No jibber jabber today. Let’s just go straight to the list!
#45: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (1985)
32 points (5 votes, #4, #3, #6, #6, #4)
“It was hard for me not to make a list of 10 of my favorite Van Allsburg books. But this one would be on the top. A classic Christmas story, and the illustrations are so mysterious and quiet. I so want to go to the north pole.” – Woody Miller
Many authors will tell you that it is difficult to write a good picture book. Many authors will also tell you that it is even more difficult to write a good holiday picture book. And a Christmas holiday picture book that becomes a family classic? One that wins Caldecott Awards? Yeah. Good luck with all that, buddy.
But he managed it. Somehow or other Chris Van Allsburg managed the near impossible. Long before The Hogwarts Express became the standard magical mode of transportation, Van Allsburg created a story in his customary mysterious style and made it kid-friendly, evocative, and timeless. This isn’t the only Christmas book on this list (The Grinch has already made an appearance) but it certainly is the highest you will find on the Top 50.
Children’s Literature describes the plot as, "A young man tells a story of his childhood and how his belief in Santa comes to life one snowy Christmas Eve. Although his friends tell him "there is no Santa," he still believes he will hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh. Those beliefs come true when the Polar Express takes him to the North Pole. When they come to the North Pole, Santa chooses the protagonist to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas. The boy wants something small and meaningful: a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The bell symbolizes the belief in Santa and the spirit of Christmas, and only those who believe can hear the magical sound of the bell."
100 Best Books for Children has much to say about Polar Express. Apparently the art was created when Van Allsburg used pastel oils on brown paper. The book now sells something around a quarter of a million copies annually. 100 Best Books goes on to say: "Dedicated to his sister Karen, The Polar Express shows a wonderful brother-sister relationship, one that mirrored Van Allsburg’s relationship with his own sister… Because the book can be viewed as a statement about the nature of faith, it is often read as a ritual in homes at Christmastime ‘for all who truly believe’." This is probably less true of the creepy CGI movie they made of it not so long ago.
School Library Journal said of it, "Given a talented and aggressive imagination, even the challenge of as cliche-worn a subject as Santa Claus can be met effectively. . . Van Allsburg’s express train is one in which many of us wish to believe."
#44: Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola (1975)
32 points (7 votes, #10, #9, #4, #5, #1, #9, #7)
I must have a thing for bowls that duplicate stuff. Strega Nona in many ways mirrors the 4th title on this list, The Full Belly Bowl. But unlike Aylesworth’s book, Strega Nona focuses on humor to get its point across. dePaola’s 1979 classic takes an original tale and makes it feel timeless – no small feat. – Travis Jonker
I was working the Reference Desk one day when a small blond boy knee-high to a butterfly came up to me. He wanted me to find a book for him and I said I’d try. What was it about? "There’s a woman with a white hat but she’s NOT a Pilgrim," he told me thoroughly. Apparently he had encountered the pilgrim problem before. "And there’s baby Jesus and a donkey and a baker’s son." Uh-oh. This was not sounding too familiar. A Befana story, maybe? But where does the baker’s son come in? "Uh.. is there anything else you remember?" I asked, not hoping for much. He screwed up his little face then said, "There’s a pot and it has magic spaghetti in it . . . ." Say no more! I made a jackrabbit-like leap to the shelves and pulled off Strega Nona as fast as I could. Baby Jesus and donkey aside, it was exactly the book he was looking for. And why not? Strega Nona is my own personal favorite of the Tomie de Paola oeuvre. The telling, the pictures, the way it all comes together . . . it comes as close to being a perfect picture book as anyone could hope to find.
From my old review: "Strega Nona lives by her lonesome in a small cottage in Calabria, Italy. A witch by trade, she cures the townspeople of their ailments, warts, and headaches. When Big Anthony is hired on as Strega Nona’s servant she gives him very strict instructions on what he is required to do, and what is forbidden. Quoth Strega Nona, ‘The one thing you must never do is touch the pasta pot’. You see where this is going. After watching the witch conjure delicious cooked pasta fully formed from the pot, Anthony is eager to show this miracle himself to the people of the town. When Strega Nona leaves on a trip, Anthony speaks her spell and feeds everyone in the vicinity delicious, piping hot pasta. Unfortunately, Anthony didn’t quite catch the trick to making the pasta stop flowing. As the villagers attempt to prevent the growing threat from destroying their town, Strega Nona arrives just in time to put everything right again. Anthony receives a just comeuppance and all is well in the world."
