Monday, April 9, 2012

My Top Ten...Okay, Fifteen Children's Books

Reading is big at our house. I would like to describe as an "avid" reader--admittedly sometimes driven more by achievement than pleasure--but reading really is a huge part of my life. A few years ago when I worked with junior high and high school students in our church's youth ministry, I remember several of the girls in my small groups saying how they hated to read and would never, ever pick up a book outside of school assignments. What a loss! I thought. Then I realized that quite likely no one had ever taught them how to enjoy reading. Since then it's always been extremely important to me to teach my kids enjoy reading…and wow, do they enjoy it now! Even if my boys say they don't want to sit down and read a book with me, it never fails that if I start a story without them, it's amazing how quickly Batman and Lightning McQueen get dropped as Gabriel and Elliot gravitate toward the irresistible pull of a book. And the last time we went to the library and all I got were cookbooks for myself, my almost-5-year-old couldn't believe I didn't check out any kids' books for him. Here's hoping this lasts a lifetime! (By the way, for some excellent points on how to teach your kids to enjoy reading, check out Diane Frankenstein's book Reading Together.)

Because we enjoy reading so much in our house and I'm always looking for new books to read with my little ones (who are 5 and 3, by the way--the 11-month-old is still in the biting and slamming phase as pertains to books) I thought I would compile a list of our favorites. These are the ones I pull off the shelf when it's my turn to pick. And I'll even let you in on a little secret…there are nights when the kids have gone to bed and I actually want to sit down and read these books by myself.

1. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

A true classic. This is actually one of the first books I can remember reading in school--I remember being five years old walking around saying the peddler protagonist's mantra, "Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!" It has all the elements of great storytelling--repetition, an imaginative landscape, surprise, and a tree full of monkeys wearing hats. Come on, monkeys in hats? You have to read it now.

2. The Day The Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann

My current favorite. Peggy Rathmann is famous for many of her other children's books, such as Goodnight, Gorilla, Ruby the Copycat, and Officer Buckle and Gloria, but this one is by far her most delightful, in my opinion. The entire book is illustrated in silhouette with the vivid colors of a sunset fading to dusk in the background as the book progresses, evoking the feeling of a lovely day ending. The story's hero is a young boy who must track down a pack of naughty babies who have crawled away from a pie eating contest. Lots of whimsical touches throughout.

3. Our Raspberry Jam by David F. Marx

If you and I are friends on Facebook, you may have seen my pictures of the strawberry jam the kids and I made last summer. This little book was the inspiration for that adventure. It's a simple story of a little girl and her parents experiencing the joy of making their own raspberry jam from berries they've picked. It actually kick-started a whole jam phase in our family. Worth a read.

4. Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan

I guess I would be remiss if I didn't follow a book about jam with a book about toast. This strange book follows the Crandalls, a young couple picked on by bullies. Arthur, the husband, is in for a surprise when he is magically granted three wishes--a gift he does not take seriously until the wishes begin to come true. Oh, and did I mention the Crandalls are dogs? And the bullies are alligators? Yeah, it's a very strange book.

5. Any of the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel

Frog and Toad are king in my book. No pun intended. And actually, maybe they would be princes? Frog princes? In my book? Anyway, this utterly lovable pair star in four books, each of which contain several individual stories. Toad is the charmingly bumbling, rather obstinate foil to Frog's slightly more worldly-wise-yet-still-innocent persona. Ultimately these are tales of two friends who just love each other very much, and their stories are totally endearing.

6. Just Enough and Not Too Much by Kaethe Zemach

A great story about contentment with material possessions--something I very much want to teach my kids in an age and culture of excess! Simon the fiddler, at first content with a simple life, decides he doesn't have enough stuff in his house, but soon comes to realize that having more can turn into having too much.

7. A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

This beautifully colorful and extremely imaginative story is another one about contentment--this time not about possessions, but contentment with ourselves. Camilla Cream is a little girl who doesn't want to admit she likes lima beans because she thinks it will make her unpopular. But the more she resists eating lima beans, the more her body breaks out in strange colors and shapes--everything from stripes to tails! I love the way this story brings home the truth that even our own bodies can rebel when we are going against what is right for us, whether it be physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

8. The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by K. Y. Craft

I was given this book when I was a girl and it is one of the only surviving original copies of a book from my childhood. GET. THIS. BOOK. especially if you have a daughter. Throughout my life I have returned to this book when I need an escape to a land of fantasy or even just when I am feeling uncreative. The lush, gorgeous illustrations and patient pace of this fairy tale always renew me. A simply beautiful book.

9. Go To Bed, Monster! by Natasha Wing

Sort of a silly one here. The tables are turned on a little girl who doesn't like to go to bed when a monster she has drawn comes to life and won't go to bed, even after she herself is really tired.

10. The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant

This book certainly has an unusual tone for a children's book, as the central character is an old woman who has stopped giving a name to anything she knows she may outlive. Because of her hurt over so many of her friends dying before her, she is reluctant to take in a stray dog that wants her love. When I first read this to my boys, I thought, yikes, I'll save this for when they're older. But I realized that even young children sometimes think about death and may have to deal with it in their midst. This book has a very redeeming ending and is a good non-scary way to open the door to talking about the issue of death with younger kids.

11. King Bidgood's in the Bathtub by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood

I am a big fan of the Woods. Some of their books seem story-driven, others image-driven. In this book, the illustrations are really the star. The various personages of King Bidgood's court are trying to get him to come out of the bathtub, but he is simply having too jolly a time to be bothered. One of those books where you can spot a million details on every page.

12. Alphabet Adventure/Rescue/Mystery by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Bruce Wood

In these three Audrey Wood books, an alphabet of lower-case letters must solve a mystery or save the day. Clever stories that get kids more familiar with the lesser-used "little letters."

13. How Much Is A Million? by David M. Schwartz, illustrated by Steven Kellogg

This one is probably for kids just a bit older than mine, but my kids sat through it and asked lots of questions. Essentially it endeavors to give a concept or a visual of how much is in a thousand, a million, and a billion, and compares the three. It was certainly enlightening to me as an adult! I like to think of it as foreshadowing some math skills for kids.

14. Rain by Peter Spier

Did you know Peter Spier is awesome? I had his Noah's Ark book when I was a kid and would look at it for hours, so I checked out Rain at the library for my own kids. It did not disappoint! Spier's trademark children's books tell stories in pictures only. Rain depicts a day a brother and sister spend in the rain, exploring all the minute details of what happens in a small town on a rainy day. The scene where they come inside to take off their soaking clothes and take a hot bath captures the feeling of that experience perfectly.

15. D.W. The Picky Eater by Marc Brown

Who doesn't like D. W., Arthur the aardvark's spunkily obnoxious little sister? Well, surprise, surprise, D. W. is a picky eater. This one is about the gradual development of her curiosity as the family goes out to eat at interesting places without her. I'll bet you can guess how it ends. While we are blessed to have adventurous eaters in our house, I think this book could go a long way with kids who aren't. Plus it's just a fun read that my kids have requested over and over.

So there you have a few of our/my faves. I hope the list continues to grow! What are some of your best-loved children's books?