My love of children’s literature goes back to, well, my childhood, and those stories I loved best as a child continue to bring me pleasure today. In fact, I began building my own collection of books from my youth before I even had kids. It included such titles as Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library (four playing card-sized hardcover books in a slipcase), The Five Chinese Brothers (originally published in 1938), Caps For Sale (also 1938), and, after a long search on eBay, my most favorite, an obscure picture book from 1966 called Mother Mother I Feel Sick, Send For The Doctor Quick Quick Quick, by Remy Charlip. With the illustrations rendered in silhouette so as to suggest a shadow play, the story focuses on a rotund youngster complaining of a stomach ache, whose mother takes him to the doctor, who pulls from the boy’s gut all manner of things the lad has swallowed, including a ball, a teapot, a bird cage, and a bicycle.
I couldn’t wait to have kids so I could share these books with them. When that blessed event happened – twice, in 1996 and then in 2006 – I learned a very important thing: little kids love to chew, tear, and write on books. As a result, I had to set some limits. My precious copy of Mother Mother would stay well clear of their destructive hands and mouths, and my much-prized hardcover copy of Where The Wild Things Are, inscribed to me by Sendak himself, was kept on a high shelf (I bought a paperback version to share with my girls).
When I went looking for new books for my first-born, I discovered the marvelous works of Don and Audrey Wood, a husband and wife team who write and illustrate books on their own as well as together. Wonderful titles such as Silly Sally; The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear; and their best one, The Napping House, have all the qualities of the finest children’s literature: simple, memorable text that never speaks down to the reader or listener, and richly detailed illustrations that consistently enchant. Gimmick books such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, featuring collages and die cuts, were great fun, though I found the holographic Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister to be more interesting to look at than to read; before my kids became literate, I would skip whole paragraphs of text.
As my daughter entered elementary school and became a proficient reader, we discovered the Junie B. Jones series. The brilliant creation of the late Barbara Parks, who died in November 2013, Junie is a kindergartner (17 books) and first-grader (14 books) who speaks in hysterical malapropisms and has so much attitude that my own children seem like angels in comparison. Parks’ consistently note-perfect child-dialogue and truly side-splitting humor have made all the Junie B. Jones books essential reading in my family.
As for my younger daughter, she has eagerly consumed the books of my childhood and of her sister’s. Precocious as young kids are when they have much older siblings, she lately has been enjoying the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which places youthful heroes in the world of the Olympians; his exciting books make a great introduction to Greek mythology.
I have barely scratched the surface of my 50+ years of consuming children’s literature. The first book I learned to read was The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss, and the works of the Springfield, Massachusetts-born Theodor Seuss Geisel were always popular choices in my house. Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings, set in the heart of Boston, was required reading before each child went on the Swan Boats in the Public Garden for the first time. One of my favorites remains The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, the Caldecott winner from 1963, the year of my birth.
I’ll end by saying that the best thing about children’s books is that you can read them with your child sitting in your lap, and you can smell their hair, and they lean back and can feel your heartbeat, and they sit in rapt attention as your voice brings the stories to life, and it is in those precious moments that you really begin to believe that people can live happily ever after.