Ten Favorite Picture Books, Part 2: THE LIST

So, last week I agonized about which books to pick fo Fuse #8's Top 100 Picture Books of All Time poll. And at the end of the post I announced that I had my list ready and was just waiting to post it. And then tonight I pulled up that post, all prepared to cut and paste and email and be done with it. Because I'd decided already, right?

But...noooo! There were more decisions and re-shufflings and re-considerings to do, and then finally, much later than I'd thought, I was done. So here's my list, quick, before I change my mind again:

  1. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

Two things: my Children’s Literature professor in library school used this title as an example of the uber-picture book, showing how the illustrations take over more and more of the page as the Wild Things take over. And back when I taught at an infant/toddler childcare, there was this very angry 2-year-old used to gleefully slap the page and cry “No!” along with Max,--you could see the tension flow out of him at finding a book that recognized how powerful feelings can be. Any book that resonates like that with toddlers and PhDs alike, over the generations, has got to be my pick for #1.

  1. Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems

It’s a mixed-media extravaganza! It’s a poignant coming-of-age story! It’s set in one of my favorite neighborhoods in the whole world! And it has the very best busted-dad look EVER—Mo Willems can show more human emotion with fewer penstrokes than you’d even think possible. Not to mention the immortal phrase “Aggle flabble klabble!”

  1. Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans

What really does it for me is that page where Miss Clavel runs fast and faster, so that she’s a sketchy blur on the page. And the crack on the hospital ceiling which had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit. So dreamlike and weird and also just like real life.

  1. A Voyage to the Bunny Planet, by Rosemary Wells (three books that have been reprinted as an omnibus and that I’m counting as one)

The Bunny Planet can make ANYBODY feel better. They should be sending theose books out with IRA statements.

  1. Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson

One boy and a crayon create a whole world, complete with ocean, moose, pie, the moon, and a neatly-drawn-up bed.

  1. Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag

A choice perhaps slightly influenced by my kid’s starring role as The Very Old Woman in her first-grade play. But it was one of my favorites before that, too, way back to before I could even read. And that was a long, long time ago.

  1. A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams

There’s something about the simplicity and kindness of this family story, and Vera  B. Williams’s big vibrant blobs of color, and that totally gets to me. Every time.

  1. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes

One of the few kids’ books that really pulls off a depiction of a kid doing something wrong and being honestly, believably sorry.  Combine that with cute mice, a groovy Birkenstock-wearing teacher, cheesy snacks, and of course Lilly her indefatigable self, and you’ve got a classic for the ages.

  1. The Shy Little Girl, by Phyllis Krasilovsky, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Trina Schart Hyman was a hardworking genius of an illustrator; this title is one of her earliest. It isn’t as famous or as lush as her later books, but it’s my favorite. The story is so simple as to be archetypical—a shy girl becomes more confident when she makes a friend—but the illustrations, with their poignance and detail and spare use of color (mostly earth tones, with only the title character and her best friend rendered in full color), give it life and specificity. Long out of print; I wrote a bit more about it a couple months ago here.  

  1. Thirteen, by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner

Long before David Wiesner or David Macaulay or Brian Selznick were making visual magic with picture books, there was Thirteen, with its (yes) thirteen simultaneous stories on each page, some of them dripping into each other, some complete in themselves. Beautiful and funny and mysterious and surreal.

And because I couldn’t bear to not list the rest of my top 20:

  • The Keeping Quilt, by Patricia Polacco
  • The Gruffalo, written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
  • A Bargain for Frances, by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban [I know easy readers were specifically excluded, but this has been published as a regular old picture book too. And it’s got the cleverest, best plot twist EVER.]
  • Tacky the Penguin, by Helen Lester & Lynn Munsinger
  • Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina
  • Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey
  • The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, by Don and Audrey Wood
  • Ten Minutes Till Bedtime! by Peggy Rathmann
  • Roxaboxen, by Alice McClaren, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
  • The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater

Okay, that's it! Really! Done now! No more changing my mind! Or adding things! Clicking "Publish"...now!

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Ten Favorite Picture Books Challenge, Part 1: In Which I Dither And Whine

Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8 has challenged us all—that means you, too—to send her our nominations for the Ten Best Picture Books of All Time, which she is going to compile into a mombo list of The 100 Best Picture Books. In the comments to her original post, she clarified somewhat: not the ten books that we believe to be the most critically, objectively award-worthy, but each of our very own personal favorites. Also: only regular picture books, no easy readers.

So, here’s how I did it: First, I wrote down, without referring to any lists or resources, the books that came to mind that I personally adore to pieces. Then, to jog my memory, I looked at the Past Caldecott Medal and Honor Winners and the New York Public Library’s 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know, and I added some books from those lists that are not only critically noteworthy but that I personally adore to pieces. Then I looked through some of my curriculum notes from my old job, so I could remember the books I particularly like reading aloud to classes. Meanwhile, I was also going to work, which involves a fair bit of flipping through the picture-book collection.

