I have an amazing, clever, wonderful friend who often sends me books. Not just ordinary books. Gorgeous, beautiful, life-altering books. This is the sort of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have and I adore her to pieces. One of the books she sent me recently was the most surprising, delightful book I had seen in some time. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (swoon swoon swoon) is honestly, in my humble opinion, one of, if not THE, best art books around. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Pippin, he was and remains an absolute American treasure. An artist known best for his simple and stunning paintings of American life, Mr. Pippin has quickly become one of my favorite artists. I taught my Museum Masters students about him last week and they were fascinated by this man who overcame huge obstacles in his life and yet still stayed true to his artistic soul. Wounded severely while fighting in the trenches in World War I, Mr. Pippin lost almost all mobility in his right hand – his “drawing” hand. And for many years, he figured his days of creating artwork were over. That is, until he took his right hand in his left and taught himself to paint, holding one hand in the other. Bryant’s words and Sweet’s gorgeous drawings bring this humble and extraordinary man to life for children and adults. Interspersed through the book are quotes from Mr. Pippin himself. Quotes like “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for her must be true to himself” and (my students’ favorite) “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.” This is an inspiring, at times heartbreaking, groundbreaking book that should belong on the shelves of every child and adult the world over. Please take a moment and get to know Horace Pippin through the eyes of Bryant and Sweet. They have done him proud.
The neighborhood children are buzzing with excitement over costumes. Pumpkins are making their way onto the front porches of houses. And bright orange and black M&Ms are moving into the four basic food groups.
It’s Halloween time again and what better way to kick off this spooktacular holiday than with a fun assortment of the best and most beloved Halloween books for children. From smelly feet to Norwegian grandmothers, this list will bring a devilish grin to your little boys and ghouls.
Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey
I apologize in advance for recommending a book that has within its title a word that will invariably cause incessant repetition by your children. Or perhaps that’s just my children. Nevertheless, “The Hallo-Wiener”, by Dav Pilkey (of “Captain Underpants” fame), certainly belongs on any list of great Halloween books. Oscar is a dachshund who is “half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long” and is regularly teased by the other dogs. But nothing causes more ridicule than his mother’s decision to dress him for Halloween with a bun complete with mustard. Poor little Oscar – what shall he do? Come to the rescue, of course, as the little readers will find. A tale of inner strength and the best sausage puns you’ve read…
Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet
Written and illustrated by Lisa Desimini
Growing up, we used to sing “Trick or treat, smell my feet, dance around the toilet seat” and the image of boogie-ing around the potty was always a show-stopper for me. Now, thank Heavens, we have Lisa Desimini’s “Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet” to entertain us just as hilariously. This is the tale of twin witches, Delia and Ophelia, who take it upon themselves (as all true witches do) to ruin Halloween for the sweet neighborhood kids. So, they concoct a spell using, you guessed it, stinky socks. All does not run smoothly for these identical hags, and your kids will adore the result. I do…almost as much as lambada-ing around the john.
The Best Halloween Ever
Written by Barbara Robinson
Hooray for the Herdmans! Barbara Robinson’s “The Best Halloween Ever” may, in fact, be the funniest book on the market. The author of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, among others, has a lightning-quick wit and a tenderness towards her characters that is unparalleled. Reading this out loud to my boys is an act in self-control since her lines are so funny and heartwarming you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I adore adore adore this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. Somehow the horrible Herdmans always save the day – and we, as readers, root for them despite our better judgment. Don’t miss the audio recording of this book, read by Elaine Stritch. Hers is the only voice I could imagine for this. Sheer perfection.
Written by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
While it may not be a Halloween book, per se, no spooky book list should neglect “The Witches” – one of my (and my sons) all-time favorites. Not only do we get to meet a cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother, but we encounter ladies with itchy scalps, quite a few references to dog poo (and really, who could resist that!?!) and several reasons for your children not to bathe regularly. The coupling of Roald Dahl and longtime illustrator Quentin Blake is a marriage made in heaven for any book, but for this one in particular. Don’t miss Lynn Redgrave’s reading of “The Witches” on the audio book, and, if you’re feeling particularly witchy, check out the movie starring Angelica Huston. It’s nowhere near as spectacular as the book (few movies are), but entertaining nonetheless.
The Vanishing Pumpkin
Written by Tony Johnston
Illustrated by Tomie daPaola
Where else can you find a 700-year-old woman, an 800-year-old man, a rapscallion, a ghoul and a varmint? Not to mention characters who say things like “Great snakes!” (which, let’s face it, everyone should say now and then…). Look no further than “The Vanishing Pumpkin” by Tony Johnston, illustrated by, none other than, Tomie DePaola. My sons wait all year long to check this book out of the library each October and now my older son loves to read it to his little brother with all the silly voices he can muster. What starts with a missing pumpkin and a hearty desire for pumpkin pie quickly becomes a veritable parade of Halloween misfits and a seriously old wizard. Don’t miss this wonderful Halloween book. (Or I might just have to say “Great snakes!”)
Written and illustrated by Robert Bright
No Halloween book list would be complete without “Georgie” by Robert Bright. Written in 1944, Georgie features not only the gentle little ghost from the title, but the wonderfully spooky illustrations by Bright himself. Georgie lives with the Whittakers and provides them with a little ghostly routine of a creaky floorboard and a squeaky parlor door. But when Mr. Whittaker decides to fix these, where does that leave Georgie, who really doesn’t want to scare a soul? This vintage Halloween tale has been delighting parents and children for more than 60 years and should take its rightful place on the bookshelves for 100 more.
