Yikes. Starting this project is a bit daunting, but I can adapt as I go, right?! I thought I’d try to publish a list of sorts once each week, and then do some shorter posts with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, poetry, and perhaps some thoughts of my own on making books a part of our lives. We’ll see how attainable those goals end up being! At any rate, my first list is…
Five classic picture books every child should know…
These five books were all published more than 60 years ago yet have not lost a drop of magic. Each one combines a great story, memorable words, and captivating illustrations. They are for reading over and over again.
Going oldest to youngest…
Millions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gag
First published in 1928
A very dear old man and woman are so very lonely that the old man goes off in search of a cat to keep them company. He plans to choose the prettiest one of them all and take it home. But what does he find? “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,” that lovely, rhythmic line that pops up throughout the story, which children love to chant and which will canoodle its way into your conversation for the rest of your life! Well. All these cats are so pretty he simply cannot choose, so he takes them all back to his sweet wife who exclaims in consternation when the pack arrives back at the cottage, “My dear! What are you doing?” A positive melee breaks out when the old couple set the cats to deciding amongst themselves which one is the prettiest, survived by only one thin and scraggly kitten who becomes oh-so-plump and pretty when it is taken in and loved by the very old woman.
Wanda Gag grew up in Minnesota and was first an artist, taking after her Bohemian father. Her hand lettered text and highly recognizable pen-and-ink drawings are definitely part of the charm of this book.
The Story About Ping, by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese
First published in 1933
Ping is a beautiful young duck who lives with his mother and father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins on a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze River. Every day the ducks feed on snails and fish, and every night they come back to the boat for safety. The trouble starts when Ping is too busy to hear the boatman’s call at sundown. Ping knows that the last duck to march over the clever bridge onto the boat gets a SPANK on the rump, and Ping does not want to be spanked. Everyone reading this story can relate to that “uh oh” feeling which Ping feels when he suddenly realizes the trouble he is in. So Ping hides…only to discover in the morning that he is lost. A day of adventure and danger on the Yangtze, complete with fishing birds and a small Chinese boy wearing a wooden barrel as a lifejacket, ends when Ping hears once again the familiar boatman’s call. Despite Ping’s great hurry to return to the wise-eyed boat, he finds himself the last duck again. This time, though, he takes his spanking because of his great longing to be back with his family.
This book was written by Marjorie Flack who also wrote many other wonderful stories. She is brilliant at understanding what’s universally important to children – curiosity, punishment, being lost, belonging, family – and then creating likeable characters and spinning out compelling stories. She chose Kurt Wiese to do these authentic illustrations because of the years he lived in China. A fantastic collaboration.
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business, written and illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina
First published in 1938
Once there was a peddler who sold caps. He carried them on top of his head as he went about crying, “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” He always stacked them up in the same order on his head: first his own checked cap, then a bunch of gray caps, then a bunch of brown caps, then a bunch of blue caps, and on the very top a bunch of red caps. This industrious peddler gets into a heap of trouble when he encounters some very mischievous monkeys who steal all his caps, except his own checked one fortunately, and refuse to give them back. The peddler is peeved, and shakes his fists at them and stamps on the ground, but they only give him the same treatment, as well as reciting the sassy words, “Tsz, tsz, tsz!” Finally, the peddler becomes so angry he throws his cap on the ground…and unintentionally saves the day for himself as all the monkeys in the tree do the same thing.
What a delightful book! It’s funny, and exasperating, and satisfying. There are wonderful lines that invite a chorus as you read along, antics to act out, and so many surprising twists and turns. Esphyr Slobodkina was first an artist, born in Siberia. The Eastern European feel to her illustrations do not clash at all with a tree full of monkeys in the countryside! They simply pop with charm and color.
Make Way for Ducklings, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey
First published in 1941
Mr. and Mrs. Mallard have to find just the right place to raise their new brood of ducklings. Flying about Boston, they visit and view a number of well-known landmarks, yet each one has its drawbacks. Finally they find a nice, quiet island in the Charles River, not far from a policeman named Michael who feeds them peanuts, and there the ducklings hatch out – Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack! Mrs. Mallard does a splendid job of raising these guys, while Mr. Mallard is off exploring. Finally, the day comes when they have arranged to meet. The journey for Mrs. Mallard and her rag-tag team of eight is fraught with peril, but thanks to Michael’s quick thinking, they make it, crossing Beacon Street and heading into the Public Garden to find Mr. Mallard waiting for them, as promised. The whole family settles happily in the pond there, following the swan boats and eating peanuts.
Is there a more thoroughly American picture book than this? There is even a statue in Boston’s Public Garden of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings. Robert McCloskey is a legend in children’s book illustration, who tells us he brought a group of ducklings into his house to swim in his bathtub and waddle about in order to properly sketch them. The hardback version is 9”x12”. Get one this size to fully enjoy his drawings.
Blueberries for Sal, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey
First published in 1949
Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk is the sound of blueberries hitting the bottom of the tin pail Sal carries when she goes blueberry picking. Her mother wants to can the berries so they can eat them over the winter. Sal and her mother are gathering the berries on Blueberry Hill, but the trouble is: they aren’t the only ones. Mama Bear and Little Bear are there, too, eating lots of berries to put on fat before winter. With the two mama’s busy hunting for berries, and the two young ones trudging along behind, a bit tired and distracted, it isn’t long before they are all mixed up with each other among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill. Sal and Little Bear don’t feel alarmed about this, but the two mothers are old enough to be quite shy of one another. In the end, of course, moms and kids are all straightened out and head to their proper homes.
This is another gem by Robert McCloskey, who set it, as well as many of his other stories, along the coast of Maine. It is such a simple story, yet it is delicious to observe the mix-up happening while the mothers remain completely oblivious, and the irony of each mother being shy of the other “child” is a clever twist. McCloskey’s illustrations, fantastic as always, give a lovely, retro atmosphere to the story. Sal is irresistible. This book begs to be read with blueberry muffins and milk!