KidPages: Three Newly Discovered Classics

Jul 6, 2012

I'm always surprised when I discover something that's been loved for years by practically the entire world, but I've never even heard of it.  I totally understand this when it comes to pop culture or politics or even the news because, frankly, I really don't pay any  attention to those things, and when I do it's only with half an ear. But picture books? I have three small boys for crying out loud! We go to the library at least once a week. And we read dozens of different titles every month. It's at moments like these that I seriously wonder if I'm living in some sort of windowless cave.

This is how I felt when we found the following three books. But better late than never, right?

1. Fortunately by Remy Charlip
I'm going to be perfectly honest: I . . . was not impressed with the illustrations in this book. They are blocky and undefinable. As a non-artist, I can't pull out any sort of description that would set them apart from any other artist's style, except maybe to say they're flat and not unique, so maybe that makes them unique?

And yet, in spite of the less-than-noteworthy illustrations, I was hooked by the second page. It took just that long for me to catch the rhythm of the story: "Fortunately one day Ned was invited to a surprise birthday party" (color illustration). "Unfortunately, the party was in Florida and Ned was in New York" (black and white illustration). The positive/negative scenarios gradually get more and more ridiculous. (My favorite involved a pitchfork in a haystack; Aaron and Max's favorite involved shark-infested waters.)

I think this book has not only immediate but also long-lasting appeal because the story is predictably unpredictable. We know something bad (or good) is going to happen, but what? And then, Ned's luck is so bad (and good) that is just sends us into fits of giggles. Plus, although life's circumstances are not usually so extreme, our days are full of ups and downs, and I think this book shows that even though bad experiences come, they're usually followed by something good.

2. Bark, George by Jules Feiffer
Every time I read this book, I like it a little better. The text is simple, the illustrations are simple, but the humor seems to grow and expand with each retelling. It just gets funnier and funnier.

George is a dog. His mother wants him to give a respectable bark. But George only manages to meow, quack, oink, and moo. So George's mother takes him to the vet who soon gets to the bottom of the problem and restores George's bark. There is a surprise twist at the end that just leaves readers, young and old, laughing but also going, "Huh?"

It's really exceptional storytelling: It has sparse text so even the smallest listener stays interested. It's paced well; it uses something familiar in a new way; and it brings back certain elements of the story which were introduced in the beginning.

I honestly think Jules Feiffer could not have picked a better name for the dog. I've tried other names ("Bark, Rover!" "Bark, Spot!" "Bark, Lyle!"), but none of them have that same direct punch (I was going to say "none of them roll off the tongue," but neither "bark" nor "George" are words that do much rolling, so it didn't really apply). There's something about saying, "Bark, George!" that feels just right. (C'mon, give it a try. See what I mean?)

3. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illus. by Robert Lawson
This is one that Mike's mom read to him when he was little (although I think it's the Disney version that is more firmly anchored in his memory). Regardless of the medium, it brought on the nostalgia when he saw it in the library stack.

It's opening line is: "Once upon a time in Spain..." I love this beginning because 1) it's not your traditional fairy tale and 2) it stars a young bull named Ferdinand (not a potential princess or an evil witch or a big, bad wolf). By beginning with "Once upon a time," the reader immediately begins with certain expectations, and I love it that those expectations are met in a non-traditional way.

Speaking of Ferdinand, he likes to sit by himself under a cork tree and smell the flowers. One day, quite by mistake, he gets selected to be in the bull fight in Madrid. He is taken to the big city amid much pomp and energy, but in the end, the crowds of people go home disappointed.

Ultimately the message of Ferdinand is to "be yourself." Just because everyone else wants you to jump around and kick and fight doesn't mean that's what you have to do. If, instead, you want to enjoy the beauty around you and quietly keep to yourself, then that's fine, too. Really, in a world of near-constant peer pressure, it's not only a great message for kids but adults as well.

And there you have it...three awesome titles that haven't lost any of their charm in the years since they were published. Are they new to anyone else? Secretly, I love it when I find a "new" old title. It makes me realize that there are more old treasures out there that are just waiting to be discovered.


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