Picture Book Favorites

Three old favorites that I’ve recently read with Lucy.

1. Dahlia by Barbara McClintock

This story about a girl who gets a new doll remains one of my all-time favorite picture books. I wrote about it in 2009, and still stand by every word of that review.

But the more I think about it, the more what I love about this book is that it symbolizes my ideal childhood: Charlotte’s room with its basket of sticks and birds nests and mushrooms and dragonfly collection, her love of mud pies, fishing, climbing trees, and wagon races, her imaginative creativity which sees her teddy bear Bruno as a real person and which is able to flex to accept Dahlia’s addition to her world, her nature sketches, her book of fairy tales, her self-reliant attitude and her general capability: all of these speak to my ideal of a childhood lived mostly outdoors, with plenty of free time for adventures and exploration and imaginative play. Charlotte seems to be thriving in something very much like a Charlotte Mason education.

But what I possibly love even more is the example of Aunt Edme. She seems to be a very proper lady, well dressed, refined. At first you think that her gift is intended to make Charlotte over in her image, as a girl who never messes her dresses, who walks dolls in prams, has tea parties, and conforms to an adult’s idea of picture-perfect childhood. But she surprises me. Because she’s the rare adult who sees the child for who she is. She knows Charlotte and loves her and gives her the doll because she thinks that both Charlotte and the doll will benefit from the relationship. The doll needs to get outside, to be thrown up in the air, to climb trees, and all the rest. Aunt Edme wishes she could Charlotte her adventures and the doll seems to be a token of that wish: a way for Aunt Edme to enter into the fun of Charlotte’s world.

Charlotte doesn’t think she wants or needs a doll, but in Dahlia she finds an unexpected friend. And in Aunt Edme, an unexpected ally. Three cheers for children who are allowed to roam wild, make messes, and be children.

2. This Is a Poem that Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Siméon and Olivier Tallec

Originally written in French, this delightful book is sadly out of print and used copies are hard to find. But maybe your local library has a copy?

This is a delightful story about a little boy whose fish gets sick and he goes in search of a poem to heal it. But what is poetry? He asks a bunch of people and gets answers that are poetic and non-sensical rather than literal attempts at definition.


A poem is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.
A poem is hot like fresh bread.When you eat it, a little is always left over.
A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.
A poem is when words beat their wings. It is a song sung in a cage.
A poem turns words around, upside down, and — suddenly! — the world is new.

It may leave literal-minded children feeling frustrated if read on its own to a child who doesn’t know what poetry is and with a reader who isn’t prepared for the playfulness, but it also could lead to amazing conversations and explorations. These open-ended whimsical definitions are themselves poetic and grappling with them can help lead children past the textbook definitions and into the heart of word play and imagery that is poetry. Poetry study shouldn’t be dry and formulaic, but allow room for whimsy and wonder and simply enjoying the experience of poetry.

But best of all is the title: poetry is healing. Poetry touches the broken things of the world and brings wholeness and integration. It soothes the soul. It gives words to the unutterable.

3. Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen and Barbara Cooney

Lucy declared that this story about the building of the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts is a very sad story, but very good. Five towns in the Swift River Valley were obliterated to make room for a reservoir to supply drinking water to the city of Boston. The book is narrated by a little girl who has to move away from her home. Reading this one always leaves me in tears. And yet its ending is truly beautiful and also points to healing as the adult narrator goes rowing across the reservoir with her father, pointing out all the places that used to be, and remembers her mother’s long ago words, spoken about fireflies, but just as applicable to the present situation: you have to let them go. So it’s a story about the past, about destruction, the old torn down to make way for the new. And it’s about mourning for that which was destroyed, gone, for things of the past, for childhood itself, perhaps. But it’s also about making peace with the past, letting it go, not clinging to old injuries, to that which cannot be retrieved. And I think that’s a beautiful lesson. It’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to say goodbye. And it’s ok to let things go.

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