My kid loves to read books. Perhaps ‘read’ is the not the right word, as he is not quite two and a half years old and as yet unable to really read. He knows some letters, though, and he has amassed quite a collection of children’s books already. I have tried, so far in vain, to get him to read to me, since I know he knows the stories in some of the books so well through repetition that he could tell me what’s going on with each page just by looking at the pictures. The physical and literary quality of these books varies of course. On the former point, some are more durable than others after repeated readings; “readings” here might include not just going through the story therein, but tossing the book across the room, or stepping on it, or bending the spine back until it breaks, or tearing, coloring, and otherwise defacing the pages, sometimes by accident and sometimes, well, not by accident. And why any children’s book ever comes with a dust jacket is beyond me. These immediately come off because otherwise they will be destroyed in less than 10 minutes. But it is fun to watch a child learn to handle a book as a physical object, and to get real joy and pleasure from turning the pages and understanding the connections between symbols, pictures, and narrative structure. This isn’t high literature here, and the stories are generally simple and usually with some kind of basic moral lesson (the value of sharing, the benefits of honesty, the comfort of friends and family) or practical skills (learning how to count and learning the ABCs most prominently) baked into them, though the skills-oriented books often lack narrative altogether and are just pictures to aid in remembering letters and numbers.
Now, we were doing a lot of reading together anyway but then there’s this whole pandemic so we are doing a lot more the last few weeks. I do not say this as some kind of humblebrag about how much little junior can read and how great a parent I am for forcing books on him. No daycare means me or my spouse must be with him pretty much all day every day since he’s not quite old enough to be left to his own devices. I don’t know if you, dear reader, know many two-year-olds, but they can be a handful. Reading a pile of children’s book is a good way to get him to sit (mostly) in one place for 20 or 30 minutes and focus, and I emphasize again that there is sitting involved. This has given both me and my kid the chance to develop some strong preferences, and sometimes these may even overlap. For his part, he has been way into the concept of “Old Macdonald’s Farm” for several months and I can see the appeal. The repetition of a simple structure and the thrill of making lots of animal noises makes it fun and easy to remember for a little kid. So any and all books with any farm imagery or themes are way up on his list, as all present to him as some variation of Old Macdonald’s Farm. These have become like nails on a chalkboard for me, and for the same reasons. But I endure a little moo moo here and baa baa there to keep the peace. My one big red line that we won’t cross is any and all Baby Shark material, in printed, toy, or musical form. No way, not now, not ever.
That said, I want to quickly highlight six books that we both enjoy, because of their narrative content and the art of the illustrations. These are not necessarily his absolute favorites, but he is prone to pluck these from a pile of books or request them by name, and I am very happy to read them for him when he does. So really I guess these are my favorites from among his children’s books, and I like them for various reasons, mostly because the writing is simple but not condescending; the drawings or art are beautifully done and intelligible to a child, and the story is indispensable without them; and because the larger lessons that may be gleaned from them are nuanced rather than some ham-fisted point about sharing or caring. It can be hard to tell what lesson a kid my son’s age might take from any one piece, as the world remains largely new and unknown, and he is still (like many of us, I might guess) still learning to understand himself and build his emotional intelligence. Some books really come at kids hard with the one big point (e.g., SHARING IS GOOD, ALWAYS SHARE) but they do it in ways that are either not compelling because the story is boring or convoluted, or so blatantly simplistic that the story appears (to me) as manipulative and lacking the space that might allow a young reader the chance to think through what is being said and done, and why, in the story. Here are six that do it right and are fun to read, even for a cranky middle-aged man like me.
The Fate of Fausto: A Painted Fable, by Oliver Jeffers (2019)
I just got this book for my kid recently after being really taken with it in the bookstore, back when you could still go in a bookstore and browse around, and he seems to really like it even though we haven’t read it many times yet. The illustrations are beautiful, simple in design but with a lot of depth in execution because of the painting technique, and the story itself moves along with basic easy-to-understand language while hitting some pretty complex philosophical points about greed and anger and love and control. Fausto, an angry little man in a suit who declares he owns all he surveys, from a flower to a mountain, finally meets his match in proclaiming his control of the sea. I mean, who can really own a mountain anyway? And it includes and apparently is inspired by a poem that Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Joseph Heller, and there is definitely nothing wrong with that.
