Have you ever gone looking for a particular book for your child only to realize, after a few days of furious Googling and bookstore calling, that the book in question simply does not exist? I have. Once you realize it, you just sort of sit there and go, “Wait a minute, you mean there aren’t ANY kid’s books about the first time you chip your tooth at the zoo… or the fictional outer space adventures of Neville Chamberlain… or the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota? How is that possible?” (If those books do, in fact, actually exist, the world is an even cooler place than I thought it was.)
Sometimes, the non-existent book in question is just a random idea that pops out of my head. And, trust me, they’re not always solid concepts. (“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a book about the history of macaroni that was made out of macaroni and you could then boil it and eat it when you’re done?”) Other times, I am legitimately surprised to find a topic that doesn’t have an accompanying kid’s book to help my daughter better understand it. I am just so used to having libraries upon libraries of age-appropriate children’s books at my disposal to help my kid contextualize anything and everything that, when I find a gap in that coverage, it can be a jarring experience. (Last month, I spent a solid week trying to explain the Large Hadron Collider to my very curious six year old. I really could’ve used a Caldecott-nominee to back me up on that one…)
So, since the holiday season is a time for wishing to omniscient bearded deities, I decided to collect this list of Seven Children’s Books That I Really, Really Wish Existed. These are all the kinds of books that, as a book fan and as a parent, I would love to read with my daughter and that I hope someone, somewhere decides to write and publish one day.
(And, if these books already exist, TELL ME. I did cursory research on all of these ideas before posting this article, but I will gladly admit my mistake – and probably buy the book – if I missed any major titles.)
1. Kaiju for Kids
What does “kaiju” mean? Here’s a link to the Wikipedia definition, but the shortest, most direct answer I can give you is “Kaiju = Godzilla.” Fans of the kaiju genre might debate that over-simplification, but, when you hear nerds talking about kaiju, they’re normally talking about the giant monster movie genre, most typically identified with Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, and their ilk. Big monsters (a.k.a. men in suits), breathing fire and firing lasers, having battle royales in the middle of a cardboard city as the miniature locals run away screaming. Sometimes the giant beasts are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re just an unstoppable force of nature. But they’re always big, tough, and looking for a brawl.
I think kaiju is just a PERFECT genre for kids. I mean, for a young child, what could be cooler than a 50-foot-robot and an impossibly big dinosaur throwing buildings at each other? (Seriously, what Fancy Nancy book could ever compete with that?) Plus, visually, the kaiju-style battles nicely parallel how kids play with their own toys. Give a kid some action figures and toy cars and, eventually, those giant toy men and women are going to roar and step on those cars. It’s imprinted in our DNA. And, even though there’s fighting in kaiju, I wouldn’t say that the genre is particularly violent. There are a lot of men-in-suits being thrown around balsa-wood cities, but there’s not a lot of bleeding, death, or pain. There’s mostly just stomping, roaring, and shoving things out of the way… which kind of sounds like a kindergartener to me. The definitive visual style of kaiju movies is based on contrasts – huge monsters transposed on top of relatively small cities. I think that contrast of images can be very fun and very powerful for kids, particularly for younger children who are still working on their motor skill development. If you’re a kid who’s still learning how to tie your shoes or properly hold a pencil, I think it would be incredibly satisfying to watch these lumbering beasts, bigger than anyone else around, stumble and fall and wreck things with impunity.
A quick Amazon search turned up a few out-of-print Godzilla picture books from the 1990s – copies of the best-looking title, Godzilla Likes to Roar, is now selling for more than $180 – but I can’t believe there aren’t more kaiju kid’s books. And they don’t need to be Godzilla books per se. I think a talented author or illustrator would have no problem coming up with new original kaiju monsters, replete with zippers down their backs, to populate a fictional metropolis, and I would love to see a children’s book creator really nail those parallels between the oddly-sized awkwardness of both fifty-foot dragons and five year olds. It just sounds like way too much fun.
2. First Trip to the Movies
This one really surprises me. As a parent, you are very aware of historically “big” landmarks in your child’s life. Their first step, their first haircut, their first day of school, and so on. And most of those landmarks have some sort of picture book or Berenstain Bear book to acknowledge and/or commemorate those momentous rites of passage. However, I couldn’t find any picture books about one of my daughter’s biggest “big” moments – her first trip to the movies.
