I'm Emily Reynolds.
Because, the state’s motto is, after all: “Maine, the way life should be.” (“Except from muddy March to bare, brown May,” said every Mainer ever! Wink, wink!)
1) If I Built a School, by Chris Van Dusen
The third clever installment in the If I Built a House /If I Built a Car series. As buying a book early in its first printing always casts a vote to a publisher that readers want more of that particular author or illustrator’s work, right now is an excellent time to request this book from your local librarian. This book is hot off the presses, as of August 13, 2019.
I love to think that just requesting a book from the library could support Maine-based author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen into coming up with even more wildly-imaginative tales. Who knows, if you write him enough fan mail, he might just listen to an idea inspired by you, (like he did with the myriad school children who kept at him until he wrote a book about a school! What a good man.) What would your dream design be? For a boat? A grocery store? A treehouse? Perhaps a cutting-edge retro art studio. Ahhhh! That’s the ticket.
2) The Wicked, Big Toddlah, by Kevin Hawkes
As long as I’ve been taking kids to the library, I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin Hawkes’s books. We used to pore over Weslandia and Library Lion again and again, and I’d think to myself, “There’s something different and luminous about these pictures. I wonder what makes this illustrator tick?
Imagine my surprise then, when we moved to Maine and discovered that Kevin Hawkes, his wife Karen, and their fabulous kids, are a part of our community! And just happen to be the nicest people on the planet. I soon found out exactly what makes Kevin tick—a good dose of humor, humility, family, and fun.
Wicked, Big Toddlah's tongue-in-cheek take on Maine culture is “larger-than-life,” and almost as much so as baby Toddie, If you’ve never known a true Mainer, you’ll get a taste of just how unique and hearty they are with the delightful dialogue in this book: “Hi, how aah ya?” and “That’s a wicked big toddlah ya got theyah, Jessie!” Kevin Hawkes’s vibrant illustrations jump off the page with exuberance at the sweet sacrifices made by all, when a new (BIG!) “little” person joins the family. Look for more of Kevin’s luminescent books to be highlighted here soon…
3) Miss Renee’ s Mice, by Elizabeth Stokes Hoffman, Illustrated by Dawn Peterson
*Spoilers ahead!* If anyone (young or old) has ever wanted to decorate a dollhouse, or loved and played with one, this is your miniature cup of tea. Like a modern nod to Beatrix Potter’s tale of Two Bad Mice, this delightful story takes Miss Renee, a builder of fine dollhouses on the coast of Maine, full circle as her tiny new tenants annoy her to distraction with their careless ways. But after Miss Renee has had enough of their messy partying, she builds a tiny ship and sends the riotous rodents packing on a voyage around the world.
After she boots them out though, Miss Renee regrets her hastiness as she realizes she really didn’t mind their company after all. And the mice (rightly so!) learn some courtesy and thoughtfulness on their journey—returning home to their provider a year later to present Miss Renee with fine foreign gifts from all over the globe. Very sweet.
4) Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey
When I think of Robert McCloskey’s soft color palette that so exactly captures the essence of the Maine coast, and the feelings imbued in the reader when one sees his simple scenes of childhood exploration in nature...the word petrichor comes to mind:
Petrichor: the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. The word is constructed from Greek petra, meaning "stone", and īchōr, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.
My youngest and I came upon a copy of this classic recently while staying in my sister and brother-in-law’s cottage on the coast. We curled up on the sofa with Time of Wonder in our hands as the static of clouds built up around us outside. As we read such true-from-life-prose, written in second person, it was as if Mr. McCloskey was spilling out a description of what we were experiencing on a small-town peninsula that week. Such quiet inner observations that one often thinks, but doesn't usually articulate, are uncanny to hear aloud:
"It is time to reset the clock from the rise and fall of the tide, to the come and go of the school bus. Pack your bag and put in a few treasures…A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?"
5) Hello, Lighthouse, by Sophie Blackall
If you haven’t read this book yet, put down that sandwich you’re munching, and go out and buy a copy, you Silly Goose! Without even flipping through it! Trust me, Hello, Lighthouse is that timeless.
Last year my husband and I gave this book to every family member on our Christmas list. ("Even to those without kids at home?" you might ask. Especially to those with no kids at home--they've seen the full circle of life and appreciate it the most!). But adults and children alike can relate to the turning of the tides and seasons in this masterfully-written and touchingly-illustrated marvel of Chinese ink and watercolor.
I especially thrill at the illustrated spread of the lighthouse keeper and his wife after the birth of their child. It gives me chills of joy to see such classic details, as the color wheel quilt pulled up to the chin of the new mother's damp head (certainly to stop the shakes of childbirth), and the lighthouse keeper holding his new babe in one arm, and writing the hour, minute, and day of his child's birth into the lighthouse keeper's log with the other. The gentle illustrations here are reminiscent of Garth Williams's style in Farmer Boy and Charlotte's Web. Just lovely.
Ms. Blackall credits her inspiration for this instant classic as Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. For those of you who know that treasure well, Hello, Lighthouse will give you those same poignant swells of longing, waves of joy, achings of change, rushes of reunion, and envelopes of peace. If you haven't done so yet, I can’t wait for you to read this one!
6) The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Spear
What can I say about this tried-and-true oldie, but greatie? Other than it reminds the reader what strength we each can muster within ourselves when we don’t relinquish hope in the midst of being tested to our limits. The kids and I read this one aloud last fall and they were asking for it as soon as they’d walk in the door from getting off the bus each day. It takes a minute to get into, but, of course, being Elizabeth George Speare, is a well-crafted tale of courage, adventure, stick-to-it-ive-ness, family, friendship, acclimating to cultural differences, forgiveness and loyalty. As the new cover depicts so appropriately, this story is golden! Ripe for a new generation!
