Tag Archives: Top 10 lists

The NEXT Top Ten Alphabet Books

I can’t help it; there are so many good ones!  Whether it’s lovely alphabet books that tell a story or clever ones that explore a concept or theme, the genre is loaded with many books that are much better than any disconnected alphabet books that may exist. So, here is my Top 10 NEXT best Alphabet Books… to be taken as a follow-up to the first titles that made the cut.

 Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak is one title I can’t believe I forgot on the first list! Maurice Sendak at his best and I really love the size of this book. This is an important piece of psychological consideration authors and publishers have to make.

ABC Bunny by Wanda Gag. Here is a sweet, simple story (decked out in Gag’s wonderfully folksy illustrations) that just happens to be an alphabet book.

 The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg.  The man who thrives in the “books noir” category has given us a clever little treat detailing the demise of all the letters of the alphabet.  Whether the B gets bitten or the K gets kidnapped, this is a fun book for kids just past the toddler stage.

 On Market Street by Arnold Lobel.  There is nothing super clever about the text in this book, it’s the illustrations that make it shine.  Watching the man get smothered by his purchases on market street will be sure to evoke giggles from all.

 The Alphabet Tree by Leo Lionni.  Now this is an unusual alphabet book.  Rather it’s a story about phonics and literacy and team-building.  Don’t expect the typical “A is for…” Instead it’s a learning adventure, good for slow-to-start readers perhaps.

 The Alphabet Game by Trina Schart Hyman.  No story here, just pictures filled with words beginning with each letter of the alphabet.  I am a fan of Schart-Hyman’s work in the fairy tale genre and this came as a refreshing addition to her opus. It’s another small book for small hands… I love those.

 Anno’s Alphabet.  Who doesn’t love Anno?!  Each page spread features a letter and an accompanying picture of something starting with that letter.  It works the brain though too; there are hidden images in the border… lovely all around.

 The Hidden Alphabet by Laura Vacarro Seeger.  A truly clever book. Each letter contains the shape somehow of objects beginning with that letter.  A fun exercise for kids to figure out what it’s trying to detail.  Check out the product video on Amazon.

 Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks From A to Z.  The classic.  All homes should have this in their baby basket.  It’s one of the best, simple and most engaging books for toddlers ever.  Get it now.

 ABC3D by Marion Bataille.  I love this book even though I won’t own it.  See, it’s a pop-up and we have a volatile relationship with pop-ups here in this house.  But I see it’s tremendous benefits especially for kids who may struggle with dyslexia or other learning issues.  It offers a tangible, tactile presence of the letter and that is valuable for many, many learners.


Top Ten Best Disney Alternatives

Well everybody has an opinion on Disney, I may as well chime in with my two cents. In a nutshell: I love classic Disney movies. I also appreciate the occasional recent movie from the company as well.  What I don’t love is the current huge, bloated, over-commericalized Disney industry. I have other complaints from an artistic and ethical standpoint also, but I’ve not the energy to lay all that out there.  Generally speaking, I am disheartened by the commercialization of children. I want my daughter to love princesses sure. But do they have to always come with a trademark symbol after their name?!

So, here we have it then. My top ten alternatives to the Disney Empire. Keep in mind that many of the original fairy tales were actually written for adults, so the themes can get very dark, graphic or mature.  The books I have here are much more faithful to the original fairy tale (or myth or history) than the movies Walt and his contemporaries have made and may have some of those darker elements. Even if you are a Disney lover, reading these books would be an interesting lesson in “compare and contrast” for children of multiple ages.

1. Snow White illustrated by Charles Santore. Rich, traditional illustrations make this a great choice, and my boys especially love what they call “the big head dwarves.” But I do confess to having a soft spot also for the version by Paul Heins because Trina Schart Hyman adds the detail of a Marian image on one wall… plus the princess seems to age a little more congruently in her story.

2. Cinderella by K.Y. Craft definitely takes the cake here. Craft’s vibrant and ornate style is especially suited to this fairy tale. Barbara McClintock’s version of the story gets an honorable mention for a fun story and a young George Washington looking prince!

3. Aladdin And The Enchanted Lamp will substitute nicely for the letdown of Disney’s version; if you aren’t familiar with the story, you will be surprised at the liberties taken and unnecessary changes the movie made. Aladdin and the Magic Lamp by James Kunstler also looks promising (not having read it myself) as well as this version adapted by Eric Kimmel (of whom I am generally a great fan).

4. Hercules by Robert Burleigh is my favorite picture book alternative to the Disney movie.  Though this story only details the final of the twelve labors, it’s just the right size for younger children. While James Riordan’s book The Twelve Labors of Hercules is extremely well done and faithful to original story, it is fairly long and pretty graphic. There is the question of whether or not some of those images need picture representation at all. However, if we want to leave the book category altogether, I don’t think you’ll find a better retelling of the Hercules tale than that done by Jim Weiss.

