Two beloved stories with animal protagonists. Two critically acclaimed novels. And two books highlighting the value of loyal friendship and the power of expression.
One of the most read and certainly recognizable books in children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White tells the story of Wilbur, a runt pig who was spared an untimely death by eight-year-old Fern. He lives in the barn at Fern’s uncle’s barn, surrounded by other farm animals, yet lonely. Then he meets Charlotte, a plain but extraordinary spider. Charlotte does more than befriend Wilbur – she devises a plan to once again save Wilbur’s life. She writes words in her web, which the humans interpret as a miracle. This turns Wilbur into a celebrity, and he becomes the pride of Zuckerman’s farm. Charlotte’s Web is poignant and full of heart, affirming all the beauty found in life’s simple pleasures.
In a similar way, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is about a small group of animals who have banded together. Living in less-than-ideal conditions in a run-down and cramped mall facility, Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and Bob the stray dog make the best of their awful situation through their relationships with one another. However, when baby elephant Ruby is added to the mix, Ivan takes it upon himself to save her from her new dismal future. Ivan paints pictures and his artwork gains much attention. As more people become aware of Ivan, the public is outraged by the inadequate living conditions for the animals, and they demand change. The One and Only Ivan demonstrates that we can all make a difference for the good of another, even when we are limited by our situation.
Although the reading level of Charlotte’s Web is a bit higher than that of The One and Only Ivan, the content of Ivan may disturb sensitive readers more than Charlotte. Both books could be read by independent readers ages 8-12, but I would suggest that ages 10-12 may be more appropriate for Ivan. Charlotte’s Web may be enjoyed be younger children as a read-aloud, but I would refrain from introducing Ivan to readers younger than eight.
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.
Readers of all ages have enjoyed reading about Ramona Quimby since she made her debut as a side character in the Henry Huggins series. Beverly Cleary was smart in giving the little lady her own series of novels. The Ramona books are filled with everyday challenges, the pains of growing up, trials of family life, and of course, lots of spunk.
I admit I feel a bit gutsy in proposing a modern-day counterpart to such a well-loved childhood literary figure, but I’m going to do it anyway. I love Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine. Just like Ramona, Clementine finds herself in plenty of tight spots, and just like Ramona, Clementine manages to win us over with her good heart. Both series feature caring, working-class families that are sometimes exasperated by their daughter’s actions, but ultimately know she means well.
If you haven’t yet discovered them, check out the Clementine books, which are full of heart and humor.
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.
An orphan. A bleak life controlled by ghastly grown ups. A fantastical adventure with a rich supporting cast. These are a few of the commonalities between Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach and Jonathan Auxier’s newer Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes.
Readers know Dahl for his dark humor and bizarre scenarios. In James, we meet a boy who was orphaned after his parents were trampled by rhinoceroses. His Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge became his guardians and have made his life wretched ever since. After magical beans grow a gigantic peach in his backyard, James begins a magical journey with a handful of human-sized bugs who were also magically transformed.
Auxier’s style draws much from Dahl’s, and in Peter, we also find similarities to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Peter is captive in a life of thievery, enslaved by a cruel master. To add to his woes, Peter is blind, though ironically it is his blindness that makes him a master thief. After he steals a box of magic eyes, Peter is transported to faraway lands and introduced to characters and creatures of all types in an action-filled adventure.
Fans of James and the Giant Peach might give Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes a try. A word of caution: both books could frighten sensitive children. Due to its length, content, and intensity, Peter is for the older reader. I would recommend James for children ages 6-12 (note the reading level is fourth grade, but younger readers may still enjoy the story if read aloud). I would recommend Peter for children ages 10-14 (reading level is sixth grade).
He’s afraid of elevators, tunnels, bridges, airplanes, thunder, substitute teachers, kimchi, wasabi, the dark, heights, scary movies, scary dreams, shots, and school. And of course, girls, because the scary thing about girls is that they are not boys. He won’t go to school without his PDK – personal disaster kit – complete with emergency plans of how to survive show-and-tell.
Meet Alvin Ho. He is the middle child in an Asian-American family living in Concord, Massachusetts. In Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things (written by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham), Alvin is navigating the second grade (using the advice of his older brother Calvin), all while learning how to be a gentleman, like his dad.
The Alvin Ho series is full of warmth and is downright hilarious. If you are looking for a fun read the entire family can enjoy, consider these books. They are also appropriate choices for those reading at a third to fourth grade reading level. There are six of them in the series. And don’t forget to check out Alvin Ho’s Woeful Glossary at the end of the book.
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.
Imaginative lands. A child in time-out. An unforgettable adventure. An epic childhood story told and illustrated by a picture book master. These are a few common characteristics between the classic Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and the more recently published Zephyr Takes Flight by Steve Light.
Many are familiar with the iconic Where the Wild Things Are, but at its most basic premise, Max is sent to his room without any supper only to start a crazy adventure to the land of the wild things. Similarly, Zephyr is sent to her room after causing destruction with her model airplane. She enters into a “wondrous place” full of flying machines, where she lives out her dreams of flying. Adding another wonderful layer to this story, we also find that Zephyr is a creative engineer in the making. (Go girl inventors!) She uses her ingenuity to help Rumbus the pig fly, after which he and his friends return the favor and assist Zephyr home. And just as Max enjoys his supper in Wild Things, Zephyr returns to a plateful of pancakes.
I am generally not a fan of survival and wilderness stories, so the fact that I tore through The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a testament to the authors and the gripping stories they have written.
Published in 1960, The Incredible Journey tells the tale of three household pets who make their way through the wilderness in an effort to return home. The book is jam-packed with action, full of encounters with wild animals, hostile weather conditions, and challenges against the forces of nature. It may not be an appropriate choice for the faint of heart or sensitive child, as there are descriptions of the pets hunting and eating birds and rodents, but this is all just a reminder of how nature works. I know I kept turning the pages, hoping Luath, Tao, and Bodger would defy the odds and reunite with their loving family.
Similarly, Pax is a beautifully written story about the special bond between a boy, Peter, and his pet fox, Pax. Pennypacker throws us immediately into the action with one of the most gut-wrenching opening chapters I’ve ever read. Peter’s father forces him to free his pet fox into the wild before the boy goes to live with his grandfather. For the remainder of the book, Peter and Pax desperately search for one another. Although human characters are scarce, the ones in the story are unconventional and richly brought to life. Likewise, the animals (we meet a few more foxes along the way) are well characterized. Through alternating points of view, we join Peter’s quest to reunite with his fox, while also following Pax as he learns how to live in the wild for the first time.
These stories of adventure will especially resonate with animal and nature lovers, and I believe they will appeal to both girls and boys. I would suggest The Incredible Journey be read by children ages ten and older. I find Pax to be more appropriate for a slightly older audience – perhaps twelve and older, unless the child is an advanced reader and more mature.