a list of…five charming stories perfect for preschoolers

King Jack and the Dragon, written by Peter Bently, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Sturdy Jack, his pal Zack, and tag-along baby brother Caspar, are set for adventure!  Armed with a hefty cardboard box, an old sheet, a few stout sticks and some other odds and ends, these guys build a keen fort and promptly become knights for the day.  They joust with dragons.  They do battle with beasts to rival The Wild Things.  They feast like kings.  Jack is having such a grand time, he declares they’ll all spend the night in the fort.

However.  Parents from the outside world intervene.  First Zack, then Caspar are hauled off, and Jack finds himself alone…in a box…in the gathering dusk…and it’s more than a bit scary.  When a Thing with four feet approaches, Jack’s courage seriously flags!  What can it be?!

New in 2011, this is definitely one of the best new offerings for preschoolers I’ve seen in years.  I adore it!  It’s got a great story arc, with just enough suspense, plenty of zest, and oodles of comfort.  The topper is,  Helen Oxenbury has adorned it with her trademark, genius watercolors.  Her soft line and palette capture those delightfully-rounded, preschool tummies in their slightly saggy pants so charmingly they make your heart ache.  The postures of her children, and the meanderings of the baby on the periphery of the make-believe, are spot on.  Her dragons and beasts are gloriously lumpy and snurgly and bumptious.  Her families love on each other with the sweetness of a summer peach.

Okay.  Have I convinced you?  If you have someone 2-5 years old in your life, find this book!  You’ll read it many times!

The Little Red Hen, told and illustrated by Paul Galdone

You know this story.  A lazy cat, sluggish dog, and loafing mouse all decline to help busy little red hen with all the work around the house. So nervy they are!   Likewise, when she asks who will help her plant and tend some wheat, mill it into flour, and bake a cake, they all reply in the same limp words, “Not I.”  With nary a murmur, that little red hen does it all herself.  However, when the delectable aroma of cake wafts its way through the house, and the three sluggards follow their noses to claim a slice, wise little red hen puts her wee foot down.  She tells those good-for-nothings that they shall not have a share of the reward since they didn’t do any of the work!

Ah…sweet justice.

Paul Galdone is one of my favorite nursery tale illustrators.  He’s done quite a number of them, and I have sought them out for my own kids.  He packs so much personality into his ink-and-watercolor illustrations!  These are not sweet, precious renditions; they zing with bold line and radiate with indolence or indignation or industriousness as the scene requires.  The page layouts are fantastic; even the repeated dialogue from cat, dog, and mouse is given Galdone’s clever treatment.

Read this one with your kids, and let them chorus aloud along with these lazy buggers!  A Swanson family favorite!

Ginger, written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake

Ginger is a glorious armful of orange marmalade cat who lives with a charming little girl, enjoying tasty meals and lounging in his comfy basket bed.  It’s a great life for a cat.  Until…

…a springy black kitten arrives on the scene.  Botheration!  This little furry annoyance gives Ginger not a moment of peace, steals Ginger’s food, and even has the audacity to clamber into Ginger’s very own basket bed!  Harumph!  So, Ginger leaves.

Things are mighty lone and lorn without Ginger around.  Plus, the kitten gets into all sorts of mischief.  When the little girl finally finds Ginger, miserably sheltering from the rain, she smartly solves the problems, including providing a nice box bed for the kitten.  All seems settled.  But Ginger still manages to surprise us in the end!

Ahhh.  This is such a lovely book.  The story is fantastic, with a nice arc to it, and a couple of happy twists at the end that make each page turn a delight.  The watercolor-and-ink illustrations, set on creamy, cafe au lait pages,  are superb.  A bit of Edward Ardizzone’s line to them; full of that homely, old fashioned British flavor, and quiet warmth; bursting with cat personality.  Then, the text is set in large, clear, beautiful type, set about the pages in pleasing tidbits.  It’s like Mary Poppins — practically perfect in every way!  We loved checking this one out of the library when my kids were small.  You’re sure to love it, too.

Leap Back Home to Me, by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

Here we have a jolly green froggy mama and her froggy youngster.  This froggy young’un cannot wait to see the world.  He wants to leap, sproing, whoosh about the world in ever farther bounds!  Whoopee!

Froggy mama is good with that.  She encourages him to leap.  First, come small, easy hops over tiny critters and bitsy clover patches.  Then come bigger ventures — creeks, trees, seas.  Before long, this little fellow is touching the stars!

After he’s had his jump, though, he leaps back home to mama for the luxuries of home — a story, hot supper, a hug.  No matter how far he roams, Mama will always be there for him to come home to.  Such a comfort.

Think of this as a contemporary (2011), sprightly version of Runaway Bunny.  It’s zippier than Margaret Wise Brown’s story, and Mama Frog cheers her daredevil on as he strikes out from home, but the steadfast mama and the rock solid home that’s there for returning adventurers is similar.  It’s a happy, loving combination.  The text is set in pleasant, loosely-rhyming verse, that will easily be memorized and chanted by young listeners.

Cordell’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations are carefree, loose, summery glimpses of an eager, confident little frog and his proud, doting mama.  There’s so much exuberance and motion and glee, I dare you to read it without a smile on your face!

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

The peaceful, rolling, green hillsides and dusty, country lanes, English country gardens and charming, whitewashed, cottages of fairy tale land are the setting for this classic “I spy” book.

First up is a fruit orchard.  The trees are laden with golden pears, plump, purple plums, rosy apples, and…who’s that perched among the leaves in his dandy blue breeches and lemon yellow stockings?  It’s Tom Thumb!

Turn the page.  There’s Tom Thumb again, this time easily seen, plunked in Mother Hubbard’s cupboard sampling strawberry jam.  But, can you find Mother Hubbard herself in the picture?

Turn the page.  Now Mother Hubbard is center stage.  She’s down in her cellar in her jaunty polka-dot dress, getting ready to do the wash.  But wait — there’s someone else in the cellar, too.  Can you spot Cinderella?

On and on it goes.  Each nursery character you find hiding on one page, is front and center in the next scene, and someone new is lurking there.  A very short couplet tells you who to search for in each charming picture.  So much fun!

Janet and Allan Ahlberg teamed up on many confections for toddlers before Janet’s sad, early death.  This is one of the dearest.  Her detailed, cheery scenes are warm, homely, delights.  The variety of ways she tucks these wee characters into the settings is so clever.  Countless children adore this book; my own can still recite it word for word after how many years?!  That’s how good it is.

Here are Amazon links for these five books for the animal cracker crowd:

King Jack and the Dragon

The Little Red Hen (Folk Tale Classics)


Leap Back Home to Me

Each Peach Pear Plum (Picture Puffins)