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For this first retrospective, since we have so many books to cover (around 60!), I don’t want to limit myself to just three. Instead, I’m giving you six spotlighted books, and we’ll lay out the others I’ve covered here so far in a nice, easy-to-skim format. Believe me, oh my best beloveds, it was hard to narrow it down even to six. How can I overlook brilliant classics like Outside Over There? Or leave out Canadian classics like The Balloon Tree? Or omit all board books– what about Here Babies, There Babies? (Uh, so yes, I just cheated. It’s my blog. I can cheat if I want.) But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s just a blog post, and all books are going to be sorted out nicely at the end here. But to make me feel better we can call these books “ones which popped out at me and hit me round the head even after quite a long time.” It makes me feel better because I hate choosing favourites between my sweet paper babies. (A Child’s Garden of Verses and Madlenka’s Dog.)
Now, let’s get to the best part of this: the books. When I look over the past 6o-ish books we’ve talked about so far and think about what stands out to me, there are two elements that smack me right between the eyes. Both of these come up repeatedly in my short list here: a) Either works by an author-illustrator, or by a combo of author and illustrator who are strikingly well-matched; b) The theme of a journey or travel, whether literal or figurative, which is navigated by ingenuity, perseverance, and inspiration.
These are obviously each very broad aspects of children’s literature, and I imagine they’ll continue to come up again and again. Anyway, I’ve included three books where the author is also the illustrator: The Marvels, The Fox and the Star, Swap!. They are each very different: One is a YA novel, one is an all-ages parable, and one is a humorous picture book for as young as you want to go. What does this actually tell us? Pretty big lessons, including that art and writing are two related means of communication, and there are few barriers that can’t be overcome by an excellent practitioner of either one. You can produce a striking masterpiece as innovative in its way as Tristram Shandy, or you can be a second William Morris producing a second News from Nowhere, or you can stand on the shoulders of Edward Lear’s brilliant nonsense (and probably bounce, because nonsense always bounces). And, in all of these schools, you can lay about you with pen and brush and explode everything done before. If you’re good enough. Brian Selznick, Coralie Bickford-Smith, and Steve Light are all good enough and to spare, and that’s why I chose them, and chose to spotlight author-illustrators.
All of them, of course, also talk about some kind of travel, some kind of journey through space or mind. A mission, perhaps we can call it. That makes sense: all books need to be propelled by a mission, a travel. Some of the best examples of that drive, that journey through the book we’ve encountered so far are: Swan, Instructions, and Fairyland. Whether the journey is completely personal (Swan), figurative (Instructions), or painstakingly realistic (Fairyland), all of these are about some form of journey. As I said, you have to have some kind of a journey from the first to last page of a book, but sometimes the journey is one you simply observe, and some journeys take you with them and return you a changed person. All of these fall in the latter group.
Here are our spotlights for the month:
Swan: This was my first post for a reason. It’s really just that good. It’s a biography, but it’s the biography that will teach children that the very best biographies will take you through someone else’s life and experience. Anna teaches you how she lived and why– and inspires you to persevere as strongly, dream big, and dance through the difficulties of life. Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad made a beautiful book, still one of the best I’ve seen since I started the blog.
The Fox and the Star: I still think this is one of the most beautiful books I own. It is also one of the most surprisingly accessible. I read it with my Changeling and she loves it, but– forgive me for bragging– she’s quite a smart toddler. And yet, so far, despite reading it with everyone I can lay my hands on, I haven’t seen it fail to enchant every single reader I meet. Beautiful and wise, by the lovely Coralie Bickford-Smith, this is truly a special book.
Instructions: Talk about a dream team of author and illustrator (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess are at their best). This book lets you dream, and dream about stories. I don’t know how else to put it: it’s a book which will take you with it, and then, when you come back, you’ll take it with you all your life and be glad of it. It will change how you see stories, and, frankly, I just think a generation of children who grew up reading this will make the world a better place. Read it with your children, and, on a rainy day, curl up with some tea and read it yourself.
The Marvels: This book is the perfect synthesis of the two elements I mentioned above. There’s the author-illustrator brilliance at work with Brian Selznick’s glorious pencils wreaking wonderful havoc with your expectations as you look and read, and then there’s the literal and figurative journeys throughout the book: sea travel, theatre as an analogue to the sea, and the characters’ own journeys as compared to both. This is a lush and beautiful book to hold in your hands, and it’s just as lush an emotional experience to live through reading. It will break your heart, but it will also heal it, and you will be glad of it.
