with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

Secret Gardens: Discovering New Children’s Books

Awhile back when I was pregnant and almost forty and pregnant and dragging my three-year-old everywhere and tired all the pregnant time, I wrote at The New York Times Motherlode about how sick I was of reading certain books out loud to my son. I listed the books I found particularly annoying or, in the case of Sylvia Plath’s bedtime book, downright disturbing. I ended the piece with fervent hopes I’d get my reading aloud mojo back.

Now I’m past the heavy sea roll of postpartum anxiety and depression with an amazing two-year-old and six-year-old, and while I still cringe at reading books from that list aloud and encourage my six-year-old to read them exclusively to himself, I’ve found other books I delight in so entirely that I don’t just read them to my sons, I read them to myself. The real surprise here is that they are books I had never read before.

One of my coping mechanisms for the uncertainties of first-time motherhood was holding fast to the stories and books read to me in my own childhood. I was surrounded by new: new baby, new smells, new schedule, new clothes, new body, new tides of emotions, so initially I didn’t want to read anything new. New was scary and unpredictable and overwhelming. (And this didn’t just extend to children’s books either, I was even reluctant to take on new adult books of my own. I reread Maud Hart Lovelace, Anne McCaffrey and E.F. Benson for months instead of casting about for contemporary, unread titles.) I needed to stick to Goodnight, Moon, The Little House, and Make Way for Ducklings for safety’s sake. A bowl of mush and urban blight and a duckling with the unpronounceable name of Ouack would help me in those early days of new motherhood.

However, the pile of new children’s books given to me grew and grew on my bedside table and when I finally did feel sure enough of myself and of mothering to surrender to the experience of an uncontrolled reading experience, I collapsed into the bright bliss of everything new. Suddenly, I had fresh colors and shadings and strokes that delighted my eyes in their variety. I had stories with beginnings, middles, and ends unknown to me until I read them through with my children. Most importantly I had brand new words previously unspoken by me that gave me a brand new, unrehearsed voice I didn’t know I had.

When reading the well-trod books from my childhood out loud, I heard myself falling into step with my mother’s reading cadence like it was a type of vocal muscle memory. That in itself is not a bad thing and I nursed waves comfort from the familiar stresses and pauses in those early terrifying days and nights with my first newborn. However, when the words of a new story dropped from my mouth, it was all on me to seek out my own voice and my own flow. It was time for me to stand on my own as a mother.

Just as soon as I found that footing, I also found such meditative peace in the lush artwork or round textual beat and measure of certain now-favorite books that I never weary of reading them to my sons. In fact, I frequently read the books below without my sons when I need to settle my mind but have time or energy for only a corner of quiet for myself.

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And Then It’s Spring: It could be because California is pitted with drought where the brown truly is “all around” and, like the boy in the book, my Minnesotan-bred eyes are fairly aching for green. Or it could be that I am so bowled over by Julie Fogliano’s ability to coax an unexpected and lovely rhyme out of “brown” and “around” that I end up enjoying the word brown in spite of our horrid drought. It could also be the brilliance of having the last line be the book’s title instead of appearing as last line. (You actually can’t help yourself from saying it even though it’s not written on the last page. Read it, you’ll see.) Or it’s illustrator Erin Stead’s fat birds, hilarious bears, and her crisp lines on a milk carton bird feeder. I really can’t put my finger on a single best thing other than I feel it to my toes that this book has the ideal beat and softness of verse that communicates wonderful peace when paired with Stead’s pencil strokes.

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The Curious Garden: (See above disclaimer that the California drought might be having on my preferences) Since Harry Potter, I have never wanted so intensely to live in an imaginary world of a book until I read this book. The voice and the illustrations are so different from Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets that I didn’t even make the author connection at first. Loosely based on New York’s Highline but taken to fantastical and dreamlike extremes, the book features a loving little boy who makes over a dingy, polluted city with his green thumb. I spend a lot of my time in the book deciding which garden retreat is the one I’d live in; it changes with every reread.

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The BabyLit Series: It’s phenomenally difficult to pick just one favorite BabyLit book by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. It’s a board book series so brilliant that every time I read one, I’m torn between envy and fall-on-my-knees admiration for Adams and Oliver for dreaming up this concept. However if pressed, I’d choose Moby Dick for the illustrations, Wuthering Heights for the pulled quotes, Huckleberry Finn for the sheer wonderfulness of having a “camping primer,” and Pride and Prejudice for the comic kicker on the last page where I defy you to resist reading it in Mrs. Bennet’s voice.

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Fabian Escapes: Peter McCarty’s adorably neckless and (practically) limb-less cat and dog return in this second installation of his Hondo and Fabian series. While the writing is gorgeously spare, the text that is there is quiet and intentionally understated for maximum comic effect. McCarty’s writing is a worthy example of the delicate craft of deceptively simple sentences, well placed pauses, or total absence of text while his muted illustrations exude a plushness that makes me want to pet every page.


