must-read author

How good is Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green ? I brought this up when I wrote about Mo Willems a while back, but there are a few children’s book creators who are so consistently good that their continuing excellence almost starts to seem commonplace. You find yourself expecting it – “What? Another Kate DiCamillo triumph? About time. I expect nothing less…” (Cut to entitled parent rolling their eyes and tagging their latest Tweets with #firstworldproblems.)

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Lane Smith is one of those creators that my family completely takes for granted. We are huge fans of his work as an author and illustrator across a whole slew of titles like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Seen Art?, Madam President, Cowboy and Octopus, Princess Hyacinth, It’s a Book… the list goes on and on. My daughter swears up and down that Smith’s The Big Elephant in the Room and The Happy Hocky Family – two books that he both wrote and illustrated – are two of the funniest books she’s ever read. And we very purposely don’t own either title, because, when we take them out from the library, she sees it as an enormous treat.

All that being said, with the regard that we have for Smith’s body of work, it’s really spectacular to know that he can still surprise us as a creator. Specifically, I’m talking about his latest picture book, Grandpa Green, a book that I think, stands as a big shift in tone for the author, but it’s a shift that pays off beautifully.

First, don’t get me wrong. It’s NO surprise that Smith, as an illustrator, has delivered another gorgeous picture book. He’s proven himself as one of the most playful and innovative artistic talents in kids lit for years, so the fact that you want to frame every page of Grandpa Green and hang them around your house isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. I will say that Grandpa Green probably most closely resembles Smith’s Princess Hyacinth, but it adds this wonderful muted palette of greens and grays to an organic storytelling world that Smith creates out of an intricate and beautiful topiary garden. The ways that Smith is able to express emotion, memory, and the passage of time through the composition of this living, breathing garden is really something to behold.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Smith’s topiary wonderland is amazing

For me, the big surprise of Grandpa Green is the emotional punch that Smith delivers as an author. Smith has always been funny and painfully clever – see It’s a Book as a prime example – but Grandpa Green has a much, much deeper emotional core than any of his previous books. The premise is heartfelt and elegant – a young boy recounts the life of his great-grandfather as he wanders through a topiary garden that collects some of his great-grandfather’s treasured memories. We see a shrub sculpted to remind us of “Grandpa Green” as a baby, another sculpted as a tribute to his first kiss, another representing his service in World War II, and another series of meticulously-designed garden creations curated into a loving tribute to his wife. We follow Grandpa Green’s great-grandson as he lovingly walks through the garden, touring through his grandpa’s memories and collecting his misplaced gardening tools. [read the rest of the post…]

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Giants Beware

A truly superior graphic novel for kids

My daughter and I have read a lot of books together this year. A LOT. But, as the year winds down and I find myself looking back at our favorite books of 2012 – the instant classics, the bedtime staples, the required road-trip reading – I keep coming back to Giants Beware!, a fantastic, tour de force graphic novel by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, which stands as one of the best examples of comics for kids that I’ve ever read.

And, because due diligence is important, I did check with my daughter before bedtime last night and she did authorize me to, quote-unquote, “tell your blog, Dad, that Giants Beware is my favorite new book I read this year.” So, it’s unanimous – Giants Beware is Building a Library’s Best Book of 2012.

What’s so great about Giants Beware? It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been trying to review it for most of the year, but there are times when I like a book so much that I almost find it impossible to write about it. I find myself tripping over my words, unable to express how much I enjoy the book in question, until I’m halfway tempted to just type “Book am good. Make me happy” and be done with it. But Giants Beware does so much right, it deserves better and, thus, here we are.

With Giants Beware, Aguirre and Rosado have created a blockbuster reading experience. What I mean by that is – this graphic novel is so smart, exciting, accessible, and entertaining that, if it was a movie, it would make $500 million dollars at the box office. The experience of reading Giants Beware is akin to watching a Pixar movie. (One of the best ones.) You just sit there amazed at being told a story with such obvious genius and craftsmanship and also at how you and your child are both able to appreciate it on multiple levels.

That is all to say, I really, really like Giants Beware and so does my kid.

