My First Love in Picture Books

by Sylvie Schwartz

Like that of many people, my early introduction to art was through picture books. At 22 years old with a full English literature major under my belt, the books I read every night as a preschooler are still among my very favourites. I find them to be some of the most imaginative, reassuring, and meaningful books that I have encountered. These are a few of my top picks:

1. Hey Willy, See the Pyramids written and illustrated by Maira Kalman.

This book, long out of print, was given to my oldest brother Will when he was born in 1988. It was a favourite of his, and then a favourite of my other older brother, and then a favourite of mine.  To this day, I don’t think I’ve found a book that I like more. It consists of bedtime stories as simple and creative as ‘In front of blue mountains and green mountains, a thin skinny man saw fish flying up.’ There is a party and their neighbour brings a bouquet of cherry tree branches, but forgets to wear pants. On the narrator’s way to school, she sees a group of very small people carrying tiny instruments. My favourite character is a dog named Max who lives with Aunt Ida and Uncle Morris. He wanted to escape to Paris and be a poet, so sometimes he’d try to sneak down the corridor with a suitcase and Aunt Ida would have to say to Uncle Morris, “Quick Morris, catch the dog!” Realizing the particular import of this special character, Kalman has more recently published a much longer book entitled Max Deluxe to satisfy the many of us who still think about Max and wonder if he ever made it to Paris on a daily basis. This book taught me that you can make a story about anything, that there is wonderment everywhere, that characters don’t need to conform to the proportions of regular humans or abide by the laws of gravity, and that the apex of a story can be something as uncomplicated and magical as a man, with a sweep of his arm, saying “Hey Willy, see the pyramids.”

2. How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World written and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman.

The premise of this book is simple: she wants to make an apple pie but the market is closed. Naturally, that means she must travel the world to harvest the ingredients herself. It taught me about the manners of British cows and that cinnamon is a kind of bark. This book does the important work of instilling a DIY ethos in children from a young age, and it also left me with the impression that all of Vermont is just one large apple orchard (I recently drove through Vermont for the first time, and I don’t think this impression was too far off).

3. Miss Rumphius written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

This book lays out three tasks for a happy life: one must travel the world and then settle in a town by the sea, but most importantly one must do something to make the world more beautiful. At the end of her travels across the world, Miss Rumphius injures her back and must retire to a town by the sea. She has not yet done something to make the world more beautiful place and because of her back she is largely confined to her bed. Lying in bed, she looks out of her window to see a patch of lupines, her favourite flowers, whose seeds had been planted by the wind. When her back feels better in the spring, she walks through her town with her pockets full of seeds and scatters lupines everywhere. While making the world a better place certainly requires more than planting flowers, this book serves as a reminder to work within our capacity, and that small change can make a big difference.

4. Olive the Other Reindeer written and illustrated by J. Otto Seibold.

This is a Christmas story about a dog named Olive who hears the lyric “all of the other reindeer” and thinks it’s “olive the other reindeer.” So as not to leave his responsibilities unfulfilled, he goes to the North Pole to report for duty. Despite being a dog and not a reindeer, Santa ties Olive to his sleigh along with the others and Olive ends up saving the day with his particular dog skills. While this book has clear overtones of ‘you can be anything you want’, I took its message to mean more like ‘it’s okay if you don’t always know exactly what you’re doing’, and as a 22-year-old college student, I find the latter much more comforting.

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