With Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror and Christmas and Hanukkah looming on the horizon, it's time to try to figure out what the ideal holiday present is for that special child or grandchild (or nephew, or niece, or friend's child).
Since my three grandchildren are five years old or younger, I'm ruling out technology (the average 5-year-old is more tech-savvy than I), clothes (they never fit right), and toys (one more truck and the house will topple over). So I have once again have landed on picture books.
Now, the dilemma is which books to choose. Walk into any bookstore in your neighborhood and you'll find shelf after shelf of brightly colored, cleverly titled picture books.
My BookMarks column on Feb. 9 reviewed seven illustrated books for children from 4-8 years of age that were published in 2018 and recommended by my dear friend of 40 years, Susan Bloom, the emeritus director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons University. Sadly, Susan passed away in June, but her successor at Simmons, Cathryn M. Mercier, has kindly provided me with the titles of some of her favorite picture books published this year.
"How to Read a Book," written by Kwame Alexander, art by Melissa Sweet
Alexander, a poet and educator is the author of more than 30 books for children including the Newbury Medal winner in 2015. He has written a beautiful poem dedicated to the joys of reading. Illustrated with collages that incorporate bright colors, images, and lines from an old copy of Bambi, the book encourages reading and will keep any young child engrossed in finding the special touches on every page.
"The Little Guys," written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
The title refers to small creatures of indeterminate kind who wear acorn caps on their heads and appear to be some kind of insect, perhaps ants, beetles, or another kind of forest floor creepy-crawly. The brightly colored line drawings will delight children as they follow the exploits of the "little guys" taking food from chipmunks, an owl, a fox, a family of bears, and a small red bird until they have all the food in the forest — an outcome that ends badly. Not to fear, the Little Guys learn their lesson about sharing and everyone in the forest ends up happy.
"Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist," written by Julie Leung and illustrated by Chris Sasaki
The "paper son" of the title refers to the false identity papers that were used by thousands of Chinese immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. at the time that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect early in the 20th century. It was the first federal law designed to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering our country. Paper sons were created with false names and histories in an attempt to meet the criteria for lawful entry — educated, employed, skilled. With beautiful illustrations and an informative text, Leung tells the true story of Wong Geng Yeo, who entered the U.S. in 1919 when he was 11. Separated for weeks from his father, Wong was able to convince the immigration officers of his "false identity" and became Tyrus Wong. While his father worked as a servant, a laundryman, or a waiter, and saved his money to send his son to school, Tyrus developed his artistic skills, graduating from Otis Art Institute and going on to become an important illustrator at Disney Studios. There, he played a major role in the creation of the classic movie "Bambi." The story of how this Chinese immigrant turned his father's dream of America's Gold Mountain into a successful life as an artist, family man, and community exemplar is accompanied by beautiful illustrations and is particularly relevant to our time.
"Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story," written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Accompanied by wonderful illustrations by a Caldecott Honor winner, this story uses food to tell the story of the Native American past and present. Pages have bold headings indicating that fry bread is food, shape, sound, color, flavor, time, art, history, place, nation, us — everything. The inside of the front and back covers are single-spaced, densely packed names of the 573 federally recognized Native American tribes. The story is followed with the author's recipe for fry bread and a more detailed history of Native Americans in the U.S. and explanations for the specifics of each panel. This is a superb book to introduce children to our Native American history and its current richness.
"Saturday," written and illustrated by Oge Mora
Ava and her Mother look forward every week to 'special, splendid Saturday' the only day of the week when her mother doesn't work. A full day of wonderful activities are scheduled but unforeseen circumstances ruin all of the planned activities----the story hour is cancelled at the library, their special hair-do's are demolished by a splashed puddle from a passing car, the park is so crowded and noisy that they can't enjoy their picnic, and Ava's Mother forgets the tickets for the special puppet show; it appears that Saturday will be a disaster. But after every disappointment, Ava and her mother "pause, close their eyes, take a deep breath (whew!) and let it out" and they move on. This story of a single mom working six days a week and raising a spirited and resilient daughter is a testimony to the special gifts that a parent can give to their child. Illustrated with colorful collages that incorporate old book clippings among other materials, this is a beautiful book for all children.
"Nine Months Before a Baby is Born," written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Jason Chin
A mother, father, and young girl wait for the birth of a baby in this creative book that consists of paired pages. The left-hand page shows the developing fetus from fertilized egg on day 17 to the newborn baby just after delivery while the right-hand page shows the family and brief rhyming poems describing the ongoing pregnancy. The illustrations are realistic and lovely. An appendix offers more information on fetal development, birth, and other related facts that are a bit beyond most young readers but interesting for older ones. This is an excellent resource for that first child awaiting a brother or sister. Chin is a Vermont artist whose earlier book "Grand Canyon" was a nominee for the Vermont Book Award.
"My Papi has a Motorcycle" written by Isabel Quintero and illustrated by Zeke Pena
In the words of the author, this book is a love letter to both her father and to Corona, California, a town built by Mexican immigrants who picked the lemons, built the houses, and laid the roads. We see the elements of this town in Zeke Pena's fine illustrations as Daisy and her father ride on his motorcycle every day after he gets home from work. A joyous story that demonstrates the richness of another immigrant community and reminds us of who built this country.
"Another" created by Christian Robinson
A Newbury Medal winner, Robinson gives us a fun and fanciful tale that provides one possible answer to the question he poses on the flyleaf: "What if you .encountered another perspective? .Discovered another world?....Met another you? What might you do?" In delightful and colorful pictures unaccompanied by words, Robinson follows a little girl, her cat, and the cat's toy mouse as they disappear into a `hole of light' in her bedroom. Gravity disappears, perspective alters, and other possibilities emerge in this fun exercise for the imagination.
"Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me" written and illustrated by Susan L. Roth
The male bowerbird of the title lives in Australia and New Guinea and builds structures which he decorates with feathers, bones, shells, and other brightly colored objects in order to attract a female mate. Roth compares her creation of collages to the bowerbird's nest, and in a series of beautifully collaged pages, she shows how they are `both collectors of unusual, often unrelated stuff that we use in unusual ways to create different and unexpected compositions in rather small defined spaces." This is a great concept and wonderfully realized. This would be the ideal book for any young, aspiring artist and what 5-year-old doesn't love to create!
"Music for Mister Moon" written by Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead
Eschewing the bright colors and spirited action of most of the other books on this list, the Steads have created a lovely, quiet, and engaging story about a shy, cello-playing girl with an active fantasy life filled with bears and walruses, the moon, and lots of owls. The story is totally fanciful and because of that, it works quite nicely. This would be an ideal book for that "end of a busy day, quiet read" to calm an active young child.
These 10 books are a small selection of the dozens of outstanding offerings for our young readers and listeners. They include books about Native Americans and the immigrants who have joined them in making our nation, about animals and cellos, about parents and siblings, about reading and making art — so many wonders to share with our little friends. It's less important what you read than that you read, but I hope this list helps you decide what to share with your little listener and watcher. Best wishes for the holidays.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass., and Brownsville. He can be reached at EpsteinReads.com where you will also find more than 1,000 ideas for what to read next.