I love books. I can't pass a bookstore, thrift store, library or garage sale without coming home with a treasure (or two or three).
I'm pretty sure I know exactly how this started. I was in second grade and was sent to school with a dime to buy a book at the used book sale (I will not even comment on how long ago this was). I remember holding that dime — which was a lot of money to an 8-year-old— and carefully walking around the tables, looking for the perfect book. There were so many. I knew then and there that when I grew up, I needed to have a lot of dimes so I could buy as many books as I wanted. Though we had a few books at home, my busy, working, parents were not great readers and the library was a car ride away, making trips there very infrequent.
I sat down at one point, overwhelmed with all the choices. My classmates had picked their prizes and were showing off the covers and flipping through the pages.
My teacher walked over to me, asking what was wrong. I told her that picking out one book was like picking out a favorite flavor of ice cream. How could anyone do that when they were all so great? She took me by the hand and we walked around. Then she picked up a book she thought I would like. Even though it had very few pictures — just a small illustration at the start of the chapters — she told me that it was the story of two kids, an adventure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and a mystery. The book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
I handed over my dime. I took that book home and started reading it immediately, tucking it under my pillow. Every day, I would read one chapter, not wanting to read too much too fast because I wanted the adventure to last as long as possible. I loved it, and both of my kids now know the story of Claudia, Jamie and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
This all comes to mind because Maurice Sendak, the famous children's author, died in early May. He had his own take on children's books, as the New York Times noted in its splendid obituary, writing that "he wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche." I'm a fan and read Where The Wild Things Are with my kids when they were young. And while I enjoy it, I can't say it's my favorite — just like I can't tell you what my favorite ice cream is.
But the Sendak stories reminded me of some of the other books for younger kids that I love — the ones that now fill my kids' shelves, and that I give to new parents to help them start their own libraries.
• Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson: Harold draws his way through one adventure after another with a big fat purple crayon. As Kimberly's four-year-old said upon first hearing this story, "Mama, Harold is clever." Indeed.
• Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown: This story about a bunny's nighttime ritual, saying goodnight to everything in his room, has spawned many parodies, including Goodnight iPad, Goodnight Bush (definitely not for children) and this take on teen life.
• Peanut, by Linas Alsenas. The story of Mildred, who adopts a stray pet and doesn't realize why it's not like the other dogs. Maybe because Peanut's an elephant. This book is aimed at young children, but ideal for anyone who can appreciate its simplicity and fine illustration.
• Many Moons, by James Thurber: Thurber, a writer and cartoonist whose work appeared in the New Yorker, tells the story of Princess Lenore, who is sick from eating too many raspberry tarts and wants the moon. (There are two illustrated versions — I have the one illustrated by Marc Simont.)
• Wheels on the Bus, by Paul O. Zelinsky. A lovely pop-up version of the song. Look closely to follow the story of a hapless boy trying to move a box of kittens across town.
• Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo, by William Joyce: The fabulous adventurous family Lazardo discover Bob while on vacation in Africa. He comes home with them. 'Nuff said.
• Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton: Tells the story of Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, and how they show that old machines can still be put to good use — and save the town of Popperville.
• Knuffle Bunny Free, by Mo Willems. My favorite of the Knuffle Bunny series. Trixie journeys to Amsterdam, and comes to a very mature decision about Knuffle Bunny.
• Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans: The classic story of Madeline, who lives in "an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines." The smallest one is Madeline, who is spunky and adventurous.
• Eloise at the Plaza, by Kay Thompson: Six-year-old Eloise lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her Nanny, her pet pug Weenie and her turtle Skipperdee. The rhymes are fun — and who wouldn't like a life with unlimited access to room service?
• Shark vs. Train, by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld. Sure, these two could use nicer language. But who doesn't love a duel, a high-dive contest, or outer space exploration – all conducted by a hypercompetitive shark and train?
• Go Dog Go, by P.D. Eastman: If the dog on the cover, wearing a scarf and racing cap and driving a convertible, is not enough to draw you in, then check out the dog party!
• The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf: This is a lovely story about a little bull who likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than snorting and butting heads with the other bulls. But Ferdinand is no coward.
• The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter: As we all know, Peter can't resist Mr. McGregor's garden. What you may have forgotten is that the illustrations are as charming today as when Potter created them — in 1902. This series may also be scarier than you remember. Wayward bunnies do get eaten.
• Ladybug Girl at the Beach, by Jacky Davis and David Soman. A tale of courage and empowerment in the face of ocean waves and semi-snarky older brothers.
• The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats: I wish all children's books were this well-written. Peter wanders through his neighborhood marveling at the first snow of the season, before heading home to be warmed up in his bath. Keats was one of the first mainstream American authors to use urban settings in children's books, or to feature African-Americans and Hispanics as main characters.
I've recently learned that Keats actually wrote seven books about Peter, the young boy in The Snowy Day. Now that I have enough dimes, I think it's time to buy them all – for myself. —CG
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image courtesy flickr user basheem