Monday, April 28, 2008

Our Most-Loved Children's Books

When they first enter Liko’s playroom, new friends always remark upon how many books he has. Indeed, his playroom looks like the children’s nook in a small-town public library.

But here’s the thing: Properly speaking, most of those books don’t belong to him—more than half belong to my wife. She’s been building a collection of children’s books since college, just because she loves them.

As a result of her combination of passion and discernment, the books on our shelves range across broad swathes of time and culture, and each has some quality that sets it apart. It’s hard to describe, what that quality is, but you know it when you see it.

And after years of reading books like these, I can now really spot the absence of this quality in other children’s books; too many of them these days treat kids like dumb adults or passive consumers. In fact, preschoolers are learning at a rate that far exceeds grown-up learning, and I think the best of these books capture the sense of wonderment that comes with that.

I don't have my wife's refined taste, but, for me, the first test of a book’s quality is, of course, Liko’s enjoyment of it. The next test is how often I can stand reading the thing—the very best books are a genuine pleasure for adults to read and can even reward repeat readings. You begin to appreciate the poetry and interplay of the words and pictures, and, if you’re lucky, you can even start to see the story through your child’s eyes. (Of course, everything has a limit...sometimes I even hide Curious George just before bedtime...don't tell Liko, please...)

I asked my wife to write up a list of her “most loved” (as she says) children’s books. After much debate and pencil-chewing, she narrowed it down to twenty eight:

1. On Christmas Eve, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Beni Montresor (1938)

2. The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Remy Charlip (1938)

3. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (1947)

4. The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs (1978)

5. Madeline series, by Ludwig Bemelmans

6. Summertime Waltz, by Nina Payne, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2005)

7. Sunday Morning, by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Hilary Knight (1968)

8. I am a Bunny, by Ole Rison, illustrated by Richard Scarry (1963)

9. Egon, by Larry Bograd, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1980)

10. Mole and the Baby Bird, by Marjorie Newman, illustrated by Patrick Benson (2002)

11. Goodnight Gorilla, by Peggy Rathermann (1994)

12. Frog and Toad series, by Arnold Lobel

13. Little Bear series, by Else Holmelund Minark, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

14. The Tomten and the Fox, adapted by Astrid Lindgren from a poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund, illustrated by Harold Wiberg (1966)

15. Little Old Big Beard and Big Young Little Beard, by Remy Charlip, illustrated by Remy Charlip and Tamara Rettenmund (2003)

16. Curious George series, by H.A. Rey

17. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1962)

18. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

19. More, More, More Said the Baby: Three Love Stories, by Vera B. Williams (1990)

20. What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? By Richard van Camp, illustrated by George Littlechild (1998)

21. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, by Chris Raschka (1992)

22. Art, by Karen Salmansohn, illustrated by Brian Stauffer (2003)

23. The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas (1986)

24. Grandfather’s Journey, by Allen Say (1993)

25. Play, Mozart, Play! by Peter Sis (2006)

26. The Year I Didn’t Go to School, by Giselle Potter (2002)

27. Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best, illustrated by Giselle Potter (1999)

28. Flotsam, by David Wiesner (2005)

And here’s a composite of her favorite and Liko’s favorite authors:

1. Margaret Wise Brown (pictured at left)
2. Maurice Sendak
3. Vera B. Williams
4. Chris Raschka
5. Patricia Palocco
6. Allen Say
7. Peter Sis
8. Giselle Potter
9. David Wiesner

I would also like to humbly put in a good word for Robert McCloskey. He’s famed for Make Way for Ducklings, but I prefer many of his other books, especially Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.


Anonymous said...

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts two little girls in a playground. "Call me shallow," one says to the other, "but I like Goodnight Moon."

Me too.

etbnc said...


As an adult reader (um, er, so I like to think) I was delighted by a couple of books shelved in the children's section of the library. Both are by Jon Muth: Zen Shorts and The Three Questions.

Happy reading

Jennifer said...

As an Australian, I find it fascinating how few of these I know - Goodnight Moon, where the wild things are, and the Madeleine series is about it.

