Inspired by Jonathan Todres’ work on human rights and children’s literature, and having visited the Mo Willems exhibit in NYC recently, I’ve been thinking about children’s books lately. So I thought I’d ask some people I’d interviewed for NewsWhistle before what their favorite children’s books were, and either take a walk down memory lane, or be introduced to some new ones.
Here’s what everybody came up with…
Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park: Goodnight Moon – such a classic. I have strong feelings and memories of my mom reading it to me as a kid, and the simple colors used for illustrations still resonate in my brain. Also, Berenstain Bears, cause they were awesome.
Meredith Sorin Horsford, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum: The Polar Express.
Jonathan Halloran, American Homebuilders of West Africa: I’m not sure I can come up with one answer. Goodnight Moon reminds me of reading to my son Jonah from birth to one year (and I like the rhythm of it). Johnny Lion’s Rubber Boots is a book I used to take out of the library every week or two when I was young. So it reminds of being young. Nomads of the North was a book my father loved as a boy and he passed it on to me. I loved the adventure of the Arctic life. Ditto The Call of the Wild.
Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author: I loved My Side of the Mountain because it was about a boy who lives on his own and figures out how to survive in nature, dipping in and out of society only to get certain necessities like books from the library. It romanticized the idea I had of being on my own as a child and scared me enough that I didn’t actually run off to the mountains until I got old enough to buy a tent.
Jibrail Nor, drummer: My favorite children’s book is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I love the world that Roald Dahl creates in the factory and the bizarre assortment of characters. Now that I’m older, I think some of the morality lessons included in how some of the kids lose the contest is a little over the top, but it’s still one of my favorite books.
Mahanth Joishy, United States — India Monitor: So this is going to sound clichéd, but Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak sticks out for the following reasons:
– It was first read to me by a beloved old family friend, who has long since passed away, and I can still remember the way he read it out loud.
– Unique artwork of menacing, powerful- and yet fun- monsters.
– I loved the themes of temporary escape to a fantasy world, where you were understood, and where your parents couldn’t reach… and where you could land safely home at the end. I think this has a bit to do with my minority status- the joy of finding other birds of a feather when you were surrounded by people who didn’t look like you.
A close second would be The Trumpet of the Swan, largely because it was read out loud by a female student teacher who I had a vague five year old “pre-crush” crush on in kindergarten.
Alex Gruhin, Nightcap Riot: For some reason or another, I was in love with this book (longtime out of print – a hand-me-down from my Dad’s children’s books) called The Shining Shooter by Marion Renick. It’s a book about marbles and magicians. Why? Not sure. Something about its visuals and characters resonated with me when I was a kid.
Franklin Vagnone, Historic House Anarchist: The Little House by Burton.
Jim Knable, playwright and musician: I feel strangely conflicted about the question. There are books I enjoy reading more than others to my kids. Green Eggs and Ham always holds up, as does The Little Engine That Could. Of the more recently written, the original Mama Llama book, The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear, Hippos Go Berserk!, and Elephant and Piggie: Should I Share My Ice Cream?, We Are in a Book!, and There Is a Bird on Your Head.
Simeon Bankoff, Historic Districts Council: The Hobbit – because of the funny noises Gandalf’s fireworks make – and Mirkwood, that place was creepy. I was also greatly fond of Ferdinand the Bull and Leo the Late Bloomer – because they had animals exemplifying important life lessons. I’m a big one for life lessons – especially when they happen to other people.
Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister: I was always such a Bible nerd, I carried around a huge child’s Bible with lots of pictures. I loved the stories and was always wanting to learn more.
Betsy Crapps, Mom Prom: Where the Red Fern Grows. The first book that ever made me cry. My dad caught me up really late, crying, because I had to finish it. Let me restate: the book made me cry…not my dad for being up too late!
Alexei Auld, author: A tie between Vader’s Little Princess and Darth Vader and Son, both by Jeffrey Brown. Star Wars and parenting for the win.
Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher: oooof, ONE?
