must own

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My daughter has a future date with The Graveyard Book.

As you may have inferred from previous posts, I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman, so it’s not that surprising that my shelf of “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” has more than a few Gaiman titles sprinkled throughout. But the Gaiman book that I really want my daughter to start with and embrace, once she starts exploring the ever-growing shelf of titles intended for her future self, is The Graveyard Book.

And there are many reasons why any parent would want their child to read The Graveyard Book. It’s a wonderfully-told tale, one of the few books that I’m legitimately evangelical about. (“Every single person who’s read it on my recommendation has thanked me profusely afterwards,” he said with a painfully swollen head.) It’s a multiple award-winning title, receiving both the Newbery and Carnegie Medals (which is kind of a big deal). It’s just a very, very moving book for me – to the point where I don’t even feel up to writing one of my typical 2,000-word rants about it. Smarter people than I have written some really beautiful odes to The Graveyard Book, and I have this sneaking suspicion that I just can’t do it justice, which is probably a safe assumption.

I’ll just let Gaiman explain what the book is about himself:

Doesn’t that sound intriguing? Nobody Owens is this spectacular young boy being raised by ghosts in a graveyard and his maturation and development as a character and as a real, breathing person (amongst dead, non-breathing spirits) really is something to behold. But, if I’m being honest, that’s still not getting to the real heart of the reason why I’m determined to make my child read The Graveyard Book one day.

What’s my reason for pushing The Graveyard Book ? Fair warning: It’s a pretty dumb reason. [read the rest of the post…]

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Every time I read a new book to my daughter at bedtime, there’s always this unspoken hope that the book will really connect with my small, trapped-under-her-covers audience and maybe become a recurring favorite. At the most, I’m hoping for a big smile, a “that was good!” affirmation, or perhaps even the highest compliment she can pay – a pre-emptive request to read the book again tomorrow night. But, very, very rarely do I get a really BIG, really explosive reaction to a bedtime book, and, when that actually happens, it is a rare and wondrous thing to behold. And I got that precious over-the-top reaction just the other night when we sat down to read Press Here by Hervé Tullet.

Press Here

If you're using an iPad, go ahead and try pressing this to see if anything happens. It won't, but give it a shot.

It was a monster hit, a sensation. We literally had to read it three times before she’d even let me take it out of her hands.

And it’s a fairly amazing book because it doesn’t wow its audience with a story or with particularly flashy illustrations, but rather it draws readers in with interactivity, with humor, and with that drive that comes with all printed books – the drive to see what happens next, to see what’s happening on the next page.

While discussing Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret a few years ago (which is another astonishing read that you should definitely include in your home library), Roger Sutton, the editor in chief of Horn Book Magazine, wrote this eloquent description of the power of page-turns that has stuck with me ever since.

A page-turn can be a surprise sprung by the reader, a powerful narrative element that physically involves us in the story. It tells us what power is particular to books. As far as I can figure, the printed book is the only medium that requires such a manipulation of gravity and that asks us, repeatedly, to go on.

Hervé Tullet definitely understands the power of the page-turn surprise, and Press Here utilizes page-turns exceedingly well, using every post-turn reveal to transform his picture book into a living, breathing interactive experience. [read the rest of the post…]

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There are artists and illustrators that, I will admit, I have completely pushed on my daughter. When picking out books for her, I default to my own personal preferences far too often and the results of this editorial bias on my part are usually mixed at best. Sometimes she connects with my hand-picked selections and embraces them as her own; other times, she rebels against them fully and, as punishment, makes me read her a Disney Princess book. We fall into these roles fairly often, but every now and again, like the best children always do, my daughter throws me a curveball, just to mess with my equilibrium. One of the most pleasant of these unexpected surprises was the way that my daughter, very independently, claimed David Small as one of her very favorite children’s book creators and claimed Small’s Imogene’s Antlers as one of her very favorite picture books.

Imogene's Antlers

Imogene's Antlers, a laugh-out-loud library title

Small is a fantastic illustrator and author, who’s illustrated over 40 picture books (many of which he wrote himself), but he first got on my radar thanks to his searing 2009 memoir, Stitches, which stands as one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. I was actually at the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony in New York when Stitches was nominated in the young people’s literature category – it’s wonderful, but definitely not appropriate for most kids younger than high school age – and my main regret from the evening (aside from accidentally knocking a tray of drinks onto an old woman) is letting someone else grab the free copy of Stitches from our table’s centerpiece before I could.