The story revolves around Claudette, a headstrong tomboy who’s always clutching a wooden sword and who can’t wait to one day leave her provincial village and prove herself as a mighty giant slayer. Her father, the town blacksmith, used to be a renowned adventurer (and is now missing a few limbs due to those adventures), and Claudette is aching to follow in his phantom footsteps. She especially wants to set off on a quest to a local mountain range to hunt down a legendary local giant with a reputation for eating babies’ feet. (Aguirre and Rosado are able to make the alleged baby-feet-eating into something that’s really funny as opposed to downright chilling.)

Giants Beware

Don’t cross Claudette if you know what’s good for you…

Claudette is just a fantastic creation – she’s so singularly obsessed with killing monsters that she can barely see anything else in the world. She’s funny, clever, earnest, and loyal – her loyalty particularly shines through when it comes to her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston. (One of my favorite Claudette lines comes after she dispatches some bullies who were picking on Gaston – “Violence is not just efficient. It feels good, too.”)

Giants Beware

Words to live by…

However, Claudette is so obsessed with slaying the feet-eating giant that she tricks Marie and Gaston into accompanying her on a giant-slaying quest – a quest that was expressly forbidden by both her father and the town’s ruling Marquis (who happens to be Marie’s father). As the kids set off across the countryside towards their date with a giant, pursued doggedly by their annoyed parents, they encounter witches, haunted trees, mad river kings, and a wide variety of fairy tale oddities, experiences that help them test their meddle, conquer their fears, and learn a lot more about the strange world around them.

Giants Beware is a very fun read that really connected with my daughter. It’s a longer graphic novel – around 200 pages – but, the first time I finished reading it to her, my daughter asked me to immediately re-read it, which has never happened before. But the re-read factor isn’t the only reason why I regard this as our favorite book of 2012. While, I’ll admit, there were books we read this year that packed a deeper emotional punch (a tear-jerker, this ain’t), Giants Beware is just an exceptionally accomplished piece of work, a work that shouldn’t be trivialized just because you could accurately describe it as “a fun adventure.”

Giants Beware

This is a seriously funny and beautiful book…

And, personally, one of the main reasons why I think I’ve responded to Giants Beware so strongly is that it expertly plays with so many of the children’s literature themes and tropes that I keep obsessing about on this blog (to the point where it almost feels like it crawled out of my subconscious at times). For example, let me list FIVE areas where I think Giants Beware really, really excels:

1. It’s an Ideal Comic Book for Kids

Recurring readers know that I’m a big proponent of exposing kids to comic books and graphic novels, but, as I’ve complained about before, most comic books aren’t designed in a way to make them accessible to developing readers. The vast majority of so-called “kid’s comics” have miniscule font sizes, hectic layouts, and little-to-no concern with helping new readers follow their way throughout the story. Giants Beware, on the other hand, excels at making itself both accessible and appealing to younger readers. The text is extremely readable, the layouts are clean and clear, and the visual storytelling is top-notch. Even though it’s 200 pages long, Giants Beware is a very quick, readable work for kids. I’d almost equate it to a beginning chapter book, along the lines of a Mercy Watson book, and there just aren’t that many kid’s graphic novels out there that pay such careful attention to the needs of new readers. [read the rest of the post…]


Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, a literary giant whose works impacted children of all ages (even the grown ones), died today at the age of 83, due to complications that arose from a recent stroke. I write a lot about “essential” books that every child should have in their home library, but, when I look at my past posts, I realize that I haven’t written that much about Sendak and I think I know why. I think I sometimes forget to mention Sendak or recommend his books, because it just seems like a foregone conclusion to me that EVERYONE knows that you MUST read Maurice Sendak. They don’t need me convincing them to pick up a copy of Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen. There is something – or there SHOULD be something – just imprinted in our animal DNA that draws us to Sendak’s works. We recognize the emotions, the expressions, the empathy that are all clearly apparent on the faces of his characters and we connect to them on a deeply resonant level.

Where the Wild Things Are

My daughter, at age 1 1/2, at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum. You might recognize this image from the header of this blog.

