five books…wishing you a happy birthday!

It’s Orange Marmalade’s One-Year Birthday, so I’m celebrating with a list of books about that Very Favorite Subject…birthdays.  There are gobs and slews of  picture books about birthdays out there, birthdays being so magnificently exciting, but here are five that are the frosting on the cake!


Alfie and the Birthday Surprise, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

If you’ve read Orange Marmalade for long, you know how much I adore Alfie and his creator, Shirley Hughes.  Hughes’ books score über-points for enticing,  child-savvy plots and brilliant illustrations.

Mr. and Mrs. MacNally are Alfie’s dearly loved neighbors.  Their daughter Maureen is his babysitter, and the three of them find their way into a number of the Alfie stories.

Mr. MacNally is especially fond of Smoky, his old, old gray cat.  So when dear old Smoky dies in his sleep, the MacNallys and Alfie are all quite sad.  In fact, Mr. MacNally’s dreary mood lingers on and on.  So, Alfie and Maureen conspire to throw a surprise birthday party to cheer him up.

A lot of exciting preparations ensue, including shopping for just the right gift and helping with the birthday cake.  Maureen comes up with the best present of all:  a brand new kitten.  And, she asks Alfie to look after him overnight while they wait for the party.  Alfie is very pleased to do that!  At just the right time, as the party guests all quietly lurk in the darkness, Mr. MacNally arrives and SURPRISE!!  Mr. MacNally is delighted!  He loves the new kitten — a very happy solution to his troubles, indeed.

Just. Charming. 

Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, pictures by Maurice Sendak

The little girl in this story is in great need of help.   It’s her mothers’ birthday and she has nothing to give her.  Dear me.  So, she enlists the help of Mr. Rabbit who proceeds to quiz the girl to figure out just what it is her mother likes. 

The thing is, her mother likes red.  (So do I.) Mr. Rabbit does not believe you can give a person red.  The little girl proposes giving her something red, and that sounds workable.  But what is red?  Red underwear, Mr. Rabbit proposes.  Eep!  The girl thinks this is an inappropriate present!  Red roofs, red birds, red fire engines…all of Mr. Rabbit’s ideas are discarded until he hits on red apples.  Apples are good; we’ll go with apples…but…the little girl thinks that she needs something else, too.  And on the two of them go until they have assembled a truly lovely present. 

We must have read this book a hundred times when my children were small.  The friendly, pleasant dialogue between Mr. Rabbit and the girl makes up the entire text.  Just enough comforting repetition, just enough opportunities to smile knowingly at Mr. Rabbit’s suggestions, just enough curiosity and wonder about what is red, or yellow, or blue, all wrapped up in quiet affection.   Maurice Sendak’s beautiful, colorful, sun-dappled paintings portray a gentle, warm, kind world that is just the right size for a child to inhabit.  This is a well-loved classic which won a Caldecott Honor in 1963 and has been published in many languages. 

A Birthday for Bear, by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

I’ve reviewed this duo’s A Visitor for Bear elsewhere in my blog.  Here are Bear and Mouse again, delivering gallons of amusement!

This time it’s Bear’s birthday.  But, Bear declares, he does not like presents.  Or birthday cards. Or balloons.  Or parties.  He plum does not like birthdays at all!!  Well!

Mouse is small but quite determined and sneaky, and he invents many tricky ways to treat Bear nicely on his birthday.  But Bear refuses his kindnesses, rejects his balloons, scorns his gift.  How sad is that?!  Until Mouse comes up with one deliciously devious way of scootching past Bear’s defences just long enough to sweeten up His Grumpiness with some chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate sprinkles.  Who could resist?!

Bonnie Becker has created two extremely engaging characters — dear, cranky Bear and energetic, bright-eyed Mouse — and written their stories with juicy words, delightful humor, and plots with punch.  I love them!  Denton’s illustrations are a perfect match.  Bulky brown Bear is endearing; Mouse is hilarious; all the soft and bright watercolors communicate joy and homey warmth.  This one is written for newly independent readers but is a treat for the read-aloud crowd as well.

A Birthday for Frances, by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban

I dearly hope you know Frances.  The badger.  And her family.  If not, you are missing out!

In this episode, Frances’ little sister Gloria is having a birthday.  “That is how it is, Alice,” Frances tells her imaginary friend.  “Your birthday is always the one that is not now.”

Yes, Frances is having a bit of a time feeling gracious towards Gloria and all the festivities in her honor.  The charming invitations.  The cake and candy.  The presents.  All for Gloria.  Hmmph.  But when she announces that she is not giving Gloria any present, and her mother says that will be fine, Frances begins to cry!  Because everyone is giving Gloria a present but her! 

Well, Mother and Father are very wise and know how to deal with the mixed emotions of not-being-the-birthday-girl.  They advance Frances a nickle and two pennies on her allowance and Father walks with her to the store to buy a Chompo Bar and four balls of bubble gum as a present for Gloria.  But, once she has these yummies in hand, will Frances actually be able to part with them and give them to her lucky little sister?

The Frances stories are written with as much insight and understanding of young children as any books ever, I think.  Each one portrays very realistic challenges children face, doing so with great humor, warm family bonds, and no sentimentality.  With badgers.  The language and dialogue are straightforward, honest, and highly quotable!  In our family, we find ourselves quoting Frances and singing her little ditties quite frequently!  The illustrations are utterly charming and simple.  I’ll add a link to the audio collection read by Glynis Johns because she is absolutely brilliant!  Our kids fell asleep listening to her read these stories many, many times.

Benny Bakes a Cake, story and pictures by Eve Rice

It’s Benny’s birthday.  He gets four candles on his cake, but he looks like he’s two to me.  Anyway…

To celebrate, Mama is making a delicious birthday cake and she invites Benny to help her.  So much fun!  Benny loves to sift the flour, squinching that little magic lever; and to stir, pour, scrape…and lick!  When the masterpiece is finished — two giant layers of cake with oodles of chocolate frosting and icing flowers and “Happy Birthday Benny” written on top — there is still time for Mama and Benny to take a nice walk.

BUT!!  While they are putting on their shoes, something very terrible happens!  Ralph the dog happens!  Ralph has pulled that gorgeous cake right off the table and is helping his doggy self to it!  Oh no!!  Can anything be done to redeem Benny’s birthday?

This is a book for the very youngest listeners.  Very few words.  Simple, colorful, jolly pictures.  A protagonist just their size.  A birthday calamity and a very happy ending.  All the best ingredients for a story to enjoy over and over and over again.  A Swanson family favorite that has made many babysitting rounds as well!

Here are the Amazon links:
Alfie and the Birthday Surprise
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present
A Birthday for Bear (Bear and Mouse)
A Birthday for Frances
Frances Audio Collection CD (I Can Read Book 2)
Benny Bakes a Cake