stack of wonder

Ultimate Children’s Booklist (Part 2: The Authors)

With thanks to those who first introduced these friends to me, especially: my mom, aunt, sisters, and my brother, who shared his precious hoard of Louis L'Amour.
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When I started compiling my “50 Best Books” list to share, I never dreamed where it would go. But good stories are like that, aren't they? They lead you to exciting discoveries, fascinating characters, and plenty of things to mull on when you close the cover.

My list kept growing, too. 😉

There were so many characters to introduce, I just had to piece it out so you wouldn't have to scroll forever. Last post was Preschool and Elementary single books. This time it's authors (and some of their works) you should meet! Authors below are arranged in roughly from younger-older readers, but again, this varies so much! Many of these can be stretched across age groups as read-alouds, with perhaps some coloring or brick-building for the youngest busy bees.

Let's get going, shall we?

Richard Scarry – NO children's book collection would be complete without the incomparable Richard Scarry! He knew so well how to illustrate for all the “what's inside?” “how does it work?” questions bubbling from young readers. There is always something exciting on a page in a Scarry book, and usually a teeny critter to spot, too! There are too many Scarry books to list, but some favorites at our house are: What Do People Do All Day?The Great Pie Robbery and Other Mysteries (who-done-its with Scarry flare) and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (of course!).

Patricia Polacco - Polacco brings an incredible poignancy to her stories of family, heritage, and childhood, often telling her stories through a child's eyes. They are all fully illustrated, which make even the “older”-themed books accessible for younger listeners. Below are listed all the Polacco I have read and recommend, with a brief theme summary.

I first read (and cried through) Thank You, Mr. Falker, tucked away in a hidey-hole in my aunt's house. This autobiographical account is for anyone who ever had someone reach into their pain and humiliation with an offering of acceptance and grace. Bring your tissue box.

The Keeping Quilt – A lovely story that wraps family heritage warmly around the reader like a treasured quilt.

 

Just Plain Fancy – This is perfect for an introduction to the Amish, and a sweet story of the reward of responsibility.

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Thunder Cake – A must-have for children who are startled by storms. The tale of how Polacco's grandmother showed her thunder can herald wonder instead of fear.

The Bravest Man in the World – Polacco movingly resurrects the story of Wallace Hartley and the Titanic for a new generation. If you've never encountered the man who stayed on the deck of the sinking Titanic to comfort the doomed with his music, pick an unhurried moment and let this story sink in for yourself. My ADHD oldest sat quietly with this book on his lap for some time. “I think I'm just going to look at his picture for a while,” he said softly.

The Bee Tree – If you poked around my ode to literature, you found the quintessential line from this tale of an adventure in the life of the author's mother. Perhaps it was the great king Solomon, who once said, “puruse wisdom rather than gold, and seek out knowledge rather than silver,” whom Grandfather had in mind when he winsomely nudged his granddaughter to pursue the riches found in literature.

Pink and Say – There is no “child-friendly” way to approach war, and Polacco doesn't shy away from introducing children to the grief and loss that accompanies it. Be prepared to discuss North and South, racial misconceptions, and death if you choose to read this Civil War story with your children.

Mrs. Mack – Self-confidence is a struggle for so many children, especially those who are coming-of-age or find themselves uprooted from familiar ground in their family lives (or both, as the protagonist experiences). This thoughtful story follows a young girl who learned to look outside her own woes, care for another, and grow into a better, more confident version of herself in the process.

The Butterfly – A moving story of the Jewish Holocaust, told through the eyes of two young friends: a Jewish girl in hiding, and the daughter of the couple hiding the family. An excellent springboard for remembrance and further discussion.

When Lightening Comes in a Jar – This takes me back to family reunions of long ago, and I can almost hear loved ones now gone sitting and commenting on the frolicks of us “young folk.” Polacco's reverence for family connections shines like the fireflies she used to collect.

An Orange for Frankie – A beautiful story of a time when oranges were rare Christmas treats, new clothing was scarce, and family bonds were strong and deep. Keep your tissues handy.

The Art of Miss Chew – In an educational system with so much pressure to fit into “boxes”, thank Heaven for people like Miss Chew, who recognize and nurture children's gifts. Another autobiographical sketch of Polacco's childhood.

