Begin with the basics

Picture Books That Won't Drive Parents Insane

by Deborah Markus, from Secular Homeschooling, Issue #9, November/December 2009

I was leaving the house of a friend one afternoon, and had to stop and look at the stack of library books on the table by the door. One was a picture book I remembered enjoying reading to my son when he was the age her youngest daughter is now. I mentioned this to my friend, who sighed and explained that she was out of practice when it came to picking out reading material for the very young. "And of course, if she likes a book, we have to read it over and over and over, so I have to be careful to find stuff that isn't going to drive me completely insane even after the tenth time through," she added.

Up until a child reaches the age of five or so, homeschooling is the simplest it will ever be. (Not always easy, but simple.) No matter what your educational philosophy may be, the "to do" list is short and to the point. You explore whatever outdoors you have — taking nature walks, learning numbers by looking at addresses painted on the curb, sifting sand at the park or on the beach. You do a lot of scooping and measuring and stirring in the kitchen. You listen to music and maybe start making a little of your own. You play Candy Land and, on desperate days, learn to stack the deck in your child's favor. ("Oh, gosh, look! I have to go all the way back to Plumpy!") And you read stories together. A lot.

Some homeschoolers teach their children to read by reading to them, either deliberately or by some mysterious process of osmosis. Some use story time to teach their children by reading informative nonfiction works. Some simply think that reading together is a lovely time to have, and that "teaching" closeness and the idea that books are wonderful things is all the education a storybook session requires. And some of us fall into "all of the above" territory.

I love reading aloud. I throw myself into it, and give all the characters different voices. My son is now of an age where the books I read out loud have actual page and chapter numbers, so in terms of making sure I don't fall screaming out of my proverbial tree with boredom, life is a little simpler now. We read classics, books from my own childhood, and titles I read reviews of or hear about from friends. The books are thick and they last a while.

It was tougher to find enough good books to keep us going when he was really little. Even the meatiest picture books don't take more than a few minutes apiece to get through. That can add up to quite a stack to lug home from the library.

If you don't already know the big names in the realm of picture books, you can get them easily from your children's librarian — some libraries have printed lists of great books and authors for various ages. I won't waste your time with reviews of Dr. Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown. Here instead are some titles that are absolutely wonderful but aren't as well-known as they deserve to be. I can't guarantee that you'll love all of them. But for what it's worth, they're all books that I've read dozens or even hundreds of times, and I was still glad to reread them for the sake of writing this article. And I'm — well, I'm no crazier than the next homeschooler, anyway.

The Seven Silly Eaters, by Mary Ann Hoberman; illustrated by Marla Frazee.

In this funny, loving romp of a story, Mrs. Peters, our main character, makes a rookie mistake with her first baby. She decides that it's just adorable when her son, Peter Peters, won't drink his milk unless it's exactly the right temperature.

Her next baby, Lucy, can't stand milk of any temperature. "She bellowed for pink lemonade/Not from a can...Oh, no...Homemade." (The book is written entirely in skillful rhyme.) And so Mrs. Peters is now doubly busy: heating milk, cleaning up puddles of the stuff that weren't just right, and squeezing lemon after lemon.

Mrs. Peters remains a patsy for child after child. The illustrations are storytellers in their own right: the rough-hewn cottage Mr. and Mrs. Peters have built by hand for their new family looks reasonably orderly when the story starts, and Mama Peters is shown playing the cello to her darling first baby and even reading a magazine while sipping pink lemonade with her second. Things start to deteriorate after Jack (homemade applesauce) and Mac (oatmeal with no lumps, or it gets dumped on the cat) join the household. By the time Mary Lou, who will eat only "soft and squishy homemade bread," arrives on the scene, Mrs. Peters is never shown doing anything but preparing food, and the house is looking seriously disheveled. The last straw is the birth of identical twins, Flo and Fran, who love eggs — so long as Flo's are poached and Fran's are fried.