I loved Stitches, but I hadn’t heard of Small before reading it. And, when my wife came home from the library one day, touting that she found a David Small picture book to read to our (at the time) 3-year-old, I was skeptical. And I don’t really have a good reason why. One theory I have is that I’ve seen lots of illustrators who typically create adult-themed material completely fall on their faces when they tried to create a “kids book.” Sometimes their works talk down to their audience, sometimes they’re just showcases for their art (with no semblance of a story), sometimes they’re achingly ironic, sometimes their attempts to reach kids just don’t work. The irony, of course, is that Small had been a successful and award-winning children’s book creator for YEARS before he published Stitches, but my limited exposure to his work gave me COMPLETELY the wrong idea about who Small was. And that’s my fault and yet another prime example of one of the most recurring themes here at Building a Library – I am wrong a lot. A LOT.

So, I didn’t push David Small on my daughter. In fact, I did the opposite. I presented the picture book my wife had found at our local library – titled Imogene’s Antlers – to her with an enormous indifference. I assumed that the book would be over her head or just wouldn’t connect with her and let my wife read it to her first, totally expecting that the book would flop. Once again, just to restate an important point, as a father, I am wrong A LOT.

My daughter went nuts for Imogene’s Antlers. NUTS. We have bookcases full of kids books in our house, but you could probably take all of the books that actually made my daughter laugh out loud, made her cackle like a madwoman while she read them, and those books would take up about a shelf and a half. Imogene’s Antlerswould definitely have a place on that shelf. [read the rest of the post…]

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Sometimes the world is a weirdly bittersweet and wonderful place. I spent most of this evening typing out a long tribute to The One and Only Marigold, a picture book that I dearly love and a book that my daughter adores. As I finished the article and began searching for hyperlinks to accompany the text, I saw on the internet that it was just announced that Florence Parry Heide, the author of the book, had passed away in her sleep last night. She was an amazing 92 years old and authored over 80 children’s books during her prolific career. What an amazing woman and what a huge loss for children’s literature.

Lane Smith helps his collaborator on Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) (Random/Schwartz & Wade), Florence Parry Heide, celebrate her 90th birthday at ALA.

Lane Smith helps his collaborator on Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) (Random/Schwartz & Wade), Florence Parry Heide, celebrate her 90th birthday.

I had the pleasure to meet her once in 2009 and she couldn’t have been more charming. So, in tribute of the favorite daughter of Kenosha, Wisconsin and an author that has created far too many books that my daughter has fallen in love with, I offer this heartfelt tribute to The One and Only Marigold and of Florence Parry Heide herself. Honestly. If you love great children’s books, pick up ANY of her titles and you’ll be happy you did.

My tribute to The One and Only Marigold now feels a bit self-indulgent – Mrs. Heide deserves a better elegy than I could ever write – but I want to leave my original article pretty much intact to simply show off the sheer fanboy-ish glee that this wonderful woman inspired in a grouchy thirty-something dad. You will be missed, Mrs. Heide.

And now, onto The One and Only Marigold

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As I’ve mentioned before, when looking for books for my daughter, my favorite thing in the world is the unexpected surprise. I LOVE stumbling upon a book I’ve never heard of before and having that moment of discovery – like all the secret knowledge of the world has just fallen into my lap.

Now the hilarious irony of these moments is that, usually, when I have them, I’ve accidentally “discovered” something that is already WIDELY known and HUGELY famous. The only person that hasn’t heard of these titles yet is ME. I call them my “Christopher Columbus” moments. I charge ahead and plant a flag on a book, screaming, “LOOK WHAT MY GRAND INSIGHT HAS PLUCKED FROM OBSCURITY! I CLAIM THEE!” And, then, after a proud few moments, someone normally takes me aside and quietly explains that the book was a best-seller, won the Newbery Award, and has been the subject of 10 movie adaptations (5 of which I’ve probably seen).

The One and Only Marigold

The One and Only Marigold

Case in point – I have that oblivious sense of discovery pride about The One and Only Marigold by Florence Parry Heide and Jill McElmurry. However, I think I’m mostly just happy that I lucked into finding such a delightful picture book, because finding Marigold not only introduced us to a wonderful book, but it also introduced us to the great Florence Parry Heide, who quickly became one of our favorite authors.

