a list of…five clever accounts of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers…and a couple of grandparents, to boot.

Grandpa Green, written and illustrated by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green has lived a long, interesting life, but rather than keeping a scrapbook, he’s created a topiary garden of memories!

In this unusual book, his small grandson takes us by the hand and gives us a tour of the garden, as he works his way through with his trusty wheelbarrow, collecting the odd gardening glove, spectacles, and floppy hat which his dearly-loved, forgetful grandpa keeps dropping here and there.  From the grandson, we learn the outlines of Grandpa’s life, from a childhood bout with chicken pox, to a stint in a world war, to the happy years of marriage and family.  These brief remarks comprise the entire story…in words.

However, the illustrations of Grandpa’s fascinating garden tell a much richer story, full of the imaginative, intriguing, mysterious, delight that makes a rather ordinary life, tantalizing.  For, there really is something extraordinary about all of our ordinary stories.  Topiary sculptures of bawling babies and towering wedding cakes, giant carrots and the Eiffel tower, mingle with real, scampering rabbits, pathways and picnics.  Rather than the rigid, staid feel of a formal garden, this topiary garden energetically morphs from page to page, and thrums with life and the busy activity of the grandson.

This is a book that needs to be looked at quite a number of times, slowly, wondered over together, talked about, in order to discover all the secrets hidden in the garden.  It’s a lovely multi-generational invitation to talk about our own memories, and our parents’ and grandparents’ stories, as well as the small stories that already make up our children’s lives.  Not for those too young to sit still and muse — save it for the reflective ones, who might be any age from 3 to 103.

Dirtball Pete, written and illustrated by Eileen Brennan

Dirtball Pete is a great little guy.  He just happens to attract dirt and muss, smears and smells,  like a magnet.  So when his class at school puts on a grand program, The Fifty States and Why They’re Great, Dirtball Pete’s mom knows she has serious work to do.

Armed with rubber gloves and hot water, Dirtball Pete’s mom herds him into the tub, scrubs that boy clean as a whistle, and tells him in no uncertain terms to stay that way all the way to the final curtain.  She aims to be proud of that boy.  When Dirtball Pete, playing Pennsylvania in the program, arrives at school he is, in fact, looking mighty spiffy in his dandy costume.

You just know where this is going, don’t you?  As I say, Pete attracts stains like clover does bees.  Between arrival and showtime…that’s plenty of time for disaster.  Yet in the end, Pete’s mom is proud fit to burst buttons over Pete.  You must read the book to discover the hilarious, magnificent conclusion!

Ahhh.  Such a great story.  I adore Dirtball Pete and his mama, and think you will agree with her that he is one very special boy!  This is Eileen Brennan’s first picture book and I’d love to see more from her.  The illustrations happily exude the friendly, carefree personality of Pete.  Give this one a whirl.

The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, by Neil Gaiman, pictures by Dave McKean

Okay.  So,  Dad tends to be utterly unaware of the world around him when he is reading the newspaper.  And his son has a friend named Nathan who has two very cool new goldfish.  Also, nothing seems to be of any interest to Nathan when it comes to swapping for the goldfish — not even some cool, old transformer robots.  Nope, the only item Nathan is prepared to swap for is…Dad.  So, you add it up.

The little sister does not think this is a good plan and warns her brother that he will be in a large kettle of hot water when Mom gets home, but…off goes Dad to Nathan’s place, still utterly absorbed in the newspaper.  And, sure enough, when Mom comes home and hears that her son has swapped his father for a couple of goldfish, she is not amused.  Even calls him, “Young Man,” a label reserved for Serious Times.

Our boy is thus sent to bring back Dad.  But, things are not so simple.  Because meanwhile Dad has been swapped quite a number of times for one thing and another,  causing the boy and his pesky little sister to walk quite a piece in order to finally, finally retrieve him.  Phew.

This is an absolutely ridiculous story that made our family laugh out loud.  So far fetched.  So dry.  Gaiman’s humor will likely miss on those younger than about 10 years old, but should tickle the funny bones of those 6th grade and up.  In addition, Dave McKean’s complex mixed-media illustrations are sheer genius.  My copy from the library included a lovely reading of the story by Neil Gaiman himself, on CD.  Great fun!

A Chair for My Mother, written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams

This is the story of a young girl, her mother (a waitress at the Blue Tile Diner), and her grandmother.  These three stalwart people live together in a sunny, charming apartment, brimming with love, but sadly lacking a comfy chair.

The reason for the lack in furniture is that their former home was reduced to soot and ashes in a terrible fire.  That was a sad time, but the profound helpfulness and generosity of family and neighbors soon installed them in their new place, all set up with cheery red and white curtains, kitchen table, sky-blue teapot, and even a big, purple, teddy bear.  But…no comfy chair.  So, for a year now, the three of them have been saving their nickles and dimes and quarters in a giant glass jar.  Now, at last, it’s plum full and they are happily using their savings to buy a glorious, soft, armchair.

This classic, much-loved, Caldecott Honor  book from 1982 lassos our hearts and draws us right into this small family, their trials, their camaraderie, their long wait, and their beautiful reward.  Vera Williams’ illustrations burst with color, glow with warmth, delight with detail.  I cannot imagine how many times we read this book when my children were small.

More Tales of Oliver Pig, by Jean Van Leeuwen, pictures by Arnold Lobel

Oliver Pig and his family —  little sister Amanda, Mother, Father, and Grandmother – are the subjects of five wonderful tales in this Swanson-favorite early reader.

Father and Oliver plant a garden, which involves so much mystery and wonder and waiting, before the triumphant sharing of the first fruits!  Mother is beleaguered by Oliver and Amanda’s shenanigans to the point where she escapes to a tree fort for some peace and quiet.  Father and Oliver go on a walk in the fresh snow, while Oliver asks many, many curious questions.  Grandmother babysits while Mother takes a brief holiday, and she shows Oliver and Amanda her own ways of doing things.  Mother has her work cut out, coping with Oliver’s wide-awake-ness at bedtime.

Five funny, sweet stories, full of monkey-shine, trouble, and happiness, within a warm, loving family.  Arnold Lobel, of Frog and Toad fame, gives his same, light-handed brilliancy to these watercolor and ink illustrations.  The first Oliver Pig stories were published in 1979; this volume came out in 1981.  More recently, other stories with a new illustrator have been published.  I much prefer these original volumes.  My children and I read these so very many times while laughing together, and still quote them.  They’re fantastic.

Here are Amazon links for these all-in-the-family titles:

Grandpa Green
Dirtball Pete
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish
A Chair for My Mother 25th Anniversary Edition (Reading Rainbow Books)
More Tales of Oliver Pig: Level 2 (Easy-to-Read, Puffin)