Remembering my favorite childhood book

by Sarah S. Brannen, author and illustrator

Ever since my first book was published in 2008, I have been asked the same question in dozens of interviews:

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

For years, I protested that I couldn’t possibly answer the question; I have a favorite painting, a favorite drawing, a favorite piece of music, a favorite sound, but I love far too many books to choose a favorite.

Nutshell librarypeter rabbit

When I think about books that I loved as a child, I visualize one picture book after another, some famous, some less so: Peter Rabbit, Blueberries for Sal, Prince Bertram the Bad, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, One Morning in Maine, Melisande, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, The Nutshell Library, to name just a few.

I was complaining about this to my mother one day, when she reminded me that I did indeed have a favorite book when I was little: Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man by Robert McCloskey. As I look at the list of books I just spouted, it seems pretty clear that McCloskey was my favorite author when I was small. And my mother told me the following story, of which I have no memory.

burt dow

I was probably about four years old. My family was staying at Sand Beach Farm on Deer Isle, Maine. My parents had rented a small aluminum boat with an outboard motor, and we headed out for a picnic on an island. We motored along the shore, past McCloskey’s home. I had Burt Dow with me, which must mean that I loved it so much I took it everywhere. My parents pointed out McCloskey’s house and told me the author of my book lived there. I held the book over my head and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Mr. McCloskey, I love your book!”

As I said, I don’t remember doing this. I do remember seeing E.B. White’s sweet little wooden sailboat, “Fern,” on its mooring. The dingy was named “Wilbur.”

Well, after my mother told me the story, I bought a new copy of Burt Dow. (My childhood copy disintegrated long ago; I was the kind of kid who loved books to death). Just looking at the cover gave me a happy shiver. And the title page, with its pots of paint, big spill of pink, and a seagull happily leaving pink footprints? Heaven.

It had been far more years than I care to share since I read the story. But it was all there, so deeply embedded in my memory that I had forgotten where the images came from. The old dory planted with geraniums and sweet peas. The Tidely-Idely, with her make-and-break engine. The giggling gull. “Hit the deck, Burt, time to eat!” The peppermint-striped band-aids. “An old deep-water man like me always keeps a weather eye out.”

And the colors – murky green Maine water, the boat painted in all the colors left over from Burt’s odd jobs, the Pollack-like paint-splashed innards of the whale. And best of all, the spreads filled with whales of all sorts of yummy colors. Read it. You’ll see.

I’ll never know whether this is the book that made me want to be a children’s book illustrator. It was probably only one of many. But it was, definitely, my favorite.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Sarah S. Brannen is an award-winning illustrator of over 15 children’s books. She is the author and illustrator of Madame Martine and Madame Martine Breaks the Rules. She lives in Massachusetts but goes to Paris as often as possible. 

Remembering my favorite childhood book

My favorite childhood book: Mr. Tickle

by author Heather Lang

“What was your favorite book when you were little?” As a children’s book writer, I’m always asked this question. People are surprised to hear my favorite was a little, square, soft-covered book with the simplest of illustrations. Mr. Tickle, by Roger Hargreaves, first published in England in 1971, doesn’t exactly look like the kind of book a serious writer would have adored. It’s true the story lacks many elements we’re told are important for a successful picture book. Mr. Tickle never faces a problem he needs to solve, and he never grows or changes. There’s no conflict and resolution. Mr. Tickle just goes around town tickling people, then comes home and laughs about his exploits. But as a child, I loved his cute little hat and long stretchy arms. I imagined myself bold and mischievous enough to tickle and surprise my stern schoolteacher or a policeman! Plus Mr. Tickle was part of a small collection of Mr. Men books, and I loved collecting things. Mr. Tickle, Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Nosey, and Mr. Bump fit so perfectly inside my small hands I could bring them anywhere.

Mr-Men-characters-007

When my four children were young, they discovered my Mr. Men collection in an old box of childhood toys at my parents’ house. I doubted these books would appeal to them. My kids were used to picture books with beautiful illustrations, powerful stories, suspenseful plots, and plenty of humor. How could these simple Mr. Men books stand up against bedtime favorites like Owl Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Well . . . they did!

Reading Mr. Silly!

