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When Charlotte, now 5, was about 18 months old, I discovered “Edwin Speaks Up,” written by April Stevens and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. The book originally caught my interest because the title character, almost-1-year-old Edwin, is quite the babbler, yet no one in his family can figure out the important things he’s trying to tell them.

Edwin Speaks Up Cover

At the time, Charlotte was similarly indecipherable. She’d say something three or four times and, eventually, I’d just have to smile and say, “Ok.” She had so much to say and she was so certain of herself; sometimes it just broke my heart not knowing what big ideas she wanted to share.

And while Stevens’ clever book certainly sympathizes with the unheard and overlooked younger child, over the years I’ve come to appreciate “Edwin Speaks Up” for its other wonderful themes, as well, particularly its hilariously accurate portrayal of the dreaded phenomenon we call “Mom Brain.”

The affected mother, in this case, is Mrs. Finnemore, a lovely ferret with five little ferrets to mind. The youngest Finnemore, Edwin, is about to celebrate his first birthday, and the story chronicles their trip to the grocery store to pick up sugar for Edwin’s birthday cake.

Finnemore Family

Can a children’s book actually be written about a trip to the grocery store, you ask? Of course! I’ll wager a bet that most moms have at least one whopper of a story from the grocery store aisles. I’ve made trips to Hy-Vee that have garnered a handful of good anecdotes in one go – fussy babies, misbehaving toddlers, blown out diapers, time outs, gawking strangers.

Mrs. Finnemore’s first challenge, as it is for many of us, is simply getting out the door. She can’t quite recall where she left her keys, and in the opening spread, we see her dashing about the house, in search mode, as a brood of exasperated ferret children wait reluctantly and little Edwin babbles unintelligibly on the floor.

Or maybe his babbles are more intelligent than we thought…

Searching for Keys

“Gloo poop SHOE noogie froo KEY,” Edwin asserts, to an oblivious audience.

Sure enough, Mrs. Finnermore eventually locates the missing keys inside her son’s shoe on the hall table.

Challenge #2 is loading her five children into the car. In the midst of refereeing arguments over who gets which seat and buckling Edwin into his carseat, Mrs. Finnemore ends up leaving her pocketbook on the roof of the station wagon, a fact only Edwin seems to note: “Figbutton noO noO pocKY BoOKY froppin RoOf.”

Purse on Car Roof

I’d be curious to see the results of a survey polling mothers on whether they’ve ever left their purse or wallet on the roof of the car and driven off. My suspicion would be that most have, because it’s an unfortunate feat of absent-mindedness that both the author, April Stevens, and I have in common with Mrs. Finnemore.

In Stevens’ case, she admits in the book’s dust jacket that her wallet once miraculously survived a 15-mile drive home from the supermarket. I was not as lucky – mine toppled off my car as I drove home from book club one blustery night. I discovered it missing well after midnight and had to trace my path back through the city’s snow covered streets until I found it.

Mrs. Finnemore is relieved to discover hers still in place when she arrives at Fineson’s Fine Grocery, because is there really anything worse that loading up all of the kids only to discover you left your money at home?

Well…I suppose I can think of one worse scenario: loading up all of the kids, somehow managing to complete your entire shopping trip before discovering AT THE CHECK OUT LANE!!! that you don’t have your wallet – been there, done that.

When the Finnemores finally make their way into the grocery store, more chaos ensues. The oldest four children upend a display of canned peas, then engage in a wrestling match in the produce aisle. Meanwhile, Mrs. Finnemore confuses someone else’s cart for her own, and takes off to get the all-important sugar, unaware that she’s forgotten her birthday boy.

Shopping Chaos

“Did someone take my cart?” Mrs. Finnemore could hear Mrs. Lutzheimer call from aisle number one.

“However could someone lose their cart?” Mrs. Finnemore clucked and shook her head as she turned into aisle three.

Mrs. Finnemore’s obliviousness makes her carelessness all the more comical. And don’t we all pass those small judgements? “Oh, I would never do something so ridiculous!” And then we do. But how can we blame Mrs. Finnemore or ourselves, for that matter? How can one possibly expect the brain to function properly under such trying conditions? Just once I’d like to finish a sentence, finish a meal, finish a phone call, finish an email, finish a thought without being interrupted by somebody crying, somebody fighting, somebody asking for more milk.

Mrs. Finnemore’s blunder is eventually discovered and Edwin is reunited with his family but the sugar is lost in the process of sorting out the carts. Once more, only Edwin seems to have a clue.

“Rootin popel CART no no SWEETY,” he tells them.

Edwin tries again: “Gimpin chalk lil wiz um SWEETIN do a bye bye.”

His siblings are too distracted arguing over ice cream flavors and his mother, well…. she might just be in a Xanax haze because how else would a woman survive a trip to the grocery store with five kids without ever losing her cool? My face NEVER looks that blissful when I’m shopping with my kids!

Edwin, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly distressed, as his mother heads to the check out lane, unaware of the missing ingredient:

“Plopin grouff shooop CAKE sweet NO NO.”

“SWEETUM NO NO!”

“Oh, Edwin honey, is your diaper wet?” Mrs. Finnemore sighed.

Unheard and unobserved, Edwin decides to take matters into his own hands. He climbs out of the cart, crawls to the baking aisle, grabs the sugar, pushes it to the check out lane and plops it on the belt.

Edwin Gets Sugar

As the Finnemore’s head home to prepare for Edwin’s birthday (this time with the sugar on the roof of the car), Mrs. Finnemore remarks:

“Tomorrow is Baby Edwin’s birthday—he’s growing up so fast. Soon he’ll be talking. Can you even imagine that?”

Mrs. Finnemore’s statement reflects the ways in which many of us continue to view our youngest children as babies, long past the point at which they’ve transitioned to toddlers or older.

If Stevens’ story wasn’t amusing enough, Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are the cherry on the top. She’s taken some artistic liberties, giving the book an irresistible fifties feel, with that classic pastel color palette and everyone dressed in the fashions of the era, geometric fabrics and belted waistlines included.

Blackall’s illustrations are incredibly charming, but they also add a rich layer of detail to the story, particularly elaborating on the mischievousness of the Finnemore children: the looks of disdain when they’re informed of their impending trip to the store, Finney sticking his tongue out at his sister, Fergus giving Fiona the death stare during their ice-cream-flavor debate, and three of the four oldest children ransacking the dreaded candy displays that are so “conveniently” located in such close proximity to the check-out lanes.

