Great Spotties! Is that a GIRAFFE on the ski slopes?
The premise of a giraffe learning to ski is funny, for adults and kids. In Teach Your Giraffe to Ski (written by Viviane Elbee, illustrated by Danni Gowdy), a boy is trying to teach his giraffe the proper way to ski. But Giraffe doesn’t want anything to do with the bunny hill – he’s ready for the big, scary slopes! The boy will have to muster his courage if he’s going to catch and save his giraffe.
Teach Your Giraffe to Ski is certainly a fun choice for skiers and giraffe-lovers, but the underlying theme of overcoming fear make it a good read for a broader audience as well. Enjoy this book during the winter months, snuggled with your kids, while laughing at the antics of fearless (and often clueless) Giraffe as he learns to ski.
Stunning paintings, brilliantly placed cutouts, and the perfect thirty-two words make Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Blue one of my favorite pictures books of all time. Following in the style of her picture book Green, which won a Caldecott Honor, Seeger takes it one step further by adding an underlying plot of great emotional depth. I marvel at her ability to tell the life story of a boy and his dog over seventeen spreads, with minimal text. The result is profound and poignant.
I highly recommend this picture book for children and adults of all ages. Blue is a particularly good choice for anyone mourning the death of a pet. Younger children will appreciate the cleverness of the illustrations and cutouts, and at the very least, will learn to recognize various shades of blue. Older children will likely grasp the subtle plot and deeper feelings permeating through the book. I also recommend Green by the same author, though it is more about the colors and illustrations and does not have the same weight of the newer Blue.
If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.
Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.
The Cat in the Hat forever changed the stigma of “early reader” in the best way. Challenged to write an engaging story that young readers could tackle themselves, Dr. Seuss created his masterpiece to promote literacy. The book has maintained “classic” status ever since it was published in 1957. Its popularity led to a sequel (The Cat in the Hat Comes Back) and spawned a whole series of easy reader books, some written by Seuss, some written by other authors. Many of these books are also classics in their own right (Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, Go, Dog. Go!), continuing to teach newer generations of children to read.
In 2007, fifty years after The Cat in the Hat debuted, popular author-illustrator Mo Willems introduced young readers to Elephant and Piggie. In under ten years, Willems created 25 books in his series, all done in comic-book style. Text is sparse and done in dialogue. The stories are engaging, full of heart, and always served with a heaping dose of humor. Adults and kids love Elephant and Piggie, and I know I am not alone in being seriously bummed that The Thank You Book, published last year, is the final book in the series.
Just like the Cat in the Hat, Elephant and Piggie have become iconic. Go out and find first and second graders and ask – they all know Elephant and Piggie! And just like the Cat in the Hat generated a new line of early readers, Elephant and Piggie now give their stamp of approval on early readers written by various authors.
The American Library Association (the same group awarding the Newbery and Caldecott Medals) created the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award in 2004 as a way of honoring Seuss’s contributions to children’s literature. The award is given annually to “the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished contribution to the body of American children’s literature known as beginning reader books published in the United States during the preceding year.” (For more information on the Geisel Award and to see past recipients, visit the ALA’s site here.) It’s fitting that several of the Elephant and Piggie books have either won or received honors.
I’ve been highlighting a lot of books with heavy material, so I thought I’d lighten up the mood with a pair of fun books.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond, soon became a classic after it was published in 1985. It is commonly referenced as an example for not one, but two literary devices: the use of second person point of view and circular plot structure. The title phrase initiates the sequence of events that follows, and this simple action leads to comical situations as we read of a demanding mouse who continues to want more.
If you enjoy the “If you … , then …” cause-and-effect style of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, then you may like When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam. This story starts , “If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in.” We then follow a young boy’s day on the beach with his family and, of course, his dragon. The illustrations are cleverly done, and it’s left to interpretation as to whether the dragon is imaginary or real.
These are fun reads and there are others that follow. Numeroff and Bond collaborated on many more books, such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, following their initial premise. Moore and McWilliam produced a sequel titled When A Dragon Moves In Again, in which our young boy copes with the arrival of a baby brother. All titles are appropriate for all ages, though the target audience is for kids 4-8 years old.
Owl Moon is Jane Yolen’s story that details a young girl’s owling outing with her father. While its literary merit alone would make this picture book stand out, it solidified “classic” status when artist John Schoenherr won the Caldecott Medal for its illustrations. The story is simple and sweet, yet the language is rich and beautiful. It demonstrates the fullness of a loving parent-child relationship as the father introduces his daughter to the adventure of finding owls in the woods.
