Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: What is your most beloved children’s book?
My most beloved children’s book was/is If You’re Afraid of the Dark…Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens, which was a pocket-sized exercise in existential abusurdism with beautiful illustrations. I read this book over and over and over, and I’ve saved it, carefully packing it up and moving it from apartment to apartment, state to state, so that I can share it with my kids, should I have any. With sage advice like “If tomorrow morning the sky falls…have clouds for breakfast,” how can you go wrong?
I don’t remember how I came to own The Little Lame Prince by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, but I totally loved it. The premise sounds unbearably maudlin today, but here it is: A neglected little prince, paralyzed in an accident, has been locked away in a tower by his evil uncle, who usurped the throne after the prince’s parents died. The boy is visited in the tower by a fairy godmother, who gives him a magical traveling cloak that carries him on adventures around the world. With his newfound confidence and worldly experience, he gains the courage he needs to reclaim his country from his uncle and be a wise and mighty ruler to his people. I was a kid who didn’t enjoy childhood; I was restless and bored and the idea of sneaking out at night to see the world on a magic traveling cloak seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world to me. I have no idea how well the book would hold up now that I am old and jaded, and I’m not sure I want to find out.
In Brave Irene by William Steig, the title character is a tough little cookie who delivers that damn dress in the driving snow and wind (ever the regal villain) so her sick mother won’t have to. The book is about the way kids love their parents—and about Irene, of course, who is a little bit of a badass.
In 1989, I moved from the city to a small town in the middle of nowhere with a new family, and everything around me was strange and lonely. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle became my one safe place, a life raft of sorts. While I adjusted to my new life as an eight-year-old living in the country, I fell in love with sci-fi, and everything different, impossible, and wonderful. I forgot about the 44 acres of land, red mud, and cows lowing in the real world, and I connected with a girl dealing with tesseracts, insurmountable challenges, and the search for the life she always imagined would be hers. It was the perfect escape, and I can’t wait to read it all over again with my kids.
Bob Fulton’s Amazing Soda Pop Stretcher by Jerome Beatty, Jr. with illustrations by Gahan Wilson: It’s out of print, unfortunately, but I must have read it 20 times, and I still keep my copy on the shelf in my office with the “good books.” It’s about a boy inventor who creates a device (and formula) to turn one bottle of soda pop into 50. It explodes in his garage and the resulting sugary goo has physical properties that secret government agencies are dying to get their hands on. Wilson’s simple illustrations are great. It’s probably the book that simultaneously got me hooked on both sci-fi and thrillers.
My favorite book from my childhood is No Flying in the House by Betty Brock. Brock is a genius. Wallace Tripp is equally amazing for illustrating the book with gorgeous, now-vintage illustrations. How many times did I try to kiss my elbow after reading it, with the now-withered hope of flying? Too many times. And, for the record, as limber as we all are in those formative years, one cannot kiss one’s elbow without consequentially spraining an arm. Worst whimsy in a storybook ever. But, oh, so memorable.
Whenever I was sick as a little girl, my mother would read to me from a well-worn hardback copy of The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh. It was as much a part of my recovery routine as chicken soup and gloating to friends about missing school. My mother isn’t a master dramatist, but she was the closest thing our household had to Meryl Streep, and in the privacy of my pink-and-red bedroom, she let loose not just with A.A. Milne’s playful use of language but also the voices for the characters in the hundred acre woods—Piglet’s frantic squeak, Rabbit’s nasal clip, Eeyore’s poky self-pity and (oh, bother) the uncommonly wise, if a bit plodding, bear of little brain. Each mini-adventure lasted just long enough to distract me from whining, to laugh a bit and (finally) fall asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever read that book front-to-back; in fact, I don’t know that I’ve read much of it at all. It was book-as-performance, storytelling in its most basic form, a private performance for a little girl by the woman who loved her most.