The english speaking publishing world is still very much split into two parts (UK based and US based). Some of the books we love would possibly make it on to your list if only you could buy them!

Hairy Maclairy (NZ), the Gruffalo (UK) and Possum Magic (Australia) to name just a few.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Hi Jennifer. You know, I think a good portion of these books are obscure to Americans as well. It's funny you should mention Australian children's books, because I just noticed a cluster of them at a bookstore I visited this past weekend.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention: Number 23 on this list, The Nativity, is authored by an Australian, Julie Vivas. She's quite a good illustrator.

Linda said...

Thanks for the wonderful list and recommendations! I love children's books.

As an ex-New Yorker, one of my fav's as a child was "The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge" by Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward. I bought it when I went back on vacation and saw it in a bookstore there -- had to have it!

My daughter and I just read a mystery (I'd say it's for 8-12 years olds)that reminded me of the fabulous Nancy Drew series. It's "Bitter Tastes" by V.B. Rosendahl. The heroine, 11 year old, Kathy, is trying to fit in at a new school but can't because of her secret. We had a great time trying to guess what would happen next. It was so refreshing to read an "old fashioned" mystery. Hope you like it -- and then Liko may too when he is a little older. :-)

Happy Reading,

Dana said...

What an awesome list!

I think that one of the great parts of being a dad is the joy of rediscovering old forgotten children's stories and finding new gems. After four years of reading to my kids every morning, we've read a lot of books.

Here's some that I think are worth adding:

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The Rainbow Goblins by Ul De Rico

Knuffle Bunny 1 & 2 by Mo Willems

Eloise by Kay Thompson

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? Big Book (Little Bear) by Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth

The Napping House by Audrey Wood and Don Wood

Willow by the Sea by Camilla Ashforth

Best Friends For Francis by Russell and Lillian Hoban Hoban

These touched me as a child and still do:

Any of the Richard Scarry books

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The picture book of "The Red Balloon"

There is real magic in this stuff. Glad to see a blog about this.

Dana Glazer
The Evolution of Dad Project

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Hi Dana. We love many of those books as well--Knuffle Bunny is destined to be a classic, and Ezra Jack Keats is one of my favorite illustrators. It's funny you mention "The Red Ballon"--I happen to know that's one of my wife's favorite stories, but she didn't list it. I'll have to ask her about that! J

Dana said...


You've inspired me to look deeper into children's books as they relate to depictions of dads. From all that I've read, I can't think of too many children's books that have strong dad characters in them and it really speaks once again as to how deemphasized the role of dad truly is. Anyway, if you or your group can think of other books to reference, would love to hear about it. Thanks again for the inspiration and keep up the fire!


Dana Glazer
The Evolution of Dad Project

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Ah, yes: the role of dads in children's books, a topic I dare not address for fear of appearing to be a grump. I think the truth of the matter is that older children's books are mostly reflecting the norms of their time periods, so you can't really blame them for portraying fathers as behind-the-newspaper bystanders. Even so, there are exceptions: One Morning in Maine, an older book I like, is about the adventures of two little girls with their father.

Nowadays, I can think of quite a few books in which dad is present, but they are very much a minority. I've been thinking that I'd like to try my hand at writing children's books where dad is the primary caregiver.

Hillary said...

Jeremy, I just found your blog on Mothering's website, and linked to here. I just wanted to thank you. My partner and I have a 5 month old, and while I have found some good mother resources, he's had a very hard time finding dad resources that he can relate to. As a result, he's felt really isolated, and it's been even harder because we are the first of our friends to have kids.

When I found your blog on mothering, I left it open on the computer for him when I went to bed. He was reading it when I woke up a couple hours later (he works nights and has to stay up late to get on schedule). He got up and hugged me and had tears running down his face because all of a sudden, he didn't feel like he was alone, and there were other dads out there speaking out in a way that felt good to him.

thank you for creating a resource for dads who want to be equal partners in the raising of their children.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

hurrican.hilary...that's a really humbling testimony, and a reminder to me and the other dialectical daddies of why we do this. Thanks.