Today I’m celebrating my daughter and the four years of strenuous studies she’s completed to earn her English Literature degree! Huzzah!
Ingrid is one of the most caring human beings on the planet. She’s a sunny, strong, deeply-thoughtful, peacemaker, with more organizational savvy in her pinky finger than Leslie Knope! Yup.
And Ingrid is that person who, when you see the little quizzes to find out how many of the Top 100 Novels of All Time you’ve read — she clicks off nearly all of them. She’s amazingly well-read. Yet when she comes home to my stacks of picture books, she happily settles in to enjoy them.
So, I thought it fitting to post, in her honor, a list of children’s books written by folks known for being “adult” authors. I’ll start with one of the most recently published…
Twenty Yawns, by Jane Smiley, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
published in 2016 by Two Lions
Pulitzer-prize winning Jane Smiley has written a rare gem for little ones ages Just-One and up. It’s one of those deceptively-simple stories, gorgeously crafted, which speaks intuitively to a child’s experience of the world, intelligently, without condescension. Timeless, warm, satisfying, it burrows right into your heart.
Lucy and her parents spend a happy day at the beach, thoroughly wearing themselves out by the time the sun is setting.
Yet when it’s time for bed, Lucy has a wee bit of trouble falling asleep. Several distractions and concerns niggle at her.
Only when they are properly attended to can Lucy relax into sweet slumber. Lauren Castillo’s monumentally-comforting artwork is the perfect match. Her chalky textures, shaggy lines, toasty-warm color palette, and amiable human figures welcome us into the story like…like what?…a friendly dog, a favorite quilt, a genuine smile. Castillo exudes warmth in every story she touches.
Sprinkled in the story and pictures are twenty yawns to discover and count — such a delightful added spritz of happiness. Don’t miss this one. It’s been on shelves for just about a month.
Moving on to another bedtime story, this time with quite a different flavor:
The Bed Book, by Sylvia Plath, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
first American edition published in 1976 by Harper & Row
Dark and broody, Sylvia Plath is not the name I’d expect to find on this utterly delightful, imaginative poem, but there it is!
I don’t know just when she wrote this. It was published after her death. In Britain, it was published with Quentin Blake’s maniac line drawings…
while in the U.S. it appears with Emily Arnold McCully’s watercolors. It’s all about the fantastical sorts of beds one might have which would definitely make going to bed a much more exciting prospect. For example, this submarine bed:
or this elephant bed:
You might not be able to locate the McCully edition, 40 years old and out of print. But you can purchase a collection of the three children’s stories Plath wrote in one volume, The It Doesn’t Matter Suit and Other Stories and…why would you not want her other two stories as well? Ages 2 and up.
Sharing a similar flavor of rambunctious playfulness is:
Peeny Butter Fudge, by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
published in 2009; a Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
All the rule-breaking benefits of being a grandmother, firecracker out in this happy account by the great novelist Toni Morrison.
As our story opens, Nana is left with three grandchildren while Mom exits for the day, having left detailed instructions for just what the children should do and eat at strictly-assigned hours. So organized. So responsible. So…not going to be adhered to by Nana.
Nana’s not got time for television. She’s too busy careening along in potato sack races and swing dancing with her grands. She’s got an entirely different menu in mind for lunch. And to top it off, she declares they ought to stir up a batch of an old family recipe — Peeny Butter Fudge. All this means the house is rather a disaster when Mom comes home, but oh, are they ever happy!
Illustrated in pulsing, neon colors and rambunctious line. The fudge recipe is included! A gallon of fun for ages 2 and up.
A longer, but heavily-illustrated story is next up…
The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont
published originally in 1950; published by The New York Review Children’s Collection in 2008
In his Introduction to the NYRCC edition of this book, Neil Gaiman calls this “probably the best book in the world.” So…fairly high praise from a guy who knows.
13 Clocks is quite a story! It’s a fantasy like you’ve never read before. It contains all the usual fairy tale tropes, but they’re given a huge licorice twist — somewhat of a Princess Bride, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy flavor.
There’s a princess and an evil duke and a gallant prince and a quest. There are magic spells and creepy spies and cascades of precious jewels. So — yes, it’s a fairy tale. But there’s a leapfrogging, shot-out-of-the-blue quality to the narrative that zings us around like a tilt-a-whirl. Mightily eccentric.
Besides the storyline shenanigans, the most obvious delights of this story are Thurber’s uncanny use of words. Made-up words. Crazily strung-together words. Mesmerizing, tantalizing, sparkly words! All of which make this a Read-Aloud confection.
Marc Simont, one of the most beloved illustrators, supplies fantastic characters and aura. What a team. A rollicking read-aloud for ages 6 and up. 124 pages.
Another, longer fantasy, plum-perfect for reading aloud is…
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
published in 1990 by Penguin Books
Haroun is the son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa. They live in the saddest city in the world, “a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish” and its factories manufacture sadness for export. Rashid’s stories are the only source of laughter in Haroun’s world.
But one day, the stories dry up.
And that’s not just a quirk of fate nor an accident. A really-really bad guy named Khattam-Shud, the Arch-Enemy of Stories, has ordered Iff the Water Genie to turn off the story spigot in the Sea of Stories. Haroun and Rashid and a growing band of fantastical allies are determined to put an end to that villain and his gloomy vision for a cold and storyless existence.
It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland world filled with extraordinary characters and plot twists. Rushdie is a wizard of a storyteller himself, of course, and his marvelous words magically, effortlessly, gather us into this adventurous tale.
In fact, this is also an allegorical tale, one in which it’s hard not to see elements of Rushdie’s own life and the fatwa which threatened to cut off his storytelling days. Young children reading or listening will enjoy the tale at its lively surface level, while older readers may make many interesting connections or observations to their own world, to the silencing of some voices, to the power of stories, or to various forms of governance.
It’s been produced as an opera.
My library shelves this as adult fiction. It is certainly fiction that adults will thoroughly enjoy, but it is written as a children’s story, so don’t be afraid of checking this out for reading together. Ages 8 and up can listen; independent readers will need a stout vocabulary. 200 pages.
Finally, a turn towards poetry:
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey
poems copyright 1939; this edition with Gorey’s illustrations published in 1982 by Harcourt Brace & Co.
Cascading with playful verses and with peculiar, industrious, marauding, persnickety, comedic cats, this is a volume of verse guaranteed to tickle the fancies of young and old.
If you or your children think, for instance, that poetry’s a bore, please make the acquaintance of the Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks, or Macavity the Mystery Cat. Marvelously entertaining stuff.
This is the basis for the Broadway musical “Cats” ( Marlene Danielle — Photo by Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Delicious wordsmithing, frolicksome rhythms, idiosyncratic personalities — all served up abundantly in the collection of more than a dozen poems. Edward Gorey’s genius, droll, Victorian, line-drawings are a fantastic pairing. Share these with ages 2 to Adult.
Over the years, I’ve posted quite a few other titles that would fit in this category. Here are a few of them, with links to their reviews: