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When We Were Young

  • Jun 29, 2010
The encouragement and strength of imagination that picture books offer to young children is a significant boon to development. These stories assure children that their active sense of humor and need for fun is a normal part of a healthy life. In a way that television can never mimic; the relationship between writer and reader, artist and audience, adult and child is bolstered by storytime dynamics. Today, everyone is concerned about how the media our children are engaged by affects them. Well intentioned parents, teachers and caregivers often take this concern to a level that is didactically aggressive. I think it is folly to continually force lessons at a child, to always assess exposure based on some kind of 'building a better person' paradigm. Young children learn more in an hour of laughter and play than they do in 5 hours of most any curriculum. These books are FUN!  The authors I've selected for this list really get this concept I think, even though the best of them may have an educational trick or two up their sleeve (which I'll try to clarify in the list). Here are some classic books for early childhood that are memorable and excellent. The list is compiled from the dusty shelves of my own childhood memories, plus some more I enjoyed in my years as a preschool teacher. As with all of my lists, I'm just selecting some highlights from a subject that could be expounded upon indefinitely.  I also want to note that many modern writers are following in the footsteps of the great artists listed below (hmmmm....next list topic?).  Thanks for reading.  
Ten Apples Up On Top
Let's just start with the master at his whimsical best. Theo. LeSieg is a pseudonym used by Dr. Seuss. LeSieg backwards is Geisel, the Dr.'s lesser known surname. The great thing about Ten Apples... is how the characters (a tiger, a lion and a dog) start off in competition, then finally realize that their shared talent of stacking apples on their head is a thing to admire in each other.  They have to avoid the mops and tennis rackets of an annoyed group of humorless town folk before they can relax and enjoy a day of counting and fun.  Obvious math themes are supported by the book, but moreover a theme of social acceptance and inclusion rings out.
In The Night Kitchen
For some, the fantastic settings and unsettling rhythm of Sendak are the cause of nightmares. For me, a child with hopeless insomnia and unrelenting night terrors, I felt a kind of corroboration in books like In The Night Kitchen.  Here's some affirmation that the world really is weird at night, that others must feel it too and that it will all be okay.   I remember seeing a library filmstrip version of this that was just as surreal as any Pink Floyd laser light show.  I'm very grateful that imagination has its place and fictional reality condones the odd flights of Mickey and the Bakers from this story.
The Giant Jam Sandwich
Problem solving skills are so fresh for the young child that the idea of baking a giant loaf of bread just to build an enormous jam sandwich which will trap the swarm of 4 million wasps plaguing your small town is just believable enough to accept. The illustrations JVL creates for this adventure are best described as odd; at worst, creepy. Like Sendak, Lord pushes heavily on poetic verse creativity to assuage some of this weirdness and the result is something so beautiful and unique that I will always have a copy of it in my house.
I love Margaret Wise Brown! While her contemporaries were crafting complex word symmetry she focussed on personalized and affectionate books. With rich illustrations by Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon becomes the apotheosis of preschool fiction.  I was amazed to find that after years and years of reading this book, reading it to my own son showed me new angles of it to enjoy. Find the mouse on every page picturing the "Great Green Room." This is the perfect bedtime story!
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
This little beauty of a cautionary tale scared the pants off of me as a child. The idea of being put into a pie because of misbehavior is a compelling warning. So many versions of this story have emerged over the last century, but I find those with abbreviated modern language to miss the mark. Potter's attention to detail and amazing subtle characters are what make this such a timeless classic.
Tiki Tiki Tembo
I think we often forget that before the Age of Information, our connections to cultural information exchange were limited and therefore excitingly exotic. When I think of Tiki Tiki Tembo I am reminded of feelings of wonder that I enjoyed as a child, thinking of faraway places and foreign customs.  The patterns of language that Mosel presents are addictive for any storyteller, hearkening to oral tradition.
The Magic Jewel
See above re: early cross cultural exposure. The main character in this story is a typical 1960 English boy up for a wonderful childhood adventure. He's invited to India because of his honest virtues & situational friendship. If you can forgive a few politically incorrect moments this book will wow you. Plus, it has trains! Spoiler Alert: The magic jewel (like Mozart's Magic Flute) tames wild animals! YES!
Harry the Dirty Dog
There is no better way to connect to young children than through the compassionate lens of pet ownership. The developing sense of empathy and the joy of play makes dogs a comfortable subject. Also the fact that Harry doesn't want to take a bath is bound to endear him to childhood perspectives.
All of the Madeline series are enduring classics.  It is wonderful to see that a book printed over 70 years ago presents a strong female character for girls and boys to admire.  Madeline's bravery and spirited independence fuel the stories with adventure.  Her dog, Genevieve, is introduced in Madeline's Rescue and exemplifies the camaraderie of pet relationships that draw young readers (much like in Harry... above).
Mouse Soup
This book is an ingeniously cute kid-friendly version of One Thousand and One Nights.  A clever little mouse uses storytelling to escape from a hungry fox that wants to make him into soup.   In the end he convinces his captor that the soup will simply not be right unless he adds his stories to it.  The chapter-based format and simple language make it great for emerging readers.  

What did you think of this list?

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February 03, 2011
I am a volunteer reader to preschoolers at a Head Start school and I just read Harry the Dirty Dog yesterday! :) I had no idea that this book had been around so long. Nice list!
February 23, 2011
Thank you, Sheri. Yes it is a classic. Keep up the good work!
January 03, 2011
You're bringing back memories!! I LOVED Harry The dirty Dog as a child, I read it over and over, and of course read it to all 3 of my kids. Goodnight Moon is another favorite that I read to my children; this one always made me feel warm and fuzzy. Great list!!
February 23, 2011
Thank you for reading. I love sharing the classics with my kid too. Margaret Wise Brown deserves a list of her own.
July 06, 2010
What a cute list. I have this Maurice Sendack VHS tape with animated versions of a bunch of his stories - I recently pulled it out to watch with my 3-year-old nephews... and "In the Night Kitchen" still weirds me out. SO WEIRD, but SO GREAT. Mostly, this list makes me excited to read stories to my future children - I'm hoping for some little bookworms, heh. Thanks for sharing!
July 07, 2010
Did the tape also have that freaky Nutshell Kids animation with Carole King singing in the background? Something about Chicken Soup with Rice? Awesome! Glad you enjoyed the list; thanks for reading, Lizzy. I ended up with a bookworm in my 3 year old son but he is pretty aggressive about sharing it, so I've just been reading kid books lately too. =D
July 07, 2010
YES. I loved the Carole King singing segment, though! haha, enjoy the kiddie books!
July 01, 2010
I need to make one of these lists myself, too! I'm surprised that I've only read half of the books on this list because they all sound so great. Thanks for sharing! :)
July 02, 2010
Thanks for reading, Debbie. The great thing about catching up on these suggestions (if you want to) is that it can be done thoroughly in about 2 hours of reading. I am always surprised by how many things I've never heard of, but it is a reminder that the volume of options is enormous. Hope you get around to making your childhood book list, I would love to see it. =)
July 02, 2010
Yes, that's the beauty of children's books! I'll have to think about mine and will likely need to reread them before making a list. I have many that I remember fondly, just not sure exactly why since I haven't read them since preschool or grade school! :P
June 30, 2010
Fabulous list, Christopher! I might need to make one of these myself. I would love to explore some of the early readers that made me love reading. Btw: Your title reminds me of a song by Human Nature called "When We Were Young." :)
July 01, 2010
Thanks, Adrianna! I would love to see your list of childhood influences. The truth is that I didn't have much exposure to reading as a young person, so I tried to make up for it later in life. I didn't know about the Human Nature song, sounds cool. I was actually thinking of a Henry Phillips song when I wrote the title (warning, if you Google it - inappropriate comedy).
July 01, 2010
(laughs) I probably have too many to list! I read everything as a kid because I didn't talk a lot (speech impediment made it difficult to communicate).

The human nature song is pretty good; I had heard it on the radio a few days before I read this review. 

I'll have to google the name later, or you can shoot me a link to a video or something on my profile. I'm trying to get out the newest community email, and that usually takes all my concentration. Those emails take me at least 1 hour to draft...and that's with full concentration! 
July 03, 2010
I'm not surprised that the email takes so much energy and concentration - you are always so thorough and I admire that. You have certainly overcome your communication difficulties! =) I will think about sending you some Henry Phillips, though I'm not sure it would be your cup of tea (do you like irreverent comedy?). I really wish someone would have bothered to get me turned onto reading when I was a kid. Incidentally, I also had some speech issues and some of my fondest memories are of time with the school speech therapist. She had the coolest toys. =)
July 05, 2010
The last email didn't come out as well as I hoped! It copied some weird things that didn't show up in the Lunch e-mails, but they showed up in my actual email account! It was sooo confusing. Then, I resent it out, lol! Oh well. I'm glad you enjoy them. They are quite complicated and detailed. :)

I'm only recently getting into comedy acts that didn't involve some type of romance, so I'm not sure how I feel about "irreverent comedy." However, I do like to try new things and try to be open-minded, so feel free to send it when you have time.

Interesting. I had some on and off moments with my speech therapists. I had two. The one I had from about 4th grade until 9th grade was my favorite, but there were no cool toys in her office. I had to go to different schools for this service because mine didn't have one. And, there was always a ton of work associated with those visits! LOL
June 29, 2010
I think where the wild things are should be part of this list!
June 30, 2010
Good call, that is an absolute classic! In the end I didn't want to repeat authors and I chose Sendak's In the Night Kitchen more because of my personal history & appreciation for it. There is a little bit of Max wearing his wolf suit in us all though...it is too true. Thanks for reading. =)
June 29, 2010
A list like this could go on forever...but you did a great job of hitting on some of the most beloved!
June 30, 2010
Thank you, Stacie! Some lists on Lunch are of such an impressive length and I think that is awesome, but I have to accept that my attention span really isn't going to hold out for too long. Must be a parenthood thing. =) That being said, as soon as I publish any list I always think of 10 more things I should have added. Maybe I should do them in episodes? Ha ha. Thanks for reading.
About the list creator
Christopher Eck ()
Ranked #238
I've spent most of my life getting paid to teach, mostly young children. Obsessed with the ancient world, I studied Classics with a focus on Roman poetry, contributing to my degree in English from … more
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