The Blessing Cup – Rich and deep, like strong Russian coffee. From the terror of the pogroms to the redemption of sacrificial love, this journey moves as only Polacco can write. Find a quiet corner and your box of tissues.

Trees of the Dancing Goats – Hanukkah and Christmas entwine with the warmth of friendship, sacrifice, and the love that drives both. A beautiful Christmastime read to focus children outside of their own “wish lists” and on to that which endures.

Tucky Jo and Little Heart – Another World War ll story, this time from the Pacific Theater, this true story of hope amidst horror will complete that box of facial tissues you started with Mr. Falker.

Eric Carle – As a lighter break from all the Polacco-induced sniffling, pick up a stack of Eric Carle: brightly-illustrated, sometimes cheeky, and a great springboard for art discussion! If you thought Carle was only The Very Hungry Caterpillar (which I highlighted here), you're missing out! (P.S. Check this out for a fun project to make your own collage – the method Carle uses to illustrate his works.)

Pancakes, Pancakes! One of our favorite Carle offerings, this delightful (and educational) farm-to-table yarn will keep kids engaged as they eagerly wait with Jack for his well-earned pancake. (NOTE: you may have to make pancakes with strawberry jam after reading this.)

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The Grouchy Ladybug – An unfriendly ladybug who initially rebuffs a friendly bug gets a lesson in what his poor manners feel like on the receiving end. Science credit! Kids learn ladybugs clear aphids off plants' leaves.

The Greedy Python – A short and engaging tale, written by Richard Buckley and illustrated by Carle. Caution against grasping for more than you really need.

The Secret Birthday Message – A fun treasure-map-style journey. Enjoyable for kids who like “decoding/searching” type books but are early readers.

The Very Lonely Firefly – Follow clues of nighttime sounds and lights to discover a firework display – and friends. The battery version of this book (where the final firefly page lights up) makes a great impression for toddlers and preschoolers.

Rooster's Off to See the World – The grass isn't always greener on the other side, as Rooster discovers in this cute counting book.

A quick note on Eric Carle: In Draw Me a Star, there is a page depicting a naked man and woman (in Carle-style collage), complete with semi-defined private parts and breasts. Depending on your preferences for teaching anatomy, you may wish to skip this Carle offering or use it as a springboard for further discussion.

Tomie dePaola – I just love author/illustrator combos, don't you? It's like getting a slice of the person, themselves. Tomie dePaola brings a bit of the family reminiscence and reverence found in Polacco's writings and spins it with a whole lot of mischief. I can imagine Polacco as a child, buried quietly in an armchair with a book, and dePaola as a boy, sneaking into the kitchen to empty the cookie jar. That cheekiness comes out in the autobiographical The Art Lesson and my boys' favorite, Charlie Needs a Cloak (be sure to pay attention at the bottom of each page for the exploits of the mischievous mouse!) Mama's favorites (sit next to your tissue box): Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs, and Now One Foot, Now the Other, both which poignantly celebrate the love between children and their grandparents.

You can't exclude the brilliantly unconventional Dr. Suess without being a Grinch. While I personally favor beautiful and informative literature, sometimes, you just need a good dose of fun. Theodor Geisel, or “Dr. Suess” as he is commonly known, sure knew how to spin a rhyme! Suessian rhyming is a delightful way to meet your poetry quota, and when you consider the readability of Suess's works, they really are a treat. Don't let odd-colored breakfast, fantastical creatures and quirky non-words fool you. Suess wasn't all nonsense: from the how-do-you-know-you-don't-like-it Green Eggs and Ham to the linguistic-exercising Oh, Say Can You Say? to the depth of the life-affirming Horton Hears a Who, Suess has plenty to offer. Did you know? I Can Draw It Myself includes 18 unfinished drawings for budding artists to complete, themselves!

For more early readers with rhymes, P.D. Eastman, and his son, Peter Eastman, offer many choices. They're not as bizzare as Suess, but still fun. Look up Sam and the Firefly about a mischief-making night insect who finally learns his lesson or Fred and Ted's Road Trip, the easy-reading mis-adventure of two canine pals. P.S. If you've been around enough Suess and Eastman to feel as though they're connected somehow, you're not imagining things. P.D. Eastman worked under Suess in the Signal Corps unit during World War ll.

