Category Archives: Picture Books

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Even if Your Kid Has Never Heard of Gefilte Fish: The Carp in the Bathroom

I’m Korean, but I grew up in Great Neck and I was obsessed with the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (I’ve written about them here and here). So I have a soft spot for any book set in old-time New York where the characters have names like Zipporah and Moishe and eat noodle kugel.

Each year when Passover rolls around, my husband’s family gets together for a raucous and extremely secularized seder. I’m not sure the kids have any idea what the holiday is actually about because they are too busy stuffing themselves with chocolate-covered matzoh and playing with the felt finger puppets representing the ten plagues. But I’ve developed my own Passover tradition, which is to break out the 1972 classic The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen and force my children to appreciate its charms.

It’s about a nine-year-old girl and her little brother who live with their parents in a tenement in Brooklyn. It looks like the 1940s or thereabouts. Their mother is a wonderful cook who makes an especially mean gefilte fish. To make sure she has the fattest, freshest fish every year for their seder, she always buys a live carp a week early and lets it swim in the family’s bathtub until it’s butchering time.

Love this illustration of the mom, walking so purposefully in her polka-dot dress:

The family’s tub carp is a beloved annual ritual. The kids don’t have to bathe for a whole week and it’s the closest they ever get to having a pet.

“Every time Harry or I had to go to the toilet, we would grab a crust of bread or a rusty lettuce leaf from the kitchen. While we sat on the toilet, we fed the bread or the lettuce leaf to the carp. This made going to the bathroom really fun, instead of just a waste of time.” 

Hands down, the most memorable picture in the book: The brother on the toilet.

One year they get especially attached to their carp. His eyes are brighter and he seems “unusually playful and intelligent.”

“There was something about his mouth that made him seem to be smiling at us.”

So the kids hatch a plan to save their friend’s life by sneaking him out in a bucket and begging their downstairs neighbor, the recently widowed Mrs. Ginzburg, to keep him in her tub.

“A few drops of water dripped onto the oriental rug Mrs. Ginzburg had bought at Abraham and Straus with Mr. Ginzburg’s Christmas bonus two years before.” (Love this!!!)

I love how gigantic all the adults are in the illustrations. They suit the story’s point of view perfectly: the adults are firmly in charge, but they’re not intimidating. They’re more like gentle, oversized, somewhat inscrutable giants. The storytelling has a sweet, gentle humor and even though the stakes aren’t super high, Cohen gives the plot some genuine drama.

But warning: Any child reading this book is going to beg you to let them keep a giant fish in the bathtub.

Christmas carp, c.1971 (photo courtesy of ČTK / Czech News Agency)

Today, when I was poking around the web I learned that keeping a fish in a bathtub for a couple of days is actually a well-established Christmas tradition in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea is not only that this keeps the fish fresh, but that a few days living in clean water helps to flush mud from the fish’s digestive tract. (Carp are bottom feeders.) And it’s just as common for the kids to get attached to their pet fish and mourn them when the big day arrives.

 

 

 

 

Still My Favorite Baby Gift: A Teeny Tiny Baby

When friends have babies, I love to give books. I buy the same ones again and again:  Amos & BorisI am a Bunny, The Best NestWhen I Have a Little Girl , When You Were Small, Thank You, Bear, and Max Makes a Million, to name a few. The key is the book can’t be so super well-known that I have to worry that my friend already has a copy. (I was annoyed by the time I got my third copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — bratty, I know.)  But lately, I’ve been stymied. One of my longtime favorite titles to give is out of print: A Teeny Tiny Baby by Amy Schwartz.

When it came out in 1994, I was in my 20s and years away from contemplating motherhood. My boss and his wife had just had their first baby and someone must have given them the book as a gift. When I saw it, I was charmed from the get-go. I remember looking at the illustrations of the scruffily bearded dads with babies strapped to their chests and realizing the author-illustrator had perfectly nailed that new kind of Upper West Sidey-Brooklyn parent I’d kinda sorta noticed on my way to drink cosmos or catch the new Janeane Garofalo movie.