5. Rapunzel by Alix Berenzy is my favorite adaptation of the Brothers Grimm tale. This one is far more popular but I think the author got a little sloppy with how Rapunzel got pregnant. In the original tale, and in Berenzy’s work, the symbol of her laying her hand in the prince’s seems to be what suffices for marriage vows. Then the story tastefully goes on with the prince finding Rapunzel at long last with their twins. At least with this there is no question of Rapunzel’s virtue being held intact.  The version of Rapunzel done by Barbara Rogasky (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman) is also a winner and deals with the marriage situation artfully through omission. Rogasky actually states when the twins come in that Rapunzel and the prince were married by then and it’s done in a way that children won’t be asking “Wait, when did that happen?!”

6. Beauty and the Beast by Max Eilenberg is my favorite. The illustrations by Angela Barrett are just right: full, captivating, moody, and evocative. This particular version isn’t 100% accurate to the tale, but it is still full and rich and  the very minor embellishments just add to the beauty in my opinion. There are two other good options out there as well: the one by Jan Brett is clean, fairly simple and of course features the always lovely Brett artwork. And then the book by Marianna Mayer is pretty neat too. My only aversion to this one is that the illustrations of the beast (done by Mercer Mayer) are truly frightening. His eyes pop out in a very sort of disturbing way… but maybe it’s just me.

7. Pocahontas by the D’Aulaires is the only really solid alternative to the mediocre Disney movie. The movie itself was fairly informative but it of course avoided some of the uglier sides of the story (e.g. how the English treated her tribe). Reportedly, Disney turned down the offer of Native Americans who wanted to help the company produce a more accurate movie, but that’s just hearsay. But at least we have one great biography by the excellent Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire. Their fun and appealing art is always a treat for children. I have seen a couple other books on Pocahontas but none stick out in my mind as pushing past mediocrity.  I think it’s time for someone to produce a beautiful and lavish book on this fascinating princess!

8. The Little Mermaid is the reason I wanted to write this post. Like any other little girl, I loved the Disney version of Little Mermaid. When I grew up and finally read the original tale, I was shocked at how dumbed down the cartoon version was… and how the ultimate ending of sacrifice and references to the eternal life were entirely omitted. But hey, Disney is in it for happy endings and I get that. The original tale is kind of an ambivalent ending: mermaid doesn’t get her prince, but she will get the chance to earn her afterlife. The versions available are tricky… I wanted to find something that still guarded the modesty of the mermaids without it being obvious or kitschy (e.g. clam shell bras). That unfortunately ruled out some beautiful versions of the story, most notably that done by Charles Santore (there is a new version available for pre-order on this one). I also was looking for something that preserved as much of the original language of the story as possible since it is just so extraordinary. This combination, tasteful illustrations and excellent text, was hard to come by. Robert Sabuda has a pop-up book (and I’m certain that ‘hardcover’ price will change in time) coming out later this year that could be excellent. Initial pictures of the pop-outs are incredible but I don’t know how the text will be yet. So I eventually settled on the the version the adaptation by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki. The story is simplified somewhat so the text isn’t as wonderful as Santore’s, and I was a little disappointed that the sea witch didn’t seem very evil but I really appreciate the watery, ethereal illustrations by Iwasaki. Even if they aren’t traditionally rich and bold, the simple sketch and watercolor technique is very fitting for this particular tale.

9. FA Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior by Robert San Souci is a very well done story about the Chinese folk hero, Mulan. This book is the actual one Disney used for the basis of their movies. And I have to admit, the movie version of this tale isn’t too far out there or ridiculous at all! For a later-released Disney flick, it was surprisingly well done all said and done.  Anyway, as usual though, the book is better!  And the illustrations here by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng are, like Iwasaki’s Little Mermaid, the perfect fit for this story. They are bright, ornate and faithful. China’s Bravest Girl is another title you can look up in your library if this one is missing…

10. The Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman is a narrow winner for this story. I also really love this version illustrated by K.Y. Craft.  But in the luxurious pictures in Craft’s book, the good fairy’s good body is fairly suggestively shown once (hey I’ve got four boys who don’t need that titillation!) and the witch in the tale is incredibly scary looking. In Hyman’s book, she gets major points for having the most handsome prince of all the fairy tale books I’ve ever seen. I admit this is just personal preference, but I really have no use for effeminate looking men in tights who’ve never needed a razor.  Craft’s Prince Charming comes with facial hair and looks manly and rugged and like someone who could definitely defend a princess from a dragon!


Top 10 Best Bedtime Stories

A good story is a good story.  And a good story is always a good choice for bedtime.  But some books are specifically about bedtime, sleep or goodnight rituals and are particularly dear to have on hand for toddler sets.  What makes a good bedtime book?  Excellent art.  A slow pace.  A lyrical cadence.  Or all of the above. Many of the titles below embody all of those qualities…  here is my personal Top 10 Goodnight/Sleep/Bedtime storybooks:

 A Book of Sleep by Il Sung Na. Relatively new on the bedtime scene, this book is an instant classic. The illustrations are sublime. Period.

