One of the things we most love to give to children is books. Why? Well, we have so many marvelous memories of fabulous stories read to us when we were little - stories full of magic, beautiful illustrations, and wonderful characters - that we love perpetuating that legacy. Oftentimes this means sharing favorites from our own childhood, but it’s also a wonderful excuse to peruse the children’s section at local bookstores, or to do a little research in the children’s section of our local libraries, checking out newer releases.
Aside from the memories they create, another reason we love giving books is that they will typically be enjoyed over and over again. Read by parents, babysitters, aunts, uncles, grandparents - and, sometimes too, by older siblings to younger ones - books have the potential to affect many lives and many children (especially true if your child-recipient has younger siblings, either now or in future).
If you too love to give books - or if you arrived her simply looking for some ideas on what to give at a baby shower or to give to a young child, here are several (in no particular order) that we have enjoyed and gifted to wee ones over the years. Some are certainly already part of the picture book canon - others are newer stories that we think are destined to join that canon, becoming classics in their own right:
Amos & Boris - If you end up reading this to your wee gift recipient, we have to caution you that you may well end up teary-eyed. Don’t say we didn’t warn you! This William Steig classic (the same fellow who wrote Shrek!, inspiring the films of the same name), is one of the all-time best stories about friendship we have ever come across, told simply but elegantly with Steig’s marvelous illustrations (not unsurprisingly, he was also a cartoonist and cover illustrator for The New Yorker!).
Blueberries for Sal - Written and illustrated by another canonical children’s book author/illustrator, Robert McCloskey, this is a wonderful summertime story about a human mother and daughter, a bear mother and daughter, and the mix-up that ensues. In these parts, McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings is especially famous (and a staple at baby showers) since it is set in Boston. In contrast, Blueberries for Sal is set a bit further north, in Maine, during blueberry season. We have a sneaking suspicion that the book’s signature refrain of “kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk,” the sound of blueberries plopping into a pail, will stay with many a reader/listener into adulthood, as it has for us.
Lin Yi’s Lantern - Lin Yi really wants to buy a red rabbit lantern for the Moon Festival but first he has to buy food for his family - not forgetting, of course, peanuts for Uncle Hui! If he barters well, he might just have enough left over. This lends suspense to Lin Yi’s story which subtly introduces children to the concept of responsibility, effectively asking what should come first, the needs of your family or your own personal desires. Replete with glorious illustrations and (spoiler!) a happy ending, this is a wonderful family story.
We Are in a Book! - This is actually one of several books in a series by Mo Willems about Elephant (aka Gerald) and Piggie. We have a special fondness for this one though because it’s almost guaranteed to get children chuckling, especially if read aloud with the appropriate amount of incredulity and surprise. Unusually for a children’s book it is “meta” in that the protagonists realize they are in a book. In turn, this makes children start to think about their own relationship to books and the characters in them. Most of all though, it’s a source of humor, particularly as Elephant and Piggie start to wonder what will happen to them when the book ends.
A Dark, Dark Tale - This is another book where the reader’s voice can make a big difference - we suggest reading it as slowly, as spookily and as suspensefully as possible, speeding up for the final (rather adorable) “reveal.” This story is grand for all kiddoes but perhaps doubly or triply so for ones who are enthralled by the spookiness and mystery surrounding Halloween.
The Name Jar - This is the story of a little girl named Unhei who has just moved from Korea to the United States and is worried about fitting in. Most of all, she’s worried about her name and, on the first day of school, tells her classmates that she’s going to choose a new one. Everyone tries to help Unhei out by putting suggestions in her name jar. In the end, however, with a little encouragement from a new friend, she realizes the best name for her was the one she had to begin with. Whether coming from near or far, children often worry about fitting in and about making friends so this story tends to resonate with young audiences. Best of all though, it’s a story of friendship and new beginnings beautifully told both textually and visually.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone - This picture book tells the true story of Melba Doretta Liston, the African-American jazz trombonist, musical arranger, and composer. Born in Kansas City, MO in 1926, Ms. Liston was a music lover from a very early age and, starting in the 1940s, was the first woman trombonist to play in the country’s leading big bands. In this children’s book, her story is succinctly but wonderfully told by Katheryn Russell-Brown, in addition to being marvelously illustrated by Frank Morrison. A rich tale for any little one, especially one that’s fond of music.