At this point, Mrs. Peters loses it. Which is part of why I love this book so much — Mrs. Peters makes innocent, well-meaning mistakes and feels fed up at times, her kids aren't perfect (or evil, to give them proper credit), and her house isn't a paradise of order. I wish she'd played more of an active part in the happy ending, but it's nice to see the kids who have enjoyed her hard work for so long finally giving something back — and taking over all the cooking and a lot of the cleaning by the end of the book. And Mama has time to play the cello again.

Tumble Tower, by Anne Tyler; illustrated by Mitra Modarressi.

Princess Molly lives with her royal family in a beautiful golden palace on an island in the middle of a lake. She's the only one who isn't perfectly organized and tidy — in fact, her room is a disaster. At least it seems that way until a real disaster strikes, and her mother, father, and "perfect" brother Clement have to take refuge in Molly's tower room while they wait out a flood. Sheltering in a room full of heaps of clothes of all sizes, food tucked away in odd corners, and a family of kittens whose mother felt safest giving birth there because she knew she wouldn't be disturbed by any pesky clearing-up, the royal family learns that being messy isn't so bad, and can even have its advantages.

This cozy, soothing story is an amusing way to gain a bit of perspective on days when the difficulties of keeping a homeschooling home clean and orderly weigh on even the most free-spirited among us.

Pete's a Pizza, written and illustrated by William Steig.

Pete's father notices that Pete is unhappy because it's raining and he can't go out and play. "He thinks it might cheer Pete up to be made into a pizza," Steig goes on matter-of-factly. (I love that no explanation of this very silly idea is offered or needed.) Pete gets into the spirit of things, solemnly closing his eyes and allowing himself to be laid out on the kitchen table by his father, the pizza-maker. As dough, Pete is kneaded and stretched and tossed about. Checkers play the part of tomatoes, and little pieces of paper are the cheese. When asked to voice a preference as to whether or not he'd like to be topped with pepperoni, "Pete can't answer because he's only some dough and stuff." Even if you've never ventured to make your own pizza from scratch, this book might tempt you to try. At the very least, you'll certainly have to make your offspring into the savory treat. Warning: don't read this book hungry.

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza), by Philemon Sturges; illustrated by Amy Walrod.

Speaking of pizza, this retelling of the folk tale has a much happier ending than the traditional sharply moralistic one. True, the little red hen does all the work of making the pizza herself; but every good cook knows that cooking dinner is only the beginning of the night's work. Fun and food are shared, and no one is left out. As good as the writing is, the illustrations are what make this book a gem.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses, written and illustrated by Jane Ray.

And speaking of retellings, Jane Ray's is the one to get of this particular fairy tale. The illustrations are so gorgeous, playful, and magical that children of all ages (and both genders) will be drawn to them. (My son, Lego Lad, requests this on a regular basis.) The story is the classic one, with a few key differences and a lot of beautiful visuals. The soldier who solves the mystery is attractively tough — he sports an eye patch and uses a cool black walking stick — as well as intelligent. And when he is offered a choice of one of the princesses to marry, he's already smitten with the eldest. None of the traditional nonsense of choosing the youngest, who must by virtue of her youth be most attractive. Seeing that her suitor is "kind as well as clever," the princess accepts his hand. Once she's queen, this eldest sister decrees that she and her sisters should go dancing as often as late into the night as they care to. Hooray for active happy endings, and marriage portrayed as the beginning (rather than the end) of adventure and fun!

Falling for Rapunzel, by Leah Wilcox; illustrated by Lydia Monks.

And speaking of cultural literacy: if you haven't already read your child the story of Rapunzel, grab a copy and do so. And then be sure to have Falling for Rapunzel on hand to cheer both of you up afterwards.

