Walls or Bridges?

I used to tell a story in my days working in libraries with kids, and its been on my mind lately. I know reading is not the same as hearing, but do your best to hear it being told…

Once upon a time there were two neighbors who were also farmers and friends. They’d been all three for almost forty years. Trading stories, tools, helping each other put up hay–all the things that farmers, neighbors, and friends do for each other.

And then one day they had a falling out. Oh, it was over something stupid, like Paul lost Joe’s favorite hay rake; or Joe called Paul a name in jest and Paul took it wrong. What they argued about doesn’t really matter because the next day Paul took his tractor and dug a big ditch between the two men’s properties. Water from the top of the hill searched out the ditch and now a decent-sized creek was the boundary line between the two farms, when before, there had been none.

There was a terrible silence between the two men for weeks.

One day Joe looked up from working in the barn to see a man standing in the doorway. He was carrying a wooden tool box that was well filled with awls, rasps, screws, and nails. He had two saws in a pack on his back. “G’mornin,” he said with an easy smile. “Got any projects you need done or things you might need fixin’?”

Joe thought a bit and then smiled back. “You’ve come at a good time. Follow me.” Joe led the carpenter down to the rushing stream. “Ya see this crick? T’wasn’t here three weeks ago. My neighbor put it in to spite me, and I’m mighty mad about the whole thing. I want you to build me a nice wall with that pile a lumber I have in the barn. And I’ll pay ya well if ya do a good job.”

The carpenter nodded. “I have just the project in mind for you. I think you’ll be pleased.”

“I have to go to town today,” Joe told the carpenter. “I can get ya more wood if you think you’ll need some.”

“I think this will be plenty,” the carpenter told him. He took his saws from his sack, spread his tools on the ground, and hurried off to haul the lumber he needed to get to work.

When Joe returned from town late in the afternoon, his jaw dropped at the sight. There across the creek was a graceful wooden bridge with sturdy railings and a deck big enough to support a tractor or a truck or a wagon. And there on the other side of the bridge was his neighbor Paul waving and smiling. He crossed the bridge and grabbed Joe’s hand, shaking it up and down with abandon. “I have to say I don’t know what possessed you to have this bridge built after these last weeks of ugliness between us, but I am so glad you did. I’ve wondered and wondered how we could ever make a bridge over what happened, and dog gone it, you went and done it. Built a bridge right over it.” He shook his head in amazement.

Joe was stunned into silence, but he had a grin smeared all over his face. “T’wasn’t me,” he finally stuttered to his friend. “It was this here carpenter gent’s work.”

They turned to look at the carpenter who was packing up his tools. Joe called to him, “Please don’t go. I got several other projects for ya — you did a fine job on this one.”

The carpenter shook his head and smiled.  He shouldered his saws, picked up his tool box, and waved at the two friends. “I can’t stay,” he told them. “I’ve got other bridges to build.” And with those last words he disappeared over the hill.

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We live in a world that builds walls, but bridge building can be done by anyone–you don’t have to be a carpenter or an engineer. What kind of bridge can you build? A footbridge? A covered bridge? Or a glorious bridge that overcomes fear and unforgiveness? Imitate the carpenter–love your neighbor and build a bridge, not a wall.

This story has been around for a long time, mostly as Author Unknown. I found it as “Old Joe and the Carpenter” in Thirty-Three Multicultural Tales to Tell by Pleasant DeSpain. Margaret Read MacDonald published a version by the same name in Peace Tales. When I searched the internet I found an original version–much longer and more colorful–as a story On the Hills and Everywhere written by Manly Wade Wellman (ca. 1956) in a book of stories called John the Balladeer.  This is my own version. 

(Part 4) The Librarian’s 29 Favorite Picture Books of all time: to give as gifts, to read over and over, or just to have on your own bookshelves…

And here are the last seven eight — I hope you’ve been reading and enjoying…

Sidney and Norman by Phil Vischer; illustrations by Justin Gerard.

Phil Vischer is the creative genius behind Veggie Tales; Justin Gerard’s wonderful illustrations glow, and together they have written just about the perfect picture book for Christian parents and teachers to read to their kids.  The two pigs are as different as can be: Norman is the perfect pig; Sidney has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Norman always did well in school and has a good job; Sidney spent many hours in the principal’s office, and he fears his boss now doesn’t like him much either. They are neighbors, though they rarely meet until one day God invites both of them to meet him on Tuesday at noon on Elm Street… Regardless of which pig you identify with, or your child identifies with, God has something interesting to tell them both. Think of it as a modern day Prodigal Pig Parable. Vischer has written a winner–with not only a message, but style, heart, and two darn cute pigs.  Ages 5-Adult

