Editor’s note: While the following review departs somewhat from the typical essay found at the Civilized Reader, the editors at Crisis believe that time should be given over to consider those books which act as companions and simple friends to the more enduring tales of the imagination. Hopefully, Mrs. McKeegan’s remarks here will help further the broader conversation among parents, teachers, and readers as to what constitutes good literature.
This morning, my poor, overtired three-year-old fell apart because his banana had a bad spot. Nothing could quell his cries and tears, until we sat down and opened P.D. Eastman’s Flap Your Wings. By the second page, he was smiling. Before long, his older brother and sister joined us for a second story. The cold snow lay white outside our window while we stayed cozy and warm in the world of picture books, and I marveled once again at the soothing power of these print ambassadors of peace.
After my recent article, “Picture Books and the Childlike Heart,” was published in Crisis, I received a number of kind requests from readers asking for a list of my favorite picture books. While I’ve scribbled down titles-to-remember here and there in scattered notebooks, and we’ve stocked our shelves with beloved books, I’ve never stopped to make a comprehensive list of our favorites, and the idea is staggering: There are just so many!
To those searching for extensive lists, I can recommend a couple of terrific book lists we use: one in Michael D. O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind; and another in Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life.
Since readers asked for my personal favorites, I am happy to offer a few suggestions here. I’ve tried to include a wide variety: from folk tales to contemporary fiction; from funny to poignant; from memoir to fantasy; from few words to many.
I’ve also tried to choose titles that haven’t been mass-marketed, so I left out books like Curious George, Corduroy, Amelia Bedelia, Raggedy Ann Stories and Raggedy Andy Stories , Babar, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, not because we don’t love them—we surely do—but because they’re already so famous and I wanted to bring others to light. (One note about those wonderful titles: we generally stick with the original books by the original authors. The spin-offs can be cute, but typically lack the unique voice and charm of the originals.)
What the following books (in no particular order) have in common is this: through laughter or tears, wonder and wisdom, their words and pictures gather us into their fold and speak to us of life and love and things that last.
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1. The Little Juggler by Barbara Cooney: In this lovely adaptation of a French legend, a young boy makes a gift for Mary and the Christ Child of the one talent he has: juggling. Some mistake it for sacrilege, until their eyes are opened to the true nature of the humble gift. Tomie de Paola also has an outstanding, though very different, adaptation of the same folk tale in The Clown of God. (Barbara Cooney has several other worthy books, including Miss Rumphius and Chanticleer and the Fox.)
2. Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola: If I have the chance to read one book to any group of children, I will almost always choose one by Tomie dePaola. His sweet stories about his childhood, coupled with illustrations that never get old, have captured my heart. Tomie tells readers about his two “nanas”—his grandmother and his great-grandmother—in this gentle glimpse into life, aging, and death in a close-knit family. (Tomie’s other picture books about his childhood include Tom, The Art Lesson, Stagestruck, and The Baby Sister. He also has several beautiful books about saints, including The Lady of Guadalupe, The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica, and, one of my all-time favorites, Pascual and the Kitchen Angels.)
3. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe: With a young king seeking a worthy wife, and a wicked sister trying to steal his affection, this folk tale about two sisters—the proud and haughty Manyara, and the humble and sweet Nyasha—is a Cinderella story, but with no glass slipper, pumpkin carriage, or ball gown. Instead, a hungry boy, laughing trees, and a curious little garden snake pave the way to the palace of a king who knows the worth of a virtuous heart. (Speaking of Cinderella stories from other cultures, Tomie dePaola also has a lovely Mexican one called Adelita.)
4. Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco: Two young Union soldiers become unlikely friends during the Civil War, enduring physical wounds, heart-wrenching sacrifice, and the aching tragedy of a beautiful friendship cruelly separated in a Confederate camp but never forgotten. I have yet to read it without tears. (Patricia Polacco writes from the heart, often drawing on family stories passed down through generations, such as in The Blessing Cup; she also tells her own moving story of overcoming dyslexia in Thank You, Mr. Falker.)