Then I made myself a rule: no more than one book by any single author would go on my list. This led to a lot of dithering: Knuffle Bunny or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus? Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen? Thirteen or Fortunately? Most often, the battle was between my personal and professional selves; between the book that I personally adore to pieces and the one whose one kid-friendliness or narrative perfection or canonical status would normally lead me to put it on a Professional Ten Best List.

Which led me to deeply consider the nature of “best,” and how it is different from “favorite.” Which led me to try to trick myself into composing a list by asking myself questions. Like: “If I were stranded on a desert island and had to entertain a pack of kids of various ages and myself, which ten books would I want with me?” Or, “If the world were about to end and I were entrusted with the task of putting ten picture books into the space capsule taking the last of its survivors to a new home in the sky, which ones should I pick?” Which two questions led to very different answers. And did not really help.

Which led me to bang my head on the computer and whine “This is SO HARD! TOOOO HAAARD!!”


Coming up soon: what I picked, and why. (Yes, I have made my list already; I’m just drawing out the suspense ;-) I do reserve the right to change a couple things before posting the final version, though.)

In the meantime: What are your favorite picture books? And are they the same as the ones you think should be on a 100 Best Picture Books list?

And while you’re thinking about that, there’s still time to email your own list to Betsy! I’m totally dying to see what the final 100-best books compilation will look like…

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Kids, Books, and Rock & Roll

After reading my last post, a friend wrote to ask if I thought the Cure song "Charlotte Sometimes" might be based on the book. I have to admit that, not being a Cure listener, I'd never heard of the song until recently, when I started hunting down links for the last post, at which point I found, to my amazement, that the author of the BOOK Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer, has a blog, and she wrote here and here about discovering the song and eventually being invited to a Cure concert and meeting the Cure's Robert Smith, who sweetly brought out a battered old VERY GIRLY copy of the book, told her how much he'd loved it as a kid, and asked her to sign it. Awww!

The raucous world of rock & roll and the seemingly demure one of children's books might not appear to have much in common, but they coincide more often than you'd think. Lots of kids' book authors have rock & roll souls: Sammy Keyes author Wendelin Van Draanen lists as her hobbies “reading, running, and rock & roll”, and Lemony Snicket, perpetrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, has been known to collaborate with Stephen Meritt of the band The Magnetic Fields.

And then there are all the young adult novels that take popular music-- rock, rap, punk--as their subject, or at least their setting, with protagonists who want to get into the business, or parents who are or were rock stars, and some characters who just love the music so much that it's a vital part of who they are and what the book's about. Here are a few in that genre that are great for the music-loving teen—or for the teen inside you:

Audrey breaks up with her boyfriend because he pays more attention to his band than to her. Then he writes a song about her that propels him into the big time, and Audrey, unwillingly, along with him. Having been bombarded by “Hey There Delilah” a couple summers ago, along with the rest of the Western world, and read a bit about the real Delilah, I couldn’t resist picking up this book, and I was glad I did.

You know how “High School Musical” is about being true to yourself, really truly true to yourself, and not caring if you look foolish or you might fail or no one else thinks what you’re doing is cool? Fat Kid is about that, too. Only instead of being cute and sweet, it cuts deep into the dorky, fat, sweaty heart of what that means, and how doing that is the only thing that can save you and is not incidentally the real meaning of punk. Truly awesome.

I wrote about this one a few weeks ago but am tossing it in here again because it captures perfectly  how much music can mean to you when you’re in high school—how a band, or a singer, can seem like something magical that reaches right into your soul and defines it. Also because it put the ineffable “Sunday Girl” into my head on repeat for days.

  • Beige, by Cecil Castelucci

There’s a distinct sub-genre of young-adult novels lately that takes on the topic of dissipated (fictional) rock stars’ legacies—not to musical history, but to their own kids. In Beige, neat, competent, organized Katy is dropped, protesting mightily, into the midst of the L.A. punk scene for the summer to visit her punk-star dad, The Rat, drummer for the band Suck. It’s not surprising that Katy learns some lessons, makes some friends, and changes over the summer, but the way it happens is what draws you in. Witty and kind, and educational into the bargain—Castelluci heads each chapter with real punk song titles, a musical history unto themselves.

On the third anniversary of his rock-star mother’s dreath from a drug overdose, 15-year-old Grady is invited back to Seattle to appear at a concert in her honor. Grady’s been living with his grandmother, far from the limelight, but she’s about to get married and he has choices ahead of him. Some time with his stepdad in Seattle and his mentally disabled half-brother help him sort things out. Another kid-of-a-rock-star book, with a thoughtful hero facing his past and the multiple meanings of love.