We’re a family of movie lovers, so maybe this isn’t that big of a deal in other households, but it was a really huge “big girl” moment for us when we took our daughter to see her very first movie in a movie theater. We talked about it for months, she was really nervous, we finally picked a day, and it was a very, very big outing for us. In case you were wondering, her first movie was Despicable Me (it was originally going to be The Princess and the Frog, but my daughter got frightened by Doctor Facilier in the previews). She had popcorn, candy, and lemonade, and she brought a stuffed animal to make her feel more comfortable. And, I’m happy to say, she LOVED it. She loved not just the movie, but the experience itself. The tickets, the concessions, the seats, the dimmed lights, the previews – it wasn’t just watching something she could watch at home. It was an event, a milestone for her, and she can’t be the only kid who’s ever had that experience before. But, despite all that, I have yet to find a children’s book about a kid going to the movies for the first time. Movies are referenced in lots of kid and YA titles – The Invention of Hugo Cabret comes to mind – but I haven’t encountered one that’s about that first theatre experience and I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more books to either help kids remember or prepare for such a memorable day out.
3. Standardized Tests
This might seem odd, but hear me out. Personally, I think standardized tests are HORRIBLE. They’re flawed, they’re anxiety-inducing, and they marginalize whole segments of the student population, but, they are also an inescapable aspect of modern education. At some point in their life, your kid is going to have to take the MEAP, the ACT, the SAT, or some other ridiculous multiple choice test, and I can’t believe that there aren’t more fictional books that deal with the horrors of standardized testing. And I specify “fictional books” because there are many nonfiction “Standardized Test Practice” books for kids and I’m sure they’re just as soul-crushing as they sound. But I think it would be much, much more valuable to actually have some picture books or early chapter books to help prepare kids for the onslaught of standardized testing in their future.
I’m imagining a kind of Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith picture book that both introduces standardized tests to young readers and then satirizes their multiple-choice madness to its fullest extent. Because, while I can easily see how an author could have tons of fun playing with the concept of “A-B-C-D-none of the above” questions, I think the real value would be having a picture book that teaches kids that standardized tests are, essentially, a silly part of life and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t try to excel academically, but there is an educational culture that mythologizes these tests as huge, scary, permanently-binding life milestones and that’s just not true. If a great picture book could help diffuse some of the anxiety surrounding these tests, I think it would honestly make kids more comfortable about being tested and make a much more positive impact on society than the fine folks at the Scantron Corporation ever could. (Also, and this is just me being a backseat illustrator, but, after reading several picture books recently that used graph paper for backgrounds, I can now see how the visual aspect of the actual test-sheets themselves – and those accursed “number 2 pencil” bubbles – might make a cool background canvas for a picture book.)
Thanks to a classic Simpsons episode (“Bart of Darkness”), you probably won’t believe this story, but, I swear to you, it’s true. (That’s why I’m including the picture.) I grew up in Downtown Detroit and, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city of Detroit had an honest-to-god swim-mobile. That’s right. A swim-mobile. Because Detroit had no public swimming pools, during the hot summer months, they would literally drive around an open flatbed semi-truck that had been converted into a swimming pool and park it in certain neighborhoods on certain days to allow the neighborhood kids to go swimming. And I have very vivid childhood memories of the swim-mobile, particularly the announcements they’d make during afternoon cartoons, letting the kids know where the swim-mobile would be next.
Now, granted, the pool-mobile was not a perfect idea. The water got really gross, really fast, and the experience was mostly akin to standing in a lukewarm bathtub with a thousand other kids. BUT the image of the swim-mobile is just so iconic and hilarious that I can’t believe that a Detroit-area children’s author hasn’t penned a picture book ode to the city’s travelling tub of summer fun yet. And, as The Simpsons proved, even if you’re not from Detroit, the very idea of kids diving into a 16-wheel pool-mobile is just plain funny.