I’m not going to try to recount Mrs. Heide’s insanely impressive resume here – try this link or that link for some background – but her prolific career that has included collaborations with a breathtaking variety of authors and artists including Edward Gorey, Sylvia Van Clief, Jules Feiffer, and Lane Smith. She even has her own holiday in her hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. And, like an idiot, I hadn’t heard of her until 2009.

I was attending the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago and had been hunting the convention floor for a copy of Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated, a picture book that I’d heard raves about and that had artwork by Lane Smith – one of my favorite illustrators ever since I first read The Stinky Cheese-Man. When I finally found the table where Lane Smith was signing copies of the book, I was introduced to a charming older woman, who, as it turns out, actually wrote Princess Hyacinth. This was Florence Parry Heide.

[Note: If you don’t already own Princess Hyacinth, go buy it now. Right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Honestly, it’s that good. I’ll do a write-up of it one day, but Marigold didn’t nearly get the same level of popular attention as Princess Hyacinth, so it can wait. Oh, and her books with Edward Gorey are fantastic too. OK, more on Florence Parry Heide soon.] [read the rest of the post…]

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I have a big, big geek-dad crush on Toon Books, a fascinating publishing company that has the ridiculously admirable job of making readable comic books for young readers. And, Little Mouse Gets Ready, their Level One comic for beginning readers by Bone creator Jeff Smith, is quite simply one of my favorite books that I’ve ever bought for my daughter.

Toon Books

Toon Books: Comics 'R Good for Kids

But let me backtrack a little and explain why I’m about to so effusively gush over Toon Books.

I’m a comics fan and have been since I was a kid. My house is filled with comics and graphic novels, so, of course, my daughter started to show interest in these cool, colorful books with lots of pictures that are stacked up in piles all around Daddy’s office. And that made me incredibly excited. I was dying to share my love of comics with her and quickly started taking her with me to our local comics store (Detroit Comics – GREAT store). I let her pick out some kids’ titles she was interested in – Muppets and Fraggle Rock comics, Monsters Inc., Tiny Titans, Scooby-Doo – and it didn’t really bother me that they were mostly commercial property spin-offs.

I knew enough to steer her away from the really heinous stuff, and I knew that even dorky media tie-in comics can act as great gateway drugs into real, honest-to-god comics comics. My own pathway into comics fandom began with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, a comic based on a toy property, which drew me in, taught me how to read and appreciate comics, and eventually led me to the X-Men, the Avengers, Captain Britain, Milk & Cheese, Plastic Forks, Sam & Max, Dark Knight Returns, and so on and so forth, onwards and upwards. So, sure, I didn’t want to let my daughter think that Scooby-Doo was the pinnacle of kids comics, but I knew I had to let her get interested in comics on her own terms. Nothing will turn a kid off comics faster than a parent shoving titles at them and complaining, “No, no, you don’t want to read that – that dumb book YOU’RE interested in. THIS is the one…”

So we bought her a stack of her own comics and she loved them. LOVED them. She’d flip through them endlessly and read them at night under her covers with a flashlight. I was in geek-dad heaven. Until…

Until she asked me to sit down and READ the comics with her. And then, very, very quickly, something horrible – something I really, really didn’t want to admit – became readily apparent.

Reading comic books with a kid can be a huge pain in the ass. [read the rest of the post…]

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There are a few constants in the universe that you can always count on. Your DVR will always cut off the last 30 seconds of your favorite show. You will always hit traffic in the last hour of a two-day family road-trip. And, if you have children, you WILL own multiple copies of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. It’s just a fact of life. We’re at the point now where OBY/GYNs should just issue new parents copies of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny along with their coupons for formula and free copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Goodnight Moon

70% of the universe's missing dark matter is made up of copies of "Goodnight Moon"

This is not to say that either of these are bad books. On the contrary, Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny are such ubiquitous baby reads because they’re really damn good. They’re gentle and genteel. They have this amazing rhythm to their text, which is somehow both calming and stimulating. As you read Margaret Wise Brown’s verses aloud, you can watch your child get sucked into the cadence of the words and the details of the illustrations and just see this sense of confident calm spread across their faces. Reading board books to the very young is a meditative experience, which, I’ll admit, I miss now that my daughter is older. And Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny are the world’s most popular illustrated zen mantras for children.