Apropos of nothing, I always thought that Big Anthony was kinda cute. This is why I’ve been careful to avoid marrying any picture book characters. I have terrible taste in their men.
I highly recommend reading the Bottom Shelf Books look at this book, particularly the discussion of Streganomics. And that reminds me… are you brave enough to discover the secrets lurking within . . . The DePaola Code?
The New York Times Book Review said of it, "De Paola’s illustrations aptly capture the whimsy of this ancient tale… simple line drawings clearly reveal the agony and ecstasy of pasta power, the muted colors create just the right ambiance for a Medieval village."
#43: Tuesday by David Wiesner (1991)
33 points (7 votes #9, #8, #6, #8, #8, #1, #4)
The iconic flying frogs! Ain’t nuthin’ says “good character design” like flying frogs. They whiz through the air like UFOs from a ’50s B-movie on those cute little lilypads! Creating a wordless picture book with great comic timing is more difficult than you think, and this most clever of Wiesner’s creations never fails to bring on a smile. Okay, I also admit: this book was also the one that first got me interested in contemporary children’s literature (yes, I was about fifteen at the time. Oh, and I was definitely at the top of my high school’s social pyramid, why do you ask?). – Brooke Shirts
Wiesner again. It’s not enough that three of his books win Caldecott Awards, but all THREE have also ended up on this Top 100 list! Amazing! Lest you feel he is the sole darling of the librarian set, I think this gives ample proof that he commands a fair amount of love, wherever he goes. That’s part of the man’s power. Not that he’s talented. Lots of people are talented. But that he has the ability to convince so many people of that talent. Everyone agrees on Wiesner! It’s a gift many an author/illustrator would kill for.
The plot from my review: "One of the best pictures in this book is on one of the first pages. There, a turtle cowers in its shell as black eyed, pupil-less frogs rise on their lily pads out of the water. The frogs descend, so to speak, on a nearby suburb, and proceed to wreak some minor havoc. They disturb a man pausing to eat a late night sandwich. They disturb laundry and enter old ladies’ homes to watch a little telly. And they take a great amount of pleasure in scaring a dog that would undoubtedly eat them if it had the chance. As the book ends, the frogs are relieved of their otherworldly powers and hop back to the swamps, leaving only their lily pads behind. The next Tuesday, at the same time, we’re given a hint of how a more porcine animal will handle such unexpected flight."
100 Best Books for Children offers some fascinating insight into the inspiration behind Wiesner’s works. "David Wiesner became fascinated with a different kind of picture book from the ones being published for children. After studying the work of Lynd Ward, he knew he wanted to try to craft books with a minimum amount of words, or no words – books that allowed the pictures to do the storytelling by themselves." About this book, "Wiesner liked Tuesday because its ‘ooze’ sound seemed to evoke frogs."
Houghton Mifflin (Harcourt?) has dedicated a rather lovely website to the book where you can read Mr. Wiesner’s first Caldecott acceptance speech, check out his reviews and awards, and find out about where he got his idea for the story. You may read the full book here.
I am amused by Publishers Weekly who said of the book, "Wiesner’s visuals are stunning: slightly surrealistic, imbued with mood and mystery, and executed with a seemingly flawless command of palette and perspective. But, perhaps because this fantasy never coalesces around a human figure, it is less accessible and less resonant than his tales that center on a child protagonist."
School Library Journal was also a little mixed when it said, "Dominated by rich blues and greens, and fully exploiting its varied perspectives, this book treats its readers to the pleasures of airborne adventure. It may not be immortal, but kids will love its lighthearted, meticulously imagined, fun-without-a-moral fantasy. Tuesday is bound to take off."
