Blueberries for Sal

Some books don’t age well. The customs and styles of a certain era aren’t necessarily appealing decades later. Blueberries for Sal, however, has aged well and is just as delightful as it was when I read it in the 70s, when it had already been in print for thirty years. Perhaps it’s because the behavior of Sal is timeless and modern parents can still relate. And the depictions of the styles of the time (the car, the kitchen) become glimpses into the past rather than simply seeming outdated.

The black-and-white drawings were not so appealing to our youngest ones, who are very used to everything being in bright, full color, but the story is appealing. The concept of climbing a hill, eating food that is simply lying there to be found is perhaps the most appealing part – an activity that now seems almost fantastic in the modern world.

How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World

This book answers a question every kid asks at some point, “What would happen if I dug a hole and just kept digging?”

The journey soon requires the construction of a very heat-tolerant “no-spaceship” that is like some kind of submarine drill thing. (The schematic for this vehicle in the book is very appealing) The character in the book makes his way through all the layers of the earth, learning about geology along the way.

Faith McNulty wrote this book. She and her husband John were part of the mid-century group at the New Yorker under Harold Ross, where she edited the annual New Yorker compilation of the year’s best children’s books. She is probably most famous for The Burning Bed (which is absolutely not children’s literature)

The very engaging illustrations are by Marc Simont, who has illustrated many children’s books, perhaps most famously the “Nate the Great” series. Some of the pictures are quite beautiful and I had the thought of cutting them out of the book to hang on the wall (but I didn’t want to damage the book)

Wacky Wednesday

This was a favorite of mine as a kid, and has been a huge hit with our kids as well when I rediscovered it.

It was written by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by George Booth. The book does not get as much attention as other Seuss books, perhaps because it does not have his iconic drawing style. There is one picture of a kid with a bare butt in the shower. It’s not outrageous or titillating, but could be enough to keep it off the shelves of some school libraries.

The book is a series of scenes with increasing numbers of ‘wrong’ things in it, e.g. a tree growing in the toilet, a chair with no legs floating in mid-air, an alligator in a stroller, etc. The book is described as a ‘learn-to-read’ book, but the purpose of the book is not reading, it’s about finding all the weird things. The book is more of an activity than simply reading, so is better as one to read on the couch than before bedtime. And this is a good one for a parent to read with a child. You can count and find all the wacky things together.

Jungle Party

This is another book that our kids regularly pull off the shelf year after year. It comes with paper dolls, stickers, and a party hat, and other stuff, so has some extra fun. We have since lost everything but the book itself, but we still enjoy that. The papercraft makes it a fun gift that the child can play with independently during the day, and the book is a fun story for bedtime reading.

The theme is of animals planning a party, and a bird visits different biomes (arctic, jungle, farm, etc.) to talk with the animals there. They talk in terms of opposite prepositions and adjectives, each pair of sentences covers high/low, cold/hot, etc.

The mood is very cheeful and happy and our kids enjoy it.

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

There are plenty of collections of nursery rhymes, partly because the text is not copyrighted and publishers don’t have to pay author royalties. But nursery rhymes remain popular among young children because they are fun and the simple rhymes make them a good too when learning to read. It’s easy to memorize a line such as “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” from hearing a parent read it. So then, when the child is sounding out words on their own, and get to the relatively difficult word, “contrary”, they can recall the rhyme and figure it out.

This particular collection is more British than most Americanized sets of nursery rhymes. For example, American collections typically don’t include traditional rhymes such as, “I had a little nut tree” or “Ride a cock horse”. So in some ways this feels like a more “authentic” set.

The drawings are very simple, but for whatever reason, our kids keep pulling this book off the shelf for us to read together.

Peek-A Who?

This is one of the books that has survived multiple children. It’s been chewed on, dropped, thrown, left under couches and sofas, and traveled with us to faraway places.

It’s only a few pages, with a handful of words, but this gets the A+ seal of approval from our kids.

This is actually one in a series. There is a box set with all of them.

Octonauts

The Octonauts is a video series on Netflix and available on DVD. Some of the stories are also available as books and there are several toys out there of the characters. The look of the show is unique, a cross between kid-friendly 60s-era James Bond, ‘Sealab 2020’, and cutesy Japanese anime.

The show is not the creation of some corporate art department, but the work of a single design couple, who call themselves meomi.

They “live in Vancouver, Canada where we spend our days making up stories, drinking tea, and drawing strange characters. We love learning about underwater creatures and sharing our love for the ocean with kids (and grown-ups) around the world!”

Our kids like the characters, the pace of the storytelling, and the balance of adventure just at the edge of sometimes being a little scary but not quite. The videos are fun for adults as well. We find ourselves watching along with the kids to see where the story goes.

We like the educational aspect as well. Some of the episodes are just as informational as Wild Kratts or any other nature-themed cartoon. A lot of what I know of deep-sea creatures is from Octonauts. (Who knew vampire squid were real?)

It’s a unique show and worth watching.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Pop-Up Book

This is a story familiar to most. The advantage of the pop-up format is that it makes the book appealing for a wide variety of ages. Younger children will have fun simply exploring the pop-ups and finding every hidden element. Slightly older kids will pick and choose which pages to examine more closely, and older children will read the book straight through.

The illustrations are by Quentin Blake, who has a distinctive style that many will recognize. His visualization of the story is a welcome alternative to the slick Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie version. The illustrations as pop-ups help convey the sense of wonder and discovery that the characters in the book feel.

The story (as far as I can tell) is slightly abridged from the original, streamlining some elements of the plot. Each major scene is given a two-page spread. Our kids would sometimes only want to see the Violet Beauregarde page, or only the Augustus Gloop page. This book made it easy to jump around like that.

Even if you already have a copy of the book, this is different enough that it’s worth having.

The Deep Blue Sea – A Book of Colors

This unique, somewhat minimalist book is about colors, but also encourages discovery and anticipation.

The pictures begin right at the start of the book, on the inside of the cover, and continue all the way through to the inside of the back cover. Each page introduces a new color and new animal/object, as well as a hint about what will be on the next page. This act of discovery, looking for the clue, was very appealing to our kids.

The art is distinctive, looking like computer-generated 3d images. I honestly didn’t care for the artwork, and still don’t upon reviewing it again, but the kids seemed to like it. But there is a contrast between the very bright foreground images (e.g. a purple parrot) and the much more subtle background detail (e.g. the fish swimming underwater) and the kids enjoyed hunting for these subtle details.

There’s not much to this book, really, but the simplicity is part of the appeal, and the details that it does have place it above other books that simply list colors and shapes.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

I have met many, many adults who consider this book their favorite book of all time, even though they haven’t read it in twenty or thirty years. And I have met even more adults who have never heard of it.

The story is ultimately an adventure story, with the main character traveling in a strange land, meeting interesting characters along the way, some of whom join him. They stumble upon an epic quest and have to confront many challenges before saving the day and returning home.

But that is just the core plot. The real joy is the metaphor and wordplay. Many concepts are treated literally: Milo physically jumps to the land of Conclusions; The Spelling Bee and Humbug are large talking insects; The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned. Milo begins the story bored, but over the course of the tale he learns that motivation and curiosity are the tools you need to help people and solve big problems.

The actor David Hyde Pierce (perhaps best known for the character Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier) recorded an audiobook version that is very well done and a good pick for a long car ride. It sounds trite to say, but it is one that the whole family can enjoy.

There was even an animated movie made in 1970 that captures much of the whimsy of the story, but doesn’t compare to reading the book and imagining the characters and hearing the wordplay in your own head.

The Phantom Tollbooth in Wikipedia