Do you have to be qualified to make a list of your favorite picture books of all time?
But I will list my qualifications: a librarian for over thirty-five years; a children’s librarian for twenty-five of those years; a word addict, editor, storyteller, and writer on and off throughout my life; and a book lover since before I even learned to read…
So if any of that makes my list more credible, here are my favorite twenty-six picture books of all time — old favorites as well as new — thirteen now and thirteen next week. But I must confess — I like stories that tell us about how to live — not heavy-handed, but stories that can be talked about over and over; stories that can be read on more than one level; stories that stick. And because they are picture books, the illustrations have to be outstanding, too. Please notice that this is a list of MY FAVORITES! It is not a list of the Best Picture Books of All Time — you can find those lists here and here.
In no particular order they are:
Down the Road by Alice Schertle; illustrated by E.B. Lewis. Mama needs eggs, but no one in the family has time to go to the store, so Hattie begs and pleads to be able to “go down the road all by herself.” Mama hedges, but Papa stands up for her and says, “Hattie is absolutely old enough to go by herself.”
Careful and proud to have money in her pocket and finally knowing how it feels to be grown up, Hattie does everything just the way Mama and Papa would do; well, almost…
This might top the list of favorites. It is a wonderful story of family love and messing up and forgiveness. And E.B. Lewis’ soft watercolor illustrations fit the words perfectly!
Every time I read this, kids beg to check it out. I think they want to pore over the clever illustrations, but honestly, they could never outgrow the lesson here. In fact, if the adult reader doesn’t point it out, they might not even know why they love it so much.
Blossom and Rocky are two sheep who aren’t known for their wise decisions in the past. In fact, they’ve made some pretty poor choices (very humorously illustrated!). Murphy, the sheep dog who watches over them, knows this and keeps a watchful eye on the pair.
But one day Murphy is busy helping a lamb and the two black sheep make a run for it. They really haven’t even gotten close to their destination of the high clover field on the mountain when they stop for a rest and meet THE WOLF. It’s not a stretch to move from this story into the Biblical story of Jesus as the shepherd who watches over us and cares for us all, no matter how we behave… And the kids hardly know they’ve gotten a lesson!
The Lion and the Little Red Bird by Elise Kleven.
Elise Kleven’s artwork sings out joyously; the art in her other books is spectacular too, but this particular book stands out because of the story as well. It’s about art — creating it and sharing it — and the happiness that brings.
The Lion’s tail is a different color every day and the little bird wonders why. When she asks him, all he can hear is her cheerful song. They accompany each other throughout the day, enjoying one another’s company, but not really communicating. (Inter-species difficulties, you know!)
A nighttime rainstorm and rescue bring the little bird into the lion’s cave where she discovers that he paints all night what he has seen that day. (There is a slight guessing game here that your young one will be so proud to figure out.) And this amazing book is perfect for getting on your own creativity — get out the paints and go wild with color with your child.
If there is a McCloskey book on most people’s lists, it is usually Make Way for Ducklings. And although that is a charming book, this one stole my heart when I read it (over and over) to my own children. Little Sal and her mother and Little Bear and his mother go to Blueberry Hill one pleasant summer afternoon to stock up on blueberries. They get all mixed up, and the word play, and the illustrations could not possibly be any better. If you ask me, this one should have won the Caldecott Award! One of McCloskey’s best drawings is the picture of Mother Bear looking at Little Sal in horror as they realize they are with the wrong parent/wrong child. Have some blueberry muffins handy to eat while reading this gem.
This is an understated book and I confess that I had to read it twice before I fell in love. And now, each time I read it, I find more to love about it. It’s another one of those “lesson” books that kids won’t get until you start a discussion about it.
The town where Annabelle lives is grey and cold, and so are the people. Until one day she finds a box of multi-colored yarn and begins to knit. She knits colorful sweaters for herself and her dog, then for her friend and his dog. The sweaters cause a stir, and somehow the box of yarn never empties…
UNTIL the evil archduke comes to town and offers to buy the magical box of yarn for one million, two million, ten million dollars. But Annabelle won’t sell. No? She won’t sell? Then he will steal it. This is a parable of joy, of kindness, of goodness, of whatever you want to call that which you have that can’t be bought, sold, or stolen, but can only be given away. Look at the illustrations carefully. They are (almost) as good as the story.
Mo Willems is another perennial to Best Picture Book Lists, but generally the book listed is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Okay, so I’ll give you that it’s cute, but best picture book? No. This one is a thousand times better!