My kids immediately wanted to add to my collection. Now there were dozens of Mr. Men books available, as well as Little Miss books. Every night I enjoyed my kids’ lively debate over which book we’d read. My son argued for Mr. Rush, because he was so fast and ran off the pages. My other son wanted Mr. Sneeze, because he also sneezed a lot. One of my daughters begged for Mr. Impossible because she wanted to be invisible and fly. The other wanted Mr. Jelly because he was colorful and had a funny shape. Whether the book represented a personality trait they wished for or related to or feared, or whether the book appealed to them on some other level, each reason for wanting a book gave me a small glimpse into their personalities.

The more I read with my kids, the more I appreciated how each child valued different parts of books. And some were quite unexpected! I try to keep this knowledge in the back of my mind when I’m writing. It frees me to follow unexplored paths—different genres, formats, and styles. While the paths are often as long and wavy as Mr. Tickle’s arms, they are also full of surprises and delight!

Heather Lang researches and writes children’s books. Her latest title, The Original Cowgirl, takes us on a journey with Lucille Mulhall, who had her heart set on roping and riding. Soon she was thrilling the crowds at rodeos, where she’d compete against men—and win! Lang lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children. 

My favorite childhood book: Mr. Tickle

Happy Birthday, E.B. White!

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” — E. B. White

When I volunteered to do a #FridayReads post, and randomly chose the July 10th slot, I already knew I’d be writing about E. B. White. What I discovered only as I began to write was that that was the day before White’s birthday! He was born 116 years ago, on July 11, 1899.

Charlotte's Web

It may be a bit of a cliché to claim Charlotte’s Web as my favorite children’s book, but I can’t help it. From the moment I first read (and reread) it as a child to the dozens of times I shared it with my own children, it has never failed to move me to tears. The book is more than 60 years old, but is freshly beguiling on every read. And how can you resist a story that kills off one of its main characters, but still uplifts you, ending with (slightly abridged):

[The barn] was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. . . . She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Absolute perfection.

That’s not to pass over Stuart Little or the sometimes overlooked but beautiful homage to wilderness, The Trumpet of the Swan. What E. B. White gave me was an early appreciation for nature and the natural ebbs and flows of life—“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” he advised—and though I didn’t know it at the time, he probably planted the seeds that led to my becoming an author. His prose was witty, wise, and gorgeous; he always chose the right words—and just the right words, no wasted verbiage. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered White also wrote for adults.

elementsofstyleebwhite

I still consult his Elements of Style (the newish version, with the bonus of illustrations by the great Maira Kalman). Check out White’s story and poetry anthologies; they’re a revelation. His poem, “Natural History” is undoubtedly the most romantic poem ever written about a spider (E. B. White is a one-man PR marvel for spiders).

E.B. White

So tomorrow, have a piece of cake for E. B. White—or better yet, revisit one of his classics. Prepare to be utterly enchanted. He was SOME WRITER!

Leslie Kimmelman is a children’s book author and works part-time as an editor at Sesame Street Books. She also works from home as a freelance writer and editor. She lives just outside of New York City, where her and her husband have brought up two children and two dogs.

Happy Birthday, E.B. White!

Reading Aloud—To Your TWEEN?

Lori Haskins Houran is a children’s book editor and the author of several books for young children, including How to Spy on A Shark. Lori shares some of her favorite tales to read out loud to her tweens in this week’s Friday Reads!

It is weird that I read to my kids every night?

They’re not little. My younger son is 9, and my older son turns 12 next month. They’ve been reading independently for years now, but they still insist that I read aloud at bedtime. The few times I’ve tried to beg off—I’m tired./I have a sore throat./Downton Abbey is coming on!—they’ve looked as shocked as if I suggested skipping dinner.

Pippi LongstockingSideways Stories from Wayside School

Occasional slacking aside, I do love reading to my boys. It’s a chance for snuggling—and smuggling. By that I mean I can sneak in personal favorites they might otherwise miss: Little House in the Big Woods, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Pippi Longstocking, All-of-a-Kind Family. (I’m just now realizing how many of my choices feature female protagonists. Not once have my sons complained or even commented. So much for the old publishing saw that boys don’t like stories about girls.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factorystuart little

A few other must-reads I would have added had my kids not already enjoyed them at school or on their own: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the essential trio of Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little.