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Moon Plane: This is another book by Peter McCarty I discovered after falling in love with his Hondo and Fabian work and while still wonderful, it has a very different. For one, the story about a boy day dreaming of going to the moon, while definitely a story, contains more poetic parallels than his books about Hondo and Fabian. If possible, it feels even quieter than the cat and dog books which might be a result of the decidedly retro illustrations. McCarty’s colors were already minimal in Fabian Escapes, but they are even more so in Moon Plane which is done primarily in shades of grey. The foggy palette and lyrical text makes you read Moon Plane in hushed tones as though you don’t want to wake yourself up from a beautiful dream.

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Haiku Baby: I pretty much hated haikus until I read this book. My amity for the poetic form can be traced back tp the know-it-alls I knew who exalted in writing haikus all. The. Damned. Time. It was a very show-offy thing to do in East Quad/Residential College dorm room whiteboards at Michigan and it bugged me. (Rather irrationally, probably.) Sometimes these haiku-ers would speak them at me and bleat “that was a haiku!” right in the middle of a normal conversation. (Pretty certain my annoyance was totally justified in that case because who does that?) Anyway, Betsy E. Snyder’s simple, nature-infused haikus made me finally appreciate the form and had me reciting them to my sons when I was pointing things out to them like “flower” or “moon” or “” Our family has loved this book so hard that the first copy disintegrated and we had to replace it for our second baby. It is always on my bedside table.

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The Huey’s New Sweater: Oliver Jeffers’ writing in all of his books simply stuns me. His books often have me so emotionally entangled that reading out loud can be difficult as he frequently makes me laugh-cry and my six-year-old gets very concerned. Like my BabyLit conundrum, it’s hard to pick just one favorite Jeffers book but The Huey’s New Sweater is flat-out hilarious and the message is deep. Meanwhile, Lost and Found and How to Catch a Star have a sad sweetness that grips you even though it all comes out right in the end. Stuck is crazy fun, The Day the Crayons Quit is a genius concept and execution, and my six-year-old loves the The Incredible Book Eating Boy, but Lost and Found and How to Catch a Star are the ones I hold in my heart.

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This is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back: Yes, I really had to have two separate slots for these books about creatures and their hilarious hats by Jon Klassen, because they are both amazing but in opposite yet complementary ways. The thieving fish in This is Not My Hat is very calm, very sure of himself, and not at all worried about his crime, whereas on the opposite end of the spectrum, the rabbit (and later the bear) in I Want My Hat Back have identical moments of verbal diarrhea comically betraying their guilt. While the narratives aren’t linked in any way other than animals getting their hats stolen, together the two books form a complete story and you simply can’t read one without reading the other. In his illustrations, Jon Klassen clearly communicates the idea that the eyes are the windows to the soul. His creatures’ faces and bodies remain still and unflustered and allow their eyes to emote everything from deception to fear to suspicion to realization to insistence. The hats in both books have their own visual humor, as well: a tiny and businesslike bowler belonging to a huge fish and a loudly celebratory red party hat for a bear. I ended up reading these in reverse publication order, but the stealthy hilarity of the story and the eyes of the crab in This is Not My Hat is what, uh, hooked me as a full-on Klassen fan.


If you’re a completist, it can be difficult take a truly satisfying break with a bare chapter or two of a 300-page book, but with a 30-page children’s book, you can have beginning and end and all that comes in between. You can take what little time you have and feel calmed by just a few words and illustrations.

It can restore your certainty as a mother, as a person, as yourself.

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  1. All of these books sound wonderful and I have added quite a few to my families “TBR” list :). I have a FANTASTIC picture book for 2015 that I don’t think is getting enough press at all. The book is called “The Little Brown Animal” by DiMari Bailey (http://www.dimaribailey.com/). It’s the first book in the “Tales of the Deep Forest” series and it not only teaches children some wonderful life lessons but it promotes story-telling and sparks the imagination. The book follows a little brown animal who doesn’t feel like he fits in with his forest companions. He goes on a journey that teaches him just how special he really is. A feel good book for sure and one that my daughter and I reread quite regularly together. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did and perhaps it will make it on a future list!

  2. I so enjoyed the writing and feeling in these descriptions that I intend to run to a bookstore that carries kids’ books and surround myself with as many of the titles as I can find and just read them. For myself. (I don’t happen to have any children, except for the child in me who lives right alongside the grownup but doesn’t get enough to eat at times.) Thanks for setting up all these experiences to explore — I deeply wish other people, people with children, will follow along and pick twigs off this grandiloquent beanstalk of books. EE


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