Friday, November 30, 2007

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree
Robert Barry
McGraw Hill, 1963

I am so in the Christmas spirit right now. I've pulled out my son's box of Christmas titles, and whereas last year this one was too long for him to get into, this year it is a fave. It was one of my fave holiday books, too. With the cute animals and the mysterious other life that the tree finds. Starting with rich, old Mr. Willowby's too-tall Christmas tree... trickling down to the smallest mouse in the house.

Barnaby Bear was padding by --
It almost hit him in the eye.
"Now who would throw a tree away
So very close to Christmas day?"

Mr. W's tree gets the top cut off again and again and again so that joy spreads and everyone gets a little bit of the magic.

Also produced as a TV movie in the 90s starring Robert Downey Jr. and the Muppets, this is still one of the best holiday books for kids in my opinion. Just the feeling of goodwill and how everyone has different ideas of beautiful. Not to mention the adorable illustrations.

A true, true classic.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Bruno Munari's Zoo
Bruno Munari/ published 1963 by The World Publishing Company

The copy I have of Italian design guru Bruno Munari's Zoo is the reissue from a few years back, but the bold color and illustrations hold up so well, it might as well have been published yesterday. So much of that design sense from the 50s and 60s is right in line with the look of today. Bruno's zoo tour begins with a series of signs, the first of which is pretty tickling.

Don't feed the animals:
don't give the birds to the fox,
the fox to the lion,
the parrot to the tiger.
Don't annoy the butterflies.
Leave the signs where they are.
The lion will be offended if you pull his tail.
It is forbidden to sit on the tortoise
or play with the bears.
Applaud the seals.

If I pull this one off the shelf, I am definitely looking at four or five reads before my son lets me tuck it out of sight. Ah well, it is short and sweet with large eye-popping illustrations so who can fault the boy for wanting to hear it again and again? Funny to notice the two little butterflies Bruno puts on each page. Lots of people do that sort of thing now, but it is funny to wonder just what he was thinking. Like an old time master painting himself into his pictures... are the wee flutterbugs the narrators?

You know, sometimes I wonder if the well will ever run dry on these books, and when I do... about 20 always pop up. It seems each vintage kids book I find to is a million times more incredible than the last. I suppose at some point I'll have to do a top 20 pick.... Maybe for the 1 year anniversary!

Also by:
From Afar It Is An Island

Monday, November 19, 2007

Jenny's Birthday Book

Jenny's Birthday Book
Esther Averill/ published 1954 by Harper & Row

Fans of Esther's classic, The Fire Cat, will love this one. Pickles (the fire cat) makes a guest appearance at Jenny's birthday bash in what could possibly be the cutest animal party ever. The illustrations welcome more color than the ones in its sister book, which is nice and really gives life to the rosy-ness of the story.

This is the day - the day of days -
the birthday of the little shy black cat named Jenny Linsky.
Somehow it seems as if the sun were shining
and the roses blooming just for her.

New York Review of Books has republished this and the other books in the Jenny series, so if you can't find a vintage copy, new copies abound. The NYROB only picks the best out-of-print titles and you can totally see why they'd want to get these back into circulation. Any cat with a last name is OK in my book.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sam, Bangs & Moonshine

Sam, Bangs & Moonshine
written and illustrated by Evaline Ness/ published 1966 by Henry Holt and Company

OK, come on, before this woman wrote this book, she was married to THE Eliot Ness. How awesome is that? That said, this is a powerful story, touching on the overwhelming nature of the imagination. The story of a fisherman's daughter, it is the often sad tale of giving up childish things for the real world. It's a little bit of a bubble-popper for those who want to live in the world of fantasy forever, but in this case, growing up means letting go of some not so happy things.

Sam said her mother was a mermaid,
when everyone knew she was dead.
Sam said she had a fierce lion at home, and a baby kangaroo.
(Actually what she really had was a old wise cat called Bangs.)

Beautifully written with muted illustrations, it is so infused with melancholy and mystery that it almost makes you feel five again. That feeling of exhilarating escape that the imagination can bring even in the face of great sadness. We've all been there before, pretending so we do not have to see. If you can't relate to this tale, then you must be dead.

Also by:
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson
Fierce the Lion

Friday, November 16, 2007

Even the Devil is Afraid of a Shrew

Even the Devil Is Afraid of a Shrew ~ retold by Valerie Stalder, adapted by Ray Broekel and illustrated by Richard Brown/ published 1972 by Addison-Wesley

Hands down, this is the freakiest book I have ever bought my son. I'm not gonna lie and say it is one of his favorites, because I've actually never shown it to him. As it is the retelling of an old Scandinavian folktale, I assume there is a moral, but what that would be is any one's guess. Basically, it is about a guy who gets nagged by his wife nonstop.

He had a wife who was very bad-tempered
and unpleasant -- a real shrew.
She was always scolding and grumbling at him.
Nothing he ever did was right, poor man!
But everything his wife did was right,
according to her.

And then one day he comes across a deep hole in the ground that he promptly pushes her into. Eventually, he gets around to rescuing her, and when (three years later) he finally drops a line down, who should crawl up but the devil -- climbing up the rope in hopes of escaping the tormenting vocal cords of the man's wife himself. The story goes on from there, but basically it must have been told to young Lapish girls to keep them from nagging their future husbands. The illustrations are very vivid and lively, and I suppose the story it isn't any worse for the self-esteem of our nation's little girls than the ever-kowtowing stories of princesses old.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Just Me

Just Me
Marie Hall Ets
The Viking Press, 1965

In 1960, Ms. Ets (great last name huh?) won the Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in the book Nine Days to Christmas. I particularly like this one though because it reminds me of my son. It's a story of a little boy who saves a bird from the claws of his pet cat, and then spends the rest morning acting just like various barnyard/wild animals.

A rabbit was nibbling some leaves off a bush.
"Rabbit," I said.
(He didn't have any name because nobody owned him.)
"Rabbit, I can't fly like a bird, but I can hop like a rabbit.
Let me see how you do it."
So rabbit went hoppety, hop, hop.
And I hopped just like him.

This book is wonderful, showing genuine interaction between child and nature, something lacking tremendously in the modern world of the suburban adolescent. A cool footnote on Ms. Ets life is that she also wrote a biography of a woman she befriended during her days as a social worker. Rosa:The Life of an Italian Immigrant is an incredible story that really captures the post WWI era and the plight of the American immigrant. I just love people who bounce around from one creative expression to the next, and better yet, have the passion to do both.

Also by:
Gilberto and the Wind

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Too Many Mittens

Too Many Mittens
by Florence and Louis Slobodkin/ published 1958 by The Vanguard Press

Most known for the Caldecott Medal-winning illustrations in James Thurber's Many Moons (1944), Louis and his wife Florence did this book as a nod to their own twin grandsons. The story is about how the boys and their grandmother accumulate a load of missing red mittens. Simple yet enduringly precious, it is a tale filled with seasons and melancholy and what it means to be lost and found again.

They counted, "1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10...!"
There were now TEN RED MITTENS in the drawer!
And for the next few days, whenever anyone found a red mitten
anywhere, that person brought it over to the twins' house.

The dainty pictures are so delicate... the red of the boys cheeks seems rubbed on with just a hint of rouge. And the mittens just a few strokes of the pen but still iconic and evocative of an era. These sorts of books are the kind I love, an imaginative theme told without a great deal of drama. Simple storytelling.

Also by:
Many Moons
Millions and Millions and Millions!
Dinny and Danny

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Lost and Found Ball

The Lost and Found Ball
Jerrold Beim adapted from the original by Kay Ware and Lucille Sutherland with pictures by Ylva Kallstrom/ published 1961 by Webster Publishing Co.

Don't really know anything about this book, and looking back now, I'm at a loss as to where we actually got it. A quick search online of the book's players, and still no history available. A funny little book, part of the READ FOR FUN series. Boy gets ball. Boy loses ball. Lots of other kids/people/animals play with ball. Boy finds ball.

Andy did not want to stop looking for his ball.
But it was getting dark.
He was hungry, too.
His mother was right.
He could look for the ball tomorrow.
After dinner, Andy went to bed.
He dreamed of his lost red ball.

So all the while Andy is dreaming, his ball is off on an adventure without him. What I like about this story is it introduces the concept of life going on without you when you aren't looking. I was about four myself when I came to understand that concept. My sister was getting in trouble for something, and I was watching my mom talk to her and all at once I had the realization that what was happening was happening exclusively to her. That other people had lives and feelings. Pretty mind-blowing.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Wonderful Feast

The Wonderful Feast
Esphyr Slobodkina/ published 1955 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co.