Syd Hoff loved introducing children to animals. Lengthy, the story of the unusually long dachshund who finally accepts himself, was one of my favorite books as child. My boys enjoy the Henrietta series (which follows an adventurous chicken through her mishaps). In fact, Henrietta ranks rank directly under Mr. Putter and Tabby in popularity. (Thank you, Auntie S.) NOTE: Apparently Hoff enjoyed utilizing his cartooning skills in slightly risque adult cartoon books. These won't be found on the shelf next to Grizzwold in your library, of course, but just be aware: he was apparently a very colorful cartoonist.

Jim Arnosky – In the world of children's nature books, Jim Arnosky's are hard to beat. All About Crocodiles was my 5-year-old fact-glutton's favorite book for a long while, and we haven't found an Arnosky book yet we didn't like. What sets arnosky apart from other children's nature illustrators are 1) his excellently detailed paintings, which bring entire scenes to life, and 2) his restraint from heavy-handedness in promoting conservation. In a quote from his Scholastic profile, he says, “I prefer to show rather than tell,” he explains, “to teach rather than preach, to guide rather than simply warn. In showing my readers what I look for in my ramblings, I hope that they will keep an eye out for such things and make discoveries of their own when they are outdoors.”

Arnosky offers “find-out” nature books such as his All About series and my son's favorite, Wild Tracks!, nature storybooks such as Racoon on His Own and the gently-rhyming Manatee Morning and “journey” books that are slightly wordier, such as Following the Coast. The Brook Book is a mini science course in itself!

Beatrix Potter – A shelf of animal books would be lacking without the genuine (pre-Hollywood) Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddle-Duck. While Potter did employ some anthropomorphism, her illustrations were extremely accurate in terms of animal likeness (minus the clothing, of course!) and she stayed true to many animal habits. This unique blend makes her tales very engaging early nature instruction, not to mention lessons in life! (Peter Rabbit's tale shows the end of foolish curiosity; Jemima's story, vanity, etc). All 23 of her children's stories can be found in Beatrix Potter: The Complete Tales (formerly The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter.) Check out this coloring book from Dover based on Potter's illustrations for the perfect busy-hand activity for reading time!

Robert McCloskey's charming illustrations lend to nature books such as Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. (Which, aside from being one of my favorite books as a child, is an excellent non-scary discussion starter on wildlife safety and the importance of staying near Mommy when out in bear country.) If you, like me, wished to hear more of Little Sal, you'll be delighted with One Morning in Maine, where we meet our plucky heroine once again. You must also read (especially if you have boys) Homer Price – though ideally not on an empty stomach, as the donuts pictured therein might incite a raid of your fridge before your finish. 🙂

Another Robert deserves mention. As with McCloskey, Robert Lawson illustrated his own works, such as the epic turn-of-the-century Great Wheel and his ode to the family tree, They Were Strong and Good (which, in spanning countries, cultures, and a century, makes a great early social studies read!) Lawson is the only writer to win both the Caldecott Medal (for They Were Strong and Good), and the Newberry Medal (for Rabbit Hill).

Kate Messner's nature books, illustrated by Christopher Neal, offer explorations into various habitats. Plenty of critters to learn about and locate on every page, with a simple, engaging story to follow. The appendix at the end of each book highlights all the creatures we met in the story, with fascinating facts for your nature-lover to gobble up. NEW RELEASE: Over and Under the Rainforest to release August 11, 2020.

Marguerite Henry honestly deserves her own post. Her true stories of animals and the people in their lives, told with such tenderness and respect to both parties, make her perhaps the penultimate children's “animal story” author. Geographically, her books take the reader from the Grand Canyon (Brighty), to Nevada (Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West) to Virginia (where perhaps her most famous work, Misty of Chincoteague, takes place), and across the ocean to Italy (in the heart-pounding Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio). The majority of her stories revolve around horses.

Now that we're on women authors, don't forget Beverly Cleary, particularly her series that feature Henry Huggins. Boy moms, did you think Cleary was only synonymous with Ramona? Surprise! Cleary humorously captures a young boy's perspective and priorities. We enjoyed Henry and the Paper Route, which is a (pre) coming-of-age “boy” story and humorous insight into boy minds (for those of us who don't possess them 😉 ). My boys were glued to The Mouse and the Motorcycle (which I couldn't quite get into, myself, but what was I just saying about boy minds?) Mama may wish to add A Girl From Yamhill to her own collection.