5. Destroy This Book
I’m going to preface this one by admitting that this is probably a really, really bad idea, but here goes – I would love to see a kid’s book that is designed specifically for children to destroy. A book that is built with the very expectation that kids will pull it apart and molest it in every way possible. And, yes, even as a book lover and with all that said, I would totally buy that book for my kid. Let me explain…
When my daughter was one and a half, I started reading her Mommy?, a fantastic pop-up book by Maurice Sendak, Arthur Yorinks, and Matthew Reinhart, a book all about a boy wandering through a castle peopled by classic movie monsters as he looks for his mother (who happens to be the Bride of Frankenstein). It is a gorgeously-designed pop-up book, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and my daughter freakin’ DESTROYED IT. She absolutely loved it and clapped whenever we read it, but she grabbed it and tore it and obliterated it with her tiny little hands. Now that’s all my fault for reading her something that fragile at such a young age (I bought her a new copy of Mommy? when she was older), but I have to admit – she LOVED pulling that book apart. She particularly loved it when she tore off a section to reveal another illustration hiding beneath. It was so much more fun than some boring old lift-the-flap book. It was like watching a kid read and open their birthday presents all at the same.
So, even though I completely realize that this is totally impractical – IF there was a picture book called “Destroy This Book!”, which was designed like a pop-up or flap book, with multiple layers of story and pictures that were revealed when a kid tore open the right sections… if the price point was right… I would totally buy that for a toddler. I honestly would. I think it would be a best-selling gift book, thanks to the concept alone – even if the kid could barely read it before you had to throw it out. So… yeah… if you’re wondering why I blog about kid’s books rather than publishing them… the reason is – THESE ARE THE IDEAS I HAVE. (My apologies to the kid lit industry.)
6. Photo Fumetti for Youngsters
Fumetti is an odd little visual storytelling style that was popular during the 1960s and 1970s (examples still pop-up today), which was essentially a form of comic books that used real photographs instead of illustrations. It was structured exactly like a comic book, with word balloons and everything, but rather than an illustration of a superhero pointing his finger, you’d have an actual photo of a real person pointing their finger. (If you click on the picture to the right, you can see an amazing, weird, and really funny fumetti story staring John Cleese that Terry Gilliam helped create for Help! Magazine in 1965.) The fumetti style was odd and mod and was mostly used in photonovel adaptations of 1970s movies, but it also created this extremely creative and striking visual palette that, personally, I think would work great for a children’s book.
Think about it – kids love comics and they love looking at pictures of expressive faces. (Watching a baby look at a “faces” board book is one of the great joys of being a parent.) Fumetti mashes those two things together and could offer kids an original take on a comic book that they’ve never seen before. Plus the publisher could even design an accompanying “make your own fumetti” app where kids could upload their own pictures, paste in editable word balloons, and make their own stories. I think having some modern fumetti books for kids on the market would add a very cool new dimension to the growing world of kid-friendly graphic literature.
7. Fisher Price Theatre
This is my only suggestion where I’m actually going to reference the work of a specific creator, but I think the idea has merit. One of my favorite comic creators of all time is a guy named Evan Dorkin, a writer and illustrator responsible for Milk & Cheese, Dork!, the Beasts of Burden series (with Jill Thompson), and many other outstanding comic stories. His anthology series, Dork!, includes several recurring comic strip features, but one of my favorites is his “Fisher Price Theatre” strip, in which he retells classic works of literature using the iconic “Little People” from old-school Fisher Price playsets. He’s retold Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, and, my personal favorite, George Orwell’s 1984, all with the sweet bald-headed “little fellas” (as I used to call them) that every kid from my generation played with endlessly.
While Dorkin‘s adaptations can be as decidedly dark as his source material, there’s also something just hysterical – on both a visual and narrative level – about seeing these toybox icons acting out such classically literary material. Plus Dorkin always interjects his own fantastic commentary on the work itself in his retellings. At the bottom of his adaptation of The Lottery, he summarizes the story thusly:
The moral of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery? Lotteries are for suckers…
Personally, I would love to turn Dorkin and his Fisher Price Theatre loose on classic works of children’s folklore – that Fisher Price dog would make a great wolf for Little Red Riding Hood – and see how those deadpanned Little People would interpret over-wrought, centuries-old fairy tales. At the very least, if it was a success, it’d send the eBay prices for those original Little People figures through the roof.