frog and toad

The Frog and Toad Treasury by Arnold Lobel

The Frog and Toad series (along with the Little Bear books by Else Holme Minarik) helped change the style of beginning books for children to read for themselves. First published in 1970, Frog and Toad Are Friends was an instant hit. The two friends are as opposite as Sidney and Norman (see above) and they don’t always get along. They disagree, they hop off in disgust, they do and say embarrassing and wrong things; but at the end of the day, they are still best friends. Each story is an understated golden lesson in friendship that children  everyone need(s) to hear. They need to hear that it isn’t always easy to be a friend, that sometimes we mess up, and that we need to be kind. And that we all need forgiveness and we all need to forgive. The frog and the toad couldn’t be more human. Ages 3-7 to be read to; Ages 5-8 for reading alonefrogandtoadBuy the Treasury — it includes Frog and Toad Are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, and Frog and Toad All Year. (There is one more that is missing in this trilogy — Days with Frog and Toad, published in 1979.) These are technically Beginning Readers, so your first grader will be able to read it, but for goodness sake, sit down and read it with them. You don’t want to miss these great stories and wonderful discussion starters.

(Note: The James Marshall books about the hippo friends George and Martha were originally on this list as well. But as I read and reread the list, I just felt that these two “Old Classics” shouldn’t both be on the list. So if you love Frog and Toad, make sure you check out the George and Martha series too.

oxcartmanOx-cart Man by Donald Hall; illustrations by Barbara Cooney.

Barbara Cooney’s delicate primitive style illustrations are part of why Ox-cart Man made this list. It was a tough call between this book and Cooney’s own Miss Rumphius. But ultimately I think I chose this one because I love what it represents. On a long-ago New England farm, the family spends the year making what they need and being self-sufficient. Then in late fall, the father packs all the extras that they have made and grown that year into his ox-cart and walks many miles to the town of Portsmouth where he sells it all. Even the cart. Even the ox. With the money he makes, he buys what supplies they will need and small gifts that will please his wife and children. Then he walks back home, and the seasons of making begin again.

The rhythm of country life, satisfaction in craft, industriousness, and learning to make do with what you have — our modern American urbanized children need to hear this over and over. Ox-cart Man won the Caldecott for best picture book in 1979. Ages 5-8

The Empty PotThe Empty Pot by Demi

Ping is a child with a green thumb. The plants and flowers that he tends grow beautifully. The Emperor loves plants too, and when it comes time for him to choose an heir, he gives all the children seeds — with a stipulation: the one who comes back in a year’s time with the most beautiful flower will become emperor. Ping tends his seed every day (for a year!) but nothing grows. And when the day comes to take his empty pot to the emperor, all his friends walk by with the most gorgeous flowers ever growing from their pots…

This is a wonderful picture book on honesty rewarded. Who among us can’t recall a lie that we told as kids? There is no hidden message in this story. It is absolutely right out in the open, where no kid can fail to miss it. Yet it’s beautifully told (and illustrated). It’s a great story about doing the hard thing. Ages 5-Adult

the ant and the elephantThe Ant and the Elephant by Bill Peet.

Bill Peet has such an amazing body of work that it was difficult for me to choose my favorite. My children and I loved Farewell to Shady Glade (an ecological tale told from the animal’s point of view) and No Such Things (a hilarious book filled with crazy, made-up animals). But The Ant and the Elephant is the classic story of the large and the small, with the ant saving the life of the elephant. Kids love it!

This book is filled with other gentle lessons as well. The elephant goes through his day fixing the lives of other animals who have gotten in trouble. None of them are grateful; in fact, this book might be filled with some of the orneriest critters ever drawn. But by the end of the day, the elephant is feeling pretty smug and self-satisfied for helping everyone — and sure enough — then he gets into trouble! Ant comes to the rescue, and all ends well.

Peet was an early illustrator with Disney Studios, and his illustrations are done entirely in colored pencil. They are amazing! (Be sure to have a set of colored pencils handy for your child after reading this book). Ages 5-9

Last Stop on Market Street
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena; pictures by Christian Robinson.

I lied in one of the earlier posts.

I said all the other books in this list had been kid-tested. They had. Until I sat down in the book store the other day with this new book — Last Stop on Market Street. It just won the Newbery Award for 2016. There were several complaints from reviewers on Amazon — Newbery Awards are supposed to be thicker, meatier books for older children. The Newbery Award is given for Words; the Caldecott Award is given for Pictures. So, yes, picture books generally win the Caldecotts. But there are exceptions for exceptional books. And this is one. The pictures are lovely (it also won a Caldecott Honor award) but the words are spectacular. Listen: “She smiled and pointed to the sky. ‘Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.'” Or this: “He wondered how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.”