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward, pictures by Marjorie Flack: I keep two copies of this book. One is new and flawless, and the other was a gift from my mother some 30 years ago. The copyright is 1939; the dust jacket is long gone, the binding frayed and taped, the pages yellowed and marked with scribbling. Seems it was discarded by the Omro public school library sometime in the 1960s, where she worked at the time. Someone must have been bothered about the scribbling, or the fact that it was loved too well. It’s about little girls and big dreams and never turning back, no matter how high the climb or who’s laughing behind you. The scribbling makes it perfect.
I grew up visiting my grandparents in the summers on Mount Desert Island, so I loved Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey. When I was a kid, these were books that read true to life—they made summer last all year. Later would come the Hardy Boys and Tintin and Sherlock Holmes—and my sister’s Babysitter’s Club series—but until then there were blueberries, old Fords, and boats.
My favorite childhood book remains Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. For one, its cover is bright red, capturing the attention of any little boy and reeling them in like a fish on the line, and then keeping them engaged with heavy construction equipment working at a breakneck pace. But mostly I like it because of the poignant way it teaches some of life’s hardest lessons. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel had been the best of the best, but times were changing and they couldn’t get work in the city any more. Finally they find a job that gives them the chance to shine one last time before settling into a comfortable retirement. In this way, we are introduced to the concepts of loss, of being left behind, of the bittersweetness of the passage of time.
My brother and my favorite book when we were little was The Witch’s Catalog, where kids could buy pet dragons, faucets that poured whatever you wanted, invisibility powers, anything! The catalog took such a hold over us that we filled out the order form and left it in the hollow of a mulberry tree at the end of our driveway, just like the form specified. It was a desperate long shot but we couldn’t resist trying. We couldn’t come up with the required bat fat or flea tears, though, and maybe that’s why the magical items never arrived. Stupid fleas, always going off alone to sob their lousy little hearts out!
The Phantom Tollbooth. As much as I loved Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Green Eggs and Ham, The Phantom Tollbooth was something more than a fable or morality tale. It dove right into your inner world. It was one of those books that gave me one of my first “Oh shit!” moments as a kid—where your head, the world, everything was less about what’s on the surface, and was more like an onion—just layers and layers. Although I don’t remember much about the plot of the book now, I’ll always remember it as an introduction to more adult concepts and feelings—like the doldrums, like having time as your companion—a glimpse into thoughts and emotions to come.
What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry: I must have read this book hundreds of times growing up. I loved the story about taking a ship across the ocean to visit relatives, and Wild Bill Hiccup running into everything with his Buffalomobile. Some of the stories are charmingly anachronistic. Written in the late ‘60s, it includes bits about daddy giving mommy money because she works so hard around the house, and a Utopian description of modern air travel. But the simple yet intricate drawings of how everything works in Busytown, full of fantastically literal vehicles and cutaway illustrations, are still so much fun to explore. My own son absolutely loves this book at the moment. Each night at bedtime he insists we read a couple of the stories—and then we have to read the final two pages, a giant pancake breakfast party with all the characters. The original book is very difficult to find—these days, only an abridged version is sold new.
This might be a bit embarrassing to admit, but this small, delightful tale of a mouse living on top of a whale called Amos & Boris might be my favorite. Looking back on it, the book is swimming in awkward intimacy and an almost sexual relationship between the whale and the mouse. “Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness […] of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power […] of the whale.” Why don’t they just get a room in the middle of the ocean already? Then again, imbuing anthropomorphized animals and geometric objects with dramatic emotions is the foundation of great children’s books, from Jonathan Livingston Seagull to The Dot & The Line. Really, for children, this is their last chance to indulge in awkward sentiments and intimate feelings before the world around them crushes their spirit. Why not let them live it up while they have the chance?
The children’s book I remember with the greatest nostalgia would be As I Was Crossing Boston Common by Norma Farber. The protagonist is a common turtle who, while crossing Boston Common, views a man leading a parade of 26 uncommon animals in the alphabetical order of their names. I remember believing for a long time that it was at least partially a fantasy book, and also the subsequent surprise and delight I felt upon learning during later childhood after a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York that yes, narwhals really did exist. I credit this book with my longstanding interest in unusual animals and addiction to nature programs. Frustratingly, I’ve never met another person who remembers it!
