Summer is in full swing already – lazy days at the pool, homemade Popsicles lining the freezer and wonderfully long days just waiting to be filled with amazing books! There is just no better time to dive into a new book than summer, when the hammock calls from the backyard for you to spend the day with a fabulous story. From Wookies to Wonder, Shakespeare to steam trains, this list of the best children’s books for summer is an eclectic collection sure to tickle the fancy of your little ones. Age ranges are indicated for each book but are by no means a required reading age, but rather a general idea of which books are for younger or older children. Many of the books listed for four and five-year-olds, for example, would be enjoyed by two-year-olds as well. I’ve loved reading each of these amazing books – and eagerly await your feedback on them! And I’d love your suggestions for fun summer reading too! Now, go park yourself in that hammock, sip an ice-cold lemonade and lose yourself in one of these wonderful books!
Every summer, my son attends a Shakespeare Camp in which he and his fellow campers spend two weeks in literature heaven. Improv, movement, Shakespearean history…why, oh, why can’t adults go to summer camp too? I’d give anything to spend two weeks learning my son’s lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor (he made a smashing Doctor Caius, by the way…) At any rate, inspired by this Bard Bonanza, I went to my favorite local bookstore on the lookout for a children’s biography of Shakespeare. I found that (a lovely member of the “Who Was…” series by Celeste Davidson Mannis) and then I found what may be the most glorious gift to children’s literature in quite some time. Are you ready for this? Author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver have teamed up to create BabyLit Board Books. Yes, now you can find not onlyRomeo and Juliet for your little anglophile-in-training, but Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Sherlock Holmes (sadly, minus Benedict Cumberbatch…). Not only are Oliver’s illustrations just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen, but the way Adams has turned the concept of two jilted lovers and the dashing Mr. Darcy into counting primers for children is nothing short of miraculous. Some purists may scoff at the “dumbing down” of great literature for children, but I give a hearty “huzzah” to the concept of introducing great literature at an early age. Will babies truly understand the difference between Capulets and Montagues? No. But isn’t it fun to try?
Written and Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
Age range: 1 and up
Earlier this year, I had the great fortune of meeting Jane Goodall with a number of my history students. It was, for all intents and purposes, the realization of a life-long dream of meeting this remarkable woman and giving her a hug for being truly one of the most inspirational and selfless individuals in world history. Every year, I include Jane in my Time Travelers History Classes as a featured “world changer” and, every time, I use Patrick McDonnell’s gorgeous book to really bring Jane to life for my students. “Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” So begins Patrick McDonnell’s lovely story of Dr. Jane Goodall, the woman who single-handedly and lovingly changed the way we interact with animals. Readers might recognize McDonnell as the creator of the syndicated comic strip MUTTS and as the author of the award-winning picture book Art. He is also a strong animal welfare advocate and has channelled his love for all things fanged or furry in this beautiful book. The elegant text (“With the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa”) married with McDonnell’s inimitable drawings, make for a magical journey into the mind and heart of Goodall. With her stuffed chimpanzee by her side, Jane marvels at the wonders of nature and dreams of someday visiting Africa to see the real life versions of her beloved toy. This dream, of meeting and interacting with these exotic and endearing creatures, comes true for Jane – and readers will be left yearning to learn more about this wonderful woman. I’ll be teaching my world history students about Jane Goodall in the coming weeks and I’m so thrilled to be able to use this book as a springboard for her lovely contributions to the world. Complete with photographs of Jane as a child and an amazing cartoon drawn by the primatologist herself, Me…Jane is a wonderful introduction to not only true life stories, but to a future built of understanding, philanthropy and wonder.