I keep mentioning that The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book that I ever bought for my daughter, but, what I don’t mention is that I didn’t have to buy her a copy of Where the Wild Things Are because I already had a copy, a copy that I’d bought for myself. As I prepared to leave home for the first time to head for college, for whatever reason, after I was done buying myself bedsheets, a TV, and a computer, I bought myself a hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are to keep in my dorm room. And I don’t really know why. Maybe it was something to help me remember my childhood. Maybe it was the equivalent of a literary security blanket. Maybe I was hoping to look deep to college girls and subtly let them know that I was ready to let the “wild rumpus start.” But, my strange motivations aside, I think it says a lot that I couldn’t picture living alone, in my own living space for the first time in my life, without a copy of Where the Wild Things Are ready and available to me whenever I needed it.

That’s the real magic of Sendak. He has so woven his stories into our collective unconscious that it now seems bizarre that there ever were generations in the past that didn’t have Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, or Outside Over There available for their children. While I’m happy that the world will always have his books to cherish for eons to come, I’d admit, it does feel very strange to no longer have the man himself, creating new and vibrant works and constantly reminding children to “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

As a small tribute to the memory of the great man, I assembled this brief collection of videos that, I think, do a nice job of really showing the universal impact, importance, and grand, unfettered joy of Maurice Sendak and his wonderful works. He will be missed.

Tell Them Anything You Want is a fantastic 40-minute documentary on Sendak assembled by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, which was released to accompany Jonze’s 2009 big-screen, live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are. This is long, but beautiful – with some wonderful interviews with Sendak himself. [UPDATE: Earlier today, I embedded a link to a full version of Tell Them Anything You Want on YouTube. That link has since been removed due to a copyright claim. In its place, until they take it down, I present this still-pretty-cool, 5-minute excerpt from the documentary.)

Anyone who ever debated Sendak‘s cultural importance should watch this great video of President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are at the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

A longer excerpt of some spirited interviews with Sendak talking about his life and career, which is taken from a DVD released by the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, which is the “sole repository of the original artwork of famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and a foremost authority on all things Sendak.”

Anita Silvey, the children’s lit expert behind one of my favorite websites, The Book-a-Day Almanac, gives a wonderful overview of Maurice Sendak‘s personal history and literary career. This is a nice introduction to Sendak for those who don’t know much about the man behind his famous works.

[read the rest of the post…]


If you asked me to visualize in my mind a “book for children” – if you gave me a description that vague, asked me to roll with it, and said “just picture a kids’ book in your head” – chances are, the first thing I’d think of would be a Tomie dePaola illustration. Even if you’re not familiar with the name (and most of you probably are), almost everyone in the Western world and beyond probably has had some experience with a Tomie dePaola book. According to his website, he “has written and/or illustrated nearly 250 books”, which doesn’t surprise me. His visual style and storytelling skill are just so beautiful, iconic, and ubiquitous that Tomie books are almost a genre unto themselves. I think it’d be fairly hard to find a child’s home library that doesn’t have at least one dePaola title prominently featured in its collection.

The Knight and the Dragon

Such a fun take on the classic "knight v. dragon" scenario

It also doesn’t hurt that many of his books are card-carrying kids’ classics. When my daughter first started asking us about death at age three, we immediately turned to my wife’s dog-eared childhood copy of Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs – if you have elderly relatives, readers, you need to have that book on standby – and Strega Nona, possibly dePaola’s most famous work, is a home library essential and one of the most memorable books from my own childhood. (A local children’s theater company, The Wild Swan Theater, does a tremendous stage adaptation of Strega Nona that my daughter adores.) However, even though Nana Upstairs and Strega Nona are both must-own works and probably dePaola’s best known titles, my daughter and I have always had a special place in our hearts for The Knight and the Dragon, a rousing tale of dragon fighting, rejecting social roles, and the wonderful things that can happen when you take the advice of a librarian.

Once, when my daughter was two and half, I took her to our local bookstore and told her that she could pick out whatever book she wanted. She headed off into the stacks and, though I’d mentally prepared myself for coming home with an Elmo book, instead, she eventually emerged holding a paperback copy of The Knight and the Dragon. “I really want this, Daddy,” she said.

The Knight and the Dragon

Wait, am I supposed to be the good guy or the bad guy in this story?

