Whenever I talk to kids, one of the most common questions is: what are your favorite books? It’s hard to answer that question because I have SO many favorites. And many of the books I really love are not the ones kids have ever even heard of! That’s why I decided to post some of my favorite books, showing you both their covers and an inside illustration that I particularly like. I’ll start with five books, and add to the list whenever I get some free time. I hope you are able to find some of these books, and read them for yourselves.
“I am a Bunny”
pictures by Richard Scarry
Golden Books, 1963
This is a favorite book of mine, done before Richard Scarry changed his style and came up with “Busy Town” and those “Best-Ever” books that made him so famous.
I like this book for its unusual shape—tall and thin. I also like it for its title—the bunny is speaking in the first person, telling us his story and looking right at us, which is kind of exciting. But when it comes down to it, his words aren’t that important, compared to the illustrations…which may be why the person who wrote the words, Ole Risom, doesn’t get credit on the cover.
Still, I love this book. The bunny is extra cute. His name is Nicholas, and he lives in a hollow tree. He tells us what he likes to do in the different seasons of the year. He never changes his clothes; he’s always wearing a bright yellow shirt and red overalls. But we get to see all of the things he looks at—birds, frogs, leaves, squirrels and falling snow, and all the things he does—picks flowers, chase butterflies, blow dandelion seeds.
In the end, Bunny goes to sleep, which makes this a “goodnight” book as well as a “seasons” book. The illustrations have a lot of detail to savor, and very often if there are other animals in the pictures, they are bigger than the main character. It’s kind of funny to see the pinecones in the final spread—they’re three times the size of Bunny!
My favorite illustration is this one, where we see Bunny hiding under a big, red toadstool. The rain pours down as Bunny smiles at a frog, who happens to be sitting on a mushroom and enjoying the stormy weather. It is hard to paint falling rain, and I’ve always been impressed by the way Richard Scarry does it here. I also like how simple the picture is, with almost nothing in the background to distract us from Bunny and the frog.
“George and Martha, Back in Town”
by James Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Company
There are a number of George and Martha books. I don’t have a favorite; I love them all. I think James Marshall is one of the real geniuses of the childrens’ book world. It is hard to explain, but his stories are always surprising at the same time they seem familiar. They are silly at the same time that they can really touch your heart.
George and Martha are hippos. They don’t live in the jungle, but in houses, like people do. They visit each other all the time. They wear clothes, but I am not sure how old they are supposed to be, or if they have parents or brothers and sisters. What matters is their very special friendship.
Marshall draws his hippos very simply. They have dots for eyes and their faces show so little expression that the smallest difference has a big emotional impact. Their bodies are stiff and bulky, so they look very awkward; sometimes you will laugh at how silly they look. The colors in the pictures are kind of flat and once again, very simple. In this book, there is only red, green, yellow and gray. Maybe the art is meant to be very simple, so it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
I suppose you could say that the pictures are kind of graphic—the way the pages are designed, the way the figures sit in the backgrounds. In a way, the drawings seem kind of amateurish, like somebody with no talent for art could have made them. But I think that Marshall was going for the “deceptively simple” in every part of his books, and they’re really quite sophisticated.
Most of Marshall’s works are sort of like “I-Can-Read” books. Once again, they’re so simple that nearly anyone could read them. But the words are VERY carefully chosen to say just what Marshall wants to say, and nothing more. Most of the books are made up of four or five very short stories, and they are all about what happens between two friends—the kinds of things friends might say and do to amuse, entertain and sometimes hurt or disappoint each other, how a friendship is a delicate thing that has to be maintained by love and sometimes, hard work.
The stories are so very simple that it is kind of hard to describe what happens in them! All I can say is that you can read George and Martha books over and over again, and they will always make you smile, no matter how old you are. That is a pretty special accomplishment!
One reason I like this picture is because it looks almost abstract—you see all the basic shapes, circles, squares, triangles there, and if you didn’t know it was hippos, it would be just a pleasing arrangement of shapes. Once again, the colors are very simple, and I like how the umbrella and the palm tree are barely in the picture, but still add nicely to the composition. Unlike the work of Maurice Sendak, James Marshall doesn’t try too hard to show subtle emotions on his characters’ faces. He leaves it up to us, the readers, to imagine the emotions.
The Happy Lion
by Louise Fatio
illustrated by Roger Duvoisin
In my collection I have many books illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. He is one of my favorite artists. I don’t think I have any other books written by Louise Fatio, but “The Happy Lion” is a very nice book to have!
Back when this book was made, it wasn’t really possible to do full-color illustrations, so there was a process where the colors in the pictures were done in layers. Many of the pages in old books like this one are just black and white. In “The Happy Lion”, the colors are simple—just orange, yellow and black. The drawing looks like it was made with a black crayon. It seems like it was done very quickly, and yet there is a lot of attention to detail and expressions that makes it appealing. The backgrounds sometimes have kind of a rough look, like the artist might have put his paper on a bumpy sidewalk, and then got interesting textures by running the side of his crayon on the paper.
The story is about a lion in a zoo. Everybody loves him. But when the zookeeper accidentally leaves the door to the lion house open, the lion decides to go out for a stroll. He quickly finds out that people in town, who he thought were his friends, are not too happy to see him when he is not locked up in his pen at the zoo!
