Classic picture books are those that we all remember from childhood— and our parents and grandparents may even remember them from their childhoods. They provide more cultural cohesion than Common Core could ever hope to do. No one has to legislate or prescribe picture books; we all love them and ask for them over and over again.
My two favorite resources that I used as a mother for finding excellent books are Honey for a Child’s Heart, by Gladys Hunt, and Books Children Love, by Elizabeth Wilson. Both of these guides are written from a Christian perspective, and may be well-known to you already. My copies are old and generously marked-up, but they are available in ever-updated editions, as well. Even though these books, especially Honey for a Child’s Heart, have extensive lists of picture books, they are only a jumping-off point. There are wonderful new picture books coming out every day, so be sure to weave new and old into your reading lists, just as you do for yourself.
Although fairy tales and Mother Goose are not picture books per se, they are such a part of our oral and written traditions as a society that they provide rich fields of inspiration for artists, so most of us tend to experience them in gloriously illustrated picture books. Older children may learn Andersen’s or Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a larger, picture-less book, but a first taste of these terrifying tales on Dad’s lap is much friendlier. As adults, we expect others to know what we mean by “the big, bad wolf” or “turn into a pumpkin” without explanation. There is so much assumed knowledge in a culture, and a large part of it comes from the shared experience of childhood stories. Be sure that your children are introduced to this rich heritage.
Certain editions of these stories have almost become the industry standard. We love, for example, The Real Mother Goose, illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright, but the Rosemary Wells or Tomie de Paola editions, as well as many others, are also lovely. Marcia Brown’s retelling of Stone Soup, originally published in 1947, was probably familiar to your children’s grandmother. Paul Galdone is one familiar illustrator who has made individual books from many Mother Goose rhymes, as well as folk tales and legends. Galdone is a reliable author for The Three Little Kittens, The Three Little Pigs, The Little Red Hen, and many other classic children’s tales. Other more formal illustrators of folk and fairy tales include K.Y. Craft (try Cinderella) and one of my favorites, Trina Schart Hyman (try Little Red Riding Hood). Some fairy tales may be found in the picture book section of your library, but others will be in J398.2, with Mother Goose in J398.8. Ask the library staff for help. I always did, and found many treasures that way.
Other original picture books have found their ways into our hearts, as well. Beatrix Potter, for example, is the beloved English author of the small books about Peter Rabbit and his friends. Both the words and the illustrations are by Potter, and we can’t imagine naughty Peter or his good little siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail any other way. How many children have fallen asleep to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and how many parents have been unable to finish reading Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit from weeping?
“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…” and you know that I mean Madeline, your child’s introduction to international living. The monkey who lives with the man in the yellow hat is, of course, H. A. Rey’s Curious George, and the creature who says “I speak for the trees!” is The Lorax. Dr. Seuss has other picture books freighted with meaning, as well, including Horton Hears a Who!: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
Some of our favorite picture books when my son was growing up were those by Robert McCloskey, especially Blueberries for Sal. McCloskey wrote such gentle tales that even the scariness of the mother bear was not too much for a young child. Make Way for Ducklings inspired the sculpture in the Boston Public Garden, showing a simpler time when even a big city could come to a halt for a feathered family. The picture book that probably garnered the most re-readings in our house was Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton. For boys, what’s not to love? Noisy construction equipment, a dare, a race against time, and the love between man and machine. For Mom, a happy, quiet ending right before bed.
The Caldecott Award, beginning in 1938, has been awarded to the artist of the most distinguished picture book of the year. While there are many fabulous picture books on the list, it is important to note that the award is for the artist, not the author. Even when this is the same person, the book is being lauded for the illustrations, not the story. This past year’s award, for example, went to Locomotive, by Brian Floca, and while it is luminous and brilliant, it is a nonfiction title for slightly older children and would not make a great bedtime story. Castle, by David Macaulay, which won an honor in 1978, is another excellent nonfiction Caldecott book. Locomotive and two of this year’s honor books, Journey and Mr. Wuffles were all favorites of mine. One of the sweetest books ever is A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Erin Stead, which won in 2011. I remember closing the book and hugging it the first time I read it. I also love The Lion and the Mouse, a wordless book by Jerry Pinkney, from 2010, Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems, an honor book in 2005, and Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, by Doreen Cronin, from 2001.
Rapunzel, by Paul Zelinsky, in 1998, Puss in Boots, by Fred Marcellino in 1991, and Fables, by Arnold Lobel in 1981 are wonderful examples of fairy tales and traditional tales retold with new illustrations. My beloved Trina Schart Hyman won for the intricate Saint George and the Dragon in 1985, and the two Robert McCloskey titles discussed above won in 1949 and 1942. You may also recognize titles like Where the Wild Things Are, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and other stories no child should miss. Click on the link above and start checking off your list.
Looking over these titles reminds me of how much longer picture books used to be. You should be aware that storyteller-librarians have to choose picture books with less text and livelier stories than they did when you or your parents were little. Since children’s television became the huge market that it is today, children’s attention spans will not allow them to sit and listen to long stories or those without bouncy rhymes or funny jokes. If you’d like to do the world a favor, raise children who can follow a story to the end, using their imaginations and soaking up the language. Less screen time and more listening will bless us with deep thinkers, and we all know we need more of them! Rosemary Wells says it best: “Read to your bunny.”
Speaking of children’ television, the next article will include that favorite of children’s publishers, commercial series, also known as: “Well, at least they’re reading something.”
Disclaimer: This series of articles, as indeed all of my articles, are written entirely on my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or anyone else.
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