A Baker's Dozen: My Favorite Children's Books

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I love children’s literature so much that I took two graduate classes on the subject. I learned which books to choose for different ages and interest levels, and I think I must have purchased them all, for my bookshelves overflow with a wide variety of colorful choices.

Amazon lists the following books as being most appropriate for the 4—8 year olds, but we began reading them to David when he was in diapers and footed pajamas. Now I read them to students. When I find myself missing the years when my only child was small enough to cuddle in my lap for the routine “couple good books before bedtime” — I choose these favorites and take a read down memory lane. I find each of these books especially precious since the characters almost became members of our family as they shared their stories, as well as their life lessons, with us.

ROXABOXEN by Alice McLerran, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

Roxaboxen is a view into the imaginative play of childhood, and just may be my very favorite book, for it takes me back to Grandfather’s farm and the massive rock in the middle of the hay field. Grandfather had tried everything to get rid of that stone — beating, blasting, piling wood high for evening bonfires — all in hopes of cracking the stone into smaller pieces that could be moved out of the path of the tractor. They only ever managed to knock pieces off here and there — making perfect little seats for our group of small cousins — seats according to “rank” on our “mountain” in our imaginary “kingdom.”

In Roxaboxen, a real place in Yuma, AZ, the children created an imaginary town, and built lives there. None of the children ever forgot, no matter how old they grew; how far they traveled from Roxaboxen:

“…There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill — nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes, cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo — but it was a special place. The street between Roxaboxen and the houses curved like a river, so Marian named it the River Rhode. After that you had to ford a river to reach Roxaboxen…The years went by, and the seasons changed, until at last the friends had all grown tall…So you might think that was the end of Roxaboxen — but oh, no…Not one of them ever forgot…More than fifty years later, Frances went back and Roxaboxen was still there…there where she had built her house the desert glass still glowed — amethyst, amber, and sea-green.”

A few summers back, just before I had to sell Grandfather’s farm, cousins in their fifties arrived from as far away as Georgia, to walk through thick pine trees, trying to find the rock, wanting to see it one last time. It was gone. My father had paid to have it buried, and we grieved for that lost part of childhood.

SONG AND DANCE MAN by Karen Ackerman; illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

This is another favorite that again takes me back to my childhood with Grandfather. I often stayed with my grandparents and for many days at a time. My parents left me there when they had to be at University of Michigan Hospitals as my two brothers underwent numerous surgeries. I slept on the couch under the unbelievably heavy, hair-covered, horsehide sleigh blanket — which I now own. Most nights I would fall asleep as Grandfather played the violin for me. Some nights Grandma would chord on the piano as Grandfather fiddled, showing me how they provided the music at dances in their past.

The Song and Dance Man is a story about NOW as grandchildren visit their grandfather who demonstrates that THEN:

“Grandpa was a song and dance man who once danced on the vaudeville stage…the smell of cedar ships and old things saved fills the attic…There are too many dance steps and too many words in the song for us to remember, but the show is better than any show on TV…At the bottom he hugs us, and we tell him we wish we could have seen him dance in the good old days, the song and dance days. He smiles, and whispers that he wouldn’t trade a million good old days for the days he spends with us…”

THE RELATIVES CAME by Cynthia Rylant is another treasure that will delight children and adults, alike. The descriptions of the family members, activities, and feelings should bring back so many fond memories. I always laugh out loud at the descriptions of how many hugs and kisses one must accept in order to move through the house once all the relatives have arrived; of the different breathing in the nights as relatives sleep any place where space can be found. A charming book.

MY GREAT-AUNT ARIZONA by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb, will warm the heart of any teacher or student who has worked or studied in a one-room schoolhouse; will give children a peek into schools that were comforting places where students actually were educated; will bring a smile to anyone who has an aunt like my Aunt Mildred, who taught school for fifty years.

“She taught in the one-room school where she and Jim had sat…She taught students about words and numbers and the faraway places they would visit someday. ‘Have you been there?’ the students asked. ‘Only in my mind,’ she answered. ‘But someday you will go.’…The boys and girls who were students in her class had boys and girls who were students in her class. And they had boys and girls who were students in her class. For fifty-seven years my great-aunt Arizona hugged her students. She hugged them when their work was good, and she hugged them when it was not…Did she ever go to the faraway places she taught us about? No, but my great-aunt Arizona travels with me and with those of us whose lives she touched…She goes with us in our minds.”

OX-CART MAN by Donald Hall with pictures by Barbara Cooney is a wonderful story of an independent, self-sufficient, thrifty farm family in which all of the members work together to make their living:

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.” He walked to market and sold everything, including the ox and the cart. He bought only necessary things, then he walked home with “coins still in his pockets…” to begin the cycle over — a self-sufficient family meeting their needs, then selling extras to buy the items that they are unable to make.

BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL by Robert McCloskey, is a classic, as is his book, Make Way for Ducklings. Blueberries for Sal was written the year after my birth, but the story never ages. The story is heartwarming; the sound effects cute as Sal drops blueberries into her pail, “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!” Mother picks far more berries than Sal, then after an exciting mix-up, “…Little Sal and her mother went down the other side of Blueberry Hill, picking berries all the way, and drove home with food to can for next winter — a whole pail of blueberries and three more besides.” I have pictures of myself back in that era, dressed just like Sal!

AMAZING GRACE by Mary Hoffman, with pictures by Caroline Binch, is a story of a girl with a wonderful imagination who is constantly dressing in costumes and dreaming of roles she could play. Our family especially enjoyed this book as David was the same kind of child and had costumes strewn all over his room. We have pictures of him as a pirate, Peter Pan, a karate kid… Grace wants to play Peter Pan in a school play but some children tell her that she is inappropriate for the role. Her grandmother convinces her that she can be anything she sets her mind to, which Grace does and plays the best Peter Pan, ever.

THE NAPPING HOUSE by Audrey and Don Wood is a wonderful book for the toddlers with its repetition and humor; for children a bit older with its wonderful pictures and the change of perspective as the viewer is lifted ever higher in the air to finally view events from above the room. Audrey’s prose, and Don’s artwork are magical in all of their books: Quick As a Cricket, Heckedy Peg, The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear, and more…

WHEN I’M SLEEPY by Jane R. Howard, illustrated by Lynne Cherry, is a beautiful book that leads a child into imagining other worlds and lives. It is a wonderful bedtime story for the child is in footed flannels as she imagines: “When I’m sleepy, sometimes I wish I could curl up in a basket (pictured cuddled with cats) or fall asleep in a downy nest (with baby birds). When I’m sleepy, and I stretch and I yawn, I wonder how it would be to sleep in a swamp (on a log with turtles) or a hollow log (cuddled in the arms of a raccoon)…” The book is cozy and imaginative from start to finish.

HOME PLACE by Crescent Dragonwagon, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is a fine book of the past — an imagined past for a family’s home has even been lost to the passing of time. Only the chimney and the flowers remain. I can no longer find the spot where my own Great-grandmother’s home stood before the railroad town died and the forest covered its remains. This is the book I grab when I am asked to read aloud to another class, for it lends itself to theatrical delivery and oral reading.

“And if there was a house, there was a family. Dig in the dirt, scratch deep, and what do you find? A round blue glass marble…A china doll’s arm. Listen. Can you listen, back, far back? No, not the wind, that’s now. But listen, back, and hear: a man’s voice, scratchy-sweet, singing ‘Amazing Grace,’…a rocking chair squeaking, creaking on a porch…and ‘Tommy! Get in here this minute!’…and ‘Ah, me, its’ hot’……imagining the home place as it might have been, or was, before the house burned down, or everyone moved away and the woods moved in.”

THE PAIN and THE GREAT ONE by Judy Blume with illustrations by Irene Trivas, is a delightful book of two siblings and the way each perceives their role in the family. I have often given this book as a gift to feuding children to encourage them to consider the other’s point of view. The Pain is the little brother; The Great One is the older sister. “My brother’s a pain…I think they love him better than me…My sister thinks she’s so great…I think they love her better than me.”

IRA SLEEPS OVER by Bernard Waber is a funny but touching book about a boy invited to spend the night at a friend’s house but who has misgivings: “But I had a problem. It began when my sister said: ‘Are you taking your teddy bear along?’ ‘To my friend’s house? Are you kidding? That’s the silliest thing I every heard!’ ‘He won’t laugh,’ said my mother. ‘He won’t laugh,’ said my father. ‘He’ll laugh,’ said my sister. I decided not to take my teddy bear.” But the story doesn’t end there…

WHO WANTS ARTHUR? (Only used copies are available.) This book is from Australia, and we knew that, but we were still surprised when David and I stopped in a small Outback town, stepped into the library, and the first book we spotted was…Arthur! We have loved Arthur since the Christmas of 1990, when David was two years old. This book encourages children to accept and appreciate who they are; to understand the lack of satisfaction that will come from trying to pretend to be someone else. Arthur tried, and failed: “He had collapsed, exhausted in the corner of the [pet shop] window. Now he was certain he would never find a home, whether he was a rabbit, a snake, a fish, a cat, or a purple, spotted, three-headed donkey. Arthur decided that he might as well be just an ordinary brown dog.” Soon after that, he was adopted by a girl who had interpreted his attempts, to be like the more popular animals, as evidence of his ability to do tricks. Great story with great drawings!

Whether you are shopping for your children, your grandchildren, or the children of other families, these books are sure to broaden the worlds, as well as stir the imaginations, of all children whose lives they touch.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is an educational consultant, homeschooling mom, and public school special ed teacher. She is available for presentations, inservices, and workshops.

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