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Author and illustrator Tomie dePaola was a staple of my early childhood, as he was for many children of the ’80s, with titles like “Strega Nona” and “The Art Lesson.” But he also created a lesser-known picture book called “Marianna May and Nursey,” that remains, to this day, one of my all-time favorites.

Unlike much of his other work, which is typically autobiographical or based on age-old folk tales, “Marianna May and Nursey” is the story of a young girl who is the only child of a very wealthy, Victorian-era family. Because her parents are so very important and very busy, Marianna May is cared for by a prim, white-haired woman named Nursey.

True to the period and their socioeconomic class, Nursey, Marianna May and her parents wear white, all white, all of the time, especially during the summer. This wardrobe, unfortunately, doesn’t exactly suit Marianna May’s favorite activities.

“Nursey didn’t like it when Marianna May rolled in the grass, made mud pies, ate orange ice, or strawberry ice cream.”

As a result, Marianna May is often relegated to the front porch swing and instructed to keep her white dress clean.

 “Even though Marianna May was very rich, she was also very sad.”

DePaola’s moral resides in this single sentence. What little girl – and for that matter, what adult – doesn’t dream of life with all the fineries of the wealthy and privileged? But Marianna May’s experiences demonstrate that life isn’t always greener on the other side.

Fortunately for Marianna May, her unhappiness does not go unnoticed. One afternoon, Mr Talbot, the ice deliveryman, sees the dejected look on her face and sets out to consult with the house staff, determined to remedy the situation. Spurred by Mr. Talbot’s brilliant idea, Nanny, the cook, the cook’s helper and the laundress work all day to transform Marianna May’s white frocks into something more appropriate for a playful, young girl.

The illustrations that follow of Marianna May in her many-colored dresses are an absolute delight and have remained in my memory for nearly 20 years.

As a whole, I would compare dePaola’s book to your favorite dessert – little nutritional value, but oh-so delicious. Published in 1983, its references to wealth are a bit of a children’s-book faux paux today, but I do enjoy the historically accurate details dePaola carefully incorporated. The style of the clothing, architecture and manicured gardens all reflect the Victorian era.

The ice delivery sign hanging in the window of Marianna May’s house particularly caught my attention. I noticed that three corners of the diamond-shaped sign contained numbers. According to historical information about ice delivery, the sign was positioned so that the number pointing upward indicated how many pounds of ice a customer wanted the deliveryman to cut from his block.

Just as ice delivery has long gone by the wayside, so too has this beautiful book. You won’t find it at your local Barnes & Noble, but copies can be found in various conditions for widely varying prices from online booksellers. My mom, ever indulgent of my literary obsessions, tracked down a copy for me on eBay several Christmases ago. But for those of you in the Ames area, you’re in luck! The Ames Public Library has a copy – possibly the exact same book that enchanted me so many years ago.

At Fellows Elementary School in the early ‘90s, “chicken butt” jokes were the height of hilarity. So, I suppose it was out of nostalgia that I first picked up a copy of Erica S. Perl’s boldly titled children’s book, “Chicken Butt.” But Perl’s rollicking version of the question-and-answer standoff, in this case between a son and his reluctant father, had me laughing like an 8 year old in no time.

I find it hard to imagine that there’s a person on the face of the English-speaking earth who hasn’t participated in some version of this classic schoolyard exchange, either uttering it themselves or being duped into it by an overly exuberant grade-schooler. But for cheap laughs, I’ll share the rendition I remember:

Guess what?

What?

Chicken butt!

Guess why?

Why?

Cow pie!

Guess where?

Where?

In your underwear!

Perl is unapologetic about her sophomoric humor. In fact, it’s a large part of what led her to a career in writing after a stint as a public defender.

“You can’t be all that funny as a lawyer,” she said in an interview for her alma mater, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “I mean, you can, but it’s not always such a great idea.”

Perl’s chicken butt jokes strike just the right chord with her 4- to 8-year-old audience. Simply say the word “butt” and you’ll have every kindergartner within a square mile in hysterics.

Although Perl reports she’s never had a complaint, I suspect not all parents will find this a redeeming quality in a children’s book. For the skeptics, I must expound of the book’s exceptional educational values. As a former journalist, I couldn’t have been more proud when my not-yet 2 year old mastered her five W’s and an H (who, what, where, when, why and how) in response to the book’s Q-and-A format. And Perl also uses the book as a tool to teach rhyme and tempo.

“I always pause between the page turns and ask kids to guess the rhymes,” she tells Maw Books Blog. “I’ve gotten some great ones, like ‘chicken stew!’ and ‘chicken hair.’”

The opportunities the book offers for a child to participate in its narration are among the book’s best qualities. This spread has proven particularly popular at our house when read with out-of-control goofiness and a little couch jumping.

But my personal favorite is the illustration that immediately follows this outburst:

It doesn’t take a word of text for young readers to understand that the boy and his fowl sidekick are in BIG trouble.