Written and Illustrated by Herve Tullet
Age Range: 2 and up
I was recently browsing around at my favorite local children’s bookstore and overheard a woman and her little girl arguing over a book. The mom was trying to talk the (rather, shall we say, difficult) child into buying a Margaret Wise Brown book (God bless her) and the little girl sat right down in the middle of the aisle and said–and I quote–”I don’t want a book. A book doesn’t do anything.” After reviving myself with smelling salts, I thought about how perhaps there are more little girls and boys around the world (horrors!) who might feel this way and it made me awfully sad. Because books do the most amazing things without actually doing anything at all. You know that. I know that. And luckily, I think all of my readers’ children know that. But for those children out there who keep waiting for their books to talk in funny voices or play music or run around the house like literary robots, I hope that one day they find that one book that teaches them that the words on the page bring to life more than any game, any toy, any electronic doo-dad they could imagine. Amazingly, as I returned to that same bookstore this week I came across one of the most wonderful books to come along in some time – and it, quite ironically and whimsically, fits into this little soapbox speech of mine. Herve Tullet’s Press Here reminds children and adults alike that the magic of the word and the picture is truly that….magic. Acting as an interactive narrator, Tullet’s book asks the reader to follow the instructions throughout the book. “Press here and turn the page” it says and, lo and behold, that small touch has created something new on the following page. This is a wonderfully imaginative, wry and stunning book that, if nothing else, will remind us of the sheer brilliance of children’s books and the amazing powers of our own minds and fingers.
Written by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Age range: 4-8
Who doesn’t love a book about a little switcheroo? Well, take your favorite switcheroo story and multiply it by one hundred and you’ll start to get close to the brilliance of Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson’s delightful Gaston. Gaston is an adorable little bulldog, stout and a tad on the clumsy side, among a family of prim and proper poodles. Meanwhile, across town, a little poodle named Antoinette doesn’t quite match her own family of brawny bulldogs. When the two families encounter each other one day, it’s clear that there’s been some sort of mix-up and the decision is made to send Gaston home with his fellow bulldogs, and Antoinette with the gaggle of poodles. But despite all looking the same, Gaston and Antoinette just cannot seem to fit in with their new families and long for their true homes. As the book states, “That looked right… it just didn’t feel right.” And it’s not long before Gaston and Antoinette are reunited with their real families, and a lovely lesson is learned in true belonging. I’ll admit, there are a few gender stereotypes in the book that set my teeth a bit on edge, but I fear that’s probably just more my issue than anyone else’s. However, one cannot deny the charm and endearing message within this book, particularly with Christian Robinson’s absolutely fabulous illustrations. There are many built-in sound effects in the book which will also make it a real hoot to read aloud to your children! All in all, a fun, whimsical little book with a nice message and the cutest little French bulldog you’ve ever seen.
Steam Train, Dream Train
Written and illustrated by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld
Age range: 4-6 years
There is just something about trains and children. Both of my boys were avid train aficionados in their younger years and absolutely devoured any book that even remotely mentioned locomotives. Freight Train by Donald Crews, Two Little Trains by Margaret Wise Brown and I Love Trains by Philemon Sturges and Shari Halpern being three of their all-time favorites. Now you put trains and TOYS together, and you’ve got the makings of an instant success! I only wish my boys were a bit younger so they could truly immerse themselves once again in the world of train fiction, particularly with the publication of Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld’s Steam Train, Dream Train. This lovely little book, by the same power team behind Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (another must-have!), has all the same rhythmic appeal of Brown’s classic, Goodnight Moon, with the added appeal of circus animals, toys, ice cream sundaes and even dinosaurs! Hidden within the delightful rhyming text, train vocabulary words are written in bold for an extra benefit of educating your children on the various parts of a train. This is a beautiful book, perfect for bedtime, and ideal not only for the overtly obsessed train lovers, but for engineers in training and the ones who love them.
I Want my Hat Back
Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
Age range: 4-8 years
Perhaps I am just a sucker for bemused looking animals, but Jon Klassen’s book I Want My Hat Back is one of my new all-time favorites. I mean, seriously. Just look at that bear’s face. It’s irresistibly droll. The book offers a simple story, really. No bells and whistles here. But for anyone with a slightly bent sense of humor and a great appreciation for clever writing, this is the book for you. Simply told, bear’s hat is missing. And he’s not too thrilled with the situation. Using the age-old repetitive trope of such classics as The Gingerbread Manand The Little Red Hen, the creatures of the forest encounter the peeved bear one by one, offering little-to-no guidance on his chapeau search. That is, until a graceful deer triggers a faint memory in the bear’s fuzzy brain. And with that, the true mystery of the hat takes off on little furry feet. And don’t even ask me what happens to the bunny. I’m not telling. You’ll just have to immediately go out and buy this adorably naughty book and find out for yourself.
