Sunday, October 3, 2010

an open letter to martha

Dear Martha,

Have you had those babies yet?  Seriously, I fully expect to hear that you're headed to the hospital any second now.  I'm excited about their arrival.  And while I worry that they maybe won't have names when they're born, I know they'll be well taken care of in every other respect.

Do you remember, Martha, back when these twins were much, much tinier, you asked me about children's books?  You told me that you have loads of the books that you grew up reading that your librarian mother has saved, but that there were a couple of decades worth of children's lit that about which you knew little.  So you came to the expert, or perhaps more accurately, to the slacker who promised to put a list together for you and then prompty forgot and put it off and generally dropped the ball.  Sorry, Martha. (If it helps, you're not the first parent/person choosing books for a young child whom I've let down in this way.  I fail.  Often.)

I'm trying to catch up with lots of my failings lately, so just in time for the arrival of Baby A and Baby B, I'm going to give a partially annotated list of some children's books that bear mentioning.  And since I know many of my loyal readers are parents and educators, I fully expect the comment section to light up with better suggestions than I offer here.

Let's begin at the beginning:

Board books:
Board books are for babies.  They're much less likely to be ripped, and they can withstand a certain amount of drool, gumming, and chewing--more than paper pages at least.  They're also shorter and smaller (usually).  There are loads of picture books that are also available in board book format--though they are sometimes shortened, so beware.  I have mixed feelings about the shortened board book versions.  If you read them over and over and over again--and you will--you'll soon have them memorized, and if you later graduate to the full version, it can really throw off your reading rhythm.  I can't ever quite handle There's a Wocket in My Pocket because Pointer had the board book, and that's the way I know it.  Even if it's not shortened, you'll eventually have to deal with the situation of owning two copies of the same books.  It's dangerous ground.  Be careful.

Fortunately, there are loads of books that are published strictly as board books.  You already own some, and based on what I've seen of your growing collection, you're headed in the right direction.  There's really only one name you need to know when it comes to board books:

But Not the HippopotamusSandra Boynton.  She's the best.  My all-time favorite is probably But Not the Hippopotamus.  It's cute and funny and has a great cadence to it.  And those selling points are true in most everything of hers I've ever read.  Other titles that bear special mention are Doggies (a counting book where you get to do ten different dog sounds), The Going to Bed Book, Horns to Toes and in Between, Moo Baa LaLaLa, and Barnyard Dance.  Those are the best ones, I think.  But you really can't go wrong with anything she's done.

My First Animal Board BookI will give DK board books an honorable mention here.  They're not story books, but they have colorful photographs.  They're good for short attention spans because if little hands turn pages before you're done reading, it doesn't really matter.  You can just start pointing out the photos on the next page.  They have them for loads of topics:  animals, colors, toys, vehicles.  You need a couple.  They'll come in handy.

Urban Babies Wear Black (An Urban Babies Wear Black Book)There's a series of board books that's only come to my attention lately.  None of my babies ever had them, but we've got them at the library, and they're very cute.  The first in the series is called Urban Babies Wear Black, but there are lots of other babies:  Winter Babies Wear Layers, Rocker Babies Wear Jeans, Country Babies Wear Plaid, Sporty Babies Wear Sweats, Beach Babies Wear Shades, Foodie Babies Wear Bibs.  You get the idea.  I recommend them conditionally in that I've never actually tried them out on kids.

Picture books:
Here's the secret to children's books.  Don't read books that you don't like.  Until your kids are capable of sustained, silent reading, you'll be reading every book they do.  (And I'd suggest sticking with that even after they read to themselves.)  Don't buy things or check things out unless you enjoy them.  Choose illustrators who appeal to you.  Don't put up with substandard writing.  There's plenty of great stuff out there, so don't waste your time on the junk.

So here are some things I consider the good stuff:

Who Says Woof? (Picture Puffin)
John Butler draws very cute animals, and he's got a couple of great books with very few words.  Who Says Woof? has animal sounds and precious little baby animals.  If You See a Kitten is similar is style.  They're both really good for wee ones.  Back when I did baby storytime, I used both of these a ton.

Chester's WayKevin Henkes is probably my favorite picture book author.  He won the Caldecott for Kitten's First Full Moon a few years ago, but it's probably my least favorite of his.  He's written several books with mice for characters.  Lily, the star of Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, gets the most attention, but she got her start in Chester's Way, which is maybe my favorite.  Lots of them have storylines that deal with anxiety or making friends or teasing or people who are different or sibling rivalry, but they're not preachy.  They've got a very subtle wit about them.  They're not great for big group storytimes because the illustrations are smallish and have details that are better up close.  Wemberley Worried and Owen are probably my other two favorites.  They're quite nice.

