Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Best Picture Books According to Madame B

My latest creative endeavor has me thinking a great deal about the books I spent my childhood with. We didn't have a television until I was 10, and my parents loved to read to us so there were definitely a lot to choose from. I quickly filled up two pages in my journal with memorable books. Creating these lists is always really pleasant, because it forces me to edit my favorites down from 75 to maybe 10. I have to articulate the merits of each and in the process I have to refine my picks and come to a better understanding of my own aesthetic. Here's my narrowed down list.

Ella by Bill Pete: It rhymes, it has a giant, divalicious elephant as the main character, charming cartoon-y illustrations and circus trappings galore. I think it was my brother, Jake, who really discovered Bill Pete’s books, and we read every single one with great pleasure. They were zany, weird and fun. When we found out that he worked for Disney, we watched a lot of his movies too. We had a VHS tape called with “Susie the Little Blue Coup” that we wore out with watching.

Madeline and the Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans: We all remember the way these books begin “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines... the smallest one was Madeline.” But what I admire most about these books now are the wonderful illustrations. They have the na├»ve look of a child’s drawing, that belies their sophistication. This book, in particular, is a lot of fun. It has costumes and intrigue, and circus horses with feathered headdresses. What more could a little girl want? For all you art aficionados, on your next visit to New York City, you can see the only surviving Bemelmens mural in the bar at the Carlyle Hotel. It’s a whimsical depiction of Central Park.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B White: There are so many great children’s books, but it seems that this one is a true American classic that really stands the test of time. Like lots of my favorites, it has wonderfully simple pen and ink illustrations and a story that deals with friendship and loss. Charlotte was one of my favorite pretend names as a lass, and I have no doubt that it was lifted directly from this quick thinking, nimble and elegant little spider. This book likely contributed greatly to my endless fantasies about living on a little farm.

The Calvin and Hobbes Treasury by Bill Watterson: Another book about good friends, this comic strip really touches on almost every aspect of childhood while also inserting really fascinating commentary on the art world, philosophy, and theology. My brother was obsessed with these characters and it definitely rubbed off on me. I remember lying around the living room reading the treasuries cover to cover for days on end. Bill Watterson is famous for not licensing Calvin's image for merchandising etc. and has assiduously avoided becoming a public figure. But when the complete treasury was released in 2005 he did answer 15 questions from fans.

George and Martha by James Marshall:
This book tells the story of two big, fat, gregarious hippos who are best friends. They have lots of lovely hijinks together, and the Mexican jumping bean story still makes me giggle even now. Simple, cheerful, fun. My Aunt Lisa still uses this book to teach her first graders to read because it just makes the whole process so darn fun!

Rapunzel retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman:
I absolutely love all of Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful illustrations. They are intricate, romantic and pure fantasy. They are meant to be stared at. Before you can read, that is exactly what you do. I remember staring at those images for ages, noting every single detail, and then trying to copy her compositions, just for the fun of coloring them in. She illustrated lots of Grimm Fairytales including Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, but this story really captured my imagination. Maybe it was her incredibly long hair, or being locked away in a tower, but I used to wander around picking mint out of the flower beds near our apartment pretending it was “rampion” and making little houses behind the bushes in the "wilderness" just like Rapunzel did after the witch pushed the prince out of the window.

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel:
Another story about two inseparable friends, I love how they compliment each other. Frog is the tidy and punctual one, but Toad is the one who knows how to cut loose and have fun. Together they have a grand time and the simple but not condescending text was a great way to begin reading for myself. It’s a classic “I can read” book. The illustrations are all done in shades of muddy brown and green. This simple palate lends the illustrations a definite woodsy feel and helps pull you into their charming world.

The Giving Tree by Shell Silverstein:
This book was one I discovered as a teenager, but I know I would have loved it as a kid too. The illustrations and type do a wonderful dance together. The images are just bold black lines, but they compliment the striking with the black type writer font so beautifully.

Cars and Trucks and Things that Go by Richard Scary: My mom tells me that this was Jake and my favorite book of all when we were very little. She said we loved to read it over and over and over again. (I always liked the funny worm who had just one shoe and a tube for pants.) Not too much story, but lots to look at, lots of busy animal people.

The Light Princess by George McDonald and illustrated by Maurice Sendak: This story is incredibly dark and spooky and so Maurice Sendak’s drawings totally fit the bill. The princess is cursed by an evil witch with a grudge against her parents. The snooty princess has no personal gravity and a servant has to tie a string round her waist and hold tight to keep her from flying off when she wants to go outside. The only place she has gravity is in the water of an enchanted lake. I can’t quite remember how it all goes down in the end, but the pictures are emblazoned in my brain. They were beautiful etchings and in particular, I remember one where she is flying around in her silk gown like a beautiful little kite.

These are just a few of the titles I remember reading as a kid. I have been keeping in business the last few days as I ordered all my favorites in the name of research and I would love to know which books you all remember from your childhoods. Which ones stick with you? I'd love some suggestions! Hope to hear from you soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I just love your blog. I really do. You should really keep up the writing for publication. You have a gift.

Daddy G

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...