After board and cloth books, which picture books are not to be missed by under fives? Good picture books abound, but which ten, still in print, are the truly great, that no home or school should be without? BfK asked Elaine Moss, winner of the Eleanor Farjeon Award and founder judge of the Kurt Maschler award, to come up with her top titles.
Ten truly great picture books in 800 words? I am going to cheat. Of course!
Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo! pipped the even more wondrous but difficult-to-keep-track-of Jolly Postman with its numerous tucked in letters and tiny books, every child’s delight. Peepo! is a work of genius with its simple rhymes – ‘Here’s a little baby/ One, two, three/ Stands in his cot / What does he see?’ – and the answer can be glimpsed through a hole in the opposite page: PEEPO! The pictures are crammed full of 1950s-style impedimenta faithfully researched. On every level, a winner – and now available as a board book.
Also in board book format is the ever-popular The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, a dramatic recounting page by part-page of the life cycle of a butterfly from egg through (hungry) caterpillar and dull cocoon to glorious multi-coloured maturity. Purists may object to the caterpillar’s unlikely Saturday binge on salami, chocolate cake and ice-cream (after a week spent sensibly nibbling fruit) but children find this opening blissful.
The range of Raymond Briggs’s picture books stretches from the wordless pristine simplicity of The Snowman to the heart-rending picture-strip biography of his parents Ethel and Ernest (an adult bestseller), with plenty of political forays in between. In The Snowman pale colours and chalky frames of varying sizes tell the simple story of a young boy’s exhilaration at waking to find snow, building a snowman, dreaming an adventure with him, then having to confront the sadness of the thaw – an intimation of mortality.
Pat Hutchins’ Rosie’s Walk may appear as simple, with its wooden type farmyard animals, barns and carts, and only thirty-six intentionally pedestrian words, but look! Behind Rosie as she ‘goes for a walk across the yard…past the mill’ a dramatically different story, told entirely in pictures, is unfolding. Will the fox, in whose path Rosie is (inadvertently?) placing many obstacles, catch her in the end? The child ‘reader’ asks and answers for herself many questions posed by this seminal 1968 picture book.
Older still but now brought back into print to delight a new generation is William Nicholson’s 1936 Clever Bill which Maurice Sendak, no less, considered to be ‘among the few perfect picture books ever created’. Lithographed, by Nicholson with handwritten text, it tells the story of Mary who is going away but cannot quite manage to pack all the things she needs into her small suitcase. In the end she forgets ‘poor Bill Davis’, her favourite guardsman toy, but ‘he ran and he ran and he ran’ (through forward rushing pages) ‘and was just in time to meet her train at Dover. Clever Bill!’
And of course you must have Jean de Brunhoff’s brave (because it deals with the death of Babar’s mother) and beautiful The Story of Babar with its delectable pachydermic absurdity – the King of the Elephants adapting himself to life in a French provincial town – seriously depicted on page after page of impeccably designed (in the 1934 edition) word and image. The same virtuosity of design can be seen in Edward Ardizzone’s 1936 Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, the story of a young stowaway who has to earn his passage the hard way but whose bravery in a storm wins the heart of the kindly but stern commander. Alas, the new publisher, Scholastic, has thought it necessary to meddle with the text which is a thousand pities, but the story and the pictures of hard labour and raging seas still capture the imagination. More than thirty years older, but still in print, are the perhaps immortal Beatrix Potter ‘Tales’, and I refuse to choose between Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten, those two endearingly disobedient ‘children’ who get their comeuppance.
Max of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s masterwork, is a later (1967) rampaging boy whose creator treats him with post-Freudian dignity. By sailing himself into a world where he can gain control of the monstrous ‘wild things’ that have taken a grip of him, Max can return to his own familiar room and find his supper waiting for him. ‘And it was still hot.’ Magical pictures and lyrical text in perfect harmony create a modern work of as yet unparallelled genius.
Of Anthony Browne’s remarkable oeuvre I would have chosen Gorilla because of the sensitive way in which it deals with the modern disease of divorce and children’s loneliness; from John Burningham’s, Granpa because of its unique use of dialogue in representing the gap between crabbed age and youth; from Shirley Hughes’ Alfie Gets in First because of its human qualities and its ingenious design; and from Michael Foreman’s Dinosaurs and All that Rubbish because of its deep concern with the environment. From Quentin Blake’s extraordinary range of humorous and emotional picture stories, I choose All Join In not because it is his best, perhaps, but because I would like readers to do exactly that in order to discover for themselves just how rich is our picture book field – and how impossible the task I was set!
Details of books discussed
Peepo!, Janet and Allan Ahberg, Viking, 0 670 80344 8, £10.99 hbk, 0 670 87176 1, £4.99 board, Puffin, 0 14 050384 6, £4.99 pbk
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 14106 0, £12.99 hbk, 0 241 00300 8, £4.99 board, Puffin, 0 14 050087 1, £4.99 pbk
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13938 4, £9.99 hbk, 0 241 14103 6, £4.99 board, Puffin, 0 14 050350 1, £4.99 pbk
Rosie’s Walk, Pat Hutchins, Puffin, 0 14 050032 4, £4.99 pbk
Clever Bill, William Nicholson, Heinemann, 0 434 80439 8, £10.99 hbk
The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff, Methuen, 0 416 57650 8, £15.99 hbk, Mammoth, 0 7497 3759 X, £5.99 pbk
Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain, Edward Ardizzone, Scholastic, 0 590 11417 4, £9.99 hbk
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 0 7232 3460 4, and The Tale of Tom Kitten, 0 7232 3467 1, Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, £4.50 each hbk
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Bodley Head, 0 370 00772 7, £12.99 hbk, Red Fox, 0 09 940839 2, £5.99 pbk
Gorilla, Anthony Browne, Walker, 0 7445 9997 0, £4.99 pbk
Granpa, John Burningham, Puffin, 0 14 050841 4, £4.99 pbk
Alfie Gets in First, Shirley Hughes, Red Fox, 0 09 925605 3, £4.99 pbk
Dinosaurs and All that Rubbish, Michael Foreman, Puffin, 0 14 055260 X, £5.99 pbk
All Join In, Quentin Blake, Red Fox,0 09 996470 8, £4.99 pbk
Elaine Moss is a frequent contributor to Signal magazine and was for ten years the compiler of the annual Children’s Books of the Year guide. She was a founder judge of the Kurt Maschler Award and won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished services to children’s literature.