Family Literacy Day comes each year on January 27, a national initiative spearheaded by the non-profit ABC Life Literacy Canada to raise awareness of the importance of reading and engaging in other literacy-related activities as a family. And this year to mark the occasion, we're thinking about the picture books we've read to pieces, sometimes quite literally—see the photo above. The books we never tire of, the ones we've read a million times, from the time our kids were babies, and now they're reading alongside us. Although who are we kidding? Nobody's reading. All of us know these stories off by heart.
These are the books that my family has loved until their bindings broke. What are some of yours?
Extra Yarn, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
We love everything illustrated by Jon Klassen, from his Governor General's Award-winning Cat's Night Out (with Caroline Stutson) to his Caldecott-winning creation This is Not My Hat. But if pressed, I'd choose Extra Yarn as my favourite, because of its amazing subversive protagonist and her amazing year-bombing ways. It's about a little girl called Annabel who knits and knits, and, curiously, never runs out of yarn, until she's bedecked her dreary village in gorgeous colour and outsmarted an evil archduke. The ending is perfect.
The Princess and the Pony, by Kate Beaton
How could this book have just been published last summer? I feel like it's been a part of our lives forever. The binding is still holding on okay, but I'm not optimistic about the future. This is a not-so-ordinary book about a not-so-ordinary princess, a warrior princess (whose parents are a Viking and an Amazon, so it's in her blood). And all she wants for her birthday is a warrior's horse, instead of the cuddly sweaters she's accustomed to receiving, and while her parents try to satisfy her wishes, they don't get it quite right. Turns out that a roly-poly pony's more useful in battle than one might expect, however, and warriors can actually be pretty cuddly themselves—for a bunch of brutes.
Gifts, by Jo-Ellen Bogart and Barbara Reid
This year, Barbara Reid is Honorary Chair of Family Literacy Day, and really we could not go wrong in this list was populated only by her works—her books are beautiful and extraordinary. But I've chosen this one with Jo-Ellen Bogart's bouncy rhymes and a wonderful story about a grandmother who travels the world and brings back the most intangible things—a roar from a jungle king, the whirr of a hummingbird's wing, the secret wish of a flying fish and a rainbow to wear as a ring. It's a great book about growing up and getting old, and never stopping, and those things that connect us to each other in perpetuity.
Mabel Murple, by Sheree Fitch and Sydney Smith
In all our years of reading, we've never stopped wondering about Mabel, the purple girl, and her amazing purple world. "And if there was a purple girl, how purple would she be? Would she get in purple trouble? She would if she were me." And oh, the purple trouble to be had—skiing, skateboarding and motorbiking. When Mabel Murple's on the loose, people skedaddle, and she bounds through the world with a momentum as forceful as Fitch's rhyming text. When we get to the end of this story, we're always out of breath.
The Balloon Tree, by Phoebe Gilman
Phoebe Gilman and I go way back—I won a prize when I was six for reciting the entirety of Jillian Jiggs. But of all her books, my eldest daughter's favourite is The Balloon Tree. I think its chief appeal lies in the ultra-realism of Gilman's illustrations (her people look like people you know) in connection with the magic of the story. Also, as in Extra Yarn, there is an evil Archduke (is there any other kind of Archduke?) and he too gets his comeuppance. Justice is sweet.
Drumheller Dinosaur Dance, by Robert Heidbreder, Esperança Melo, and Bill Slavin
I discovered this book when 49th Shelf's resident children's librarian, Julie Booker, recommended it years ago, before she was even our resident children's librarian. "With the first 'Boomity-boom, Rattley-clack, Thumpity-thump, Whickety-whack,' you know you've got them," she writes, and it's so true. Dino skeletons on the Alberta badlands come back to life as a mean percussion section and have the kids rocking out until morning. It's impossible to sit still when you're reading this book, and it's one of the few picture books we own that contains the word, "transmogrify."
Beneath the Bridge, by Hazel Hutchins and Ruth Ohi
Our copy is literally in pieces as you can see, but we're still reading it. This story of a small paper boat's journey down a stream in the wide wide world is about the interconnectedness of things, environmental stewardship and cosms both micro and macro. Ruth Ohi's illustrations are so much fun to explore with their tiny perfect details, and give us so much to wonder about—for example, what's with the giant frog in the back of that car?
Night Cars, by Teddy Jam and Eric Beddows
We bought this book for our daughter before she was born, and we've read it so many times that the spine has snapped. It's a strange and magic lullaby, a ode to city life and all the amazing things that happen at night—garbage trucks, snow plows, taxis and fire trucks. Plus there is a dog, which is a basic inventory of all the things that kids love best. And kids' parents can certain relate to the story's basic premise: "Once there was a baby, who wouldn't go to sleep...."
Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
It was THE kidlit sensation of 2015, and most deserving of all the accolades. Although I admit that the first time I read it, I didn't get it entirely. It takes rereading upon rereading to really get a sense of all that's going on within this wordless picture book, which makes it as much an experience as a story. Wordless picture books are neat in that parent and child are on the same level as they explore it together—and it's likely that the younger one will point out essential details of the narrative first. Which is the point of the story entire. I love that Syrian refugee children arriving in Canada this year will each be receiving a copy of this beautiful book. What a welcome.
Melvis and Elvis, by Dennis Lee and Jeremy Tankard
Can you imagine trying to follow up Alligator Pie, the publishing sensation that invented Canadian children's literature? But Dennis Lee has done it, over and over again, with the amazing Garbage Delight (and we totally have to replace our copy), Jelly Belly, and now his latest, Melvis and Elvis. My children love, "Calling All Dinosaurs," about a missing triceratops and fervent efforts to locate him. They're also big on cheerily subversive "Stinkarama" (about having a friend who smells) and "Apologies to my Most Noble and Excellent Friend," which contains the line, "And pounding on your head all night/ Was fun. But very impolite."
Over in the Meadow, by Jan Thornhill
There is nothing so engaging as the picture book that is also a song, which makes Jan Thornhill's version of the traditional a literary pleasure. Not just because the song is fun to sing, with animal sounds, and a chance to practice numbers, but also because her collage illustrations compiled from everyday objects (the beaks on the ducklings on the book's cover, for example, are orange popsicles) and they're so fascinating to take a close look at. The end of the book contains a glossary of sorts with a pictorial list of everything Thornhill used for her collages, and it's fun to go back through the book and see where each object appears in the illustrations. Her baby owls made from fuzzy slippers are adorable.
Little You, by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett
Please forgive me for talking about this book again, but when my youngest daughter was smaller, it was the only book in the world she was interested in so I have read it so many times. It's a beautiful story, a celebration of new life and family bonds, and how mighty and important a small baby really is. Julie Flett's illustrations manage to be simple, but perfect and also exquisitely details—I'm still blown away by the hole in the mother's sock on the "let's all dance, let's all sing," page. Watch out for a new book from Flett, out this spring. Written by Monique Gray Smith, it's called My Heart Fills With Happiness.
And if you still can't get enough of children's literature, do pick up a copy of How the Heather Looks. First published in 1965, it's the story of one American family's trip to England to see the place where all their favourite stories come from. Bodger eventually settled in Toronto and became a prominent storyteller, and her skills are clearly on display here in this captivating memoir that will inspire you to make literature even more alive for your children, but also caution you (with Bodger's Afterword, in which she explains the shadows behind her story's sunny narrative) that there is no literary recipe for the perfect family life. But stories can certainly make it all quite magic.
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