Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Pencil


By Allan Ahlberg, Illustrated by Bruce Ingman

Candlewick Press, 2008

Once there was a pencil, a lonely little pencil, and nothing else. It lay there, which was nowhere in particular, for a long, long time. Then one day that little pencil made a move, shivered slightly, quivered somewhat…and began to draw.

Creating a world is tricky business, as the titular pencil of this book soon learns. The more freedom you give people — or things — the more they demand. A lonely pencil draws a boy to keep him company, but the boy immediately wants a name…and a dog. The dog wants a cat, the cat wants a mouse, and so the comical story unspools. Instead of appreciating their existence, the drawings demand the pencil improve them. (“This hat looks silly,” said Mrs. “My ears are too big,” said Mr. “I shouldn’t be smoking a pipe,” said a grandpa. “Get rid of these ridiculous sneakers!” yelled Elsie.) In an effort to appease everyone, the pencil creates an eraser.  But that eraser has a mind of its own…This book is a first-rate example of “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

It Was You, Blue Kangaroo!


By Emma Chichester Clark

Dell Dragonfly Books, 2001

Blue Kangaroo belonged to Lily. He was her very own kangaroo. Sometimes, when Lily was very naughty, she would say, “It was you, Blue Kangaroo!” And Blue Kangaroo would look at Lily but say nothing.

Emma Chichester Clark can do no wrong in my book. (I know it seems like all I do is gush, but that’s sort of the purpose of this blog. If I were to review every children’s book I read to my kids, there would be a heck of a lot more complaining going down.) Lily is a little girl with a big hair bow who, like all little girls with big hair bows, is equal parts tender sweetness and impish troublemaker. In this book from the consistently lovely Blue Kangaroo series, Lily attempts to blame her parentally-frowned-upon activities (dressing a reluctant cat, throwing all her clothes out the window, etc.) on her  beloved Blue Kangaroo. Lily’s mother, of course, knows better and what follows is a wonderful tale of loyalty and forgiveness. As usual, Chichester Clark’s bright, colorful illustrations manage to be fuzzily warm and slapsticky funny.

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Books for Car-Loving Kids

For the very young who already exhibit a fascination for things that move, these three board books are excellent choices. Both my son and daughter devoured them (literally — corners of each of their copies have been gnawed away), and I’ve gifted them countless times to friends’ kids.



Fire Truck

By Peter Sis, HarperCollins, 1998

Once there was a little boy named Matt who loved fire trucks. His first words in the morning were “fire truck.” The last thing he said before he went to bed was “fire truck.”  And one day, when he woke up, he was…a fire truck.

Peter Sis’s work, even here at its simplest, actually gives me goose bumps. He is just. That. Good. And so respectful of how children’s minds and hearts require a different sustenance than adults. This story pays tribute to a child’s powerful imagination and the very basic line drawings  — strategically splashed with fire-engine red — enchant.




B y Byron Barton,  HarperCollins, 1986

On the road, here come the trucks. They come through tunnels. They go over the bridge.

I basically gave away a third of the text above. This book is winningly uncomplicated. Basically, trucks deliver bread,  load up with garbage,  bring the newspapers, and so on. But the colorful illustrations pop off the page, and the people  are a cross between Lois Lenski’s Papa Small and Fisher-Price’s old-school Little People.  



Sheep in a Jeep

By Nancy Shaw, Illustrated by Margot Apple, Houghton Mifflin, 1986

Beep! Beep! Sheep in a jeep on a hill that’s steep. Uh-oh! The jeep won’t go. 

I was so taken with this book when someone gave it to my son that I promptly sought out all the other “Sheep” books at the library — “Sheep in a Shop,” “Sheep on a Ship,”something about sheep at Halloween, etc. Sadly, none of them came close to matching the easy charm of this one, the first and by far the best of the series. The gist: Five adorable sheep are out for a ride in their jeep, and are not only terrible drivers, but easily distracted. The rhyming is spot-on — fun to read aloud and listen to — and the illustrations, particularly the ever-changing expressions on the sheeps’ faces, never get old.

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By Anthony Browne

Alfred A. Knopf, 1986


Mr. Piggott lived with his two sons, Simon and Patrick, in a nice house with a nice garden, and a nice car in the nice garage. Inside the house was his wife.

My mother, a school teacher for thirty-odd years, recently found this book in her vast collection and presented it to me. “You’ll like this,” she said. And I do — especially after a particularly long day where I have felt like a combination of referee/hostage negotiator/butler/waitress/washerwoman.  Although written by a man, Piggybook is decidedly feminist. Mrs. Piggott is so taken advantage of by her greedy, sloppy family that one day, she leaves. In her absence, her two sons and husband turn into grumpy pigs, and their house a filthy sty. Of course, Mrs. Piggott does indeed return home and accept their groveling apologies and promises that things will be different. And things are. What I find so impressive is how Browne’s narrative is deepened by the illustrations; not until the very happy conclusion of this book does Mrs. Piggott have facial features.

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Bridget and the Gray Wolves


By Pija Lindenbaum, Translated by Kjersti Board

Raben and Sjogren, 2001

“Do you know the way to day care? Mommy is supposed to pick me up at four.”
“No, we don’t,” the wolves reply. “Then I’ll stay here until they find me,” says Bridget. “Do you want me to play with you?” “We don’t play,” the gray wolves say. “We lurk behind trees and snarl.”

What an utterly odd and charming book. (Again, you can’t go wrong with Swedish children’s books.) Bridget is an extremely careful child who never climbs on roofs or pets dogs. (They might have splinters in their paws, or headaches, or just be grouchy and bite hard.) But when she gets lost in the woods one day and finds herself face to face with a pack of mangy gray wolves, she suddenly takes charge — directing them in games, feeding them mud soup, and even putting them to bed and singing them beautiful, sad songs.  It’s a wonderful reminder to kids that just because you’re sometimes fearful doesn’t mean that you can’t also be brave.

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The Tiger Has a Toothache


By Patricia Lauber, Illustrated by Mary Morgan

National Geographic Society, 1999

George is unhappy. He has lost his pep. He is cross. And he hasn’t eaten. Upset stomach? the zookeeper wonders. Or perhaps George has sore gums or a bad tooth. The keeper thinks George needs a doctor.

In simple language that never condescends, this book offers an inside look at how zookeepers (and zoo veterinarians) treat their furry, feathered, scaly or slimy wards. A frog is placed in a mixture of anesthesia and water so he’ll go to sleep and a vet can remove a stone from his stomach. A gorilla with a cold gets cough medicine. When his mother rejects him, a baby bat is brought to the hospital nursery and looked after, and so on. The book ends with tips on being a good visitor at a zoo. It’s common sense information — “A good visitor never teases the animals or throws coins into ponds or pools” — but bears repeating. (Based on what I’ve seen, to adults, as well as their children.)

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The Baker’s Dozen


By Dan Andreasen

Henry Holt, 2007

The baker takes great care to make one cream eclair. In the oven he bakes two German chocolate cakes…

I had to smuggle this book out of my daughters’ bed to scan the cover you see above. An aspiring pastry chef (for now, at least), she’s been sleeping with this book every night since we found it at the library. It’s a short — and very sweet — counting book. (Pun intentional.) The jolliest baker you’ve ever seen spends his morning creating delectable treat after treat. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy their job so much. It’s something to aspire to.  The rhyming text is quietly efficient (kudos to Andreasen for finding something appropriate  to rhyme with “strudel”) but it’s the magical illustrations — which have a nostalgia about them — which elevate this book to “required reading” status.

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By Liesel Moak Skorpen, Pictures by Martha Alexander

Harper & Row, 1971

When Charles felt like quiet times, the girl blew her horn and beat her drum or brushed him with a bristly brush singing loud songs that he didn’t like. When Charles felt like doing things, she said he was sick and put him to bed. She poked a thermometer in his eye and dribbled sugar water down his chin.

Books are all the much better when they’re inscribed. I always appreciate opening this tiny book, a Christmas gift for me when I was five, and and seeing “with love” so carefully penned in my grandparents’ handwriting.  Charles is the story of a toy bear who wants to “belong to someone.” That someone is, at first, a spoiled, insensitive girl. Luckily, she trades Charles to a kind-hearted boy whose mother knits matching blue sweaters for them. No one can draw angry girls better than Martha Alexander and this book is largely responsible for my deep-seated suspicion? Belief? that stuffed animals and dolls most certainly have feelings, too.

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The Two Cars


By Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

New York Review Books, 1955

The two cars came to a nice, flat stretch of road. They both drove along smoothly, not faster than allowed, but not slower either. Their motors liked the cool night air and purred like kittens.

I wish I could remember where I found this book. It was somewhere random, like a book store in D.C.’s Union Station. It was wrapped tightly in plastic, so I couldn’t leaf through the pages, but I was so charmed by the drawing on the cover (not to mention the quality of the binding), that I bought it, stuck it in my office closet, and gave it to my son for whatever big gift-giving holiday came up next. Neither he nor I was disappointed. It’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” but with cars. One is fast, shiny, and boastful. The other is an old jalopy, scratched up a little, but reliable and safe. On a magic moonlit night, the doors of their garage swing open and they head out to see who is “the best car on the road.” The d’Aulaires were a renowned husband-wife team known for their illustrated versions of Norse and Greek myths. The drawings within — some black and white, some color — remind me of New Yorker cartoons, but with sentiment and an accessible sagacity, and the writing is nothing less than dreamy.

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Night Shift


By Jessie Hartland

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2007

Late at night when the owls are out and the raccoons are diving into trash cans, and you are finishing up the last bit of chocolate pudding and then brushing your teeth and wishing you didn’t have to go to bed just yet, there are people out there awake doing all sorts of interesting things…

This book is the closest my kids are going to get to pulling an all-nighter — for several years, at least. Author-illustrator Jessie Hartland (who used to design window displays for Barneys) introduces you to the magical people who work while the rest of us sleep. There’s the street sweeper, the zookeeper, the bridge painters, and a host of nocturnal others. Hartland’s paintings are punchy and fun. (The donut maker makes broccoli nut donuts, and the radio DJ looks like a cross between Eric Bogosian and Howard Stern.) The last page is lovely: as the sun rises, all the workers of the book — and one ocelot — gather at a clean, well-lighted place to share coffee.  

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