 Time for Bed by Mem Fox. This was the first, full price picture book I think I ever bought. And I bought it, interestingly for one of the same reasons that one reviewer on Amazon poo-poohed it: it’s size. You can get this as a board book and a smaller paperback, but I bought the large book edition. I loved the idea of having such large, lovely illustrations totally fill in a child’s line of vision before bedtime. Now, it’s not so big as to be awkward and unwieldy… it’s just a nice, jumbo size book. Many sleep books aren’t.

 Sailor Song by Nancy Jewell. I chose this for pure nostalgia’s sake. I read it often to my firstborn when his papa was overseas; it is a homecoming bedtime tale. Sweet and soft. The illustrations are done by Stefano Vitale, whose work I admire very much.

 Night Knight by Davey Owen. Just found and discovered and loved a few weeks ago. You can read more about that here.

 It’s Time to Sleep, My Love by Eric Metaxes. The rhyming on this is very much like Time for Bed. The artwork is surreal. There are elements of it that appear strange or eerie in a lovely, only-half-awake kind of way; my three year old daughter loves this one.

When the Wind Stops by Charlotte Zolotow.  “And where do clouds go when they move across the sky?”  “To make shade somewhere else.”  So goes this classic, gorgeous question and answer discussion between a young lad and his mother.  Stefano Vitale is featured again here in exquisite form. So it may or may not be a “must read” but if you do read it, When the Wind Stops is definitely a “must love.”

 Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger. The small pearl becomes the moon. A few, well placed words. I love Barbara Berger… and she does not disappoint with this one.

 A Mouse Told His Mother by Bethany Roberts. Excellent bedtime banter here not too unlike Runaway Bunny. The art is detailed and wonderful and as it should, the adventures end with young mouse falling asleep.

 If You’re Afraid of the Dark Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens. Perfect for children and teens and adults; this book was given to me on my 15th birthday and I treasure it’s strange, lovely quirkiness still.

 Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Did you really think I’d forget this? As one of the bestselling children’s books of all time, even non-discerning parents often have this on their shelves. Their seems to be an unspoken code that this is a mandatory title. I held out for a long time just because things this popular spark the ‘go against the grain rebel’ in me.  But eventually, I caved and like so many others, can recite it practically by heart now.  That makes me happy.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” 
Madeleine L’Engle

Top 10 Best Winter Books

I had a hard time with this list because there are many sub-categories of winter which could fill out their OWN Top 10 lists. I could have lists on snow, on winter animals, or winter sports. There’s just a lot of fun to be had in this season. And let’s not forget some of the fall books that overlap here for super great reading like Snowsong Whistling or Waiting for Winter. Be that as it may, we have to start somewhere, so here I go. Books that try to be fairly general on the season:

 Winter Story by Jill Barklem. As always, Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books top my list of seasonal must-haves. The Snow Ball is coming!! Enjoy the fantastic preparations…

 I Like Winter by Lois Lenski. Why is it that all the best books are out of print?! Like Barklem, Lenski’s seasonal books deserve to be on your shelf. Keep your eye out while you’re thrifting around!

Grandmother Winter by Phyllis Root. A new find for me this year and one I love oh so much! Old Grandmother Winter (in person) is creating a beautiful winter quilt to wrap around the world. Such awesome illustrations here!

The Mitten by Jan Brett. Jan Brett really shines in winter. It’s because all her Scandinavian art and detail are in full glory. The Mitten is probably her best-selling book and comes in a board version as well. Don’t forget to check out The Hat, Trouble with Trolls, the Gingerbread stories etc. I love the peekaboo frames that reveal the upcoming plot.

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. If I would’ve filled out a Top 11 Author/Illustrators, Burton would have filled out that last slot. I really, really love and appreciate her books; my boys do too. What’s more, the treasury Mike Mulligan and More: Four Classic Stories by Virginia Lee Burton, has got to be one of the best bargains ever in children’s books. For a little more than what would be $3 a book, you get four of the best stories that AREN’T abridged, with complete artwork, in one nice hardback cover.

Snow Moon by Nicholas Brunelle. We discovered this one last year and we loved it! The story is super simple and solemn and lovely. And there’s a touch of whimsy at the very end that makes you wonder whether it was all just a dream or what. Very nice…

The Tomten and the Fox by Astrid Lindgren. The author who brought us Pippi Longstocking has quite a name in the picture book world too. This book, like it’s companion The Tomten are wonderfully told in slow, somber, quiet voices… it’s almost as if you can feel the snow falling outside when you do it this way… isn’t that right Reynard?

Ollie’s Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow. Good old Beskow delivers again. I love the weepy gray thaw lady who is trying to elude King Winter and Ollie on his brand new pair of skis.

The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen. This is a fantastic story with fantastic Mary Azarian woodcuts. Something about winter makes us want to drink up everything of Nordic countries we can… this is a historically accurate book that has adventure slipped all through it.

The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers. I admit that my boys didn’t really jump with joy over this book; they listen to it just fine and don’t complain, but what really makes it special is something that little girls will see: a birthday tea party, princesses, a Snow Queen, oh yeah… they’ll eat this up.

