Is choosing your top 10 picture books an exercise in psychology? Could be. What does it really say about the person who thinks Outside Over There is heads and tails better than In the Night Kitchen? Is there mental instability to be plumbed from the woman who finds Goggles the best work of Ezra Jack Keats? Or is she simply better able to perceive the world around us? Forget the Rorschach test. If I were a psychiatrist I would take a patient into a room with walls lined with picture books and see what they take. Mind you, if I had a room with walls lined with picture books I probably wouldn’t leave it myself. That’s my weakness at work.
#40: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (1939)
36 points (9 votes #4, #7, #3, #4, #10, #7, #8, #10, #10)
Because Ramona loved it, too. – Sherry Early
It is the little kid in me voting for this. As an adult, I have no idea if the book is good. As a child I LOVED it. And the thoughts of children ought to count for something in the world of children’s lit, shouldn’t they? – Jim Averbeck
Mike Mulligan and Mary Ann, you two had me plumb scared. Honestly I’d set this duo up as goners pretty early in. A week goes by in the voting. No votes for Mike Mulligan. A second week goes by in the voting. No votes for Mike Mulligan. By that point I’m chewing on my fingernails. Could it be? Could a Top 100 List of Picture Books really exist without Mike and his steam shovel extraordinaire? The thought seemed inconceivable and, as we can see right here, inconceivable it was.
Children’s Literature described the plot this way, "Mary Anne, the faithful steam shovel that successfully dug canals, mountain roads, highways, and foundations for years, is facing unemployment in the modern age. Steam shovels are being replaced by gasoline shovels, electric shovels and diesel motor shovels. Mary Anne and her owner, Mike Mulligan, stop getting called for jobs. ‘No Steam Shovels Wanted’ read the signs. Steam shovels are being sold for junk. Mike knows that Mary Anne could still dig as much in a day as a hundred men could in a week. So, when he reads that a new town hall will be built in Popperville, Mike and Mary Anne race over there with a proposition. Mike says that Mary Ann will dig the cellar for the new town hall in just one day; if it is not done, the town will not have to pay. The challenge is on! On the morning they begin, a little boy comes by and Mike tells him to stay and watch so that they will work faster and better. As the day wears on, more people come by to watch and, sure enough, Mary Anne digs faster and better. Although the cellar is finished at the end of the day, an unforeseen problem threatens to wreck the deal. The people of Popperville are up in arms until the little boy thinks of a perfect solution."
The creation of this book is actually a bit of a hoot. According to 100 Best Books for Children, Virginia Lee Burton’s first attempt at writing a picture book was a story about a dust bunny called, and I am not making this up, The Trials and Trails of Jonnifer Lint. I hereby challenge some author, somewhere, to write this book. Because, you see, there wasn’t a soul out there who wanted to buy it. What they did want to buy was Mike Mulligan. Burton had troubles with the ending but when a boy named (again, not making this up) Dickie Berkenbush suggested they stay in the basement, Burton dug that crazy jazz ending.
Of course, the strange thing about this story is that it’s essentially a tale about a pretty incompetent guy. What kind of construction worker digs himself into a hole he can’t get out of? Plus Sherry Early is playing with fire mentioning Ramona since I would wager that few of us can read this story anymore and not wonder, as Ramona did, how Mike Mulligan was able to use the bathroom in his basement hole. But as my husband pointed out to me, that probably cemented Mike Mulligan‘s presence in the children’s picture book canon. But at what cost, man, WHAT COST!?
The New Yorker said of it, "This is fun both in its text and gay crayon drawings. Mike Mulligan remains faithful to his steam shovel, Mary Anne, against the threat of the new gas and Diesel-engine contraptions and digs his way to a surprising and happy ending."
And School Library Journal said of a recent reprint, "The brightly colored, charming crayon drawings add to the cheerfulness of presentation."
#39: The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood (1984)
37 points (7 votes, #8, #3, #5, #7, #3, #6, #8)
Love the repetition, the soothing color palette, and the build up of tension as everyone falls asleep on that bed. – Brenda Ferber
Still among the best picture book teams of all time, Audrey and Don Wood have created more than one classic. They are widely known for this cumulative tale, The Napping House, in which a slumbering pile of pets and people are galvanized into motion by the smallest of visitors. – Kathryn Coombs
This book is also sometimes known as The Cumulative Tale That Actually Works. I think it was on the post about Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears that someone mentioned that it was the rare House That Jack Built book that doesn’t make you want to rip out your hair by the roots. The Woods’ use of light to convey the gloomy nap-worthy rainy weather and the later sun-shiny wide-awake beams, are worth the price of admission alone. And what other book portrays the joys of bouncing on the bed quite as well as this? You might be able to make a case for Hop on Pop, but I sayeth unto you, nay. Nay and not hardly.
