As my little brothers move into their teen years, they are eager to clear out all signs of childhood from their bedrooms and graduate to more mature decor. This includes relegating all their old children’s books to storage boxes, which I then inherit, being the only one in the family with small kids.
Sorting through these huge piles of books is exhilarating for me. Most are fabulous stories with equally fabulous illustrations, collected by my mother while she was in her obsessive book-buying phase of life. Seeing those books is a trip down memory lane. I used to read them aloud to my little brothers and now I get to read them aloud to my own sons.
The toddler’s current favourites are written by a trio of old classic American authors. These are not your typical flashy, action-packed tales with computer-generated illustrations based on TV show characters. These are old books, some falling apart, with beautiful pencil drawings, watercolours, and wordy text. In a pre-technology-at-home era, the authors are not fighting for kids’ short attention spans, but enveloping them in an exciting world of fiction. My son can’t get enough of them.
Most popular is Bill Peet, whose stories are hilariously entertaining for tired parents reading aloud. Peet was also a story writer for Walt Disney for many years. “Jennifer and Josephine” is the tale of an old car in a junkyard (Jennifer) and a cat who lives inside (Josephine). They head out on the adventure of their lives when Jennifer is bought by a slightly crazy traveling salesman. “The Caboose Who Got Loose” (1980) tells in rhymes about Katy Caboose who hates being at the back of a train, dragged across the country, and left in smelly switchyards. She dreams of another life until one day she becomes detached from the rest of the train and everything changes. “Huge Harold” is the slightly sad story of an abnormally large rabbit who must live on the run to avoid predators. Some farmers band together to hunt him down, but he is rescued by someone who drastically turns around his fate.
Next is William Steig, author and illustrator of “Doctor De Soto,” (1982 – National Book Award winner) a mouse dentist who agrees to treat a fox with a bad toothache. “Brave Irene” (1986) tells of a girl who heads out in a terrible snowstorm to deliver an important parcel but meets with disaster along the way. “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” (1969) features a young donkey who finds a magic pebble and makes a poor decision as to how to use its magical abilities. In “Spinky Sulks,” (1988) Steig describes a sulking boy who absolutely infuriates me as a parent, yet he does a marvelous job at deciphering a child’s thought process when they perceive injustice of any kind. Steig was also the original creator of Shrek.
We’re also reading Robert McCloskey‘s classics. “Make Way For Ducklings,” which won the 1942 Caldecott Medal, is the delightful story of a family of mallards making their home downtown Boston and causing quite a commotion. “One Morning in Maine” (1952) describes the morning on which a little girl loses her first tooth in rural Maine, complete with clam digging and clam chowder for lunch.
These books are intelligent, witty, and memorable, unlike so many other kids’ books I’ve read aloud to my son that just seem stupid and repetitive (okay, I do feel strongly about the “dumbing down” of kids in today’s culture, but that’s a post for another day). I’ll be frequenting used bookstores in hopes of growing the collection more. In the meantime, I don’t mind reading any of these books multiple times a day; they’re that good!