A sticky snow is drifting out of the sky, dusting the pines, coating the craggy maple with a layer of white. Our house is warm and getting warmer as we turn on lamps and pull favorite blankets from the hot dryer.
I heft a stack of books and slide them onto the living room table.
“Let’s read!” I say.
No one has homework this afternoon. We have no lessons, no where important to go, and I can’t think of a better way to spend our time.
The kids scramble over each other vying for a spot by Mom. There are a few tears and complaints but eventually we find a design of bodies, feet, arms, and heads that works. A human conglomerate that allows for all eyes to see pictures, all ears to hear words.
We open our newest Toot & Puddle book.
Leonard S. Marcus, probably THE most trusted critic of children’s literature, wrote in his new book, Show Me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators,
“Our favorite picture books speak to us at the start of life and continue to speak to us for the rest of our lives. I find that an amazing achievement.”
Think of your favorite picture books from childhood. Why did you like them? How did they shape your small world? How have they continued to speak to you?
One of my favorites was about a girl who was given charge of a little lamb that had lost its mother. She visited the lamb every day, fed it with a bottle, watched it grow. She even took it to a birthday party where the lamb knocked over a table and sent the cake toppling to the ground. As the seasons changed, it became time for her to let the lamb join its flock. I remember how sad I was that they had to say goodbye. I loved the pictures, the green hills, the thought of cuddling up with a soft, fleecy, animal.
Now I realize the deeper metaphor of the book. Of nurturing my own children only to send them off on their own. Of watching them make a mess of things. Of giving them all I have during the early years. It still speaks to me. But differently, now that I am a mother, with the responsibility of growing five little people the best way I can.
Anita Silvey, well-known editor of children’s literature, said,
“When we give children books, we become part of their future, part of their most cherished memories, and part of their entire life.”
Picture books harness a child’s imagination, sweep them up and carry them to a make-believe place where anything can happen. They teach our children values and principles, better than we can, sometimes. They tell histories, visit the past, and jettison us into the future, cultivating the kind of creativity and innovation our world needs.
Two years ago the NY Times ran a disturbing article that reported “picture books are no longer a staple for children.”
Both publishers and booksellers have seen a decline in picture book sales. They attribute this to parents pushing their kids toward chapter books at younger ages. For some reason parents seem to think, “picture books are for dummies.” What they may not realize is that some picture books have more complex language and discuss more complicated ideas than chapter books do. Publishers also say young children have more options now, many of them digital, that are filling their entertainment hours.
With gaming devices, phones, and all kinds of digital whatsits making their way into our children’s hands earlier and earlier, I think it imperative we preserve time and space for books. The best books. The kind that expand our child’s world, help them see things as they really are, or as they would imagine them to be. I believe books can prod and propel our brains in a way the screen simply cannot.
“Nothing ensures the success of the child more in the society than being read to from infancy to young adulthood. Reading books to and with children is the single most important thing a parent, grandparent, or significant adult can do.” – Anita Silvey
So here are our favorite picture books from 2012. They are books that can be read again and again, books that teach valuable lessons, books that spark creativity, spin magic.
The first eight are new releases from 2012. The rest are books our family discovered within the last year or so – ones I would love for you to discover too.
Hello! Hello! by Matthew Cordell (2012).
Ever wonder how our kids view us when we’re tapping away on our phone or laptop? This book is a silly but healthy check on our modern tech-age, and what we might be missing. Publishers Weekly called it a “loving nose-tweak to digital civilization.”
Poor Lydia can’t get anyone’s attention. All her family members are zoned with their handhelds or laphelds, so she ventures outside alone. There she finds a colorful, interactive world with improbable friends, ready to play with her. Determined to share this exciting place with her family, she returns home to swap out their devices for a sprig of nature. Cleverly written, and apt for our digital day, this book is a must-read for any kid with (or wanting) a phone.
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole (2012).
I have loved Henry Cole for several years now. He is both author and illustrator for most of his books. His stories are delightful, woven with practical lessons and fun storylines. This book, however, breaks typical form. It is wordless, with black and white sketches that tell a powerful story of bravery.
When a farm girl discovers a runaway slave hiding in the barn, she is at once startled, frightened. But her conscience weighs on her and she must decide if she will have the courage to help him. Unspoken gifts of humanity unite this girl and the runaway as they each face a journey. One following the North Star. The other following her heart. This book speaks quietly to our deepest senses, and yields a wonderful opportunity to teach history and compassion to our children.
Outside your Window: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies (2012).
This large, brightly illustrated book is a lovely introduction to nature and the four seasons. In it, you will hear the sound of bullfrogs, the crunch of leaves in the fall, see the tracks of animals in the snow, taste fresh fruit and vegetables harvested at the end of summer. It captures all the sights and sounds of a child’s interaction with nature, and does so with original poetry. As each new season begins, I have loved sitting down with my children to read these verses and explore Mark Hearld’s multimedia art.
Duckling Gets a Cookie by Mo Willems (2012).
If you can’t tell by now, we love Mo Willems. From Knuffle Bunny to Elephant and Piggie to Pigeon; all his characters have a huge following at hour house. This is his newest release. It’s about Pigeon, who feels put-upon because Duckling got a cookie, just by asking. (Politely, I might add.) Pigeon goes through his usual hilarious rant, while Duckling looks calmly on. The sweet twist at the end will leave you smiling. Once again, Willems masterfully uses emotion and conversation to tell a simple story that will make you laugh. I think his books have changed the world of children’s literature forever.
Pinkalicious has lost a tooth. Her sweet tooth. But her tooth fairy is temporarily delayed. Due to this absence, Pinkalicious must exchange notes with Cupid, the Easter Bunny, and a Christmas elf. In the end, the tooth fairy does work her magic and Pinkalicious discovers real sweetness isn’t about candy. It’s about the kind of person you are.
Apple-Pip Princess by Jane Ray (2008).
Discovering Jane Ray this year was a real treat. Her mixed-media artwork is whimsical, with a touch of real life. In this book we come to understand the transforming power of growing things. A kingdom, once full of happiness, trees and birdsong, has fallen to ruin with the death of its Queen. Two of her three daughters, who are selfish and greedy, erect lofty monuments to themselves. The third daughter, however, who sees herself as very ordinary, tries to restore the Kingdom by planting a single apple seed. This original fairy tale, brought to life by Ray, is full of exquisite, magical illustrations that teach beautiful truths.
Another Jane Ray book we fell in love with is The Dollhouse Fairy (2010).
When Rosy finds a fairy has taken up home in her dollhouse she is most surprised. But Thistle is no ordinary fairy. She has a hurt wing, turns everything topsy-turvy, and has an insatiable taste for raspberries and chips. Since Rosy’s father is in the hospital, this chance to care for Thistle gives her purpose. The Dollhouse Fairy touches on illness, in a lighthearted way, and celebrates the healing power of imagination.
Toot & Puddle Books by Holly Hobbie (2010).
Can’t get over how much I love Toot and Puddle. Every book is a gem. Do you know these two darling pigs? They’re best friends, couldn’t be more opposite, but are fiercely devoted to each other. Toot loves adventure, travel, new languages, strange foods. Puddle is very content at home, happy to stay in Woodcock Pocket where he prefers gardening, cooking, painting, and taking walks. Together, they make the most charming duo. You can’t go wrong reading any of their tales. And what girl my age doesn’t have an affection for Holly Hobbie? Our favorite Toot and Puddle books this year were: Wish you Were Here, Charming Opal, Top of the World, and Let it Snow.
If you’re familiar with his first book, Animalia, or The Eleventh Hour, you will love The Water Hole. Base’s intricate artwork holds layers of discovery for children. Each page is a fusion of story, art, counting, and puzzles. My children love finding the hidden animals concealed in each landscape. Base’s books are great for any age, even bigger kids. The question in this one is, will the animals come back to the water hole, or is the water gone forever?
The Litte Brute Family by Russell Hoban (1966).
I laugh every time I read this one. Especially when Mama Brute stays home to “thump the furniture, bang the pots, and scold the baby.” We’ve all been the Brute Family, one day or another. That’s why I love Hoban’s books. They are timeless and full of resonance.
In the Brute family, no one says “please” or “thank you.” They eat sand and gravel for breakfast, argue and kick on the way to school, and sink like stones when they try to swim. One day Baby Brute happens upon a “little wandering lost good feeling in a field of daisies.” When he brings it home in his pocket, nothing is ever the same. This book gently teaches about home atmosphere, manners, and how one person can turn the tenor of an entire family.
The Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown (1946).
I saved the best for last. Three words: Adore. Adore. Adore. While I am extremely fond of Good Night Moon and Big Red Barn, I believe Little Fur Family is Brown’s all-time best. My grandmother read this book to me when I was small. I can still hear her lovely soprano voice singing the bedtime song from the last page.
Years ago, a friend found me an obscure copy online – the small version that is only 4 inches tall and covered with fur. Go small if you buy this book. Children will love the smallness of it, as well as the feel of the soft furry cover. The story is provincial, but magical. A little fur child explores his little fur world, visits his grandfather, examines a fish, catches a bug, and even spies the tiniest of all fur animals. Then he comes home to his parents who carry him to bed and sing him a special song. This book is an absolute treasure. Don’t walk, run to your Amazon seller and grab one!