Here is our (always growing!) list of favorite picture books:
- A House Is a House for Me – Mary Ann Hoberman. This book came highly recommended by my Constructivist professor in grad school. We immediately fell in love with the rhythm & rhymes of the book, and we enjoy reading it every time we pull it off the shelf. The book explores all kinds of homes, from traditional to more fanciful extensions of the concept: “Perhaps I have started far-fetching… Perhaps I am stretching things some… A mirror’s a house for reflections… A throat is a house for a hum… “, and, “If you get started in thinking, I think you will find it is true, The more that you think about houses for things, The more things are houses to you.” The prose is fun to read, and it’s equally fun to come up with your own rhymes that apply the concept in new ways.
- Animal Faces – Akira Satoh and Kyoko Toda. Gorillas looking unimpressed? Check. Orangutans looking mischievous? Check. Otters looking inquisitive? Check. In “Animal Faces” Akira Satoh and Kyoko Toda have assembled an
impressive collection of photos showing animal faces that convey a much wider variety of emotions than we could have possibly imagined. The text is limited in this wonderful book; the magic is in all the photographs. Over the years since we discovered this book, we have all enjoyed looking over the many pictures and trying to imagine what is going through each animal’s head. We think you will enjoy it too.
- Annie and the Wild Animals – Jan Brett. Anyone who has read one of Jan Brett’s books will be familiar with her rich, colorful, and detailed illustrations. Annie and the Wild Animals is no exception. The book tells the story of a young girl trying desperately to find a pet to replace her lost cat Taffy, who has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. A closer look at the illustrations in the margins of each page will reveal foreshadowing about which wild animals will show up next, and eventually a solution to the mystery of where Taffy has been. It is one of the most well-loved and well-worn books on our shelves.
- Beautiful Oops – Barney Saltzberg. This little pop-up book may not be a story book per se, but it is a favorite around here and is perfect for the little perfectionist in your family! It’s both a lesson in the beauty of mistakes, and an invitation to creativity: bent corners in books become alligator mouths, stains from your hot chocolate create the outline for a hungry frog, and holes in your paper become a telescope to view the world in an entirely new way. You are sure to love interacting with this book.
- Big Red Barn – Margaret Wise Brown. This is a charming picture book with rhyming verse about what the farm animals do with their time when the people are away for the day: “There was a big pile of hay, and a little pile of hay, and that is where the children play. But in this story the children are away. Only the animals are here today…” We read our board-book copy of this story so many times, we wore it out. It’s fun to read, and ought to be pretty easy to find – if you don’t have it already.
- Blueberries for Sal – Robert McCloskey. Little Sal goes to pick blueberries with her mother on a hillside in Maine. More intent on eating blueberries than collecting them for canning, Sal quickly falls behind and ends up following a mother bear instead of her own mother. Meanwhile, the mother bear’s cub has gotten lost himself, and has started following Sal’s mother. Sal’s mother realizes the mixup after baby bear helps himself to a second “tremendous mouthful” of berries from her bucket. We love this story about bears and people “…all mixed up with each other among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill.” We particularly love the charming monochrome illustrations, and the “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk” onomatopoeia of the blueberries dropping in Sal’s bucket. There are a lot of supplementary lapbook activities for this book online with which you can extend the pleasures of the story.
- Cactus Hotel – Brenda Z. Guiberson. This story about the 200 year life cycle of a Saguaro cactus is an entertaining way to learn about symbiotic relationships between plant and animal. The colorful life story of the cactus provides a compelling framework into which the author loads a surprising number of facts about life in the Sonoran Desert. It was purchased on a whim at a Phoenix SkyHarbor airport gift shop and quickly became a regular in our storybook “rotation”.
- Degas and the Little Dancer (and the rest of the Anholt Artists Series) – Laurence Anholt. In his books, Anholt tells stories around great artists and some of their most famous works – personalizing the art and making it accessible to children. Each story centers on a child and his or her interaction with an artist. We are particularly fond of the Degas story because shortly after reading it we had the opportunity to see the Little Dancer sculpture itself at The Museum of Fine Arts here in town. These are fun and engaging stories that can also serve as an introduction to art appreciation – with a little bit of history thrown in. Other books in this series include:
- Everywhere Babies – Susan Meyers. We adore this book for the rhythmic, rhyming prose and the illustrations of families loving and caring for their babies. On every page there are so many carefully drawn, entertaining vignettes that we continue to find something new happening every time we read this book (yes, still!). It may sound hokey, but what a beautiful world we would live in if every child were treated with the adoration and care seen in this book.
- Flicka, Ricka, Dicka (series) – Maj Lindman. We
discovered these picture books at one of our favorite toy
stores. They are a series of tales about Swedish triplets and their adventures together. They have a vintage feel – both in the illustrations and the subject matter – are filled with color, and tell stories about kids being kids. They also paint a much more pleasant picture of Sweden than you will find from Henning Mankel or Stieg Larsson.