Amazon described the plot as, "With their very own brand of humor, Audrey Wood and Don Wood create an appealing bedtime book compatible with Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon. This small, square board book, with its rhythmic, repetitive text and witty pictures in shades of ever-brightening blues and greens (as the night turns to day), is sure to be a winner with preschool insomniacs. The sleepy household congregates on Granny’s bed, slowly building a very relaxed pile of bodies in shifting positions. Young readers will enjoy tracking the critters as they make their way, one by one, to the bed–and then guessing what will happen when the wakeful flea joins the heap."
Some of you may have noticed that I used an unusual cover design for the introduction of this book. I have absolutely no idea what the difference between that image and the one featured right here is:
One precedes the other. Haven’t a clue which is which, though. Read the board book version (which is similar if not entirely the same) here while you ponder this mystery.
Even the great and powerful librarian Nancy Pearl is a fan. In her title Book Crush she says of The Napping House that it is, "a tried, true, and much-loved read-aloud. (My favorite character in Woods’s book has always been the very pesky – and wide-awake – flea who wreaks havoc with the nappers.)" So there you go. Straight from the woman herself.
#38: Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, ill. by Margaret Bloy Graham (1956)
37 points (8 votes, #4, #9, #10, #9, #4, #7, #3, #3)
One of the few picture books I remember reading as a child. I think one thing that attracted me was the cover with the two dogs, black and white opposites of each other. – Kara Dean
Childhood favorite and one that I just consider a pretty much perfect picture book story – Michelle Knudsen
All together! I’m just wild about Harry, and Harry’s wild about meeeeee…
Truth be told, Harry probably doesn’t care diddly over squat for me, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love him just the same. Far more than merely the author who keeps getting shelved next to Charlotte Zolotow on our library shelves, Gene Zion and his wife Margaret Bloy Graham created an oddly iconic figure in the mischievous little pup that manages to get himself into and out of trouble in a particularly 1950s kinda way. He was the canine Dennis the Menace of his generation, sans the cutesy bon mots.
Children’s Literature described the plot as, "Harry is a most lovable black and white dog who has a whole range of adventures when he leaves his happy home in order to avoid getting a bath. He romps with the men repairing the street, in the railroad yard, and plays tag with other dogs. Each episode results in him getting dirtier and dirtier so that when he does return home, his family thinks he is a stray dog. Now Harry faces the task of getting his owners to recognize him as their pet. After several unsuccessful attempts, Harry digs up the scrubbing brush and takes it upstairs to the tub. The soapy bath reveals Harry to the family and he once again becomes ‘a white dog with black spots’."
Married couples abound in creating children’s picture books and these two are no exception. According to 100 Best Books for Children (yes, I quote it a lot and yes, there is a reason for that), Graham met Margret and Hans Rey of Curious George fame (it’s all connected) and was encouraged to put together an art portfolio. She did, Zion wrote the tales, and the rest is history.
The New York Times said of the title, "Harry is sure to be loved; especially by those pre-school children to whom dirt is an ever-delightful thing."
#37: Eloise, by Kay Thompson, ill. Hilary Knight (1955)
39 points (8 votes, #2, #10, #3, #2, #10, #8, #4, #10)
Simply the smartest, funniest book in the universe. Eloise was the first hipster I ever knew. – Laurel Snyder
I received other quotes for Eloise, but that one was my favorite.
I didn’t know Eloise as a child. And when I say, "I didn’t know" I’m not talking about one of those cases where you are vaguely aware of a character, like Peter from The Snowy Day or Max from Where the Wild Things Are. No, honestly, I’d never laid eyes on the character. I was from Michigan! We don’t have plazas in Kalamazoo. There may be high tea, but heaven only knows where. Somehow I managed to continue this ignorance well into adulthood, until one day I ran across a baffling New Yorker cartoon. It was by Roz Chast and was called "Eloise Revisited". If I’m not too much mistaken she’s sitting on the bed saying, "I am Eloise. I am forty-six. I still live in the Plaza. I don’t give a damn who owns it." This came in 1995 during the height of the Plaza selling that was going on.