The story is told from the perspective of an infant in Brooklyn in his first few weeks of life. He reports his experiences at the center of the household —everybody cooing and fussing over him — in the most matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations, meanwhile, give us the other side of the story. There’s his parents’ undignified struggle with the stroller down the steps to the cleaners and the big night out at a restaurant where the family is seated (with stroller) at at an outdoor table … in an alleyway … next to a trash can. It’s all very subtle and subversive about the beleaguered/besotted emotional state of new parents, which is why it makes such a good gift for new moms. Not to mention that the illustrations are totally charming, from the cosy interiors (Thonet rocker!) to the characters’ outfits (Marimekko?).

After the Teeny Tiny Baby hardcovers disappeared from Amazon, I noticed you could still find board book versions of the book. So I bought a few and gave those as gifts. But these days I can only find secondhand copies of this incredible book for sale. Heartbreaking!

I might have to buy some used copies as gifts. I know this might gross out some new moms so maybe I’ll also include a bottle of Purell.

Freakiest Author Photo Ever: Sue Denim aka…

I had never heard of the Dumb Bunnies books by Sue Denim, but yesterday I saw these at the library and they looked promising. They were published in the mid 90s and the illustrations are by the great Dav Pilkey, of Captain Underpants fame. dumbbunnies The four-book series is centered around a family of, yep, dumb bunnies who cheerfully go through life underestimating danger, misinterpreting signage and wearing their underwear over their pants. With their punny wordplay, the books remind me a lot of the Amelia Bedelia books (except using references that kids today can actually understand) as well as James Marshall’s marvelous The Stupids.

But what really got me was the back flap. Check it out:

sue denim

Who was this mysterious Sue Denim? What was up with her tranny-looking photo? Where could I find this “best-selling science book” for kids called Fun with Matches? Also, wasn’t Dav Pilkey a white guy?

After about two seconds on Wikipedia I unearthed the not-so-secret truth that Sue Denim was a pen name Dav Pilkey used for all his Dumb Bunnies books. (He introduced them three years before the first Captain Underpants.) According to the Scholastic website, the series is still available, but is now attributed solely to Pilkey. This certainly makes sense, considering how bankable Pilkey’s name has become. But you also gotta wonder if Scholastic would anyone publish such freaky faux author photos today. I’m guessing that’s Pilkey in both photos and I swear it looks like he’s wearing blackface makeup along with those creepy buck teeth.

My Summer of The Donald: Ox-Cart Man and More

Like everyone else, I’ve spent an appalling amount of time this year reading much too much about Donald Trump. But there’s another Donald I became obsessed with this summer: Donald Hall.

It all started with a magazine story I was writing about Jan and David Hoffman, a pair of furniture makers in rural Pennsylvania who live a life of staggering self-sufficiency. They make their own tools, save their seeds and grow much of their own food. Jan told me they believed in the saying “no string too short to save.” Intrigued by her phrase, I Googled it and found this book:

string too short to be savedString Too Short to be Saved is poet Donald Hall’s 1961 memoir of the summers he spent as a youth on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm in the years leading up to World War II. From the description, it promised to be a sweet, nostalgic beach read that was right up my alley — a string of lyrical anecdotes about tending cows and watching the seasons change. (Basically, a grown-up version of Farmer Boy.) And that alone would have left me plenty satisfied. But the book turned out to be so much more. Hall’s stories about haying, blueberry picking, lost cows and his grandfather’s eccentric farm hand are funny and thrilling enough for kids. I read S & L the chapter called “The Left-Footed Thief,” about the time Donald’s grandfather and his brother hunted down a sheep thief who was wearing two left-footed boots, and they were fascinated.

At the same time, the memoir is also suffused with sadness. From the mysteriously abandoned farm shacks Donald passes on his daily walks with his grandfather to the haunting portraits of long-dead relatives in his grandmother’s hallway there is a pervasive sense of loss in String Too Short. The emotional resonance reminded me of a Donald Hall essay from a couple years ago in The New Yorker in which the former poet laureate showed that at 83, his intellect was still as well-honed and deadly as an axe. Old age, he explained in his growly, godly prose, turned people “invisible.” At one point he described how, at a family dinner, one of his grandchild’s friends placed her chair to sit with her back directly facing Hall, as if his presence was no more than another piece of furniture. I remember his recounting of that moment like a stab in the chest.

String too Short is not by any means intended for kids, but if your 7th or 8th grader doesn’t mind a leisurely read and loved the Little House books and Roald Dahl’s Boy, try it on them.