The son of the zookeeper happens to pass by, just as a bunch of firemen are about to trap the lion and put him in a truck.
The boy suggests that he and the lion walk back to the zoo together, and they do. At the end of the story the lion decides he is happier at the zoo, not out wandering around. And the lion’s best friend is now the zookeeper’s son!
The art in this book is very nicely stylized. There are lots of interesting views of the city, with different kinds of buildings and cars and trees. I also really like the story. It is a nice touch that the little boy is the one to come and save the lion, especially because it was the boy’s father who accidentally let the lion out! It is good for kids to know that grown-up make mistakes, too.
I like the lion, because he is kind and innocent and has a good heart, and it never occurs to him to think anything but the best of people. I like the happy ending. The lesson, if there is one, is that we all must find the place where we can get along, that we should think well of each other, and be kind. That’s the way for each of us to be a happy lion!
I like this picture because it shows a lot of what is happening in the lively city, while still letting us focus on the main characters, the boy and the lion. Since they are surrounded with white space, our eyes go naturally to them. The trees are a little wacky looking, and I don’t often see orange and yellow buildings, but that style really gives the artwork a lot of personality.
“There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”
by Simms Taback
This is another one of those books that at first glance, appears to have been painted by somebody who never went to art school or took a lesson in drawing. It has sort of a cartoonish, folk-art look. But once again, looks are deceptive! Despite the simple drawing style and humor, it’s pretty sophisticated. The colors are very lovely shades of blue, green, pink and purple. A more poetic writer might call them jewel-like.
The thing most kids would like about this book is the die-cuts. On each spread, we see that silly old woman with a view of what is in her stomach—everything from a spider to a cow. Of course, as the animals get bigger, the holes in the pages get bigger, too. Very clever!
The text is nothing more than the lyrics to an old song that kids have been learning for a hundred years or more. It’s a nonsense rhyme, and nobody knows who the author might be…in case you want someone to blame for all the icky things the woman is made to eat.
I love the lettering in this book! It’s all drawn by hand, and not typed into a computer, like in many books. The lines are all in wiggly colored boxes, like they were cut out of colored paper or something. At the end of every verse, some animal or other makes funny comments on the proceedings. It adds to the humor considerably!
When I first read this book, I wondered how I would have drawn the little old lady if I were the illustrator of this book. I never could have come up with something this funny. The little old lady looks like a crazy hippie, in a big straw hat with a flower in the brim, a fancy collar with a bow, a floor-length black dress with lacy trim and colored squares on it that look like confetti. She carries both an umbrella and a handbag, and has some pretty fancy high-heeled shoes. Her eyes look in different directions, and her little round glasses hang down over her long red nose. She is hilarious. And the moral at the end of the story is really funny, too—never swallow a horse! I wasn’t planning on it…
In this illustration you can see all the things I like about the book…the fun colors, the way the lettering is done by hand, how silly the old lady looks, and the way the die-cut lets you get a peek at the animals she has eaten.
“A Kiss For Little Bear”
by Else Holmelund Minarik
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Harper and Row, 1968
Illustrator and author Maurice Sendak is one of our most famous children’s book creators. He made many, many books in his lifetime, and everyone knows him for his “Where the Wild Things Are”. Of all his work, I love the “Little Bear” books the best.
The drawings are all done in ink, with a technique called cross-hatching. This is a method of drawing where the artist creates shading with thousands of tiny, crossing lines. Sendak is a master draftsman, and he understands anatomy and expression very well. His animal characters are realistic, but have human emotions and expressions that are very skillfully and sweetly drawn. Sendak said he was inspired by European artists from other centuries, and you can see that when the animals wear clothing in this book, they always look very old-fashioned!
One of the things I like best about the drawings in this book is that it feels as if we are watching a play on a stage—each of the scenes keeps the same background, while the figures in the foreground move about and interact with one another. There is one long scene where Sendak had to draw the same fence and trees, from the same angle, seven times. Believe me, that would be a lot of work!
The story in this book starts with Little Bear making a drawing of a monster. He asks Hen to take the drawing as a present for his grandmother. Grandmother loves the drawing, and asks Hen to give Little Bear a kiss in return. As you might imagine, returning the kiss is not as easy at it sounds. Hen gives the kiss to Frog, Frog gives the kiss to Cat, Cat gives it to Skunk. Skunk gives the kiss to another skunk, and they end up falling in love and getting married. Perhaps this is a bit strange for a children’s book, but I like it. At the end, Little Bear makes a nice drawing of two skunks kissing and gives it as a gift at the wedding. He is a good artist!
I like this spread in the book, because it shows the expressions on Little Bear and Hen so well. One of the hardest things to do is to put human emotion on the face of animals, and still have them look like real animals (and not like people!)
That’s all for now! Next time I will talk about “Frog and Toad Together” by Arnold Lobel, Richard Scarry’s “Busy, Busy Town”, Leo Lianni’s “Fish is Fish”, William Steig’s “Rotten Island”, and “Who Will Comfort Toffle?” by Tove Jansson. Happy reading!