Where Perl’s verse is spare, relying nearly entirely on the classic lines of the joke, Henry Cole’s frenetic artwork fleshes out the story in vibrant acrylics and colored pencil. Early illustrations on the title and dedication pages reveal how the joke-telling mayhem begins. It appears the chicken instigated the bedlam, sharing his wisecrack with the impressionable young boy after following him home from the newsstand.

Paired with a different but equally talented illustrator, Julia Denos, I nearly missed the fact that Perl had authored another of my favorite finds. “Dotty,” like “Chicken Butt,” is a shining example of Perl’s talent for capturing common childhood experiences and distilling them in perfect storybook form.

In this case, Perl gives treatment to imaginary friends, a sentimental subject for both the author and myself. As a first-grader, I had a zoo of imaginary animals, each with its own imaginary leash, all of whom I dragged along to the pool and on long car trips. In Perl’s case, it was a set of twins named Sahti and Dahti who kept her 4-year-old self company and, later, at age 8, an imaginary pet sheep.

“By then I was pretty sure that I’d get teased if anyone found out about my imaginary sheep, so I didn’t tell anyone,” she told the blog “Mishaps and Adventures,” which offers an amazing behind the scenes look at Dotty’s artistic creation.

Perl rolled her experiences into “Dotty,” an endearing story about a girl named Ida whose spotted and horned friend Dotty (think pink rhino) tags along on her first day of school. As it turns out, Ida isn’t the only one with an imaginary pet. She’s introduced to the fanciful creatures of her classmates, each one embodying some of the social struggles of its owner.

“Dotty occasionally poked people with her horns when she got restless. Pete and Repeat occasionally refused to share. Spike occasionally growled when she missed her nap. And Keekoo occasionally had to be told to let someone else have a turn talking.”

As the seasons pass, however, Ida’s friends begin to leave behind or altogether forget their imaginary friends. Soon, Ida is the only student still toting a leash to school and some of her peers take the opportunity to ridicule her. But, as Ida tells it, Dotty comes to her defense.

Both Ida and her classmate are reprimanded by their teacher, but Ms. Raymond proves to be sympathetic to Ida’s plight. It’s revealed that she, too, has an imaginary friend she’s never forgotten.

In fact, on second reading, you’ll find that Gert’s been hiding in the background all along.

Perl says she hoped the book’s message would help children understand that imagination and imaginary friends aren’t things they have to outgrow.

“I also see it as a book about the pressures kids sometimes feel to give up ‘babyish’ things, especially when they start school,” she told The Happy Nappy Bookseller. “I firmly believe that growing up doesn’t have to mean letting go of all the things that comforted you when you were little. In fact, I still have my old dog-earred teddy in my office.”

Ida’s exchange with Katya certainly brings to mind conversations that arose about Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the like in the later years of elementary school. I clung to my belief in these magical people even when others mocked me.

Perl’s treatment of this topic is elegantly sensitive and flawless. Ida’s experiences – both good and bad – mirror the excitements and challenges my newly-anointed preschooler is encountering this fall.

My daughters’ affection for both “Dotty” and “Chicken Butt” make Perl a frequent request around our house. We didn’t find “Chicken Butt’s” sequel, “Chicken Butt’s Back!.” quite as hilarious as its predecessor but we’re eagerly awaiting Perl’s next picture book project.

I NEEEED a Pet!

I was digging through boxes in my basement when I came across 10 or so diaries I kept as a child. While there were plenty of interesting entries about which boy I loved which week and what punishment my parents had handed down most recently, I had to laugh when I read this one:

I was 9 years old, and I had been begging my parents for a dog for about as long as I had been able to talk. At that writing, my youngest sister was only 7 months old and, as I recall, I was little more than a handful myself. As an adult, I can now sympathize with my parents’ reluctance to add any more chaos to our brood, but at the time, I thought they were the WORST PARENTS EVER!

Jackson, the star of Angela McAllister’s “Monster Pet,” is in the same boat.

It seems the plight of the pet-deprived child is universal.

Jackson isn’t satisfied with his parents’ responses:

“Get a worm out of the garden,” said Dad.

“Why not bring home the class rabbit for the weekend?” suggested Mom.

Jackson wants something big and wild and exciting!

In an act of concession, Jackson’s parents, as did mine, bring home a hamster. An unimpressed Jackson names the rodent Monster. Unfortunately, the adorable little guy doesn’t live up to his name.

Monster won’t fetch or climb trees with Jackson. He has no interest in learning how to roar and he won’t touch Jackson’s offerings of bones. As children tend to do, Jackson loses interest in his pet, forgetting to feed Monster, refill his water or freshen his cage.

Monster is left to fend for himself. He busts out of his cage, landing in a bag of hamster food, where he happily gorges himself, growing big and wild and exciting.

 “Wow!” said Jackson. “That’s the sort of pet I want!”

