The best Hanukkah gift is a book. Some people may think the best Hanukkah gift is Disney Princess Lip Gloss Necklace and/or a pony, but these people are not old enough to have folding money.
Now, I could tell you about my favorite picture books published this year. But who cares what I think? The true experts, when we can distract them from their equine longings, have different criteria. Even the tiniest book fans, though they tend to make the pages very sticky, have strong opinions. And they’re the ones whose reviews really matter.
The list below leans toward the girlie, because if left to her own devices Josie would choose only pink books involving ballerinas. I refuse to buy these books, because they suck. But it is my job as a parent to find books that intrigue my daughter without making me want to vomit. And being too doctrinaire isn’t fruitful; if I pick up “Sophie Drives a Thresher” or “Janie and the No-Good Very Bad Rigidly Gendered Universe,” Josie will not want to read them. And because Josie is struggling with some anxieties, the books on our list are very gentle. “The Matzoh Ball Boy” by Lisa Shulman, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Penguin), didn’t make the cut: An illustration of a bear freaked her out. “Hotel Deep: Light Verse From Dark Water” by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt), a ravishing book of sophisticated poems and illustrations about undersea life, is out, because it made her dive under the couch cushions. It’s a fish-eat-fish world out there, but when you’re 4 you’re allowed to pretend it isn’t, at least for a while longer.
I tried hard to sell Jojo on “Mercy Watson to the Rescue” (Candlewick), a well-reviewed book written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. I found it absolutely charming, and it’s a perfect bridge between picture books and books for big kids. (It’s hard to find chapter books that aren’t too thematically mature for a 4-year-old.) Mercy is a sweet, buttery-toast-loving pig that crawls into bed with her human parents when she gets scared at night. But the Watsons’ bed collapses under Mercy’s piggy heft. And at that point, Josie was done. Nothing could convince a kid who tries to crawl into her parents’ bed almost every night that this book was worth continuing. To her, a humor book about a family’s bed crashing through the floor is roughly equivalent to a rollicking romp about Armenian genocide.
So without further ado, the Best Books of the Year, According to Josie (age 4) and Maxine (14 months):
1. “Leonardo, the Terrible Monster” by Mo Willems (Hyperion). Willems is a new kid-book rock star; his “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale” (also Hyperion) was one of our favorite books last year. His work is really fun to read aloud; Willems is an Emmy-winning writer for “Sesame Street,” so I suspect that the guy understands the power of performance. Josie loves this book because it isn’t really scary at all. I love it because it’s about empathy and coping with fears. Like “Knuffle Bunny,” “Leonardo” showcases great book design. “Knuffle Bunny” features simple, cartoony color drawings laid over pretty black-and-white photos of Brooklyn; “Leonardo” incorporates big, vaudevillian circus-poster-y typography.
2. “Cinderella” by Barbara McClintock (Scholastic, Inc.). Disney, we laugh in your face! We choose this delicately illustrated book over your coarse animated version! (Okay, there’s nothing wrong with the Disney movie; it’s Disney’s vast Princess-Industrial-Complex Purchase-Necessary Tiara Lifestyle we object to.) This book returns the old tale to its French roots, with detailed Versailles-y palaces and elaborate yet warmly drawn Louis XIV-style schmancy ballgowns and hairstyles. Josie is in fashion heaven every time we read it. She’d never seen the movie before we got the book, and her reaction to the story reminded me why fairy tales have historically had so much staying power. She was absolutely still with fascination. When Cinderella’s stepsisters fail to recognize her, Josie turned to me with huge eyes, whispering, “It’s Cinderella! They don’t know!” The story skips the bloody toe- and heel-chopping of the Grimm brothers’ version and ends with Cinderella yenta-ing up her apologetic stepsisters with some nice noblemen.
3. “Big Sister, Little Sister” by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion). The little sister (who is about Josie’s age) is the narrator, so Josie empathizes with her annoyance as she details having to wear hand-me-downs and not getting to stay up as late as certain people. Yet, as a big sister, Josie also understands being irked by someone copying you all the time and refusing to listen to your greater life wisdom. The book has cute illustrations, mostly in muted browns and caramels shot through with bright pink and red; the design and type are jazzy, and, most importantly, the body language of the sisters shows us how much they love each other, even when they kvetch about sisterhood. Very sweet.
