Summer road trips. Sick days. Waiting for appointments. Sitting still for…whatever reason. As I said a few days ago in my Musings, I’d like very much to encourage you not to resort to electronic entertainment to cope with all this waiting.
To that end, today I’ve got a list of books to puzzle, amuse, and absorb children while they’re waiting.
I’ll have another post up later this week (hopefully!) with a bunch more non-electronic suggestions especially suited for travel or for use when your children are more confined than they would like to be.
Of course, reading anything — a novel, an easy reader, a book of poems, a graphic novel — is a great way to pass the time. If you’ve got yourself a bookworm, you already know this. For some children who are less jazzed about reading or not capable of reading much on their own, or for distracting environments that make it hard to focus, something else is needed. Even for youngish bookworms who are at the very-short-book stage, it’s often not possible to cart along enough books if they zip through them quickly.
The kind of book I searched for to bring in the car, to tuck in a satchel for a doctor’s appointment, to keep kids waiting quietly backstage when we were putting on plays, is a different animal than a good read. I looked for “puttering books” — heavily-illustrated books that lent themselves to slow browsing, or playful puzzling, or even generated an idea for another armchair activity.
All of today’s titles were found at my local library, by the way. For free! You just can’t beat your library for budget travel activities. I used to check out a pile of books for a road trip a few days before departure and ban my kids from so much as looking at the covers until we were in the car and on our way. So much anticipation! For a long trip, divide your stash in half and salvage some novelty for the weary return home.
With the very youngest, any book is mostly for sharing and talking about together. For kids ages under-2 through 3, here are just a few books that spark great conversations and wonderings:
Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever; Busy, Busy Town; What Do People Do All Day?, etc.
Page after page of Richard Scarry’s iconic jollification. We spent many hours naming, choosing favorites, finding, and talking about the bustling characters in these and other books of his. Kind of a rite of passage for toddlers 🙂
Oh What a Busy Day, by Gyo Fujikawa
I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed this book before!! It was one of my kids’ favorites to look at over and over when they were very young. Imaginative, playful and beautiful. Any of Fujikawa’s books are a lovely treat. This one in particular is simply a magical hodgepodge.
Mother Goose collections
There are dozens of marvelously illustrated nursery rhyme collections. Check out a new one from your library to page through and recite with your wee ones. Try Sylvia Long’s Mother Goose, or Rosemary Wells’ collection or Richard Scarry’s. Each illustrator brings her own playful interpretation of these brilliant pieces of our heritage.
Gerda Muller’s Season books
Muller is a Dutch illustrator who has created one book for each season, plus The Circle of Seasons which incorporates all four. These are gorgeous, gentle books, lavishly illustrated, with sparse text, showing children enjoying each season’s delights.
Okay, for children capable of independent looking, first comes a batch of “puzzling” books:
Bob Staake’s Look! Another Book!, created and illustrated by Bob Staake
published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Co.
Little peepholes in the pages focus our attention on a few jolly details, but turn the page and you’re transported into a wild and wooly world peppered with pirates and aliens, zoo creatures and bajillions of children. There’s something to search for on every page in this explosion of color and activity. Play “I spy.” Spot the blueberry bagels. Which world would you like to go to? Which character would you want to be? Bob Staake’s original volume Look! A Book! has more of the same if you like this.
Look-Alikes, by Joan Steiner
published in 1998 by Little, Brown and Company
My kids loved the look-alike books (there are a handful of these titles by Steiner) with their intricate scenes created out of ordinary items in such a way that they look like something entirely different. At first glance, what you see looks like a model railroad station. Look again, and you’ll see it was built out of tennis rackets and embroidery hoops, buckles, postage stamps, a Slinky, and a hundred other things. How many objects can you spot and identify? Answers in the back, plus an added challenge if you need more to search for.
The Odd One Out: A Spotting Book, and Busy Bunny Days, both by Britta Teckentrup
published in 2014 by Big Picture Press and Chronicle Books
Great fun for ages 3 or 4 and up from one of my favorite author/illustrators for preschoolers. In Odd One Out, see a sea of lemurs staring at you with round-round eyes…which one is actually looking at his own nose? Amid a crowd of dancing pandas, which one lost his bamboo shoot? Can you spot the odd one
out? Subtle, handsome colors and gorgeous graphic design distinguish this book from lots of other search-and-find offerings. Busy Bunny Days asks intriguing questions about the hurly burly, crayon-hued pictures of this darling community.
Spot the Difference, by Tak Bùi
published in 2012 by Tundra Books
Two seemingly identical pictures, but there are twenty tricky differences between them to spot. Spot-the-difference puzzles are always popular and these illustrations from a talented Canadian comic artist are wildly engaging for kids. Urban and rural and fantasy locations, from the Great Wall of China to a treehouse for bunnies. There are 41 colorful, playful puzzles in the book. Answers included.
