Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 3

Continuing with gorgeous kids’ books!

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

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This is one of those extremely special books that seem to have a lot of fond memories attached. I think many of us grew up with this story and felt kind of inspired by it. It’s about a little boy who uses art to create an adventure for himself. How awesome is that?

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The illustrations are fantastic, and extremely dynamic since the character is actually drawing them as the story progresses. They encourage kids to see art in a variety of different ways and to express themselves creatively. Drawing just seems so exciting and even a little dangerous and thrilling.

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It’s a smart, creative story that seems to inspire kids with each generation. And, it’s also just a cool book. It’s one of those kids’ books that you find tattooed on adults, turned into theatrical productions, and given Dr. Who parodies (all of which you can find with a quick google search).

Age level: pre-k and up, and available as board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=harold+and+the+purple+crayon&class=

Franklin Stein by Ellen Raskin

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This is a wonderful, little-known book from the Newberry Award winning author of The Westing Game. It’s about an eccentric little boy who makes a giant monster sculpture. People really dislike his work, at first, and Franklin has to prove that his art is actually beautiful.

As a former art major, this might have struck home a little…

But, anyway, stories about kids learning how to express their creative voices, even if people don’t really “get” them, are always on my radar as good reads. This book, with Raskin’s witty, award-winning writing style and quirky, retro illustrations, is also just a really entertaining story.
And, again, the illustrations are wonderful. They’re very retro, “groovy” even, with fun character designs and fantastic details.

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And, again, it’s about creative arts –strange, monstrous creative arts!

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I think it’s really moving that Franklin just wants everyone to see his art, the monster Fred, as beautiful, and how he sticks to his belief that Fred is beautiful. That’s pretty inspirational, right there.

Age level: reading about K and up, but I think younger children would listen to the story and like the pictures.

Available for purchase: Out of print, but here’s a link to used copies. http://www.alibris.com/Franklin-Stein-Ellen-Raskin/book/2443301

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

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Blueberries for Sal was always a favorite in my house. It’s just the kind of book that really works well with kids. It has a charming setting (blueberry picking with mom), a little danger (someone else loves blueberries, too!), and a great repeated refrain of berry-picking sounds that kids love to repeat! Kerplink, kerplink, kerplunk! Who doesn’t like shouting that?
I really like kids’ books that have a sort of gentle quality and leave out trying to be hip and snarky. I like it when kids’ books let kids just be… kids. It’s a special time when blueberry picking with mom is a huge adventure, and we have all of adulthood to be hip and snarky. We need more blueberry picking days.

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I also like how there’s *spoilers?* two sets of moms and babies. You see, that someone else who likes blueberries is a bear cub! (I may have a thing for bears. I looked at my list of kids’s books and I was like, wow, bears, everywhere!) It’s a really great message because while there’s still a strong sense that bears are wild creatures, you also can really see the similarities between Sal’s adventure and the baby bear’s adventure. They’re both in search of the same things in the story, and that’s actually kind of a profound message.

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Also, the illustrations are amazing! The characters are charming and friendly, the scenery beautiful. I love the simple line drawings and the texture. They’re just delightful pictures, and, like Where Is My Hat?, I would hang prints on my wall!

Age level: Pre-k and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780670175918-0

Ghosts In the House by Kazuno Kohara

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It’s no secret among those who know me that I love scary things. Even as a little kid, I loved scary stories. However, I also love really gentle, sweet kids’ books. So, when the two are combined, I get very happy. That’s the case in this book.

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It’s about a little witch who discovers her house is infested with ghosts, like one might have an infestation of moths. So, since ghosts in this story are literally animated sheets, she washes them and puts them to use in her house. Which is absurdly hilarious.

The story about facing fears is very similar to There’s Something In My Attic, and as a kid who regularly gave herself nightmares by watching scary movies, I really appreciate this kind of moral. Now, I’ve heard some complaints about how the book supposedly is about exploiting others, like the ghosts are her slaves or something. To that I say, please! You’re taking it too seriously. It is literally and truly about ghosts, and the only moral here has to do with not being afraid. I mean, the ghosts are sheets with faces and she washes them, that’s not meant to be any colonolial symbolism or subliminal message about exploitation. Why can’t a ghost just be a ghost? And also a bed sheet?

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I love the illustrations. They’re bold, extremely cute, and really creative, and I love the simple, bold designs. And the little witch and her cat are just adorable characters. Even the ghosts are pretty cute, with their simple, little smiles and dot eyes. That’s just adorable!

Age level: pre-K and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312608866-1

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

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It may be obvious by now that my tastes in illustrations are kind of minimalist. I like the balance of figures on uncluttered backgrounds, and the drama of few lines. But, just as I like the sketchy pen work in There’s Something In My Attic and Owl Babies, I cannot resist this book. I mean, it’s illustrated in the style of the Italian Renaissance. How can this not be amazing? I used to love showing this to kids at the library and blowing their minds.

