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.
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.)
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.)
OK, this one might be a stretch for kids, but I have to mention it. Of Muppets and Men is a breathtaking book, expertly written by Christopher Finch, a work that presents one of the best accounts of the origins of The Muppet Show ever written. Finch wrote it while the show was still in production, so many of his anecdotes come from his first-hand experience on the set of The Muppet Show. It is yet another gorgeously photographed coffee table book and my daughter has spent hours, days, weeks browsing through every page. Of Muppets and Men is probably one of her favorite photography books she’s ever encountered and, thanks in part to it, my daughter developed an uncanny knowledge of 1970s celebrities when she was only two years old. Don’t believe me? Here’s my daughter, at age two, paging through Of Muppets and Men:
Isn’t that great? So, why do I call Of Muppets and Men a “stretch for kids”? Two reasons. First, it is a much more adult book than The Works or Sesame Street: Unpaved. The text reads like a Vanity Fair article and the design isn’t as kid-friendly as those other works. And, second, this book is much harder to find on the used book market. We have two copies I bought for cheap at used bookstores, but new copies go for as much as $200 on Amazon. If you can find an inexpensive copy or if your library has it, DEFINITELY check it out. If not, unless your kid is a HUGE Muppet fan, it might not be worth the trouble. (Out of print. Can be hard/expensive to find.)
Remember The Muppet Babies? (Everybody who was alive during the 1980s just sighed with nostalgia.) It was one of the best spin-off cartoons ever made, a lovely Saturday morning cartoon that did an excellent job of translating the appeal of the Muppets into a new medium. Unfortunately, the series might never make it to DVD due to licensing rights. (The cartoon loved to splice in clips from real movies and TV shows, which, apparently, has made re-releasing it into a copyright nightmare.) You can find some episodes on YouTube and I was lucky enough to find the Weekly Reader Muppet Babies Series at a used bookstore a few years ago. It’s a very fun, very well-written picture book series based on the cartoon that was authored by many of the same writers that brought such life to the Sesame Street Book Club. Our personal favorite is Good Knight, Sir Kermit, a story where Baby Kermit dreams that he’s in medieval times and has to find a clever way to defeat a dragon in a duel for the hand of Princess Pigdowlyn. Great art, fun stories, and superior production values make these books transcend their ’80s origins. If you can find them, they’re worth picking up. (Out of print. You can find them on eBay, but make sure that they’re the Weekly Reader series. McDonalds and Golden Books both released some cheap Muppet Babies books back in the day and they’re not nearly as good.)
Jim Henson‘s 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal is a unique, ambitious… really, really weird movie. I’m sorry, but it is. My wife adores The Dark Crystal and watched it obsessively in her youth. Me? I never saw it until I was in my twenties. As a kid, I was obsessed with Henson’s other fantasy epic, 1986′s Labyrinth, which is weird, but, in my opinion, much more accessibly weird. (I’ll take David Bowie’s bulge over the Skeksis any day of the week.) So, to aid our daughter in her knowledge of all things Henson, I sought out a book that might do a better job of explaining The Dark Crystal to her than I ever could. (Because, if I’m being honest, I don’t really “get” the movie.) Fortunately, I found The Tale of The Dark Crystal, a beautifully illustrated storybook that wonderfully tells the legend of The Dark Crystal in a way that both children and adults can understand. But, fair warning, even though the book looks like a Little Golden book, there’s a lot of text per page – it’s almost like a chapter book. If you’re a big Henson fan and you want to one day introduce your kid to the unbridled oddness of The Dark Crystal, this book might be the best tool in your arsenal. (Out of print. Cheap copies are available on eBay.)
6. Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played with Puppets by Kathleen Krull, paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Great nonfiction picture books can be hard to come by, but this biography of Jim Henson is really expertly done. Kathleen Krull traces Henson’s life from childhood to the peak of his fame, presenting him as a creative visionary who made a real impact on the world with his creations. The Guy Who Played with Puppets is the best Henson biography for young readers that I’ve ever encountered (I’ve read more than a few), and Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s expressive paintings really elevate the work into something beyond just a juvenile biography. There’s some real artistry behind The Guy Who Played with Puppets, which is wonderfully appropriate for a story about such an artistic icon. This is a fun one to read with your kids. (In print. New copies are easy to find.)