I Spy books by Walter Wick
The catalog of I Spy books by Walter Wick is large. I counted 13 regular versions and 10 junior versions on his website (which gives the interesting account of how this whole thing began, by the way.) How many hours have my kids poured over these incredibly complex displays searching for three pink elephants or one tiny astronaut?! Solve some of these, and then challenge your kids to create and photograph their own.
Where’s Waldo books by Martin Handford
Waldo emerged onto the scene (or hid himself in the scene more accurately) back in 1987. From what I can tell, there are about 7 Waldo volumes now. This could be wildly inaccurate! At any rate, plenty of opportunity to search for the iconic fellow in the striped jersey. He’s probably one of those cultural icons every kid should meet at some point, right?
There are gobs more of these puzzler sorts of books. My library categorizes them as “picture puzzles” and “riddles” if you want to search by subject.
Now, here are some books for “investigating”:
Around the World with Mouk: A Trail of Adventure, by Marc Boutavant
published in the U.S. in 2009 by Chronicle Books
Marc Boutavant is a well-known French artist, and this book is wall-to-wall Boutavant!
Mouk is a little bear, setting out on a round-the-world trip. Each neon, psychedelic page lands us in a new spot — and such unusual settings: Lapland (Finland), Hydra in Greece,
Libya, Burkina Faso…
There’s a profusion of cultural tidbits tucked into these scenes! On the Finland page, I spotted a little fox reading the Moomins (yay!), some delicious pulla (cardamom bread) being delivered, and a little tub of vili (you’re a true Finn if you know what this is) — along with some Finnish greetings, and a hundred other details.
Postcards from Mouk tell of his experiences in each place, and if you purchase the book, a page of stickers comes along with it.
published in the U.S. in 2013 by Big Picture Press
Mamoko is a bustling place because tonight is the Town Carnival!
Besides pouring over all the zesty details on each colorful page, there are a host of characters to follow throughout this book — Otto Trump, a rollerskating elephant, Malcolm Ratz, a bicycle-delivery rat, Old Mrs. Full-Wool, an elderly but peppy sheep, and many more. There are also odd, out-of-place objects to spot, and apples, apples everywhere.
Great option for playing “I Spy” for a l-o-n-g time in this energetic, upbeat town.
The Yellow Balloon, by Charlotte Dematons
published in the U.S. in 2003 by Front Street & Lemniscaat
These fantastical scenes come to us from the Netherlands, and this is quite a flight of fancy.
At the outset, you can just barely spot the yellow balloon, poking out of the tiny blue car’s window as they drive across a serpentine bridge. Next thing you know, it has broken free, and it will float around the world, across time, even into fairyland before this adventure is over.
The Wild West, and Old England, alpine ski resorts and desert canyonlands, the Bremen town musicians and Hansel and Gretel — it’s all here, and it all mixes together without troubling itself over logic. That makes for a fresh wave of delight with every page turn. There are many clever details tucked — almost hidden! — into these scenes, requiring careful looking. We’re also tracking the yellow balloon, the little blue car, a fakir on a flying carpet, and a prisoner in striped pajamas.
In the Town All Year Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner
published in the U.S. in 2008 by Chronicle Books
I’ve reviewed this jolly German import previously, here. Lots of people to track in this bustling European town throughout one cycle of seasons.
The Great Art Treasure Hunt: I Spy Red, Yellow, and Blue, by Doris Kutschbach
published in 2013 by Prestel
This gorgeous German import features 21 famous works of art, challenging us to find particular objects, patterns, or details in them. The leading questions are clever and besides enjoying the search-and-find, kids will learn to look more carefully and intelligently at art. Short additional notes about each pieace of art are included in the final pages, plus answers for all the searches. Look up more art treasure hunt books by Kutschbach if this is up your alley. Her title Art Detective: Spot the Difference is quite a bit like the next book…
This one’s for kids 9 and up. An art auction is thrown into a tizzy when an e-mail reveals that many of the paintings are fakes. Can you read up on the forgery-gang members, figure out their tell-tale signs, then examine the paintings and discover the frauds? It’s quite an involved process and might lend itself to teamwork. This book is a stand-alone sequel to Nilsen’s Art Fraud Detective.
The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery, by Graeme Base
published in 1989 by Abrams
Australian artist Graeme Base creates stunning, lavish pictures with clues hidden in the intricate designs. In this book, we need to find out who snuck in and ate the feast set for Horace the Elephant’s 11th birthday party. It’s incredibly tough to solve this, but a sealed envelope gives you the answer when you get completely stuck. Base has other well-known hidden picture books, including his most famous, Animalia.
Anno’s USA, by Mitsumasa Anno
published in 1983 by Philomel
One of the best of children’s illustrators, Anno created a series of wordless books tracing a sojourner’s travels across various regions. This one, going coast to coast in the USA, appeals to American kids because they’ll recognize more of the historical, literary, and geographic references than his journeys across northern Europe, Britain, Italy, and so on. Can you find Laura Ingalls Wilder with Pa’s smokehouse treetrunk? Bert and Ernie? Tom Sawyer and friends whitewashing the fence? There’s no guide to these tucked-in details. It’s up to you to look and recognize what’s happening in each spread.
