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Recommended Children's Books

We recently bought Graham Base's The Water Hole for our young child. It is a beautifully illustrated book that teaches ecology, math, geography. The story centres around a water hole that shrinks as more animals arrive at it with each new page. At the same time the water hole moves continents with each new page. Around the perimeter of the page are a number of animal silhouettes and these animals are drawn again in the main page in camouflage.

The Water Hole also illustrates the principles of parallelism, small multiples and visual confection that are described in Visual Explanations.

Do you know this book, and if so what do you think of it? Are there other children's books by different authors that you might recommend?

-- Simon Shutter (email)

This should be a wonderful thread. Years ago I heard an excellent talk at the Yale Library by Gay Walker about children's books. She showed a great collection of slides--and I hope contributors to this thread will post illustrations or links to illustrations.

All I can suggest are the classic Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff. The illustration "Babar's Dream" is discussed in Visual Explanations, pp. 127-129.

-- Edward Tufte

I credit Doris Burn's Andrew Henry's Meadow for resting at the foundation of values (such as ambition and imagination) I'm just now starting to really appreciate in myself. Beautifully drawn in a style somewhat like (but predating) Bill Watterson's "Calvin & Hobbes." Exploring the details of Andrew's creation provides endless fun.

-- John Morse (email)

The Way Things Work by David Macaulay has been a coffee table staple at my house for sometime. It captures the interest of adults as well as children who visit. The Excellent imaginative illustrations, with well written explanations make for perfect exploration.

-- Jeffrey Berg (email)

Paddle to the Sea by Holling Clancey Holling was discussed in a previous thread, and it has a similar appeal to the books mentioned above- maps, mnemonics, diagrams and other displays cleverly integrated into the story. On that thread, I plugged the work of Peter Sis, who has recently started a series of books on his intellectual heroes, including Gallileo and Darwin. Never mind the author's ungainly website- the books are wonderfully dense with both informmation and ornament.

-- Matt Frost (email)

Growing up I could not put down three titles by Virginia Lee Burton: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little House, and Katy and the Big Snow. The illustrations are highly detailed; many readers of this forum may likely recall the superb map of Geopolis in "Katy". Even the endflaps and page margins are so detailed that child or adult can become consumed. Happily, these are now becoming favorites of my kids, too.

Also, our house has recently fallen in love with the three book "Henry" series by D.B. Johnson, in which Henry the bear lives out episodes in the life of Henry David Thoreau in a pseudo-cubist style. These have excellent layering of both storylines and artwork.

-- Mark Kasinskas (email)

My five year old and I are enjoying "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Book?" by Lauren Child.

It's the concept underlying the illustrations that intrigues rather than the illustrations themselves. The book appears to belong to the main character, Herb, whose name is written inside the front cover. He appears to have dropped food and drink on the pages, and to have doodled and stuck stickers on the illustrations. Early in the story Herb has the misfortune to fall into his own book and the rest of the story follows his attempts to get back into the real world. His exploits bring him into contact with characters in the book who confront him with the effects on their world of his previous sticking, scribbling and snipping. Eventually he escapes back to the real world and sets about repairing the book ... although he can't resist a final modification.

What I am interested in is that the book not only contains the story but also features in it as a physical object. In handling the book the reader is handling a physical object featured in the story. This goes someway to dissolving the barrier which the surface of the page usually presents. I'd be interested to hear of other examples where the book both 'carries' the story and 'acts' in it, for want of a better way of putting it.

My interest is two-fold. As well as reading to my own (sighted) five year old, I'm on a working party to improve books for blind children. In particular we're looking for better ways to engage them with books as physical objects, as a precursor to learning Braille. Blind pre-readers who love stories may nonetheless have no interest in books because of the difficulty of accessing illustrations, even in tactile form. So I'm wondering whether stories which incorporate the book itself may offer a way in...

Any thoughts or recommendations?


-- Frances Aldrich (email)

I'm not sure if Mr. Shutter's request favors picture books or more textual children's books. Nor am I sure whether it is the fine artwork or the clever puzzles within Base's book that resonates with Mr. Shutter's child.