But Monster has other ideas in mind.

The tables turned, Jackson finds himself the neglected one. Monster commandeers the skateboard and forgets to clean Jackson, change his water or give him fresh bedding. The boy sits bored and lonely in the shed until he hears a voice:

His mother’s call to breakfast wakes Jackson from his startling dream. With fresh perspective, he rushes to the shed, scoops up his hamster and extends a peace offering: a handful of food and a more appropriate name.

The moral is simple: Pets have feelings, too. McAllister gets her message across by inviting readers to imagine themselves in Monster’s place, just where Jackson found himself in his dream. This point and other valuable lessons in pet ownership are often difficult to impress upon a child. The book serves as a good forewarning for a child begging for a pet as well as a gentle reminder for a child who may be neglecting the caretaking of a pet already in the home.

Artistically, the illustrations are basic, but I do enjoy Charlotte Middleton’s use of saturated primary colors and unique collage elements. Handmade papers and burlap give texture to Monster’s coat, the bedding in the hamster cage and the feed bag. Middleton also uses graphic patterns to create Jackson’s playful airplane pajamas and his mother’s wild gardening pants.  Actual photos of animals Jackson deems “wild and exciting” are scattered throughout the book. And I particularly enjoy Middleton’s creative use of shadows as a storytelling component.

I imagine there are stacks of other pet-related books available in the children’s book market, but McAllister’s really hit the nail on the head with all too many parallels to my own childhood experiences. Jackson and I even chose the same name for our beloved furballs: Fluffy (I know, about as creative as a dog named Fido).

After a chilly and rainy Memorial Day weekend, I think I can say (knock on wood) Iowa has fully and finally emerged this week from what felt like six straight months of gray overcast. If I hadn’t been born and raised here, if my parents and in-laws didn’t both live here, this winter and dismal spring would have been enough to send me packing for Arizona. I may just have to settle for a light therapy lamp next winter.

Meanwhile, I’m soaking up every minute of our long-awaited summer. The brilliant blue skies and cotton-candy clouds look as though Monet painted them. And those cumulus beauties bring to mind childhood afternoons spent seeking out animal shapes in the sky.

The ability to see such images in ordinary phenomena is referred to as pareidolia (think the Virgin Mary’s face in the grilled cheese sandwich). It’s a skill I’m having fun teaching my 3-year-old, Eloise. My nearly-30-year-old imagination is not quite as supple as it once was, but I was still able to spot a Scottish terrier and a snail the other afternoon.

Thankfully, I also have Rhode Montijo’s “Cloud Boy” as a visual aid. The book, beautifully simple in both word and design, offers an imaginative explanation for how the clouds get their menagerie of shapes.

In a gentle palette of sky blue and cloud white with shades of charcoal gray, Montijo conjures up a lonely little cloud boy, who lives high in the sky and longingly watches the fun of children playing on the earth below. His solitude is broken one day by a wandering butterfly, and the fleeting visit gives the cloud boy a wonderful idea. He gathers the fluff of a nearby cloud and fashions his very own butterfly. Inspired, he shapes the clouds around him into creations big and small – boats, turtles, swans, whales – and sends them off into the sky for the children below to see.

At its most basic level, the book encourages a child to take an imaginative look at the clouds above. Other picture-book greats have also explored this cherished childhood pastime. Eric Carle used his unique paper-collage style in “Little Cloud,” a book about a cloud that entertains itself by changing its shape to recognizable forms. A 1947 classic by Charles G. Shaw, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk,” is a cloud-based Rorschach test of sorts.

But Montijo’s rendition holds its own. His lovely monochromatic color palette and charming protagonist make this book stand out. The succinct text moves quickly enough to hold the attention of even the youngest readers, and the book itself is the perfect petite size to tuck in a bag for an afternoon at the park. Always a fan of artistry in the endpapers, I adore that Montijo has offered the young reader a cloud-spotting guide of sorts: the front pages display generic puffy clouds but the back pages show those clouds transformed into ducks, birds, fish and the like.

The book’s dust jacket indicates that “Cloud Boy” also offers a deeper theme, serving as an allegory for the life of an artist. Viewed in this light, Montijo’s story suggests that artists like himself often exist in lonely isolation. On the flipside, I believe “Cloud Boy” also exhibits the artist’s rare power to create beauty and enjoyment both for himself and his audience. It’s this exact power that drew Montijo to an artist’s life. On his website, he recalls the moment he first read Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and knew that he would become an artist one day:

“If he [Harold] wanted to reach high he would draw a set of steps with his magical purple crayon and climb them. If he wanted to roam the seas, he would simply draw himself a boat. The story of one who could draw their own adventures left a lasting impression on me.”

Montijo did, in fact, establish a successful career for himself in art. The bulk of his previously work has been in comics, but the tone and look of these cartoons were dark and often violent. The 2006 publication of “Cloud Boy” marked Montijo’s debut in children’s literature and a drastic lightening of the subject and aesthetic of his work.

