Sunday, October 09, 2011

Eight Great Kids Books!

Almost immediately (and usually well before - or flat-out in place of - any expressions of sympathy!) the other day, several of you emailed spotting the Achilles Heel of my heartfelt sickbed posting about darling little Stellaluna: you pointed out that I mentioned being sick in bed with a stack of kids books - i.e. not just the one.

This is absolutely true (and a bit whiplashy! I remember when there were only four readers of this site - and none of them was exactly at his sharpest at 8 in the morning on a Friday) - when I'm in particular need of some mental ice cream, I reach for my select shelf of favorite kids books, not just Stellaluna. Like all adult readers with a healthy, flexible imagination, I read kids books for pleasure quite without the encumbrance of having actual children anywhere nearby to spoil things. And whether I'm feeling sludgy or just fine, here are some of my perennial favorites:

People by Peter Spier (1980)

I've praised Spier here at Stevereads before, and this book may be his most epic achievement: nothing less than a hugely detailed, lavishly illustrated letter of love to the entire human race. All kinds of people are represented, all manner of dress, food, religion, pets, language (including sign!), occupation, habitat, hairstyle, even eye-shape - all are clearly and respectfully drawn, without any of the regional bias (conscious or un) that always seem to infect similar books. Every rank and station of person is here, from kings to commoners, and all the rich and varied iterations of mankind are on display in Spier's signature clean, quirky line-work.  There aren't many books I'd advocate should be given to every single living person on Earth, but this is certainly one of them. This is the first of them.


Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo by William Joyce (1988)

While the Lazardo family is on African safari one year (they go on safari every year, right before the start of baseball season), young Scotty comes back to camp with an enormous dinosaur in tow and asks if he can keep it. Doctor Lazardo gives what has to be the perfect parental response to such a question: "I don't see why not." And so the family name their dinosaur Bob and pack him up for their return trip to Pimlico Hills. Bob adapts quickly to suburban family life, particularly enjoying his stint playing baseball for the Pimlico Pirates (he joins the team in a last-ditch effort to avoid trouble with the police, but it all turns out OK in the end), and everybody sings and dances until "late into the summer."

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Can there be a list like this one that doesn't feature this marvellous book? Can there by a heart so cold that it doesn't warm to the adventures of Mrs. Mallard (Mr. Mallard is a bit of a good-time charlie and isn't around for most of the book's action) and her chicks Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Quack, Pack, and Quack as they negotiate their way from their home on Boston's Charles River to the pond in the Public Garden? The book features ducks'-eye views of the State House and Beacon Hill and Louisburg Square; it features the Old Corner Bookshop where certain book-worms used to spend oceans of time; it even features an enormous Irish beat-cop, once as steady a fixture of Boston as the river or the State House itself. Boston has embraced the book as its civil sacred text, and readers the world over continue to find it charming enough to buy and then lug back to whatever godforsaken country they're from.

Barn Dance! by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault (1986)

This is quite possibly my single favorite kids book of them all. It's the story of a "skinny kid" (every family's ever-present dreamer) who responds to the enchantment of the night as it spreads over American farm country. He slips out of the house, past the sleeping hound-dog, down to the barn, where the scarecrow and the animals are having a spirited barn-dance, which he joins. Artist Ted Rand outdoes himself in the exuberance of those panels, but the really memorable thing about Barn Dance!'s art is Rand's incomparable ability to draw moonlight - he gives it a cold kind of warmth that fills the book with enchantment. But the enchantment lasts only as long as the night: when the horizon begins to turn purple, the owl says "Mornin's comin' closer/Mornin's comin' closer/The magic time is over.../Night'll soon be gone ..."

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling (1941)

Readers of a certain age will remember the fad that sparked this cherished book (people once mailed things, sometimes just for the fun of it!), and readers of a certain sentimentality will recall its most effective evocation in pop culture - of course I refer to the character Chris Stevens' brief readings from the book at the end of "Final Frontier," quite possibly the single best episode of the TV series "Northern Exposure." The book recounts the epic journey made by a small carved canoe as it winds its way through water-courses far away from the little boy who carved Paddle-to-the-Sea in the first place. Eventually, miraculously, the circle is completed, and the little boy rejoices: "You, Little Traveler! You made the journey, the Long Journey. You now know the things I have yet to know. You, Little Traveler! You were given a name, a true name in my father's lodge. Good Medicine, Little Traveler! You are truly a Paddle Person, a Paddle-to-the-Sea!" (Some of us will also note the obvious influence of Longfellow on those words, and we'll silently gloat to ourselves).

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems (2005)

I think the inspiration behind this classic was purely trivial: I think Mo Willems thought it might be fun to use actual photos of New York City locales as backgrounds for his drawings about Trixie, whose loathesome hipster parents accidentally leave her beloved Knuffle Bunny behind at the laundromat, causing Trixie to panic and protest - ineffectively, it turns out, since she can't yet talk. Eventually the error is spotted and the family races back to the laundry. They search and search, and soon Trixie's dad finds Knuffle Bunny - at which point Trixie is so happy she actually says her first words: "Knuffle Bunny." But quick gimmick-inspiration or not, the book is instantly magical.

Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw (1991)

Nancy Shaw's wonderful "Sheep" series (the sheep end up in many other places, including "In a Jeep") here perhaps touches on a sardonic nerve in somebody who's spend his entire life in retail; far too often (and without the saving humor), actual human customers behave just as destructively, cluelessly, and impulsively as the sheep do in this volume. "Sheep decide to buy a beach ball, Sheep prefer an out-of-reach ball" can provoke a wry grin in just about anybody who's manned a sales counter anywhere in the world, and "Sheep climb. Sheep grumble. Sheep reach. Sheep fumble" is likely to send some of those poor counter-helpers straight to the therapist they can't afford. The all-too-accurate illustrations are by Margot Apple.

Birdsong by Audrey Wood  (1997)

This is a strange book to end our rambles today, a book that feels a great deal older than 1997. It's an odd thing: writer Audrey Wood and great illustrator Robert Florczak take us through a tour of the United States bird-by-bird - and season by season. They show us kids (typically two, although young Yoshiko is alone and seems quite contented in the company of her hummingbirds) playing or working but usually ignoring the birds all around them, and the birds usually ignore them as well. Instead, in one beautiful full-page illustration after another, an extremely soothing laid-back natural world is evoked, a world that perhaps has never existed outside the confines of a kids book.

And there you have it! Eight perfect tonics for a slurpy day - or any kind of day, really.

1 comment:

Rohan said...

Lovely choices! I must keep my eye open for People.

We've always been partial to Sheep in a Jeep in my house, though Sheep in a Shop is a close second, along with Sheep Out to Eat.