Each of our 3 sons had a different preference, so all I can suggest is that Mr. Shutter get a wide variety. Even a single reading of a book that is then put aside is time and money better spent on a child than most other things. For picture books, Where's Waldo and the I Spy books captivated our middle son, our eldest liked the Robert McCloskey classics, and the youngest likes the Little Critter stories. All 3 love Berkley Breathed's Red Ranger from Mars, which is a Christmas tradition in our house.

When your child moves on to more textual books, my ultimate recommendation is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Many of the phrases he plays with are passing from common usage - even 40 years ago I had to ask my mother why "short shrift" was meaningful - but I can't recommend it highly enough. A second group of favorites are the Roald Dahl books and less macabre short stories. I would add Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang too as it was a wonderful book that was hideously Disneyfied by the dreadful movie. And lastly I recommend the two Winnie The Pooh books for some of the most gentle humor and wisdom your child could ever hope to discover.

Another suggestion - select a more challenging book or two to read out loud, a chapter or less a night. Something reasonably age and interest appropriate of course, but your children will remember it as one of their most precious experiences for their lifetimes. My father read Treasure Island, Kim, and Mistress Masham's Repose (one of T.H. White's lesser known but equally fun books). I did those for my sons along with The Call of the Wild, The Three Musketeers, and some others. The trouble is that by the time son #3 is ready to sit still and listen his older brothers want to play a game with me instead, so that's the way it goes!

-- Gordon Fuller (email)

Look no further than "Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is?" by Robert E. Wells. A brilliantly thought-out, visually clever guide to size. Beginning with a blue whale's flukes ("the 'flipper' parts of the tail, all by themselves bigger than most of Earth's creatures"), he compares the relative sizes of Mount Everest (20 giant jars filled with 100 blue whales each), the earth, the sun, the Milky Way, all the way to the entire universe.

But you may as well save yourself a second trip to the bookstore, and just buy them all at once:

Can You Count to a Googol?; What's Smaller Than a Pygmy Shrew?; How Do You Lift a Lion?; What's Faster Than a Speeding Cheetah?

-- Andy Aaron (email)

We read to our eleven month old every night "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, she loves the colors. I love and the progression of events and the soothing tone that the book takes as it reaches the end.

Our three and a half year old loves Winnie The Pooh, Dr. Suess and on long trips we read "Wind in the Willows" to her.*

The Dr. Suess "Fox in Socks" is one of her favorites.


-- Sean Gerety (email)

First, thanks to all who responded to my initial post. After some negotiation I have permission to reproduce an image from The Water Hole - the Amazon site doesn't do it justice and the author has no web site that I can find.

So, here is an annotated page from the book. If you click on the image you will retrieve a much better resolution (2494x1640 pixel, 640KB) image. If you browse with IE, you may have to click on a button to overcome the too-clever fit-to-window feature.

water hole

Finally, a few other books we have enjoyed recently are :

  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
  • Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
  • Daley B. by Jon Blake, Axel Scheffler
  • Sheep in Wolves' Clothing by Satoshi Kitamura

-- Simon Shutter (email)

In addition to the excellent books cited here (several of which I will be buying for my toddler; thank you all!) I would suggest some of Richard Scarry's books. What Do People Do All Day? was probably my favorite book for a long time. The big, detailed drawings reward repeated examination, and can spark new, imaginative stories in the mind of the young reader. Busy, Busy Town and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go may be equally rewarding.

-- Tom Hopper (email)

The two books that I remember with most pleasure from when my daughter was very young are "Anno's Counting Book" (Mitsumasa Anno), one of the most imaginative books for introducing children to numbers that I have ever seen, and "The Elephant and the Bad Baby" (Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs), an excellent book for reading out loud. Perhaps more relevant than either of these to the original question, I enjoyed "Microbes, Bugs and Wonder Drugs" (Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph) a lot as an introduction for children to ideas about what medicines do. However, to be honest, I had the impression that my daughter (then aged about 12) liked it less than I did (whereas the two I mentioned first she liked just as much as I did).