Mischief

In fact, Blackall’s pictorial storytelling is so wonderfully endearing that I often think of her name before the names of those who have authored the books she’s worked on. Some of my very favorites are “Big Red Lollipop” and “Ruby’s Wish,” and when my daughters finally corner me with that dreaded question (“Where do babies come from?”), I’ll be sure to get my hands on “The Baby Tree,” just released and also authored by Blackall.

Sophie Blackall Covers

Sophie Blackall PrintIn the meantime, I’m enjoying this gorgeous signed print from Blackall, which I ordered from her fabulous Etsy shop to celebrate my husband’s and my 9-year wedding anniversary. The image is part of a collection of illustrations Blackall created that were inspired by amusing Craiglist “missed connections” personal ads. And if I didn’t already love Sophie Blackall enough, she packaged my print with these adorable extras!

BlackallExtras

My husband and I are celebrating the ninth anniversary of our wedding tomorrow. We’re high school sweethearts who sometimes act more like quarrelsome siblings — we did, in essence, grow up together.

I first set eyes on Austin a little more than 16 years ago, in April, during soccer season. I caught sight of that tall, blonde drink of water on the field from my vantage point in the stands and that was it.

I had a penchant for stalking boys (just ask my other adolescent crushes), so I spent the next four months “running into” Austin at Taco Time, his place of summer employment, or at his house (my best friend was dating his younger brother and I was the frequent third wheel). He finally succumbed to my charms and asked me out on our first date: dinner at Garfield’s in south Des Moines on August 21st, 1998.

Now here we are, with a life together more rich than we could have ever imagined as teenagers.

However, when it comes to traditional romantic occasions, such as our anniversary or Valentine’s Day, our mutual efforts leave more than a little room for improvement. There was the first year, when Austin attempted to frame our wedding vows but ended up slicing off the tip of his nose when the glass in the frame tipped out while we was cleaning it. The experience must have been particularly scarring (figuratively AND literally — just take a close look at his nose), because that was probably the last time we exchanged anniversary gifts.

That said, I scrounged up a little something this year to commemorate our 9th year of matrimony. But if I’m being perfectly honest, the only reason I have any gift at all is because I was researching children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall today for another blog post I’m working on.

Blackall is the artist behind such fantastic books as “Big Red Lollipop” and the Ivy and Bean chapter book series, in addition to many others. Her Chinese ink and watercolor images are amazingly detailed and incredibly distinctive, making her one of my all-time favorite illustrators. Thus, you can imagine the happy dance I did when I discovered she has an ETSY SHOP!!! where she sells incredibly reasonably priced prints of some of her amazing illustrations.

Many of the prints are from a fascinating collection of drawings illustrating actual Missed Connections Craigslist classifieds from New York City, which were published as a book, “Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found.” Others are simply beautiful images celebrating love. Here’s the one that’s en route to my house:

Sophie Blackall Print

It’s a sentiment about our relationship I feel quite profoundly; if things hadn’t lined up just so, we never would have met, fallen in love and brought our beautiful girls into this world. I love you, Austin.

 

 

April marks two years since Austin and I lost our third child at 22-weeks gestation. It’s hard to believe two years have passed; the pain can feel as fresh as yesterday but it can also feel like I’ve carried the weight of it for decades.

My love for our baby is not complex; it is pure and unending. But my comprehension of and reflection on what happened is VERY complex, and I’m not certain I will ever make sense of it all in my lifetime. I do know that I’ve been changed by his existence in many important and wonderful ways. His life and death brought me to know God, to literally hear Him speak to me, as I never expected I would. If you know me, ask me about it some time.

These and many, many, more thoughts are with me every day, but I share them now because I believe God gave me my son for a purpose – both to shape my life in many large and small ways but also to influence the lives of others. For that reason, I feel compelled to share how my experience has shaped my thoughts on the importance of first trimester prenatal testing.

 

WHEN THINGS WENT WRONG

Our baby, a boy, had a non-hereditary, chromosome disorder called Trisomy 18, in which three copies of the 18th chromosome are present. It occurs in 1 in 2,500 pregnancies. The abnormality caused countless malformations of the body, including missing and abnormal organs, bones and limbs. The results were fatal, as is almost always the case with this syndrome and especially for boys.

For the 5 months prior to our 20-week ultrasound, we had envisioned and loved a child we thought would now be nearing his second birthday, toddling around, learning new words, being played with, snuggled, kissed and hugged a million times each day. In reality, from the moment of his conception, that life we envisioned for him could never have been. But once imagined, it was impossible to un-imagine. As I recently told Austin, you can’t change where your heart has been.

When I was pregnant the first time around with my oldest daughter, Eloise, I was young, 25, with no family history of birth defects or chromosomal abnormalities. My risk level couldn’t have been much lower.

When offered prenatal testing, I declined and told my doctor, as many women do, that if I were to learn our child had Down syndrome, we wouldn’t choose to do anything differently. More specifically, we did not intend to abort a baby who had Down syndrome.

We went through a scare at our 20-week ultrasound when they discovered Eloise had a single umbilical artery. Umbilical cords should have two arteries and one vein, but a missing artery occurs in about 1 percent of babies and a percentage of those occurrences has been linked to structural anomalies and chromosomal disorders such as Trisomies 21 (Down syndrome) and 18. Subsequent ultrasounds reassured us there was no cause for concern, and Eloise was born healthy.

Similarly, I did not undergo testing for my second daughter, Charlotte’s, pregnancy, and she was born without issue.

When we conceived a third time, I was still in my late-20s and still blissfully naïve. No testing necessary.

But then, the world fell apart at our 20-week ultrasound. Our 4- and 2-year-old daughters were in the room with us, excited to learn if they’d have a new baby brother or sister. Our families were planning to meet us at a restaurant afterward for the big gender reveal. Half-made whoopee pies were sitting in the fridge at home, waiting to be filled with pink or blue-colored icing. Then, the ultrasound technician told us something was wrong and that we’d have to talk to the doctor. And at that moment, here’s what I learned:

Those bad things you feel silly worrying about? Chromosomal disorders and birth defects? They happen every day, there are statistics for a reason, and there’s no reason they can’t happen to you.