However, as I alluded to earlier, they are also probably the two most popular books in the world to give to new parents. We received multiple copies of each when our daughter was born, and both have become baby shower gift staples. If you know a parent who doesn’t have a copy of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny… something’s weird there. I’m not saying they’re bad parents or anything, but, just FYI, there’s a 70% chance that their marriage and new baby is a cover for a CIA training facility or a DEA deep cover operation.

So, since Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny are the ultimate no-brainers when it comes to picking books for your child, I thought I’d offer up five alternative selections for great board books that any kid should enjoy. Hopefully, these suggestions might help parents branch out a bit from the cozy charms of Margaret Wise Brown or, at the very least, give you some alternate ideas for baby shower gifts. (Evil parent advice: If you inscribe your copy of Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny with a personal message for the baby, it makes it impossible for the parent to return the copy you gave them, thus ensuring that they’ll keep your gift and take back the 12 other copies they received. You win!)

Note: Many of these books, including Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, exist in both in board book and hardcover versions. We have the board book versions of all of these works and I’d recommend the board editions, if only because it makes them a little more durable and explorable for kids 2 and under.

1. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

It’s hard not to like Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, which probably stands as one of the most read board books in our library. The Ahlbergs have created a wonderfully interactive story that’s part nursery rhyme and part look-and-find for beginners. On each page, the authors ask the young readers to play “I Spy” to find some of the most iconic characters in early children’s lit, a series of happy-go-lucky characters that all meet in the end for a pie picnic. We begin with “Each Peach Pear Plum / I spy Tom Thumb”. After your child finds Tom Thumb reading on the branches of a peach tree, we turn the page to read “Tom Thumb in the cupboard / I spy Mother Hubbard.” This pattern continues throughout the book – one character in the foreground, one character hidden somewhere in the background – as we’re introduced to Cinderella, the Three Bears, Little Bo-Peep, Jack and Jill, Robin Hood, and more.

Each Peach Pear Plum

Each Peach Pear Plum

Janet Ahlberg’s beautifully detailed illustrations will give your child wide, dense landscapes to explore, and the story actually works as a nice way to introduce classic literary characters to young readers. My daughter knew some, but not all of the characters in Each Peach, but rather than that being a negative, it actually made her even more interested in learning about the characters she didn’t know, which, as a parent, gave me a great in-road to introduce to her classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales that we hadn’t encountered yet. An extremely fun bedtime book.

2. Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig

Pete's a Pizza

Pete's a Pizza

Steig is probably best known as the creator of Shrek and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, but Pete’s a Pizza is the first Steig work that my daughter fell in love with. The premise is simple. On a rainy day, a young boy named Pete is stuck inside, unable to play ball with his friends. And then, Steig gives us, what might be, two of my favorite sentences in any board book ever: “Pete’s father can’t help noticing how miserable his son is. He thinks it might cheer Pete up to be made into a pizza.”

That absurd statement transforms into a really loving and funny exchange between a father and son, where Pete’s father creates a new game where he pretends to turn Pete into a pizza. It’s actually a very fun idea for a game – my daughter and I now turn each other into pizzas all the time. Pete’s father kneads his son, rolling him out like dough. He then tosses him, sprinkles him with oil (it’s really water), adds some tomatoes (they’re really checkers), and, of course, there’s the stage in the recipe where the pizza just has to be tickled. Shrek and Sylvester are classic literary works, but there’s something about Pete’s a Pizza that, as a father, I just really responded to. The facial expressions of Pete’s family are so expressive and intimate, and the story does an amazing job of capturing the manic fun of a family playing together, inside on a rainy day, when someone has invented a simple new game that is really, really fun. I can’t think of another book that does a better job of portraying the giddy fun of parents playing – really down-on-your-knees, getting-dirty PLAYING – with their children than Pete’s a Pizza. [read the rest of the post…]

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I kicked off the blog with a book that my daughter probably won’t read for several years, so it seems only fair that I shift over to a book she’s actually read – in fact, one of the first books we ever read to her. I don’t entirely remember how we got a copy of Taro Gomi’s My Friends, but the person who gave it to us deserves an annual thank you note. It’s that good.

