Nobody wants to talk about it, of course. We’re too polite. But there’s a growing crisis with picture books written for toddlers and pre-schoolers today. So it’s important for us to be frank.
The content in most of these picture books makes adults want to pluck out their eyeballs.
I’m not kidding.
These offending books either promote terrible behavior for young children or they are so poorly written they can barely withstanding a single reading.
The problem has become critical in my house. I’ve fallen on desperate measures to keep my sanity. As a result, I’m now hiding some of my 4-year-old daughter’s books.
Did daddy accidentally just kick “Oh Say Can You Say What’s the Weather Today” under the bed? Oh, my, it appears that “Kiss Good Night, Sam” has been shoved into a dark, dank corner of the closet (where hopefully mold will begin to rot the pages – Die, Sam, die!).
The alternative is worse. If I read one more of these damnable books I’ll be transformed into a drooling madman that’s libel to run naked through the streets of my neighborhood with a pair of scissors.
Some picture books simply need to be avoided, at all costs. For example, the Olivia series by Ian Falconer are abhorrent. Want to plant the seeds of discontent and misbehavior in your impressionable youngster? Then read these evil, little tomes. They are basically blueprints for making your kids talk back and whine.
Why put yourself through the challenge of correcting bad behavior that is showcased by Olivia the Pig? She’s brat – and acts it. Olivia should be dipped in honey, baked for about an hour with an apple shoved into her screeching maw, and served with a fruity white wine.
Children – especially young ones – want their book read over and over and over and over again. There are few books that can withstand this heavy usage without driving an adult completely bonkers.
But there are, thankfully, books out there that will delight your children and are actually fun for parents to read – even if you’ll be forced to read them dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. Here are a few of our recommendations:
Duck in the Truck
By Jez Alborough
Jez Alborough is the crown prince of delighting young children. I can’t say enough good things about this storyteller and illustrator other than he’s fantastic. You generally can’t go wrong with any of his picture books, but I happen to have a great love for “Duck in the Truck” – a hidden gem. It’s a rollicking adventure about a duck that gets his pick-up truck stuck in the muck. He gets help from Frog, Sheep and Goat to get it unstuck.
The book is so well written that I still enjoy reading it out loud. It never gets boring because the language is so magical. But even better than the verse are the illustrations. Bold! Colorful! The pictures seem to move like a cartoon and there are new discoveries every time you read it.
By Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
It’s a classic for a reason. Once again the language drives this picture book from simply good to great. “Goodnight Moon” was first published more than 60 years ago, but the text remains timeless. Margaret Wise Brown captivates through the use of a free verse poem about a bunny rabbit getting ready for bedtime. The story has the bunny saying good night to all of items in his room in a way that is comforting for a young child. The accompanying illustrations by Clement Hurd are a mix of black-and-white pencil drawings and bold and colorful paintings.
Brown is another children’s writer who should grace the libraries of most nurseries. She is a terrific writer with a strong body of work. I also recommend “Big Red Barn” and “The Runaway Bunny” (also illustrated by Clement Hurd).
A Good Day
By Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes is probably best known for his character Lilly, a precocious mouse that is a much better role model than the obnoxious pig that is Olivia. However, I prefer Henkes’ other projects with “A Good Day” being among his finest.
“A Good Day” has such a positive message – how to turn bad situations in good ones. It reminds me of the saying the teachers use at my daughter’s pre-school: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” The story is about different animals facing trying dilemmas and how each of them turns a negative into a positive. The pastel water colors are beautiful and full of energy and happiness. Another one of Henkes’ books worth buying is “Kitten’s First Full Moon.”
In the Night Kitchen
By Maurice Sendak
If your children can handle some full frontal nudity from a small mischievous boy then there’s nothing but wonder and magic in this fairy tale by Maurice Sendak. The story revolves around Mickey and his vivid dream of traveling to the night kitchen to help the bakers bake cake for breakfast.
Sendak is a master of the surreal and “In the Night Kitchen” is a romp through imagination. It’s a story with several layers and the action seems to change each time you read it. The illustrations are top-notch, but it is the free verse poetry that makes this book timeless. Also recommended are Sendak’s “Little Bear” series and his other classic “Where the Wild Things Are” (although this one may not be suitable for younger or more immature youngsters because of the scary monster inside).
Off We Go
By Jane Yolen and Laurel Molk
Any children’s book that gets you to read out loud phrases like: “Hip-hop, hippity hop” and “Slither-slee, slithery slee” is going to be a blast to read. The concept of the book is that various little animals (mouse, frog, mole, snake, spider, and duck) are all traveling to visit their grandmothers. The illustrations are action packed and fun to look at – with frogs practically hopping off the pages and moles digging furiously through the ground.
Jane Yolen is another author to keep an eye on. She has a series of books with Mark Teague about Dinosaurs that teach children manners and go by names like “How Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends” and “How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight” that are worthy of any collection of children’s books.
The Very Lonely Firefly
By Eric Carle
Eric Carle is a child’s best friend. He creates visually stunning works of art that children naturally gravitate toward. One of his best works is “The Very Lonely Firefly,” which is about a baby firefly that tries to find his family – in a very confusing night world filled with candles, lanterns, flashlights and even fireworks. Carle is famous for his multi-media drawings and he’s at the top of his game here.
Other books by Carle to look for are “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “The Very Quiet Cricket.”
By Mark Teague
Mark Teague creates lush, beautiful illustrations and one of his best efforts is “Pigsty.” It’s hard not to love the protagonist, Wendell Fultz, who is ordered to clean his pigsty of a room by his mother. Wendell’s imagination gets away from him and soon his room becomes a home away from home for a gang of pigs who make the room an even bigger disaster. Wendell realizes that he’ll finally have to clean it before he loses all of his things.
But the real joy is Teague’s acrylic paintings that accompany the story. The colors are bright and the drawings bring children inside the over active imagination of Wendell. Teague has an excellent body of work and another gem is “The Field Beyond the Outfield.”
By Sandra Boynton
Sandra Boynton can be hit or miss, so be careful. She’s become an institution for pre-school board books, but on occasion you get the feeling that the pressure of creating more and more books has cut into her creativity. So avoid fare like “Belly Button Book” or “Hey! Wake Up!” and focus on her better material like “Barnyard Dance” (and the delightful “Pajama Time!”)
Boynton specializes is friendly cartoon animals with big eyes and big hearts. Her pigs, dogs, cows, and hippos are great fun for little kids. “Barnyard Dance” has a cow playing on a fiddle as the rest of the farm animals square dance around the barn. It’s great fun and filled with energy and urgency that kids respond to.
Read how Robert Cormier radicalized Teen Literature here
Read about the Magical World of Margaret Wise Brown here
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Children's television is an issue too. I absolutely despise Caillou on PBS. My husband likes to say the kid is a "little bi***," and he is.
I agree. How many ads are there where the father is a buffoon and the mother is a sexpot? And why do we let ourselves be represented that way. And thanks for the great links.
Thanks. Maurice Sendak is a breath of fresh air!