I had been reluctant to acknowledge or act on my fears. It was almost as if I superstitiously thought that by choosing not to do prenatal testing my pseudo-confidence would somehow keep those scary things at bay. I also feared that if I said “yes” to testing, it might give people – my doctor, in particular – the impression that I wouldn’t accept a child with Down syndrome.

 

THE BENEFITS OF FIRST-TRIMESTER TESTING

What hadn’t sunk in for me until then, and what I learned on our long and painful journey, is that prenatal tests aren’t just about Down syndrome. They also test for other, more severe, often fatal disorders. And opting to participate in prenatal testing shouldn’t be associated with any sort of stigma or shame. It doesn’t necessarily mean a parent intends to end a pregnancy in which an abnormality is detected. Instead, prenatal testing allows parents to prepare themselves as fully as possible for whatever the pregnancy might bring.

In many cases, prenatal testing will result in a pregnancy with significantly reduced stress levels thanks to clean test results. (Maternal stress has been shown to increase the risks of miscarriage and negatively affect a baby’s development.)

It might mean making plans to deliver at a hospital with a skilled neonatal team that’s prepared to treat complicated health issues that have been identified, possibly saving the baby’s life.

In the case of a Down syndrome diagnosis, in-utero therapies are beginning to be implemented to foster optimal brain development before birth.

On the other hand, it might mean preparing for the loss of the pregnancy because of a fatal disorder or defect, but beginning that process months earlier than we were able to.

Most importantly, if genetic testing reveals an abnormality, the information enables parents to prepare emotionally as early as possible, adjusting their expectations, evaluating how they plan to share the news with their other children or friends and family, making plans for how or whether to proceed with the pregnancy and seeking the best medical, psychological and spiritual help possible.

What would it have meant for me? Surely I would be living in an alternate universe.

I would not choose to change where life has taken me in the wake of our loss. However, I wish I could have spared my daughters the confusion and uncertainty of that time in our lives—being ushered out of the ultrasound room, watching their mother disappear into the darkness of grief, having their lives turned upside down when we immediately moved in with my parents, struggling to understand the explanation that our baby was too sick to live with us and that God needed to take care of him instead.

 

THE BARAGE OF PRENATAL TESTING OPTIONS

When I was pregnant with Flora, our now-7-month-old, I could no longer let my naivety lead me blindly, hoping for the best, assuming lightning wouldn’t strike twice. I’d lived through hell and barely climbed my way out; things were going to be different this time around.

Thankfully, I had the guidance of skilled perinatologists who thoroughly explained the various testing options available. (The American Pregnancy Association offers a good overview here.) Doctors now recommend that all women be screened for Down syndrome and other trisomy disorders. But this information, when presented in the doctor’s office in the early stages of your pregnancy, can be overwhelming. And when you think you have nothing to fear, it’s easier to just tune it all out and choose not to participate.

  • The maternal blood tests most widely used in the first two trimesters are not “diagnostic,” meaning they cannot tell parents definitively if their baby has an abnormality or not. Instead, they measure hormone levels in the mother’s blood, combine those with ultrasound and information about the mother (including age and ethnicity) to offer an estimate of the baby’s risk for abnormalities. Both false positives and false negatives can and do occur. When an abnormality seems likely, a diagnostic test becomes necessary. In the case of false positives, the parents are subjected to unnecessary emotional stress and the baby is subjected to the risks that accompany invasive testing.
  • Diagnostic tests for chromosomal disorders and genetic abnormalities include chorionic villus sampling (CVS), which tests tissue from the placenta, and amniocentesis, which tests the genetic material in the amniotic fluid. CVS is available between 10 and 12 weeks, allowing earlier results, but does not test for neural tube defects. Amniocentisis is usually performed later, between 15 and 20 weeks, and does test for neural tube defects. Both procedures report abnormalities with 98-99 percent accuracy. However, both procedures also carry the risk of miscarriage. For CVS, the risk has been reported at 1 in 100 procedures resulting in miscarriage. For amniocentesis, the risk ranges from 1 in 200 to 1 in 400 procedures resulting in miscarriage.

It would seem there are no good options. But miraculously, my fourth pregnancy perfectly coincided with a major breakthrough in prenatal testing: cell-free fetal DNA testing.

 

WHY WE CHOSE CELL-FREE FETAL DNA TESTING

Using a basic blood sample drawn from the mother as early as 10 weeks gestation, a testing lab is able to sift out cell-free fetal DNA present in the mother’s blood. This fetal DNA gets into the mother’s bloodstream when cells from the placenta die and come apart, releasing genetic material that’s absorbed by the mother’s blood stream. The test is able to isolate this genetic material and examine it to determine if there are abnormal numbers of chromosomes, specifically Chromosomes 21, 18 and 13 and the X and Y sex chromosomes.

Cell-free fetal DNA was discovered in 1996, and the first genetic testing based on the technology was offered in 2011. In late 2012, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended the test for patients at an increased risk for chromosomal defects, but many OB/GYN’s have never heard about the test. Mine hadn’t.

However, we now have a history that includes a pregnancy with chromosomal abnormalities. My OB/GYN directed me to the Perinatology Center of Iowa where we were offered a cell-free fetal DNA test, under the brand name Verifi, as an alternative to CVS during the first trimester of my pregnancy.

At first glance, I assumed the test was no different than the traditional first trimester maternal blood screening, in which I would receive results that outlined the baby’s relative risks for various disorders. Those tests did not offer the certainty I needed, nor could I imagine surviving the possibility of a false positive after what we had already been through. However, I also knew I could not proceed with my pregnancy uninformed only to find out later that the baby could have something drastically wrong, however slim the chance.

We agonized over the choices but were enlightened when we did more research on the Verifi testing option. We discovered that the test detects greater than 99.9 percent of all cases of Down syndrome, more than 98 percent of all Trisomy 18 pregnancies and about 65 percent of Trisomy 13 pregnancies.

Equally important is the incredibly low rate of false positive results. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late February 2014 made a head-to-head comparison of cell-free fetal DNA tests and standard screening methods. Cell-free fetal DNA tests were found to have a false positive rate of 0.45 percent while standard testing resulted in false positives 4.2 percent of the time.

With this information in hand, we felt confident relying on the Verifi test to provide us with the best, most accurate, information possible about the health of our baby. My blood was sent away last March and, 10 days later, we were called with clean results. Because we had opted to test for sex-linked chromosomal disorders as well, we had the added benefit of learning the baby’s gender. We were expecting our third girl.

 

WHY ALL WOMEN SHOULD CONSIDER FIRST TRIMESTER PRENATAL TESTING

When I look back on April of 2012, I remember how alone I felt. I couldn’t imagine that anyone, especially not anyone I knew, could have suffered in the unique ways we had. But one of the blessings and sadnesses of enduring this pain is learning just how much company we have. Countless people sought us out – neighbors, friends of friends, people we’ve known for ages – they sent us messages, called us, to tell us that they, too, endured something similar and that they had survived.

According to the March of Dimes, 1 in 150 babies are born with a chromosomal disorder and 1 in 33 are born with some sort of birth defect. How many women do you know, and how many pregnancies will they have between them? It starts to feel much closer to home.

I don’t intend to incite fear. Being pregnant is joyous and beautiful and exciting, and you have every right to expect that your baby will be the picture of perfection. But you know the old adage “hope for the best and prepare for the worst?” I know just how devastating it can be when all you do is hope because you’re afraid of the worst.

Think about it this way: The average person is expected to be in a car accident every 17.9 years, but hopefully you wear your seat belt every time you’re in the car. Buckling up doesn’t mean you’re afraid you’ll crash that day; it’s just the smart thing to do.

First trimester prenatal testing is the smart thing to do, ESPECIALLY if you would continue a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality or other birth defect. Most issues will be caught in a 20-week ultrasound, but, in my experience, finding out this far into the pregnancy causes emotional trauma that should be avoided at all costs. (For the perspective of another mother who chose cell-free fetal DNA testing, read “Why I Wish I Had Chosen Prenatal Testing,” a moving essay written by Patti Rice, the mother of 11 whose 10th child was born unexpectedly with Down syndrome.)

If you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or know someone who is, I strongly urge you to ask your doctor about a cell-free fetal DNA test. Doctors who are aware of the test are recommending it as an option for those who are of advanced maternal age, have irregular standard maternal blood screenings, have irregular ultrasound findings or have a personal or family history of chromosomal disorders. However, ANYONE can request the testing. If your doctor isn’t familiar with it, don’t be afraid to ask them to look into it. It’s available in all 50 states. Just three insurance companies cover it (Aetna, Cigna and United Healthcare), but in our case, the testing company reduced our personal cost to under $200 when it wasn’t covered by our insurance.

I believe that this sort of testing will quickly become the standard of care, but in these early stages, I want to share what I’ve learned with as many people as possible. I can only hope that learning about cell-free fetal DNA testing will save one person from suffering the way we did. Or maybe it will keep someone from unnecessarily undergoing a more risky, invasive test like CVS or amniocentesis.

If you do choose to do prenatal testing, please tell people. Hopefully sharing your decision with others will help reshape how we look at prenatal testing, transforming it into something that’s viewed as one of the most caring, responsible choices you can make for your baby, yourself and your family.

GOOD EGG

For months, I’ve been hiding Barney Saltzberg’s “Good Egg” in an out-of-the-way cabinet, having found the PERFECT book for Flora’s first Easter basket. Pull-tab books aren’t always a good idea for hands that haven’t quite learned a gentle touch, but this book was just too witty and innovative to resist.

Good Egg Cover

On color-blocked pages, Saltzberg introduces us to “Egg,” whom he issues commands, much like you would a dog, on the subsequent pages. When the reader lifts the flap or pulls the tab, Egg adorably executes the command and its praise (“good egg”) is revealed.

Lie Down Good Egg

Suspense builds when the egg is asked to “speak,” and a crack appears. When the command is reissued, the top off the eggs lifts to reveal a very talkative chick within.

Speak Egg Chick

 

LITTLE BUNNY FOO FOO: THE REAL STORY

For the older reader, I love “Little Bunny Foo Foo: The Real Story,” by Cori Doerrfeld. The book is based on the nonsensical contemporary American folksong whose authorship and exact date of origin are unknown. The general consensus is that the song popped up in the mid-1960s as a camp song, confirmed by my Boomer-era mother who recalls singing it at summer camp about that time.

The song was certainly a part of my childhood. I remember singing it and gleefully “bopping” my younger sisters on the head. So caught up in the silliness, I suppose I never stopped to ponder would could possess a cute cottontail to abuse her fellow forest friends in such a fashion.

Little Bunny Foo Foo Cover

That’s just the question Doerrfeld set out to answer in her quirky picture book. The illustrations reveal that Bunny Foo Foo may not be as malicious as we thought. And those poor, defenseless field mice? Not so poor and defenseless.

Bunny Foo Foo 1

In Doerrfeld’s version of the story, the field mice sneak into Bunny Foo Foo’s house while she’s cleaning up from baking cupcakes and make off with her sweet treats. She goes “hopping through the forest” in pursuit of the thieves. When she catches them, she smacks the mice on the head and takes back her cupcakes.

Down comes the good fairy who decides to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.

GoodFairyComesDown

“Little Bunny Foo Foo, I don’t want to see you scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.”

The fairy tells Bunny Foo Foo she’ll turn her into a monster if the abuse continues and allows her two more chances to behave. Unfortunately, the field mice, now in cahoots with the other forest animals, have already made off with Bunny Foo Foo’s cupcakes again, and Bunny Foo Foo isn’t going to stand for it. She burns through her remaining chances, becoming increasingly enraged by the pilfering rodents, and the “Good” Fairy follows through on her threat, turning Bunny Foo Foo into a monster.

Bunny Foo Foo Mad

The monstrous Bunny Foo Foo exacts her revenge, however, and satisfies her sweet tooth by gobbling up the saccharine fairy, a consequence the Good Fairy obviously hadn’t considered before wielding her wand.

Foo Foo Eats Fairy

“And down went the Good Fairy, who tasted very good indeed.”

Doerrfeld’s acrylic illustrations hold all the appeal of your children’s favorite animated movies. She’s drawn mice and birds whose rascally behavior is at first disguised by their Disney-esque cuteness. Her Good Fairy is as sugary and frosted as Bunny Foo Foo’s cupcakes. And Bunny Foo Foo’s expressions of frustration-turned-fury make her a sympathetic heroine.

Doerrfeld’s lyrics vary slightly from the original (in which Bunny Foo Foo is given THREE chances before she’s turned into a GOON, rather than a monster); but this book is sure to inspire a rollicking sing-along and inevitably a game of head bopping, but hopefully all in good (and gentle) fun.