Written by Betty MacDonald
Illustrated by Hilary Knight
Age range: 8-12 years
I’m feeling a bit sentimental today…and, as such, I’m bringing back an old favorite – Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty McDonald. Ooooo how I loved this series as a child. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle lives in an upside down house and smells like cookies and, thankfully for parents everywhere, has wonderful cures for every possible childhood lament. And we’re not talking about chickenpox or measles, here. We’re talking about cures for things like talking back and not picking up toys and selfishness. My favorite of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s infamous cures is for the girl who won’t take a bath. And the dirt just keeps accumulating on this beastly little child. So, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle instructs her parents to plant turnip seeds in the dirt on her face and watch them grow. They do just that and, surprise!, a bath is quickly accomplished. Young readers will delight in the whimsical and magical words of MacDonald and illustrations from Hilary Knight of Eloise fame. And parents will love that someone finally has a cure for not wanting to go to bed.
You Wouldn’t Want to be Sick in the 16th Century
Written by Kathryn Senior and David Salariya
Illustrated by David Antram
Age range: 8 and up
I don’t know about you, but my kids always get the start-of-summer sickness. And it’s the worst. Just when school is out and the day is wide open for doing nothing, the sniffle starts or the nausea rears its ugly head, and you’re stuck looking at the sunshine from your bedroom window. It could be worse, though. We could be sick in the 16th Century and encounter all of the grotesque ways in which doctors of the time attempted to cure unsuspecting folks. Who knew there was such a bevy of repulsive health care practices? Well, apparently Kathryn Senior knew, and wrote her book, You Wouldn’t Want to be Sick in the 16th Century: Diseases You’d Rather Not Catch – a veritable encyclopedia of disgusting medical facts that is just one in a series of You Wouldn’t Want to be… children’s books available now. We’ve read You Wouldn’t Want to be a Pyramid Builder (severe rope burn), You Wouldn’t Want to be a Greek Athlete (athlete’s foot galore) and You Wouldn’t Want to be Salem Witch (is it getting hot in here or is it just me?)…and now we can add the 16th Century to our braintrust of oogey facts. This book series is definitely not for the squeamish and definitely for an older set of kids, but if you’re ready for a richly revolting romp back in time, these books are for you! Cough Cough. Oh, no, not again…
Written by R.J. Palacio
Age Range: 8-12 years
Recently, our elementary school’s 5th graders had to endure the long-anticipated “Puberty Talk.” A milestone which, at least according to my son, “everyone’s gotta live through at some point.” My elementary school had the talk in 6th grade and I’ll never forget when my friend Larry Love (yes, that was his name) burst from the boys’ classroom yelling, “We just learned about peninsulas and Virginians!” Long before that fateful talk, though, in 1975, Peter Mayle (yes, of A Year in Provence fame) and Arthur Robins published a book that would forever change my life. Their brilliantly informative and remarkably unembarrassing teenage tome, What is Happening to Me: A Guide to Puberty, would prove to be my personal roadmap through acne (why yes, it does appear on your back!), periods (why yes, they do happen on ski trips!) and bras (why, yes, the woman in the bra department will quickly become your worst nightmare!). Written for both boys and girls, Mayle and Robins’ book gently and factually describes every injustice known to plague teenagers – handling each question, no matter how humiliating, with common sense, and no hint of ridicule or judgment. Robins’ illustrations bring a sense of humor to the topics and make the reader feel a lot more comfortable reading about unexpected hairs than you’d ever imagine. I poured over this book as puberty beckoned and found comfort in not being the only person on the face of the earth to experience the new feelings, emotions and struggles of that time. For any parent working through the first signs of adolescence with their children this summer, this book is as powerful now as it was then to a little girl in her pegged jeans who just needed to know that everything was going to be alright.