Not every selection has worked out as well as I expected. I thought my boys would enjoy The Borrowers, but they didn’t warm to it. A Wrinkle in Time felt confusing as a read-aloud, and I’m sad to say that we gave up on it after three nights. I hope my boys will read it to themselves soon and adore it as much as I do. 

a wrinkle in time

I don’t always choose the books, of course. My boys’ picks have included everything from comic books and movie tie-ins (I can tell you pretty much anything you need to know about Batman, Star Wars, and the Avengers) to gems that I might otherwise have missed, among them Jacqueline Davies’ The Lemonade War, Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda, and Cynthia Lord’s Rules.

rules

I don’t know long I’ll continue reading aloud to my kids. Will I Skype them in college and read The Secret Garden? No, no, that would definitely be weird…right? But for now, I’ll keep going.

Do you still read to your tweens/pre-teens? What’s on your must-read list?

Reading Aloud—To Your TWEEN?

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 2

Summer is officially here, and it’s Father’s Day weekend! Our authors’ fathers continue to influence their lives to this day.

Leslie Kimmelman dadSam & Charlie

(Pictured: Author Leslie Kimmelman with her dad, mom, and son) My father is the person who instilled in me a love of words. He delights in them. When I was little, he used to have a huge stack of file cards on which he wrote the meaning of (and a sentence for) every new word he came across.  He also gave me my appreciation for good writing. He never gets tired of declaiming Shakespeare soliloquies, Winston Churchill speeches, and excerpts from Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Death of Arthur.” When he finishes, he inevitably is teary-eyed, saying something along the lines of, “Man, now he could write!”


Sherry Shahan Father's DaySkin and Bones

(Pictured: Author Sherry Shahan with family) This 60-year-old family photo is the only one that remains of my dad. That’s me the lacy collar and cuffs, looking deceptively innocent. My dad was a voracious playwright, submitted his work when the mood struck, and remained frustrated that his stories were never produced. I began my writing career with edgy short stories for the adult market. He offered terrific feedback, usually telling me to amp up the tension. He and Mom tied for “Proud Parent” when my first novel came out in 1996. Miss you Daddy-O!


Eric Futran and fatherShow Me Happy

(Pictured: Photographer Eric Futran and father) Take a look at his YouTube video on ruminations on Love and Walls between fathers and sons.


Sarah Scheerger Fathers DayOpposite of Love(Pictured: Author Sarah Lynn Scheerger with her father) My dad was one of those hard working fathers who missed out on the day to day routines of dinner, homework, activities, and chores. But I remember him being there for the big things. Family vacations, a trip to San Francisco when I was ten, visiting me out of state when I attended summer dance intensives, meeting my dates at the door, and waiting up for me until I arrived home, sometimes with his arms crossed. But my favorite memories of my dad are the most recent ones— seeing him morph into a grandfather. I see the joy he takes with my own children, and how they adore him. When my baby reaches her arms out to him the moment she sees him, I see how good it makes him feel.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for always being there for me, no matter what! I love you!


 

Laura Hurwitz Fathers DayDisappear Home

(Pictured: Author Laura Hurwitz with her father on her wedding day) My dad was your typical ‘50s dad—ambitious, conservative, and a heavy drinker. He belonged to the right social clubs and spent every clement weekend on the golf course. I was a rebel. The one thing I didn’t stonewall him on was attending college, despite my insistence that college would be an irrelevant joke. About that, Dad, I was wrong. When I was 18 and a college sophomore my father suffered a massive stroke. Doctors put his chances of survival at 10%. But survive he did, and after months of rehabilitation he resumed his life and his career. The stroke made him a kinder, gentler person. When I was home from school we’d go on long walks and talk. We laughed. We made room for each other’s different ways of seeing the world. And when I got married in a homemade dress with a wreath of wildflowers in my hair, well, Dad was cool with that.

In the aftermath of his stroke he demonstrated attributes I’ve come to rely on as a writer, including optimism and patience. Through him, I learned wisdom is like a good story; not something you find, but something that finds you.


 

Barb Reid fathers DayThe Night Before Christmas

(Pictured: Author and Illustrator Barbara Reid with her father, Bob Reid, circa 1962) When I was a little kid, I made some fake Liquorice allsorts candies out of plasticine. I’m sure they were not very convincing, but my dad played along and bit into one, much to my delight. That’s how my dad encouraged my artistic development, imagination and good sportsmanship – thanks Dad!


