The recently deceased Maurice Sendak famously said that he wrote books about childhood, not books for children. At our house, we love his books, but it certainly doesn't pay to think too hard about the things he gets right about childhood: the strange and wild fears, the loneliness, the comfortless absurdity that we must endure.
As a connoisseur of children's books, I've lately become fascinated with books that depict childhood accurately, but gently. Here are some of my favorites:
101 Things to To with a Baby written and illustrated by Jan Ormerod
Hands down, the most tenderly perceptive depiction of babyhood and childhood (with extra points for making the adults seem real, too, as they furiously drag the the laundry from the rain, or get winded trying to exercise!). It's not a formal story, but a collection of scenes of a day in the life of a girl (about 7 years old) spending time with her baby brother, who is about 4-5 months old. She loves him and his ankle biting and flower eating, and parents will all recognize the adorable wrinkled forehead and chubby thighs -- but they also feel the blessed relief when baby stops ripping books and smearing egg yolk around, and finally goes to sleep. Just lovely -- would make a great "big brother" or "big sister" gift when a baby is born.
All the World written by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
This book is new to me (I guess it came in the Cheerios box?). I love the illustrator, Marla Frazee, whom I discovered as illustrator of The Seven Silly Eaters, another acutely observed book about family life. All The World does a subtle job of sketching out the dawning consciousness of a child who is not quite sure where he ends and the world begins. I'm making it sound overly precious, but it's not -- it's a lovely and rhythmic book about the simple things a child experiences with his five senses, and how at home he feels in "all the world."
Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona books and others
Cleary is at her virtuosic best as she manages to elicit sympathy for both pesky Ramona and proper Beezus. Ramona seems SO BAD to Beezus, and Beezus seems SO PRIM to Ramona; and yet, when the story focuses on either sister, you see how they are both good girls -- they're just different. Remember how Ramona ends up sitting in her chair all day, waiting for a gift, because the teacher carelessly told her, "Sit here for the present?" And remember how Beezus aches to be spontaneous and creative as she paints, and just doesn't seem to have it in her? Great stuff. As far as I know, the Henry Huggins books are equally insightful into the mind of a boy. Don't forget to check out the undeservedly lesser-known books, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, and Emily's Runaway Imagination.
The Little Bear books, by Else Holmalund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Especially the first, Little Bear. It's a small miracle how, in so few words, Minarik shows exactly what's going through Little Bear's simple brain as he deals with a series of very gentle dilemmas: he's cold; he has the hiccups; he thinks maybe his mother forgot his birthday (even though she never did, and she never will). I especially love the scene from "Little Bear Goes To the Moon," where Mother Bear plays along with his pretend game, and acts like she doesn't recognize him. Suddenly it's no fun anymore, and he needs to make things very clear: "I am Little Bear, and you are my mother, and you know it. Now may I have my lunch?"
The Frances books by Russell and Lillian Hoban, illustrated by Garth Williams
All about dear open-faced Frances, the slightly misanthropic poet who can't sleep and who frets over rhymes that don't seem quite right, who is naive enough to be bilked out of her tea set money by the sophisticated Thelma, but worldly enough to go through some painful spiritual struggles as she strives not to eat the Chompo bar she got for her little sister's birthday.
Half Magic by Edward Eager, illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
I feel like I recommend this book every few weeks, but it's worth it. The relationship between the four children is so wonderfully drawn (as are the illustrations!) -- and the story itself is a fascinating, top-notch adventure story. Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha are such real children, who can afford to fight and shun each other because they know they love each other -- until Jane, for reasons of her own, goes too far. You will love and recognize these children. Edward Eager wrote a series of really good books about children and magic, but Half Magic is the best.
I'm running out of room, so here are some more suggestions from some friends:
Erin Arlinghouse of bearing blog votes for E. Nesbit's The Story of theTreasure Seekers; My Naughty Little Sister series by Dorothy Edwards; The Stories Julian Tells and others by Ann Cameron; and books by Eleanor Estes; and The Real Hole by Beverly Cleary.
Also recommended: books by Shirley Hughes and books by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson, not to mention Calvin and Hobbes. Also, I haven't actually read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, but the things my kids tell me sound hilarious and spot-on.
What do you recommend for books that are not only for children, but about children -- and which get it right?