“Circling the moon, they brushed off the light with a touch of their wings.”
-Snow Moon


Top Ten Epiphany Books

Yet another Christmas post! But Epiphany really is a separate sort of celebration and I want to put this up before January 6th.  I’m not convinced that there aren’t more great ones out there that I’m missing in the Epiphany genre… but the following are the best ones I know about!

 The Last Straw by Frederick Thury. This is a winner in my family primarily because of the way the camel’s name rolls off the tongue: Hashmakaka.  True story: we have a rice casserole dish named after this camel after an impatient child kept whining that he wanted to know what was in the dish I was making… and I burst out in frustration: “It’s camel meat! We are eating camel for dinner!!!”  Hence: Hashmakaka was born… and it’s a well loved dish today (made with ground turkey, just so you know).

 We Three Kings by Gennady Spirin. This is the next Epiphany book on my list to buy. Pure eye candy accompany the text of that famous song.

 They Followed a Bright Star by Joan Alavedra. A deceptively deep book couched in a very simple story: the shepherds and kings follow the star to find the Newborn Baby.  My very favorite part is when one shepherd boy whispers, “Is He a shepherd or a king?” I had never thought of the significance of Christ’s visitors until that… very cool.

 Baboushka and the Three Kings by Ruth Robbins. There are many legends of this old Christmas lady but I like this one best of what I’ve seen because of its quirky but lovely illustrations. A more modern (and more Italian) version of this story is de Paola’s The Legend of Old Befana.

 The Third Gift by Bagram Ibatoulline. I am in love with this book.  So thoughtful and such a unique angle on Epiphany.  A boy and his father are harvesting one of the gifts that the wise men will bring to baby Jesus.  Beautiful.

 Strega Nona’s Gift by Tomie dePaola. Brand new this year, this is a lighter story that relates to the tradition of giving your animals special treats on Epiphany…

 Federico and the Magi’s Gift by Beatriz Vidal. A different take on Epiphany from the traditions of Latin America. I really like the sweet Lois Lensky-like illustrations in this book.

 The Stone: A Persian Legend of the Magi by Dianne Hofmeyr. This is an excellent book based on an excellent legend and you’ll find it a nice break to think about what happened on the way back from visiting the Child Jesus…

 Danny and the Kings by Susan Cooper. Another fresh take on what the Epiphany is all about.  A young, poor boy just wants a Christmas tree for his young brother to see… he hears that the 3 kings are still traveling the world leaving gifts; can it be true?

 Small Camel Follows the Star by Rachel Brown.  Alovely story from yet another camel’s perspective.  Small camel is carrying a very important bundle on his back… it’s nice to see attention to details like the wise men visiting the Newborn Baby at His house rather than the stable.

“O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light.”

Top 10 Best Advent Books

I know it seems odd to offer a booklist on Advent but let’s get real here. Do you know how many excellent Christmas books are out there?! It may well be the single most prolific genre of picture books. For that reason, not even I could possibly narrow it down to ten titles. {BUT I CAN NARROW IT DOWN TO 100!!!} So we’ll break it up a bit, I’ll offer you the books that seem to be more fitting for the season of Advent… then we’ll get into the best post-Christmas day books. And apart from even these, I’ll then write up a post about my top ten Winter books! Too bad we skipped Thanksgiving… next year life might slow down and the computer might speed up making this blog more active. For now, it is what it is!

Nothing troubles me more about Christmas than the utter lack of focus on Christ obviously… but a close second is the missing and messing up of the season of Advent: that quiet, somber season of hope. The celebrations and frenzied shopping and indulging in treats are really rather inappropriate during this time of waiting, in my humble opinion. That said, there aren’t very many Advent specific books out there… so the list I present to you includes feast day books, and the Christmas books that at least have a significant time spent on the time prior to the 25th… if you can’t wait until Christmas SEASON (which BEGINS on the 25th) to read in this genre of books (I certainly can’t) than at least try to prioritize your reading list to include the more preparatory books before we begin celebrating Christmas itself.

*** Two years later, I’m updating this list.  Look for my new notes in red.***

 The Lady of Guadalupe by Tomie de Paola. You’ll find that de Paola has a quite a few seasonal gems here but this one shine specifically. The feast of our Lady of Guadalupe is on December 12th and St. Juan Diego is on the 9th. This book tells the true story of this apparition in a lovely way. (I’ve been to the cathedral where the tilma still exists today!) Let’s not forget this story during this time of hope and preparation for the Christ-Child! I still have and like this version of the Guadalupe story… but one that I’ve since found I love even MORE is this version by Carmen Bernier-Grand.

 One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham. I shuffled off The Miracle of St. Nicholas (onto my Christmas list) in order to include this title.  This book goes through the entire story of Christmas. The ENTIRE story, from the Creation of the World through the Resurrection of Christ.  It includes many snippets of tales from the Old Testament which would line up beautifully with Jesse Tree readings.  The art is superb and the story inviting when taken nibbles at a time. 