On his website, Montijo wrote: “I kept putting off my biggest dream – creating children’s books. I was scared that publishers wouldn’t like my stories or drawings. Then, a few years back, I was in a car accident. I’m OK now, but when it happened, I realized that tomorrow wasn’t promised. I figured out that I was the only one keeping me from achieving my dreams. As soon as I healed up, I put a few stories together and visited New York. Lots of places said, ‘No thank you’ but I didn’t give up.”

Following the success of “Cloud Boy,” Simon & Schuster also published Montijo’s “The Halloween Kid” in August of 2010. Keeping with his distinctive use of color (this time appropriate shades of orange, black and white), the book employs cowboy-esque language to follow the adventures of a boy determined to save Halloween from TP-crazy mummies, pumpkin-sucking vampires and goodie goblins. I typically steer clear of holiday-themed books (the stories are usually bland), but I’ll be adding this one to my girls’ treat bags this fall.

I simply CANNOT make it through “City Dog, Country Frog” without crying. And not just a couple of tears. I’m talking about the kind of crying typically reserved solely for “Love You Forever.” You know, the kind that makes your voice break mid-sentence, the kind that requires a couple of deep breaths before you can finish reading the rest of the book.

Author Mo Willems got his start in the children’s industry writing comedy for Sesame Street. Probably best known for his hilarity in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” he certainly enters new territory with this book. The friendship between a dog and frog seems innocent enough, but as their story evolves, it comes to represent the cycle of life, the inevitability of passing time and how one survives loss.

The essence of this story grew from time Willems and his family spent in the countryside of Connecticut.

“We noticed how much the world had changed. Every week the color of the green was different or the leaves were different, the river was a different size,” he explains in a YouTube video promoting the book. “In the city, you forget how changeable the world is and how time sort of moves on without you.”

This revelation is imparted to the reader in the most delicate way: through the eyes of the Willems family dog, Nelson. An energetic yellow Labrador Retriever, Nelson was the model for City Dog.

“I thought, ‘Wow, if this place is so different to me, what must it be like for Nelson, my born-and-bred city dog,” Willems said.

City Dog is, in fact, overcome with excitement on his first spring day in the country. Free of his leash, he bounds through the fields and forest until he comes across Country Frog sitting on a rock at the edge of a pond.

“What are you doing?” asked City Dog.

“Waiting for a friend,” replied Country Frog with a smile. “But you’ll do.”

And so a friendship is forged. That spring, Country Frog treats City Dog to lessons in Country Frog games. When City Dog returns to the country later in the summer, he comes armed with plans for teaching Country Frog his City Dog games.

To this point, the book keeps with Willems’ lighthearted nature. As City Dog and Country Frog learn to play together, we’re entertained by images of the animals’ out-of-character behavior: City Dog hopping like a frog and Country Frog playing fetch.

But as the story developed, Willems said he got to thinking about dog and frog years and how the disparity between the two would come to affect the relationship. *

“It stubbornly refused to be taken lightly,” he said in an interview with Booklist. “Eventually, I bowed to the story and let it be what it was.”

With the book taking on a more serious tone, Willems was stumped when it came to illustrating. His usual doodle-like drawings just didn’t fit.

After three years of failed attempts, he turned the book over to artist Jon J Muth.

Muth’s style is the antithesis of Willems’. His masterful watercolor images, also seen in Muth’s “Zen Shorts” and “The Three Questions,” are perhaps in their highest form in this book. Muth has captured the light and color of each season. Spring is bright, fresh and lime green. Summer is bold with rich green grass and full blue skies. Muth has not only glorified the beauty of the changing countryside that Willems so admired, but he has also captured the youthful energy of City Dog, with his thumping tail and perked ears, and the contentment of Country Frog in his jovial smile.

As fall begins to transform the country landscape, boldly represented with Muth’s palette of blazing oranges and browns, City Dog is as eager as ever to splash and jump and fetch with Country Frog. But Country Frog, like the trees around him, is entering a new season in life.

This is where I lose it. Muth’s expressive images and Willems’ spare but poignant words combine for an emotional one-two punch. I see the happy ignorance in City Dog’s eyes and a knowing acceptance in Country Frog’s smile. As they reflect on their seasons together, my heart aches as the celebration of their treasured times conflicts with the anticipation of their relationship’s end.

“City Dog and Country Frog sat together on the rock. They remembered their spring jumping and splashing and croaking. They remembered their summer sniffing and fetching and barking. That was fall.”

Inevitably, winter arrives. Country Dog flies through the snow to meet his friend, but Country Frog is simply gone. Muth’s image of the confused City Dog communicates the bewilderment one often feels in the wake of loss. Three subsequent images of Country Dog, sitting still on Country Frog’s rock, capture the silent loneliness of grief and the all-encompassing enormity of loss.

