Call me biased, but whenever possible, I prefer giving books as gifts. Unlike a lot of toys adorned with bells and whistles that end up being discarded and ignored after the novelty has worn off, a thoughtfully-chosen book is a gift that keeps giving. Young children, in particular, will read (or ask to hear) a good book over and over again until it becomes a cherished childhood memory. With that in mind and in defiance of the current trend toward making kids give up their picture books at an early age, I’ve put together a list of new picture books that would make great gifts and added descriptions from my previous posts. I left out sequels, such as Olivia Goes to Venice, Knuffle Bunny Free, and Zen Ghosts, figuring that if your recipient is a big fan, chances are it’s already on her bookshelf. My picks:
Art & Max by David Weisner In this visually breathtaking, hugely entertaining tale, we encounter Arthur, a portrait-painting lizard who thinks of himself as an “Artist.” Art’s creative process is interrupted when his enthusiastic pal, Max, runs up to admire his work and decides that he wants to paint too. But Max needs inspiration. When he wonders what he should paint, Art replies, “Well…you could paint me.” That’s when the fun begins. Max takes the suggestion literally, and joyfully splashes his friend with bright colors: “Ta-da! What do you think?” Art’s explosive reaction is a hoot. When he’s finished expressing his outrage, the once-gray lizard has lost his vivid outer-coat and he’s now a paler, pastel version of himself. In trying to correct his mistake, Max ends up taking all the color out of Art, and then unraveling his outline. He eventually reconstructs Art, evoking Jackson Pollack and Georges Seurat in the process. But Art will never be the same again. Weisner’s story raises interesting questions about what is art and how does one create art, but what I love about this stunning picture book is that first and foremost, it’s a fun, wacky tale that young readers will relish.
Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg This interactive book begins with the word “Oops!” written in large colorful letters that look like they’ve been imperfectly finger painted. On the opposite page, you read the words, “A torn piece of paper ….” And above those words, the page is actually torn. Intriguing, no? Then you turn the page, and the sentence continues: “is just the beginning.” To illustrate this point, you see an alligator with a wide grin formed by the tear seen on the previous page. Saltzberg finds other ingenious ways to show us how mistakes are opportunities to get creative. A bent corner turns into a penguin’s head when you turn the page. What looks like a crumpled piece of paper stuck on a page turns out to be a sheep. When they finish exploring this clever book, kids will be inspired to turn their own “oops” into something unexpectedly delightful.
Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu This gently humorous picture book is actually a series of three short stories featuring six adorable bunnies, a goat farmer and his wife, and a resourceful bear. In the first story, the bunnies are “soaking up the sun,” minding their own business, when Mr. Goat drives by in his tractor and splashes them with mud. When the bunnies turn to Bear for help, he happens to have a washing machine in the middle of the field. The muddy bunnies are placed in the machine (delicate cycle, of course) and hung out to dry. After a day and night of hanging on the clothesline, “the bunnies are ready for a brand-new adventure.” The two other stories follow a similar pattern. The simple text and fun sounds like “swish, swash, swish swash” of the washer make this a fun book to read aloud. I love the silly dilemmas and the even sillier solutions (I’m betting little kids will too). And the illustrations (silkscreened artwork using water-based ink) are enchanting.
Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown As you might have guessed from the cover, the pet owner is a female bear cub (named Lucille Beatrice Bear). And the pet is a little boy whom she finds in the woods. Lucy thinks he’s adorable (“OH! MY! GOSH! You are the cutest critter in the WHOLE forest!”) and takes him home with her. She names him Squeaker and begs her mother to let her keep the boy as a pet. Mom warns Lucy that “children make terrible pets” but relents under one condition: “Squeaker is YOUR responsibility. I will not take care of him for you.” (Déjà vu! How many of us have found ourselves on either end of this hilarious exchange?) The digitally tweaked, wood-framed illustrations have loads of old-fashioned charm. I especially love the expressions—the delight, pride, and horror on Lucy’s face as she watches her pet’s antics are a hoot. Much of the text is written as dialogue and appears in speech bubbles, making this a great read-aloud. There is a subtle lesson (about respecting creatures in their natural habitat), but the message is entertainingly delivered. Kids will get a kick out of the silly premise of a bear and child switching roles.
