I love picture books. Reading them aloud together is the major indoor activity for our family. It is something so important in our lives that I feel like I must say something about it. Where else could kids better find balance, understanding and exposure to the world than inside our arms, from our laps and voices, and with our eyes together turning over pages & words, thoughts, dreams and ideas in picture books?
I enjoyed looking through our library and pulling out 40 picture books that made me smile for one reason or another. There are many good reasons to read picture books but I think that the most important reason is because you love doing it. You love learning. You love hearing the ideas. These are 40 books from our library that represent why I love reading picture books.
It is my hope that, if you hear about my favorite picture books from our library, you’ll develop favorites of your own, perhaps build library of your own or at least dig a little differently in your public library. Perhaps we will end up loving some of the same books. May it be so.
But of course, there are many reasons to read picture books. You might simply want to learn about a subject, the Kent State Shootings, for instance. Yes, we have a picture book on that. Or you can read to be silly or inspired, with Dr. Seuss say, reading Hop on Pop or Oh, the Places You’ll Go! So read for every reason, but definitely read because you love to as well.
And I’ll only say one thing more that’s like advice. That is, let the children choose what to read about 75% of the time. Yes, this means reading the same books over and over again. But let them. I’m not even going to go into the reasoning. Trust me. Slowly, you’ll get in your new books and you can have faith that the time you invested reading books over and over again will be repaid. I don’t doubt that lovers of books will emerge. Those books over and over again are a chrysalis.
As I pulled out titles in preparation for writing this, I told my son what I was doing. He is almost 8 years old. He said all of the books in our library are his favorite. And I believe him because it took some convincing when I found two copies of Dr. DeSoto (Steig) and he didn’t want to give one copy to his cousin. Somehow he appreciated each copy for its unique, individual characteristics. They looked like identical, hardback books to me.
You might wonder how we came to have two hardback copies of Dr. DeSoto. This is because we have very many picture books. In fact, they take up about 29 feet of shelving and sometimes I loose track of what we have copies of and what we don’t. And I’m a sucker for a Newbery or a Caldecott award winner, or even an honorable mention, as Dr. DeSoto is. If you estimate rather conservatively that each spine is half an inch across then we have 696 picture books in our collection.
You may also wonder how a family of such modest means can afford 29 shelf-feet of hardback, picture books and purchase with such abandon that we don’t care if we already have a copy. Well, this is because we buy almost all of our picture books at a special sale that happens twice per year.
The main library in the capital city unloads its discarded books at these sales. And sometimes it is hard to see why a book has been discarded. I trust the librarians have their logic. But at these biannual sales the price is 7$ a grocery bag full (to the brim). And this price has gone up from 5$, which is the price at which we purchased the majority of ours.
To me, this price is a great bargain. Perhaps I am blinded by my love of books but it is very difficult for me to see any way that this is not a great bargain for anyone. I like to go to these sales twice per year and buy 4 bags full. In the early years I would buy 6 bags. In those early years at the library sales, people would see my repeat trips to the car with two bags then back to the sale to buy two more and they would say “You must be a teacher.” And I would say, “Yes, I am.”
I came to children’s literature late in life but I am making up for it. I have very few recollections of being read specific books growing up. I was plugged into the television much of the time I wasn’t in public school, sad to say. We didn’t have a lot of books around my childhood house either. And we were always being whisked off to this activity or that.
Somehow there are a few books that I remember: The Giving Tree (Silverstein), Baylor the Tailor (Lee) and Where Did I Come From? (Mayle). And I remember reading Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Burton). And there is a copy of Blueberries for Sal (McClosky), a wonderful book, that has survived even as a soft-cover to this day and is in our library. Oh, and there was the Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. My Mom was crazy for Goldbug.
And maybe that’s the thing. I don’t know that my Mom (and certainly not my Dad) ever loved picture books. Maybe for Mom it was more about sitting together, talking about the pictures, ‘finding Goldbug’ or learning how to read. Maybe she just didn’t know what was out there. And Goldbug brings up a good point. Waldo too.
