Picture books as good as they are lovable

August 24, 2013 

  • About these books

    “Green Wilma,” written and illustrated by Tedd Arnold. Tons of kid appeal in this fun frog story with a surprise ending that epitomizes the right way to write a rhyming picture book.

    “Weslandia” by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. This thought-provoking book tells the story of an unusual child whose summer project is founding his own civilization.

    “Bread and Jam for Frances” by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Frances the badger faces growing up head-on in this timeless story, part of an amusing series that’s fun to read aloud.

Like human beings, picture books do not have to be good to be loved. A lifelong favorite often owes its place to nostalgic association with childhood bedtimes, either your own or your kids’, rather than deathless prose.

So, when a move required me to purge picture books, I balanced souvenir and literary value in deciding what to keep. These are three that made the cut on both counts. All remain in print.

Now best known for “Fly Guy,” author-illustrator Tedd Arnold made it big in my household with “Green Wilma.”

If you take a class on writing for children, you will be advised not to write in rhyme. This is like those professional-driver-on-a-closed-course-do-not-attempt disclaimers. Many wildly successful children’s books are written in rhyme, but it’s a death-defying risk if you’re not a poetical pro.

Tedd Arnold is. The story of a frog at school with a twist ending, “Green Wilma” rollicks along at breakneck speed with abundant jokes and no rhyme out of place:

“One morning Wilma woke up green and much to her surprise/She sat up on her bed and croaked and started eating flies.”

Arnold’s bug-eyed illustrations in lurid colors amp up the hilarity with details like mom’s lavender curlers at the breakfast table. The rhymes, brevity and illustrations also make “Green Wilma” a good choice for beginning readers.

On the opposite end of the picture book spectrum is “Weslandia” by Paul Fleischman, illustrated in brilliant acrylic paintings by Kevin Hawkes.

Hero Wesley doesn’t care about soda, pizza or professional sports, so he is picked on and misunderstood. Then one summer, he decides to grow a crop of whatever seeds blow in and thrive in his in his backyard. Well, you know how that goes. One minute you’re tending your garden and the next you’ve founded a whole darned civilization — complete with its own language, alphabet, games and fashion.

At least that’s the way it works out for Wesley, whose social status also skyrockets.

Illustrator Hawkes makes the most of the text’s potential for humor. When Wesley invents “games rich with strategy and complex scoring systems,” the illustrations show children apparently juggling fruit while teetering on stilts and carrying lacrosse sticks.

As anyone who’s been around them knows, young children ask fundamental questions: “Why? Why? Why?” “Weslandia” is that rare book that takes those questions seriously and responds.

And speaking of worlds, the late Russell Hoban, a Pennsylvania-born writer of groundbreaking fantasy, started his career in the 1960s with easy-to-read books about a young badger’s struggles with bedtime, a new sibling, and friendship.

In “Bread and Jam for Frances,” illustrated in pen-and-ink by Lillian Hoban, our heroine becomes a picky eater. Hoban is terrific at using dialogue to delineate character, and the scenes around the family table are charming. Father is fond of the sound of his own voice and Frances takes after him by writing amusing songs and poems for every situation.

At breakfast, she sings to her egg: “I do not like the way you slide/I do not like your soft inside.”

These books are longer than what’s in vogue today, and the life they depict — dad going to work, mom staying home, elaborate family meals — may also seem anachronistic to young readers. At the same time, the fundamental challenges of growing up endure, and — because she is imperfect, likeable and brave — so does Frances.

The impetus for revisiting my book collection was boxing it up to leave State College after 18 wonderful years. For that reason, this is my last Book Report. Thanks to Family Pages and readers for giving me the opportunity to think and write about what I love.

Martha Freeman is the author of 20 books for young people, including her latest, “The Case of the Bug on the Run.” As of this month, she lives in Philadelphia.

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