Mud Pies and Other Recipes by Marjorie Winslow, illustrated by Erik Blegvad I’m cheating with this pick—since this was originally published in the 60s and technically, it’s more cookbook than picture book (though it features many charming pen-and-ink illustrations). But I’m including it because this unique little book was reprinted this year. If you don’t know it, you’re in for a delightful surprise. As Winslow drolly explains in the foreword, “this is a cookbook for dolls.” First come the appetizers (such as Daisy Dip); then soups, salads and sandwiches (like Molded Moss Salad); main dishes (Roast Rocks); pastries and desserts (Sawdust Cake); and finally, beverages (Chalk Shake). The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. For example, Wood Chip Dip is made by mixing dirt with water “until it is thick as paste. Place this bowl on a platter surrounded by wood shavings. Scoop the dip with chip.” What to do with leftover pencil shavings? Save them for the Pencil Sharpener Pudding! And then, of course, there’s mud. Understandably, mud is a popular ingredient—you’ll find recipes for Left-Handed Mudloaf, Right-Handed Mudloaf, Instant Mud Custard, and Mud Pies. This is a great gift for budding chefs and doll lovers; you might include with it a toy cooking set.
Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long Written before President Obama took office, this handsome book celebrates the accomplishments of 13 Americans. It’s a diverse list—from George Washington to Cesar Chavez, from Billie Holiday to Maya Lin. Written like a letter or poem addressed to his daughters, Obama begins his book with a series of loving questions: “Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? How the sound of your feet running from afar brings dancing rhythms to my day? How you laugh and sunshine spills into the room?” Then, on each double-page spread, he names traits that he sees in his daughters: “Have I told you that you are creative?” Opposite each featured trait is a picture and description of an American hero who personifies that quality. For creative, there’s Georgia O’Keefe; for smart, Albert Einstein; brave, Jackie Robinson; and so on. The left-hand pages show two little girls resembling Malia and Sasha looking intently at Long’s beautiful illustrations. With each turn of the page, they’re joined by the child-version of the hero being honored—until finally, the last spread depicts a diverse crowd of children, symbolizing America’s proud past and hope for the future. Politics aside, Of Thee I Sing is, textually and visually, an eloquent celebration of American history. It’s also nice to know that Obama is donating his proceeds from the book to a scholarship fund for children of disabled and deceased veterans.
The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska This is a delightful book celebrating all different kinds of quiet moments from a child’s perspective. The very first page features a soft, brown bunny doing morning stretches and the phrase: “First one awake quiet.” There’s also a “thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet,” a “hide-and-seek quiet,” a “right before you yell ‘Surprise!’ quiet,” a “best friends don’t need to talk quiet,” and of course, “story time quiet.” Underwood’s descriptions are matched perfectly by Liwska’s pencil-drawn, digitally colored illustrations. Soft blues, browns, and grays depict cuddly young animals being quiet in various ways—mischievously, nervously, woefully, contentedly, sleepily.
Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld The story begins with two boys rummaging through a toy box to find something to play with. One pulls out a toy shark; the other a toy train. And that’s when the comic matchup begins. In the following pages, the boys disappear and you see the cartoonish shark and train going toe-to-toe in all sorts of hilarious scenarios. With each hypothetical situation, readers are left to ponder between giggles: “Who will win?” That’s because the scenarios get sillier and sillier. The shark and train go from competing in the ocean and on railroad tracks to roasting marshmallows, eating pies, having a burping contest, trick-or-treating, running lemonade stands, and so on. Everything about this wacky tale rings true—from the choice of toys to the zany competition and logic applied to each wacky what-if scenario. (Come to think of it, I know men who still compete like this!) In the end, it’s a win-win situation for all. Kids will have a lot of fun, and so will you.
The Thingamabob by Il Sung Na In this whimsical, visually delightful tale, an elephant finds a curious object: “He had no idea what the thingamabob was or where it came from.” Young readers and listeners will know right away that it’s an umbrella, but the clueless elephant is befuddled. Even his animal pals have no idea. So the elephant tries to fly, sail, and even hide behind it. The results are comically unsuccessful. But not to worry; our perplexed pachyderm finally solves the mystery when it begins to rain. Preschoolers will love being in on the joke and delight in the colorful, happy ending. (If giving this book as a gift, you might accompany it with a cheery kid-size umbrella.)
Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney The illustrations (created with watercolor, graphite, and color pencil) are gorgeous. Preschoolers will take great pleasure in noticing all the playful little details (like the tiny mouse doll that accompanies the little girl kitten and the three winter-accessorized birds that keep the young felines company as they play outside). Who knew this simple cautionary rhyme could be so much fun? We watch the too-cute-for-words kittens frolic outside (“they spun and leaped and pounced”) and one by one, lose their mittens among the fall foliage. When the kittens learn that “they would have no pie,” they scamper back outside and find their misplaced mittens. Pie is joyfully consumed (“purr, purr, purr, purr”), but then the careless kitties must wash their pie-stained mittens (in between playing with the soap bubbles, of course). Everything these lively kittens do seem like a lark—right down to the washing and drying of the mittens. (When giving this book as a gift, you might pair it with—what else?—a pair of warm, pretty mittens.)
Are you familiar with these picture books? What else would you add to this list?