the milk of human kindness… a list of five tenderhearted stories

crow boy cover imageCrow Boy, written and illustrated by Taro Yashima
published in 1955 by Viking Penguin

Crow Boy is an extraordinary book, lodged firmly in my heart since I read it many years ago. It is a profoundly touching story with two characters — teacher and student — who will long linger in the memory of all who read it.

Chibi is a little schoolboy in Japan, a small, oddly-behaved boy who keeps himself at a distance from the other children, preoccupied throughout the day by silently taking in the world around him, seemingly lost in his own, impenetrable thoughts.

No one really knows him. He walks a long distance to school crow boy by taro yashimafrom an apparently impoverished home. Over the years he has become merely an object of ridicule for the other children, as he is simply so strange.

However, when Mr. Isobe, the new teacher, comes to the school, he takes a deep interest in Chibi. He discovers Chibi’s amazing knowledge of the natural world, his artistic ability, and one astonishing talent no one else knows about. When Mr. Isobe encourages Chibi to share his unusual gift at the end-of-year talent show, the eyes of others are opened to the unique riches Chibi offers.

Maybe this plot sounds tired and commonplace in this era of hundreds of anti-bullying books. Trust me. It is not at all commonplace. Written in 1955, its honesty and beauty are almost raw, and not at all contrived. Taro Yashima won a Caldecott Honor for his powerful illustrations which capture not only a striking, Japanese sense, but also the intensity with which Chibi experiences his world.

Highly recommended for ages 5 and up.

julia's house for lost creatures cover imageJulia’s House for Lost Creatures, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke
published in 2014 by First Second

Julia lives in a big old house. A cattywampus house, with a jiggety bit here and a slight slump there. It rests upon the back of a tortoise  — yes, a tortoise — who, at the outset of our story, has trudged his way to a new spot near the sea, lugging Julia’s house with him.

Nothing unusual there.

Julia happily settles in with a fire, a mug of tea, and a good book, but after a few serene minutes she discovers something: It’s too quiet. So she whips up a welcoming sign to hang outside her door. “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures” it proclaims, and WOW! before you can say zippety-doo-da, a horde of the most peculiar creatures shows up in need of hospitality!

julia's house for lost creatures by ben hatke

Julia is happy to pamper each creature, but the sheer number of lost creatures quickly becomes unmanageable. Find out how resourceful Julia is, and how happily her home for these forlorn oddballs runs, when you read this charming book.

Hatke’s watercolor illustrations are lively and friendly. The combination of panels that move the story right along and full-stop, take-your-time pages, will suck you in from the title page onwards. His quirky, shaggy, monsters are bumbling and endearing and Julia herself is a brisk force of nature! Great fun for ages 2 and up.

the storm whale cover imageThe Storm Whale, written and illustrated by Benji Davies
published in 2013 by Henry Holt and Company

In quite a different house by the sea, a ramshackle cottage on a sandy beach, a little boy named Noi lives with his dad and six cats. 

Noi’s dad is a fisherman, and Noi is left alone to occupy himself during each long day of fishing.  He is quite a tiny figure, puttering about on the windswept shoreline, investigating.

One day, after a big storm, Noi discovers something tremendous. A little whale has washed ashore! Noi is the storm whale by benji daviessavvy and plucky and understands he must save this poor fellow. He lugs him home and installs him in the tub. There, Noi gladly spends the day enjoying the companionship of the whale.

What will happen, though, when Dad comes home? Deep down, Noi realizes that keeping a whale for a pet is not really the storm whale2 by benji daviesa good idea. The tenderness and empathy Noi’s dad shows towards his son, is echoed in the selflessness Noi shows to the whale, as together father and son do the right thing, and are rewarded in a happy way.

This simple story is unsentimental and dear at the same time. It brings both pang and balm, wistfulness and comfort without a big to-do. The obvious element, and what I love, is the relationship between Noi and his dad. It is unusual in a picture book to have just this combination of characters, and our encounter with them feels like a privilege.

Davies is a London author/illustrator I have not met before. His illustrations have a slightly Scandinavian sense, to my eye. Lovely, wide horizons of sea and shore, gorgeous blues of wave-tossed ocean, and a homely fishing cottage,  all provide the solitary setting. Noi is a little button of a boy, while his dad is immense and sturdy, a rugged fisherman with a gentle heart. Don’t miss this gem, for ages 2 and up.

mister bud wears the cone cover imageMister Bud Wears the Cone, written and illustrated by Carter Goodrich
published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Has your dog ever had to wear the Cone of Shame? If he has, I’ll bet you have a story about it. One of our dogs, the most high-energy, rambunctious Lab ever, would go completely catatonic if we put a cone on her. Dogs hate ’em.

So, you know there’s going to be both humor and pathos in a story about a dog and a cone, and that’s just what you get in this warm and funny book about Mister Bud.

Mister Bud has a “bad hot spot” which he simply mustn’t lick. His owner gives him lots of sympathy — so much so that Zorro, the other dog in the household, is quite jealous. But when the mister bud wears the cone carter goodrichowner leaves, there’s no getting around it — Mister Bud has to wear a cone, and Zorro, the rascal, is now highly amused. Teasing, taunting, and mayhem ensue, resulting in…Things Getting Broken by the guy in the cone.

Zorro is elated! When the owner comes home and sees what Mister Bud has done, all that extra attention will be over, Mister Bud will be in big trouble, and Zorro will get his fair share of love!

That’s not quite how things work out, though. Actually, there’s plenty of understanding and kindness to go around, and all ends well…almost.

The characters of Zorro and Mister Bud leap off the pages under the talented hand of Carter Goodrich, who has an extensive background in majorly-popular animated films. Truly, reading it is a bit like watching a flurry of an animated short. Give this a whirl when you need a smile, ages 2 and up.

fox's garden cover imageFox’s Garden, a wordless book by Princesse Camcam
first American edition published in 2014 by Enchanted Lion Books

Coming to us from France, this snowy, enchanted story is a fine choice to pull out as winter draws near.

The forest is still, the mounds of snow are shadowed in chill amethyst twilight, as a solitary fox creeps her way out of the trees and into a small village. From quiet houses, lamplight casts a friendly glow, but it is accompanied only by harrassment from those that dwell there. No one, it seems, harbors any love for a fox.

Except for one little boy. From his cozy window, he spies that fox as she slips into a shuttered greenhouse, and he takes pity on her. Trudging out past the tall, lean birches, through the fox's garden illustration princesse camcamfalling snow, he carries a basket of food.

What does this little boy discover about that fox when he greets her? And how can a fox repay such kindness? Those are surprises for you to discover in this magical story.

Impossibly-gorgeous cut-paper illustrations, mesmerizing scenes, winter wonder, and kindness, are all wrapped up in this sweet, wordless story, accessible to ages 2 and up. It’s not meant as a holiday tale, but I think it would be quite fitting for up-coming December reading.