CJ and his Nana have been to church, and now they are walking to the bus stop. CJ is full of childish complaints: why do we have to take the bus; why don’t we have a car; why can’t I have an iPod like they do… etc. etc. etc. Nana gently answers each question with patience and wisdom. Oh, that all children could have such a Nana… Ages 4+

Old Black Fly

Old Black Fly  by Jim Aylesworth;  illustrations by Stephen Gammell

This is another book in the  “funnest books ever to read aloud” category. It’s short. It’s exuberant. It rhymes. It’s an alphabet story. And the illustrations are perfect. (Stephen Gammell won a Caldecott Award for The Song and Dance Man — also a delightful read.)

Take a hot summer day and a pesky fly who bothers everyone — he even bothered the baby and made her cry. Shoo Fly, Shoo Fly, Shoo, Shoo, Shoo. So. Much. Fun. And it’s about a nasty old villainous fly. Who goes the way all pesky flies should go: Z-Z-Z-Z-Splat! (An alphabet book, remember?) Ages 2-6

And now I’ve come to Number 29…

I’ve dithered very much about this last book — some have come on the list and gone off the list at least three times… But now, there’s no hesitation. This might be the only book on this list that isn’t easily obtainable. I know because I don’t have it, and I can’t get it (unless I want to pay $150 for a new hardback copy.)

MoonstruckMoonstruck: the true story of the cow who jumped over the moon by Gennifer Choldenko; illustrated by Paul Yalowitz. (Paul Yalowitz also illustrated Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch — on Part 2 of this list.)

The horse narrates this satirically funny take on the cow who jumped over the moon. And he thinks Mother Goose did a terrible disservice to the cow by relegating her to just one line in the nursery rhyme. After all, it was no mean feat to jump over the moon! Especially a cow! As he notes, horses have been jumping over the moon for thousands of years, but horses are born to jump — cows are most certainly not jumpers. (Note: Your child needs to be familiar with nursery rhymes to get a lot of jokes in this book. But, ahem, all children should know nursery rhymes anyway… go get them one). These two are the best:

Moonstruck is hilariously understated; it has great wordplay, funny puns, and a good lesson — if at first you don’t succeed, practice. And if you practice, practice, practice, you might just be able to jump over the moon! Even if you’re a cow. Ages 5-9

shelf of books


My worst fear in making these lists and writing these posts is that I will have forgotten one of my very favorites that I haven’t read for awhile and isn’t in my personal collection. Knowing how forgetful I am, it is bound to happen…

But there are also five books which didn’t make the cut — Honorable Mention, as it were — that I feel I just can’t leave off the list — no review, but they are wonderful just the same:

  1. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A Wolf (Jon Scieszka);
  2. Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail ;
  3. Borreguita and the Coyote by Verna Aardema ;
  4. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney; and
  5. The Red Thread, an adoption fairy tale by Grace Lin.

I have also intentionally left off non-fiction and poetry. They might have their own lists later…

How about you? Do you have a favorite picture book of all time? Or twenty-nine?

(Part 3) The Librarian’s 29 Favorite Picture Books of all time: to give as gifts, to read over and over, or just to have on your own bookshelves…

This is the third part of the list. For the first fourteen, see Part One and Part Two.

A Visitor for Bear A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker; illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton.

This is another favorite about unlikely friends — Bear has a sign on his front door that says No Visitors Allowed! But little Mouse just keeps ignoring the sign and popping up at the most inopportune moments in the most inopportune places. (Hmmm…Just like real life!) When Mouse finally shows up in the teapot and begs to have tea with Bear, Bear relents — mostly because he is just tired of being badgered (moused?).

But amazingly enough, he discovers that he actually likes little mouse’s company. Becker has written a just right book for cuddling and laughing and perhaps having a tea party together… Ages 3-7

48481 The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson; illustrated by Vladimir Vasilʹevich Vagin.

Katherine Patterson is famous in the children’s literary world for winning the Newbery Award twice — Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981. She didn’t write very many picture books — most of her books are for older children — and this selection is longer than the traditional picture book; indeed, this is best as a family read-aloud, for everyone in the family (older than six) will enjoy it. (And if you’ve got a little princess, you could probably stretch the age to four — depending on her sitting-still span.)

An original “fairy-tale” The King’s Equal tells the story of Prince Raphael, the arrogant, prideful son of the beloved King. Alas, the old king knows his son’s character — on his death bed he tells the Prince that he may reign as king, but he can never wear the crown until he weds someone who is his equal in beauty, intelligence, and wealth.