-- Athel Cornish-Bowden (email)

I would like to recommend the Billibonk books, by Philip Ramsey and available from Pegasus Communications. Billibonk and the Thorn Patch, and Billibonk and the Big Itch. They were written to teach children (and adults) about systems thinking. There are two pairs, each consisting of a story narrated by a wise mouse and an accompanying field book. If you are familiar with Senge's work and the Dance of Change, you get the idea. I have been sharing them among our staff as one of several ways to introduce the concept of systems thinking and encourage discussion. (I leave them on my desk, and an apparent child's book in an adult's office always attracts attention.) I think the books would also be useful as a point of discussion with teachers and school administrators, but really there is no limit to the applicability of the topic. I suppose the books are not so graphically dramatic as others suggested in this thread, but they treat an important subject in a clearly understandable way. Read them, and you will find yourself thinking in terms of causal loop diagrams and wondering seriously about long term feedback (if you aren't already completely preoccupied in this direction these days.) I wish I could afford to buy and send dozens of copies to a couple of addresses in D.C.

Graphic depiction of complex systems using causal loop diagrams and stocks and flows is not something I have encountered in Ask E.T. Anyone familiar with the work of Jay Forrester and John Sterman?


Steven Byers

-- Steven Byers (email)

My Many Colored Days by Dr. Suess provides and introduction to colors shapes and animals through imaginative paintings,however its real value is as a tool for communication. It is an excellent reference for communicating in emotions and feelings with the very young, which benefits parent and child for years to come.

-- Linda Eckmann (email)

The Miffy books by Dick Bruna are great. Superb minimal illustration and fantastic colour choices. Also, the author must keep a tight hold on his licensed products because they are all top quality. I read that he can spend days or weeks on a individual illustration, paring it down to the most basic forms.

Of note to this thread may be 'Miffy at the Gallery', which has some nice thoughts about art, and would a good read for some adults!

-- Adam Poole (email)

I'd like to recommend the Mad Scientist Club books by Bertrand Brinley. While they might be for a bit older child than what you were thinking of (say for a 9/10 year old), they are quite wonderful. The series involves a group of young boys that combine their interest in science with mischief and end up having a lot of fun. I have a feeling that they influenced a great deal of today's scientists and engineers. These books were long out of print, with beat up paperback copies selling for $100 or more on eBay. A company called Purple House Press recently started reprinting them, along with a number of other OOP children's books.

-- Kurt (email)

The books of Robert Sabuda are superb. The quality and attention to detail in his pop-up books is amazing. The book Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs and its sequel Sharks and Sea Monsters would be an excellent choice for children and adults alike - actual illustrations are in color.

Each double page of these books contain a main pop-up illustration and smaller pop-ups in the corners of the page.

-- Craig Pickering (email)

My wife (an excellent primary school teacher) introduced me to a book that seems to fit well with the general theme of the site as well as providing a worthwhile addition to this thread: 'The Violin Man' by Colin Thompson. It nicely introduces the world of dreams and symbolism through both text and excellent illustrations. I also feel it hints further to the thread "the blank page....." Roger Daventry

-- Roger Daventry (email)

My favorites include "Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present", a book illustrated by Maurice Sendak in an unusual (for him) watercolor technique. A gentle story of the meaning of gifts. I also adored "Mistress Masham's Repose", as well as "Charlotte's Web", for their girl heroes. "Andy and the Lion", with vigorous line drawings, "Blueberries for Sal", "Make Way for Ducklings", all rather dated illustrations, but with the greatest charm and timeless appeal in the stories.

I would like to suggest as well, "There Once was a Sky Full of Stars", written by Bob Crelin. This verse children's book describes the wonders of the night sky, and what everyone can do to stop light pollution. The star fields are accurately depicted, and the index in the back offers simple, vital lessons in ecology. Published by Sky & Telescope, and a portion of the sale goes to the Dark Sky Association.

-- Amie Ziner (email)

Let's not forget Alastair Reid's "Ounce, Dice, Trice," illustrated by Ben Shahn. Witty, often silly, at times mysterious; a great book for drawing kids into the wonderment of words. A nightly read at our house for many years.

