Let the Wild Rumpus Start: 100+ Dazzling Literary Adventures for Young Children

Where-the-wild-things-areVery few books are as perfect as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  That classic tale of naughtiness combines slightly unsettling images with an imaginative adventure story and a comforting return home for Max at the end. It’s a delicious, bittersweet puff of a tale, with an undercurrent of menace, just as it should be.

Here’s what I like in a book for kids ages 3 to 5: an economy of words that starts the story in the middle or at least in some wonderful, surprising place; incredible illustrations from an artistic point of view; and a clever storyline with some emotional truth to it. Children, like adults, need books that help them work through their concerns, feel brave and scared at the same time, and lift their spirits. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think so.

It makes such a difference, as I’ve mentioned, having wonderful stuff to read rather than plowing through a pile of mediocre pablum produced for younger kids as a way to inaugurate them into a Disneyfied, Dora-land marketing juggernaut. The point is that the books you choose should show your kids all the amazing things that books can do — and that you should not merely endure your time spent reading with your child, you should be delighted by it.

So I’ve pulled together a list of books (and authors) I’ve stumbled across that deliver nicely in a least some of these areas. As you’ll notice, I’m fond of gorgeous illustrations and simple but surprising stories. I tried to include a mix of well-known (read: blindingly obvious) books or authors with a few of our own discoveries, so that the list is a cheat sheet for folks new to the world of kiddie lit as well as those with more familiarity (none of the links are commissioned):

No-Miss Authors

For the Youngest Set (0-2 years)

  • Mother Goose (some traditional forms of this include bits that are dated or odd)
  • Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers: One of the cutest books ever. I still choke up at the end. Every. Time.
  • Good Night Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman: An insomniac gorilla liberates the zoo.
  • Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell: Baby owls think a lot. And miss their mommy.
  • The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats: This quiet classic still casts a magical spell.
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson: The original draw-a-world adventure.
  • A Splendid Friend, Indeed, by Suzanne Bloom: Who hasn’t been annoyed by an intrusive goose at one time or another?
  • The Midnight Farm, by Reeve Lindberg and Susan Jeffers: A lovely late-night tour of a farm and all the sleeping animals.
  • You Are My I Love You, by Maryann Cusimano Love: A love poem to a child.
  • Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes: The moon is a bowl of milk.
  • First the Egg, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger: Cut-outs create a narrative about the origins of life.
  • Honey, Honey, Lion or The Umbrella, by Jan Brett: Two vividly drawn tales featuring a wide array of wonderfully exotic animals.
  • Books by Eric Carle: His wonderful illustrations lift up the simplest stories.
  • Gossie, by Olivier Dunrea: The Gossie books are both succinct and sweet.
  • Hopper Hunts for Spring, by Marcus Pfister: Soft focus watercolors, a bunny and a bear looking for a new friend.
  • Where’s the Cat? by Stella Blackstone: Maya adored this bright and funky book with its hidden, playful cat.
  • Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball, by Vicki Churchill and Charles Fuge: So no one can see me/because I’m so small. The whole series of wombat books by these two is adorable.

Enduring Classics

Fables

  • The Woodcutter’s Coat, by Ferida Wolff: Maya adores the ridiculous illustrations in this healing journey that a coat takes.
  • Puff the Magic Dragon, by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton: The words of the song, with fantastical illustrations to match its bittersweet tune.
  • Mr. Lucky Straw, by Elizabeth Lane: Unexpected blessings spring from generosity of spirit.
  • Christopher’s Harvest Time and Pelle’s New Suit, by Elsa Beskow: Garden plants each have their own song in this slightly affected, but daffy-enough-to-charm tale. Pelle’s ingenuity and hard work, not the sheep, earns him a new blue suit.
  • Milo and the Magical Stones, by Marcus Pfister: A story with two endings that highlight the value of gratitude.
  • Kaito’s Cloth, by Glenda Millard: A whimsical, poetic story of a girl and her kite.
  • Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia McKissack: Mirandy needs Brother Wind for a dance partner.
  • The Tomten, by Astrid Lindgren: Having a Tomten protecting the farm at night brings comfort.
  • Anansi and the Magic Stick, by Eric Kimmel and Janet Stevens: The Anansi stories are terrific trickster tales, and this one doesn’t disappoint.
  • Annie and the Wild Animals, by Jan Brett: Annie wants a pet, not these wild creatures that keep coming around.
  • The Tale of Tricky Fox, by Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock: Maya loves the sing-song taunt of Mr. Tricky, and his come-uppance too.
  • Strega Nona, by Tomie de Paola: A pasta pot, a witch and a spell that won’t quit. Basically, Anansi as your Grandma.