4. “Terrific” by Jon Agee (Michael Di Capua Books). The rhythms of this offbeat tale are very Jewish. Eugene Mudge of Dismal, N.D., responds to everything in life with a sarcastic “Terrific.” When he wins a free trip to Bermuda, he sighs, “Terrific. I’ll probably get a really nasty sunburn.” And sure enough, Eugene experiences a shipwreck, a deserted island, and chas v’chalila, pomegranates (feh). As the stranded Eugene gradually made a friend and discovered his own emotional reserves and capability, I found myself getting a little teary! I’d thought this book might be a little too grown-up for a 4-year-old, but as a New York City kid Josie already understands deadpan humor. She loves to grump along with each “terrific,” and then chime in with a cheer on the final, non-snide “Terrific!”
5. “The Story Goes On” by Aileen Fisher, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi (Roaring Brook Press). We got this book while I was still reeling from my father’s death. And I found it comforting. It’s basically about the endless cycle of life on earth. A seed sprouts; a bug eats the seed; a frog eats the bug. The text, by a famous writer of children’s poetry who died in 2002, is simple and rhythmic and powerful. The illustrations are textured, painterly, collaged and simply gorgeous — a bit like Eric Carle’s richest, most saturated work. (And it taught us all a new word: sexton, a kind of beetle that eats and buries dead animals.)
6. “Tall” by Jez Alborough (Candlewick Press). Bobo the Chimp often feels small, but wants desperately to be tall. Josie says, “I like it because I can read it myself!” I must admit I don’t love “Tall” as much as I love Alborough’s earlier, equally minimalist “Hug,” which also stars Bobo. But Josie adores this one (and no wonder, since her whole life right now is about sometimes feeling tall and sometimes small) and she’s at just the point of literacy where she recognizes initial letters, so she really can “read” this book. And Max loves getting to sit with and being read to by her big sister. So who am I to argue?
7. “A Splendid Friend, Indeed,” by Suzanne Bloom (Boyds Mills Press). A simple, funny story of an overeager goose endlessly nudging a polar bear who just wants to be left alone with his thoughts. (“He’s annoying, isn’t he?” Josie always observes of the goose.) The sweet surprise ending shows that the polar bear really does appreciate the goose’s friendship. Surely all toddlers and preschoolers are familiar with the dynamic of craving attention from someone who’s a bit busy and impatient. (We’ve used this book to explain how not to act when Mommy is on the phone.) The illustrations are lush and yummy, and the bear’s hyper-detailed fur reminds Josie of the fuzzy white couch on the beautifully animated television show “Tiny Planets.”
8. “The Milkman” by Carol Foskett Cordsen, illustrated by Douglas B. Jones (Dutton). I adore this book. Thank God Josie likes it, too, because if she didn’t I’d have to dump her in a recycling bin. The story of a milkman making his rounds early in the morning, it’s told in minimalist yet vivid rhymes. There’s so much detail in the snappy text and the fabulously vintage-looking illustrations. Josie couldn’t believe that her own mama grew up in a house that had a little magic door for milk bottles — milk came in bottles! And she
loves the visual and textual refrain about a missing dog; readers can spot a furry ear here, a tail there. This book really is as satisfying as an ice-cold glass of fresh milk.
9. “Before You Were Born” by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Roaring Brook Press). Doesn’t every child love to hear stories about “before I was born”? This book retells the midrash of babies in the womb knowing all the secrets of the universe, then being touched on the upper lip by an angel just before birth and forgetting everything they once knew. Josie loves the story, retold by a Jewish folklorist and literature professor, as well as the dreamy art, made with linoleum printing, watercolor, gouache and colored pencil. For kids who (like Josie) aren’t yet asking where babies really come from and kids who are older and comfortable with metaphor, “Before You Were Born” is just beautiful.
10. “It’s Tu B’Shevat” by Edie Stoltz Zolkower, illustrated By Richard Johnson (Kar-Ben). A prettily painted board book (all the other books on this list have paper pages) about planting trees and appreciating all the things trees do for us. Written by a former preschool teacher, it’s just the right speed for Max’s bedtime. And even a city baby can appreciate a holiday for the trees when there’s a swing involved.
Two years ago, Carla Kozak, children’s librarian at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco Public Library, sent me an e-mail chiding me (rightly) for a column in which I dissed all children’s book authors who are not Maira Kalman. Now I am happy to correct myself: There are wonderful writers and illustrators doing wonderful work amid the fetid crap that is published every year. Let us reward them for their efforts. Get out your folding money. Happy Hanukkah.
Write to Marjorie at email@example.com.