Can I say the two that come to mind right off the bat? The first would be the trilogy of books by Rosemary Wells that make up Voyage to the Bunny Planet. The illustrations are both gorgeous and witty, but what I really love is the story. It’s the same in all three books. Our protagonist (who may be a bunny or a kitty or….well, mostly they’re bunnies and kitties) is a child who has had a REALLY BAD DAY. It rained and her boots leaked. Mean kids teased her on the bus. She forgot her homework and the teacher snapped at her. Somebody sat on her sandwich. She tripped in Art class and got paint on her face, and she took so long in the bathroom trying to scrub it off that she missed the bus back home and had to walk. In the rain.
So, it’s been a terrible day. BUT
On beyond the farthest stars
Right at Venus, left at Mars
Spins the gentle Bunny Planet
And the Bunny Queen is Janet.
Janet the Bunny Queen comes down to earth and whisks you away to the Bunny Planet, where you have the day that SHOULD have been. First of all, it’s sunny. And there’s usually no school, or if there is school, you get a 100 on your test and make a new friend. Then you go home, and you and Mom make cookies. You eat the cookies with a big glass of milk, you get into your flannel pajamas, and climb into bed between impeccably clean and ironed sheets, and Mom strokes your hair and sings you a song while you fall asleep.
I love these books because they are, clearly, not really for children. Children do not need the Bunny Planet. ADULTS need the Bunny Planet. I need the Bunny Planet.
My second pick would be The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken, but as to Why? I can only say “Because it’s incredibly wonderful,” and that’s not a good answer. SO, for my second pick, I’d go with Half Magic, by Edward Eager. It’s about a bunch of children who find an amulet that grants wishes but — as they quickly figure out — it only grants half the wish. At one point, the cat is being a nuisance, meowing and meowing, and one of the kids snaps “I wish the cat were silent. I wish it TWICE!” And the cat is muted, but looks absolutely miserable. Feeling bad, the kid says — cleverly — “I wish that the cat was able to say only ‘music’” (figuring that the amulet will thus render the cat capable of saying “mew”). Instead, the cat goes around plaintively saying “Sick. Sick sick sick. Sick sick.” When I was eight, I thought this was pretty much the funniest thing I had ever heard. To tell you the truth, I still think it’s kinda funny.
Ohhhh, but then there’s Five Children and It, with its wonderfully pompous narrator. Or Diana Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, which among other things is a brilliant evocation of the horrors of middle school.
Okay, I’ll stop now.
Juliet Sorensen, human rights lawyer: My favorite children’s book is Harriet the Spy, because it is about love and friendship that persist in spite of shortcomings. Each of the main characters is flawed, but lovable.
Ryan Ringholz, Plae Shoes: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, for fundamentally altering the course of children’s literature. He was the first to buck the notion that a children’s book must numb feelings and sugarcoat truths.
Honorable mention would go to Sparkle and Spin by Ann and Paul Rand, for encouraging an understanding of the relationship between language and image, shape and sound, thought and expression, and Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, for the power to create your own world with your imagination.
Ann Lawrence, Pink51: On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman.
Mostly because I cry every time I read it. Even typing the name makes me cry…seriously, it gets to me every time. Takes me right back to the moment of my son Jackson’s birth.
Ellie Montazeri, Balthazar & Rose: Thank You Prayer by Josephine Page and Carolyne Jayne Church. I bought it at TJ Maxx when my daughter was two! Loved it – makes me smile every time and the kids love it. I love it because it is a simple meditation/prayer, and because it teaches gratefulness, gratitude, reflection in a cute, rhyming, humble way.
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you for the birds that sing.
Thank you God for everything.
Thank you for my family.
Thank you Lord for loving me.
For each and every child I pray
and I thank You for this special day.
Carol Ward, Morris-Jumel Mansion: My favorite children’s book is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. It’s about two children who are trying to solve a mystery by hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight; it was the first book I read where the museum was one of the lead characters, and made me love going there!
Jessica Lee, the Sable Project: That’s tricky, there are so many good ones! I could list ten that I read over and over and over again. But I’d have to say my childhood favorite was The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra and Sal Barracca, a story about Maxi, a once-homeless mutt, who rides in a taxi around New York City with his beloved Jim. It’s a tale of kindness and adventure and joy and I loved it for its beautiful colorful pictures and heartwarming tale. And it rhymes, as all children’s books should.