 Why Christmas Trees Aren’t Perfect by Richard Schneider. Alright, this book gets immediate bonus point for saying the word “Advent.” Now the Christmas genre is ripe for overly-sentimental, sappy books. I have some of them. And they are fine in moderation. But my four boys get tired of sugary sweetness sometimes and need something a bit more rollicking. Well, this isn’t that book. But it is one of the better sentimental ones that has some interesting action included and not just character dramas. It’s a fantastic book with a lovely message. Get it.

 Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets. I reluctantly bumped off The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey to make room for this book in the Advent Top Ten.  (Don’t worry, I have other plans for Toomey on a different list.)  But this out-of-print gem by Ets is so beautiful and evocative and a perfect tale of Las Posadas and a little girl’s hopes coming to life.  This book seriously needs to come back in print but until then, a used copy is worth picking up.

 Lucia Child of Light by Florence Ekstrand. Well, I really want to include a couple other books on St. Lucy in this list but to be honest, I’ve not personally read them yet. They are on my wish list and should be on yours too! Lucia Morning in Sweden and Lucia, Saint of Light. Other than that, I found this little book at a thrift store this year and I love it. It’s not a typical picture book; it’s a medley really. First is a full story of the legend, sans pictures. Then there are tips and such for how to celebrate the day… keeping in mind that the feast of St. Lucy on December 13th is not a “mini Christmas” nor a specific part of Advent. But this little saint of light ought not be forgotten in the shuffle so I encourage you to read up on her!

The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie de Paola. It’s always nice to learn about some of the traditions we take for granted this time of year. Here is a sweet story about a young girl’s searching for just the perfect gift for the Christmas procession.

 The Real Santa Claus by Marianna Mayer. I replaced one of my old titles for this one.  This book is absolutely beautiful and helps put the Santa/St. Nick dilemma in its proper perspective—an excellent thing to do on his feast day of Dec. 6th. Being very wordy in between the lovely art though, it’s better for older readers, maybe 8+ or so?  For younger readers on the same topic, I’d recommend Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend or A Special Place for Santa: A Legend for Our Time

 The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger. Again, this one would make my Top Three list overall. It is an incredibly simple story, relaying the walk the donkey takes as it carries the Virgin Mother to where Jesus is born. But the imagery is sublime. And I’m including it in the pre-Christmas list because the analogies in this book could line up perfectly with certain Old Testament readings if you are inclined to do a Jesse Tree during this season. Still probably my very favorite Christmas-time book… would be fitting to read on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8th) as it honors Mary so much.

 The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola. We really can’t get away from this author can we? And trust me, there are more where this came from. But The Clown of God was the very first Tomie de Paola book I ever purchased once I started really thinking about investing in quality literature. Not only is the story a good story and fitting for the Christmas season, I love how it deals with death. De Paola is one of the few authors who’ll touch this subject in a real, no holds barred way… but in a way that is still reverent and readable. (A wonderful, wonderful book dealing with the ‘circle of life’ so to speak is his Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs.) The Clown of God is worth owning.

 The  Christmas Deer by April Wilson.  I fell in love with this author/illustrator when I found her gorgeous book: Magpie Magic. So I had high hopes for this book that I found this year. The art is beautiful, reminiscent of Jan Brett’s style with these wintry images.  But the major reason this book belongs in Advent and not Christmas is precisely because it’s an Advent journey… including a tear out, card-stock calendar in back!

Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare the Way. Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide and where the birth of the Prince of Peace might take place. -Edward Hays

Top 10 Best Autumn Books

Welll you’ll have to forgive the quiet month of September as I’ve been settling in with my sweet, new bibliozealot: Henry Benedict. Now October is waning by and I’ve not said a peep about all the excellent fall literature out there. This season offers quite a feast of delights; it’ll be difficult to narrow it to just ten. I’m also not going to dwell on specific holiday reads either just to keep the list focused. So come on in from these cold, dark days and grab a steaming mug of apple cider as you snuggle under a blanket with one of these lovely books:

 Ox Cart Man by Donald Hall. Well this was a rather obvious first choice for me as I’m absolutely smitten with Barbara Cooney’s illustrations in ANY book. But this story is really great for harvest time, following the natural season of work and self-sufficiency in a rural family. Despite it’s extremely simple story line, there’s a lot of material here for all kinds of studies should you feel so inspired with your children.

 Autumn Story by Jill Barklem. You may think I’m boring and redundant by always listing a book from Jill Barklem’s little series but you’re wrong. I’ve often thought that if I could only have a few seasonal books on my shelf, this whole series would be there. The stories, illustrations, rich botany lessons and sweet characters really are honey for a child’s heart.

 Woody, Hazel and Little Pip by Elsa Beskow. It really is no wonder that pagans love Elsa Beskow and put her consistently in their reccommended author lists; she celebrates the magic of nature in a beautiful, spritely way… but I promise that you don’t have to belong to any sort of alternative religion to appreciate her work, The art is divine and the story is as sweet as always. It’s just pure whimsy and who doesn’t love that?!

 Now it’s Fall by Lois Lenski. It just occurred to me that my Top Ten Summer list forgot to include Lenski’s On a Summer Day.Boo. Because, like Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, these titles would easily win a contest for shelf space if they needed to. Lois Lenski books are small and unassuming and perfect for introducing and celebrating the season with small children. (Probably best for the 8 and under crowd)

 Pumpkin Moonshine by Tasha Tudor. Well, booklovers everywhere will recognize the name of this excellent author-illustrator. This isn’t my very favorite title of hers but it is absolutely worthy of mention. The reason why it’s inclusion is important in this list is because Pumpkin Moonshine is the only “Halloween” book I know of that isn’t “Halloweeny.” (You like that made-up word… smooth isn’t it?) If you do or don’t celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, this book still is still relevant to celebrating the season. It’s the sweetest, gentle story about a girl hunting for the perfect pumpkin and then carving it. No ghosts, goblins or gore need apply. And no mention of candy either… nice.

 Every Autumn Comes the Bear by Jim Arnosky. One of these days, I’m going to write an entire post on Jim Arnosky and the importance of his books. But let’s just start you off with this one, yes?! Good. Don’t expect a traditional story with Arnosky, he takes on more of the fly on the wall role in simply narrating a particular scene with a particular animal in a particular time of year. Good stuff this is.

 Apple Picking Time by Michele Slawson. I love this “living book.”  It tells the simple story of a little girl picking apples with her family.  The sentiments evoked here are really nice, and it’s so great to see exactly where apples come from and how they’re picked.  I’m a Washingtonian… so I am predisposed to loving this book.  🙂

 Snowsong Whistling by Karen Lotz. Confession: I don’t know anything about Karen Lotz and I wouldn’t make a point to seek out her other work because although the rhyming here is fine and fun, it’s pretty unremarkable. This books wins a coveted spot on Ellie’s Top Ten list because it’s Elisa Kleven illustrating. And it’s Elisa Kleven illustrating with a fall motif. Imagine the eye candy. (Save this book for a late November day or early December, just before the winter transition…)

 The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger. Here is another one to save for later in the season as we see a little leaf who can’t bear to let go of the tree and accept the changing season. There is something very poignant about this and it’s touched in a unique style by Berger throughout the stories pages. A gem.

 Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser. This book is another one to save for those late November days, unless winter comes earlier in your part of the world. I’m in love with these illustrations; they are scribbly pencil drawings and really give a nice life to the season as squirrel and a few friends try to beat out mother nature and see this thing called “snow”. It’s quite funny what they consider to be snow and the kids will giggle. The best part is that when that magical white stuff finally does fall, the text in the book stops… it spends the last few pages just letting you watch the story unfold and end. I love it.


Top 10 Best Summer Books

This Top 10 list was almost impossible for me to make. Not only does summer encompass so many great topics, there are inumerable books which aren’t season specific that COULD be summer books. I am purposely leaving out some of my very favorite summer-toned books because they can be in a category by themselves. So hopefully we can look forward to a “Top 10 Beach Books” and “Top 10 Historical Fiction Books” and “Top 10 Baseball Books” etc. There are so many great titles out there, but I had to narrow it down somehow. The great news is that while I was perusing Amazon to refresh my brain and get the links for these books (click on pictures), I came across at good dozen or so books that I’d never heard of but which seemed very, very promising. So I’ll be checking those out at the library. For now though, I love the challenge of thinking “If I had only 10 summer books on my shelf, what would they be?” So in no particular order I offer these titles:

 Jamberry by Bruce Degan. This is an ode to the little children again as this book is full of fun rhymes and exciting berries… an excellent accompaniment to any berry-picking, canning, or pie making adventure.

 On a Summer Day by Lois Lenski.  There’s just no two ways about it, Lenski’s seasonal titles are perfect in every way.  I wish so much that these would be reissued; too many good books get lost in the out of print bins.

 Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe. This book just captures the essence of summer all around. You can feel the warm night air and the excitement induced by the fireflies. Included is a great lesson in respect for nature.

 Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey. This was my very favorite book as a little girl. I wasn’t alone in that sentiment as this book has delighted children for a few generations now. It really is a must-have.

 Summer Story by Jill Barklem. You can expect a Brambly Hedge book in each of my seasonal Top 10 lists simply because they are so great at telling a lovely story, hilighting the season, and delighting the eyes with intricate, detailed artwork. I am sad that I don’t actually OWN any Jill Barklem titles yet. She’s one of those authors who rarely turns up in second-hand sales.

 Thundercake by Patricia Polacco. Now that my friend pointed out a troublesome title by Polacco I will refrain from singing her glories, but she still does have some great books that shouldn’t be missed. Polacco is famous for her pastoral scenes of Russian peasantry. This particular book has all the great suspense of a pending thunderstorm and dealing with the fear that accompanies it. A bonus for including the real recipe for cake too! (I’ve never tried it; it includes tomatoes and I just can’t wrap my brain around that.)

 The Raft by Jim LaMarche. Jim LaMarche is a superb illustrator. The story in this book isn’t exactly full of wonder and magic but I chose this title because it has some excellent points that I like to emphasize with my own children. Nicky is sent to spend the summer with his grandmother who lives on the river. He is a bored, probably spoiled child who thinks it’s going to be boring. His world is opened up to all the wildlife on the river and the concept of drawing. This book is an excellent one for introducing the idea of nature journaling to children. Probably better for the over 6 crowd.

