and bedtime; first book read on one's own after many readings by a parent; the first time a parent is rewarded with hearing that their childhood favorite is their child's too; the first time a parent realizes their childhood favorite is completely and almost unredeemably politically incorrect.

Except for a handful of stragglers, and a few we just couldn't find, we have made our way through most of the 230+ books in this section.  Among them were some truly sublime treasures, some books that were fine but would not have made our family Best Of list, and some real stinkers that maybe we are either too immature or too high-fallutin' to appreciate.  According to the Guide, picture books "have simple texts, and for the most part, a very young child can study them and understand what they are about...Picture books are principally for preschool-age children, but school-age children often continue to enjoy them." (Lipson, p. 11.)  Having an eight-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old, I can attest to the accuracy of that definition.

So, here we go with the first round of picture books.  (I am using the same reviewing conventions as with the Wordless Books.)

10 Minutes Till Bedtime
Written and Illustrated by Peggy Rathman
This was an unexpected pleasure.  It's by the author of Goodnight Gorilla, so I knew Boo would probably like it, but was prepared to grit my teeth and just get through it.  I didn't think Bean would pay much attention.  I was wrong on all counts.  Everybody had fun with this book, following an unruly group of hamsters through a boy's bedtime routine and shouting out the countdown to bedtime on each page.  (This is the only text and I would therefore have put it in the Wordless Book section, but alas, I do not work for the Times and no one asked me). The illustrations are fun and include a visual reference to Goodnight, Gorilla, which delighted everyone when we found it.

101 Things To Do With A Baby
Written and Illustrated by Jan Ormerod
As soon as this book about a 6-year-old girl's relationship with her baby brother came home, Bean commandeered it.  She read it aloud to whomever happened to be in the room, punctuating every few entries in the list of things to do with a baby (diaper changes, feedings, playing, etc.) with exclamations that she wished she had had this book when Boo was a baby.  That all stopped somewhere about 83 on the list when the girl was mean to the baby.  Instead of reading on to see how this was handled and whether or not the girl mended her ways, Bean instantly declared the child unfit for big sisterhood and closed the book.  Back in the library bag it went, never again to see the light of day in our house.

17 Kings and 42 Elephants
Written by Margaret Mahy
I wish I had more to say about this book, but even though Patricia's McCarthy's illustrations were beautiful, the text just didn't grab our attention.  A fine library check-out, but not on our grand list.

A Firefly Named Torchy
Written and Illustrated by Bernard Waber
The illustrations in this 1970 book about a firefly who's light is just too bright in the country are, well, exactly like the art that assaulted me during my early-70's childhood.  Nevertheless, Bean and I liked the story of the misfit firefly who headed to the bright lights of the big city.

A Teeny, Tiny Baby
Written and Illustrated by Amy Schwartz
This quiet book has a little something for everyone: the illustrations are pretty with just enough detail, Boo described the story as "thweet," and I could relate to the dazed by happy sleep deprivation portrayed by the infant's parents.  Funny, the kids didn't pick up on that part.

Aardvarks, Disembark
Written and Illustrated by Ann Jonas
We are big fans of Ann Jonas' books.  Her simple, graphical style betrays her background as a graphic designer and her spare text aims to convey the biggest amount of information with the least amount of text.  (Her Color Dance was in constant rotation when Bean was a toddler.) In Aardvarks, Noah lists the names of exotic animals (many extinct) as they leave the boat.  This book definitely passed the all ages test as both the toddler and the big kid enjoyed it, but for different reasons.  Bean liked the vocabulary and Boo loved looking at the different animals. (Ann Jonas is married to Donald Crews, another great children's book author with graphic style: Harbor, Freight Train, and Trucks are all favorites of Boo and will get their due when we reach their sections of the alphabet.)
Homeschool Connection: This is an excellent introduction to zoology, extinction and evolution for younger kids and would contribute nicely to larger units of study of any of those subjects for older kids.

