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Great Books for Family Literacy Day (or "Why I Censor Our Bedtime Reading")

Because family literacy is not just for the kids.

Family Literacy Day is a national awareness initiative created by ABC Life Literacy Canada in 1999 and held annually on January 27 to raise awareness of the importance of reading and engaging in other literacy-related activities as a family. For more information about Family Literacy Day and related events, check out the website here


"I don't believe in censorship, but" is not a promising start to anything, I know, but I hope you will bear with me. I practice censorship with our family's bedtime reading not for reasons concerning books that raise difficult questions, issues of morality, or hints of darkness (and in fact, these are usually the kind of books I love best), but because I want to enjoy our family's story time just as much as my children do, and because, as one of the two members of our family with the skills to read aloud, I reserve the right to refuse to read any book I don't like. Or at least the right not to read it more than once...

Because reading together should be good for everyone. And because a parent or caregiver who genuinely loves the books she is reading is going to do a far more convincing job of both conveying the pleasures of literacy, and making reading together a priority. 

So aren't we fortunate then that there are so many great Canadian picture books that I love as much as my children do? At our house, the need for Mother-censorship rarely arises. The following are books that all of us love, books that make our story-times such pleasure, books that we don't even actually read anymore because we each of us know them by heart.

These are books that I will never outgrow and I hope my children never do either.

Mabel Murple

Mabel Murple by Sheree Fitch and Sydney Smith: It seems impossible to pick just one Sheree Fitch book, but if I have to, it will be this one, the story of a purple planet with purple people on it, in particular a purple girl whose name rhymes with purple. Mabel Murple is fearless, spirited, and a brilliant antidote to the tyranny of pink. This book is a fantastic, tongue-twisting, read-aloud fun (and will introduce you to the wonders of purple maple syrple and Mabel Murple's super-duper purple stew). 

Night Cars

Night Cars by Teddy Jam and Eric Beddows: My husband and I have been reading this book to our daughter since before she was born, and when she was very small, our party trick was having her finish the lines of verse that she's heard so many times: "Slow snow falling deep. Cars dogs baby sleep." She's not a baby anymore, but we still love to read the book aloud together, the familiar lines a lullaby. A wonderful ode to nighttime, Dads, and the never-sleeping city street. 

Book Cover Singing Away the Dark

Singing Away the Dark by Caroline Woodward and Julie Morstad: I will be honest—I think I love this book more than my daughter does. She remains confused as to why the little girl (aged six) must walk through the woods alone to get to the school bus in the morning (although our own urban winter treks to school can be just as trudging). But I love this book's rhyming verse whose rhythm evokes each one of our heroine's steps, and there have been times in which I've thought of that little girl's strength when in need of some courage of my own, and then remembered how to be brave. 

Book Cover Beneath the Bridge

Beneath the Bridge by Hazel Hutchins and Ruth Ohi: Can you tell we've got a thing for rhyming verse? But then rhyming verse was what reading aloud was born for. Our copy of Beneath the Bridge has fallen apart, literally read to pieces, but we keep on reading it anyway. It's the story of a paper boat set to sail in a stream and then it moves on and on to where the river grows bigger and the city grows up taller on the shore, until finally it's heading out to sea. It's a great book about geography and ecology, simply a rollicking adventure story, and we love exploring its detailed illustrations. 

Book Cover The Party

The Party by Barbara Reid: Picking just one Barbara Reid is also tricky, but I'm going with this one because the rhyming verse never misses a beat and because its story of cousins, devilled eggs, and grandparent birthday parties reminds me of when I was little. And my daughter loves it because there is so much action, somehow so perfectly captured in Reid's plasticine art. A story of nostalgia that will never get tired. 

Book Cover Little You

Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett: This book is new to us, and was specially chosen from 49th Shelf's Bookseller recommendations in December. It's a board book from the perspective of new parents welcoming a baby to their family, though the wonder of watching your little one grow goes on long after baby-dom, of course, so I think we'll keep this book around, even once my baby stops chewing on it. I especially love the detail in Julie Flett's deceptively simple illustrations, in particular the big toe sticking out of Baby's Mama's bright red tights, which is kind of the story of my life. 

Book Cover WHen I Was Small

When I Was Small by Sara O'Leary and Julie Morstad: And how do you pick just one Henry book? Well, I pick them all, but let's settle on the most recent one. In this one, Henry's mother finally gets a turn to tell her own story, recounting her own childhood ("when I was small…") when she lived in a dollhouse, slept in a mitten, and wore a daisy for a sun-hat. Henry is the one who, when he was small, his parents gave baths to in a teapot. But he doesn't quite remember. I love these stories for their cleverness, lovely illustrations and what they tell us about stories and the mutability of our own histories. 

Book Cover A Flock of Shoes

A Flock of Shoes by Sarah Tsiang and Qin Leng: A book about shoes and postcards—does it get any better than this? It's a book also about how difficult is change and growth, but about how both these things are part of a cycle. It's autumn and Abby refuses to give up her sandals, with their perfect fit and reminder of summer, and then one day her sandals fly away, south, the way the birds go. They send her postcards from the tropical locales where they are resting for the winter. Will they return in the springtime? And what of the winter boots hitching a ride on a freight train bound for the north? A satisfying, magical tale. 

Book Cover Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen: This Caldecott Honor book is Canadian because Jon Klassen is—he won the Governor General's Award for Illustration in 2010 with Cat's Night Out. It's the perfect mix of traditional and modern—there is yarn-bombing and an evil archduke. It's the story of a little girl called Annabelle who finds a mysterious box of yarn that never empties. With all her extra yarn, Annabel transforms her dreary little town with colourful knitted creations (because who says that pick-up trucks don't deserve sweaters too?), though when that evil archduke sets his sights on her magic box, it seems like Annabelle's happy ending might be threatened. But it turns out that it isn't.

Book Cover Night Sky Wheel Ride

Night Sky Wheel Ride by Sheree Fitch and Yayo: All right, so it is impossible to pick just one Sheree Fitch book. The very best part of reading aloud this second pick is the feel of making your mouth say, "Can you hear the mermaids murmur/ beluga whales sing/ feel the whirling stir/ of every little humming phosphorescent thing?” This is the story of a brother and sister's visit to a carnival, the excitement and frenzy of the action, and the marvellousness of the whole wide world which comes alive with Fitch's magical words and Yayo's dream-like illustrations. 


As testament to the wondrous effects of reading Sheree Fitch aloud, I bring you this video of my daughter, Harriet, the day she met Sheree Fitch at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival last September. Thanks to Jo Ellen Bogart for capturing the moment. 



What picture books will you never get tired of reading? 

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