Though I was familiar with Tomie dePaola, I’d never read The Knight and the Dragon, so we sat down in the store and we read it together. Minutes later, we reached the end of the story and we both just sat there with goofy, delighted smiles on our faces. “We need this book, Dad,” she told me and, while I totally admit that she might have been manipulating me into buying her something… well, it worked. Despite my best efforts, I am a very manipulatable daddy, particularly when it comes to buying books. We bought it and it’s become a big favorite in our house.

What I like the most about The Knight and the Dragon is how it plays with the expectations that readers have for certain kinds of stories. Before we read the book, I asked my daughter, “What do you know about knights and dragons?” And she replied, “That they fight.” I’m not even sure how she knew that. At the time, I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any books with dragon-slaying on her shelves and I’m not sure where – in her limited TV and movie watching – any knightly combat could’ve come up. Maybe it’s just one of those cultural landmarks that people just KNOW about. I knew that Rosebud was a sled long before I ever saw an Orson Welles movie, so maybe, kids just know deep down in their collective unconscious that knights and dragons don’t get along. [read the rest of the post…]


I was planning a different post for today, but this morning I realized it was February 29th, i.e. Leap Day, the day that only comes once every four years. Previously I only really enjoyed Leap Day as an excuse to indulge in the bad, old running joke “What if your birthday was on Leap Day? After 16 years, you’d only be 4 years old!” – a joke that has popped up in everything from Pirates of Penzance to Parks & Recreation. But, in recent years, there has been this movement to recast Leap Day as a day where you’re supposed to try new things. It’s the day that doesn’t count, the day that comes around so infrequently that it’s the PERFECT day to finally take big chances. (This new vision of Leap Day was hilariously lampooned on an episode of 30 Rock.)

And I actually love that new definition of Leap Day. It makes February 29th more than just a calendar abnormality. It makes it into something aspirational and optimistic, which are two wonderful qualities for a holiday to have.

Tuesday by David Wiesner

The best Leap Day book EVER.

So, to celebrate Leap Day, I spent my drive into work trying to think of the perfect book to read my daughter tonight to celebrate the Leap Day spirit and then it hit me – David Wiesner’s Tuesday.

Let me get this out of the way – Tuesday by David Wiesner might be the coolest picture book I’ve ever read. If I was making a list of the ten essential books that ANY home library MUST have (ooh, I might actually do that soon), Tuesday would definitely make the list.

David Wiesner is one of the most talented children’s book illustrators that has ever lived, a fact backed up by his unprecedented three Caldecott Medals and two Caldecott Honor citations. He’s the master of the wordless or near-wordless picture book, where he uses his vivid watercolor paintings to tell beautiful stories, capture subtle emotions, and entertain the heck out of parents and children alike. Our family has a short-list of “must-own” authors – children’s book creators whose work we will buy sight-unseen every single time – and Wiesner is definitely on that list.

I’ll do a longer tribute to Wiesner’s oeuvre another day, but, for right now, let me address the question – Why is Tuesday the PERFECT Leap Day book?

Tuesday by David Wiesner

Um, Larry…. what’s happening?

First, it’s all about frogs and reading about frogs on Leap Day is too good of a pun to pass up. Second, the premise of Tuesday really taps into the Leap Day spirit. The book opens with the text “Tuesday evening, around eight” and we then pull in on a turtle in a pond witnessing an awesome sight.

For some unknown reason, EVERY frog in the pond has started to FLOAT up, up, up into the air. Actually, they’re not just floating. They’re full-on flying. They’re soaring through the trees, they’re chasing birds, and, from the expressions on their faces, you can tell that the frogs are LOVING IT. They’re having a blast. They’re doing tricks, they’re sneaking into houses to watch TV, they’re playfully chasing a dog that was previously chasing them – a whole new realm of experience has been opened up to them. [read the rest of the post…]


I’ve spent two posts so far lauding the comedic storytelling talents of author-illustrator Mélanie Watt – apologies again for the delay in getting the third part of the trilogy online – and now it’s time for us to take a look at what’s left. And by “what’s left”, I mean, what other Mélanie Watt books I’ve read with my daughter. Let me warn you – my exposure to Watt’s works is achingly incomplete. At the Kids Can Press website, Watt is listed as the creator of 18 different picture books and my family has read about 8 of them. Granted, we have read most of Watt’s two most acclaimed and widely-known series, Scaredy Squirrel and Chester, so we’ve covered most of the big hits, but there are still a lot of deeper album tracks that we still haven’t explored yet. (We particularly want to check out her Learning with Animals series and the picture book Augustine.)