This book has the potential to really go sideways with a very shrill environmental message but it never goes that direction and instead leaves you with the touching tale of an excavator, working alongside a bulldozer and a crane, who finds and cultivates a flower among the hustle and bustle of the urban landscape they’re building. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but the drawings are lovely, juxtaposing a built environment cast in tones of gray and black, but clearly lived in and necessary despite its destructive origins, with the regenerative power of nature. It does do one thing I don’t like in kids’ books, which is anthropomorphize vehicles and work equipment. I recognize that this is a very “adult with a PhD in the social sciences” kind of complaint, but really, just put people in those trucks! Anyway, it overcomes this by layering enough emotion into the relationship between the digger and the flower that you can really see a child wondering, where does the flower fit in the city, and why can’t you just build a city that has room for the flower? (This is also then the first step to LEGOs, and I am all in because I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play with my kid’s LEGO blocks, as soon as possible. Duplo is not cutting it for me so far.)
This is my favorite of Klassens’ children’s books. We had checked it out from the public library way back when, and our son really enjoyed it. So my wife just purchased a used copy online, and he literally shouted “WE GOT A TURTLE BOOK!” when presented with it, so that was quite fun. We Found a Hat is a suspenseful tale of friendship, betrayal, and the power of dreams. Actually, it’s two turtles who find a hat in the desert. They both look good in the hat, but with two turtles and only one hat, something has to give. I love the way the book’s illustrations move from day to night, the really simple dialog between the turtles, and the emotional register suggested by the turtles’ eyes and how the action on the page is framed in relation to this object, the hat. And in the end, it really is about friendship, but in a challenging way that lets you ask what is important for making a friendship work and for sharing some happiness and joy with your friend.
Since my spouse is from Germany, we also have a collection of German children’s books, and our son likes quite a few of these as well, though he generally gets his mother and not me to read these to him. My German is ok, better than his, and generally good enough to get through a book aimed at a toddler, but I can see that soon we’ll be into a phase where my reading in German is not going to be up to par. In any case, Hamster Dickbauch is certainly my favorite from among his German collection, both because it is clearly political and also because the illustrations are amazing. This one came to us through relatives in Germany, and was a popular book in the former East Germany, which also gifted the world with Unser Sandmännchen, a children’s television show that has aired several thousand episodes since debuting in 1959, and outlived the DDR. Hamster Dickbauch tells the story of a fat, comfortable little hamster who, like Fausto above, thinks he owns everything he sees, and lords his wealth over the other animals. But he gets what comes to all round little capitalists who sport a vest, though unlike Fausto it does not come from his own misunderstanding of the world he claims to control, but from a wild boar that expropriates his hoarded grain and redistributes it to the hungry oppressed. Comrade Boar embodies the collective power of the working class, or so I tell my kid. There is a lot going on in this otherwise simple story, and unlike so many other stories about sharing, this one resolves itself through the disadvantaged standing up for themselves rather than someone being mean realizing it’s just not good to be mean. And really the illustrations are just beautiful. We have a reprint from 2013, though the original was first published in the late 1950s or 1960s.
And now there are two classics that my son and I really like. The first is Maurice Sendak’s wonderful but dark Where the Wild Things Are, in which Max, decked out in his wolf suit, makes trouble and is sent to his room with no supper. But his room soon becomes “the world all around” and he ventures to the land of the wild things, where he is crowned king and leads them in a wild rumpus. Max tires of this after a while, as any rumpus must inevitably come to an end, and eventually leaves the wild things to return home “where someone loved him best of all” and finds his supper waiting. My son seems to identify both with Max and with the wild things (which he also thinks are dinosaurs, but that’s a different story), and if you know any toddlers, you also know they can be prone to rage, anger, and distress in ways that they don’t understand and can’t always express very well. Sendak plumbs these depths in ways that most kids’ books do not or cannot, and it’s interesting to watch my son work his way through the idea that you can be upset or make others upset, but that love and kindness will persist.
Finally, there is the Dr. Seuss tale of repeatedly asking someone to eat a weird food they don’t want to try until they give in and just try it and it turns out they like it. I don’t always love Dr. Seuss – the nonsense words bother me, television and film adaptations of his works are often awful, and I have never ever been a Cat in the Hat fan. But when it hits, it hits, and Green Eggs and Ham is a fun read because my kid thoroughly enjoys the rhyming repetition, and the suspense of whether dude is going to finally take up Sam-I-Am’s generous offer of green eggs and ham provides one of best resolutions in a children’s book that I know (at least among the ones we have in our house). And really, if you can get anyone to look at you the way Sam-I-Am looks at Guy-Am-I as he prepares to chow down on a soggy green breakfast while floating in the ocean, you hold onto them and don’t let go.
If any of my readers have their own favorite kids’ books I’d love to hear about them because we are always looking for more suggestions.