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. 

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Remembering my favorite childhood book

One thought on “Remembering my favorite childhood book

  1. Caps for Sale, Put Me In The Zoo, Green Eggs and Ham… These were the first childhood books I hunted down to share with my children. My favorites!

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