It was around 2 a.m. the night before last when I finished my first countdown list that I thought to myself, "Yeah . . . so I can’t do ten books a night." We are now dropping it down to a release of five per day. Such is life.
In the course of my poll author/illustrator Aaron Zenz wrote to me, "After compiling this, I found it fascinating that all of them . . . were by a solo creator. Only one author/illustrator pairing. I wonder if the final results of the poll will reflect this as well, or if it merely reveals my own personal leanings…???”
And well you might wonder, Aaron! I haven’t tabulated the final results by my own hand, but as today’s top five indicate, there seems to be a strong preference for the sole creator product. The sole exception in this tiny list is the Krauss/Sendak pairing. The rest, as you can see, have sprung wholly formed from a single person’s noggin. Do we as a readership prefer titles that come from a single vision? What is it about a picture book that appeals to us? Can a book really capture our hearts and minds fully if two people come together, or is better from just one?
More statistics on this idea to come. For now, further results. I have been asked to include the point spread for these books. I will do so along with their rankings, though I would like to point out that there is an algorithm I use on my end to organize books within the same point spread. You’ll see a little of that here:
#90: Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo by William Joyce (1988)
15 points (#3 & #4)
You will hear the show Reading Rainbow invoked a couple of times within the course of my poll results. In this particular case, I came to this particular book via that program. Until then, William Joyce was entirely unknown to me. Since the publication of Bob in ’88, Joyce has gone on to conquer picture books and studio filmmaking alike (as the movies Robots and Meet the Robinsons attest). One could argue that he owes much of his fame to Bob, however.
Like an oversized, meticulously rendered Gertie, Bob is a dinosaur who happens to get into mild trouble because of his size. Fortunately, as with all good American picture books, a baseball game puts everything back to rights in the end. Though it originally came out in 1988, the book was rereleased in 1995 and has (as far as I can ascertain) remained in print ever since.
In the past I’ve had posts on this blog called Sculpture Fun (Parts One, Two, and Three) where I round up various sculptures around the country that feature children’s literary works of art. In one of these I learned that The City of Abilene had a statue of Dinosaur Bob that lived on top of The Grace Museum. Unfortunately, Bob’s future was in peril and the city wanted him removed right quick (hence the newspaper article Will Dinosaur Bob Become Extinct?). Unfortunately that was a couple of years ago and I was unable to find any information regarding Bob’s current location. However, since he remains on the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council’s official Outdoor Sculpture Tour, one must assume that he has long since been relocated.
The New York Times called Bob "the most adorable of dinosaurs." (eat it, Barney)
SLJ said of it, "The setting seems to be based more on images from old movies than any one era, giving an added dimension of humor. The pictures have a picaresque quality similar to, but not as stylized as, Roy Gerrard’s work in The Favershams (Farrar, 1987)."
#89: Not a Box by Antoinette Portis (2006)
15 points (# 3 & #4 and a write-in)
"What a great idea for a book. So simple and so creative." – Lenore Appelhans
Another newbie makes it onto the list, and best of all it is one I once reviewed. This Geisel Honor winner (not too shabby) made equal use of simple words and a clean simple format to ensure that Ms. Portis burst out upon the scene. As debuts go, this one was hard to beat.
The description from my review is: As the story opens and the reader flips through the publication and title page, a small bunny spots and tugs away a box that it has found. Now we see the bunny sitting quietly within his treasure as someone (perhaps the reader) asks, “Why are you sitting in a box?” A turn of the page and it’s the same bunny in the same box, but now red lines have appeared around them to sketch out a fabulous racing car. The opposite page is now bright red and at the bottom of it sit the words, “It’s not a box.” Turn the page and now the bunny is standing on top of the box. When asked why, the red lines have turned the box into an alpine peak with the bunny at the crest of the summit. “It’s not a box.” And so it goes until the reader finally asks of the bunny (with, perhaps, a note of impatience in the question), “Well, what is it then?” The bunny ponders this, in the same position as Rodin’s, “The Thinker”, then comes up with a fabulous answer. As we see it blasting off into space it waves good-bye from its rocket-box to say, “It’s my Not-a-Box!” The last image is of a distant bunny soaring past the planet Saturn.
Part of the allure lies with the packaging. The book is bound without a dust jacket, the brown cardboard of the book serving as its actual cover. It’s smart formatting (very box-like) but the real question is this: How well does it stand up to use in a public library? My copies, which are moderately used, remain intact if slightly fuzzy after multiple small sticky hands have played with them. However you can still make out the title on the spine (more than can be said for my copies of A Series of Unfortunate Events) so we’ll declare this an unqualified design success.
Kirkus said of it, "Portis pairs each question and increasingly emphatic response with a playscape of Crockett Johnson-style simplicity, digitally drawn with single red and black lines against generally pale color fields."
And Publishers Weekly agreed with, "Readers won’t abandon their battery-charged plastic toys, but they might join in a game of reimagining everyday objects. Most profitably, Portis reminds everyone (especially her adult audience) that creativity doesn’t require complicated set-ups."
If ever there was a classic in the making, this is it.