This Rapunzel is suffering from nothing worse than a bad hair day. She isn't imprisoned in her tower (which has a computer, a portable phone, and plenty of animal friends). The prince should have taken a clue from the fact that, not too far in the distance, cars and modern buildings can be seen. But he can't get past the idea that a lady in a tower must be waiting to be rescued. This never occurs to Rapunzel, who can't understand what on earth he's shouting about down there. Throw down your hair? "She thought he said, ‘Your underwear,'" and the prince and his horse find themselves the target of bloomers and (very innocent-looking) underpants. Rapunzel just can't hear what's being called up at her, and it's good giggly fun to try to guess what she'll toss down on being asked for curly locks, silky tresses, rope, and a ladder. The prince ends up riding contentedly away with Rapunzel's maid, thrown out in response to a request for her braid. My favorite line is: "His young heart thrilled, he gave a hoot,/for what was more, the maid was cute!" Modern readers will be glad to see a working-class brunette riding off toward a life of ease and marital happiness. Rapunzel isn't the least bit put out by this ending; she only hopes that if the two ever need anything from her in the future, they'll think to knock on the door.

9 Magic Wishes, by Shirley Jackson; illustrated by Miles Hyman.

The author whose adult work (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House) has terrified so many readers also wrote for children. There's nothing frightening in this lovely story of magic come true, and no heavy-handed message about how wishes always go wrong somehow so we should all be content with what we already have. Instead, a child is offered nine wishes and makes delightful use of them. The story may only take five minutes to read, but it should inspire some enjoyable conversation. What does your child think of the wishes made, none of which involves wealth or power? What would he or she choose, were the wishes brought to your home? And how do you like the story's ending?

This edition features illustrations by Miles Hyman, the grandson Jackson didn't live long enough to meet.

Famous Sally, by Shirley Jackson; illustrated by Chas. B. Slackman.

This out-of-print picture book is so little-known that Jackson's biographer didn't even mention it. Which is odd, since one of Jackson's daughters was named Sally.

The Sally of the title is disappointed because "no one in the world" has ever heard of her. "I wish everyone knew my name," Sally says. "I wish I could hear everyone saying Sally Sally Sally."

This may sound a little creepy in the age of reality television and Googling oneself, but Sally's journeys to Tall City, Small City, and other places are refreshingly unselfconscious. Yes, Sally puts her name out there — literally — but she does so by finding something that will please the residents of each city, and offering it to them. She's creative and resourceful and makes her own adventures rather than waiting for them to happen to her.

Five Minutes' Peace, written and illustrated by Jill Murphy

Like The Seven Silly Eaters, this very funny book makes the point that primary caretaking parents need a little time to themselves to relax and refuel, without presenting parent-child relations as a generational war. I love the description of what Mrs. Large (matriarch of an anthropomorphized elephant family) brings with her to the bathroom before trying to grab a quick, blissful bath all by herself:

"Mrs. Large took a tray from the cupboard. She set it with a teapot, a milk jug, her favorite cup and saucer, a plate of marmalade toast and a leftover cake from yesterday. She stuffed the morning paper into her pocket and sneaked off toward the door."

Any parent could predict just how successful that venture will be in a house with three children. But how Mrs. Large ends up winning three minutes and forty-five seconds of peace for herself is howlingly funny. This is one of those stories that grows with the reader, becoming ever more entertaining as the years pass.

Peace At Last, written and illustrated by Jill Murphy

A sound-effects story for those who may be tiring of Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? Mr. Bear is desperate for a good night's sleep, but everywhere he goes is full of noise. My son's favorite part is when poor Mr. Bear attempts to sleep in the car:

He was just falling asleep when all the birds started to sing and the sun peeped in at the window.

"TWEET TWEET!" went the birds.

SHINE, SHINE went the sun.

The idea of a loudly shining sun is hilarious in our house. Check it out and see if it is in yours, too.