Diary of a SpiderDoreen Cronin is another author  I like.  Her farm books are cute, though a typewriter factors heavily into the first one, and while that's charmingly outdated to adult readers, it's completely lost on kiddos.  I know kids that still like it, but it is definitely one of those deals where you choosing the book for your enjoyment just as much as your kids.  Click Clack Moo, Giggle Giggle Quack, and Duck for President have been around for a while, and there are a couple more recent ones about the same farm.  She also has done three books that are diaries of various animals.  Diary of a Worm came first, I think, but Spider is my favorite.  Harry Bliss, who illustrated the diary books did the SRC illustrations the year we had the bug theme.  I love all the little details in these books.  They're funny and very well done.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Mo Willems is another funny author of picture books.  The Pigeon books are his best.  It started with Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.  The illustrations are very simple, and they're not too wordy, but they convey a lot of silliness in their simplicity. Willems is capable of being wordier.  Leonardo the Terrible Monster is a good one, and Knuffle BunnyA Cautionary Tale and its sequel are both great.  I'm pretty sure one of them is a Caldecott Honor book too.

I'll declare those my top picture book authors, but I have a few more books I want to list if you'll allow me:

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson.  Bear and his friends have some sequels, but none are as good as this one with it's sing-song refrain.

The Napping House by Audrey Wood.  It's a cumulative tale, and I've just always liked it.

The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood. This is a fairly new book, that talks about all the different kinds of quiet.  I love the illustrations.

There Was an Old Lady by Pam Adams.  There are so many versions of this nursery rhyme, but this one has a die cut hole in the pages that expands as she swallows more and more.  It's my favorite version.
Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley.  Speaking of die-cuts, this book builds and then unbuilds a monster, talks about colors and some shapes, and is a great non-scary monster book.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.  I can remember loving this book as a kid, and it's still one I really love.  The pictures are pretty much all black and white, in case that's a deal breaker for you.

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann.  Another old book, but I love this little gorilla and his night-time zoo hijinks.

Scaredy Squirrel and sequels by Melanie Watt.  Scaredy is this hilarious OCD squirrel.  They're probably better for bigger kids, but they're a hoot.

I could continue listing books all day, but since I'm working on a deadline, I'll save more picture book recommendations for another day.

I'm tempted to start a discussion of chapter book read-alouds, because that is all the rage among preschoolers I know, but we've got a few years to work our way up to that, and I'll be better at making those recommendations once I've met the little circumstances. 

I'm sure you've been sternly telling those twin babies that they couldn't be born until you had their library all fixed up, so now that I've finally held up my end of the bargain, you can go ahead and have our two newest weeps.  I'm ready to meet them!

Your book-loving peep,



  1. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
    Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?

    I'll let you know if I think of any more.

  2. Oh, I love The Napping House. It's illustrations are wonderful! I also like The Diary of a Worm. I wasn't aware that there were more of the diary books though.

  3. Yeah! Thanks for this post. I think I know about half of these authors and or books, so I'm excited to read familiar and new books to the circumstances.

  4. We really love the cadence in Bear Snores On and the sequels. Boynton is fantastic. The Going to Bed Book was my favorite - "And when the moon is on the rise, they all go up to exercise."
    I also really came to appreciate how fun and wonderful the Dr. Seuss books were. Green Eggs and Ham has a rhythm that sounds a lot like MLK's I have a Dream speech, and I used to love to try to do his inflections when I was reading it out loud. Jenni would holler from the living room, "You're bursting the child's eardrums!!"
    Eric Carle is great too - Brown Bear Brown Bear, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc. I also really liked reading more advanced poetry to Elijah when he was a baby. I figure since he doesn't understand the words and likes looking at the pictures that William Blake poems/paintings were good. I especially liked reading "The Tyger" "The Lamb" and "The Clod and the Pebble." Some of the poems are a little dark for babies though, so beware!

  5. I can't believe I didn't even mention Dr. Seuss. I actually at one point composed some of my thoughts on how important he was. He sorta deserves a post all his own, but I'm not going to do that.

    Brown Bear is pretty essential, but just to be clear, Mac, Eric Carle didn't write it--Bill Martin did. Carle illustrated the most commonly known version though, so most people associate it with him.

    I'm actually not that crazy about Eric Carle, but a well-rounded collection would include him, I suppose.

  6. Yay! I love to talk about picture books! :) My class is 100% in love with all books by Mo Willems, especially books about the Pigeon.


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