*****So these next three titles WERE going to be included in a whole ‘nother post featuring narrative style books. What this means is that these titles don’t tell a story in the traditional sense but they are the author’s memories or just sort of meander through a moment or season without a particular apex. This doesn’t mean they are bad stories, but they are to be appreciated on a different level I think… and there are more where this came from.*****

 Roxaboxen by Alice McClerran. I love this book. I love the sentiments it evokes and the memories from my own childhood it conjures up. I love how superbly ‘dead-of-summer’ it is. I love the ode to free, unconstructed play and imagination. Summer in our house this year is regrettably FULL of plans and structured activities and events. I’ll be sure not to overschedule next year as I long for those long, free open days when children have to figure out what to do…

 Island Boy by Barbara Cooney. My dear friend gave us this book when we were living on Whidbey Island and it’s struck a chord in my heart ever since. There is something different about island life and I love the history in this particular book. That, and the fact that I adore anything that Barbara Cooney has ever been a part of, make this a winner.

 Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. I suppose this isn’t strictly summer since it spans several seasons but the climax does sort of hit with a hurricane. This book is a delight and McCloskey is one of my favorites for a good reason!

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.

~Wallace Stevens

For the Littles

When your family starts growing up, it’s very easy to adjust all the family read-alouds to the levels of the oldest. This is fine and good in some respects but I’ve noticed recently that the meaty, in-depth stories are getting far more readings around here than the simple ones suited for the 4 and under bracket. One way that I’ve remedied this in my own home is that when our family breaks for quiet time (we all split up into separate rooms and some of us nap, others read or play very quietly) I take 10 minutes or so with each of my youngest two children, my nearly 5 year old son and my 2 year old daughter. They each get individual attention to spend reading one or two of those “forgotten books” that were everyday fare here once upon a time. While my little ones are pretty good sports about listening to great myths or picture book biographies, they really do delight in those simple, simple stories that have their place in a child’s mind forever. I’ll share with you some of those titles in a bit but I first want to say a word about repetition.

I used to get annoyed when a child would say “Read it again!” or when they’d keep choosing the same volume every single day at reading time. I’d think “How boring! Let’s read something new for once!” Then I wised up a bit and read a bit and researched a bit and learned that repetition is so important for wee little brains. Children thrive on knowing a story. They love memorizing it and being able to tell you what happens next. I think it somehow reinforces their view of the world that life is secure and predictable… and the familiarity found in an old book is a great source of comfort to them… especially when coupled with a warm lap and loving voice.

Maybe I’m overanalyzing it, but that’s what a bibliozealot does with books.

As it is, every home with toddlers should have a rich collection of basic books that are known and loved and read often. I won’t bother to state that these are the BEST OF THE BEST (since there are many “bests” in this particular category). But I will give you an idea of some titles on our bookshelf (and we’ve a few hundred children’s books I think) that get repeated many, many times. I think I’ll eventually make a Top 10 Board Books post in which a couple of these will be repeated but for now I just wanted to offer 10 books that have been read cumulatively 100 times or more in our home:

 Curious George. I never really wanted to love this monkey but every one of my kids has and they never, ever tire of his adventures. I can recite to you how every story begins: “This is George. He is a good little monkey but always very curious…” I’m now convinced that no childhood would be complete without getting to know Curious George.
 Bear Snores On. This original by Karma Wilson is by far the best of the Bear books. Something about the cadence in the book is great fun for the children. This makes especially good Autumn reading.
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Again it’s all about the cadence here and children eat up the suspense of the hunt and the frantic voice of the reader once the bears are found. (It’s all in HOW a story is read, see…)
Dogs Don’t Wear Sneakers. This and Chimps Don’t Wear Glasses by Laura Numeroff are big hits here. Laura Numeroff is probably best known for her If You Give a Mouse a Cookiebooks (which we like but the sequels just kinda went downhill) but these books are even better in my opinion. Kids crack up over the silly, detailed illustrations and want to point out all the fun things in the story…
How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? Jane Yolen is one of those “gray area” authors I referenced before but this book is great (Sequels again, not so great in my opinion. This is mildly controversial to say but in the How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? book I bristled at the line “Doctor knows best.” And in the How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? I don’t like that good little dinos are supposed to eat everything on their plates and then ask for more. But I digress.) I always read this in a “Can you believe he would do that?!” voice and the children smile and giggle along.
Pat the Bunny. Now, to be fair, I was gifted with this book when I was in the hospital with my firstborn son and didn’t think much of it. And it was a gift-collector’s edition which according to the package included all the original activities and textures. (There have since been many interactive books published but most aren’t particularly notable. I’m especially annoyed with the Touch and Feel animal books that include 5 different animals with the same synthetic shag rug carpet material for each one.) I’m not sure that present editions contain the original activities… and some parents complain about the plastic comb binding. But this book was well loved in our home through three children before it finally bit the dust for good. It’s a pity my daughter has never seen it; she’d love it… must make a mental note to repurchase. It was the best “first book” I could offer the boys since it was interactive and just right for little wigglers who wouldn’t have otherwise wanted to sit still through a story.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? I think every parent knows this one… and for good reason. It achieves fame and greatness in its sheer simplicity. This is the first book my kids memorize and the first one my pre-readers “read” to their younger siblings. Plus, unlike so many books with sequels, the sequels to this are also good… just more of the same great illustrations and familiar rhyming.
Where the Wild Things Are. The book is a classic for a reason… and it has a longer lifespan than something like Brown Bear does too. My 2 year old loves this book and my almost 9 year old still loves it too… now that is money well spent.
 Caps for Sale. It just doesn’t get old. Those silly monkeys win the heart of every child to whom I’ve ever been privileged to read this.
Freight Train. This is one of those books that I’d never have known would be so popular with my children. Upon first glance there’s nothing particularly special about this book but something about the simple sharp colors and easy, almost haunting text makes it a winner.