Christmas Favorites

Celebrating Family, Culture and Connection

  • Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best: A birthday party for a Russian Grandma shows the best present is a loving family.
  • Paperwhite, by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace: A sweet story of a little girl, her neighbor, and a bulb that marks the coming of spring.
  • The Palace of Stars, by Patricia Lakin: Amanda and her Uncle Max have an outing, and it’s Amanda’s treat.
  • Wild Rose’s Weaving, by Ginger Churchill: Weaving together the earth and the art.
  • Osa’s Pride, by Ann Grifalconi: Osa learns what’s really important about pride.
  • Nonna’s Birthday Surprise, by Lidia Bastianich: What could be better than a visit to a farmer’s market and teaching a gaggle of grandkids to make pasta primavera?
  • Dream Carver, by Diana Cohn: Mateo has a vision for carving and painting animals that he hopes his father will like.
  • Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco: The gumption needed to make a Thunder Cake is just what’s required to brave the weather. Plus a recipe for chocolate cake that uses overripe tomatoes!
  • Mole Music, by David McPhail: With hard work and persistence, Mole’s music works miracles.
  • Little Mouse’s Painting, by Diane Wolkstein: Intricate, colorful illustrations for a story that manages to be about both artistic perspective and friendship.

Working it Through: Funny, Thoughtful Books on Fears and Obsessions

Out in the World

  • The Zoom trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones: Zoom the cat surfs the ocean, goes to the Arctic, and visits ancient Egypt in this gorgeous Canadian trilogy.
  • The Garden of Abdul Ghasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg: A dog strays into the wrong garden, and a little boy has to muster the courage to follow.
  • The Stone Wall Dragon, by Rochelle Draper: A boy takes a tour to the shore after a stone wall comes alive and becomes a friendly dragon.
  • Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon: Stunning illustrations make this story about difference and identity magical.
  • My Friend Rabbit, by Eric Rohmann: Rabbit always makes trouble. But he has good ideas, like stacking hippos on elephants. A clever Caldecott Honor book.
  • Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen: Owling in the snow by moonlight with a girl and her dad.
  • Sophy and Auntie Pearl, by Jeanne Titherington: A daft, light-hearted spree about Sophy’s flying adventures with her aunt.
  • Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen: There’s a lion in the library. And he’s quite a sensitive helpmate, for a lion.
  • Mossy, by Jan Brett: One of the most beautifully illustrated books ever, about a turtle with a garden on its carapace and art as imitation of nature.
  • The Olivia books, by Ian Falconer: So much personality, so little time.
  • The Ghost Library, by David Melling: A cartoonish romp with stories nestled inside stories that ends up teaching kids how to write their own book.
  • The Empty Pot, by Demi: The empty truth trumps the most fabulous flower.
  • Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney: An Independent Woman, spreading lupines.
  • Merlina and the Magic Spell, by Daniel Drescher: Haunting illustrations by Drescher make this odd little book about a sorceress and her dragon memorable.

Historical Interest

  • The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder: We love every one of this series of beautifully illustrated parts of the classic books edited and drawn for preschoolers.
  • Thy Friend, Obediah, by Brinton Turkle: Obediah has a new feathered friend and he’s not sure what he thinks about it. A period piece set in colonial Boston.
  • Warm as Wool, by Scott Russell Sanders: This honest take on early settler life has some hard truths (and dead sheep) in it, but ends up rewarding the risk.
  • William’s House, by Ginger Howard: William designs a house better suited for his family’s new home in the New World.
  • Dandelions,by Eve Bunting and Greg Shed: Perhaps better for slightly older children, a story of loneliness and home-making on the wide, empty prairie.

