I don’t always like making book recommendations. Sure, I think everyone should read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and I think The October Country is really overlooked in the Ray Bradbury oeuvre. (In that collection, “The Jar” is supremely creepy and wonderful.) But suggesting that a friend make the commitment to reading one hundred pages or more is kind of like setting her up on a blind date. She might call me later that night, annoyed and confused. Really? You thought I would like John Cheever? But he talked about himself all night and hogged the bread basket. What kind of reader do you think I am, anyway?
As the first paragraph of this post suggests, while I don’t always like the consequences of book recommendations, I cannot help myself.
The Compulsive Need to Recommend a Book came over me a few nights ago at Borders, where I encountered Memoirs of a Goldfish by Devin Scillian and Tim Bowers. Scillian’s book has inspired me to compile the Official (But Not Exhaustive) Carrots List of Picture Books You May Enjoy. I am not including words like “best of” anywhere in there, because such lists tend to be pretentious. And wrong. So I offer, instead, ten picture books that I think are awesome. Picture book recommendations, I feel, are safe. Reading a picture book doesn’t require much of a time commitment. I am not including Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, which many readers already know and love.
Memoirs of a Goldfish by Devin Scillian and Tim Bowers. I’m posting the book as a pick by carrots.* Scillian’s humor is sharp and doesn’t condescend to kids, and the illustrations manage to be simultaneously beautiful and funny. “Day One: Swam around bowl,” goldfish records. “Day two: Swam around bowl twice.” If picture books weren’t so expensive, I would have bought copies for all of my friends with kids. And perhaps for my friends without kids. And maybe for random people on streetcorners.
Lon Po Po, by Ed Young. A Caldecott award winner, Young’s book is a Chinese telling of the Little Red Riding Hood story. This story focuses on the ingenuity of three little girls as they encounter a wolf that is simultaneously more menacing and more sympathetic than your usual sly charmer wolf in English versions. The illustrations are so sophisticated and beautiful that I want to buy an extra copy to break apart and frame, but the artistic play between wolf and child will still entertain younger readers.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, by Mo Willems. Who doesn’t want to read a book about a pigeon who insists on driving the bus? Really? Willems uses hilarious, color-block illustrations reminiscent of children’s artwork and tells a compelling tale of foiled avian desire. It will have an entire room of kids laughing by the second page, and you’ll probably be laughing, too. A Caldecott winner, and deservedly so.
The Three Questions, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, by Jon J. Muth. I gave this book to my mom quite a few years ago to read to her fourth-graders. It’s a moral fable, but it’s not preachy or heavy-handed. Rather than try to explain the imprecise negotiations of ethics to young readers, Muth-through-Tolstoy encourages them to ask important questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? Muth is a wonderful illustrator, as well, and I recommend his other books, in particular Zen Shorts.
Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and Kerry Argent. Mem Fox is just — sigh — wonderful. I love all Mem Fox, but her book Wombat Divine is particularly read-worthy. Young wombat tries throughout the book to find his place in his community’s nativity play but finds himself too clumsy, too big, just wrong for most roles. I won’t give away the ending, but the final page — which reads, simply, “And wombat beamed” — gives me the warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Argent’s delightful illustrations of Australian wildlife dressed as wise men and sundry biblical characters are set against simple backdrops.
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni. Okay, okay. So most people know about Swimmy already, and certainly Leo Lionni is not some undiscovered gem. But I can’t recommend picture books without putting in a plug for my favorite book about a small fish. I fondly remember many elementary school art projects based on Lionni’s unique collage illustrations — intricate displays of fish and coral and sea floor that reveal to young readers how beautiful and unexpected the ocean can be. And then there’s Swimmy, the archetypal unexpected hero who takes on the big bad bully. This is one of Lionni’s many Caldecott winners, but it’s certainly my favorite.
Little Pea, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jen Corace. I find Little Pea and other books in the series — Little Hoot and Little Oink — irresistible. An interesting lesson about perspective, Little Pea tells the story of a small vegetable who doesn’t want to eat his candy. Corace’s simple illustrations make pod veggies so adorable — peas on swings! peas playing hopscotch! — that, each time I encounter peas on my plate, I reconsider eating them. Also a great depiction of parent-child relationships. Carrots recommends.
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. Another book many readers may already know and love, but worth revisiting. Ferdinand is really a story about the expectations others have for you and how to escape them, a topic that resonates with kids as well as adults. It’s also a book that asks us to consider how we see — and judge — the world around us. And! It merited a few mentions in The Blind Side. My favorite part of Ferdinand is, however, the cork tree. I would love to sit under a cork tree smelling the flowers. With Ferdinand.
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag. I didn’t run across Wanda Gag until I was studying children’s literature as a graduate student, but now I know that many children grow up with her books. Millions of Cats is probably her most famous and tells the story of — you guessed it — millions of cats, and the couple who negotiates what the Amazon review calls a “legion of felines.” If that doesn’t make you want to buy this book, your heart is three sizes too small. Gag’s catchy, creative text is accompanied by bold, graphic illustrations.
Ragtime Tumpie, byAlan Scroeder and Bernie Fuchs. Yet another picture book I encountered through Danny’s collection of his favorite illustrators — this story of a young Josephine Baker does a fantastic job of evoking the day-to-day life of a young girl moving amid the jazz life of St. Louis. It’s historical and educational without being boring, and the paintings by Fuchs range from warm sepias, yellows, and reds to tranquil blues and greens — the perfect reflection of music in illustration. It makes you want to dance, or turn off all of the lights and listen to a mellow trumpet.
Carrots readers — what would be on your picture book list? I’m always looking for recommendations!
* I am making some changes to the “picks by carrots” section. Check it out for more info.