Alphabet City
Written and Illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson
This is the quintessential photographic abecedarian. It immediately received Boo's stamp of approval (I IKE that book!) and even Bean leaned over to take a peek while she was reading something of a more narrative nature.

Amos & Boris
Written and illustrated by William Steig
From my point of view, this was the first really big treasure we found and exemplifies the raison d'etre of this project.  The illustrations are simple, but the tale of friendship and diversity is superbly, sublimely told.  It was the first of many books that I wondered why I had never read or even heard of - a puzzlement really.

Angelina Ballerina
Written by Katharine Holabird and Illustrated by Helen Craig
We've had six of the books in this series for a number of years, so one afternoon I slipped the original tale of the mouse who loves ballet into our reading stack.  The illustrations are gorgeous, the stories are engaging and well-told, but Bean asked the question she has been asking ever since we first read Angelina Ballerina: Why do mice get to wear toe shoes earlier than humans? (And the corollary questions: Could mice really wear toe shoes?  Wouldn't that hurt their ankles?)

Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing
Written by Judi Barrett and Illustrated by Ron Barrett
Another book that we took off our own shelf and a good companion piece when pondering the sense of mice wearing ballet slippers.  The Barretts (who also wrote Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Pickles to Pittsburgh) produce absurd children's literature that is better and more absurd than anyone else.  Check out Animals Should Definitely Not Act Like People at the same time and read them back to back.  (I must caution you against purchasing Judi Barret's recent title The Marshmallow Incident.  Borrow it from the library instead and decide for yourself whether it's a worthy follow-up to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Pickles to Pittsburgh.  Personally, I think it was ill-conceived and choose to pretend that someone with a less deft hand wrote this in her name.)

Written by Clyde Watson and Illustrated by Wendy Watson
What you get when you mix apples, the alphabet, and sweet, old-fashioned illustrations.
Homeschool Connection: Put this and Alphabet City (above) in a big stack of alphabet books for pre-schoolers.  This would be great in the fall if you go the thematic route of organizing your curriculum.


  1. You might want to check out Yuyi Morales's childrens books- they are gorgeously illustrated. I saw a couple at the Art Institute in the new kid's section and thought that they were beautiful. You might want to check them out first to make sure that the kids would be OK with them. One was about death (although never identfied as such- he just called Mr. Calabeza and was a day of the dead skeleton) coming to take grandma away, but she tricks him into leaving her through taking a long time with her chores (which involve counting, giving an educational piece). I think that you have to be older to get what is really going on- younger kids probably wouldn't pick it up (my description sounds more morbid that I remember it being). I thought that it was really neat and have it on my list of books to pick up for Chunky Monkey when he gets older.

  2. Thanks for the tip Heather. I am always looking for books that make difficult things: death, slavery, the holocaust, Japanese internment camps accessible and manageable for kids. We're reading from the Story Book section of the Guide right now, and many of these books are considered "bibliotherapy" because they address traumas, both big and everyday, that kids deal with. We recently read ones about a grandmother, a dog, and a father dying (not all in the same book.) I'll look for the Morales books. Why wait till the Monkey gets older to buy him books? Get them now, because they may not be available later and you never know when a kid will be ready for something.

  3. I'm just waiting to start my new job before I go on any spending sprees, plus we are going to start house hunting shortly so I'm putting off any unnecessary purchases until after we've moved (although I never would have guessed that I'd ever put books in the category of unnecessary purchases). My guess it that I'll pick up her books for him by Yule.

  4. Be sure to check out Why? by Nikolai Popov. I was dissapointed not to find it on your list of wordless books. Maybe conflict isn't considered list worthy, but I consider it a must "read."

  5. Thanks Heather (cousin that is). That looks familiar. It's not anywhere in the New York Times Guide to Children's books and it was definitely published before the last couple of editions of the Guide. I'll look for it at the library. I'm sure you have many classroom and mom favorites - I'd love to hear them.