Wordless Wonders

  • Flotsam, by David Wiesner: A spectacular visual tour of ocean wonders no one has ever seen before.
  • The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs: A boy takes flight with his snowman friend.
  • Journey, by Aaron Becker: A girl slips through a door into a new kingdom with just her magic crayon in hand, liberating a magical bird along the way.
  • The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney: The classic Aesop’s fable, told vividly through images.

For Kindergartners and Up

  • The Tunnel, by Anthony Browne: An edgy sibling rivalry turns into an inspired rescue. Truly creepy images in several spots.
  • Blow Away Soon, by Betsy James: To deal with loss we must appease the wind.
  • The Peaceable Kingdom, by Ewa Zadrynska: Animals escape from the paintings in the Brooklyn Museum. What can be done?
  • Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman: Nerds rule, finally. I adore this triumphant recreation of a new micro-world of self-sufficiency in the heart of suburbia.
  • Emily, by Michael Bedard: A girl dares to speak to a reclusive poet named Emily. Yes, that one.
  • Klara’s New World, by Jeanette Winter: The story of a crossing to the New World by Swedish immigrants, from a young girl’s perspective. Some mature topics like death are covered.
  • The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A fox who delivers a lecture on love. An evening of many sunsets. There is little better than this classic, once your child is old enough to love it like you do.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne: As soon as you can get away with it, ditch the numerous fake versions of these stories and go for the real deal.
  • The Evening King, by David LaRochelle: No one can get in the way of the imagination when a young boy wants to dream.
  • The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth: A gorgeous story based on Tolstoy.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams: Perfection, of course.
  • Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin: An amateur photographer is the first one to figure out how to photograph a snowflake and their crystalline variations.
  • A Symphony of Whales, by Steve Schuch: Trapped whales and the song that sets them free.
  • Sector 7, by David Wiesner: Another wordless wonder of a tale about the power of art to remake reality.
  • The Brave Little Tailor, by Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin: A fantastical version of the Grimms story about the tailor and his seven dead flies.
  • Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead, by Kathleen Krull: A Mexican family celebrates the Day of the Dead with their community.
  • Fu Finds the Way, by John Rocco: A tea ceremony done with purpose, flow and patience saves the day.
  • Books by Graeme Base: Vivid, exquisite, animal stories that are a feast for the senses, sometimes involving a visual puzzle or two.

What are your favorites to read to your child? I can’t wait to hear, so please do share in the comments!

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A Mule Named Sal: American Folk Music for Toddlers

Pete Seeger, American folk singer

Pete Seeger, American folk singer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday may have seemed like a normal day to you, but that’s because you were likely unaware that it was, in fact, my stage debut. After rehearsing together quietly for the past few months, I was invited to embarrass myself publicly on-stage by the ever-generous local children’s musician, Mr. Gabe.

We sang six or so songs, including some of his originals from his awesome CD and other classics like Erie Canal and Froggie Went a’ Courtin. I love to sing simple, good music, and it was a wonderful feeling to think that those of us with passable — rather than great — voices still have something to give.

So I thought that in honor of my new adventures in harmony, I would write about some of my favorite children’s music, as well as my favorite music for children. There are many musical options now for young children, and I often check out the CDs for sale at yard sales and the thrift store. Of course, engaging the natural interests of children in rhythm and dance, and in music, is a wonderful way to enhance and round out their development and to relax.

We listen to music whenever we can: at home, in the car, and before bed. In the children’s music category, we like Marvelous Day, by Steve Roslonek, some of Laurie Berkner (but, sadly, some songs are irritating) and Frances England, and a few of the totally nutty songs by John Lithgow from his children’s album (like “You Gotta Have Skin,” or “At the Codfish Ball”– but beware grating ones like “Singing in the Bathtub,” which is, oddly, the title tune). Although fun, the older-kid pop stuff by groups like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies still mostly goes right over Maya’s head, and will have to wait.

