One of the advantages of being a forty-four year old mother of weebots is that I know about a lot of good picture books that are as old as I am. And so, in the spirit of the latest overused literary marketing tool–displaying the talents of the young: Narrative’s “Fifteen below Thirty” and The New Yorker’s “Twenty under Forty”–I’ve compiled a list of the exceptional old. I call it “Twelve Over Forty.”
I did not consult a panel, no surveys were done, and three out of five dentists did not recommend these books. My criteria were simple: either 1. as a child, I loved the book, 2. Mbot and/or Gbot loves the book and asks for it repeatedly, or 3. both of the above.
Originally a piece written for radio and recorded by Dylan Thomas in 1952, this lyrical tale was first published as a book in 1954 as part of a collection by New Directions. This edition, published in 1985 by Holiday House, is available online from Barnes and Noble, with unused copies running upwards of $20, which is worth it for the illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. I wasn’t introduced to it until I was in my twenties, and fell immediately in love with it. I’ve been reading it to Mbot since he was born, and although I know he doesn’t understand much of it, he’s as mesmerized as I am by the pictures, the language, and the high adventure:
“Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. “
I am a sucker for the lyrical and the slyly humorous; this snowballs the reader with both.
“One morning, the cock crowed ‘cockty-doodly,’ and Leela rattled her stove lids klinkey-klink, shouting, ‘Hit the deck, Burt, time to eat!’ And Burt came downstairs winking and blinking his sleepy eyelids and ate his breakfast.” So begins the day of Burt Dow, an old deep-water man, who goes out cod fishing and catches a bigger adventure than he’d planned on. Published in 1963, this was Robert McCloskey‘s last book, and it’s easily as good as his better known Newbery winners, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.
The way Burt gets himself out of a whale’s tummy looks to me like a playful homage to Jackson Pollack, whose drip paintings became so influential in the decade before Burt Dow chugged on the scene in his sea-worn dory the Tidely Idley, with “a firm hand on the tiller, giggling gull flying along behind.”
This is one of those books that is so simple and seemingly unimpressive that you wonder why it pulls on you days and years after reading it, like the chorus of a good song. I loved it as a kid. Mbot loved it as a two year-old. Gbot loves it now. It has under 150 words–I didn’t have a chance to count them before it disappeared from the table. But “I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas,” has the staying power of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
4. Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery
I don’t want this post to turn into a promo for Richard Scarry, but although I was weened on the Greatest Storybook Ever and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, both of which Mbot has loved, literally, to tatters, I didn’t discover The Great Pie Robbery until I was over forty. I’d say it’s among Mbot’s favorite five books, right up there with Your Body Battles a Stomachache by Vicky Cobb (see Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus.)
5. Richard Scarry’s Busytown is probably the top favorite in this household. According to Mbot this morning: “My best book in the whole wide world.” The pictures often tell a parallel but often more detailed much funnier story than the words–for example, there’s a pig that loses his hat, and although nothing is written about him, he can be found chasing it through several of Richard Scarry’s books.
By Roger DuVoisin, Petunia enjoyed a fiftieth anniversary edition in 2000. The story about a silly goose who thinks carrying around a book will make her wise, and sets about ruining the barnyard animals’ lives with her false knowledge, has just enough repetition, craziness, and cleverness to captivate. And a box firecrackers that almost blows up the animals near the end makes it all the more attractive for the toddler set. Available on Amazon.
Don Freeman could put his shoes under my bed anytime. He brought us Corduroy, Dandelion, the excellent and lesser known Norman the Doorman, and the excellent and almost completely unknown Mop Top, published by Scholastic Books in 1955. Not until I’d opened the fifty pounds of books Mom had sent from Idaho and read this to Mbot did I realize that Mr. Freeman wasn’t only a great illustrator and storyteller, but a poet, too. His prose are rich with internal rhythm and rhyme–maybe one reason I remembered after all these years the little boy who didn’t want to get his hair cut. Read this aloud: “‘I thought maybe you forgot,’ said roly-poly Mister Barberoli. ‘But you’re right on the dot. It’s exactly four!’ Then in one long leap, Moppy was up on the barber-chair seat ready to get his hair cut nice and neat.”
By DuBose Heyward, illustrated by Margerie Flack. 1939. Available on Amazon. I only remembered this book from my childhood as if from a dream, and so it was strange to read it to Mbot, because I remembered nothing but the feeling it had given me, the essence, and that was this: it was safe somehow, and soft, and comforting. Now that I’m a mother, I appreciate it even more because it’s about a hardworking, lower class, but kind and resourceful mommy bunny who wins the coveted position of Easter Bunny and rises to the task. Since no one I know has read it, I find it as strange as it is wonderful that it’s available on Amazon and that the author and illustrator are Wikipediable.
“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night sailed off in a wooden shoe/Sailed on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew….” And so begin the nighttime adventures of the fishermen three. First published by Riverside Press in 1915, this poem by Eugene Field appears in countless anthologies and has been set to music. This edition, illustrated by Johanna Westerman in blue-toned watercolor paintings, is so gorgeous that I want to frame the pages and hang them on my wall. Mbot and Gbot like to find the kitty cat in every picture. North-South books, 1995, available on Amazon.
This Christmas rodent from 1966 never became as famous as his contemporary, Rudolph, but he’s got lasting appeal. Author Michael Brown wrote a sequel, illustrated, like the original, by Elfieda DeWitt. Predictably, the sequel’s not nearly as good, although it could start a fun family tradition of planting small yellow-wrapped gifts in the Christmas tree.
Here we have an angel singing the praises of cheese. Which I can understand. “Now through the year, this little mouse/Had saved one special thing:/A piece of cheese!/The kind that makes the angels want to sing.”
That line alone establishes Michael Brown’s inclusion in the Literary Superhero’s library. Published by Sandy Creek and available through Amazon.
Here’s another sleeper by the author of a classic, this time Harry the Dirty Dog, by author/illustrator team Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham. Published by Scholastic Books in 1959, The Plant Sitter is perfect in every way, except that it’s available on Amazon, but not for under $50.
In my favorite illustration, our industrious young protagonist dreams that the plants he’s volunteered to take care of grow so big they twine together and knock down the walls of the house. His clients are calling, “Where are my plants? Where are my plants?” He awakens to his father yelling, “Wear are my pants? Where are my pants?”
12. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Nicolas. This edition, O Best Beloved, published by Doubleday in 1952, is available on Amazon. This month, Mbot’s favorite of the twelve short tales is “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin:” “Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but ahis hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch….”
Although peppered with words that are no longer socially acceptable, like “oriental,” this is Kipling at, in my opinion, his best. Displaying brevity, strong character sketches, conflict, humor, poetry, irony, and perfect narrative arc, each tale could be used to teach a novel-writing course. Best in short doses, because the word-to-picture ratio is high, and because, too, the language, while beautiful, can twist a forty-four year-old’s tongue and baffle a thirty-nine month-old brain. Maybe someday I will become an editor at a major publishing house and issue a 32-page picture book for each story. I’m not sure who I’d hire to illustrate it, but someone whose pictures were as luscious as the prose. The world would be a richer place.
So there you have it: Twelve over forty. There are many notable books I have not included. And now the obvious question: What are your favorite picture books over forty years old?