Picture Books: Something Old, New, Borrowed and…READ!

Picture Books: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something… READ

This is a great time to be a reader of picture books. For little bookworms and their parents, the classics are still classics and new picture books are introducing incredible dimensions in diversity and creativity. Here is a roundup of books that are old, books that are new, and even some books that are no longer in print, but available to borrow at your local library. Whatever it is, whenever it is, and wherever it is (tonight we did a read-aloud in the bath), just read!

Board books:
I knew my little guy would love The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harry the Dirty Dog, Goodnight Moon, and all Sandra Boynton books, but especially Hippos Go Berserk! I remember these from my childhood and my older kids also loved them. Recently, we discovered Lois Ehlert, both to his delight and, wonderfully, to our older children’s delight as well. The vivid colors, bold pictures, and simple, sweet text combine to create a reading experience that is accessible to the little ones and still interesting for their older siblings. My seven-year-old has memorized Growing Vegetable Soup and will occasionally do a read-aloud for the four-year-old and one-year-old. While we (probably) will never grow a garden that will yield nutritious dinners and snacks, I like that my kids are starting to learn how food gets to the table. Ehlert’s Eating the Alphabet is a fun way to learn letters and opens horizons in the food department. Finally, for an English-Spanish picture book, look no further than Ehlert’s rendering of a Mexican folktale in Cuckoo.

Picture Books I:
Until I became a parent, I didn’t appreciate how widely varied picture books were. For younger children (ages 3-5), we look for books with a simple storyline and engaging art. Rain Makes Applesauce, Julian Scheer’s poetic work from the sixties, allows kids to delight in the absurd and revel in the whimsical. The intricately drawn pictures do a lot of the talking here, but half of the fun is the refrain “but rain makes applesauce…oh you’re just talking silly talk!” (Note of caution: My daughter’s favorite picture “I wear my shows inside out” has resulted in some early morning, pre-carpool experimentation). Our most recent acquisition, Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis, possesses a similar feel. My mother-in-law, who gifted us the book, initially thought it was written in another language, and it is: bug language. There is not a single English word in it, but there is a pattern to the words, a coherence to the narrative, and my kids find it hilarious. The bugs’ experience and dialogue teaches a lesson about the wondrous – but almost invisible – things going on in nature right below our noses. Finally, Herve Tullet’s Touch Here works as an interactive game where kids respond to directions and magically make the spots in the book move around, change colors, and grow. Somehow, the joy of the book doesn’t diminish even after multiple readings where kids figure out that they’re not *actually* controlling the pictures.  

Picture Books II:
There have been some great books that my kids totally embrace when they’re young, but only “get” when they’re a few years older and wiser. I remember the moment when my daughter started to appreciate the humor in Stone Soup, Marcia Brown’s retelling of a classic folktale. For a long time, the story of an entire community gathering ingredients one by one and making soup with a stone in a gigantic pot was entertaining enough. Eventually, she realized that the selfish townspeople were being duped by the hungry soldiers, and that stone soup was a clever ploy to get a hearty meal of chicken soup. I recommend getting another version of the story – we like Ann McGovern’s book with the same title, but there are so many – and ask your child to point out similarities and differences between the two. Sanji and the Baker, which is sadly out of print, is another retelling of a clever folktale. Sanji, a young, genial traveler far from home, loves inhaling the smells from the bakery below his room. The mouthwatering descriptions of the pastries, Sanji’s ingenious contraption for smelling them, the rich and varied facial expressions, and the greedy baker who demands payment for the aromas are all fun pieces of the story. However, it is the judge and his brilliant verdict that captivates my kids every time and culminates with them reading along and hollering “Good. Because THAT was your payment!” A more recent example of a book which can be read on multiple levels is Mo Willems’ Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct. Here, Willems plays with reality, imagination, and fantasy in his description of Edwina, a dinosaur who is a beloved member of a school and town community. The book centers on Reginald, the student who angrily insists on the fact of Edwina’s non-existence, but ultimately undergoes a transformation due to Edwina’s loving friendliness and goodness. Finally, Lore Segal’s Tell Me a Trudy and Tell Me a Mitzi touch on important themes of growing up, through a series of stories that a mother and father tell their daughter Martha. Some of the stories feel like they are being told by grown-ups bringing their middle-age, suburban idioms and concerns into their children’s bedtime tales (my favorite line is when Trudy tells her parents “This is Superman. He’s come about the bathroom.”). While the stories range from realistic (a children’s argument about sharing morphs into an adult argument along the same lines) to fantastic (a president stops his motorcade to search for chewing gum for Mitzi and Jacob), they all explore larger ideas and feelings through relatable, small snapshots of an American family’s life. Thankfully Tell Me a Mitzi is back in print, and I hope that Tell Me a Trudy follows soon!

These are a few of the literary fixtures in our home. Like I said, these picture books work their magic in different ways for younger children, older children, and even their parents!