There they are! Six favorite children's book recommendations to start off the school year with some cozy moments of reading aloud with those whom you love. Please leave your top six book recommendations in the comments (if I've enabled that feature correctly. Oh, boy! My no-tech skills!
And if you're crazy enough, and kind enough, to have read down this far, here's a little closing quote from Esme Raji Codell that seems to be what I'm experiencing with this cock-eyed website so far:
“Sometimes I think, Why invent projects? What is the point? How will I ever accomplish what I set out to do, what I imagine? Then I think of the past, even before I was born, the great small feats people accomplished.
Those people had to work to accomplish those things, they thought of details, they followed through. Even if I come off as naive and zealous, even if I get on everyone's nerves, I have to follow these examples. Even if I fail, I have to try and try and try. It may be exhausting, but that is beside the point. The goal is not necessarily to succeed but to keep trying, to be the kind of person who has ideas and sees them through.”
― Esmé Raji Codell, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year
Did you ever hear someone say, "It was Colonel Mustard, in the studio, with a children's book"? Uh, no. Yet, author Hilary Mantel recently said, "It seems to me there's a point in your life where you hear an inner prompt, and it says, 'Choose your weapons.' This is it," she said, shaking her pen and nodding her head toward it, "mightier than the sword."
So if a writer's pen can be a weapon to fend off ignorance or inaccuracy in history and drama, then maybe I can give myself license to choose children's literature as my weapon to fight off the dragons in motherhood and family life. I choose picture books, in the home library, done with a child in my lap.
It’s a bit ridiculous to admit, but I added up the number of hours I've read children's books in my life. (I had my sixteen-year-old son double-check my math here, just in case.) Ready to hear the nerdy numbers?
So, Malcolm Gladwell, if you purport that an expert is a person with 10,000 hours of experience in any given field...then I'm almost there--170 hours away from being an expert children's lit fan. With 9,830 hours of spending time with kids' books, I'm either crazy, or just feel like children's literature has a lot of quality to offer--depth, beauty and truth which many adult books lose along the way when authors try to be edgy, confrontational, and dark. Life can be bleak enough. Who wants to read depressing stuff? I want stories that show me and my children the way to live a happier existence.
Why am I such a children’s book zealot? Because they’re what got me through sleepless nights of bringing my babies into the world. When my teenagers were toddlers, if we were having a rough go, I'd start to get the shakes, and realize it was because we hadn't been to the library in a week! (And I didn’t have a kids’ audio book on-hand for our escape while cooking dinner or washing dishes. Like many people, for the first few years of family life we had no dishwasher. Audio books rescued my mind from tedium!)
Loading up on the maximum number of picture books our library system allowed was what helped me connect with my kids instead of going insane. With often fifteen diaper changes a day between a newborn, a toddler, and a potty-training child, books could turn a monotonous day into a delight!
After all six of our children joined our family, keeping half-a-dozen small children alive physically with meals and clean clothes was a whirlwind of activity! I often needed to slow down at least a few times daily to keep us alive emotionally. Books created a bond for us to sit down, take a breath, and do something we all enjoyed.
By piling into a big glider chair with a bunch of books, we could escape into "a wonderful elsewhere." No dishes to do, no floor to mop, no taxes to file, and no blow-out-stained onesies needing a good soak…For at least ten minutes. Until we closed the cover of the book. Ahhh! Short-lived bliss. But right there within the covers of a book--and at our fingertips whenever we needed it.
Even without babies at home, when an older kids has a rough day at school, it's therapeutic to listen to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter aloud while doing dishes, right? JK Rowling is a pro at making the world feel as if everything's going turn out okay in the end. Sorry, old Voldemort, even your schnozless-appearances in the series don't tarnish that Hogwarts glow of comfort, delight, and the warmth of the Weasley family.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione are experts when it comes to learning how to make and keep friends. We feel the pain of Harry and Ron's separations when they have a falling-out, and then feel the relief and joy as they figure out how to overcome pride by apologizing.
Reading about others' experiences of navigating the wide world, reminds us that we're not the only ones going through this earthly realm. Some writer out there once had the same emotions that we now have, and had the foresight to write them down for us. Because of that, that we could relate to other human beings across time and over seas--when we'd need that (trans-time-and-place) commiseration and encouragement the most.
One of my favorite creative writing mentors, Shawn Coyne, says in his Writing Grid podcast (paraphrasing here), that since the dawn of time, people have used "stories" as the tools we need to cope with the challenges in life. We read how a favorite protagonist (Lizzie Bennet, possibly?) deals with a specific difficulty, and it gives us ideas of how to resolve our own problems when they arise at a later date.
So, I hope you might find six excellent children’s book recommendations handy and useful to enjoy each month on the first Friday with your children, grandchildren, or spouse (they may or may not fit in your lap).
Or you can enjoy these six books in the bliss of solitude. Some of my happiest reading memories are of discovering middle grade books as a lone single adult, while sitting on the N-line of the NYC subway. (That’s a pretty happy commute if you've got Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone in hand.)
And in honor of my half dozen children who teach me each day how to be a better person, and my crazy six passions: Family, Art, Writing, Nature, Cooking, and Books, enjoy the half-a-dozen recommended titles in tomorrow's post...
P.S. Now tell me what your favorite picture book title is in the comments below. Happy reading, dear bookworm friends!