Garnet Heraman, Karina Dresses: Where The Wild Things Are– because the twin themes of acceptance (of self, of others different from you, of authority) and love (of the wildness in oneself, of one’s imagination, of others, of family) are never far from the surface narrative. And those themes are beautifully distilled into a simple universal truth:
And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.
Eric Bennett, author: I remember my mother reading to me Treasure Island, and I was just starting to read, could follow the words but could not have read it myself easily. I loved the story and the strangeness of both the proper English and the pirate slang. “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” just seemed impossibly arcane and frightening, in a good way. I remember, too, learning the word “victual” and fixating on both its strange pronunciation and the exotic energy with which it evoked food.
Abdul Fattah Ismail, poet: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Because Fudge was a complete mess and it was entertaining to see such negligence.
Alanna Rutherford, Andrew Glover Youth Program: This is a hard question because I always loved books. So I will go with the earliest memory. I remember that the first book I read over and over again by myself was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I loved the bright pictures and the fact that the story was about a creature that is otherwise ignored. (Even in my early days, I had a preference for the underdog).
When I was a bit older, 6-7 years old, the Paddington Bear series was my favorite. I liked the idea of a little bear discovering everything in the world and wanting a family of his own. Isn’t this what all great stories are ultimately about?
Which brings me to The Giving Tree.…who does not love Shel Silverstein? The first book you read as a kid where the answer and point to the story isn’t on the page. There are multiple lessons in the book that I am still getting.
Anthony Monaghan, filmmaker: Mother Goose, because that was my daughter’s favorite book, and for her 21st birthday I got the special edition and she thought it was funny. It’s entangled in my mind and holds a special place for me and her.
Beth Johnson, Townsend Press: My favorite children’s book is not a children’s book at all. It is, however, a book I adored as a child, and if you want to quibble about the difference between “a particular child’s favorite book” and “favorite children’s book,” you can just go do it somewhere else.
My father was a peculiar man who, as far as I can remember, had absolutely no idea how to relate to children. That’s not to say he disliked children, or was unkind to them. On the contrary, he was as gentle and patient with children as he was with everyone else. He was a passionate reader and a bit of an Anglophile with a quirky sense of humor, and it seemed only natural to him (I suppose) that the bedtime stories he would share with his wee cherubs would be chosen from the books he most enjoyed.
One of my earliest recollections of being read to involved the scene in My Antonia where the young bride, to lighten the load, is tossed screaming off the sleigh into the jaws of ravening wolves. Yeah. There’s a story to lull your little girl to sleep. Then there was the darkly comic prose of Cold Comfort Farm, with a mad grandmother who “saw something nasty in the woodshed” and its parodies of D.H. Lawrence’s brooding sexuality.
Looking back, it was all deeply weird.
But I loved it. And most of all I loved (here’s The Favorite Book) The Short Stories of Saki.
For those of you not acquainted with the work of H.H. Munro (Saki was his pen name), he was a prolific English writer who died on the battlefield in World War I. The bulk of his stories are arch, witty tales of social intrigue, but others are macabre and even flirt with the supernatural. Guess which ones Dad liked best? I would lie shivering in my bed as he read such stories as “The Interlopers,” a cheery tale about two neighboring landowners, bitter dynastic enemies, who are trapped together under a fallen tree. At the hours go by and they wait to be rescued, their antagonism melts, and they declare that on this very day they will bury their ancient feud. They chuckle as they imagine the astonishment of the townspeople when they walk arm in arm into the village square. Finally, they are cheered by the sight of men racing down the hill to rescue them. Unfortunately, as the men get closer, it becomes apparent they are in fact a pack of wolves.
(Yeah, wolves again.)
“Tobermory.” “The Open Window.” “Sredni Vashtar,” in which a horrible aunt meets a richly deserved death at the jaws of a pet ferret. “The Music on the Hill,” in which a man comes face to face with the god Pan. “The Storyteller,” where an annoyed bachelor keeps two noisy children spellbound with the story of a little girl who was very, very good and is as a consequence eaten by a wolf. (Until this moment, I hadn’t realized what a large role wolves played in my formative years.)
The Short Stories of Saki. Delicious, funny, chilling. Just the thing for rearing a slightly twisted child.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org