So why all the love for this cry-fest of a book? As Muth put it during a podcast interview with the New York Times Book Review, Willems is “engaging… the idea of loss in a way that I thought was still comfortable.” Like Robert Munsch and E.B. White before him, Willems pays beautiful tribute to the cyclical nature of life, with its seasons for both joy and sorrow.

But Willems’ book, as did “Love You Forever” and “Charlotte’s Web,” reminds us that even in the midst of loss and grief, the lifecycle continues. Love, happiness and birth – of new life or new friendship – arrive as inevitably as death does. Rather than clinging to our grief, these stories encourage us to carry forth what made our lost relationship so treasured.

When age and illness take his mother, the son in “Love You Forever” carries on her special tradition, rocking his own baby and singing the song that breaks every parent’s heart. Wilbur, mourning the loss of his savior and friend, pledges unending friendship to Charlotte’s spider daughters.

For City Dog, a new beginning comes when spring returns to the countryside. Country Chipmunk finds him still waiting forlornly for Country Frog.

“What are you doing?” asked Country Chipmunk.

“Waiting for a friend,” replied City Dog sadly.

City Dog is reminded of the kindness Country Frog once showed him and, with a froggy smile, replies: “But you’ll do.”

Whether my daughters absorb these subtle lessons is yet to be known. But tears and all, I cherish the reminders this book offers each time I read it: time never ceases to pass but love and friendship survives even death.

 

 

*The lifespan of a Labrador retriever is typically 10 to 12 years. The American bullfrog –which lives in the northeast and most closely resembles City Frog – lives seven to nine years. Surprisingly, these frogs are known to survive the winter by hibernating underwater. According to a Scientific American article, a partially frozen frog will stop breathing and its heart will stop beating, but high glucose concentrations in the vital organs prevent it from freezing completely. When the frog thaws with its surrounding in the spring, its heart and lungs resume activity.

Finally recovered from the holidays (except for those pesky top-of-the-cupboard decorations), I’m getting back on track with my children’s book features. I’m also catching up on a little reading, including an entire month’s worth of the Sunday New York Times. I was surprised to discover this review of “Olivia Goes to Venice” in the January 16 edition of the New York Times Book Review.

I have to admit, I had been feeling a tad guilty about my criticisms of Ian Falconer’s most recent title. Especially considering that everything else that had been written about the book after its publication was immediate and unquestioning praise. So, who was I to knock Falconer’s exuberant use of color and photography?

Well, I’ve finally found someone who agrees with me. Journalism Jessica Bruder writes:

“Olivia’s new worldliness, however, comes at a price. The old Olivia was a D.I.Y. darling. She relied on creativity and pluck to create the fabulous scenes of her dreams. She tamed lions in ‘Olivia Saves the Circus’ and pulled together a cacophonous, one-pig orchestra in ‘Olivia Forms a Band.’ But in ‘Olivia Goes to Venice,’ she consumes, rather than creates, the world around her. So it’s hard to hear her growing litany of demands, as well as the ‘edge of hysteria in her voice’ when she begs, ‘Oh, please — Oh, Please, Mother — can’t we live in a palazzo on the Grand Canal?'”

For someone who loves children’s books as much as I do, it’s rather pathetic how little time my daughters and I have spent inside a library. In fact, we’ve been just twice in Eloise’s three years. Our most recent visit lasted less than 10 minutes – about 30 seconds after settling into the children’s section, my girls were racing in opposite directions through the stacks, screeching back and forth in high-pitch tones like dolphins using echolocation. With a girl under each arm, I left embarrassed.

In all honesty, though, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. I have more than a handful of memories of being asked to leave the library after particularly disruptive behavior on the part of my younger sisters and myself (yelling, running and hair-pulling were not uncommon).

When I came across Michelle Knudsen’s “Library Lion,” I was fondly reminded of those trouble-making days. I felt an immediate kinship with the author’s curious lion, who wanders into the library one day and has trouble following the rules.

When the lion walks through the library’s front doors, the circulation desk attendant, Mr. McBee, is startled by the big cat’s presence. While the lion finds a comfortable place to enjoy the children’s story hour, Mr. McBee goes running to the office of head librarian Miss Merriweather. She, however, is not fazed by her assistant’s report but does chastise Mr. McBee for running in the library.

“But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the library!”

“Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.

“Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really,”

“Then leave him be.”

And so, the lion is allowed to sit through story hour. But when the books are closed and the children all get up to leave, he roars in protest. Miss Merriweather, of course, is not happy. The lion is informed that he will only be allowed back at the library if he can learn to keep quiet.

The lion returns the next day a model patron. In fact, he becomes a beloved fixture at the library, helping Miss Merriweather with dusting and stamp licking and helping children reach books on the top shelves. He wins over everyone – everyone except Mr. McBee, that is:

“Lions, he thought, could not understand rules. They did not belong in a library.”