Moving ahead in literacy and maturity level, Louis L'Amour deserves at least one book on every teen boy's bookshelf. I've known young men who cringe at the thought of “reading books” unable to put L'Amour down. While L'Amour didn't write specifically “for boys”, mamas of said adventuresome creatures would do well to introduce at least a few of his works, even if only for their historical value. (And if your son absolutely despises reading, Bantam produced many of his short stories, including Trap of Gold as audio dramas.)

L'Amour wrote about the West, based on his own life experience and the history he gathered from the “old-timers” who lived it (the Sacketts series is based off an actual family he knew). This first-person feeling is perhaps what makes his stories so engrossing. Trap of Gold, one of his many short stories, is a riveting exploration of the lure of wealth. Education of a Wandering Man is his own fascinating memoir. I wouldn't call L'Amour a gritty writer, but life in the real “Old West” was no 1950's TV show, and while he often incorporates a bit of satisfying romance, he doesn't gloss over some of the rougher things encountered in living in the wide open places. As such, his books are definitely for older kids.

Moving back in history and forward in maturity/reading level, every highschooler should read The Last of the Mohicans or perhaps The Deerslayer by James Fennimore Cooper. Cooper wrote his historical novels a few generations after the events portrayed, hence there is a bit of romanticism imbued in the accounts. There is also a great deal of history to glean, including of the Native tribes in the area, how they viewed each other and (especially in the Last of the Mohicans) how the French and English, in their quest to claim America, used tribal differences to their own advantage. Readers be advised, there are unvarnished accounts of warfare. The combination of some “mature” elements and 1800s English put this in the highschool level.

A final (for now 😉 ) recommendation to complete your historical offerings: Eric Sloane. Sloane captured beautifully in his illustrations both the incredible workmanship of 1700s architecture and the vanishing beauties of America's landscape. Water-mills, barns, stump fences, covered wood bridges, marshes, swamps; all with great detail and reverence. Sloane illustrated the 1805 diary of 14-year-old Noah Blake in Diary of an Early American Boy. It's a history and social studies lesson in itself. (And an engaging read – including a budding romance.) History and craftsmanship buffs will appreciate works such as A Reverence for Wood and A Museum of Early American Tools.

...and that's all she wrote, folks! What authors have made an impact on your family?

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2 thoughts on “Ultimate Children’s Booklist (Part 2: The Authors)”

  1. Wow, what an expansive list! Such fun. Some authors I already know and love; others I hope soon to meet (like Robert Lawson). There’s even some new-to-me Polaccos!

    I’m glad to see so many recommendations that are boy-approved. I would have to add Gary Schmidt, esp. “Okay for Now,” which I read as an adult. I was blown-away with the deep themes and the amount of truth and beauty the author packed into the story of a eighth-grade misfit.

    May I also take the liberty to add a few favorite girlhood authors?

    The top author I read and re-read growing up was, without a doubt, Louisa May Alcott. I liked “Little Men” even better than “Little Women”, but my tops were “Eight Cousins,” “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” and “Under the Lilacs.” Others dear to my heart: Eleanor Estes (esp. The Moffat Series and “The Hundred Dresses”), Gene Stratton-Porter (“Freckles” – read first, “Girl of the Limberlost,” “Keeper of the Bees,” etc. – beautiful nature descriptions in all her works) and Patricia St. John (esp. “Star of Light” and “Treasures of the Snow” … why Moody revised/abridged these in 2002, I’ll never know. The originals were wonderful.).

    I have recently fallen in love with the modern, but Alcott-esque Penderwick sisters from the series by Jeanne Birdsall – the fourth book is wonderful for introverts. And if you enjoy Narnia, try George MacDonald, starting with “The Princess and the Goblin.” 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Please DO add suggestions! 🙂 Louisa May Alcott has a pending appearance on the upper grades list, but I forgot Gene Stratton-Porter! I remember listening to my older sister read “Freckles” out loud when I was little, and being in awe of the woods-wisdom of the title character. I have never heard of the Penderwicks, but now you have whetted my appetite. 🙂

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