Once I started noticing the rock-stars-kids’ motif, I couldn’t stop looking for it. A couple days ago I picked up this example from the library. I’m only partway through it, but already it’s looking pretty good. Our hero and narrator, Leo Carraway, starts out as an uptight Young Republican fighting against the internal anarchist urges that he’s sure come from his punk-star biological father. But you can tell from the start of the book that he’s going to succumb pretty soon. I can’t wait.

Finally, even though it’s a picture book for the 3-to-8 set and not a novel for teens, I can’t resist mentioning Punk Farm, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Tired of the same old, same old “Old McDonald Had a Farm”? Try reading this one aloud and screeching, rocking, and banging along with the punkest menagerie ever. No wonder the animals are so sleepy in the morning…perfect for the Headbangers’ Storytime.

Rock on! Good night Scholastic!

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My First Professional Reading

This post is brought to you by Mitali Perkins's Facebook page, on which she recently asked: "Which college or high school course is most helpful to your vocation today?"
I replied: "High school and college were fine, but the most useful educational hours I put in were in 2nd and 3rd grade when I was in an open classroom and sat in the Reading Corner for hours at a time reading one children's novel after another. I became a bookworm in those two years, and am still recommending some of those books in my job as a librarian today. No joking."
After I wrote this, I thought some more about it and it is really true! Not only did those two years get me totally hooked on the children's books that --it turned out--would become my grownup job, but, even though I didn't know it, I was doing solid professional reading back then. Sure, I read a lot of mediocre fiction, and a lot of books that I don't even remember now, and a lot of books that, even though I loved them, have fallen out of fashion and/or availability in the past couple of decades. But I also read many books in elementary school that you'll still find on library shelves (and in print) and that I can still sincerely recommend to the Youth of Today. Like:
Baby Island, by Carol Ryrie Brink. Brink won the Newbery Medal for Caddie Woodlawn, but this is the one that sticks in my mind. two baby-loving girls are shipwrecked and end up on an island with a bunch of babies! It's the perfect little-girl fantasy: they get to be self-sufficient and survive on their own, with no grownups around, and they get to be nurturing and take care of a bunch of cute babies. I adored it.
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The Humanities teacher at my former workplace used to assign this book in conjunction with the 6th grade unit on ancient Egypt, and there is a lot of solid information in here--after all, the main characters so obsessed with the topic that they create a sort of Ancient Egyptian clubhouse in a vacant lot, and re-enact Egyptian rituals as well as they can. But what fascinated me was the touch of magic in the book: though it's not a fantasy, there's a hint of the occult (which turns out to have a mostly--but, tantalizingly, not entirely--logical explanation), and the strong sense that the protagonists half-believe that if they immerse themselves enough in Ancient Egyptiania, they can really get themselves there.

Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. The first time I read this book, it sucked me in so completely that I didn't hear the bell ring to come in from recess (I was in my recess reading place, over by the jungle gym) and was alarmed and disoriented to discover that I was the absolute only person out on the school playground. But not as disoriented as the title character is when she finds that she's time-travelled in the night, so that she wakes up in her bed at her same boarding school but forty years earlier. 

The Secret Language, by Ursula Nordstrom. Another boarding-school book. I was transfixed by boarding school stories as a kid, and--to the bemusement of my parents--was sure that I would love it if only they'd let me go to one. The heroine here, 8-year-old Victoria, is bafflingly (to the child who was me) sad to be sent away to school, but she does make a Best Friend and has some satisfying adventures. When I re-read this book as an adult I was struck by its episodic nature: there's no big page-turning plot, just Victoria's growing understanding of her friend and her surroundings. It's all about the friendship, which really appealed to me.

Encyclopedia Brown series, by Donald Sobol. As a kid, I very much liked stories about girls. But I made an exception for Encyclopedia Brown books because they were so cool! They were sort of like stories, and sort of like puzzles, and sort of like mysteries. I never could figure them out without flipping to the back, but it was fun to try. Plus, Encyclopedia's friend and business partner Sally was pretty impressive.

 The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key. Here's the truth: I don't exactly remember what happened in this book, just that I liked it. And that it was mysterious and science-fiction-y. But mainly that I saw it on the Reading Corner spinner for months before I got around to reading it. I took against it for no particular reason and just couldn't bring myself to pick it up, until one day, equally randomly, I had a change of heart and sat down with it and was astonished that it could be so good when I'd avoided it for so long. I still have that feeling about certain books sometimes: I don't want to read them, and don't want to read them, until one day I suddenly do.

Don't get me wrong: I learned a ton in high school, and in college, and I read many many books that enriched my life and that I still love. And of course I've read hundreds of children's and teen books as an adult. But for practical job preparation--who would have known it?--nothing in my formal pre-library-school education beats those two years I spent hunched in the reading corner. I hope, for my profession's sake, that even though open classrooms have largely fallen out of fashion, there are still kids out there reading with such indiscriminate freedom as I had.
Viva free reading time!

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