Leon the Chameleon

Leon the Chameleon: Watt's first picture book

However, we have read two of those “and the rest” titles – Leon the Chameleon and You’re Finally Here – and, let’s get this out of the way up-front, both are really strong titles that you definitely should pick up at your local library, if you can. You’re Finally Here is definitely the better of the two books, but there’s a reason for that. And that reason is… there’s a ten-year gap between the publication of Leon and You’re Finally Here. Leon the Chameleon was the first picture book that Watt ever published – she originally created it as part of a design class assignment at the University of Quebec – and You’re Finally Here was published in early 2011. So, Leon was the product of an up-and-coming artist experimenting with the picture book format for the first time and You’re Finally Here is that same artist checking back in with almost a decade of publishing experience under her belt.

Can you tell the difference between the two books? In a word, yes. Leon is a fun book, but it’s very straightforward, very predictable. Now, predictable isn’t always bad. Listening to someone sing “Danny Boy” is predictable – you know how the song goes – but that doesn’t stop you from tearing up when someone really, really talented sings the heck of the song and brings down the house. Leon the Chameleon doesn’t bring down the house, but it’s earnest and fun and shows a TON of promise. [read the rest of the post…]


Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy hopes you enjoy his book trailers

I’m running a bit behind on my epic, three-part appreciation of the genius of Melanie Watt (click here for part one and part two), so, in the meantime, I thought I’d share a few Scaredy Squirrel-related videos to give you a taste of what you’ve been missing. (And, if you’ve already read Scaredy Squirrel, then enjoy this taste of… nope, the metaphor doesn’t work anymore. Just watch them and enjoy, OK?)

First, here are two very brief book trailers created by Scaredy’s publisher, Kids Can Press.

And, now, here’s a pretty good read-aloud video of the first Scaredy Squirrel book.

There are actually a lot of these kinds of videos on YouTube, videos of people reading children’s books aloud, and I have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, it’s nice to get such a thorough preview of the book and, particularly for picture books with a lot of verse elements, it’s kind of cool to hear someone else reading it aloud to get a sense of their rhythms and inflections (particularly if you’re not 100% sure if you’re reading it right – looking at you, In the Night Kitchen.)

On the other hand, most of these videos seem pretty lacking to me. There’s a read-aloud video of Watt’s Chester that I couldn’t stop screaming at – “You’re not reading like 40% of the text on the page! Why didn’t you read the jacket flap? Aren’t you going to highlight the illustrations? Are you trying to give me a heart attack???” [read the rest of the post…]


Scaredy Squirrel

This is Scaredy.

In my last post, I discussed how, thanks to the picture book Chester, my daughter became a big time fan of Mélanie Watt, a seriously talented author-illustrator from Quebec. The hook of Chester is that a the title character, an ego-driven fluffy cat, absconds with a red marker and starts editing the book to favor himself, which kicks off a minor war between Chester and the book’s author, Mélanie Watt. It’s a nice slice of high-concept fun that turned Watt into a minor celebrity in our house and permanently placed the author on my daughter’s book-finding radar. We now know, when we hit the library or a bookstore, if we encounter a Mélanie Watt book, my daughter is going to latch onto it like an alien facehugger.

With that in mind, it was probably inevitable that my daughter would discover Scaredy Squirrel one day, another picture book series by Watt and the literary creation that she’s probably best known for. We actually first encountered Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, the third Scaredy book, at our local library – “Dad! DAD! Mélanie Watt’s name is on this book, Dad!” – and it got such a big reaction at home that we quickly knew that we’d eventually be reading the entire series.

And I have to say reading Scaredy Squirrel books is a pleasure, particularly for adult readers. Because they’re funny. Really funny and they’re a total blast to read aloud. Every adult – parent, relative, friend – who has sat down with my daughter and read one of her Scaredy Squirrel books has loved the experience and asked for more. In fact, when I first launched this blog, my awesome sister-in-law, Erin, immediately sent me an email – subject line “me want scaredy squirrel!” – asking me when was I going to write about Scaredy Squirrel. (Hey Erin, the answer is “now.”)