There are loads of what I call ‘gimmick books’ out there. And I don’t mean to degenerate them. But there are a lot of books that are designed because adults think that kids think books are boring. Every book that has little buttons you press to make sounds is a gimmick book. These books degenerate the whole genre and end up turning kids off to reading. And don’t get me wrong, I love Eric Carle and The Very Quiet Cricket makes chirping noises at the end.
You see, it is all about having a good story. It is essential that picture books have good words (story) or good images (story) and not rely on some gimmick. Even ideas can be gimmicky at times. See Duck! Rabbit! (Rosenthal), Press Here (Tullet) and even Zoom (Banyai) for examples of books that break the essential rule. These books may be fun to look or read once or twice but do they inspire a love of literature? Do they have children reading again and again?
Eric Carle’s books rely on wonderful stories that capture the essence of certain features of human life: work (The Very Busy Spider), love (The Very Quiet Cricket) and gluttony (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). Eric Carle says something to this effect (maybe not about gluttony) in his very nice documentary movie, Eric Carle: Picture Writer (1993), which I recommend watching.
So, I enjoyed browsing through our picture book library and pulling out a number to highlight. Maybe some you will like reading.
Again, these are forty books that I felt like sharing. I don’t mean to say that these are the best forty books in the world or even that they are all wonderful. These are just books that made me smile, thinking of what they mean to me and my family. If you want a list of all amazing books then, by all means, read through the Caldecott (mainly picture books) and Newbery (mainly chapter books) award winners list. You can hardly go wrong.
And I should say that these books have become special to us especially over our first three years of homeschool, for my son this was 5-8 years old. I figure we have at least two more years with him before he is mainly turning the pages of chapter books. But I have no doubt that he’ll always have a place in his heart for picture books and find himself returning to some of these, perhaps even in adulthood.
40 SPECIAL BOOKS ON OUR SHELVES
(1) I think of The Story of Little Babaji (Bannerman, Marcellino, 1996) every time I make pancakes and probably, after reading this book hundreds of times, my pancakes will always be “just as yellow and brown as little Tigers.” But of course, it is more than that. It is British and Indian. It is funny and it is warm. It is one-upping the bullies and, most important, it is warm delight, like a belly full of 159 pancakes (or however many it is that little Babaji ends up eating).
(2) I get a kick out of Crocodile and Hen (Lexau, Sandin) every-time, the way that hen cocks her head that certain way chickens do and tilts her head back to drink. It is a funny and cute little book.
(3) Hog-Eye (Meddaugh), though, is just plain hilarious. I still laugh when the little pig starts casting her magic stare and saying “Hog-eye! Hog-eye!” I don’t know what it says about me but these first three have in common among them overcoming a big, strong (if dumb) bully. It is true that I have always been fond of the underdog.
(4) I pulled Mel’s Diner (Moss) because my son keeps choosing it, again and again. It is one of those books that has struck as special chord for him. Perhaps it is the opening to a different world, a city diner, where people come everyday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, unlike on our farm, there is a swirl of people to interact with, all different races, ages and habits to consider.
(5) Stone Soup (Brown) is a Caldecott Honor book and it is all about story – overcoming the reluctance of people to give and share. It captures a certain human nature, a seed perhaps, that is in all of us, to look out for our family first. But it is also a lesson: wit can win when it plays one human nature (self-interest) against another (curiosity).
(6) And I tried not to just pull out Caldecott medal winners and Honor books, but Fables (Lobel) is another to enjoy. It uses the perhaps familiar pattern of a short story on each page followed by a moral.
(7) A Place for Butterflies (Stewart, Bond) is a good one for learning about some of our more beautiful lepidoptera in North America.
(8) Blue Sky Bluebird (Chrustowski) is a wonderfully illustrated, engaging and ecologically accurate depiction of the life of Eastern bluebirds.