Fans of Owl Moon may likewise enjoy Kate Messner’s Over and Under the Snow, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. In this story, a girl and her father cross-country ski through wintry woods. They track evidence of animal life, while the father explains how the animals live and survive during the cold winter months. The illustrations juxtapose the exploration of the father and daughter against the hibernation and underground scurrying of the animals.
Both Owl Moon and Over and Under the Snow would be wonderful book selections to use in teaching poetic techniques. Owl Moon is indeed a free verse poem, and though Over and Under the Snow is written in prose, it is full of lyrical phrases. In particular, these books employ onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance, not to mention metaphor and simile. They both are peaceful, winter-themed, high-quality choices for younger readers, and older readers will benefit from reading them as models in writing style.
With the recent death of beloved children’s writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, I’ve been going back and re-reading some of my favorites of hers. I particularly enjoy the collaborations she did with illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. Their work is full of heart, amazing wordplay, and of course, fun!
I love, love, love Exclamation Mark! Playing off the rules of punctuation, the main characters are an exclamation mark (of course), a handful of periods, and a question mark. The sparse text is incredibly clever, and somehow the fabulous Lichtenheld brings to life punctuation marks as living characters. It is a fast and fun read, and could even be used as a way of teaching punctuation to young students. This one will get a laugh out of readers of all ages.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was truly a groundbreaking picture book when it was published in 1962. At the time, books did not feature people of color as protagonists. Children’s books typically took place in white suburbia, not in urban settings. The Snowy Day was so revolutionary for its time that the New York Public Library listed it as one of the 150 most influential books of the 20th century.
In The Snowy Day, we follow Peter as he explores his city neighborhood after a snowfall. We join him as he creates different tracks in the snow, makes snowballs and snow angels, and slides down snowy mounds. Keats’s artwork is vibrant collage, with Peter’s bright red snowsuit contrasting against the snow.
Fast forward four decades to Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, in which we spend an afternoon with CJ and his grandma in their urban neighborhood. CJ is dissatisfied, wishing he didn’t have to take the bus for his usual post-church excursion with Nana. But Nana opens his eyes to the beauty around him, helping him to really see and connect with the folks in his community.
Last Stop on Market Street also had great impact in the world of children’s literature. It won the Newbery Medal in 2016, an uncommon honor to be bestowed upon a picture book. Robinson utilizes bright colors in painting and collage, and in an interview with Horn Book, even said he was channeling Ezra Keats. (You can read Horn Book‘s review of Last Stop on Market Street here.)
Both of these classics of children’s literature are beautiful in their portrayal of urban settings and diverse characters. If you enjoyed The Snowy Day as a child (or adult!), then check out Last Stop on Market Street.
Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline is one of the most recognized and beloved characters in all of children’s literature. We remember her pluck as she goes through her boarding-school days under the watchful eye of Miss Clavel. Even a medical emergency and a stay in the hospital cannot dampen Madeline’s spirits.
Fast forward 60 years from Madeline’s debut, and meet Olivia. Ian Falconer has created another unforgettable heroine full of energy and spunk. The bedtime interchange between Olivia and her mother best describes her lively personality. Mom says, “You know, you really wear me out, but I love you anyway.” Olivia doesn’t miss a beat and answers, “I love you anyway too.”
Both Madeline and Olivia have amazing artwork that is indispensable to the story. For Madeline, the famous Parisian scenery is one of the reasons this book is well-loved. In Olivia, Falconer creates humor and tension in the illustrations while utilizing a sparse text that is sometimes ironic when taken in context with the pictures.
Both of these strong female characters have multiple books in their series. Their large personalities have made them favorites for girls both young in age and young at heart.
The Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel has been a go-to favorite collection for many years. Frog’s easygoing manner and upbeat outlook perfectly counter Toad’s sometimes surly, but always loyal nature. Perfect for early readers, these books have simple sentence structure and vocabulary, yet still manage to entertain both young and old.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the same warmth in the Mouse and Mole series by Wong Herbert Yee. This series has received acclaim from readers and critics alike, with Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends even receiving the Theodor Suess Geisel Honor as a distinguished book for beginning readers. Mouse and Mole share a tree – Mouse lives upstairs, Mole lives in the ground below. The premise sets up the characters’ different personalities, but each one strives to be a good friend to the other.
The Mouse and Mole series is charming and delightful. The reading level may be slightly more advanced than Frog and Toad, with a slightly more difficult vocabulary. The Mouse and Mole books also have more of a cohesive plot throughout the entire book, whereas the Frog and Toad books are more of a collection of short stories. Both series emphasize the value of friendship, and their light humor and heart will make them favorites for young readers.