Counting to ten: Ounce, Dice, Trice, Quartz, Quince, Sago, Serpent, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Denim.

-- Steve Sprague (email)

I would recommend the book 'The Magic Pudding' by Australian artist Norman Lindsay.

It was first published in 1918 and has not been out of print since. To me this is the best recommendation any book can get.

-- Andrew Nicholls (email)

My mother is a pre-school teacher, and I am an art teacher. This question is close to my heart. Reading the responses I am amazed that no one has recommended Leo Lionni's books, "Swimmy" and "A Color of His Own." These two books have great morals about individuality and acceptance. "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is another beautiful picture book. Eric Carle uses gorgeous illustrations of colorful food, die-cut pages, and with a whimsical message that appeals to all. There is always Ezra Jack Keat's collaged children's book "The Snowy Day," which reminds me to go out into the winter and make snow angels. Shel Silverstein is a very clever children's poet. His metaphoric "The Giving Tree" is so touching that it still makes me choke up. Lastly, let's not forget about relatable Max, the boy who is sent to bed without supper for being bad. He wakes up "Where the Wild Things Are" in Maurice Sendak's timeless book.

These are just a few of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them. There are many more at the library. I suggest looking for the Caldecott Metal winning titles.

-- Kerry Clark (email)

A revival of interest in the work of M. B. Goffstein would make this world a larger, more beautiful and vibrant place. In particular, find and read "Goldie the Dollmaker," which is still in print, although only in paperback. Other favorites include "A Little Schubert," "Lives of the Artists," "Brookie and Her Lamb," and "Two Piano Tuners." These books of spare but beautiful line drawings explore what it is to make art, and to live with love, both alone and with others.

-- Shirley Boulay (email)

These are great books in the list -- I'm curious about how so many of them run out at the end of kindergarten, when kids begin to break the phonics barrier and read books with more words and fewer pictures. At ET's August 2006 talk, he lamented how software companies separate the different applications (Illustrator can't count, number-crunching programs can't visualize well, the most popular PPT does both poorly), but our school system is the first to separate the disciplines. My daughter was lucky enough to attend a great kindergarten in which science and art hadn't been separated -- look through a microscope, draw a picture of what you see and write down your thoughts about it! Once you hit primary school, though, that kind of integration is expensive and elite. In our public school, science and art happen in very different parts of the building, and neither encourage having someone read to you or curling up with a book in your lap. So, to counterprogram as our kids go into primary school, I heartily recommend the comic-books made of Hayao Miyazaki's beautful animated children's films, like "Totoro", "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle". These comics are extremely high-resolution with very fine color reproduction, and their sophistication in breaking down actions into separate frames is a powerful education in sequential art. The stories are first-rate, magical, human and very engaging -- especially, it seems, for girls. They're in many languages and worth the money!

-- Ian Melchinger (email)

Here is my recommendation for a great children's book! The title: "On shapes and more", by Roni Rosenthal-Gazit

Here is why: Circles, triangles, squares and rectangles are much more than just shapes. On this spectacular book you will learn how to find those forms in your everyday life. On Shapes and More is a 'must have' book. - It will help your child develop the basic mathematical-analytic vision - essential tools to hold and cherish for the rest of his life, in a fun and colorful way.

-- Noy A. (email)

About halfway down the thread, Mr. Fuller calls our attention to Norton Juster's excellent The Phantom Tollbooth. Readers of this forum seem like a receptive audience for Mr. Juster's more compact divertimento, The Dot and the Line [Powell's].

-- Erik Rau (email)

Marion Bataille

-- Tchad (email)

Brian Lies' picture book "Bats at the Beach" has some marvellous bats'-eye-view pictures and clever verse (plenty of enjambment, adult vocabulary). Most of the pages express interesting ideas visually -- a sad rarity in "picture" books in my experience. After seeing a midnight lunch on the sand, the reader turns the page to find the caption (quoting from memory here):

"Later, though stomachs hurt/we'll try the snack bar for dessert"

Imagine being inside a cramped hotdog stand, the roof a foot or two above your head. Dangling from it is a bare bulb, which has attracted many flying insects. in the foreground, a bat chases down a moth. Hanging upside-down from the ceiling are others, eating their catches.