How about a few “decoding” books:
This was originally published in the 1960s. Say the names of the letters rather than their sounds, and discover that these strings of letters and numbers make a sentence. “I M D 1 4 U” becomes “I am the one for you!” Can you figure them all out? There’s a sequel: CDC! if you crave more, plus it’s great fun to make up your own.
Wumbers, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
published in 2012 by Chronicle Books
I’ve reviewed this previously here. It’s similar to Steig’s work, but uses only numbers, inserting them as segments of words. It’s Gr8 fun 4 every1. If you see what I mean!
Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Jenna La Reau
published in 2004 by Candlewick Press
For kids ages 11 and up who are serious about their code-making, this book will give them lots of sneaky choices. Some of the book’s suggested activities cannot be done away from home, but most can.
And now, a bit of browsing for the curious:
Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross Sections, by Richard Platt and Stephen Biesty
published in 1992 by Alfred A. Knopf
Stephen Biesty has a whole slew of books with his truly incredible cross sections. This was his first, I believe, and features detailed drawings revealing the inner workings of everything from the Empire State Building to the Queen Mary. For those mechanical-engineering types, maybe ages 8 and up, all of his books are made to pour over.
David Macaulay’s The New Way Things Work
published in 1998 by HMH Books for Young Readers
David Macaulay is another hero for architectural-mechanical types. This large volume takes apart, examines, and explains how dozens of machines work, from a simple lever, to a can opener, to a microchip. Lots more text in this book than some of these others, for ages 10 and up.
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page, by Richard Platt, illustrated by Chris Riddell
published in 1999 by Candlewick Press
Walk through the year 1285 with young Tobias, a page spending his first year at his uncle’s castle. Heavily illustrated in a kid-friendly style. Richard Platt has also done a Roman, Egyptian, and Pirate diary in the same format. Ages 8 and up
Watch the building of a school, month by month, from a bird’s eye view. Track the characters, learn the process and machines and tools. Observe gobs of fascinating details. There’s a whole series of these with visits to a farm, a pirate ship, airport, city, and more.
Some friends gave us their entire set of vintage Childcraft Encyclopedias, circa 1980, and I am telling you some of these volumes were dog-eared favorites to lug in the car and look at again and again. Riddles and Greek gods and how eyes work and crafts to try, all here in exceptionally brief entries, with retro photos to boot! Maybe you can find some of these goldie-oldies at a thrift store, rummage sale, or library sale.
There are many current one-volume encyclopedias in the library from folks such as Dorling Kindersley, Kingfisher, National Geographic, Usborne, and others. Many of them are more text heavy than the other books in today’s blog, but still have gobs of full-page, glorious photographs, plus lots of tidbits of info.
The Lego books — LEGO Play Book, LEGO Star Wars Visual Dictionary, LEGO _____ insert anything you want here — are completely enthralling to any LEGO-fanatics in your household. It’s like those small glossy LEGO catalogs which are thumbed and studied and perhaps even slept with until they fall apart. But these are hardcover books. I hear they fly off the shelves like nobody’s business.
Sheer, flapping fun:
The Jolly Postman; The Goldilocks Variations; both by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
I’ve reviewed these both here. They are packed with fairy-tale fun — miniature books within books, letters and postcards to remove from the illustrated envelopes and read.
There’s a whole list of these on my Subjects page and you can search for the reviews to read more about them. A few titles perfect for leisurely discovery are:
The Adventures of Polo
The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, and the Bard
Once Upon a Banana
Magazines are light, yet pack a lot of variety into a few pages. Even if you don’t subscribe, you can usually get back-issues from your library. Check out: Highlights, Ranger Rick, or the many choices for different ages from the Cricket group including Ladybug, Spider, Click, Faces, and Cricket.
Some kids get car sick looking at a book — we had a couple of those. It prompted us to get audio books and all of us benefited immensely. Yes, you can read aloud in the car, but it’s hard on the vocal cords after awhile. Plus — those narrators! Most of them are outstanding actors who read these stories and do the voices enchantingly.
There ‘s a very wide range of book-lengths — even some picture books are recorded. You can listen to E.B. White himself read The Trumpet of the Swan, or John Erickson read and sing his ridiculous Hank the Cowdog stories. Jim Weiss has recorded many storytelling versions of fairy tales, myths, classics, Shakespeare, and more. Really, an enormous number of books have been recorded that a wide age-range can enjoy.
Search the library ahead of time to request the audio books you want, pop in the CD, and enjoy some quiet moments in the car with everyone listening to the story. Ahhhhh. We did this a LOT.
That’s a tiny fragment of what’s in your library. I’ll post more ideas in a few days that don’t involve looking at a book.
Meanwhile, if you’ve got a title to share that’s great for leisurely looking — please tell us about it in the comments!