- Frog & Toad (series) – Arnold Lobel. These books were favorites long before we introduced them to our girls. We love how the two friends take so much pleasure from the simple things in life and from just spending time together. We do wonder sometimes if Toad isn’t suffering from SAD – a fact which may have helped these stories to resonate with us – but Frog always manages to pull Toad out of whatever morass he has fallen into. We think that these stories of Frog and Toad’s friendship will bring a smile to your face as they illustrate in words and pictures just what it means to be a friend. The Frog and Toad story “Christmas Eve” (from “Frog and Toad All Year”), and the song “Merry Almost Christmas” (from the Frog and Toad musical) are both seasonal favorites as well.
- Harry the Dirty Dog (and the Harry Collection) – Gene Zion.Originally published in 1956, Harry the Dirty Dog is about the adventures of a family dog who hides the scrubbing brush and then runs away in order to avoid being given a bath. On his adventure, Harry takes part in a series of increasingly dirty activities, and eventually gets so dirty that he turns from a white dog with black spots into a black dog with white spots. Tired and hungry, Harry decides to return home – but he is so dirty his family doesn’t recognize him! Harry tries all of his old tricks – flip-flopping, flop-flipping, rolling over, playing dead – but his family still doesn’t realize it’s their lost dog Harry. In the end, it’s a brand new “trick” that saves the day for Harry. Dejected and seemingly resigned to his fate, Harry has an epiphany, digs up the scrubbing brush from its hiding place, and asks for a bath! I guess old dogs can learn new tricks. Aided by the magic of a soapy bath (“It’s Harry! It’s Harry! It’s Harry!”) our canine hero is back home with the family who loves him. However, we’re not sure what lesson Harry has learned as he snuggles in to his bed and dreams of how much fun he had getting dirty. We have enjoyed discussing the ending with our kids, and you may with your kids as well: “why do YOU think the scrubbing brush was hidden under his bed?”
- Hurricane – David Wiesner. This book is a must-have if you live in an area where hurricanes are a threat, as we do. Our oldest was around 2 years old when we discovered this book, and just weeks later our city was hit by a major hurricane. We were so thankful to have the book on hand, not only because it talks about the roaring sounds of the storm, but also because it is beautiful and imaginative. The book finds fun in the aftermath of the hurricane, as the boys in the book have many grand adventures that center around the massive tree that fell in their yard during the storm. The watercolor illustrations earned this book a Caldecott honor.
- Lentil – Robert McCloskey. Lentil is a boy who can’t sing – or even whistle (a key plot point), but he wants so badly to make music that he teaches himself to play the harmonica. He decides to become an expert by practicing anywhere and everywhere, but especially in the bathtub, “because there the tone was improved one hundred per cent.” This is a fun book with the old-timey feel of the typical American town circa 1940. We must admit to not loving the town’s worship of the local hero (Colonel Carter); we actually empathize with the book’s villain, Old Sneep. It doesn’t matter much, however, because in this story, Lentil is the hero.
- Lost in the Woods – Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoik. This photographic adventure tells the story of a little fawn who is not so much “lost” in the woods as he is waiting quietly in the woods for his mother to return. As he waits and observes the world around him, he shies from danger and talks to the curious forest animals, reassuring them the he is not lost, and that his mother “…will come. She said she would.” We love this story in part because it reminds us of our local arboretum, which is where we originally purchased the book – but mostly because: deer!
- Make Way for Ducklings – Robert McCloskey. Another classic by Robert McCloskey. What can we say – we love his artwork and the old-time feel of his books. Make Way for Ducklings tells the story of the Mallard family and their quest to find the perfect place to raise their ducklings. Their search takes them to downtown Boston – where Mrs. Mallard must lead her ducklings on a perilous trip across busy city streets from the Charles River to a tranquil island in the middle of the city park. While some (including us) may question Mr. Mallard’s dedication to his family when he inexplicably departs for a trip up the river part way through the book, Mrs. Mallard’s dedication to her children is clear. She makes her way through Boston, undaunted, with the help of some friendly policeman and arrives safely to enjoy their dream home. It’s another fun trip back in time – plus…ducklings!
- May I Pet Your Dog – Stephanie Calmenson. This is a great book about petting other people’s dogs – a very useful tome to have in your collection if you have children that want to maul every random dog they meet at the park (translation: useful for anyone who has kids). It’s actually also helpful for children who are scared of dogs. In the book, a friendly dog advises a little boy about how to approach different kinds of dogs after first asking their owners for permission. I can’t count how many times both of our girls wanted to read and re-read this story.
- Michael & the Cats – Barbara Abercrombie. Filled with beautiful illustrations, this book teaches about looking at things from someone else’s perspective and about treating animals with kindness. Michael visits his Aunt and Uncle’s house and tries to make friends with their cats by doing the things that would make him happy (grabbing them, offering them ice cream, dressing them, or bringing them into the bathroom while he takes his bath). His approach is unsuccessful, alienating the cats and drawing a flurry of “no’s” from the adults in the house who must keep correcting him. Eventually, Michael learns to watch the cats in order to better understand their perspective, and that is how he learns to make friends with them. In the end, Michael is rewarded by the warm, soft, friendly purring of the cats who all curl up next to him in bed one night.