Disclaimer: I am 37 years old and the stories in the book still scare me. Hence, this book recommendation is for older aged children or at least children who are braver than I. This was THE book for slumber parties growing up. I vividly remember sitting at my friend Damara’s house, with flashlights on and spooky music in the background, and her mother, all dressed up as a witch, reading “High Beams” from the story collection, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Do you remember high beams? The urban myth of the woman driving home and the car behind her keeps putting on its high beams? I shudder now just thinking of it. This story continues to force me to look in the backseat of my car when I get in. And who could forget “May I Carry Your Basket?” and “The Big Toe.” Ack! This is the ultimate scary story collection and I dare you to read it and not feel that chill up your spine.
For anyone looking for a children’s book that honors the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that is both approachable to children while still maintaining the reverence necessary to truly capture his life, please read “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Author Doreen Rappaport has made a name for herself as a go-to writer for biographies and non-fictional books for children and this, her gorgeous, poetic and sometimes heartbreaking profile of Dr. King, is the best of its kind. Rappaport has a gift for bringing children the facts they need to know, no matter how difficult they may be, in a way that keeps them reading and engaged and wanting more. Match that with Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations, and you have the best of both worlds. “Martin’s Big Words” captures the essence of Dr. King and will help inquisitive children understand the big picture of his life and legacy.
As the boys and I prepare for our Thanksgiving trip to New Jersey, we are anxiously awaiting a fun family day in Manhattan. Brunch with friends, a Broadway play in the afternoon, a drink at the Harvard Club…Heaven. And with the devastation caused by Sandy and the reminder to us all just how incredible and impermeable the spirit of that city is, what better way to celebrate this gorgeous metropolis than by reading Miroslav Sasek’s beautiful book, “This is New York”…one in a series of books dedicated to introducing young children to the most wonderful cities in the world. Originally published in 1960, Sasek’s inimitable illustrations of New York and the brilliant and irreverent way in which he shares the history of Manhattan are what make this book a must-have for any family. It’s a literal treasure-trove of all the best New York has to offer and, even today, could serve as a tourist map of must-see attractions. Find a copy, treat yourself to a one-way ticket there and give the New York Public Library Lions a pat on the head from me.
Eve Buntings, “A Turkey for Thanksgiving” is my all-time favorite Turkey Day tale. In it, Mr. and Mrs. Moose are hosting Thanksgiving for all of their woodland friends. Mrs Moose sends Mr Moose out on an errand to get a real turkey for the event. Mr Moose is soon joined by Rabbit, Porcupine and Goat – all ready to get the turkey for their feast. As you would imagine, poor Turkey is terrified – picturing himself roasted and stuffed to the gizzards. But what really happens, is as touching and heartwarming as any moment I can recall. A great read-aloud book for your younger guests that will make you hungry for more.
“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.
Remember phone booths? Remember having to call your parents collect to come pick you up after track practice in high school because you couldn’t scrape together two gum-encrusted dimes from the bottom of your backpack? Maybe that was just me…but for anyone who does remember the antiquated charm of the phone booth, Peter Ackerman’s adorable “The Lonely Phone Booth” is a treat. On a busy corner of New York City, sits a little phone booth who’s feeling rather neglected, what with all the cell phones he sees rushing by. But, could he find new life once an electrical storm renders the cell phone towers defunct? This story has a retro feel and rallies support for the little booth as city officials threaten to haul it off to the dump. The pairing of Peter Ackerman’s delightful prose with Max Dalton’s illustrations is a smart one. Ackerman, a playwright who wrote Things You Shouldn’t Say Past Midnight,imbues an obvious love for New York City and the symbols of its glory (ballerinas, businessmen, racing cabs, skyscrapers) and Dalton, Argentinian-based illustrator extraordinaire has long been a favorite ever since he designed a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Board Game.” Put these two together and you’ve got a winning combination that will have children cheering for the booth. And you’ll recall with warm memories when you used to close that folding door behind you and call home collect.
Every summer, my older 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 only Romeo and Juliet for your little anglophile-in-training, but Pride and Prejudice as well. (Insert swooning here.) Not only are Oliver’s illustrations just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen, 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?
I’ve always been fascinated by kids who had to move around a lot. I never moved until I went away to college. Same house. Same town. Same little hiding spot at the back of the closet where I kept all of my diaries and bad adolescent poetry. But whenever a new kid came to my school, I was always a little tad smitten. Whether they moved from Texas or from three blocks away, I always attributed some sort of romance to the notion of moving from one house to another and secretly envied the chance to start all over fresh and exciting – making new friends, despite the nervousness that must accompany such a daunting task. Perhaps it is this long-standing fascination that makes Norton Juster’s Neville so darn endearing. In it, a little boy has just moved to a new town. And with this move come all of the emotions inherent in such a change – fear, anger, loneliness. Will he find new friends? Will he fit in? His mother suggests the mythical solution to all childhood problems: “go outside” and the little boy does…reluctantly. How will he make friends just by going outside? Thinking perhaps there might be something a little more dramatic to do, the little boy starts yelling “Neville” at the top of his lungs. Pretty soon, curious little children hear the siren call and come to investigate. And, as children often do, they decide to join in the party, despite not quite knowing what the party actually is. Soon, all of the children are screaming for the ever-elusive Neville and magically bonding over this seemingly bananas activity. Just who is Neville? You’ll have to read this superb book (by the same author as The Phantom Tollbooth, no less ) and find out for yourself. The seemingly daunting task of making new friends is made delightful – even fascinating.
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 Man and 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.