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…(Part 1)

once upon a timelong ago and far away, I was a children’s librarian. But you know, old librarians never retire, they just get reshelved, checked out, or renewed…

Does that mean I’m qualified to make a list of my favorite picture books of all time?

All librarians, retired or not, love book lists and this February I’m listing the children’s picture books I love. Here are my qualifications: a librarian for thirty-five years; a children’s librarian for twenty-five of those years; a word addict, editor, storyteller, and writer on and off throughout my life; and a book lover since before I even learned to read…

So if any of that makes my list more credible, here are my favorite twenty-nine picture books of all time — old favorites as well as new — one book per day in February divided into weekly groups, so you can go to the library on Saturday for the whole week.

I must confess — I like stories that tell us about how to live. Not heavy-handed, but stories that can be talked about over and over; stories that can be read on more than one level; stories that stick. And because they are picture books, the illustrations have to be outstanding, too. Please notice that this is a list of MY FAVORITES! It is not a list of the Best Picture Books of All Time — you can find those lists here and here.

In no particular order they are:

Down the Road by Alice Schertle; E.B. Lewis painted the picturesDown the Road by Alice Schertle; illustrated by E.B. Lewis.  Mama needs eggs, but no one in the family has time to go to the store, so Hetty begs and pleads to be able to “go down the road all by herself.” Mama hedges, but Papa stands up for her and says, “Hetty is absolutely old enough to go by herself.”

Careful and proud to have money in her pocket and finally knowing how it feels to be grown up, Hetty does everything just the way Mama and Papa would do; well, almost…

This might top the list of favorites. It is a wonderful story of family love and messing up and forgiveness. And E.B. Lewis’ soft watercolor illustrations fit the words perfectly!

(Spoiler Alert: Hetty does indeed drop the eggs. Every school age child from kindergarten to 5th grade identifies with this. They are hushed when they see Hetty hiding in the tree and Papa striding down the road to look for her. 6th through 8th graders probably like it too, but they are too cool to let on… So, I’m going out on a limb here and say All Ages…)

The Lion and the Little Red BirdThe Lion and the Little Red Bird by Elise Kleven.

Elise Kleven’s artwork sings out joyously; the art in her other books is spectacular too, but this particular book stands out because of the story as well. It’s about art — creating it and sharing it — and the happiness that brings.

The Lion’s tail is a different color every day and the little bird wonders why. When she asks him, all he can hear is her cheerful song. They accompany each other throughout the day, enjoying one another’s company, but not really communicating. (Inter-species difficulties, you know!)

Elisa Kleven's artA nighttime rainstorm and rescue brings the little bird into the lion’s cave where she discovers that he paints all night what he has seen that day. (There is a slight guessing game here that your young one will be so proud to figure out.) And this amazing book is perfect for getting on your own creativity — get out the paints and go wild with color with your child. Ages 3-8

Blueberries for Sal

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

If there is a McCloskey book on most people’s lists, it is usually Make Way for Ducklings. And although I love that book too, this one stole my heart when I read it (over and over) to my own children. Little Sal and her mother and Little Bear and his mother go to Blueberry Hill one pleasant summer afternoon to stock up on blueberries. They get all mixed up, and the word play, and the illustrations could not possibly be any better. blueberriesIf you ask me, this one should have won the Caldecott Award. One of McCloskey’s best drawings is the picture of Mother Bear looking at Little Sal in horror as they realize they are with the wrong parent/wrong child. Have some blueberry muffins handy to eat while reading this gem. Ages 4-8

Sneaky SheepSneaky Sheep by Chris Monroe.

Every time I read this, kids begged to check it out.  I think they wanted to pore over the clever  illustrations, but honestly, they could never outgrow the lesson here. In fact, if the adult reader doesn’t point it out, they might not even know why they love it so much. (Adults know better than children that we all need unconditional love.)

Blossom and Rocky are two sheep who aren’t known for their wise decisions in the past. In fact, they’ve made some pretty poor choices (very humorously illustrated!). Murphy, the sheep dog who watches over them, knows this and keeps a watchful eye on the pair.

But one day Murphy is busy helping a lamb and the two black sheep make a run for it. They really haven’t even gotten close to their destination of the high clover field on the mountain when they stop for a rest and meet THE WOLF.

There is not a word about Jesus or God in this picture book — but it’s not a stretch to move from this story into the Biblical story of Jesus as the shepherd who watches over us and cares for us all, no matter how we behave… And the kids hardly know they’ve gotten a lesson! Ages 5-9

Extra YarnExtra Yarn by Mac Barnett; illustrations by Jon Klassen.

This is an understated book and I confess that I had to read it twice before I fell in love. And now, each time I read it, I find more to love about it.  It’s another one of those “lesson” books that kids won’t get until you start a discussion about it.

The town where Annabelle lives is grey and cold, and so are the people. Until one day she finds a box of multi-colored yarn and begins to knit. She knits colorful sweaters for herself and her dog, then for her friend and his dog. The sweaters cause a stir, and soon everyone wants one. Somehow the box of yarn never empties…

UNTIL the evil archduke comes to town and offers to buy the magical box of yarn for one million, two million, ten million dollars. But Annabelle won’t sell.