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Talk about taking children’s books seriously! These illustrations are mind-blowing, steeped in a strong understanding of both art history and just masterful technique. I’m really glad he went for this style instead of some hokey photorealism, which usually looks creepy, in my opinion. Instead, the images are dream-like and magical –like fairytales themselves!

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The story isn’t dumbed down, either. Kids don’t usually pick it up, but, yeah, Rapunzel gets pregnant in the original fairytale. That’s how she gets discovered by the witch. I’m not kidding. I remember the first time I realized that was a plot point, and it’s not one you’ll see in Tangled, that’s for sure. And, that’s pretty much what happens in this version, although Rapunzel and the Prince are secretly married at this point. Plus, there’s thorn-blinding, kidnapping, wandering in the wilderness… It’s epic, heavy stuff for kids.

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But, that just seems fitting, considering the epic, heavy illustrations. And, I have yet to see a kid who wasn’t enchanted and inspired by the story.

Don Bluth, the man behind Land Before Time and other classic kids’ films, once said that you can show a child anything as long as there’s a happy ending. Classic fairytales seem to do just that, what with their high body counts, dark subject matter, and struggles for the protagonists. But, the payoff, that happy ending, just makes it so worth it!

Age Level: It’s difficult to say. The language seems like grade school and up, but the pictures are so beautiful that I’ve seen non-reading kids entranced by the story.

Available to purchase:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780142301937-2

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Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books Cont.

There’s Something In My Attic by Mercer Mayer

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I love Mercer Mayer’s illustrations most of the time, but this was one of my all-time favorite books as a small child. Part of this was because the protagonist is blond, and so, in the strange way very young children understand books, I thought the story was about me.

But aside from me pre-K belief that someone had projected my soul into a book, this is actually a really good story. It’s about a little girl who thinks that there is a monster in her attic. And so she captures it. And then they become friends. It’s one of those perfect blends of slightly scary, enough for kids who are afraid of monsters to relate, as well as empowering and cute. It doesn’t discredit the imagination of kids who do believe there are monsters in attics, under the bed, or in the closet. But, it still helps give kids the tools to deal with their fears.
And, the monster is kind of adorable in the end:

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And, again, Mercer Mayer’s illustrations are wonderful. I loved them as a kid. They’re emotional, fun, and just super creative. As an adult, I did my undergrad in fine arts and I have an interest in illustration, so I really admire his work just from a technical aspect. The colors are moody, I like the texture of the line quality, and his monster drawings are just so darn creative! I would be lying if I said I didn’t draw pretty heavily from this in my own artwork at times. And, the pictures are seriously beautiful. He doesn’t mess around with making lovely, moody images. Just look at this eerie-but-awesome farmhouse! (I like the detail of one light being on, since the little girl can’t sleep.)

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The book also has the added benefit of the little girl eventually letting her parents sleep and dealing with her monster problem on her own –a moral I can assume many parents appreciate.

There are more stories in this series, with kids vs. closet monster and alligator, but, partially because of nostalgia and partially for the artwork, I always thought that this one was the best.

Ages: pre-K and up

(I won’t say reading level, since parents can read the books to kids, as well. =D )

You can purchase copies here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780140548136-0


Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

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This pick is also one heavily affected by bias. Owls have been one of my favorite animals ever since I was a little girl. However, out of all the owl books out there, this one is pretty special. It’s just stinking beautiful!

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The story deals with a pretty typical childhood problem, that of being away from mom and going into a panic. This is something I think everyone can relate to. I mean, we all did it.
The book doesn’t downplay this fear, which I like. Telling kids it’ll be fine and they have nothing to worry about rarely seems to help when they are convinced that, no, things aren’t fine and they probably should be very, very worried. So, instead, the story shows kids how the mother owl really is coming back and they have nothing to fear.
It’s kind of poetic, really.
And, of course, again, it’s gorgeous. The birds are drawn realistically and unsentimental,and the nighttime forest imagery is really quite beautiful and evocative.

Age level: pre-K and up

You can purchase a copy here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763617103-0

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

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I think that basically anything by Ezra Jack Keats is wonderful. His illustrations are gorgeous, and he tells simple stories about… life. They’re just about life. There’s not really a central plot to The Snowy Day. It’s about a little boy who experiences a snowy day. That’s pretty much it. There is a bit about trying to save a snowball for later, but that’s not so much as driving force to the story as just something the character does because, well, he’s a kid.
The illustrations are great! They’re simple but dynamic, full of action and with pleasant colors and imagery. Also, points for not putting the snowy day in some idyllic farmland where there’s always a grandmother dressed in 1800s clothes cooling pies in her window. This is unsentimental and still adorable, looking at a very realistic kid’s experience of a realistic snowy day. He doesn’t encounter some magic, nostalgic experience. He does things like hit tree branches with sticks. Why? Because he’s a kid.
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I think a lot of kids like Peter from the story because, frankly, we all kind of were Peter. How many of us just hit trees with sticks because cause and effect was still pretty awesome? Probably most of us.
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Basically, there’s a reason why this book is considered a classic and why so many kids love it. It’s gorgeous, it’s cute, and it’s not cheesy. It’s about snow days, and all of us, even adults, love snow days.

