Picture Books

32 pages of beautifully illustrated glory. The descriptions may say that picture books are for ages 4-8, but, trust me, your kids will be reading and browsing picture books before they’re four years old. Picture books often focus on the art more than the text… hence their name.

Emily's First 100 Days of School

One, one animated adaptation of the book… a-ha-ha…

Scholastic’s Weston Woods has a long tradition of making animated adaptations of classic works of children’s literature. Most are excellent – I’m a fan of their version of William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza and their Mo Willems Pigeon videos – though a few are little questionable. (See one of my very first posts – “Dad, We Watched a Movie at School Today about an Old Lady Who Kills Children”.)

Their adaptation of Rosemary WellsEmily’s First 100 Days of School, however, is one of the good ones and should give any interested parties a nice idea of what the book is all about. Take a look and enjoy.

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Emily's First 100 Days of School

Ideal back-to-school reading for young new students

My daughter starts second grade right after Labor Day and it got me thinking about all of the books we bought her in our nervous attempts to get her “ready” for school back before she started kindergarten. Far and away, my favorite school book that we ever bought her is Emily’s First 100 Days of School by Rosemary Wells, the wonderful children’s book author perhaps best known for creating the widely known (and allegedly parentless) Max and Ruby.

The “school book” is definitely a genre unto itself in children’s lit, and the very large majority of “school books” are focused on helping kids deal with the anxiety of heading to school for the very first time. You generally either have titles like The Berenstain Bears Go to School, in which a nervous child is gently introduced to the concept of school, or you have a book like Kevin Henkes’ beautiful Chrysanthemum, in which a kid is antagonized by their classmates, loses their confidence, and has to learn to love school again.

Emily's First 100 Days of School

Is this book supposed to make me feel better about school or convince me that school is a scary place?

I totally understand the value of those kinds of school books – a kid seeing that characters in a book are dealing with the same issues that they’re dealing with can be a profound experience – but, I’ll admit, to me, some of these titles feel like they’re working from the hypothesis that “All kids will find going to school to be a terrifying, anxiety-inducing experience” and I don’t think that’s always the case.

Yes, such a major new landmark is SURE to inspire some worry in most new-to-school kids, but I’m always wary of throwing books at a kid to help them “pre-cope” with anxieties they haven’t expressed yet. To this day, I still believe that my daughter never had a fear of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, a book that (I’m convinced) introduced her to the concept that some kids regard having the lights out as a scary experience. I’m not placing full blame on Stan and Jan, but I’m just saying – we never owned a nightlight until I read that book to my daughter.

As such, I really wanted to find her a smartly-written book about going to school for the first time that presented school itself as an exciting and engaging experience. And I think Emily’s First 100 Days of School does just that. I particularly fell in love with Rosemary Wells‘ author’s note at the beginning of the picture book, where she spells out her inspirations for writing it:

When I was little, in elementary school, math was no fun for me. It was taught by rote, and it was impossible for me to see how I would use these lessons in real life.

Yet numbers are wonderful things. They appear in all our games, in our poetry, and in songs. Numbers are a vital part of our culture. Some numbers are so much a part of our language that certain things some to mind the moment the number is mentioned; other numbers are shy and need to be brought out of their hiding places. In this book all numbers are equally important, and all are fun.

Isn’t that just completely charming? I love the idea of Wells writing this book to advocate for the inherent wonderfulness of numbers. That just seems like such a fantastic, positive spirit to pass onto new young students. [read the rest of the post…]

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Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie’s school has some serious HR problems…

Yesterday, I told my six year old that I hadn’t recommended a book on my blog in a while and I told her that I wanted her to pick the next book I’d write about. She ran over to her bookshelf and, after a few moments of internal debate, she walked back and handed me The Gym Teacher From the Black Lagoon.

Sigh…

It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (or hoping for), but a promise is a promise.

Let me put this out there right upfront – My kid LOVES Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon series. LOVES it. She’s loved it since she was three. And I know many other kids who feel the same way. My feelings about the series, however, are more complicated.

It’s not that I think Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon books are bad books. They’re not. I like them. I particularly like Jared Lee’s illustrations, which are entertaining and goofy and always remind me of a fun hybrid of Sandra Boynton and Laura Cornell.