5. Watch Out! A Giant! by Eric Carle: In literature, as in the spiritual life, sometimes we need to take a break from depth and intensity to give our souls rest and recreation. Watch Out! A Giant! is imaginative play in book form—pure fun. My children have loved this book for years, and they never tire of lifting cleverly-placed flaps to follow two children running from a giant. Marvelously illustrated and lightly worded, this delightful book can be visited again and again. (Eric Carle has a host of other great books, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me; and Pancakes! Pancakes!)
6. Brave Irene by William Steig: Little Irene courageously fights the personified “wicked wind” and blustery snowstorm to run an important errand for her poor, sick mother. You can practically feel the storm’s cold air in the pages—and the warmth of the fire at the happy end. (William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza is also a favorite for the little ones.)
7. Mr. Putter and Tabby Run the Race (and other Mr. Putter and Tabby books) by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Arthur Howard: I want to live next door to Mr. Putter and his fine cat, Tabby, and to their neighbors, Mrs. Teaberry and her good dog, Zeke. (I’d also love to live next door to Henry and Mudge, Poppleton, and the rest of the characters in the dear worlds Cynthia Rylant and her illustrators create.) Mr. Putter and Mrs. Teaberry are elderly neighbors with a darling friendship that often involves Mrs. Teaberry pulling Mr. Putter out of his comfort zone (in this case, to run a senior marathon), or dropping by with home-baked treats. Rylant’s trademark humor and heart, along with endearing illustrations, make the series a joy to read. (Unlike the other books on this list, these books are readers—books intended to build confidence for the beginning reader. However, they rise above the contrived sentences and stiff storylines that sometimes beset leveled readers, and are enjoyable read-alouds on their own merit.)
8. Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk: With charming pictures that immediately draw readers into the story, we meet Sam, a mouse who lives in the library and anonymously writes tiny books that the librarian and children discover. This contemporary tale, well and warmly written, encourages children to pick up pens and paper and write stories of their own.
9. The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau; illustrated by Gail de Marcken: The finest quiltmaker in the kingdom of a greedy king will not sell her quilts; she only gives them to the poor. In his greed, the rich king wants the one thing he cannot have, for the quiltmaker will not sell nor give him a quilt unless he gives away every last treasure he owns. Brumbeau weaves a wonderful story about the happiness of giving, and de Marcken’s illustrations are breathtaking.
10. Dandelion by Don Freeman: He’s best known for writing Corduroy, but Don Freeman has a wealth of other treasures to his name, including this “dandy.” Dandelion is a lion who gets a makeover to look more dapper, but winds up looking so silly that his friends don’t even recognize him. Good thing he can laugh at himself! (Our family also likes Freeman’s Beady Bear and Norman the Doorman.)
11. Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully: If you read this book with your children, be prepared: they might ask you to set up a tightrope in your yard. Ours did. The once-great tightrope walker, Bellini, comes to stay at Mirette’s mother’s boardinghouse, and when young Mirette sees him practicing, she begs him to teach her. When she learns the reason he no longer performs, Mirette sets out to help him walk the high wire once more.
12. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde: A mean giant has a change of heart when children come to play in his garden and turn its endless winter into spring. One particular child wins his affection and becomes beloved to the giant, but disappears—until the day the boy returns with nail wounds on his hands and feet. Readers can choose from several illustrated versions of this classic Christian story.
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When I began this list, I intended to offer ten suggestions. Those ten became twelve, then multiplied again when certain titles marked a trail towards other titles from the same author or topic. Those trails are the roads of our family’s reading life: One good picture book leads to another. My prayer is that this list leads to many more good books, and that families will be blessed as they read them together, cherishing the childhood that lives within all of our hearts.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Fairy Tale” was painted by James Sant (1820-1916).