I was so taken with Hall’s tales of frugal farm life I also got this out of the library:

Ox-Cart Man - Donald Hall

Ox-Cart Man is Hall’s 1979 Caldecott-winning children’s book about a 19th century farmer bringing the goods from his family’s farm to market. It’s one of those slow, bucolic, nothing-really-happens picture books that can be either deadly dull, or, when done right, utterly mesmerizing.

The rhythm of the prose echoes the reassuring rhythm of the farmer’s routines. The farmer packs his ox-cart with brooms, apples and maple syrup; he sells everything (including the ox and the cart) at Portsmouth Market; he buys a needle, a knife, and some peppermint candy for his family; he journeys back home; he and his family start the cycle again. Revisiting the book in light of Hall’s memoir, it’s even more satisfying.

Ox-Cart Interior

Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Bonus: With any luck your children will subconsciously absorb the message that in the good old days, kids did their share of labor and were happy if they got a single piece of wintergreen peppermint candy as a treat.

Hall has told interviewers that the surprise success of this book allowed him to put in a new bathroom in the New Hampshire farmhouse he’s lived in since 1975 (it’s the same house where his grandparents lived). A bronze plaque over the bathroom’s doorway reads “Caldecott Room.”

Tomi Ungerer: The Menswear Collection

We were re-reading Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers (1963) the other day. I never get tired of the story’s sinister fairytale feel; the color palette of black and midnight blue; or Ungerer’s use of the word “blunderbuss.”

p5But I realized something new this time around. Those voluminous cloaks and bell-shaped hats are very Yohji Yamamoto.

Yohji Yamamoto Fall-Winter 2012

The Incredible Sulk! Spinky Sulks; Now Everybody Really Hates Me; By The Side of the Road

That’s me on the left, mad about something or other during a family vacation.

I was a stubborn child, with an impressive capacity for staying mad for long stretches of time. It’s a character trait that runs in the family. My mother is a champion grudge-holder, and my eight-year-old daughter is already proving herself a natural. So I can relate to any character who excels at keeping the pissed-off flame on long simmer. These are my three favorite books on the art of not-forgiving.

1) Spinky Sulks (1988) by William Steig

spinky

When Steig’s book opens, our grouchy protagonist, Spinky, has decided that his stupid family doesn’t love him anymore and his only recourse is to turn his back on the world. His mother, brothers and sisters and grandmother try to appease him, coaxing him with sweet words, flowers, and ice cream. But he’s unmoved. Spinky retreats to a hammock from which he refuses to budge, even through a rainstorm.

Spinky2

When we first got this book a few years ago, it was by far my daughter’s favorite Steig title. Spinky is unlikeable — but if you’re a sulker, you can’t help rooting for him. The emotions feel real and raw. I love these lines towards the end, when Spinky starts to cave:

He wasn’t mad anymore, but he still had his pride. After all his suffering, how could he just turn around and act lovey-dovey? That wasn’t his way.

2) Now Everybody Really Hates Me (1993) by Jane Read Martin and Patricia Marx

Turn Spinky into a girl, give him more of an imagination, launch him into the 90s, and you’ve got Patty Jane Pepper. When the crafty freckle-faced heroine is sent to her room as punishment for hitting her brother, she decides that she is never coming out. That’ll show them! 

Now Everybody Really Hates MeShe’s not only a martyr, she’s a drama queen.

Everybody Hates 2Does every kid in this situation have the same fantasies? The authors (and illustrator Roz Chast) nail them all. She will not eat! She will never clean up! She will speak a language only she can understand! She will find a cool way to sneak out of the house! She will run away from home! Patty Jane Pepper, c’est moi. I’m pretty sure I made a go of sleeping on my closet floor during one of my own childhood sulk sessions.

Everybody Hates 3The book is funnier than Spinky Sulks — and more satisfying to bootIt ends the way I remember things really ending: With my parents lovingly dragging me back to the bosom of the family, to my secret relief.

Everybody Hates spreadAs Patty Jane knows, it’s all about the body language.

3) By The Side of the Road (2002) by Jules Feiffer

Side of the Road 2

Every time I start reading this one with the kids I think, “Is it crazy for me to be reading this to my children?” Because Feiffer’s book is totally subversive of my god-given parental authority. The story starts innocently enough: A boy and his brother are squabbling in the back seat of the car when their father gets mad. The kid is given a choice: behave or get out. In a normal book, the character would suffer on the side of the highway for a few hours, learn his lesson, and give in. But in Feiffer’s insane story, the boy ends up LIVING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE.