Gym Teacher from the Black Lagoon

Hubie lives in a constant repetitive loop like “Groundhog Day” or “Memento”…

They’re lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and, with the exception of early Berenstain Bears titles, they’re normally the highest quality books on those spinning wire racks at bookstores that are normally filled with crappy Barbie titles and uninspired Disney tie-ins. Black Lagoon books are perfect for light reading, car trips, or excursions to a restaurant.

BUT, all that said, my big complaint about the Black Lagoon books is that they are incredibly, incredibly REPETITIVE, a trait that can antagonize parents, while, at the same time, delighting kids, apparently. If you’ve read one Black Lagoon book, you’ve almost literally read them all. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

Did you know that the Easter Bunny was a working single mom? True story.

Easter is an odd holiday. While it has admittedly deep religious significance for Christians, for the rest of the world (and for Christians too), Easter mashes together a very weird pastiche of cultural iconography, presumably all about the celebration of “Spring.” Easter is a holiday symbolized by bunnies who deliver eggs (as opposed to chickens who are normally responsible for egg production), cute little chicks that apparently came from eggs that escaped the bunnies’ dye factories, a metric ton of candy, and really, really big hats. I’m not entirely sure how that all comes together to celebrate the Spring Equinox, but, like most major holidays, it’s just weird enough to work. I don’t understand Easter, but I like it and I really enjoy sharing it with my daughter.

And one of the best ways I’ve found to share Easter with my daughter is reading her The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, a book that I regard as THE definitive Easter book for kids. You can find many Easter-themed books at the bookstore, just begging to be tucked into that weird fake grass in your child’s Easter basket, but, trust me, no book has ever done a better job of creating a more enchanting and engrossing mythology around Easter than The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

The Country Bunny might be the world’s first feminist holiday icon…

Originally published in 1939, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was actually authored by Du Bose Heyward, the author best known for writing the novel Porgy, which was the basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Heyward originally composed the story simply to entertain his nine-year-old daughter Jenifer – the book’s subtitle is “as told to Jenifer” – until Marjorie Flack, a noted illustrator, asked him to collaborate with her into turning The Country Bunny into a children’s book.

(If you want a much more detailed and beautifully written account of the book’s origins, check out the entry on The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes on Anita Silvey’s wonderful Book-a-Day Almanac.)

So, what’s so special about this seventy-four-year-old picture book? For starters, it creates one of the most coherent mythologies around Easter that I’ve ever read. As the book opens, Heyward explains to us:

We hear of the Easter Bunny who comes each Easter Day before sunrise to bring eggs for boys and girls, so we think there is only one. But this is not so. There are really five Easter Bunnies, and they must be the five kindest, and swiftest, and wisest bunnies in the whole wide world, because between sunset on Easter Eve and dawn on Easter Morning they do more work than most rabbits do in a whole year.

In The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, Heyward transforms the Easter Bunny into a shared role held by five different rabbits of varying shapes and sizes, which, as a parent, I think is fairly genius. Particularly because, around Easter time, kids are barraged with Easter Bunny meet-and-greet opportunities and the colors and sizes of those Easter Bunny costumes vary WILDLY. But, thanks to The Country Bunny, when my daughter asks me why the Easter Bunny at the mall was white and the Easter Bunny at the grocery store was brown, I can just say, “Hey, remember The Country Bunny? There are five all together, so…” (I realize that Heyward probably wasn’t thinking about furry character photo ops when he wrote the book, but, hey, it works for me.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Jim Henson: The Works

Reading about the Muppets is almost as fun as watching the Muppets…

To say that my wife and I are big fans of Jim Henson would be a massive understatement. Henson and the various fruits of his labor were major, defining influences in both of our young lives, so, when we had a daughter, I’ll admit, we were pretty determined that the Muppets and their ilk would play a major role in her life too. Were we pushy about introducing the Muppets to our daughter? YES. But, fortunately, she did gravitate towards them quickly on her own and seemed to legitimately love them as much as we did. (For an example of what happens when you push something onto your child when they’re NOT ready or interested in it, read my previous post about my attempts to read my kid The Phantom Tollbooth.)

My daughter devoured every episode of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street that we’d share with her. She adored a Muppets poster that has hung over her bed since she was born, obsessively trying to memorize the name of every character in the line-up. (Her favorite obscure Muppet was always Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle.) And she’s dressed up as both Miss Piggy and Fozzie for Halloween. She was a Jim Henson fan before she could even comprehend who Jim Henson was. And, because she took to the Muppets so eagerly, I, of course, started seeking out books about the Muppets and other Henson projects that she might enjoy. However, strangely, there are not a ton of Muppet books available for kids. There are a lot of Sesame Street books, but if you’re looking for kids’ books about the Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, or any other non-Sesame Henson project, the choices are fairly few and far between.