- One Morning in Maine – Robert McCloskey. One Morning in Maine, Sal awakes to discover something new and shocking: she has a loose tooth! Initially scandalized, Sal quickly learns that this development simply means she is becoming a “big girl”. McCloskey does an amazing job of capturing the inner workings of a young girl’s mind as Sal wonders which of the animals around her lose their teeth when they grow up and worries that her secret wish won’t come true when she loses her tooth in the mud. This story is an all-time favorite, one that we have not grown tired of reading aloud even after 10+ years. The illustrations are rich with detail, emotion, and beauty. Even if the story doesn’t grab you, the pictures will make you long for your own lake house in rural Maine.
- Oscar Cat-About-Town (and all the Herriot animal stories for children) – James Herriot. Whether you are familiar with James Herriot’s stories of life as a Yorkshire veterinarian from one of his many books (“All Creatures Great and Small”, etc.) or through the Masterpiece Theater adaptations, or even if you have never heard of him, we think you will love his children’s stories. One of our very favorite Herriot stories on a long list of favorites by this author, Oscar is a story about a precocious, ostensibly stray tabby cat who is briefly adopted by James and his wife. The couple at first think they have found a new pet, but it may be closer to the truth that Oscar – a very social little cat – has actually found himself a new pet in James and his wife. We have read this book out loud no fewer than 100 times over the past month alone. As with Herriot’s other children’s books, the illustrations are warm and colorful, and the story will put a smile on your face. Other favorites by Herriot include:
- The Empty Pot – Demi. A beautifully illustrated Chinese fable about a little boy with a green thumb who is faced with a moral dilemma. His dedication and integrity shine through, proving him to be the best choice as a successor to the current emperor. It is a simple but powerful story in the vein of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and it sends a very positive message.
- The Little Rabbit (collection) – Phoebe Dunn. We found these books back when our oldest was a toddler. We were looking for reality-based books that we could read to her, and it can be hard to find fun stories that aren’t full of fantasy or anthropomorphism. This series, which includes stories about a pet pig, a lamb, a little kitten, and a raccoon, really fit the bill for us. Some of the photographs that illustrate the pages of these books may look dated, but the material was captivating for both of our girls. These books have real staying power, and have recently been re-released as “Step Into Reading” books. Other books in the series include:
- The Noisy Airplane Ride – Mike Downs. While not necessarily a literary masterpiece, this book made our list because of how useful it was to us in preparing our youngest for her first airplane ride (and in preparing for several subsequent plane rides, actually). It is especially handy for little ones who are sensitive to the sounds and sensations that come with air travel. The rhyming text removes the mystery (and the fear), explaining where all the various noises come from. We must have read this book about 20 times in a row on our first flight together, and have read it many times since.
- The Wingdingdilly (and the rest of the Bill Peet Collection) – Bill Peet. The Windingdilly is the story of Scamp, a loyal mutt with an inferiority complex. His desire to be something truly spectacular leads him down an unexpected path that ends with the realization that his owner, Orvie Jarvis, already thinks he is the most spectacular animal in the world. In truth, we could have picked any one of a myriad of Bill Peet books for this spot on the list, but “Wingdingdilly” wins in large part because it’s so fun to say – and so much fun to read aloud. Bill Peet, who was a writer and artist for Disney in his earlier life, has a collection of books that are full of fabulous and entertaining artwork, amusing characters, and engaging stories. His rhyming books tend to go more quickly (if you are tired or are short on time), while books like The Wingdingdilly, which doesn’t rhyme, tend to be a bit longer but are just as entertaining. We have gone a little crazy with all the Peet books we have in our collection, and won’t bother trying to list them all here – just look for Bill Peet, and you won’t go wrong.
- This is My Home, This is My School – Jonathan Bean. In “This is my Home, This is my School”, Jonathan Bean celebrates, in vibrant and charmingly messy watercolors, a day in the life of a homeschooler. We love the illustrations in this book and how messy, and consequently true-to-life they feel. Most of the story is told in pictures, and words are used economically, so it is extremely entertaining to look at and easy to read aloud (which is nice if you have children who like to read to younger siblings). Watching a candid and captivating online live experience with Mr. Bean at Read-Aloud-Revival, we learned that on the page where everybody is lining up for school a cicada escapes from its jar and, if you look closely, you can find the cicada in every image on the ensuing pages. This is just one example of the kind of detail and story-telling Mr. Bean weaves into his illustrations. This book was an instant favorite in large part because we too are homeschoolers, and Jonathan Bean does a wonderful job of capturing the joy and chaos of homeschooling on every page. We were thrilled to finally find a book that talks about our style of living and schooling in such a colorful, realistic, and happy manner. We hope you enjoy reading and looking at this book as much as we have.
- Tikki Tikki Tembo – Arlene Mosel. Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo is the name of Chang’s older and most honored brother, and means “the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world”. In the story, Tikki tikki tembo nearly drowns in a well because it takes his brother so long to say his name when he tries to enlist the assistance of the old man with the ladder. This classic fable is tons of fun to read aloud, as Chang is forced to say his brother’s comically long name over and over again in his search for help.