Unlikely friends always make for good stories! There are several other books on this list with that theme. But this particular story is so good because there are So Many Big Themes in this one short picture book. Willems is a master at saying much in few words. And the illustrations! Look at this one of Dog and Frog playing together:
Every season, Dog escapes into the county — nothing is said about how or why — and runs off to find his friend. But dogs live longer than frogs do, and one winter Frog is gone. It’s a moving story of friendship, loss, grief, and recovery — in less than 350 words.
There are two books by Jon J. Muth on this list, so I might as well put them next to each other. The Three Questions is adapted from a famous short story by Leo Tolstoy, and Tolstoy fans will find nods to his life and culture in the names of the characters in the book. The boy has three questions that he puts to his friends, a monkey, a bird, and a dog. They answer as their kind would answer — the boy knows they are trying to be helpful, but he also knows they aren’t the true answers. So he goes off to find the wise old Turtle (Leo), who helps him discover for himself, the truth.
Muth takes hard thoughts, and puts them together so a child can understand them. There is much to talk about in this book…
Although Spinelli’s book is traditionally read on Valentine’s Day, really any day is a good day to read this book to someone you love.
Mr. Hatch is quiet and keeps to himself. He has an uneventful life and talks to no one, and no one talks to him either. Then one day the postman brings him a box of candy with a note that says it is from a secret admirer.
Mr. Hatch is stunned. He has a secret admirer? And suddenly he finds a silly little grin on his face. He puts on a yellow tie and some aftershave. He brings the box of candy into work and shares it with his co-workers. In short, his life is changed. All because someone loves him.
There is more. But I can’t spoil it for you. Just be sure to have some chocolate candy or brownies to share with this story.
I Wish I Were a Butterfly by James Howe; Illustrations by Ed Young.
James Howe is famous for writing the Bunnicula series; Ed Young is famous for his elegant watercolors. (His book Lon Po Po : a Red Riding-Hood Story from China won the Caldecott Award in 1990 for the best illustrated children’s book of that year.) But together, they have made a superior storybook. This is a bit long — probably best suited to a six-to eight-year-old’s attention span. But the main idea is timeless — we are all beautiful, no matter what our outside appearance is.
The frog who lives in Swampswallow Pond has just told the little cricket that he is the ugliest thing in the world; so now the cricket is wandering through the meadow seeing wonderful insects who are much more attractive than he is — a ladybug, a butterfly, a dragonfly… They all give him rather random advice: Buck up, Cheer up, Forget about it, and none is very helpful. So he goes to visit his best friend the Spider to get comfort from her. To the little caterpillar, the Spider is beautiful because he loves her. She laughs at him and they have a very interesting discussion about friendship, beauty, bullies, and loving your own talents — and the last line is a lovely twist!
Simple illustrations, simple story = belly laughs and a great moral.
The wolf goes out to eat the hen and her one hundred chicks, but then has the great idea that he will fatten them all up before he eats them. He makes them 100 pancakes and delivers them at night. Eventually though he finds the chicks are so darling, that he just can’t eat them — they end up calling him Uncle Wolf — proof that anyone can be redeemed! A great story about loving your enemies!
And if you would like specifics on how to love your enemy, here is one of the best instruction books — Make Enemy Pie.
And better yet, Dad knows the recipe. But one of the secret ingredients is having to spend the whole day with your enemy. Can he do it? And then what happens to the enemy? Heartwarming and real…
Once the people lived in paradise — all their needs of food came from the sky. But they grew greedy and wanted more, even though the God of the sky had warned them about their greed and lack of obedience. One woman’s selfish greed ruined it all for the people, and as their punishment, their God moved away from them and the people now had to toil for their food. Sound familiar?
This folktale is five-hundred years old from the Bini tribe of Nigeria. It is billed everywhere as an ecological tale — how the stewardship of the earth is in the hands of humans. And, it is that. But a believer cannot help but see the connections to Genesis, Chapter 3. It is a fascinating discussion starter, and the illustrations are magnificent.
Big Chickens by Leslie Helakoski; illustrated by Henry Cole.
And the last book of this post (stay tuned for the next thirteen) is absolute Chicken Fluff — hilarious to read, hilarious to listen to, with absolutely no redeeming value except laughter.
The four big chickens go squawking and pwocking and flocking into the woods to hide from the wolf who is sneaking around their henhouse. The cowardly chickens come upon barrier after barrier and each time their worst fears are realized. They fall into the ditch, they step into a cow patty, they fall into the lake, they stumble into the cave, and sure enough, they meet the wolf. They shriek, and they squeak, and they freak until the wolf is scared away by their antics. The word play is fun and the illustrations are fun; in fact, it is one of the most fun books ever for reading out loud… And now that I think of it, there is a moral of the story: Even if your worst fears are realized, they are rarely as bad as you have imagined them to be…
Stay tuned — the next post will have thirteen more...