When I was preparing for Flora’s arrival, there was very little shopping that needed to be done. We had five years worth of girls’ clothes and all the baby essentials. Our car seat was about to expire and we decided to upgrade to a video monitor (singing its praises), but other than that, it was pretty much diapers and baby shampoo.

Oh, and did I forget to mention? A little bit of book shopping, too, of course.

It was just so plainly obvious that our board book collection was lacking, and I’ll use any excuse.

As attractive as their near-indestructible format is, I have always been a reluctant consumer of board books. Primarily because too many great picture books have been inappropriately repackaged into board book format.

Click Clack Moo CoverTake “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” for example. It was one of the founding editions of my children’s book collection, purchased long before any of my girls were even conceived. This incredibly witty, amazingly illustrated story is intended for children ages 3 to 7, and appropriately so.

Would I have ever considered this book in board book format? No!

Why not? For several good reasons:

1: Its sharp humor, creative plot and detailed illustrations would go completely over the head of a baby or toddler.

2: The complexity of the text would likely test the patience and interest of these young readers.

3: All of the aforementioned elements that make this an exceptional picture book would be diminished in the board book’s small-scale format.

But most importantly, by the time your baby is 7 years old and capable of fully appreciating this story, how enthusiastic do you think she’ll be about pulling out a board book at story time? Not very.

The best board books are written and constructed with babies and toddlers in mind —hence the thick sturdy pages, with wipeable, glossy surfaces designed to withstand little ones’ not-so-gentle hands. School Library Journal offers a good summary of what constitutes a truly successful board book:

“The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Ideally, illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page, offering plenty of contrast between the background and the pictures. Occasionally, a picture book makes the successful transition to a board format, but be warned that not all picture books are equally engaging as board books. Too much text on the page is distracting and crowded, and the smaller trim size can make illustrations appear crammed on the page, losing detail and focus. The absolute best board books are the ones that withstand the test of time: not only in being indestructible, but also in holding young children’s interest as they explore and point to pictures, exclaiming, ‘again, again!’ when reaching the last page.”

Stumped by the ill-suited board book release of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” Horn Book contributing editor Cynthia Ritter suggested that publishers are catering to “parents who want smaller, sturdier, and cheaper versions of picture books.” She suggests that money-smart parents seek out paperback editions of books before succumbing to the allure of board books. They’re “lighter and, while less durable, similar in cost to the board book and in size to the original,” she writes.

Here’s how I see it, if a book is available as a picture book, I choose that format almost without exception. Even if I incur double the cost of a board book, I gain three times the life. Inevitably, all children consider themselves “too big” for board books, usually by the time they’re two. If a picture book can survive those first two years, it will be read many more times in the years that follow, both to your first child and as well as any that may follow.

Conversely, if I’m going to buy a board book, it’s going to be specifically suited for children under two and it had better be pretty outstanding. Keeping my prejudices in mind, I’ve sought new baby-friendly titles to complement tried-and-true board book favorites like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” “Moo, Baa, La, La, La,” and “Goodnight Moon.”

In the process, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my preferences: I now have a significantly larger collection of books derived from folk songs. It’s a trend that isn’t completely surprising. Many nursery rhymes and folk songs are so engrained in our memory that they’re easy to fall back on as you rock your baby to sleep in the middle of the night or attempt to distract a toddler causing a raucous at a restaurant. “This Little Piggy” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” never grow old and rarely cease to elicit a baby’s adorable chuckles. The lyrical verses are just what you need to hold an on-the-go toddler’s attention.

 

HUSH. LITTLE BABY

One of my favorite board book discoveries in this genre has been Marla Frazee’s “Hush, Little Baby.” As a child, this was the song my parents would sing to us at bedtime, and it was the first thing that popped into my head when I was a new mom attempting to console a colicky infant.

Hush Little Baby Cover

 

Frazee’s rich watercolor illustrations make her one of my all-time favorites. I adored her work in “The Seven Silly Eaters” and “Everywhere Babies.” Her humor is wonderfully evident in “Boss Baby,” which she authored and illustrated. She’s also responsible for bringing “Clementine” to life in Sara Pennypacker’s popular chapter book series.

In “Hush, Little Baby,” Frazee’s beautifully detailed images lend a clever backstory to this traditional American folk-song. The opening pages of the book depict a frontier family returning home at sunset, the eldest daughter envious of the attention the new baby gets as her parents tuck the baby into bed. Turn the page and the reader spies big sister shoving her baby sister’s cradle, waking the baby and setting the song in motion.

Hush Little Baby 1

Hush Little Baby 2

Hush Little Baby 3

While Mama attempts to console the baby, Papa and Big Sister visit a peddler on the road to see if they can find something to “hush the baby.” We all know how the story goes, though, and despite their many desperate attempts, Baby howls all night long. Just as the sunrise is tingeing the sky pink, the family tumbles out of a horse drawn cart and the baby finally decides she’s tired out.

Hush Little Baby Ending

I love how Frazee has captured the siblings’ reconciliation and the parents’ utter exhaustion. Best yet, I love the sweet and innocent look on the baby’s face, in sharp contrast with earlier images of a seemingly possessed child. Isn’t that just how babies are? Utterly exhausting and maddeningly frustrating during sometimes endless fussy periods, but angelically loveable the very moment it passes.

Angry Baby

As an added bonus, the last page of the book offers the accompanying lines of music, which will be helpful for those readers who can’t exactly remember how the tune goes.

 

MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB

I discovered Tomie de Paola’s petite gem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at The Pumpkin Patch, our local, independent children’s book and toy store. It always astonishes me how poorly big box bookstores stock some of the children’s book greats like de Paola, Eric Carle and even some of Dr. Suess. I’ll never forget when our BAM bookstore failed to turn up either a copy of “The Cat in the Hat” or Mem Fox’s “Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes.” And they wonder why I have absolutely zero interest in their ridiculous membership program!

Conversely, it was a pleasant, but not completely unexpected treat to discover a de Paola with which I was previously unfamiliar while browsing about The Pumpkin Patch. The proprietor, like most indie sellers, knows her children’s book authors and is a particularly ardent de Paola fan.

Mary Had a Little Lamb Cover

Originally published as a picture book in 1984, de Paola’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a rare example of a book that’s been appropriately repackaged as a board book. The song’s succinct verses, paired with de Paola’s vibrant artwork make it perfectly suited for toddlers and babies. Of course, there are other board book incarnations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but there’s none better than de Paola’s. His illustrations, in themselves, are masterpieces of contemporary American folk art and are ideal for bringing to life one of the best-known American folk songs. He’s also done a masterful job of interspersing wordless pages between verses of the song, creating a pacing that’s ideal for impatient readers eager to turn the page.

For example, the page spread following the verse “And every where that Mary went / The lamb was sure to go” illustrates the little lamb following Mary while she washes the dishes in the kitchen, reads a book in the attic and then nods off to sleep.

Mary and Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb HousesIn addition, I appreciate the historical accuracy with which de Paola approached the project, incorporating the concluding verses of the song that few of us know and illustrating the pages with landscapes, buildings and dress that are true to the time and location in which the song was composed —1830, rural New Hampshire countryside.

De Paola also had an interest in the supposed controversy concerning the rhyme’s authorship, about which he writes in detail on his website. Traditionally, the writer Sarah Josepha Hale of Guild, New Hampshire, is credited with the creation of the original poem. However, a Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachussets, claimed she was THE Mary who took her pet lamb to the town’s one-room schoolhouse. She asserted that a visiting pastor-in-training witnessed the incident and composed the verses, which he gave to her.

De Paola read everything he could on the topic and concluded that he sided with Hale, especially in light of her deathbed oath that she was the sole author of the poem.

Mary Author

“I shared all of this information with Margery Cuyler, my editor at Holiday House. We agreed to produce a picture book of the poem and credit SJH (Sarah Josepha Hale) as the AUTHOR — what fun! I went to Newport and sketched actual buildings that would have been in Newport at the time of SJH. I even put a portrait of sorts on the title page of an 1850’s-1860’s lady writing at a desk with a toy lamb pull-toy near her. And guess what? I ADDED to the controversy. Letters poured in — well, OK, dribbled in — correcting me about the ‘TRUTH.’ I sent them to the Richards Free Library whose staff enjoyed answering them. I DON’T WANT ANY MORE LETTERS ABOUT WHO WROTE ‘MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB.’”

 

CHILD’S PLAY “BOOKS WITH HOLES”

Another treasure trove of song-based board books are those offered by Child’s Play, a British publishing company that’s employed nearly every nursery rhyme or folk song one could name, from “This Little Piggy” to “”If You’re Happy and You Know It” to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I’m particularly fond of their “Books with Holes” board book series. These books utilize unique die cuts in their pages to reveal images that enhance the story’s development. I’ll use our favorite, “The Farmer and Dell,” to illustrate the technique.

On the opening page spread, we meet “the farmer in the dell,” seen through the first hole holding a bunch of flowers. The accompanying second verse tells us “the farmer takes a wife,” and we’re shown a group of a dozen potential spouses — some scary, some frumpy, some quirky and some sweet. The reader gets the fun of guessing whom the farmer will choose.

Farmer and the Dell 1

The page spread that follows reveals the selected wife through a new hole. In addition, we’re shown a crowd of a dozen potential children, one of whom belongs to the couple. Will it be the girl in the flowered dress or the boy on the skateboard? Maybe the boy with the chickens? Turn the page to find out.

Farmer and the Dell 2

The bright, playful illustrations and lyrical, repetitive verses make this book enjoyable for our baby, but the guessing game has captured the interest of our 4- and 6-year-old girls. They almost always choose a “Book with Holes” when I encourage them to read to Flora; and because they know the songs so well, even our pre-reader Charlotte can “read” these books. They may have the most fun with “The Farmer and the Dell,” but they also love the inventive new verses in “Little Miss Muffet.”

Miss Muffet Parrot

Along came a parrot, who crunched on her carrot.

You’ll also meet a bear who gobbled her pear, mice who munched all her rice and a poodle who nibbled her noodles, among others.

Our collection also includes “One Elephant,” which brings back fond memories of Sharon, Lois and Braham, as well as “The Ants Go Marching.” We have “Old McDonald,” too, but this edition was a case in which Child’s Play’s traditional British verses didn’t quite match up with our familiar version of the song. For instance, their horses “whinny” rather than “neigh” and their pigs “grunt” rather than “oink.” Check out their full collection of books on their website.

 

When I write about a book, I like to spend time learning as much as I can about the author and illustrator, their artistic methods and their literary inspirations. I’m always curious about the story behind the story.

Optical IllusionHowever, there are some books that are so iconic and familiar that it can be difficult to see their treasured images and verses afresh, to separate the story from our long-engrained impressions. It’s a little like that old optical illusion in which one either sees a young lady or an old woman — your brain usually interprets the picture one way and it can be difficult to grasp hold of the alternate image.

Such was my experience when researching “Madeline” and its author/illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans for my post about the ultimate little girl’s library.

Madeline Cover

Despite evidence to the contrary, I was one of the many who assumed Madeline had no family. Indeed, many believe that “old house in Paris” was an orphanage. I also was under the impression that Madeline was French, as was her author — anyone who would attempt to rhyme “again” and “rain” simply couldn’t be American, could they? And I was certain that Miss Clavel was a nun.

Madeline

I had to throw many of my preconceived notions out the window after coming across this NPR interview with Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, who has revived the Madeline empire in recent years with new titles like “Madeline and the Cats of the Rome” and “Madeline and the White House.”

“It’s not an orphanage; she’s not a nun; and Madeline is not French,” Marciano told NPR. “I used to get almost indignant over it, but these things take on a life of their own and sometimes misperceptions are the stuff of legends.”

According to Marciano, although Madeline attends a French boarding school, she is an American with parents bearing the surname Fogg. This detail was apparently buried in a manuscript Bemelmans drafted in the early 1950s after a visit to Texas. Marciano discovered the text and accompanying sketches while researching his grandfather and published it posthumously as “Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales.”

Of course, if you had been looking for it, you would have taken note of the dollhouse Madeline received from “Papa” during her hospital stay in the original book. In addition, Madeline flies home on a magic carpet in “Madeline’s Christmas” and is shown happily celebrating on her father’s lap with a mother and two younger siblings nearby.

Madeline Has Family

As for Miss Clavel, Marciano insists that her apparel is that of a nurse. However, Marciano was born eight years after the death of his grandfather, so even his assertions may be a little faulty at times.

