A handy guide to use when story-shopping for the kidlets!
Children, as you know if you’ve met them, are not entirely sane when it comes to their literary preferences. If you were feeling generous, you might say they have “a different frame of reference” informing their choices.
But the kids I know prefer straight-up bonkers stories. To wit: They find a picture book about a cat piling up “as many [red, fuzzy things] as you can get” to be hilarious.
Okay, so the cat is cute. Especially when “one extra” turns into “too many.”
Maybe a better example would be their love of a bizarre story about the sneaky Triangle who punks his friend Square. And when poor Square gets a raw deal? It’s a knee-slapper!
To my kids, at least. I can’t remember if I laughed or not the first time, since all memories have blurred in the subsequent 36 readings.
The point is, the best children’s books reach kids where their bizarre little minds are at. If there’s a lesson to impart, fine, but it had better be entertaining.
Fortunately, the children’s books included here are chockfull of silly pranks and surprising twists.
And, of course, butts.
(If you were 4, you’d be laughing now. See?)
The most surprising plot twist comes in Rebecca Ashdown’s The Whopper, when a boy’s lie manifests as a fuzzy blue monster that grows and grows until it gobbles him right up. Grownups will recognize the metaphor for all-consuming guilt, while little ones will just be entertained. Ashdown’s loose and charming illustrations soften the horror of the walking lie monster, and the story offers an opportunity for instructive conversation without being too didactic.
Which isn’t to say that terrifying children into good habits is wrong. Parents looking to promote tidiness will enjoy Jason Carter Eaton and Mark Fearing’s Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians!, though the funny Viking invasion might instead encourage munchkins to leave their cupcake wrappers around in hopes of attracting the helmet-wearing brutes. Vlad, Törr, and their philistine hordes duke it out over stray cheese curls dropped by the messy narrator, much to the amusement of my sadistic little readers.
None of these stories is more sadistic than Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle, though that will come as no surprise to fans of Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat. In Triangle, the eponymous hero trots off to pull a “sneaky” trick on his friend Square, and though he succeeds, neither really comes out on top. The book ends with a conversation-sparking question that chatty preschoolers will enjoy. (And if any reader is left feeling bad for Square, don’t worry — he gets his time in the limelight in the forthcoming book two of the trilogy, titled, you guessed it, Square.)
For poor Barnaby the firefly, there’s no light at all. None coming from his butt, that is. The delightful illustrations by Ana-Gabriela Stroe in Norman T. Leonard’s Barnaby the Firefly and His Missing Light show just how dejected and desperate a lightless firefly can be. The tiny bug seeks help from a doctor, lawyer, and mad scientist, among others, only to find resolution with an unexpected friend. The rhymes in this one might pose a challenge for some littles (and prompt a cringe from parents — I don’t think Tourette’s syndrome makes for a good punchline), but the darling illustrations and fun adventure carry the day.
Complicated rhyme schemes aside, it’s sometimes the simplest pleasures that are the best. The tongue-biting kitten of Viviane Schwarz’s Counting with Tiny Cat doesn’t have a lot to say, and we’re not even sure what the kitty is collecting (meatballs? yarn?), but our protagonist sure is adorable. And funny, judging by my children’s delighted laughter when the kitten’s red collection tumbles down. Even this book manages to sneak in a little instruction, as Schwarz depicts concepts like “about a dozen.”
In some ways, these books are reflections of the zeitgeist, what with their absurd villains and ironic pranks. Still, I wish their sensibilities were a little more in keeping with the times — maybe it doesn’t have to be only Mom who nags about cleaning (don’t dads want clean houses?), and maybe the protagonist children could be colored in shades other than peach.
But any given book can’t do everything. Judging by my kids’ giggles and demands to “read it again,” these books are certainly, as Tiny Cat would say with a contented smile, “Enough.”
Carrie Callaghan lives with her two maniacal children and only slightly less maniacal spouse and cats in Maryland. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own (Amberjack Publishing), is forthcoming in November 2018. Find her on Twitter at @carriecallaghan.