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?
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:
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,” 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,” 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.
“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 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,” 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,” 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.
“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