Fairyland: This is the only series I’ve written about, and I still feel I hardly began to touch on its true brilliance. If you’ve ever felt that it was horribly unfair for all those authors to obliterate the magic at the end of their books and/or make the kids go home (C. S. Lewis, I’m looking at you), then these are for you. Cat Valente takes you on a journey and is as anxious to get back to Fairyland as you are. She doesn’t hide the longing or pass it off with some tired moral about how the real world is just as magical– she knows that, and she knows you know it, too. We still want and need Fairyland, and she takes us there. And what we find there surprises us: I found myself there. Maybe you will, too.
Swap!: I love a good laugh, and a good think, and this book provides both. Once again, we see the best of author-illustrator work here. We also see gleeful whimsy, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s sometimes just what you need. Going from nearly-nothing to something wonderful is a journey in itself in this book, and you just know it’s going to launch into a fantastic adventure as soon as the ship has sailed off of the last page. I encourage you to stow away and sail with it.
So, that’s it for my “short” list of recommendations for the first of these retrospectives. As I said above, future months will be shorter since I won’t be catching up from over three months’ reviews! The last thing here is my list of all other reviews to date, which, again, is longer than it will be in future:
- Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds (picture book, toddler and up)
- Madlenka’s Dog (picture book, a good story to it)
- The Queen’s Hat (picture book, toddler and up)
- Moominland Midwinter (novel, illustrated)
- A Child’s Garden of Verses (poems)
- A Bird Is a Bird (picture book, nonfiction, toddler and up)
- Here Babies, There Babies (baby board book, good for once they can sit up and chew on it!)
- Itsy Bitsy Spider (pop-up picture book, good for once they can sing it)
- The Tea Party in the Woods (picture book, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
- Jamberry (poem, make sure you bounce to it, dance to it)
- Extra Yarn (picture book, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
- The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs (picture book, toddler and up)
- Little Red Riding Hood (picture storybook, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
- The Baby in the Hat (picture book, toddler and up)
- A Castle Full of Cats (picture book, a good story to it)
- I Have to Go! (picture book, toddler and up)
- The Princess and the Pony (picture book, toddler and up)
- Arctic Dreams (picture book, toddler and up)
- My First Winnie-the-Pooh (picture book, toddler and up)
- I Will Keep You Safe and Sound (picture book, toddler and up)
- The Little Bookroom (a collection of stories, pencil illustrations)
- Little Bear (early readers, beautifully illustrated)
- The Secret Garden (a novel, make sure to get the Tasha Tudor illustrated edition)
- Peter’s Chair (picture book, a good story to it)
- Feathers: Not Just for Flying (picture book, nonfiction, toddler and up)
- Giant: or Waiting for the Thursday Boat
- The Snowy Day (picture book, a good story to it)
- Esther’s Story (picture storybook, I loved it at age 8)
- How to Be a Dog (picture book, toddler and up)
- Red is Best (picture book, toddler and up)
- In the Night Kitchen (picture book, toddler and up)
- Ice Cream Summer (picture book, a good story to it)
- The Balloon Tree (picture book, a good story to it)
- Vincent’s Colors (picture book, toddler and up)
- Borrowed Black (picture book, a poem)
- Every Day Birds (picture book, toddler and up)
- Who Done It? (picture book, toddler and up)
- Quackers (picture book, toddler and up)
- Finding Winnie (picture book, a good story to it)
- The Nutcracker (picture storybook, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
- Bébé Balthazar (picture book, toddler and up)
- Leo: A Ghost Story (picture book, a good story to it)
- Grandma and the Pirates (picture book, a good story to it)
- Welcome to the Symphony (picture book, nonfiction, toddler and up)
- Violin: Making Music (picture book, nonfiction, older than toddler)
- Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed (picture book, a good story to it)
- The Gift (picture storybook, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
- The Story of the Orchestra (picture encyclopedia, older than toddler, nonfiction)
- A House Filled With Music (picture book, sort of fiction, sort of nonfiction, for older than toddlers)
- Outside Over There (its own thing entirely, but get it)
- The Farewell Symphony (picture storybook, probably aimed for older than toddlers)
And that’s it for this month! On Friday we’ll be back to reading new books.