There are five Scaredy books so far – Scaredy Squirrel, Scaredy Squirrel Makes a Friend, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach, Scaredy Squirrel at Night, and Scaredy Squirrel Has a Birthday Party. We’ve read all of them, except for Scaredy Squirrel at Night, and have seriously enjoyed them all.

Scaredy Squirrel

Scaredy is concerned for your safety.

Scaredy Squirrel as a character is simple yet complex. He’s a squirrel with a laundry list of phobias, anxieties, and unbreakable daily routines. To quote Scaredy’s prologue in the first book (these prologues are the only place where the squirrel speaks in first-person): “I NEVER leave my nut tree. It’s way too dangerous out there. I could encounter germs, poison ivy, or sharks. If danger comes along, I’m prepared. I have antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and a parachute.” And, in each book, Scaredy is confronted with some normal social situation – leaving home, going to the beach, trying to make friends – and we get to watch while Scaredy goes to absurd lengths to remove all variables or sense of risk from each situation, which, as we all know, is totally impossible. [read the rest of the post…]


We have a lot of affection for Mélanie Watt in our house for several reasons. To start with, she’s the first children’s author-illustrator that my daughter really became a fan of all on her own. Now, on a whole, I think my daughter has not-bad taste when it comes to kids books – with a few notable exceptions – but I also realize that my wife and I do a fair bit of work to make sure that she has relatively higher-class material to choose from. I’ve essentially spent the first five years of her life whispering in her ear, like her own personal Screwtape, directing her towards the books I want her to read and making her feel like she has a choice in the matter.

Melanie Watt

This is Mélanie Watt. But I didn't add the red marker edits. She did it to herself.

“Oh, OK, I guess you’ve got to pick between this Tomie dePaola or this Roald Dahl book… you know, these ones that you picked out. YOU did. All by yourself. No. No, I don’t know what happened to that princess book. No, forget about that, I think someone else took it. No. And it was ripped, so we’re not going to buy it. So, between these two, the two that YOU picked out, which one are we going to get? Great choices, by the way.”

Don’t get me wrong. I give in to her reading preferences A LOT and I try to listen, but I’m not going to stop fighting the good fight when I’ve spent this many years gently manipulating her for the greater good. (I wish that sounded less sinister, but, eh, what are you going to do? Welcome to parenthood.)

But I have to give my daughter credit. She found Mélanie Watt all on her own. On a trip to our local library around two years ago, she emerged from the stacks grasping onto a copy of a picture book called Chester by Mélanie Watt. She plopped it down in front of me and said, “I want this one. It’s funny.” And, with an impassioned plea like that, we just had to take it home.

And my daughter was right. It WAS funny. And she absolutely loved it. Chester has a very funny premise, which Mélanie Watt executes exceedingly well. The gist is that an author and illustrator named, coincidentally enough, Mélanie Watt is trying – operative word: trying – to draw a picture book about a mouse who lives in a house in the country, BUT a big, ego-driven cat named Chester has swiped a red marker and is editing the story to make himself the star. Chester is constantly arguing with Watt via his red marker – they bicker on the jacket flap copy, Chester edits her author bio, the cat even changes her dedication on the copyright page.

(Also, since my day-job is being an editor at a publishing company, the idea of someone wreaking that much havoc with a red pen is just inherently funny to me.)


This is Chester. Blame him for the red pen.

The set-up is deliciously meta, but not in an inaccessible way. Sometimes when a kids book plays around with the idea of actually being a book, it can either get a little too cutesy with the premise OR it can get obsessed with parent-skewing in-jokes that fly right over your kid’s head. Some of the best examples of a meta kids book done right are The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, We Are in a Book by Mo Willems, and Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I think Chester would make that list too.

Chester eventually ignites a war with his creator, which is an extremely fun sequence to read aloud. When he redraws a page, she fights back with her omniscient author powers and changes the scene or dresses him up in a pink tutu. It turns into this large-scale argument with a fictional character refusing to listen to its creator – which is a really hilarious concept – but, since the creator becomes such a big part of the story, she becomes a character as well. [read the rest of the post…]


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…]