(There were a few tie-in books released with the new Muppets movie in 2011, but the ones I’ve read weren’t very good.)

However, there are options out there, if you’re willing to look for them. So, if you think your kid might enjoy the Muppets or if you’re a pop culture-obsessed parent-to-be that wants to push Ms. Piggy on your progeny, here are six books – a mixture of fiction and nonfiction – that might help foster a love of The Muppets in your developing reader.

1. Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch

Jim Henson: The Works

No coffee table should be without this book…

One of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. This gorgeously designed coffee table book is an amazing chronicle of the life and works of Jim Henson. (See my previous article “The Importance of Coffee Table Books for Young Readers“.) Jim Henson: The Works covers every aspect of Henson’s career – from his early days as a puppeteer to his final days as a media icon – and draws together a fantastic collection of photographs and primary source material about Henson’s life. Will your young child be able to read the text on their own? No. Probably not until they’re older. But this is a book that was made to be browsed. My daughter adores flipping through the pages of this book – we’ve brought it on almost every road trip we’ve ever taken. She’d spend hours just combing through the pages, finding new images that she loved or reading small excerpts that caught her eye. And, because the book has such a multi-tiered appeal (the images are accessible to the youngest readers, the text will be captivating to older readers), I can tell that this is a book that will remain on our bookshelves for years to come. (Still in print. Relatively easy to find online.)

Jim Henson: The Works

One of my favorite pictures from the book…

2. Sesame Street: Unpaved by David Borgenicht

Sesame Street: Unpaved

My kid tore through two different copies of this book…

While, yes, there are many other Sesame Street books available for kids – my favorites come from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club – this is one of the few age-appropriate books available that really present a compelling history of the show itself. Another excellent kid-friendly coffee table book, Sesame Street: Unpaved assembles a beautiful visual history of perhaps the most influential work of children’s television ever made. The book offers a really compelling history of the show (including some interesting behind-the-scenes stories for older readers) and has sections devoted to all of the major Sesame Street characters, both human and Muppet. Like Jim Henson: The Works, this is another book with an appeal that spans generations. Kids will browse it endlessly for the pictures and their favorite characters, and older fans will appreciate it as an entertaining world of cultural history. (Out of print, but you can get used copies for under 8 bucks on Amazon and other venues online.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Art & Max by David Wiesner

Take a look at how David Wiesner got started on “Art & Max”

Here’s a very cool video with David Wiesner, creator of Art & Max, one of my favorite picture books about art, talking about the origins of the book and how playing with different art media inspired his lovely, lizard-filled story about the creative process. The video not only offers up some interesting insights into how Wiesner works, but it also shows you some of the earliest images that Wiesner created during the book’s evolution. (Fun fact – In the early stages, Art was a bear, not a lizard.)

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The American Library Association announced the winners of their major 2013 book awards on Monday, and the award that always catches my attention is the Caldecott Medal, named in honor of nineteenth-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott. The award is presented to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” from the past year, and former winners include such Building a Library favorites as A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin and Philip Stead, Flotsam by David Wiesner, and many, many more. This year, the 2013 Caldecott Medal was awarded to This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

That fish totally stole that hat and now he’s being rewarded?

I couldn’t be happier about this selection. I wrote a glowing review of Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back last year, and This Is Not My Hat continues the hat-swapping fun. It’s a hysterical read and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The ALA also named five Caldecott Honor Books for 2013Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown (artist of the great The Purple Kangaroo and Children Make Terrible Pets), written by Aaron Reynolds; Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen (winning a Medal and an Honor Citation.. nice), written by Mac Barnett (author of the hilarious Chloe and the Lion); Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger; One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small (creator of one of our favorite books ever, Imogene’s Antlers), written by Toni Buzzeo; and Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue.

We’ve read This Is Not My Hat, Creepy Carrots!, and Extra Yarn so far and definitely recommend them. We’re hoping to snag the rest soon, but I’m sure that, following the award announcements, their library hold lists exploded. BUT, if you’d like to sample this year’s Caldecott books before you get in line at the library, I put together this collection of book trailers and videos for all of the 2013 Caldecott honorees. First up, let’s take a look at the book trailer for the 2013 Caldecott Medal winner This Is Not My Hat.

