I asked Mom to dictate my next post topic a while back. She eventually decided I should write it about books I planned to read to my future children. (Mom. Awkward.) More specifically, she gave me the rather stately prompt “One Book a Day: Books I will Read to My Kids.” That’s how I found out something about my life that was weirdly never obvious: when I was a young child, my mom religiously read at least one entire book to me every day. Apparently she determined to do this with all my siblings and she’s pretty sure she never broke the streak. Now, I am no one’s mother, but to me this sounds a little abnormal and a little impossible. (Here I thought I couldn’t relate to Alice Ozma’s The Reading Promise.) What’s more uncomfortable than discussing the books you might lovingly read to your offspring when as yet you have none? Knowing that if you ever do have a child, your mom’s dogged voice will whisper in your ear to read those same books to it daily, until you hate them. Great topic choice Mom.
Fittingly, I came up with nine storybooks mandatory for all future under-5s in my family – nine for mortal men doomed to die.
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
Of course, my #1 follow-up to the Bible and catechisms, this is the one kids’ book I would choose for a desert-island postpartum lifestyle. If I had to preserve children’s literature in a Fahrenheit 451 situation, I’d memorize it and tattoo the illustrations onto my back, first things first.
A monstrous bull, a lover and not a fighter!, likes to sit just quietly and smell the flowers. When a bee sting spooks him into a display of his strength, scouts from Madrid take him away to become the next bullfighting sensation. But Ferdinand is misunderstood: not the Banderilleros’ pins, not the Picadores’ spears, not even the rage of the Matador will provoke him to anger when he can smell the flowers in the ladies’ hats. Truly a pinnacle.
Everything by Beatrix Potter
If we have to discuss my prospective babies, I’ll say now that anyone can feel free to purchase them a complete hardback set of those glorious Beatrix Potter books. They are a cornerstone in my culture. Some of their illustrations would feature in my post-apocalyptic tat collection also. I would prioritize classic Peter as well as The Fierce Bad Rabbit, but of course I plan to run the gambit. (Some stories, like Pigling Bland, which young me considered a real slog, are favorites in Derek’s repertoire, so I doubt I could exclude much Beatrix if I tried.)
Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman
“Hello again. Do you like my hat?”
Nothing compares to cozy simplicity in a warmly illustrated world of dogs, cars and blimps. This book is a real beauty. You may analyze the tense relationship between the dogs with hats – or the climactic treetop Dog Party – all you want, but in reality, GO, Dog. Go! just is what it is. It makes sense. The children understand.
Alexander by Harold Littledale (illustrated by Tom Vroman)
At the end of a long difficult day, a boy named Chris tells his father all about the naughty behavior of his red and green striped horse, Alexander. Chris discusses various possible punishments for poor Alexander, but eventually decides the horse can be pardoned: “He just had a bad day.” (Hint: Alexander didn’t actually do any of the bad things.)
Here I might love the illustrations best. Their starkness or angularity or dim color palette must have influenced some comfortable dark corner in the back of my earliest imagination, because I get a weird grasping feeling when I look at them, like a whole world of suggestions and thoughts lives behind them that I can’t quite remember. (Does anyone else know what I’m talking about? The same thing happens when I look at Polly Pocket clothes or hear certain airplane sounds overhead. It has to be some universal childhood memory thing, at least for all headcases.)
The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by my main man Garth Williams)
Most of us can rattle off or recognize a few first lines from literature:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” “Call me Ishmael.” “Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog.”
I favor that last one, and never forget: Scuppers was his name.
Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling
A little Indian figurine carved into a canoe travels across the USA having grand, silent, somehow tragic adventures. One side of his canoe bears the words: “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.”
We sometimes used to read this one in installments – I think it had actual chapters. Certainly it’s long, but I think if every little American heard it, we would start out better situated with a sense of our country and its history. I think the Romantic and transcendentalist tones in this book laid a part of the groundwork that helped me appreciate American greats like O’Connor and Hemingway and Berry later – it quietly introduces you to all the “wonder and dread” of American ideals and the Frontier. (My siblings might protest all that mess I just spouted…admittedly, I am the one who ended up studying literature. I’ll confess my impressionability when it comes to stories, but will also point out that I remember a certain Joe John favoring Paddle-to-the-Sea– Joe, the biggest American history buff in the family, a total Harry Turtledove nerd. Coincidence?)
I Was So Mad by Mercer Mayer
Never has a book so poignantly and sweetly poked fun at the depravity of man. Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter books should all be read into perpetuity, but this one beats the rest: Little Critter chronicles every mild annoyance of his day with an “I was so mad” until he’s fit to burst, and then resolves, as anyone would do, to run away forever.
I don’t think this story is some kind of wink at selfish anger and discontentment – I think it paints an empathetic picture of how we struggle through those inexplicably bad days, always acknowledging how absurd we probably look from a higher perspective. (Spoiler: Little Critter does not actually run away.)
A Weekend with Wendell by Kevin Henkes
The distaste of suffering an unwanted guest, the horror of being stuck overnight beside a diabolical prankster with license to torture you, the slow-building frustration of a civilized, obedient child thrown in with a destructive one who does nothing right, the injustice of special treatment toward dinner company, the wonderment that comes from realizing just how quickly the object of your hate can become a good pal: all of us, and conscientious girls especially, can relate to Sophie as she endures Wendell’s weekend invasion of her house.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
I can’t leave out the tantalizing caterpillar book that would probably head up the average list (an average list I don’t associate with, because Goodnight Moon is probably at the very top of it).
A children’s book destined to succeed will likely include pretty artwork, a cute semi-instructive premise, and the greatest list of binge snacks ever recorded. (I credit Mom and Aunt Lynne, readers-aloud extraordinaire, with doing that list justice in a proper crescendo hundreds of thousands of times.) Bring on the sausage and cherry pie! Down with nice green leafs!
There you go, Mom. You inspired a truly stimulating dictatopical and I welcome anyone’s comments or add-ons to my list. A quote to sign off:
“Read to your bunny often, and your bunny will read to you.”