(9) Our Yard is Full of Birds (Rockwell, Rockwell) doesn’t have very many words but it has wonderful pictures and the birds are the ones that our yard is full of too.
(10) Toad in the Road (Ryder, Kneen) shows “a year in the life of these amazing amphibians”. Indeed, what can be more important to know about than those things that trill to us on an a summer’s night?
(11) I like kid’s books that open up the lives of different cultures. Grandpa’s Hotel (Levinson, Soman) does this for Jewish culture.
(12) As does, Yussel’s Prayer (Cohen, Deraney), in perhaps a more religious sense.
(13) The children’s book author Demi is one of my favorite authors and artists. Her book, Buddha Stories, follows the short stories with a moral format.
(14) Also by Demi, Muhammad, depicts the prophet (peace be upon him) as dictated by the Islamic faith, as a shining, golden, outline of a man. I love all of Demi’s books. We have checked out perhaps 30 from our public library and are happy to own 5 or 6. All are beautifully illustrated.
(15) Luke Has Down’s Syndrome (Powell) reminds me of the year I spent working with and learning from my friend John. He taught me so many wonderful lessons. I think back on them so often. Books like this are a connection for kids to the many wonderful and different kinds of people they will meet.
(16) Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club (Wong, Schuett) is a good book about a great game. Chess is an important part of public schools across the world. It would be good if it were also commonly taught and practiced more here in the USA.
(17) Dear Juno (Pak, Hartung) is about a correspondence between a Korean boy being raised in America and his grandmother overseas. It is a very nice book about letter writing.
(18) For illustration alone, I love the book Song of Creation (Goble). It is a prayer, repeated again and again, and I love the art depicting our North American wildlife.
(19) Paul Goble also wrote and illustrated The Girl Who Loved wild Horses and it too has inspiring images.
(20) I naturally gravitate to well-illustrated stories about history and important historical figures. Into the Deep, The Life of Naturalist and Explorer William Beebe (Sheldon) is a good book about a pioneer in the field of ecology.
(21) How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning (Schanzer) is an entertaining story about our first American hero. (And, as an adult, if you haven’t read his autobiography, I recommend it).
(22) My Grandmother’s Journey (Cech, McGinely-Nally) is an amazing true story about living in Russia and surviving the Russian civil war, the purges of Stalin and the retreating Nazis in World War II.
(23) The Strongest Man in the World, Louis Cyr (Debon) is a book my son has enjoyed. It is historically accurate, interesting and uses comic-style frames through the story. I think physical strength and power is naturally attractive to young boys.
Sometimes it is very difficult to find a good illustrated and adapted version of a great classic. I have checked out I don’t know how many versions of A Pilgrim’s Progress looking for something that might be good to read with my son and no luck. I think that we will just wait a bit and read the original. The Classic Starts Series may be an option. We have just started reading our copy of The Last of the Mohicans that was developed for that series and it is pretty good.
(25) Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Adapted by by Felix Sutton (1974) is a wonderful adaption of an important and difficult-to-read classic. It has great pictures and is very accessible. It captures Ahab’s madness perfectly. I highly recommend this version if you can find it.
(26) My son grabs Easter (French) with words from the King James Bible a lot. I like the stained-glass style art and depicting stories of Jesus of Nazareth’s last days. My son was never put off by the King James Version language.
And of course, when you have chosen to homeschool your children and live in a isolated rural setting, seemingly eschewing many of modern life’s conveniences and obsessions, you’ll want to explain why you’ve made that choice. And it is a hard thing to explain. And your kids may want to explain your choice someday too. These next 10 books will help you all, each in different and perhaps little ways.
(27) Mouse & mole and the Year-Round Garden (Cushman) is a nice book about gardening. Sometimes we read the ‘extra’ information at the bottom, sometimes we don’t. They peruse a seed catalog at the end, perhaps that’s why I like it.