My Friends by Taro Gomi

My Friends by Taro Gomi

Japanese author-illustrator Taro Gomi is probably best known as the mad genius behind the ultimate potty book, Everybody Poops – which, strangely enough, we’ve never read – and he also makes the coolest coloring books you’ve ever seen. (Seriously. If your kid is into coloring, Gomi’s Scribbles and Doodle books can’t be beat.) Gomi has additionally created some truly wonderful picture books for younger readers, and My Friends is one of our favorites.

It’s an ideal bedtime book. Truth be told, I literally read My Friends to my daughter at bedtime every single night I put her to bed from when she was five months old until she was about 15-months-old. Which I realize makes me sound fairly obsessive-compulsive, but so be it. Maybe my daughter’s incentive to learn to talk was her burning desire to ask me to change-up the bed-time reading. (“Daddy, STOP.”) But I don’t really think so. We still read My Friends from time to time even now, although now it functions as more of an “I Can Read” book than a cuddly bedtime book. (Pause as I mourn the passage of time to the tune of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”)

What’s so great about My Friends? It has a lot to offer in a very elegant package. The story is simple – we follow a young girl as, on each double-page spread, she tell us what she’s learned from the world around her. The majority of the lessons she’s learned come from animals. “I learned to walk with my friend the cat… I learned to jump from my friend the dog… I learned to climb from my friend the monkey…” As the book goes on, we see what the girl has learned from a variety of animal pals, from books, from teachers, from classmates, and it all ends with the “awww”-worthy declaration that “I learned to love from a friend like you.”

Taro Gomi Board Book Box Set

Boxed set of three Taro Gomi board books, including “My Friends”

Gomi’s illustrations are bright, charming, and have this underlying sense of fun and wonder that my daughter really responded to. Even when she was only a few months old, this is a book that made her light up. I mean, yes, I think My Friends is really well done, but the real reason I love it is because of the response it elicited from my kid. She’d smile and sit calmly while I read through the thick cardboard pages of the board book, occasionally trying to flip the pages herself. As she got older, we’d add animal sounds to the pages with animal illustrations, and the book evolved into a call-and-response story where, after I’d finish reading the page, she’d give me the correct corresponding animal noise (her gorilla was the best) or some finger movements we worked out to mirror the actions on the page. (Few things are funnier than watching a seven-month-old try to make her fingers run, jump, and/or karate kick.)

Plus, as a first-time father who is now aggressively aware of gender disparity in relation to his sweet little girl (irony noted), I really loved reading her a book with a strong female character who is out there in the world, learning from nature, kicking, jumping, exploring, excelling at school, and being affectionate, all at the same time.

[read the rest of the post…]

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Cover of The Phantom Tollbooth, illustration by Jules Feiffer

I mention this on the site’s “About” page, but, when I first found out that I was going to be a father, the very next day, I went out and bought a copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth for my kid – my kid who wasn’t going to be born for another nine months. Why? Because, in many ways, I think it’s the perfect children’s book.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Seuss, Silverstein, and Dahl, but there’s just something about the story and the narrative world that Juster puts together in Phantom Tollbooth that just floors me every time I read it.

For those unfamiliar, The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of Milo, a bored, apathetic kid, who, one day, finds a tollbooth that has mysteriously appeared in his bedroom. With nothing better to do, Milo gets in an old toy car, drives through the tollbooth, and finds himself in The Lands Beyond in the Kingdom of Wisdom, a pastiche of a fairy tale-land built around knowledge, wordplay, and mathematical nonsense. Milo makes friends with a watchdog – a pooch named Tock with a real clock in his center – travels through lands like Dictionopolis and The Island of Conclusions, and eventually quests to the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason. (His travels are expertly illustrated by Jules Feiffer.)

The ironic wordplay and absurdism of The Phantom Tollbooth gets a lot of attention, and it should. My almost five-year-old daughter is currently getting  a lot of laughs out of the verbal misunderstandings in books like Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia series, which I’m hoping will act as gateway drugs for one day introducing her to Tollbooth – in terms of fun with language, Tollbooth is like a nuclear bomb compared to Parish’s firecrackers. (If you want a far more insightful – and better written – take on Juster’s way with words, read the great Michael Chabon’s essay on Phantom Tollbooth, which will accompany a new fiftieth anniversary edition of the book that comes out this October.)

However, while the allusions and puns are fast and furious, they’ve never been my absolute favorite part of the text. For me, The Phantom Tollbooth has, first and foremost, always been about Milo, who, I think, is one of the greatest protagonists in all of children’s literature. [read the rest of the post…]

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