Age level: pre-K and up, and available in board book format

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780140501827-7

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
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How can you not fall in love with this right from the cover? This is adorable. I have a huge case of illustration envy right now. There’s just something hilarious about his very serious-looking bear staring at you in a kind of soulful way and paired with such an odd request. This bear wants his hat back. Doesn’t reading that sentence just make you smile?
I love the illustration style. It’s simple, sort of folk-art style, with some great animal images paired with this weirdly serious, polite text about finding hats. It’s hilarious and awesome!

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I really like how the backgrounds are just basically blank. The illustrations give you just enough information and then you leave the rest to the imagination. It keeps the page clear and uncluttered, harmonious even. They’re just really nicely set up pages. I would put prints of the illustrations on my wall, absolutely.
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I feel like these animals exist in the same world as the Fantastic Mr. Fox movie, where the story is still an animal adventure for kids but the animals interact like kind of weird grownups. I can imagine Bill Murray doing the bear’s voice, just kind of dully exasperated by the fact that he’s lost a red, pointy hat and no one seems as concerned as he is about this fact.

I might be gushing, but it’s a great book. I think I’ll buy myself a copy…

Age level: pre-K and up, even to adulthood

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763655983-1

Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems

Initially, I thought these books would be really dumb, like the delightful adventures of two animals learning all the thrills of learning up and down or how to say “cat” and “stop”. I… really hate those kinds of books. We live in a Dr. Seuss world where we know we can teach these things in a fun format. So, I assumed that Elephant and Piggie wouldn’t be very good.
I was wrong.
Completely wrong.
You see, Elephant and Piggie are absolutely hilarious. They are best friends, but also huge mischief makers who constantly get into weird adventures. Just look at these faces. They’re up to no good.

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But, it’s really the way they get into mischief that’s so funny. The books are just outrageously smart, like the baby’s-first-meta-fiction-experience of Elephant and Piggie realizing they are inside a book. Which apparently leads to this moment of baby’s-first-existential-crisis:

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Of course, everything turns out in the end.
But, the stories are just really very funny and often absurd. Sometimes Elephant and Piggie just want to fight, for no reason, and then jump around and shout, for no reason. Kind of like kids. And they take their exploits rather seriously.

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There’s even a book where Piggie decides to be a frog. That’s the story.

The illustrations are simple and full of energy and emotion. The facial expressions are hilarious. And, the stories are legitimately funny, which is unusual considering that they are written for very early readers.

Age level: pre-K, and available in board book format

Available to purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=elephant+and+piggie&class=

I would like to point out that many of these books are from Candlewick Press, which is an all-around awesome company and I would highly suggest checking them out if you want to find sweet, creative books for kids! (I’m not even getting paid to say that.)

Disclaimer: I do not work for Powell’s Books, and am not being paid to send people to their store for purchasing. However, I do support independent book sellers, and Powell’s is just a really cool company, one that I think is worthy of support, and they will consolidate your shipping orders (which helps save a lot of the hidden expenses of buying from companies like Amazon).

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books

So, trying to revive this, again, now that I have more time on my hands.

Because a friend just asked me for some children’s book suggestions, and I have received this question a lot. Here are some kid’s books that I think are utterly gorgeous, hilarious, brilliant, touching, creative, or all of the above. I’ll try to put a reading level next to each, and I’ll be excluding anything higher than the reading level in Nate the Great. Perhaps I’ll do a juvenile literature and young adult post later, if anyone likes this.
And so, here is the first:

Miss Suzy by Miriam Young, Illustrated by Arnold Lobel photo most-young2_zps872a285c.jpg

Miss Suzy is a family favorite, and the copy my parents have at their home is worn and taped up and battered. Just like any well-loved book. The story is about a squirrel called Miss Suzy, whose home is stolen by red squirrels and who is forced to live Snow White style in a dollhouse inhabited by toy soldiers. The illustrations are simple but beautiful, and the story praises simplicity and friendship. Miss Suzy loves her home, even more than the fancy doll’s house, and I remember as a kid really falling in love with her treehouse, as well,and being genuinely sad when the red squirrels kicked her out. How can you not feel for this? They even made her drop her cake! (Childhood holding-back-tears happened around this point, every time.)

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Now, some people have criticized this book because Miss Suzy doesn’t *spoilers? I guess?* take back her own house from the squirrels. To that I said, please. You miss the whole point. Miss Suzy is a lover, not a fighter. She’s not a soldier. And, in the end, it’s her love of the toy soldiers that really saves the day. The soldiers don’t even fight the squirrels, they just scare them off because… well, honestly an animated army of dolls IS pretty scary. Just watch one of the Puppetmaster videos… Miss Suzy can’t and should not be scary because she stands for all the simple, happy things of childhood, like eating cakes and staying in a treehouse and watching the stars.

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That, right there, was what I wanted to be as a kid. I still basically do.

Reading level: pre-K and up. I don’t know if it comes in board book editions.

Available for purchase here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9781930900288-0