FIRST BOOKS by Kathie Johnson
Reliable Authors of Picture Books
People often want advice on "reliable" authors—those who not only tell good stories, but also display good values. I'd like to share some personal favorites that also seem to be popular with many of the children who come to my library. In this column I'll feature just picture books. In future issues, I'll include books for older children.
As I've been pondering this subject, the authors that have repeatedly come to mind all seem to be author-illustrators (writers who illustrate their own books.) They also tend to be authors who tell a single story about a main character, as opposed to those who take a character through a series of books, although there are a few of the latter as well.
One author-illustrator I like is Don Freeman. His books were mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s. Many people will be familiar with Corduroy, a department-store teddy bear who wanders through the store at night hoping to find a button to replace the one he's lost.
But Freeman has written many more books, all charming. They mostly feature animal characters that act a bit like humans. There is Cyrano the Crow, featuring a crow that loves to imitate other birds. When the farmer where he lives gets a television set, he realizes that Cyrano has real talent. Cyrano is flown to New York to demonstrate all his birdcalls. He does them well, until he is asked to make a crow call, when he freezes. He eventually learns it is best to be himself.
Pet of the Met has mice at the opera house and might get children interested in The Magic Flute, while Norman the Doorman features a mouse who guards an entrance for mice at a great art museum. Inspector Peckit features a pigeon in Paris; another pigeon story, Fly High, Fly Low, is a wonderful introduction to San Francisco and a story of loyalty. Dandelion tells of a lion who is invited to a party, decides to get a fancy hair-do for the occasion, but then is not recognized by his friends.
There are many more. They all tell good stories, and have delightful, bright illustrations.
Another author I like is a present-day one from England—Shirley Hughes. She has done a number of simple books for the very young with titles like Bouncing (in which a young girl and her baby brother find opportunities throughout the day to bounce), Hiding, and Giving (which expands your understanding of that word).
For the slightly older child, perhaps my favorite is Dogger, or David and Dog in the American version. This book was so well liked by the wife of a former pastor of ours that she gave a copy to each child she knew when they were the right age (three or so). It tells the story of David, who has a beloved stuffed dog that he loses track of while eating ice cream, and the toy ends up in a rummage sale at the school fair. After a bad night, the whole family goes to the fair, where David sees his dog, but he doesn't have the money to buy it. His big sister, who has won a large teddy bear, trades it for the dog, so her brother can have his precious toy again.
Hughes has also written several stories about one character, a sometimes mischievous little boy named Alfie. Alfie Gets in First is typical. Alfie is out grocery shopping with his mother and baby sister. When they get home, Mother opens the door, puts the groceries inside, and goes back to get the baby. But then Alfie runs in and shuts the door, locking it with the keys on the inside. Several people from the neighborhood come to see if they can help. After some crying, and just as a ladder is being put up to a window, Alfie thinks of his own solution. He gets a chair and is able to reach up and open the lock. The wonderful illustrations show what is happening on both sides of the door.
The illustrations in all of Hughes's books are delightfully detailed and warm. There are many more stories, including some about Annie Rose and George the babysitter. All portray warm family relationships.
A third author-illustrator I'd recommend wrote books in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Peet's specialty is illustration. He began drawing as a young child, and as an adult he worked for Walt Disney during the "golden" period of animated movies. He worked on many of the great classics of the Walt Disney studio, including Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, and others.
In his many books, the pictures carry the stories, and their bright activity makes them seem almost animated. The stories themselves are ones Peet made up to tell his sons, and they often reflect his own growing-up years and interests, which included farm life, the circus, wild animals (and a dislike of hunters), and old vehicles.
Many of his stories have a fable-like quality, with a lesson learned. In The Gnats of Knotty Pine, for example, the forest animals meet on the day before hunting season starts to try to decide on a way to protect themselves. No solution seems right. A swarm of gnats comes, saying they have an idea, but the other animals don't want to hear about it. Nevertheless, when the hunters show up, the gnats attack them and drive them away. The other animals learn that even small beings can play an important role in a community.
Encore for Eleanor features a circus elephant who can no longer do her tricks and is taken to a zoo. She misses the applause and wants to be useful. But then she discovers that she can draw, and soon finds her new talent deeply satisfying. In Zella, Zack, and Zodiac, an ostrich on the African savannah hatches alone and in need of help and protection. A zebra takes pity and "adopts" the bird. When the ostrich is grown, he returns the favor by helping protect the zebra's new colt, who has been born with large, clumsy feet. In Pamela Camel, the title character runs away from the circus because she is made fun of for being so clumsy, but she then shows great courage in saving a train that is about to hit a broken rail in the track.
There are, of course, many more authors I might have chosen, but these three stand out for me. If you have favorites, let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org). Perhaps we can feature a variety of your favorites.
Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.