A Few of My Favorite Picture Books

Maurice Sendak, that lovable curmudgeon,  tells us in an interview with Stephen Colbert that most children’s books are, “abysmal.” It is a scathing assessment, but not an unwarranted one. He tips his hat to Dr.Seuss and to the Curious George books, but beyond that has nothing good to say about the state of children’s literature.  There are times I find myself in agreement with this bleak view.   However, as we all know from our diligent reading of modern parenting books, positive reinforcement works best in eliciting good behavior. In that spirit of positivity I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the best children’s books that stand up to repeated readings and the test of time. They offer, I think, a great example of what books for young children can accomplish.
Over in the Ocean In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes with illustrations by Jeanette Canyon is one of the most remarkable books in our entire collection. Written in verse and sung to the tune of Over in the Meadow, this is a book to hook the young reader into text.   Nothing captures the attention of young children like music, especially singing, by a teacher, caregiver or parent.  No wonder nursery rhymes have persisted through the generations. Long before brain imaging could pinpoint the specific neural pathways music blazes in our brains, mothers sang to their children to transmit the structure and pattern of language. Children’s books which utilize this basic, ancient learning mechanism do the budding reader a great service.
What distinguishes Over in the Ocean, in addition to the catchy rhyming verse, is the phenomenal artwork. Polymer clay, in the hands of artist Jeannette Canyon, conveys texture, color and shape in ways that no other material can.  Water is rendered in swirling, bubbling patterns of green and blue. Ms. Canyon uses a food processor to create the rocky, pebbly surface of the coral reef.  Other pieces are pressed using shells, creating interesting, realistic textures. A giant mother octopus sprawls across the page, revealing hundreds of intricately shaded and patterned suction cups. Her offspring squirts a cloud of jet black ink. All in polymer clay!
This book is the product of meticulous effort, and close observation of marine life. The reader gets a lesson in science, language and (very early) math. There are several more titles, by this author/illustrator team and others in this excellent series by Dawn Publications, a terrific resource for nature based books including the environmental education classic, Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell.

I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words, by Michael Firth is a perfect book for teaching reading. The book is filled with short phrases and accompanying illustrations by Go Dog Go! author/illustrator P.D. Eastman. The illustrations aid the beginning reader, helping bridge the gap between struggle and success. The narrator issues short commands to his (adorable) doggie, such as, “Cut the grass! Comb your hair! Wag your tail and shake a leg!”  The dog demonstrates each command, assisting the young reader and giving a boost of confidence.  I remember seeing a big leap in my son’s reading fluency with this book. If  I had the power to do so, I would put a copy of this book in every preschool and  kindergarten classroom in the country. This is the kind of book a child could pick up on their own and teach themselves to read. Originally published in 1973, I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words has appeared more recently as a board book in a slightly shortened format.  Nearly every title in the  Bright and Early  series is top notch, but this one stands out as a particularly good.

Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet! by Theo. LeSieg, the sometime pen name of Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr.Seuss is an awesome early reader. The Seussian words and phrases combined with winning illustrations by Michael Smollin match up clearly and succinctly, giving beginning readers enough clues so that they can grasp the words with ease. Even more importantly, the book lists a ton of fun jobs kids might want to pursue someday. “Would you like to be an actor? Would you like to run a tractor? Like to drive a taxicab? Or run a big computer lab?” I’ve read this book aloud in classrooms and kids get really excited thinking about different jobs they would like to do. They all want to do everything.

He Bear, She Bear
, by Stan and Jan Berenstain shares the same concept. “You could be a doctor, make folks well. Teach kids how to add and spell.” Little bears might, “fix a clock, paint a door, build a house, have a store.” These are useful words that convey lots of meaning. Concrete actions and words help children make sense of reading and their world.  The non-sexist tone of the story encourages all kinds of active careers for boys and girls and it holds up very well to this day, almost 40 years after publication.
Each of these books makes use of children’s natural affinity for rhythm and rhyme.  I notice that many newly published children’s books abandon structured, rhyming prose and take a more free-form approach to language. It’s the equivalent of tossing the kid in the deep end of the pool and hoping for the best.  In terms of the concepts and ideas in many recent books, the abstract takes precedence over the concrete and specific.  Rather than focus our attention on experiences to which children can relate and aspire, newer, trendier books try to impress us with the cleverness of the author. Often the book is laden with odd jokes aimed over the heads of the kids at the parents. The sniggering collusion between author and parent is not the highest ideal to which children’s literature should aim. It ought to be about helping children understand themselves, their world, and above all words, which are the key to unlocking a lifetime of learning. It is hard to believe that many new books for children have no words. For that unfortunate trend, appropriately, I have no words.

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