Interestingly, there is no central character, though there is a story of sorts.

-- Sam Penrose (email)

My Place in Space by Robin and Sally Hirst

My Place in Space by Robin and Sally Hirst.

I was reading this book to my six-year old for the umpteenth time the other night and realised I should post it to this topic. In it's own way it covers the same material as powers of ten (POT) as POT moves from the human scale to the interstellar realm. On the surface its the tale of a young boy and his sister telling a smart-aleck bus driver where they live. But the book has many layers. Several independent stories are told in the illustrations as the main story increases in scale. My son delights in the description of how long it takes light to cross the various distances and he loves to find out what happens on the football field as the main story moves along. It is an Australian book, so some of the humour may miss it's mark elsewhere, but the majority of the book is universal (pun intended). I highly recommend it.


John Walker

-- John Walker (email)

"Ernie the Easter Hippopotamus," by Glenn Logan Reitze is a beautiful story that I have read many times to my children, and that they now continue to read it to each other. The book is subtitled, "A Comic Adventure for Anytime," and it truly is much more than simply an "Easter" book.

The story is that of a young hippopotamus (I see him as an artist, or craftsman) who has a curious ability to make "naturally hard-boiled" brightly colored eggs. This gets the other hippos angry with him, and so he leaves - eventually swimming the Atlantic to New Jersey! There he finds happiness producing colored eggs that are mistakenly credited to the "Easter Bunny."

An odd tall tale, but beautifully written, and even more beautifully illustrated with about 50 (yes, 50) pages of paintings, many of African animals such as a zebras, a crocodile, a rhinoceros, etc. The book has a library binding, and is very well constructed, including illustrated endpapers.

I would put it up with the favorite book of my own childhood, "The Story of Ferdinand," by Munroe Leaf, as illustrated by the great Robert Lawson. In fact the books are similar in that both gently seek to teach some profound lessons beneath a very funny story.

-- Ann Bogenhagen (email)

For "ambiguous figure" buffs there's "Duck! Rabbit!" by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. Its based on a drawing from the 1800s that has been the focus of much scholarly debate, including by the likes of Ernst Gombrich & Ludwig Wittgenstein.

-- John (email)

A couple of contributors have mentioned the work of Maurice Sendak. While Where the Wild Things Are is my favourite -we named our first born Max because of it- Sendak's later book In the Night Kitchen is the most visually stunning children's book I have ever seen. The contrast from the first few drab pages set in Mickey's bedroom to the technicolour wonders of the Night Kitchen are dramatic. The 'kitchen' itself seems to be the size of a small town and is constructed from all the elements in a kitchen that would fill a child's mind; skyscrapers made out of milk cartons and packets of flour, buildings topped with whisks, colanders and candles and a train made out of bread. All these elements along with the lyrical sing-song story line and a plane made out of bread dough make it a great book for young children.

Some of the purely visual elements that have stayed with me more than others are the wonderful variations in scale that Sendak's illustrations give as they move in and out of the kitchen cityscape and the sense of movement in space and time engendered by some of the comic book like panels that show Mickey's physical movement alongside the rise or fall of the moon.

-- Paul Bolton (email)

I have run across a fascinating new book for older children(perhaps best for teens)and all adults who follow E.T., called "The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet" by Reif Larsen. What a treasure trove of graphic design embedded in this novel about a precocious young genius from Montana who is an amateur cartographer! I imagine this as a cross between Kurt Vonnegut and a 12 year old E.T.that is thoroughly enjoyable. Again, I picked it up to review it for my 11 and 14 year old sons but soon discovered that it is more to my liking than my sons' and that perhaps they will choose to pick it up when they are a bit older. Given some of the underlying secondary themes(family suicide,marital relations between parents and some mild language) maybe this is best. Even so, oh, that my sons would develop young Spivet's perspective and attention to detail! I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the graphic presentation of scientific and technical information, and would be very interested in what other E.T. followers had to say about it.

-- Scott Randall (email)

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