Side of the Road 3

Not only that, he builds an incredible underground bunker complete with internet access, becomes a hero to other kids and later marries a cute, like-minded girl who digs a tunnel next to his. The boy never even has to apologize to his father; by the end, his aged, humbled parents decide they like his way of life better and actually move in with him.

Side of the Road end

In short, the boy misbehaves, sulks, and wins through sheer stubbornness, defying both parental authority and societal norms. How has this incredible book not been banned?

Annals of the Inexplicable: The Five Chinese Brothers

The Five Chinese BrothersI have no problem with a politically incorrect classic. Babar may be a colonialist, but he’s dear to my heart. And the only thing stopping me from buying my own copy of Richard Scarry’s original Busy, Busy World (1965) — starring the garrulous Patrick Pig from Ireland and the Israeli wife who wouldn’t stop nagging her husband — is that an unexpurgated edition can cost upwards of $300.

I remember sitting on a rug with the rest of my kindergarden class enthralled by the strange, dark folk tale of five brothers who manage to outwit the authorities when one of the siblings is wrongly sentenced to death. The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop (1938) may have depicted my fellow Asians as vengeful and slanty-eyed but that didn’t rattle me. The brothers had alluring superhuman abilities: “The First Chinese Brother could swallow the sea. The Second Chinese Brother had an iron neck. The Third Chinese Brother could stretch and stretch his legs. The Fourth Chinese Brother could not be burned. And the Fifth Chinese Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.”

But on re-reading this book here’s what you realize. The Five Chinese Brothers is absolutely baffling. I still don’t have a huge problem with it being un-P.C. It’s more that it inevitably raises some questions, such as:

1) “How could you kill someone with whipped cream?”

Oven Stuffed With Whipped CreamTo a kid, being plopped into a container of whipped cream sounds like heaven. Besides that, when the oven is turned on wouldn’t the fluffy cream turn to liquid? (Not to mention my own question — when were the ancient Chinese even eating whipped cream?)

 2) “Why were the people so angry each time a Chinese Brother didn’t die?”

Burning PunishmentHard to answer without getting involved in a discussion of mob psychology and the public thirst for bloody spectacles.

3) “How come if they couldn’t kill the Brother that meant he was innocent?”

Brothers-MotherThis is biggest doozy of them all. When all the executions fail, the judge decides it means that their prisoner must not be guilty! Truly, it is beyond all logic.

My kids liked The Five Chinese Brothers well enough, but it didn’t seem to make much of an impression either way. In fact, my daughter has since discovered Kathy Tucker’s The Seven Chinese Sisters (2003), which she likes much more. The book (with illustrations by Grace Lin) is also about a Chinese family with preternatural powers, but it’s not a watered-down retelling of the Five Chinese Brothers. The story involves a dragon, a kidnapping, and a noodle soup. Check it out. 

SevenChineseSisters

Out-of-Print Gem: The Man Who Cooked For Himself (1981)

I bought this used book years ago for 25 cents as a throwaway. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant and I was desperate for something to occupy the kids before they destroyed the place. I was sucked in by the book’s (unintentionally anticlimactic?) title. The pancake letter “o” didn’t hurt either.

ManWhoCookedThe book turned out to be a keeper. It’s basically a child-friendly introduction to locavorism and foraging decades before Michael Pollan, starring a funny little man who looks like a Hanna-Barbera character.

The balding bachelor of the title lives with his cat in the middle of nowhere. As we learn: “He didn’t have a wife or children so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed.” (For an author writing in 1981, Phyllis Krasilovsky has a pretty 1950s-ish take on gender norms, but whatever.) The man also doesn’t have a car, so he relies on a friend to bring him groceries every week. When one summer his friend is unable to make his delivery, the man nearly starves.

ManWhoCooked2_0001Finally, he realizes he can pick wild watercress and blueberries, catch fish and even make pancakes from … acorns. (I don’t think even Rene Redzepi has gotten there.) The story is super simple but charming, and the kids think it’s hilarious when the guy briefly considers eating his newspaper. They also appreciate the size of his hat.

ManWhoCooked4