No? She won’t sell? Then he will steal it. This is a parable of joy, of kindness, of goodness, of whatever it is that can’t be bought, sold, or stolen, but can only be given away. Look at the illustrations carefully. They are (almost) as good as the story. Ages 5-9

City Dog, Country Frog

City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems; illustrated by Jon J. Muth.

Mo Willems is another perennial favorite author to Best Picture Book Lists, but generally the book listed is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Okay, so I’ll give you that it’s cute, but best picture book? No. This one is a thousand times better!

Unlikely friends always make for good stories! There are several other books on this list with that theme. But this particular story is so good because there are So Many Big Themes in this one short picture book. Willems is a master at saying much in few words. And the illustrations! Look at this one of Dog and  Frog playing together:

Dog and frogEvery season, Dog escapes into the county and runs off to find his friend. But dogs live longer than frogs do, and one winter Frog is gone. It is a moving story of friendship, loss, grief, and recovery — in less than 350 words. (Note: I’ve read several reviews of this book from parents who didn’t like it because it was about death. But I don’t know of a single child who hasn’t lost a pet, a grandparent, or a friend. Death must be part of our conversations with our children.) All ages

The Three QuestionsThe Three Questions by Jon J. Muth

There are two books by Jon J. Muth on this list, so I might as well put them next to each other. The Three Questions is adapted from a famous short story by Leo Tolstoy, and Tolstoy fans will find nods to his life and culture in the names of the characters in the book. The boy has three questions that he puts to his friends, a monkey, a bird, and a dog. They answer as their kind would answer — the boy knows they are trying to be helpful, but he also knows they aren’t the true answers. So he goes off to find the wise old Turtle (Leo), who helps him discover for himself, the truth.

Muth takes hard thoughts, and puts them together so a child can understand them. There is much to talk about in this book… Ages 6-11

So get to your favorite library and check these out — there’s one to read for every day… Stay tuned for seven more next week…

21. Apple Picking Time

No, it’s not time to hire any laborers yet, but the two old trees in our side yard have picture perfect apples on them for a couple of old codgers (not us, the trees…). They are so close together that the red and the green apples mingle for a wonderfully random effect.

The most beautiful apples are always high above our heads. We got out the ladders!

They’re small, and a few have scabs, but there are surprisingly few worms! We can eat them whole (not the worms!) –always the sign of a good apple! Neighbor Betty reminded us that there are two other trees on the wild part of our property line (near Our neighbors, the cows) so we have to check them out this coming weekend. I’m hoping they are Macs–my all time favorite apple. Here is our harvest–not quite enough for a bushel basket, but there are still plenty of apples on the trees.

There are also four pears in here somewhere…

We are not the only ones who love these apples–you saw the deer a few posts ago–this week I finally got a photo of Gus, our elusive groundhog. He’s so deliriously happy while eating these apples that he forgets to run away when I get out my camera. He eats one under the trees, then picks one up and takes it down into the woods. For lunch? For a mate?

Gus eating an apple. This is the fifth shot–each time I got progressively closer and he (she?) was oblivious…

This behavior prompted much discussion, and we’ve decided that perhaps this critter’s name should really be Gusella (Gusette?), as we think her husband met an untimely demise. (Score Michael 1, Gus 0) Michael insists it was deserved because Gus was digging around the basement doors where the tractor is stored. We don’t want any groundhogs taking off on the tractor. I wish I could draw; I have this wonderful picture in my head of the groundhog driving off into the sunset on the tractor waving good-bye to Michael. At least we are taking care of his widow…

And this gentleman showed up again:

I took four shots of him, but this one is the best. I only had my IPhone camera with me on the porch and this is as zoomed as it gets. (After the fox appeared, we set up a tripod on the porch with Michael’s nice camera on it.) Before he got to the sunlight, he took a left into the woods. Mr. Fox was not interested in the apples; Michael had just mowed, and I think that’s what brought him into the field.

After we picked apples, work on the cottage was slow. Michael has finished putting up the light boxes in the attic, and we are almost ready to order the ceiling wainscot boards. In the meantime…

we’re trying to savor these last days of summer…You do the same!

Favorite Apple-icious books:
Down the Road by Alice Schertle

Apple Picking Time by Michelle Slawson

The Apple Pie Tree by Zoe Hall

The Apple King by Francesca Bosca

The Apple Doll by Elise Kleven

How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman

Johnny Appleseed by Reeve Lindbergh

The Sign Painter’s Dream by Roger Roth

20. Oh Henry…or, Never a Dull Moment

As I was throwing the shovelful of dead mouse into the weeds at the side of the cottage, I heard neighbor Betty calling from her front porch. We had left her in charge of a healing kitty, and we had gone off jaunting around the countryside. We’d been gone for ten days and didn’t really expect to find Kitty waiting for us on the front porch (or the back porch either…)
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I leaned the shovel against the tree and walked across the road to get the news. There was kitty on his blanket behind her chair; and there was Betty saying “Oh come in — Have I got a story for you!” (Names have been deleted to protect the innocent…)

Chapter 1: The Disappearing Act, in which Good Neighbor to the Left Responds

Kitty stayed around for two days before disappearing. The night before he disappeared, there was a huge ruckus in the backyard — coyotes have been sighted in our neighborhood by several neighbors. Positive that Kitty had been carried off by a coyote, she worried all day and finally, that evening called the neighbor further up the hill. “Now you just calm down, Betty,” Good Neighbor to the Left told her. “They’ve been haying up here all day, and I’ve seen that cat up here following the tractor and catching mice. And besides, I’ve been shooting at those coyotes, and I think they’ve moved on.” Sure enough, he came back a day or so later (not very hungry and not much worse for the wear).