Margaret Read MacDonald with fatherParty Croc

(Pictured: Author Margaret Read MacDonald‘s father) My father,  Murray Read, loved to fish. In this picture he has a really big ling cod. He always caught a lot of fish for me. But unlike Zuva in Party Croc! I never promised my father a party in return. Daddy had a little wooden boat and a small motor for it. He would take me out in the evenings after work and we would go way down along the island to a place where huge black cliffs dropped straight down into the water. An oldtimer had told Daddy exactly how to line the boat up…sighting three points…and then he would drop his line. And right away a cod would grab it and he would haul it up. He knew just how to jerk the line up and down really quick and catch the cod. When I tried it didn’t work as well. We would motor back home,  climb the steep sand bluff to our little cabin,  and Momma would fry up the cod for dinner!   

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 2

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 1

Summer is officially here, and it’s Father’s Day weekend! Some of our authors sent us a photo of themselves and their dad, telling us how each of our authors’ dads have influenced their lives.

Jacqueline Jules and DaddyZapato Power

(Pictured: Author Jacqueline Jules with her father) My father was an immigrant from Switzerland who came to the United States after World War II. He was unmarried, in his early thirties, and jobless when he arrived. Within ten years, he had learned English and was living a comfortable middle-class life with an American wife and two daughters. Whenever I asked my father why he came to America, he would laugh and say that he’d heard the streets were paved with gold. Daddy loved to travel and to garden. He was keenly interested in world affairs and read several newspapers from cover to cover. In his later years, he took great pride in writing letters to the editor of the publications he read. He spent hours typing on an old gray Underwood typewriter. I learned the power and joy of self-expression from watching him. Daddy also taught me perseverance. He passionately believed that goals could be achieved if you kept working toward them. Whenever I get discouraged, I can hear my father’s voice in my head, saying, “Don’t give up.” While he has been gone since 1999, his presence is always felt.


 

Ian Hoffman Fathers Dayjacobs new dress(Pictured: Author Ian Hoffman with his son and his father) My dad’s a science guy (he’s a radiation oncologist & researcher). I’m an arts guy (I’m an architect & author). Although we like to think about very different things, somehow we think alike. That’s the beauty of genetics. My dad taught me the values of method, care, persistence, and curiosity. He didn’t lay it out like that. I just watched him, and learned from his example. I also learned from my dad to get down on the floor and wrestle with my kids. When we were little, he used to do that everyday when he got home from the hospital. Although eventually I would be impressed by my dad the physician and scientist, it’s still the wrestling I cherish most.


 

Robin and Dad in 1958Mystery of the Stolen Dinosaur Bones

(Pictured: Author Robin Koontz with her dad circa 1958) Warren S. Koontz was head of a U.S. Naval Ordinance division, working as a civilian after World War II. We knew little about that, but we did know that my dad had also been a musician. He led a jazz band before the war and traveled around the world. By the time I came along, the youngest of three, my dad didn’t play music anymore other than on his huge hi-fi system. But on my 4th Christmas, Dad gave me a little electric piano. This is the only photo I have of the two of us – he demonstrating me how it’s played and me in a very untypical pose of patiently learning. My dad died when I was 13. But his creative spark lives on in me as both a writer and illustrator. And I also play the guitar!


 

Linda and Dad 7th gradeCurious Cat Spy Club

(Pictured: Author Linda Joy Singleton [7th grade] and her father) Both of my parents have always been extremely supportive of my writing, but Dad went a step further when I was a teen. I wanted to submit my writing but this was before the internet & it wasn’t easy for a teen to learn about the publishing world. My high school didn’t even have a writing class. Only popular kids wrote for the newspaper—and I was shy. Dad was also interested in writing and wanted to learn how to help me, so he took a college writing class. He taught me how to submit my work, use correct query format and research publishers. So I submitted short stories to a teen magazine, and received very encouraging rejection letters. While it would be over a decade before I sold any writing, when I joined a local writing group I recognized the name of one of my other writers—Dad’s college writing teacher. And she congratulated me when I sold my first book.