Most revealing of Madeline’s genesis is the acceptance speech Ludwig Bemelmans gave after being awarded the 1954 Caldecott Medal for “Madeline’s Rescue” (he had previously received a Caldecott Honor for “Madeline” in 1939).

Bemelmans explains that he never had ambitions of writing a children’s book, that all he ever wanted to be was a painter. However, he said the methods necessary for becoming a successful artist did not appeal to him; he did not want to exhibit himself, he did not like “the kissing of hands,” and he did not want to see his work sold and taken away.

Madeline became Bemelmans’ solution; a method of painting what he loved and presenting those images to an appreciative audience without having to comprise himself:

“You will notice in ‘Madeline’ that there is very little text and there is a lot of picture,” Bemelmans said. “The text allows me the most varied type of illustration: there is the use of flowers, of the night, of all of Paris, and such varied detail as the cemetery at Père la Chaise and the restaurant of the Deux Magots. All this was there waiting to be used, but as yet Madeline herself hovered about as an unborn spirit.”

in rain or shine

So what brought about Madeline’s birth? Bemelmans traced the spark of creation to a mishap he experienced during a vacation by the sea in France. While bicycling home to his rented beach house with the catch of the day slung over his shoulder, Bemelmans was hit by the island’s only automobile.

Here’s cause to question Marciano’s familiarity with his grandfather’s legacy. Marciano asserts in an interview with the literacy website Reading Rockets that his grandfather was conveniently hit by an ambulance that subsequently delivered him to the hospital. But Bemelmans recalls to the finest detail “a four horsepower Super Rosengart belonging to the baker of Saint Sauveur, the capital village on the island. This car was a fragrant, flour-covered breadbasket on wheels.”

In fact, Bemelmans said he had to walk himself to the hospital, lobsters in tow. But this misfortune proved an important catalyst:

“I was put into a small, white, carbolicky bed, and it took a while for my arm to heal. Here were the stout sister that you see bringing the tray to Madeline, and the crank on the bed. In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in the bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me. Over my bed was the crack in the ceiling ‘That had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.’ It all began to arrange itself. And after I got back to Paris I started to paint the scenery for the book. I looked up telephone numbers to rhyme with appendix.”

Madeline Hospital Inspiration

To flesh Madeline out more fully, Bemelmans drew inspiration from many of the women in his life. Her name is a more rhyme-friendly version of his wife’s Madeleine. Her appearances matches sketches Bemelmans made of his daughter, Barbara, enjoying her first trip to Paris, including a visit to the zoo.

The details of daily life in the old house in Paris are based on stories Bemelmans mother told him about her girlhood in a convent in Bavaria.

“I visited this convent with her and saw the little beds in straight rows, and the long table with the washbasins at which the girls had brushed their teeth,” he said.

Madeline Beds and Sinks

That convent school was, of course, overlooked by nuns, which most likely shaped Miss Clavel.

Even more interesting are the autobiographical components of Madeline’s character

“I myself, as a small boy, had been sent to a boarding school in Rothenburg,” Bemelmans said. “We walked through that ancient town in two straight lines. I was the smallest one.”

In Two Straight Lines

It’s no wonder Madeline has been so dear and familiar to three generations of children and adults. She is a masterful collage of very real and special people.

Finally, I was fascinated to learn more about Bemelmans’ international upbringing, which, in turn, provides explanation for the author’s unusual rhymes. He was born in an area of Austria-Hungary that is now part of Italy where he spoke French exclusively until the age of six. (“It was fashionable in Europe to bring up children who spoke nothing but French,” Bemelmans explained) At that time, Bemelmans’ father left the family for their governess and Bemelmans’ mothered moved the children to Germany, where he picked up his second language. He spent the remainder of his youth in Germany and then Austria, learning the hotel business. In 1914, he immigrated to the United States to further his apprenticeship in the hospitality industry. He joined the United States Army in 1917 and became a U.S. citizen in 1918.

Bemelmans’ former editor, May Massee, cites his 1953 memoir, “Father, Dear Father,” as one of the best sources of biographical information available on the author. Within its pages, Bemelmans has recorded the experiences and conversations of his trip to Europe with his daughter, Barbara. Barbara expresses somewhat exasperated curiousity about Bemelmans’ diverse cultural background and complex accent.

“Do you speak German with an accent too?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Do you speak any language correctly?’

‘Well, I have the least accent in French, or else the French are very polite, for they always say how very well I speak it for a foreigner.’

‘That’s all rather sad, Poppy.’

‘Well, it has its advantages. It’s like being a gypsy, belonging everywhere and nowhere.’”

As a result of his efforts to mimic his grandfather’s inventive prose, Marciano says he’s come to appreciate Bemelmans’ oddities:

“I think there’s something great about inconsistency,” he told NPR. “It keeps you on your toes as a reader.”

However, he sympathized with Bemelmans’ editors, citing his grandfather’s attempt to rhyme the words “Genevieve” and “beef” in “Madeline’s Rescue.”

Madeline's Rescue

“In German…the ‘v’ and the ‘f’ is the same,” he said. “I can just imagine (the editors) saying: ‘No. It does not rhyme in English.’”

For more captivating information about Ludwig Bemelmans, his writing process and the history of his books, read the entirety of his Caldecott Medal acceptance speechas well as the whole of his editor’s reflections on the author. In addition, Forbes offers an interesting look at the Madeline dynasty, past, present and future.

My dear friend is having her second child and HER FIRST GIRL!!! later this month. We showered her with baby bows and all things girly this past weekend, and I was tasked with putting together a bow-themed, children’s book trivia game for our party.

Can you name that bow?

(Find the answers at the bottom of this point)

(Find the answers at the bottom of this post)

This line-up of beribboned characters represents many of the classic heroines of children’s picture books (with a picture book newbie and a British import thrown in).

When I broke the news of my first pregnancy, my sisters presented me with a signed copy of Katherine Holabird’s “Angelina Ballerina.” Their inscription read:

Angelina Inscription

I hear baby boys are wonderful; I’ve met several that are irresistible; but as one of four sisters, I was set on having my own gaggle of girls. If I hadn’t been lying on a table during my 20-week ultrasound, I would have done a victory dance when the technician told me I was expecting a girl that first time around.

Now that our house holds three little girls, our collection of the great “girl” books has grown exponentially from that first edition of “Angelina.” While I’m a firm believer that all books can be, and should be, enjoyed equally by both genders, there is a collection of books I believe no little girl’s library should be without. Each has become a beloved classic, having proven its unique value through the test of time. These are the books I gifted as a right of passage for my friend as she prepares to become the mother of a daughter.