Next, Peter Brown talks about how The Twilight Zone inspired his artwork for Creepy Carrots.

This fan-produced book trailer for Extra Yarn gives you a very cool, very thorough look at Jon Klassen’s fantastic artwork. [read the rest of the post…]

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Dr. Seuss' ABC

A, B, and then C? SO predictable…

While I’d like to think that any good book is timeless, there are certain kinds of books that you end up buying for your children that do seem to come with a very implicit “best if used by” date stamped on their side. For example, I know many children who, once they reached a certain age, refused to read board books anymore. To them, board books = baby books. And, regardless of the book itself (we have board book versions of older-skewing books like Olivia and Madeline), some six-year-olds just won’t be seen dead reading a board book. Another example of a kind of kid’s book that comes with a very distinct shelf-life is the Alphabet Book.

Alphabet books are possibly one of the most common kinds of picture books you can find for younger pre-readers. Their mission is simple and true – reinforcing kids’ knowledge of the alphabet from A to Z. This can be accomplished through pictures, rhyming couplets, you name it. Start at A, end at Z – they come with their own structure built in. No wonder there are so many alphabet books on the market. However, what happens to the book once a kid learns their alphabet backwards and forwards?

Unlike storybooks, alphabet books can be fairly utilitarian. They normally don’t feature stories, characters, or emotions for children to encounter and revisit. Most alphabet books just want to make sure that kids know that J comes before K and, once that’s accomplished, it’s O.K. (letters 15 and 11, respectively) to put them aside. However, there are classes of alphabet books and some are much more expertly executed than others. Some alphabet books transcend mere letter instruction and can stand on their own two feet much longer than their more cheaply produced brethren.

So, if you’re looking for a good alphabet book and you’ll like it to have a longer shelf-life than the crappy paperback A-to-Z book that came with your Happy Meal, here are six really great examples of alphabet books that do a whole lot more than just teach kids about letters.

1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Simply a classic.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top – the greatest alphabet book of ALL TIME is Edward Gorey‘s The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Granted, it’s more of a commentary on alphabet books than anything, but it is one of the most brilliant, oddball, most often-copied books I’ve ever read. (Fair warning – there are a LOT of lame “parodies” of The Gashlycrumb Tinies out there.) But it is dark. And it is macabre. It is really, really macabre. And if your kid is into that, they might LOVE it. Personally, I know my daughter is far too easily creeped out to really enjoy a line like “X is for Xerses devoured by mice” without it giving her nightmares for a week. In regards to your own kid, you can read the whole book online here and decide for yourself. But, even though I can’t imagine ever giving The Gashlycrumb Tinies to a still-learning-to-read three-year-old, there is such genius and humor in Gorey’s work that it’d be a shame to keep this alphabet book away from kids entirely. As such, there’s a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies sitting on our “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf that’ll be waiting for my daughter whenever I think she’s ready for it.

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Hands down, the greatest literary death of all time.

2. On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel

On Market Street

Using capitalism to teach kids the alphabet…genius.

I’ve known about Arnold Lobel since I was a kid thanks to his classic Frog and Toad books, but I’ll admit that On Market Street, a truly wonderful alphabet book, was my first introduction to the work of his wife, Anita Lobel, a hugely talented children’s book creator in her own right. On Market Street is one of those rare picture books that you’ll find your kids revisiting again and again, if only to re-appreciate and re-explore the depth and complexity of the artwork. The premise is relatively simple – a young child heads down Market Street “to see what I might buy”. The Lobels then lead us past an A-to-Z series of wildly imaginative merchants who all have bodies constructed out of whatever it is they’re selling. Thus, the apple vendor is made entirely out of apples, the book seller is made entirely out of books, etc. [read the rest of the post…]

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I wrote a lot of words about a word book yesterday, which seems appropriate, but, to be honest, reading the 1983 edition of The Sesame Street Word Book is a primarily a visual experience. It’s telling that there isn’t an author listed for the book – the only credit on the cover is “illustrated by Tom Leigh.” Because, while it is great that The Sesame Street Word Book teaches us obscure terms like “pancake turner”, “otoscope,” and “hod carrier”, the real fun of the book lies in Leigh’s illustrations. So, in an attempt to convey just what an entertaining book this is to flip through, here are my personal picks for my fifteen favorite illustrations from The Sesame Street Word Book.