The Potato Headshappy dad

(Pictured: Author Felicia Sanzari Chernesky with her father, Stephanie, Francesca, & Jennifer circa 1998) My dad was tough on us growing up. I was the oldest child, quiet, studious, serious—big glasses, straight As, extra English classes by choice—you know the type. As he energetically charged my sisters and me to do our academic and personal best, we learned the meaning, value, and reward of hard work, taking personal responsibility, and standing up for your beliefs. I was always hardest on myself, and Dad frequently reminded me, “You’ve got to learn to laugh if you want to survive the hardships of this life.” He meant it. Plus, the man was funny. I think of Dad presiding at the table during Mom’s wonderful Italian meals, us kids listening to stories and eventually participating in passionate family discussions. Everyone was loud and laughing. Always laughing! Dad passed away last November after being seriously ill for many years. His quick wit never dulled. He loved the winter season, and I dedicated Sugar White Snow and Evergreens to him. He’s there in everything I write. I learned the art of storytelling from my father.


Suzanne Slade with dadWith Books and Bricks

(Pictured: Author Suzanne Slade with her father) My dad is a hard worker, and through the years he’s demonstrated that by sticking with something and giving it your best, you can accomplish almost anything (which came in handy during my many “rejection letter” years.) My dad also loves nature and being outside — sailing, biking, kayaking, fishing, and more. I’ve gone with him on many of his adventures, which have inspired several books. So Happy Father’s Day, Daddy! 

 

Father’s Day: Authors Tell All Part 1

Searching for a Soldier through Books

Author Whitney Stewart recently published Meditation is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids. Meditation is an Open Sky

She is currently writing a middle-grade account of a reluctant German WWII soldier who disappeared on the Russian front. Her online travel series “Finding Reiner” won a 2015 bronze award from the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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When I was a kid, I learned about World War Two from The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. The book left me with compassion for Jews and a fear of all Germans. My understanding of the war wasn’t nuanced. There was only ally and enemy.

Anne FrankBut then I married a German and learned of my husband’s uncle Reiner who was drafted at nineteen into Hitler’s army and disappeared in 1945. My husband’s family tried and failed to find Reiner for almost fifty years. Little did I know how many vanished as Reiner did.Reiner

In 2013, I discovered a box of Reiner’s military letters, stashed and forgotten in an attic. As I struggled to read the letters and learn the young soldier’s fate, I wanted to understand the war from the German side. I made a list of WWII books to read and chose both fiction and nonfiction to inform my heart as much as my head. These are some of my favorites:

Book Thief

Marcus Zusak’s, The Book Thief, tells the story of Liesel Meminger, who is forced into foster care when Hitler’s thugs take away her mother for supposed crimes against the country. Liesel’s life is changed through a love of reading and a friendship with a young Jew who hides in the basement of Liesel’s foster home. This brilliant book highlights the struggles ordinary Germans experienced in the climate of oppression.

The Boy Who Daredgrowing up

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s two books about the Hitler Youth spare no details about the organization’s policies of horror. The Boy Who Dared tells of Helmuth Hübner, a German schoolboy, who learns only slowly that his patriotism and duty are founded on propaganda and lies. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadows documents the harsh reality of children who informed on their anti-Nazi parents, of those who were eager to fight for their country, and of children who realized the ugly truth too late and gave up their lives to expose it.

Shadow Life: A Portrait of Anne Frank and her Family

Barry Denenberg’s Shadow Life: A Portrait of Anne Frank and Her Family expands Anne Frank’s account through a fictional diary of her older sister Margot. This oral history, based on numerous primary sources, gives details of their lives that I always wanted to know as a child.

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by acclaimed writer Erik Larson, was my guide to Berlin when I went to follow Reiner’s trail. I can no longer walk through the Tiergarten or past the Reichstag without remembering the lives lost there.

Letters to Freya

Helmuth James von Moltke’s Letters to Freya gave me hope for humanity. Von Moltke was a German aristocrat and devout Christian, drafted into the German intelligence, who worked secretly for the resistance. His letters had me holding my breath for pages.

All the Light We Cannot See

My favorite WWII novel is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr interweaves the stories of two children, Marie-Laure in France and Werner in Germany, who are caught up in tragedy and redemption. Doerr’s stunning imagery and poetry awaken empathy for a continent in conflict.

Alternative readings: 8 Things You Should Know About WWII’s Eastern Front and National Archives WWII Records

What’s the best book you’ve read about WWII?

 

Searching for a Soldier through Books