(28) Log Cabin in the Woods (Henry, Zarins) is a wonderful story based one of the first European families to homestead in what would become Indianapolis. This one is more like a chapter book but has pictures on every page and will be especially meaningful for people familiar with present day downtown Indy and who can thus imagine it back then.
(29) Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home (Yazzie, toddy) is a story about the Navajo Long Walk. These episodes in history are important to remember. Think about passages like this: “‘I know the crops will be destroyed,’ answered Father, quietly. ‘But we plant because we cannot let our children and grandchildren forget our ways. Our children learn many things about the environment through the planting of corn.’”
(30) Summer Sun Risin’ by W. Nikola-Lisa & illustrated by Don Tate is another of my favorites. I love the melody and the words. I love the illustration and the heat of the day. “Train on the tracks, shiny as a dime.” It is a rhyming book, so simple and so nice.
(31) Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel (Connor, Azarian) is one of my favorite stories because, in part, it is about about building a homestead. I like Mary Azarian’s illustration.
(32) Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute (Dunlap/Lorbiecki, Azarian) is another that she illustrated in our library. We are great lovers of Walden & Little Women and picture books like this are a great way to introduce children to these writers and make connections.
I haven’t been putting these books in any real order but these last few I particularly love.
(33) Crow Boy (Yashima) is such a wonderful book on so many counts. It is hard for me to say anything about it. It is stories, ideas and feelings like these that make me love this genre of literature.
(34) I think of Frederick (Lionni) often. And it is important too. So much of our world is bent on the quantifiable and economic but there are times when it is the magic of poetry that sustains us. This book is a good reminder of that. Thank God for poets.
(35) The Story of Wali Dad retold and illustrated by Kristina Rodanas is perhaps a familiar tale in India. I wish it were so in the United States. What would you do with material riches and wealth? You’d give it away, of course. If not, you at least have Wali Dad’s example to store somewhere in your consciousness.
(36) And isn’t Brother Juniper by Diane Gibfried & illustrated by Meilo the same story? I laugh every time I see Brother Juniper’s bare-naked bottom standing in the basement of the church that he has given away. What a tale!
(37) Read Bringing the Farmhouse Home by Gloria Whelan illustrated by Jada Rowland because we will all die. And our worldly possessions must be disposed of. And isn’t this a rockus and fun way to do it?
(38) Sam, Bangs & Moonshine written & illustrated by Evaline Ness may be familiar to you. It is a Caldecott winner (1967). Strange times can produce strange literature. And there is something about this story and these illustrations, some other-worldliness. What is it about this book that it is chosen so often?
(39) Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti is an amazing piece of art. It is such a sad story. Poor Rose is even shot and killed. But she goes skinny and risks her life to feed the kids in the concentration camp. I imagine some paragraph in a public school history book about Nazism or concentration camps, and what would be the waxy, separateness of presentation there. And how the public school history textbooks will take something that can be so alive and moving and make it totally dead and meaningless. Read Rose Blanche. Lest they forget, lest good men do nothing.
(40) And left for last, by intention, is The Bravest of us All by Marsha Diane Arnold & pictures by Brad Sneed. Subtle and magnificent. She stares down a bull to go after sand cherries. They tell lies about catfish swimming in the horse tank. And of course, everybody knows that a tornado don’t touch down in the bend of a creek. Its even got the smell of warm baking bread. I love this book.
Maybe you grew up without picture books in the house. Maybe you have yet to discover the depth and wonder that is possible in them. Maybe that fire, that love of learning, hasn’t yet been kindled in you and you don’t find yourself reaching out to discover more about this crazy world we live in and the breath-taking wonder that it is to be alive. Maybe you didn’t know that picture books could change the world?
[Eumaeus, was a classroom teacher in both public and private schools in the the United States and overseas for five years. He & his wife (also a teacher) homeschool their three children on a farm in rural Indiana.]