#88: A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions by Ruth Krauss, ill. Maurice Sendak (1952)
15 points (#1 & #6)
“ . . . because my copy is very, very old and has my name scrawled in it, in what looks like the handwriting of a 4 year old. It went to college with me. I’ve had it always.” – Deborah Freedman
“I had never encountered this treasure until recently reading ‘Dear Genius’ (thanks for the recommendation!). Since then I haven’t gone a day without thinking about one of the definitions. Who should I contact at Harper’s about turning the book into a poster?” – Eric Carpenter
I don’t know who at Harper Collins would be interested in making this classic tale into a poster, but I can attest to its continuing success. Krauss and Sendak paired multiple times over the years, and once in a while you’ll see HC pulling out one of her old texts so as to test a new illustrator’s chops.
I thought about where I would get a good description of this book, but why not go to the source itself? In the aforementioned Dear Genius by Leonard Marcus (a collection of the letters of Harper Collins’ editorial genius Ursula Nordstrom and the sworn enemy of my predecessor Anne Carroll Moore), Ms. Nordstrom had this to say on the matter in her December 1, 1964 letter to Nat Hentoff (a journalist for The New Yorker who was doing a profile on Maurice Sendak):
"Yes, I think A Hole Is to Dig was something new. It came from Ruth Krauss’ listening to children, getting ideas from them, polishing some of the thoughts, exploring additional ‘definitions’ of her own. It really grew out of children and what is important to them. (A brother is to help you.) Some of the definitions seem quite serious to children but those aren’t the ones the adults smile over and consider ‘cute.’ For instance, ‘Buttons are to keep people warm.’ Adults think oh isn’t that darling, but it makes perfectly good sense to children. Conversely, ‘A tablespoon is to eat a table with’ seems a pretty dumb joke to adults, but it knocks most children out, they think it is so witty. A Hole Is to Dig was the first of all the Something Is Something books, and has been mushily imitated ever since it was published. (A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You, Love Is a Special Way of Feeling)… So I think Maurice is right. N.B. Sendak’s children in Hole have been imitated countless times."
Ah. If only she had been a blogger. All that aside, that’s as good a definition of the book as you will ever get. And for the record, if you haven’t read Dear Genius, consider doing so. If you liked the voice of that passage above, you’ll love the book. Snarky details and intriguing looks into the children’s authors and illustrators of yore. It’s a keeper.
Said The New York Times of A Hole Is to Dig, "A unique book . . . with drawings bouncing with action and good humor."
#87: Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon (1993)
15 points (#8, #2, #8)
Sweet baby. When Stellaluna first came out I was in high school and my mom was working in the oldest independent bookstore in Kalamazoo, Michigan, The Athena (until Barnes and Noble snuffed it out like a candle, but that’s a tale for another day). So I remember the release of this book. Mom was charmed, and I was impressed by the illustrations. It looked like nothing else I’d ever seen before. On the one hand you had these lush intricately detail full-color pictures. On the other hand, it was peppered with the most delicate of thin-lined spot illustrations in the corners. And as someone who has lived in multiple homes where bats have gotten in and flown about, I know just how scary they can be. So to see this utterly realistic and yet also A-DOR-ABLE creature in this book . . . well, I was charmed. The publisher released a Stellaluna bat toy not long thereafter, and I believe it hung in my dorm room for a spell. Not many other children’s books could boast equal representation.
The plot is the typical fish out of water tale, but with a nice twist. A baby fruit bat is raised by birds, and finds that her natural inclinations are different from theirs. The mother bird understands but informs her that she must adhere to the rules. Not long thereafter Stellaluna is reunited with her mother, but in an interesting twist she doesn’t immediately abandon her bird family. It’s not too dissimilar from Leo Lionni’s fabulous Nicolas, Where Have You Been? but with a different take on the situation.
The truly splendid Kirkus review said of it, "The appealingly furry, wide-eyed, fawn-colored bats have both scientific precision and real character; they’re displayed against intense skies or the soft browns and greens of the woodland in spare, beautifully constructed (occasionally even humorous) compositions. Delightful and informative but never didactic: a splendid debut."
#86: Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes (2004)
15 points (3 votes)
“A book that every child wants to read and read again.” – Eric Carpenter
When I mentioned before that some of the authors and artists on this list split their own votes because of the sheer number of their publications, Henkes fell into that category. The man has consistently produced good book after good book, but the problem is that people don’t always agree on his best. Are you a Chester’s Way fan or do you prefer Chrysanthemum? What about Owen? Don’t you love it too? One of the advantages Kitten’s First Full Moon has on its side, however, is that shiny gold Caldecott Medal it won in 2005. Surprisingly, I’ve found it to be a fairly divisive book. Some people love Henkes but don’t find this to be his strongest work. And then there are other people would break your thumbs if you said that to their faces.
The plot is pretty simple. Cat wants to get to the moon because it looks like a big bowl of milk. Hijinks ensue.
On a post about four-color printing Editorial Anonymous posted this interesting info: "Kitten’s First Full Moon was expensive to print. Have you wondered how they achieved such a rich black and white look? How many unique colors do you think went into the printing? Answer: seven!"
Never seen it? Read the whole book here.
The great and very missed Elizabeth Ward of The Washington Post wrote of this book: "Henkes’s black-and-white drawings (the colors of night, moon and milk) have an Asian subtlety and simplicity — appropriately enough for a moon-obsessed cat. ‘What a night!’ Kitten concludes. What a picture book!"
Karla Kuskin concurred in The New York Times with her own: "In the classic children’s-book convention, the story is succinctly told, pared down to a beginning, a middle and the end. The pictures fit the words perfectly, with equal amounts of simplicity and charm. As the title implies, there are two stars in this story: the moon, which doubles as a bowl of milk, and Kitten."