"Hi, Pizza Man!" by Virginia Walter; illustrated by Ponder Goembel

Another sound-effects book, this one founded on the premise that we shouldn't make assumptions. Vivian finds it hard to wait for the pizza that's been ordered for her family's dinner. Her mother distracts her by asking what she'll say when the pizza arrives. The title, of course; but what if the pizza isn't delivered by a man? What if it's a woman? Or a cat? Or a dog? Or a dinosaur? Good silly fun, but don't read this one right before bed — between all the talk about pizza and all the meowing and barking and roaring, this won't settle anyone down for a peaceful night's rest.

No Nap, by Eve Bunting; illustrated by Susan Meddaugh

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a small child must be in need of a nap. That the child being offered this blissful rest often has nothing but scorn for the idea of sleep as an organized sport is a matter of some bitterness among the parental set.

Susie's father is desperate for Susie to take the nap he promised Susie's mother would be on the schedule. He tries everything to wear her out: a long walk, dancing, exercise. Susie watches him with frank interest and no apparent weariness at all. I love the titles of the books he reads her: Lullaby Land, Naps are Nice, The Tired Little Girl, Goodnight Gus. None of them work, of course, though in the end Dad manages to get some well-earned rest.

The "George and Martha" books, written and illustrated by James Marshall

Marshall wrote several storybook collections recounting the adventures of these two hippo friends. These picture books are divided into story "chapters." Once you read one you'll want them all, but George and Martha One Fine Day is possibly my favorite, at least so far as practical advice is concerned. In "The Tightrope," George learns that the most discouraging thing you can do is tell someone that what they're doing at the moment is really very difficult — and he cleverly undoes his own mistake. In "The Big Scare," Martha demonstrates that sometimes the best revenge is — doing nothing at all. The relationship between the two title characters is a lively give-and-take; there is teasing and practical joking, but each knows that the other will always be there when it counts. This is friendship at its funniest, making real points about love and loyalty without ever dipping into mawkishness.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!
Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!
The Pigeon Wants a Puppy!

Written and illustrated by Mo Willems

I've saved the best for last. You must read these books, no matter how old you or your children are. I'm sorry, but I insist. Okay, I beg.

Mo Willems has done the impossible: he wrote one absolutely brilliant, hilarious, still-funny-after-the-hundredth-reading picture book, and then followed it up with several more that have the same character and work around the same premise and are just as funny and fresh as the first book in the series. The pigeon is Everychild; he wants what he wants with a passion, is completely unswayed by the idea that his wishes aren't exactly reasonable, and strives with every ounce of his ingenuity, humor, and powers of persuasion to achieve his goal. Maybe that's why the books are so much fun for every age of reader: parents have been on the receiving end of being begged to be allowed to do something as implausible as letting a pigeon drive a bus; children can sympathize with yearning for the impossible.

Yesterday at an indoor homeschooling gathering, I saw a mother and her small daughter in a large room with a variety of chairs scattered about. The mother chose one that looked comfortable, dragged it over to their corner, and sat down with a sigh of contentment. The daughter sat right next to her in a chair that didn't offer anything in the way of padding. The mother suggested that her daughter might want to go get another seat, but the daughter shook her head. After a moment, she looked up and in an "I just had a great idea!" tone of voice said, "Hey, Mommy — want to trade chairs?"

This is the kind of "subtlety" that the pigeon displays throughout the books. "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's play ‘Drive the Bus'! I'll go first!" he says in the first book. "I hear there's a good show about birds on TV tonight. Should be very educational," he offers as one of many, many arguments for staying up late in the third.

Please, please, please read these books. I'll be your best friend! Don't you want me to be happy? How ‘bout I give you five bucks? Whoops — sorry. Been reading about the pigeon a little too much. You should, too. And then we can have a hot dog party. And I'm not even going to tell you which book that's from, so you're just going to have to read them all.

Trust me — staying sane as the parent of a young homeschooler can be a lot of fun, if you've got just the right books stacked up on the couch or next to the bed.

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