You know, it’s funny the books that enchant children. You can plant all the books you love best in their lives and many will take, but there are some books that aren’t necessarily YOUR favorites that you must endure with a smile and willing heart because it is so loved to littles. And when you make a child smile with a great book, how can you possibly not love the story too?

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C.S. Lewis

Top 10 Best Alphabet Books

Seems like there’s an alphabet book on nearly every topic these days; some of them are great! Others are obscure or random or superfluous to the opus of children’s literature. But if you are determined enough, you’ll probably find an alphabet book on most topics of interest to a child. Alphabet books are emphatically NOT just useful for preschoolers, they can be clever conduits to information and creativity in a myriad of ways. Of the many, many alphabet books out there, these are Ellie’s opinion of the Top Ten, which had to be so sadly limited. {updated to link Part II of this list!}
 Animalia by Graeme Base is my first immediate choice. The Australian Graeme Base is one of those illustrators that must really adore art since he puts so much time and detail into his lavish pictures; each page is a feast for the eyes and in this particular book, no detail is too small as everything on every page begins with its corresponding letter. Each page offers a bit of a vocabulary lesson as well: “Proud peacocks preening perfect plumage.” This books could easily double as an I-Spy book, it’s as much of a delight for 2 year olds as it is for adults.

 A Farmer’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian. I love woodcuts and you should too. This particular woman does them beautifully. The book details very simple words from farm life and black ink woodcuts to pore over. She’s produced another book: A Gardener’s Alphabet in the same vein that is also fun to peruse… though much more colorful.

B is for Bethlehem by Isabel Wilner is another winner. It deserves a spot in the Top Ten not just for the nice, gentle rhyming… but mostly because of its illustrator– one I’ve highlighted before– Elisa Kleven. Amazon lists this book as discontinued I think, but other internet searches reveal that it is still in print; I was lucky enough to score a beautiful hardback for free on Bookmooch. Bonus points that it is available as a board book too. (Think gifting for children or godchildren.)

The Icky Bug Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta. My boys adored this book. There is so much to learn and love in the insect world and Jerry Pallotta is an excellent choice to bring insects up close for children in a fun, sometimes humorous way. I also wanted to make sure to include this author because he has a whole bunch of other topical alphabet books– everything from birds, flowers, deserts and airplanes.  Especially note his excellent Construction Alphabet Book… a little boy’s dream.

A is for Annabelle by the never disappointing Tasha Tudor. Doll lovers everywhere will swoon over this book and the exquisite and sweet illustrations that glorify the details and delights of dollies.

 Alphabet City by Stephen Johnson. This is a wordless book that cleverly shows urban landscapes highlighting each letter of the alphabet. Not only is the art extremely well done, but the concept itself inspires all sorts of scavenger hunt games in children. This will help them to see the world in a different way, to find letters in everyday things and to want to copycat this idea through photography or drawing from unusual perspectives.

 Museum ABC by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I might call this one a must-have, especially if you are lacking in art appreciation materials. This is a very clever, useful book that showcases each letter along with four famous paintings that show off the word. In the back is useful information about the paintings and artists in the book… an excellent way to squeeze some “culture” into a child’s life. There is also a Museum 123.

 Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. This book is being included because it truly is a great preschool book. Bright, chunky fruits and vegetables, in typical Lois Ehlert style, adorn each page. It obviously inspired my 2 year old as she has literally eaten our copy beyond repair.

 The Handmade Alphabet by Laura Rankin. An excellent introduction to the ASL alphabet, this book is so clever and beautiful; each page features a hand demonstrating the sign for the letter along with pictures of what’s represented (The X hand is shown through an X-Ray).
 The Butterfly Alphabet by Kjell Bloch Sandved. Now here is a truly innovative book, one to nourish butterfly lovers everywhere and to demonstrate just how ingenious God is in His natural designs of the universe. Each page shows a full picture photograph of a butterfly and the opposite page is an extreme close-up of the actual letter in the butterfly’s wing. Who knew?! Truly a beauty.

“The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones. “-John Wooden