Mr. McBee is eager for an excuse to banish the lion once and for all. He’s certain he has found just cause when the lion comes tearing down the hall and lets out his loudest roar right in Mr. McBee’s face. After dishing out a harsh reprimand, Mr. McBee takes off toward Miss Merriweather’s office intent on tattling only to find that Miss Merriweather had fallen and broken her arm, hence the lion’s urgency.

Before anyone can thank the lion, he leaves, certain his rule breaking has made him unwelcome. Days go by, and Miss Merriweather and the rest of the patrons miss him sorely. His conscience heavy, Mr. McBee tracks down the sulking lion and offers an olive branch.

“I thought you might like to know,” said Mr. McBee, “That there’s a new rule at the library. No roaring allowed, unless you have a very good reason – say, if you’re trying to help a friend who’s been hurt, for example.”

To everyone’s delight, the lion returns to the library the next day.

Libraries, with their insistence on quiet and decorum, are often intimidating places for children. Knudsen’s lion embodies young readers’ struggle to adhere to the rules in the midst of their excitement at exploring this novel place. The lion’s redemption gives a child hope that they, too, have a place at the library, even if they do slip up once or twice.

Prior to writing and editing children’s books, Knudsen worked in libraries in New York City and Ithaca, New York. One imagines that her experiences in the field (including rule enforcement) have likely influenced her work. In an interview on a fellow author’s blog, Knudsen says, “We did occasionally get animal visitors at the Cornell library – birds, squirrels, the occasional dog that got tired of waiting for its owner to come back out – but never any lions, I’m fairly certain.”

Like many of us, both Knudsen and illustrator Kevin Hawkes have treasured memories of childhood days spent at the library. Hawkes, who grew up in a roving military family, says the one constant of his youth was the feeling of home he found in libraries he visited in each new city.

“Every library in the world smells the same – they all smell like old books,” he said in a YouTube video about the book. “I could go to the library and see all of my friends there – different books that I had read at various places in my life. And it was a very comforting experience.”

Using acrylic paints and pencil, Hawkes has crafted timeless illustrations that honor our ubiquitous reverence for libraries. The soft color palette makes me think of the muted spines of old books. His rendering of Knudsen’s lion is both huggably sweet and nobly stoic, immediately bringing to mind the marble lions guarding the New York Public Library.

Knudsen’s endearing story, paired with Hawkes’ charming images, result in a library etiquette manual served with a spoonful of sugar. When I read the book aloud, I editorialize a bit, taking extra pains to emphasize the moral of the story: “Oh, that poor lion. He has to sit outside in the cold, cold rain because he yelled and ran in the library. He’s sooo sad.” Maybe with a few dozen more readings our family will be prepared for a return trip to the library.

My daughter Eloise and I rarely share a favorite picture book – I still cringe thinking of her “Cat and the Hat” obsessed stage.  But when it comes to Tom Lichtenheld, we’re always on the same page. Around our house these days, “Bridget’s Beret” is consistently at the top of the stack, and it’s usually followed by Lichtenheld’s “What Are You So Grumpy About?”

At the age of 2-almost-3, Eloise isn’t able to fully articulate exactly what it is about these books that hold her captivated, but I suspect the reasons are keeping with what originally led Lichtenheld to a career in illustration. His book jacket reads:

“Tom Lichtenheld is drawn to drawing. And puns. And alliteration. Ever since he discovered that creating children’s books lets him get away with all three at once, he’s been in hog heaven.”

Lichtenheld’s illustrations are the realized potential of every box of crayons you ever opened as a child – saturated in rich color, detailed in content and full of energy. His puns and other forms of humor are right up my alley – the wittiest children’s author around as far as I’m concerned. As for alliteration, Eloise just can’t resist the fun of repeating the double B’s in this book’s title.

“Bridget’s Beret” chronicles the journey of Bridget, a talented young artist whose cherished black beret is blown away – mid brushstroke – by the wind one day. She searches high and low for the beloved chapeau but to no avail. And without it, she fears she’s lost her ability to draw.

After several days of moping, Bridget reluctantly agrees to make a sign for her sister’s lemonade stand but grumpily warns: “No drawing.” Once she has paint and brush in hand, however, Bridget finds there’s no containing her artistic inspiration.

As someone who frequently loses prized possessions (and has only once recovered one), I’m relieved to say this book has a happy ending. Bridget regains her self-confidence and conquers artist’s block all without the aid of her beret, but her dear dog recovers the treasured hat and all is as it should be. (To find out what really happened to Bridget’s beret, visit Lichtenheld’s website and take a look at “The Stray Beret,” a two-page spread of illustrations omitted from the book.)