The Russian-born Slobodkina is most famous for her book Caps for Sale, but this one is still a delight. (Of course... it's about animals first and foremost!) I guess the moral here is that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Starting with a horse's feed and descending down in animal size... each creature has a feast from the leavings of the larger animal before him until at last the wee little ant gorges himself.

And then a busy ant crawled in, searching for winter supplies.
He picked up the last grain and carried it away,
muttering all the time to himself,
"My, oh, my! What a wonderful feast I'm going to have!"

The pictures are bright and sharp and really tell the story well with the stark yellow feed against the solid background, all the while growing smaller and smaller.

Also by:
Pezzo the Peddler and the Circus Elephant
Caps for Sale
Little Dog Lost, Little Dog Found

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


by Jane Werner Watson with pictures by Eloise Wilkin/ published 1958 by Little Golden Books

The Little Golden Books queen, Eloise's illustrations ran throughout my childhood. Her cherub, Scandinavian-looking faces reflected all I thought to be perfect and sweet and good in life. My son is mad for this book and because of it, has been able to identify his purple martins and wood thrushes since 16 months.

Some birds fly far.
Some fly so far we cannot see how they find their way.
For they fly hundreds of miles through pathless sky.

I am somewhat of a nature picture book nut, and this one does what many cannot. It seamlessly integrates being an educational tome with being an entertaining picture book. Most nature books have a hard time being a poetic read, but this one achieves both masterfully. One of my all-time favorite read-alouds to my son. He loves it, and also thinks the little girl pictured here looks like his favorite person in the world, so that is an added bonus.

This is one of those books that takes me so far back into my childhood, that it makes me want to cry just touching the pages.

Also by:
The Wonders of the Seasons
The Golden Bible
We Like Kindergarten
Wonders of Nature

Friday, November 2, 2007

Pishtosh Bullwash and Wimple

Pishtosh Bullwash & Wimple
story & pictures by James Flora/ published 1972 by Atheneum

I know I just did a Flora, but I pulled this from the back of my son's bookshelf and read it to him last night for the first time in a while and all I can say is WOW. What a crazy book. Somehow, this didn't scare my son and rather enchanted him actually. Even with all the talk of growling trees and leaking gravity and falling off the world. This book twists my brain up... can't imagine what it is doing to the fragile eggshell mind of the boy. What starts out innocent enough....

Pishtosh, Bullwash and Wimple are my very best friends.
Everyday I meet them by the swings and we play together.
We don't just play kid stuff either.
We go places and do things.
Pishtosh, Bullwash and Wimple know how to get to special
places -- places that even moms and dads don't know about.

And somewhere along the way, it turns bad....

"Something terrible has happened," panted Bullwash.
"Last night somebody stole the North Pole."
"And all of the gravity is leaking out," Pishtosh said.
"What's gravity?" I asked.
"That's what holds you on the earth, Wimple explained.
"If it all leaks out, everything will float into the sky and fall
off the world."

Even the stars and moon in this book understand how utterly horrible the above scenario would be. It is up to the boy and his three bizarre little friends to put things right before it is too late. Will they save the day, or will we all end up living on Mars? You'll just have to read it yourself and see.

Also by:
Kangaroo for Christmas
Grandpa's Farm
Stewed Goose
Great Green Turkey Creek Monster
Leopold the See-Through Crumbpicker
The Day the Cow Sneezed
Little Hatchy Hen
Grandpa's Witched Up Christmas
My Friend Charlie
Sherwood Walks Home
The Fabulous Firework Family
Grandpa's Ghost Stories by James Flora

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale
Verna Aardema with pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon/ published 1975 by Dial Books

The buzz book was pretty iconic of my childhood. In my mind, I always envisioned it as this sophisticated tome; now not really sure why, but the African motif must have made it seem exotic to me. The theme of the dead baby owl and the revengeful mother is pretty intense and shows how a few misplaced words of boast can lead to terrible things occurring. I've always loved how folk tales build an extraordinary explanation for something every day and mundane.

Because of this the mosquito has a guilty conscience.
To this day she goes about whining in people's ears:
"Zee! Is everyone still angry at me?"
When she does that, she gets an honest answer.

The mosquito's rascally beady eyes are so hilarious. You almost hate the character on site. The Dillons have a way with bringing characters to life on the page and actually won two consecutive Caldecott Awards; one for this in '76 and one for Ashanti To Zulu in '77.
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