Chapter 2: The Disappearing Act, in which Good Neighbor to the Right Responds

Kitty stayed around for two days before disappearing again. This time there were no clues. On Sunday, Betty told Good Neighbor to the Right about Kitty’s Disappearance. Good Neighbor to the Right went to work as usual the next day. That morning her co-worker came in to work complaining about the five cats on her doorstep who wanted feeding — a mother cat, three kittens, and Henry. “What does Henry look like?” Good Neighbor to the Right wondered. After she listened to the co-worker describe Kitty, she called Betty. “You can probably go get him right now,” she told Betty. They just fed him and he’s likely still on the porch.

Chapter 3 : The Rescue, in which the Poor, Hungry, Homeless Cat is Saved from Certain Starvation

Betty drove over to get Kitty (down two roads, across the main highway, and about two miles away) and talked to the people who had just fed him. “Oh yes,” they said. “We call him Henry. We’ve been feeding him for about a year and a half, but he never stays around very long.” Henry was stretched out on their porch, being his own loving self. Betty told them about his latest adventure at the animal hospital, packed him in the car, and drove him home. “Henry is his name,” she mused to herself. “I always just called him Kitty…”

(Yes, so did we … as well as Phineas, Elmo, George, and Moe. It’s no wonder none of those names stuck!)

“Before a cat will condescend / To treat you as a trusted friend, / Some little token of esteem / Is needed, like a dish of cream; / … A Cat’s entitled to expect / These evidences of respect. / And so in time you reach your aim, / And finally call him by his NAME.” —T.S. Eliot (from The Ad-Dressing of Cats)
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Chapter 4 : The Disappearance, in which Henry’s Fourth Home is Never Discovered

Yes, he left again. There were no more neighbors to call, so Betty just waited. And sure enough, he came back on Friday morning, the day we came home. Sitting together on her front porch, we wondered where he had been this time. Perhaps somewhere in between our houses and the house two miles down the road? Was it his fourth home? Did he just go from house to house, sharing his love, and acting the part of the starved, homeless cat? Henry isn’t telling.

The cat goes out, / the cat comes in, / and never will tell us / where he has been… *

Chapter 5 : The Trip, in which Henry Rides to the City in a Truck

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On Sunday evening we loaded the truck, as we do every weekend–suitcases, food, tools–while Henry watched. We had already conferred with Betty, and she approved. The people who named him and fed him for a year and a half have also approved. (Next weekend, I think we will go introduce ourselves.) I climbed into the truck, put his blanket on my knees, and Michael handed me Henry. He was solidly in my lap, with the door shut, before Michael started the engine. The lap cat watched out the window with interest, especially as we rode along the interstate. He did curl up a few times but never fully relaxed. The two tunnels caused him the most distress. I’m not sure who was most relieved when we pulled into our city driveway–Michael the driver, Carol the wrangler, or Henry, the big-time traveler cat.

Chapter Six: The New Life, in which Henry Becomes a City Cat

There aren’t any mice to chase, but there aren’t any coyotes in the backyard either. The first two days he followed us from room to room, but now he disappears and when we go searching, he is just sleeping on the couch in the library. There is always food in his bowl, and he no longer devours it as if he were starving. He’s putting on a belly. He sleeps on his blanket at the foot of the bed and snores. The real test will be when we return to Apple Hill this weekend. Then we will see if Henry the Traveling Cat has really been domesticated, and if one home will be enough for a former four-family feline.

They are my willing slaves : / I have them by the fur. / When He’s off duty, I / just call for Her. / And yet, I sometimes feel / A vague unease. / It is dangerous to dwell / with such as These. — Jan Struther from “Cat”.

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Henry the city cat

*This is a verse of a little poem that I’m thinking belongs to someone who wrote small poems for kids, but I can’t find it in any of my poetry books. I was thinking David McCord, or Valerie Worth… but I can’t find it. I’m picturing pen and ink drawings that go with the poem…Does anyone know it?

Favorite Cat Books:


Three Stories you Can Read to Your Cat
by Sara Swan Miller

Catwings series by Ursula K. LeGuin

Henry the Sailor Cat by Mary Calhoun

Mr. Putter and Tabby Bake the Cake by Cynthia Rylant

The Cats in Krasinsky Square by Karen Hesse

Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag

Socks by Beverly Cleary

Three Terrible Trins by Dick King-Smith, and of course,

                    Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.