#42: Curious George by H.A. Rey (1941)
33 points (9 votes, #4, #7, #8, #10, #10, #10, #7, #7, #3)
This one narrowly made it. When I think of Curious George, my favorite books were the titles that came later. Curious George Goes to the Hospital for example. However, I really didn’t want to choose between those, so I think it is entirely appropriate to include the book that started it all! These Curious George books spent a lot of time in my household when I was younger and they already have a place on the bookshelf for when my own little one comes along. – Amanda Snow
“Oh, what happened! First this, and then this!” A fine example of how quoting out of context doesn’t always work so well with illustrated books. On the other hand, it is my favorite passage, and I bet there’s a good chance you get the reference. Oh, George. He’s larger than life, to the point where his companion, the man with the yellow hat, never gets a proper name. This first story of his adventures is a little sprawling, and you might say everyone’s favorite little monkey really comes into his own—whatever that means—in subsequent volumes, but I’m steadfastly partial to the original. – Amy Graves
I find it interesting that both these quotes make it clear that of the Curious George books, the first is not his strongest. Nevertheless, it’s the story that started it all and people have voted for it accordingly. For such an iconic figure, however, George remains at the relatively low number of 42. Votes for him, as you could see, only occasionally crested above #7 on people’s lists. They like this cheeky monkey, but merely liking him took him down a notch in the end.
The plot from B&N reads, "The first adventure in this highly popular series tells how the little monkey Curious George, caught in the jungle and brought back to the city by a man in a yellow hat, can’t help being interested in all the new things around him. Though well meaning, George’s curiosity always gets him into trouble."
Few picture books inspire people to write heroic stories about their own creators but that’s exactly what happened in 2005 when the title The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden was published. As the story goes, H.A. (or Hans) and Margret cobbled together two bicycles and took off for Marseilles when the Germans invaded Paris. They were stopped along the way by Nazi soldiers, but when Hans showed them the pictures he had done of the little monkey who would become George the Germans were charmed and let the two go.
According to 100 Best Books for Children, George’s original name was Fifi. Strangely (har har), American editors didn’t dig the moniker. Interestingly enough, "Margret Rey served as writer and Hans as illustrator on all the books, although she did not always get title-page recognition." Not much in the way of cover recognition either, I see.
Some objections to the book don’t care for how The Man in the Yellow Hat kidnaps George from his native land without so much as a howdy-doo. This will feed nicely into Michael Rex’s Furious George, when it eventually hits bookstore shelves. Of course, this little monkey has survived everything from full-screen adaptations to his own TV show to the recent introduction of a Curious George application for iPhones. He’s cutting edge, this guy. I suspect he’ll be around for a while.
You may read the book here.
#41: The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant, ill. Stephen Gammell (1985)
34 points (6 votes, #3,#7,#4,#9, #8, #1)
An absolutely delightful blend of text and pictures! Gammell captures perfectly the willy-nilly road trip leading to a joyful family reunion, and the carefree summer days spent outdoors together. The cheerful colors and rich detail of the illustrations bring the story completely to life. – Lori June
In one of these posts I’ve done someone commented that they hoped that Cynthia Rylant had made this list. I can tell you now that she has, but at a cost. You see, early on her Dog Heaven did quite well for itself. I think that at its peak it managed to become #95 on this list. Then, as more and more votes came in, people forgot about poor Dog Heaven. It slunk out of sight, never to be seen again.
But fear not! Out of the ashes rises The Relatives Came, a first appearance of both Rylant and the notorious Stephen Gammell (he of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, though you wouldn’t know it from this) on this list.
The description of the book from the publisher reads, "In a rainbow-colored station wagon that smelled like a real car, the relatives came. When they arrived, they hugged and hugged from the kitchen to the front room. All summer they tended the garden and ate up all the strawberries and melons. They plucked banjos and strummed guitars. When they finally had to leave, they were sad, but not for long. They all knew they would be together next summer."
We’ve spent so much time talking about great winter tales (the aforementioned Christmas books, The Snowman, etc.) that it’s a real relief to see a fine, frolicsome, happy, healthy, unrepentant summer title on this list.
School Library Journal said of it, "In down-to-earth language that harbors strong emotion, Rylant recounts the festive celebration of the relatives’ stay and the ensuing sadness when they depart. The relatives in question are a large rural brood, depicted, in Gammell’s joyous color pencil drawings, as running the gamut from porcine to scrawny, old to young and rowdy to silent. In pictures of this group hugging, eating and sleeping, the unspoken closeness of the unnamed relatives can be felt. These softly colored pictures, which capture the spirit of the brief text, are large enough for sharing in groups."
The rare popular picture book title that doesn’t have a single negative review on Amazon. A near impossibility, if you ask me.