Of course, Raphael has to be humbled before that person can be found, and this wonderful book is the story of how he finds humility — and his queen. Ages 6+

mufaro's beautful daughtersMufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

Another story of pride, this beloved book is often called an African Cinderella story. All the daughters in the land are called to the city, where the king will choose a wife. Two sisters — one gentle and humble, the other prideful and selfish — go their own way to the city, meeting the same people and the same situations along the way. The King, however, knows their temperaments because he has met both of them before… Ages 6+

the christmas miracle of jonathan toomeyThe Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojieczowski; illustrations by P.J. Lynch.

When this book was published in 1995, my children were past the picture book stage. But too bad, I made them listen to this every Christmas anyway… In our house, it supplemented The Christmas Carol. It is longer than an average picture book, but oh my, it is SO worth it! Each Christmas season I scour the new releases hoping that there will be another Christmas book that equals this one. So far I haven’t found it. P.J. Lynch’s illustrations are magnificent! (And whatever you do, don’t pay any attention to the movie that was made with the same title…).


This is the story of Jonathan Toomey, the best woodcarver in the valley, who carries a terrible grief that has made him withdraw from society. But the widow and her young son have lost their beloved nativity set in their move, and they come asking him to carve them another, hoping it will be done in time for Christmas. They shower love and acceptance and simple gifts upon him — even though he is a reluctant receiver.

Oh, such transformations love can accomplish! Ages 6-Adult

sylvester and the magic pebbleSylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.

When I was researching the books on this list, I was astonished to find that Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was on the Banned Books List! How can that be? I wondered. It’s such a fantastic book AND it won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. When I discovered why it was banned, I burst out laughing. Any guesses? (Answer is at the bottom of this post…)

If you’ve lived under a rock and have never heard of this book (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) it is the story of a young donkey who finds a lovely magic pebble;  he discovers accidentally that it is magic, and he has a few minutes of terrific excitement,thinking  how this wish-granting pebble will change his life.


Then disaster strikes. To get away from the mean, hungry lion who appears out of nowhere, he panics and makes a bad decision. He wishes himself into a rock. “And there was Sylvester, a rock on Strawberry Hill, with the magic pebble lying right beside him on the ground, and he was unable to pick it up.”

Everyone in town searches for young Sylvester, but no one thinks to go to Strawberry Hill and look for a rock… It’s a wonderfully happy ending though, with his parents actually doing the finding. (And you will give your child an extra big hug when you finish reading it.) Ages 5-9

Just a couple of asides about the author — he also wrote Dr. DeSoto, which is absolutely recommended, as well as the book Shrek, which is forgettable. (This is one case out of a million in which the movie is actually better than the book.) Before Steig was a children’s writer he was famous as a cartoonist for the New Yorker; he didn’t start writing children’s books until he was 61.

Cloudy with a chance of meatballsCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett

My (adult) kids would probably disown me if I left this off the list. We read this over and over. We owned a copy and when that copy fell apart, we bought a hard-cover edition. And we wore that one out too… I’ve heard that this book was ruined by a movie made into a movie also, but I would never go see it…

How can anybody resist the story of the weather bringing food? Tomato tornadoes? A giant jello setting in the west? Or storms of hamburgers becoming heavy at times? Ages 5-9

Chicken SundayChicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco.

It was tough picking my favorite Patricia Polacco book. I’m not sure why she has been shunned by awards committees, for her illustrations and her stories are almost always favorites.  I also really like Just Plain Fancy, and Thunder Cake, but Chicken Sunday wins out for several reasons.

It is a story of unselfconscious inter-racial friendship and love that is heartwarming. Young Tricia hangs out with Stewart and Winston; their gramma, Miss Eula, often cooks dinner for all of them. The three kids are running through the neighborhood one day and get falsely accused of throwing eggs at Mr. Kodinski’s hat shop. Gramma looks at them sternly when they deny throwing the eggs and then decides to believe them. But, she says, Mr. Kodinski thinks you threw those eggs, so you’ll have to do something to make up to him, so he will know that you are good children.

The three were hatching a plan to buy Miss Eula her favorite hat for Easter (from Mr. Kodinski’s Hat shop!) so they decide to be brave and try it. Courageously they march into the hat shop with handmade Pysanky eggs (made with the help of Tricia’s mother). Mr. Kodinski is instantly transported back to his homeland at the sight of the Russian eggs. He is impressed by the children’s chutzpah and a friendship begins.


As always, Polacco’s water colors glow with warmth and color and light. And you can just hear Miss Eula’s voice that “sounded like slow thunder and sweet rain…” Ages 6-12

The last seven books will come next week, with one extra for leap year…

Unknown***Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in some places because the police officers were depicted as pigs.