Lichtenheld refers to “Bridget’s Beret” as his answer to the Fancy Nancy series. In an incredibly interesting article for his publisher’s blog, Lichtenheld describes an authors and educators luncheon he attended at which he first learned of Jane O’Connor’s wildly popular debut in children’s literature:

“I’m not a raving feminist and I don’t begrudge any book that gets kids to read, regardless of subject matter, but I was surprised by the audience’s positive reaction to this new book. These were educators, mostly women, praising a story about a little girl who completely defined herself in terms of traditional feminine trappings. Pink ones, no less. Rather than rant or turn my breakfast into sour grapes, I decided to take some inspiration from the experience.”

The result was “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld’s first book aimed at a female audience. Previous books, including “Everything I Know About Pirates,” slanted more toward to interests of his peg-leg and eyepatch-obsessed nephew, Adam.

With “Bridget’s Beret,” however, Lichtenheld was certain to make his protagonist a “girl of substance beyond her appearance.” What I admire about Bridget are her looks of determination, air of confidence and the fact that she takes herself and her art seriously.

Lichtenheld reveals that he based the character on his niece, Madeline, with whom he often paints and draws. He says his books are, in general, written with a specific child in mind, either as the subject or the audience:

“For inspiration, I have a bunch of photos of kids on my wall. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I look at one of those photographs and think to myself, ‘What would make THAT kid laugh?’”

Miraculously, what Lichtenheld ends up with is as entertaining for the adult reader as it is for his target audience of 4-to-8-year-olds. Here’s my favorite bit of wit from “Bridget’s Beret:”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this French turn of phrase, “Je ne sais quoi” literally translates as “I don’t know what.”

Prior to “Bridget’s Beret,” Lichtenheld wrote books he refers to as “encyclopedias of silliness,” or books lacking a traditional narrative with a plot, hero and moral. “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” the other Lichtenheld title in our home library, certainly qualifies in this category. Every square inch of this book is sheer goofiness, from the endpapers to tiny details in the illustrations to the author’s biography on the dust jacket.

See the concrete smirking? Admit it, you blame the sidewalk, too.

The inspiration for “What Are You So Grumpy About?” came from a plane ride the author spent sitting next to a particularly ill-tempered man. I can just imagine Lichtenheld biting his tongue to keep from asking this passenger what put him in such a foul mood. What came about instead was this series of possible explanations:

I’m amazed by the authenticity with which Lichtenheld is able to think and write from a child’s perspective (is there’s anything worse than touching food?) while at the same time humoring our adult frustrations (yes, cleaning dog snot on the patio door IS maddening!)

Many of these hilarious spreads were sketched before Lichtenheld even deplaned. On his website, he offers an amazing behind-the scenes look at how he turned these quick sketches into finished illustrations. Using his pencil drawings, Lichtenheld creates black line art, which he prints on watercolor paper. “It’s kind of like a home-made coloring book,” he says.” He then layers watercolor paints and colored pencil to achieve the finished product.

As an illustrator, Lichtenheld also had several successful collaborations with author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, including the New York Times Bestseller “Duck! Rabbit!” You’ve also seen his works on the shelves in the form of “Shark vs. Train,” created with author Chris Barton. In addition to “Bridget’s Beret” and “What Are You So Grumpy About?,” Lichtenheld has a handful of other solo projects, including his most recent: “Cloudette.”

One summer, likely when I was about 9, I climbed the privacy fence in our backyard with a neighbor girl named Christine. We had been taking care of a brood of imaginary pet alligators, and we had set out in search of food for them.

Just over the fence was a crop of apple trees in the far corner of a large yard. To our delight, the trees were full of bright green apples – exactly what we needed for our hungry pets.

Christine and I loaded our arms with as many apples as we could carry and made our way back to my playhouse, where we were keeping the alligators. After several trips that likely yielded many dozens of apples, we heard shouting coming from the house to which the apple trees belonged.

To this day, I can still see the old man who came streaking across the yard, yelling as us to get out of his trees. It was an image straight out of Peter Rabbit.

Terrified, I scrambled down the branches, but not fast enough. Christine managed to jump the fence and run home, but Mr. McGregor (as I came to think of him) grabbed my arm and dragged me to my back door where he angrily reported my misdeeds to my mother.

After Mr. McGregor headed home, my mom made me write him a note of apology. She took me by his house the next afternoon to drop off the note, but I was so terrified he would come running out of his house that I made my younger sister put it in his mailbox for me instead.

In all the years that we lived in the house that backed up to Mr. McGregor’s, I never once set foot on his property again. Years later, I ran into an old high school classmate of mine who told me his grandpa had lived behind my childhood home.

We connected the dots and it turns out his sweet old grandpa was my “Mr. McGregor” – just an old guy, a little stern, who liked the apple pies his wife made.

Such misjudgements are the inspiration for Emily Jenkins‘ wonderfully original book, “The Little Bit Scary People.” It’s a story about a shy girl who comes to discover that the many seemingly frightening people she encounters around town and at school might not be so bad after all.

The reader first meets the girl’s menacing, mohawked, skateboarding neighbor boy, who “cranks his radio so loud, my dad yells out the window for him to turn it down.” He’s a little bit scary; but with some imagination and the flip of a page, he’s transformed into just another boy who likes to cuddle his cat in the morning and still sleeps with a teddy bear.

Similarly, a stern lunch lady is revealed to be an afternoon jogger who listens to show tunes and “sings as loud as she can and doesn’t care if people hear.” And a formidable principal with long, shiny fingernails is discovered to enjoy shaking it loose on the dance floor at night after school.

We learn that the girl’s open mindedness can be credited to her ability to see how her policeman father and goth-inspired sister could be perceived by others as “a little bit scary.”

Through the eyes of our redheaded heroine, Jenkins has taught the reader a beautiful lesson in the most subtle way. One comes to realize that intimidating figures of authority and individuals with unusual appearances, once you get to know them, are usually kindhearted people with fun hobbies and families that love them.

As a team, Jenkins and artist Alexandra Boiger have created a stunning book that manages to perfectly capture an all-too-familiar childhood experience: encounters with “the little bit scary people.” Boiger’s watercolor illustrations are vibrant, expressive and energetic. I adore the detail in both the images and in Jenkins’ writing: a bus driver who “makes fancy breakfasts in the morning for her kids: pancakes, waffles, or English muffins with eggs and chopped tomato” and an odd classmate who “eats bits of her pencil” but is learning to ride a “red two-wheeler with a banana seat and streamers on the handles, and her mom runs alongside in case she loses her balance.”

I’m looking forward to getting my hands on another of Jenkins’ books for children: “My Favorite Thing (According to Alberta),” a story about a girl with very particular tastes and a hefty amount of self-esteem. Boiger has also illustrated several interesting books, including the recently released “The Monster Princess,” which takes some of the glitz off of being a princess. And I’m dying to read “Thanks a Lot, Emily Post!,” a story about a mother’s attempt to civilize her children.

As if preparing for Thanksgiving weren’t stressful enough, I know some of you are hatching elaborate shopping plans for Black Friday – a few with the intention of getting all your Christmas gifts purchased in one day. The mere thought of joining the hordes on Friday morning gives me anxiety-induced chest pain, so I will limit my participation to Cyber Monday, which is sure to include a large cart full of books at Amazon.com. I admittedly went a little overboard last year.

A table full of books greeting Eloise and Charlotte on Christmas morning 2009.

For those of you shopping for children, I put together my lists of Best Board Books for Babies and Best Picture Books for Toddlers. The lists were inspired by a request from a high school friend who recently welcomed her first child and is building the foundations of her baby’s library. She wanted my recommendations for classics old and new.

The titles on my list are selected from our home library and include books that have universal appeal. They are either books I loved as a child or ones to which my daughters’ have been especially attracted. As requested, these are what I consider to be some of the best building blocks for a home library. As a result, the picture book list in particular does not include many of the quirkier finds I’ve written about in the past and will write about much more in the future.

Having compiled these lists, I’ll be the first to admit how imperfect they are. The selections were based solely on my own reactions as a child and the experiences I’ve had with my children (whose tastes may vary significantly from other children’s). But the process of developing the lists did make me incredibly curious about what the rest of you think are the most essential children’s library classics. I’d love to hear what additions you’d make!

Best Board Books for Babies


“Each Peach Pear Plum” by Allan and Janet Ahlberg

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Bill Martin and Eric Carle

“Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown

“Dear Zoo” by Rod Campbell

“Moo Baa La La La” by Sandra Boynton. Also try “Barnyard Dance” and the rest of the Boynton collection.

“Madeline Loves Animals” by John Bemelmans Marciano

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” by Jeanette Winter

“I Love You Through and Through” and “How Do I Love You” by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak and Caroline Jay Church

Bright Baby Books: “First Words” and “Colors”

Leslie Patricelli’s Books: “Big Little,” “Quiet Loud,” “No No Yes Yes,” “Yummy Yucky” and others.

Mini Masters Collection by Julie Merberg and Suzanna Bober: Stories, told in rhyming text, are based on the art of Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Cassatt, Seurat, Degas, Gauguin and Rousseau.

Best Picture Books for Toddlers

The Eric Carle Collection: “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” in particular.

“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

The Madeline Series by Ludwig Bemelmans

“Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw

“Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney (My all-time favorite)

“The Jolly Postman” by Alan and Janet Ahlberg

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz (The newest edition has Alexander depicted in color)

“Angelina Ballerina” by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

“The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.

The Olivia Series by Ian Falconer

“How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight” and other dinosaur books by Jane Yolen and Mary Teague

“Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” and “Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3” by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault and Lois Ehlert

“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” and other books by Mo Willems

Mary Englebreit’s Mother Goose, Nursery Tales and Fairy Tales

“Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type” and other books by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

“The Tub People” by Pam Conrad and Richard Egielski