The wine boxes and masking tape are out, because I’ve begun to pack up the last, best books in my children’s picture book library.
This is an overdue task. They’re 13 and 15 now and we haven’t read aloud to them in years. We’ve kept this final stack at hand out of undiluted nostalgia. Moving it into the attic shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is.
In the past, when I’ve had to pack my personal library, what I’ve boxed are talismans of intense yet essentially private experience. Picture books aren’t like this. When you’re putting away these square, dog-eared, popcorn-butter-stained things, you’re confronting an entire cosmos of collective memory.
Because my wife and I so repeatedly read these favorite picture books aloud — comically, exhaustedly, occasionally inebriatedly — to our children, their words and images have worn grooves into our minds. They occupy places in our family’s shared consciousness as indelibly as do summer vacations, trips to the hospital or injured birds cared for in cardboard boxes.
They’re the fine, weird, uncanny poems we’ve each memorized and carry around in our heads. They’re evocative of some of life’s best things — wet hair, clean pajamas, the end of working days.
They’re the last books the four of us are likely ever to read again at anything like the same moment. Our splendid nightly book club has ended its run.
Happily for us, our book club had its Oprah. Her name was Eden Ross Lipson.
Eden was The New York Times Book Review’s longtime children’s book editor, a legend in her field, who died in 2009. When my kids were little, I worked as an editor at the Book Review, and I had the crazy good fortune to possess the desk next to hers.
She had a jumbo-sized personality (the journalist Cokie Roberts spoke at her funeral service) and jumbo-sized opinions. She wouldn’t recommend a book for your children until she knew everything about them and, almost as importantly, everything about you. She’d need to grill you. Her interrogations were tests of character.
Eden described these improvised interviews in “The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children,” (1988) a book she edited. She would bear down on you like this: “How old a child? A boy or a girl? Where does he or she live? Siblings? Intact family? Special interests? A book to read aloud, or a book for a child to read to herself?”
These were merely the opening salvos. It was as intense as psychotherapy. Afterward, you had to go and sit down.
One of Eden’s dictums was that there was no way to tell if a new children’s classic had arrived until a generation or two had passed. The question isn’t whether you’ll read a book to your kids. It’s whether they will read the same book to their kids, and so on down the line.
My wife, Cree, and I both had favorite kids’ books from when we were young, books we couldn’t wait to read aloud to our children. But Eden was always there to slip me a new thing or two. “Here,” she’d say, “this writer has really got something.” Or: “Dwight, I think your daughter is finally ready for this.” Some of these became dearly prized.
One was “The Giant Ball of String” (2002), with text and art by Arthur Geisert. We’ve read this book until it’s nearly come apart. It’s a sly moral fable about love and theft and guile and justice. You can imagine it directed, as a kind of poker-faced kid’s revenge caper, by Wes Anderson.
Another was “The Day the Babies Crawled Away” (2003) by Peggy Rathman. Who knows why certain picture books catch like fishhooks in your mind. For us, this was one of them. It’s barely got a story — it’s about a gaggle of babies who crawl away from their parents at a fair, and the young boy who follows and rescues them.
But it’s beautiful and enveloping. Everything is in crisp shadow against a neon late afternoon sky. There are funny grace notes, like the one baby who can be found hanging upside down somewhere in almost every drawing. Kids love to scan busy drawings for unpredictable detail. Ours nicknamed this weird kid “bat baby.”
Eden also gave me “Epossumondas” (2002), by Coleen Salley with illustrations by Janet Stevens. It’s based on a Southern folktale, and it’s hilarious.
I usually ended up reading this story aloud — I hope my Southern friends will forgive me for this — in the kind of faux-backwoods accent Mick Jagger employed in the song “Far Away Eyes.” The book’s about a possum who is “his mama’s and his auntie’s sweet little patootie.”
Other books, in our pile of favorites, we discovered on our own.
Hans de Beer’s “Little Polar Bear” (1987), for example, a witty, plaintive book my children adored when they were barely out of diapers.
And Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s “The Wolves in the Walls” (2003). These wolves are party animals, mean scuzzy fuzzballs out of a Ralph Steadman drawing or a Warren Zevon song.
It’s hideous joy to watch them frolic, and to witness them getting their comeuppance. The book’s refrain, uttered by a girl’s disbelieving mother and father, is this: “If the wolves come out of the walls, then it’s all over.”
Mark Alan Stamaty’s brilliant and surreal 1973 picture book, “Who Needs Donuts?”, is another I’m about to pack up. Stamaty tattoos every available surface in his books with surreal and witty detail. This book, reissued by Alfred A. Knopf in 2003, deserves to become a classic.
It’s one I’ve read to my children at least 500 times. To this day we can’t drive past a Dunkin’ Donuts without someone in the back seat plaintively or sarcastically mewling the book’s central question: “Who needs doughnuts, when you’ve got love?”
Then there’s “The Train They Call the City of New Orleans” (2003), which is little more than the lyrics to Steve Goodman’s classic 1970 song, illustrated by Michael McCurdy. What a good idea. You’ve got to be willing to whisper-sing to your kids to put this over.
We didn’t, when our kids were young, only read picture books at bedtime. One of Cree’s best inventions was the “popcorn reading party.” Here’s how you have a popcorn reading party: a) You make popcorn. b) You gather a pile of your best kids’ books. c) You yell, “popcorn reading party!” d) You try to work it out so that the kids books end at about the same time the popcorn does.
We read plenty of classics to our kids. But I’ve intentionally omitted Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Dr. Seuss or other classic practitioners here. They don’t need my assistance.
It’s a treat to be able to pass along news of a few lesser-known books that I’m certain will pass the Eden Test. Someday my kids will open these boxes, gasp with delight, and eagerly read them to their own.