For me it’s hands down Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but for more reasons than Roald Dahl’s fabulous abilities. I will maybe always remember (given the right mood) watching Willy Wonka as a kid in school. I think it was my very first pajama day, complete with fresh popped corn and a movie, prescribing the perfect day for a six year-old-boy. Maybe it was the subtle marketing of chocolate, or the well-over-my-head allusions to pop culture through the centuries, or just the joy of a boy in a world of dreams. A tale of everything going wrong to everything going right, not necessarily by fate but by the good heart of a good kid. A great children’s book deserves a great movie, and Charlie now has two. I still take time to read the book and watch the movies as often as possible, and can’t wait to share them with my kids, my sister’s kids, or any kid who will just let me read with them.
Something about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree stood out when my mother started reading it to me. I was only a child, of course, but it differed in tone from most of my other favorite books. It’s more reverent than Silverstein’s poetry, or Seuss, and the story focuses on a boy and a tree (I was mostly concerned with the boy at the time) and their relationship. The boy goes from being happy and young to old and sad. I think it’s still rare that adults will spell it out for children so clearly. The book apparently generated quite a bit of controversy (and a symposium!) because the tree that keeps giving to the boy and asking nothing in return is referred to as “she.” Which is totally sexist. Unless it’s a symbol for the kid’s mom, in which case it’s touching but still kind of sad. More obvious is the notion that the natural world (i.e., the tree) is here to be used by humankind, made happy by the use even, which is not at all ecologically friendly. Now I just like the ambiguity, what is possibly unsettling in this otherwise innocent children’s story that is definitely about love in some aspect. Whatever the intent, we should all call our moms more.
I vote for Frog & Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel, especially the story entitled “The Letter.” Toad is sad because he doesn’t receive any letters in the mail and so Frog goes home and writes him a letter and then returns to his friend’s to wait for the letter to arrive. Toad is neurotic, anxious, silly, and moody and yet Frog likes him. I remember reading it more than 30 years ago and it still touches me.
Katy and the Big Snow, first published in 1943, was clearly ahead of its time. Written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, it tells the story of a “beautiful red crawler tractor”—a girl tractor!—who saves the day when the town of Geoppolis gets snowed in. Donning her snow plow as the drifts deepen, she heads out into the city after its normal truck plows have gotten stuck in the snow. The meteorological tone of the language and the meticulous maps and illustrations intensify the gathering gloom and explain the various dramas taking place around the buried city. And through it all, Katy, “very big and very strong,” chugs right along, happily setting things straight with a friendly word and consistent hard work, making sure everyone, even herself, makes it back home.
Most beloved children’s picture book: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. Runners up in the picture book category: Tuesday by David Wiesner, Sector 7 by David Wiesner (OK, so pretty much anything by Wiesner), Black & White by David Macauley, and Double Trouble in Walla Walla by Andrew Clements. In the novel category, it’s a tie: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Runners up: Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Tangerine by Edward Bloor, Feed by M. T. Anderson, and Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block. The list could go on for hours…sadly I must return to work!
As a child obsessed with coloring and reading, I couldn’t put down Harold and the Purple Crayon. He created his own world by drawing, which was what reading was for me. Next came Bill & Pete, my first comedy, and soon Matilda and all of Roald Dahl’s creations. My books were (and still are) my friends, and they saved me and made me.
As a teacher of three- to five-year-olds, I’m lucky to be able to read picture books every day. My most beloved is I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss. She writes like a three-year-old babbling on about whatever pops into their head, my favorite bit being the lyrics to “Happy Monkey Day.” So many children’s books are too wordy, or too mushy, or too presumptuous about what children want and like. So many children like to be silly and let their imagination run and say whatever they want to, when they want to. I think this book may be out of print now, which is disappointing—but you can find it out there somewhere, in a library or in a school basement or at a yard sale. Dust it off!