Rosie Revere, Engineer - Know a child that loves to break things down and build things up? Who’s fascinated by how machines work? Who loves imagining and inventing things, no matter how fanciful? If so, then we suspect this book will be a big hit. Rosie is a little girl who loves to invent things, using anything she can get her hands on in an effort to make her dreams a reality. Initially scared of failure, her great-great-aunt ultimately shows her that unsuccessful attempts can be taken in stride and that it’s quitting that is the real failure. For any young inventors out there, Rosie’s tale serves as a pretty great message in support of perseverance and gritty determination, not to mention offering a bit of humor along the way.
Eloise - As children, we really loved the Eloise stories. Looking back on it, perhaps it’s because Eloise was always unapologetically and gleefully a child in a very adult world. She didn’t care if her hair was brushed, if her shirt was a bit untucked, whether she had a bit of belly - none of the external, superficial things adults often fuss about were important. What WAS important was her pet turtle, her pet dog, having fun and, of course, at the end of the day, Nanny. For a fun, literary romp at the Plaza hotel in New York City, this book cannot be beat.
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin - Hana Hashimoto loves music and is determined to play the violin like her grandfather. She just started studying but has already signed herself up for the school’s talent show. Will she embarrass herself? Her brother certainly thinks so. This story has a truly wonderful (and rather poignant) denouement that draws on both humor and creativity. Perhaps that’s why it is one of our absolute favorites amongst our more recent children’s book finds. Props to author Chieri Uegaki and illustrator Qin Leng for creating a truly special tale that deserves to be read many times over.
Alma and How She Got Her Name - Alma has a very long name. In fact, it’s so long that she kind of wishes it were a bit shorter. But, then her father explains to her the origins of each and every one of her names and she experiences a change of heart. Marvelously told and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, this story provides an excellent opening for children to ask about their own family history, especially if they have inherited a name (or names) from their forebears.
Dear Juno - Juno lives in the United States but his grandmother lives in Korea. He can’t yet read, but he still manages to maintain a wonderful correspondence with her with a little help from pictures and drawings. In this day and age of electronic mail, this story introduces children to the concept of postal mail, and how it’s possible to communicate through other means than words. We think all children will enjoy this book but it may especially resonate with those who have family members (such as grandparents, aunts or uncles) that live in another city. Indeed a follow-on project to this book could be “writing” (i.e. drawing) a letter to one or more of those relatives.
I Live in Tokyo - When you read this book to a child, set aside a goodly amount of time as there are bound to be tons of questions. Richly illustrated, there is so much for young readers to take in - be it a map of Japan, drawings of Japanese foods, or a selection of basic kanji characters, and more! This book also introduces the concept of time, breaking out activities on a monthly basis. It’s a visual feast for the eyes and a great introduction to the notion that there is a larger world out there with many wonderful things to explore and learn.
Mr. Messy - As children, we had a whole slew of Roger Hargreaves’ books from his ‘Mr. Men and Little Miss’ series and it’s hard to pick favorites (Mr. Tickle! Little Miss Naughty!), but Mr. Messy may just edge out all the rest simply because, as a child, it’s so easy to relate to that temptation to be messy. As well, we still get a chuckle from the moment when Mr. Messy, a mass of pink scribbles, is given a bath and emerges looking entirely different. A great little book that, for children, is humorous, relatable and cleverly illustrated.
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth - A loose interpretation of a story from Hindu mythology, this book recounts how the god, Ganesha, came to write the Mahabharata, a great Hindu epic. When Ganesha was young, he was especially fond of sweets (like many children we know!) and it is this fondness that ultimately serves as a catalyst for the story’s events. Ganesha is accompanied in his adventures by his friend, Mr. Mouse, who also has a bit of a sweet tooth. We think most children will be able to relate to the protagonists’ love of sweets, not to mention that moment when you break something that is not possible to fix. That said, Ganesha manages to turn the unfixable into something positive, a wonderful takeaway for any wee ones who are read this charming and colorfully illustrated book.
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