The truth is, it’s hard to write music for kids that is age-appropriate, musically interesting, and strikes an emotional chord. And — most importantly for the adult listeners — is not annoying. Just as in the world of children’s “literature,” there’s a lot of dreck that poses as enrichment.

Which is why it’s often easier, instead, to think about the music that is part of the American tradition and that forms a child-friendly core of songs from the larger culture. These are famous for a reason — they combine music, story-telling and emotional truth. Some children’s music actually comes from this place — like Pete Seeger’s or Leadbelly’s — and is a joy to behold. Newer entertainers also have takes on the classics, like Elizabeth Mitchell (who’s channeling Seeger much of the time, and also has a tribute album to Woody Guthrie), Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb.

While I was pregnant with Maya, I undertook to compile my own personal list of songs that would both appeal to young children and are part of this American folk musical tradition. This is music I grew up with, and are the songs Maya now knows and sings with me. I wanted to go beyond the obvious — “Itsy Bitsy” and “Twinkle Twinkle,” though those have their place — and find the wonderful, revealing and gritty music that is in the air, that all of us know and love.

The playlist we use is below, with suggestions on artists, and in no particular order.

American Folk Music for Toddlers: A Few Ideas       

  • This Little Light of Mine                  Sam Cooke                 
  • Red River Valley                  Moe Bandy                 
  • You Are My Sunshine                   Kevin Devine                 
  • Sixteen Tons                                    Tennessee Ernie Ford                 
  • Molly Malone                                The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem   
  • This Old Man                                         Bob Dylan
  • Michael Row the Boat Ashore                  The Brothers Four                 
  • Sloop John B                                    The Beach Boys                            
  • Circle Game                                    Joni Mitchell                 
  • Waltzing Matilda                               Burl Ives                 
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot             Mavis Staples & Lucky Peterson                 
  • Shoo Fly – Don’t Bother Me                 Sweet Honey In the Rock                 
  • Zip-a-dee-doo-dah                                    Anthony the Banjo Man                  
  • Streets of Laredo                  Moe Bandy                 
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River                 
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken                   Mavis Staples                 
  • Scarborough Fair / Canticle                Simon & Garfunkel                 
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain                  Blind Boys of Alabama                        
  • Morning Has Broken                         Cat Stevens                 
  • Ol’ Man River                                    Jeff Beck
  • The Rainbow Connection               Willie Nelson
  • Sea of Love                                  The Honeydrippers
  • The Water Is Wide                             Eva Cassidy
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water                  Simon & Garfunkel
  • Motherless Chil’                                    Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Amazing Grace                  Spivey Hall Children’s Choir
  • Kumbaya                  Peter, Paul and Mary
  • Peacetrain                   Cat Stevens
  • Father and Son                                Cat Stevens
  • Jumbalaya (on the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Sunshine On My Shoulders                  John Denver
  • Roseville Fair                                    Misty River
  • Forever Young                                    Bob Dylan
  • Sweet Baby James                  James Taylor
  • One Little Light                                    Gary Jules
  • Cotton Eyed Joe                                    Nina Simone
  • You’ve Got A Friend                  Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
  • A Change Is Gonna Come                  Sam Cooke
  • Nobody Knows the Trouble I See            The Dixie Hummingbirds
  • Hey, Good Lookin’                                     Hank Williams  
  • When the Saints Go Marching In             The Hit Crew
  • What a Wonderful World                        Louis Armstrong
  • We Are The Ones                          Sweet Honey In The Rock
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane                           John Denver
  • Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes            Paul Simon
  • The House That Jack Built                        Aretha Franklin
  • A Tisket a Tasket                                       Ella Fitzgerald
  • You Make Me Feel So Young                    Frank Sinatra
  • Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)            B.B. King
  • Swinging on a Star (Single)                        Bing Crosby
  • My Way                                                Frank Sinatra  
  • Shoo Li Loo                                       Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Shoo Fly                                    Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Rockin’ Robin                                         Sha Na Na                 
  • Erie Canal                               Dan Zanes & Suzanne Vega
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter                      Loretta Lynn
  • City of New Orleans                       Steve Goodman                 
  • I’ll Fly Away                             Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch                 
  • My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains      The Lost & Found                 
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy                  The Andrews Sisters
  • Midnight Train to Georgia            Gladys Knight & The Pips                                   
  • Coconut                                        Harry Nilsson                                   
  • Lean On Me                                    Bill Withers                                   
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • Cat’s In the Cradle                         Harry Chapin                                   
  • Summertime                                    Sam Cooke
  • Children Go Where I Send You             Nina Simone
  • Tea for Two                               Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie
  • At the Zoo                                      Simon & Garufunkel  
  • The Battle of New Orleans                     Johnny Horton
  • You Are My Sunshine                               Norman Blake
  • The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)                  Harry Belafonte
  • King Of The Road                                  Roger Miller
  • Moon River                                         Jerry Butler
  • Mr. Bojangles                                       Jerry Jeff Walker
  • You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile        Dan Zanes
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry                    Hank Williams
  • St. James Infirmary                  Chris Thomas King
  • Moonshadow                                  Cat Stevens
  • We Shall Overcome                  Mahalia Jackson
  • The Streets of Laredo                  Johnny Cash
  • Octopus’s Garden                  The Beatles
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain                  Harry McClintock
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat                  Schoolchildren Of Wanseko, Uganda
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain                  Pete Seeger
  • (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay                  Glen Campbell
  • This Land Is Your Land                  Woody Guthrie
  • Dinah                                         Bing Crosby And The Mills Bros.
  • Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)          Michelle Shocked
  • Wabash Cannonball                  Boxcar Willie
  • Jump In the Line                                    Harry Belafonte
  • Cotton Fields                                       Odetta
  • Talkin’ Bout a Revolution                      Tracy Chapman
  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou)                  Hank Williams
  • Home On the Range                               Moe Bandy                 
  • Down in the Valley                                David Grisman & Jerry Garcia                 
  • Oh Susanna                                           Lisa Loeb                 
  • Fever                                                   Peggy Lee                 
  • Yellow Submarine                                    The Beatles                 
  • Sippin Cider Through a Straw                  Susie Tallman                 
  • Little Red Caboose                                    Lisa Loeb                 
  • When I’m Sixty-Four                             The Beatles              
  • Yankee Doodle                                    Boxcar Willie                 
  • Kookaburra Sits In the Old Gum Tree          Lazy Harry                 
  • Little Boxes                                          Malvina Reynolds                 
  • Keep On The Sunny Side                       The Whites                 
  • It’s Not Easy Being Green                   Kermit the Frog
  • Down to the River to Pray                    Allison Krause
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic                  Boxcar Willie 
  • Our House                                        Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Into the Mystic                                     Van Morrison
  • Canned Goods                                    Greg Brown
  • Keep Me in Your Heart                        Warren Zevon
  • Circle ‘Round the Sun                         Woody Guthrie
  • This Land Is Your Land                        Bob Dylan
  • Redemption Song                               Bob Marley
  • Wild World                                          Cat Stevens
  • Corinna, Corinna                                 Bob Dylan
  • He Gives Us All His Love                    Randy Newman
  • Across the Great Divide                      Nanci Griffith
  • Take Me Home, Country Roads         John Denver
  • 500 Miles                                          Roseanne Cash
  • Blackbird                                          The Beatles
  • Summertime                 Sam Cooke (more cheerful than Billie Holiday’s version)

While these are the “core,” I also trolled through my music generally and created a large playlist of Maya-friendly songs outside the folk tradition, including world music, Motown, jazz, and other genres. When we tire of these, that larger list is the go-to. If you’ve already gone digital, this takes an evening and solves the endless question of what to put on the player…

Please do tell:  What’s on your list? What gems and touchstones am I missing?