When I first started teaching at Burlington College I was trying to come up with fun, interesting material to include in my course. In the midst of my scramblings I found myself walking through Phoenix Books in downtown Burlington. Books have always been a love of mine — sometimes hitting my wallet and apartment space quite hard — but this day I happened upon a book entitled Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling. Intrigued I opened it and fell head, body, soul—my entire being—down into a world I didn’t know I loved: the world of picture books. Picture books are deceptive; they hide their complexity behind mundaneness, simplicity, and, too often, kitschy cliches. But reading through Children’s Picturebooks I realized, for the first time, just how amazing this medium could be; not only for children, but for adults as well.
But this post isn’t about that book (though here’s a good review of it.) All I’ll say is that it opened up an entire world of worlds to me; an entire area of interest that lead me towards discovering new, fascinating, and captivating picture books (both visually and literarily). To that end, I want to share just a few of the gems that I have stumbled upon, as well as online resources for unearthing new picture books for yourselves. Time and effort permitting, I hope that I can continue to share any future discoveries with you. I buy these book for Hattie (as much as for myself), so while this post is a bit different than our usual ones — more “referencey”? — I plan on putting up other ones like it to show my love of the picture book.
(those I own are marked with a “*”)
*The Lion and The Bird — While Lion is working in his garden he hears a noise and finds an injured Bird. After helping mend Bird’s injuries they end up enjoying each other’s company through the cold winter, but what will happen in the spring? What will become of their friendship? One of the many gems distributed by the independent publisher Enchanted Lion who, in my opinion, offer some of the most sumptuous Picture books around. This Is one of my most favorite books.
*Sparky! — Sloths are slow, sleepy, and seemly terrible pets. For the little girl (our narrator) Sparky is the perfect just the way he is…even if he can’t do any tricks. Sparky shows that even the most unusual pets can be extraordinary.
V is for Vegan — This book helps introduce the youngest among us to the most basic ideas behind living a compassionate lifestyle.
*Duck, Death and the Tulip — One day Duck finds a stranger following her — its Death. Eventually the two become inseparable friends but their relationship will eventually change as Duck ages. A book about death, it is also a book about life. This is a tender, subtle book about an immense topic too often glossed over in children’s literature or, whats worse, treated in a glib, cliche manner.
*No! — A well-meaning little dog shows how much he loves his family by trying hard to help them all around the house. HIs family must love so very much, but there is one thing he doesn’t understand…
Beasty Verse — This book uses verse, rhymes, and gorgeous illustrations to carry children into the poetic realm in a unique and visually interesting way. Poems include those by DH Lawrence, Odgen Nash, William Blake, Palmer Brown, and Lewis Carroll among others.
Once Upon an Alphabet and Stuck — Most people know Oliver Jeffers’ work; he has become a household name in children’s books due to his recognizable illustration style, humorous subject matter, and witty interaction of image and text. These are just two examples of the excellent creative work Jeffers has to offer. Once Upon an Alphabet is an original take on the traditional “A, B, C” book; Stuck shows the difficult time Floyd has in getting his kite unstuck from a tree, all his efforts resulting more and more items being stuck as well.
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole — Sam and Dave are on a mission to find something spectacular. To that end they begin to dig a hole, accompanied by their dog. What will happen as they dig deeper and deeper? Will they find anything of interest? The ending of this book leaves the reader with lots of questions (and lots of possible theories concerning the book’s conclusion).
*Rosie’s Walk — Rosie the hen leaves the chicken coop and sets off on a walk across the farm yard, only to be trailed (unknowingly) by Fox. Rosie’s walk is quiet, uneventful, and eventually leads her back to the coop as she remains blissfully unaware of Fox’s travails as he attempts to navigate the obstacle course of the farm yard.
The Blue Whale — Nonfiction children’s books have the possibility of being dry and visually uninteresting. Jenni Desmond’s offering presents facts about the largest mammal on earth in a unique way, representing the size of the blue whale by situating facts within a familiar context that is fun and engaging.
Rules of Summer and The Arrival — Shaun Tan’s work draws readers into stunningly beautiful worlds that are at once fantastically foreign and reassuringly familiar. Rules of Summer and The Arrival draw the reader in both with and without text (respectively), but in either case Tan’s style is both “local and universal, reassuring and scary, intimate and remote”.
Vegetables in Underwear — What if vegetables could wear undies? What would that be like? Well, pretty damn hilarious. One of the best ways to get kids reading is to get them laughing, so why not show an eggplant stripped down to his drawers? Or a beet prancing around in her undies? Or some corn in briefs?
Brain Pickings — This website is a recent discovery, but it is now a regular stop whenever I open my web browser. Honestly, I don’t go a single day without checking out what this site has to offer. Much more than children’s books, this site is “full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich our mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful. Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well.” Apropos of children’s books, if you want to learn about some of the most interesting, aesthetically beautiful, and well written books that are out there you need to check out the many posts that Maria Popova puts up. You won’t regret it.
Turtle and Robot — While I don’t believe this site is still being updated, it remains a bottomless trove of examples, reviews, and lists (e.g., books about/with birds). As the reviewer Jennifer Lavonier puts it: “There are a lot of bad children’s books in the world. And thousands more being published every year. It’s astonishing, really.” What Lavonier does on the site is to “review books for all ages, from birth to 16 years old. All reviews will be accompanied by the age range that is most appropriate for that title, and books will be listed under one of the following categories.” This site, my friends, is incredibly helpful.
100 Scopes Notes — This is my newest discovery, and I can credit the publisher Enchanted Lion with linking it on their Facebook page. (See my comments below concerning this great publisher.) Run by elementary school librarian Travis Jonker, this site not only provides book reviews but also numerous fun (and interesting) articles and posts, e.g., this one entitled “Gallery: The Art of the Picture Book Barcode.” If you are looking for a great resource run by someone who is in the picture book trenches everyday, check out this one.
Enchanted Lion Books (Publisher) — I had to include a discussion of Enchanted Lion because the books they have and continue to release are some of the most tender, visually stunning and literarily exquisite picture books out there. The three books I’ve listed above — The Lion and The Bird, Beastly Verse and The Blue Whale — are just a small taste of the quality of their offerings. I have had one vice in the past few years, coats; it is thanks to Enchanted Lion Books that I can say (quite happily) that I have another.
Do you or your kid(s) have a favorite children’s picture book? Is there a book that your kid likes that you don’t (or vice versa)? Leave me a comment and tell me all about it!