Eloise Cover

“Eloise,” written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight
I’m a bit biased, as this is my firstborn’s namesake, but Eloise is a one-of-a-kind character. Inspired by the author’s goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, Eloise is the quirky and wonderfully self-assured 6-year-old who lives on the “tippy-top floor” of The Plaza Hotel and gets into all kinds of innocent mischief in that great establishment. I love her confidence, independence, sense of adventure and creative imagination. I love Knight’s frenetic pink, black and white drawings. And I’ve grown to love the author’s childlike, stream-of-consciousness writing style, peppered with inventive vocabulary like “skibble,“”sklank” and “sklonk.”

Madeline Cover

“Madeline,” written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans
There are few children’s book characters more recognizable or more enduring than Bemelman’s Madeline. Brought to life 75 years ago, she is still the shining example of fearlessness: “She was not afraid of mice — She loved winter, snow, and ice. To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” Not even an emergency appendectomy can shake this small girl’s bravery. Children are fascinated by Madeline’s daring and entertained by Bemelman’s irresistible rhyming text.

Henkes Book Cover

“Chrysanthemum” and “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” both written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes

“Chrysanthemum” is the perfect book for the current generation of children whose parents, like Chrysanthemum’s, are set on finding unique and “absolutely perfect” names. Chrysanthemum, much to her parents’ delight, loves her carefully selected name and has a healthy self-image….until she starts school. Poor Chrysanthemum is crushed when the “mean girls” make fun of her long, flowery name. And Chrysanthemum’s poor parents are devastated when their darling daughter returns home heartbroken after her first day of school. Despite their efforts to boost her spirits with favorite meals, board games and parenting books, Chrysanthemum’s plight worsens at school…until everyone’s favorite teacher affirms just how perfect Chrysanthemum’s name is.

Henkes writes children’s struggles, happinesses and thought processes better than any author I know, and his illustrations are just as exceptional. Which is why I also count “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” as another great classic. Lilly is a mouse with immense enthusiasm for school and for her teacher. But when her enthusiasm for her new purple plastic purse, movie star sunglasses and three shiny quarters become a nuisance at school, she’s reprimanded by her beloved teacher and her once positive feelings quickly swing toward the other end of the spectrum. In her rage, Lilly draws an offensive picture of her teacher, which she comes to regret when her emotions cool off. In the end, amends are made and Lilly gets a chance to show off her new acquisitions at an appropriate time. It’s a great book for children with big personalities and big emotions.

Angelina Cover

“Angelina Ballerina,” written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

The author was the second eldest of four sisters who grew up and had two daughters of her own, so its no wonder she imagined a book that’s held such appeal for tutu-obsessed readers for three decades. “Angelina” is much more than a book about ballet, however. It’s a book about a child (a mouse child) that has a dream of becoming something great. What makes Angelina admirable is the discipline and focus with which she chases that dream in order to earn her “happily ever after.” And nothing beats Craig’s delightful illustrations; so many of her images remained clear in my memory despite the decades that lapsed between my childhood readings and the book’s reintroduction when I became a parent.

Miss Rumphius Cover

“Miss Rumphius,” written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Though not bow adorned, I will argue that Cooney’s “Miss Rumphius” is THE most inspiring of female picture book characters. The book, published in the year of my birth, long ago earned its spot as my all-time favorite children’s book, in large part because of the breathtaking beauty of the rich and detailed images with which Cooney illustrated this story. Equally moving is the protagonist, Miss Alice Rumphius, the little girl who grows up painting with her grandfather in his cigar shop by the harbor. She admires the exotic images her grandfather paints from the memories of his travels, and she vows that she, too, will travel to faraway places before returning to live by the sea. However, little Alice’s grandfather tells her there is a third, more difficult thing she must do in her life: find a way to make the world more beautiful.

As we turn the pages, we watch Alice grow into a young woman who does, indeed, travel to faraway places – mountains, deserts and lush islands. In her later years, she makes her home in a cottage by the sea and at last discovers how to accomplish the third task of her life. Miss Rumphius spends a spring and summer traversing nearly every inch of her seaside village, scattering lupine seeds in her wake and earning her strange looks from passerbys. But when the landscape explodes with the “blue and purple and rose-colored lupines” the next spring, she is lauded as the Lupine Lady, inspiring the generations that follow to seek their own ways of making the world more beautiful.
Miss Rumphius serves as a sterling role model of a person (regardless of gender) whose life is defined by neither love nor career but by the rich and varied adventures of her life. Her achievement of that “third, most difficult task” is a goal to which all people should aspire – to leave this world better than we found it.

Olivia Cover

“Olivia,” written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
“Olivia” is the most recent of the “classics” but well-deserving of her place on my girls’ must-have list. After the book’s debut in 2000, Falconer earned a Caldecott and praise putting him up there with the children’s book greats, including comparisons to the aforementioned “Eloise” illustrator, Hilary Knight. The story is simply an introduction to the book’s namesake, Olivia: what she likes, what her talents and interests are, who her family is, what her days are like. What makes Olivia special is her own fabulous opinion of herself, her seemingly endless energy, her unique style and her joie de vivre. Children would want Olivia as a friend, and adults will identify with the exasperating aspects of parenting such an independent and energetic kid/pig: when OIivia gets dressed, “she has to try on everything;” when it’s naptime, “Olivia’s not at all sleepy;” after seeing the Degas exhibit, Olivia decides to try her hand at the artist’s technique on the walls at home; and every night involves tough negotiations as to the duration of the evening’s story time. Flaconer’s illustrations are stunning and his writing is brilliantly humorous. He’s created a nearly flawless series of “Olivia” sequels and I can’t wait to see what he creates next.

New Girl Books Covers

“Fancy Nancy,” “Pinkalicious,” and “The Very Fairy Princess” are several other storybook girls who have arrived on the scene more recently and who offer a bit more frill. They’ve proven immensely popular with today’s little girls, but I would suggest that, like a red wine, they may need a little time to age before we determine if they have the legs to last.

Who else would you add to the list of great picture book girls?

Answers: 1. Angelina Ballerina, 2. Chrysanthemum, 3. Olivia, 4. Eloise, 5. Fancy Nancy, 6. Milly-Molly-Mandy, 7. Madeline

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