Some of these are sweet, some are funny. Some are unintentionally funny. Some are only funny because they remind you that, yes, this book was indeed published in 1983. But, regardless, they all just make me love this book all the more.

1. Hello!

Sesame Street Word Book - Rodeo RosieQuestion: What’s cuter than a semi-obscure Sesame Street character saying “Hello”? Answer: Nothing. Have a great rest of the day, Rodeo Rosie.

2. Bathroom Sandwich

Sesame Street Word Book - ErnieThere is a recurring visual joke that runs throughout a lot of Sesame Street books in which the perpetually bathing Ernie is always pictured with a sandwich that he has apparently brought into the bathroom with him. (It shows up pretty often in the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club books.) This is both hilarious and really, really gross. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Sesame Street Word Book (1983)

The original version of the very fun “Sesame Street Word Book.”

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big fan of old-school Sesame Street books. And, by “old school”, I’m typically talking about the pre-Elmo era. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but Sesame Street always felt so much more engaging to me when the street was a little grimy and urban (it looks so gentrified now), when Jim Henson and Frank Oz were stationed beneath Ernie and Bert, and when you could always find an afro or two sitting at the counter at Mr. Hooper’s store. One of my favorite Sesame Street books from this era is The Sesame Street Word Book, illustrated by Tom Leigh, a tremendous illustrator with a wide body of Sesame Street projects on his resume.

However, there are TWO versions of The Sesame Street Word Book out there – the original 1983 edition and a re-issued 1998 edition – and one is CLEARLY superior to the other. Let me give you a quick overview of the book itself and then I’ll let you know which one to embrace and which to avoid.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1998)

The revised edition of the “Sesame Street Word Book”. Can you spot the differences? HINT: Elmo…)

If you’ve never seen it before, The Sesame Street Word Book is probably the closest thing I’ve ever found to a Sesame Street version of a Richard Scarry book. My daughter adores all of those over-sized Scarry books like the Best Word Book Ever, What Do People Do All Day?, and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go – those big, uber-detailed landscape spreads packed with scenes of city life, a huge cast of characters, and absolutely everything labeled. They make great road trip books and they’re the kinds of books that a kid can get lost in for an entire afternoon.

As I mentioned, The Sesame Street Word Book follows the Richard Scarry model pretty closely, offering a variety of scenes featuring Sesame Street characters where we learn about a big swath of topics, everything from feelings and shapes to what we can expect to find in a doctor’s office or in a supermarket.

The book opens with a great “Note to Parents” from the Children’s Television Workshop, which tells us: “The Sesame Street Word Book provides children with a rich and colorful environment in which to explore the world of words. Entertaining scenes introduce more than 1000 words in context to help children’s expand and organize their vocabulary. Detailed pictures with easy-to-read labels demonstrate that words are symbols – for actions, people, places, and things.”

That’s probably one of the best definitions of a “word book” that I’ve ever heard. We had a lot of word books in rotation in my daughter’s room when she was very young, but, as she got older, she became less and less interested in them. Many word books come across as just illustrated dictionaries and, once my daughter learned all of the terminology for kitchen utensils or farm animals, she very quickly lost interest with most of the word books in our library. It’s a testament to the quality and depth of books like The Sesame Street Word Book and the works of Richard Scarry that I still occasionally find my daughter flipping through them on rainy days.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1983) - Mr. Hooper

I miss Mr. Hooper…

While Tom Leigh doesn’t have Richard Scarry‘s virtuoso talent (who does?), he is an incredibly skilled artist and the level of detail and character he packs into The Sesame Street Word Book is amazing. With the possible exception of Michael Smollin (illustrator of The Monster at the End of this Book), I consider Leigh to be the definitive Sesame Street illustrator of all time (which is saying something when you realize how many Sesame Street books have been published over the years).

But, as I mentioned at the start, Leigh produced TWO different versions of The Sesame Street Word Book – the original 1983 version and a re-issued version in 1998. And, as you may be able to guess from the introduction to this article, I greatly prefer the original version. But that’s not just my old-school Sesame nostalgia talking. The fact is – the 1983 Sesame Street Word Book is a much longer, deeper, and all-around better piece of work. While you can sometimes find descriptions online of the 1998 version adding “additional art,” the truth is that the 1998 revision cuts out almost a third of the original book for no real discernable reason. [read the rest of the post…]

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