Baffling to the uninitiated, I can tell you. Of course, once I became a children’s librarian I met Eloise right and proper. The plot, I have since learned, is basically just a six-year-old girl living in the fancy dancy Plaza, wreaking havoc and being sweet. Parents are absent and she is attended to by her nanny.
I’ve heard many an . . . interesting story about Eloise’s creator. Say what you will about her, though, she knew how to take a picture. Here she is posing the portrait of Eloise that hangs in the Plaza.
Thompson actually did write at least one children’s book other than Eloise. It was called (deep breath) Kay Thompson’s Miss Pooky Peckinpaugh and Her Secret Private Boyfriends Complete with Telephone Numbers. With a name like that, I’m actually a little disappointed that I’ve never seen it before.
Ursula Nordstrom had hoped to publish Eloise Takes a Bawth with Thompson but it never happened in her lifetime. Thompson’s either, come to think of it. That Hilary Knight has some kind of longevity. In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom there is a rather fun letter to Louise Fitzhugh from October 15, 1969 worth telling a bit of here. Ursula writes to Louise, "I am told that another librarian turned to Kay Thompson (we are doing the next Eloise if it ever gets finished) and burbled, ‘Oh I love your Harriet books.’ Silence and the Titanic could crash and sink in seconds. The librarian went on: ‘Your wonderful books about Harriet and the Plaza’." Marvelous.
Naturally Eloise has her own website. Her own television shows, movies, and creepy 1950s merchandise as well. She is more iconic now than ever. I still want to read the book where she goes to Moscow too . . .
#36: Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka, ill. Lane Smith (1992)
40 points (8 votes, #9, #10, #2, #1, #9, #5, #7, #4,)
For my daughter (age 25). She loved this story for its play on fairy tales and rollicking silliness. She liked being ‘in’ on the joke and was never a happily-ever-after sort of gal. She read it into teen-dom and, in fact, may still be reading it while attending veterinary med. school. – Cheryl Tasses
I found this when I was in high school (I have much younger siblings, which was probably how I was getting access to picture books in those days) and laughed so much I took it in to share with my friends at school. There we were, a bunch of high schoolers backstage at musical rehearsals, reading a picture book aloud to each other and snorfling a lot. My favorite Scieszka. – rockinlibrarian
Subversive, innovative, hilarious storytelling with a ground-breaking seamless design cover-to-cover that makes you want to re-read it again and again to see something new every time- which you will. That’s a perfect picture book. – Boni Ashburn
So there you go. They said it best. Don’t know that I’ve much more to add to their praise. I think my encapsulation of The Stinky Cheese Man is best said by people other than myself. Read this Jon Scieszka article from the Horn Book about design for starters.
And here’s a plot synopsis from Amazon: "If geese had graves, Mother Goose would be rolling in hers. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales retells–and wreaks havoc on–the allegories we all thought we knew by heart. In these irreverent variations on well-known themes, the ugly duckling grows up to be an ugly duck, and the princess who kisses the frog wins only a mouthful of amphibian slime. The Stinky Cheese Man deconstructs not only the tradition of the fairy tale but also the entire notion of a book. Our naughty narrator, Jack, makes a mockery of the title page, the table of contents, and even the endpaper by shuffling, scoffing, and generally paying no mind to structure. Characters slide in and out of tales; Cinderella rebuffs Rumpelstiltskin, and the Giant at the top of the beanstalk snacks on the Little Red Hen. There are no lessons to be learned or morals to take to heart–just good, sarcastic fun that smart-alecks of all ages will love."
Publishers Weekly was not charmed, "Grade-school irreverence abounds in this compendium of (extremely brief) fractured fairy tales, which might well be subtitled ‘All Things Gross and Giddy.’ . . . The collaborators’ hijinks are evident in every aspect of the book, from endpapers to copyright notice. However, the zaniness and deadpan delivery that have distinguished their previous work may strike some as overdone here. This book’s tone is often frenzied; its rather specialized humor, delivered with the rapid-fire pacing of a string of one-liners, at times seems almost mean-spirited."
Booklist was a little more positive with its, "Every part of the book bears the loving, goofy stamp of its creators, and while their humor won’t appeal to everyone, their endeavors will still attract a hefty following of readers–from 9 to 99."
Kirkus liked it a bit more still: "Parodic humor here runs riot…irrepressibly zany fun!" (parodic?)
And School Library Journal followed all this up with, "Clearly, it is necessary to be familiar with the original folktales to understand the humor of these versions. Those in the know will laugh out loud."
Previous Top 100 Picture Book Posts include: