Grandmother Reflections: 70 Years with Picture Books

Today, I’m interviewing someone I love. Kathy is a retired educator, mother of four children, and grandmother of 11 grandchildren. She has read picture books, used them at work, and created some for her family. Today she’s sharing perspectives she’s gained from more than 70 years of picture-book reading!

Melinda: What is the first picture book you remember reading as a child?

Kathy: I remember having The Little Engine That Could read to me when I was very young.  In fact, it became a family rule of sorts.  None of us where allowed to say that we couldn’t do something.  We all had to say, “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think I can.”

Melinda: What was your favorite part of reading books with your children when they were small?

Kathy: I loved settling on the couch or bed with little people cuddled on each side and on my lap as we shared a fun adventure together.  Sharing a book with a little one is such a loving thing, and it expands their world beyond just home and neighborhood as well.  I especially enjoyed sharing with them the picture books I had loved as a child.

I also loved the way that books can teach life lessons by stories without being preachy.  It reminds me of how Jesus taught by parables.  He made us, and He knows humans relate to stories.  Also the stories are about someone else and not pointed at us, so it is easier to not be defensive and just learn from them.

Melinda: When you began sharing picture books with your grandchildren, how had they changed from the books you remember reading to your children?

Kathy: That is a hard question. There are certainly many more stories available.  I think there is more diversity now, in a positive way. And the production of books now is advanced, so some of the pictures are more sophisticated and nuanced, and less cartoony or simple.  On the other hand, some illustrators now do simple drawings to reach out to children, and those are great.

Melinda: What are some books that both your children and your grandchildren enjoyed? Why do you think they worked so well for both generations?

Kathy: I actually read some books that have worked for three generations – my childhood, my children’s childhood, and now my grandchildren’s.  I think there are some universal human experiences that resonate through the ages. An example, to return to The Little Engine That Could, is the experience of not having the resources many have and yet keeping a positive attitude and making the best of what you have.  This kind of approach is admired and appreciated by others, and it comes across in the story without being preachy.

Melinda: How did you use picture books as an educator?

Kathy: Many educators try to relate different subject matter to make a more connected whole of a concept.  When I wrote elementary math curriculum, we used picture books to get across ideas in an appealing way and to illustrate without making a point of it that math is part of everyday life.  For just one example, there is a wonderful picture book called The Doorbell Rang that worked very well for teaching fractions and, incidentally, sharing as well.

Melinda: How can authors and publishers make a picture book especially effective for classroom use?

Kathy: This is tricky. Many authors have tried this, and few really succeed.  I think many books like this are too conscious of trying to teach rather than just sharing a good story that can then be applied to a concept in some school subject.  I guess I would say to start with a good story you are excited about, and if it is true to life in reality or imagination, then it might easily be applicable in a subject.  For example, if you love quilting, write a  story about quilts.  There are actually already a number of good quilt stories that can be used to teach history about the Civil War and Underground Railroad, or about geometric shapes and repeating patterns.

Melinda: What is the funniest picture book you remember reading?

Kathy: I always loved Amelia Bedelia stories.  If you have never read one, give yourself a treat and find one at the library.  Amelia is a literalist who misinterprets the meaning of words because of the way they are used colloquially.  I chuckled all the way through each of them.  Words are such fun – used or misused, they are still fun.  Some of the funniest things I remember as a teacher were mistakes students made from misusing words – for example, the youngster who wrote about how effective “gorilla warfare” was.

Melinda: What is the most important picture book you’ve read? Why?

Kathy: How to choose?!  Well, we used many different Bible picture books with our children for evening worship each night, and these made the stories more real.  Since our daily life is not like it was in Bible times, something that helps us understand the meaning is really important.  Other than that, I think the story Beginning with Mrs. McBee by Cecil B. Maiden is outstanding as it demonstrates with humor and humanity the concept of passing good on rather than paying it back.  I have read this with our children and grandchildren and still love it regardless of how often I read it.

The Runaway Bunny as Christian Allegory

In this remarkable scene from Wit (2001, directed by Mike Nichols), Evelyn Ashford (Eileen Atkins) comforts her dying friend and former student Vivian (Emma Thompson) by cradling her gently and reading Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny.

At the 5:00 minute mark, these two grieving women, both academics, share a surprising discovery about the book. “Ah! Look at that,” Evelyn says smiling. “A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it.” Vivian is hardly able to speak, but the moment figures as a turning point as her suffering gradually gives way to sleep.

The Runaway Bunny is a picture book classic, most often read in the same spirit as books such as Love You Forever or Guess How Much I Love You. It’s meant to be read over and over again, until the words are all memorized and the spine cracks and the pages fall out. Little ones never tire of hearing that wherever they go, however life changes them, their mama will find them and bring them home.

It’s a logical choice for the film, which chronicles the inward journey of an intellect-centered college professor struggling for transcendence as she dies of cancer. Her friend and mentor in this scene is much like the mother bunny in the book. Evelyn arrives at the hospital having only just learned that Vivian is there. What are the odds? It is a detail just touched on as Evelyn takes off her coat, but it is the same quiet miracle as the mother bunny finding her baby wherever she goes. The little bunny who keeps trying to shape-shift, to become some other animal, to have some other life, mirrors the human journey to discover and improve our actual self, the one we hope to keep. And the kindly, humorous, unfailing persistence of the mother bunny is the Love that birthed us and leads us home.

Of course, once you begin to hold a lens over the story, you see more in it than you first expected. Consider the progression of transformations the little bunny suggests, and the ways his mother answers them. These pairs of images are rife with Christian symbolism!

I will be a fish in a trout stream/ I will be a fisherman. Jesus calls His apostles with the promise that they will become “fishers of men,” gathering in new believers.

I will be a rock on a mountain/I will be a mountain climber. He calls Peter the “rock” on which He will build the Christian church.

I will be a crocus in a hidden garden/I will be a gardener. When Mary comes to  the grave seeking Jesus after his crucifixion and He meets her there, she believes at first that He is the gardener.

I will be a bird/I will be the tree you come home to. The tree is a reference to the Cross, the place to which Christians “fly home” in search of eternal life.

I will be a sailboat/I will be the wind.   The wind is the Holy Spirit, and “blows where it will”, just as the mother bunny will blow her little sailboat “where I want you to go.”

I will be a trapeze artist/I will be a tightrope walker. The circus is an old and often-used metaphor for the world (as distinguished from heaven or the Church). Biblical tradition describes Satan as the “lord of the air,” and Jesus harrowing hell and rising to heaven “clears the air,” overcoming what darkness lingers there. Thus, like the mother rabbit, He meets us in danger and saves us. Alternately, the trapeze artist and the tightrope walker could prefigure the Second Coming, when believers will be “caught up together in the clouds” and “meet the Lord in the air.”

I will be a little boy/I will be your mother. This pair brings the little bunny to the pinnacle of Christian imagery, and teaching – the incarnation. Interestingly, in this final iteration, the little bunny has assumed the divine role (the Son of Man, born on earth) and the mother bunny plays the dual role of birthgiver and guide. She will be this little boy’s mother and catch him up in her arms to hug, just as Mary must so often have embraced Jesus in her role as Theotokos, God-bearer, mother. But simultaneously, this is also the role in which she succeeds in bringing her little bunny home to his true identity, a nod at the salvific power of the incarnation and the Christian striving to be in God’s image. When the little bunny chooses an identity that both parallels and transcends his present life, he has come to the end (or beginning!) of his spiritual journey. And of course, he has found his way home.

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, was first published in 1942, and is still in print!

First picture book you remember?

I love to hear quirky, detailed, real-life stories from people I know. I’ll ask a question about some little thing that doesn’t come up in an ordinary day. The answers are endlessly interesting – a person’s memories, and the ways they recount them, are full of clues about how they see the world and themselves. It’s a chance to stand in their shoes for a moment, catching a glimpse of what you’d see looking out on the world from their eyes.

The Question

Today, I asked, “What is the first picture book you remember, either reading yourself or having read to you, and what do you remember about it?” Here’s what my friends said!

The Answers

This survey was conducted on Facebook. Responses are copied exactly, with the exception of some minor typo fixes.

Todd: Corduroy.”

Selena:The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams.”

Ashley:Pat the Bunny….I remember patting Daddy’s beard in the book and then feeling my own father’s face. I loved how the world in the book matched my own little world at home.”

Richard:A Ghost Named Fred by Nathaniel Benchley. George playing astronaut.” (Thanks, Richard, for the photo of George playing astronaut. That looks like the original copy of the book – a little battered, but still read!)

Nitsa: “A Greek book about Popi and Eleni and a dog. No idea what it was called. I remember the simple drawings of the girls in their dresses and of the dog. Nothing fancy. I also remember that Greek dogs say ‘yav yav’, not ‘woof woof’!”

Katherine:The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. I was a city kid who longed for the country, and I so identified with that little house.”

Kelleylynn: “I wasn’t read to as a small child, not by my parents (please don’t feel sorry for me) but in second grade, I vividly remember my reading teacher, Mrs. Lattner (yes, the mother to pro basketball player) would read a daily poem from Shell Silverstein; most especially The Giving Tree. So I gave (back) like the Tree to my children.
I’ve grown a grand love for good children’s literature and read daily to our children, especially instilling the love for the zany and quirky authors such as Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens; fantasy and poetry.”

Marie: “This was not long after WW2. It was a Danish book a friend had sent to thank my mother for all the material help she had sent – mostly food and clothing – to her and her neighbors in the immediate post-war period. It was about a little boy named “Peter” and I looked at the pictures while my mother read the little story from a handwritten translation into English.”

Barnabas: “Learning to read using the Dick and Jane books.”

Joanne: “Ditto, this (Dick and Jane) is what I remember, too.”

Joanna: “Not the first, but one that stuck with me was Little Bear’s Trousers. The illustrations were incredibly detailed and I would read it over and over just to have an excuse to look at the pictures and admire all the different textures. There was a cake at the end that I always wanted to eat because it looked so delicious. I lost my copy as a kid and was always sad to have it gone. After telling my husband about it when we were first married, it showed up in the mail one day as a surprise. I got to read it again to my step kids and now to Ruth.”

Tanya:Go Dog Go. I remember the dogs.”

Tammie: “Cappy. Its about a dog who gets in trouble. 😂 Not the first book but definitely a memorable one because it was the first one I had planned to buy with money earned from working for my dad. It was a ‘first purchase alone w/o parents’ kind of thing. I walked home from the bookstore a happy kid!”

Kathleen: “This will come as no surprise to you, Melinda: a joke book with pictures!”

Audra: “I remember my mom reading me a book about a snowshoe hare afraid to change colors with the seasons.”

Elizabeth:Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, which is curious, because I also remember not liking anthropomorphic animal stories in general. I also remember The Little Engine that Could. I was so happy for the Little Engine that he made it. I actually remember a lot of stories. We had books upon books in my house. Being read to and learning to read are among my cherished childhood memories.”

Michelle:I learned to read with Go Dog Go.”

Bonnie:Caps for Sale was one. Where the Wild Things Are, and The Monster at the End of the Book (Sesame Street, my mom did a great Grover voice!). And for remembering – for Caps, it was hilarious the amount of hats, for the Wild Things the illustrations, and for The Monster at the End of the Book, it was interactive and of course my mom’s Grover voice. I have the book and do the voice now with my kids.”

Christine: “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” [Here’s my post about Mike!]

Svetlana: “I remember reading the Cajun Alphabet book. A is for Alligator and B is for Baton Rouge. I was four. The other book I remember from when I was really young was The Little Mermaid. It was not a childish fairy tale. The pictures were really beautiful watercolors. When she walked it was like stepping on knives. When she danced, she forgot about the knives. When the Prince too another woman to be his wife, her sisters gave her a knife from the Sea Witch to kill him. They had all sold her there hair for the knife. His death would allow the Little Mermaid to return to the sea. Instead she walked out in to the sun and became sea spray. That one was also before kindergarten. I have no idea who wrote it, but I’ve never seen a Little Mermaid like it since.”

Andrea:I Know a Farm. The memorable thing about that was it came in the mail, as a book club selection. I seriously doubt this was the first book read to me, but it is the first I remember receiving.”

Edith:The Cat in the Hat.”

Tawni: “I know Poky Little Puppy, Saggy Baggy Elephant, and Tawny Scrawny Lion were among my first favorites. And now I read them to my kids!”

Peggy:A Fish Out of Water, a Dr. Seuss book, I remember being so worried about that fish as the little boy gave him too much food and Otto grew bigger and bigger.”

Elissa: “I remember the Little Golden Books, especially Hop on Pop and Take Me To The Zoo.”

Jonathan: “The Poky Little Puppy.”

Elina: “The Serendipity books. I remember the fanciful illustrations and the characters – how they made me feel – like there was a beautiful world out there that I knew nothing about. I loved them, and stumbled across the collection a few years back and am so happy my kids are reading them now!”

How about you?

What is the first picture book you remember? What do you remember about it? Why did it matter to you?

It’s fascinating to consider how many books have touched us at one time or another. Some were good, some we hated. They all leave a mark, don’t they?

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck, by Miryam

“A happy man thrills a group of farm animals when he takes them for a joy ride in his dump truck. This book is a true classic illustrated by the inimitable Tibor Gergely.”

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck is one of my favorite picture books. The first time you read it, you think it’s a simple, funny little story. The second time, the third time, you realize how much depth is shining inside that apparent simplicity.

Here’s the story. A happy man is driving down the road in his dump truck. He meets some farm animals who want to go for a ride in his dump truck. So he takes them for a ride. They like it so much they ask him to take their friends for a ride. He comes back and takes even more farm animals for a ride. Then they say goodbye, and he drives away, just a happy man with a dump truck.

But there’s so much more to the story!

Happiness and Kindness

The best lessons in picture books are the ones you don’t realize you are learning. When you read this story, it seems completely natural that the happy man, and the happy animals, would want to share the fun. Real happiness is generous. Little ones hearing this story are still at the age where they won’t share toys and treats without prompting (sometimes lots of prompting!). But they are also capable of deep love and sudden generosity. The story is a funny, age-appropriate example of sharing that went well for both parties, the giver and the receiver. We are all growing into the kind of people whose first impulse is to share the best of what we have, always.

Simple Life

I love this book for its innocent, agrarian setting. I love it for its total absence of modernity. The only technology in the book is an old-fashioned dump truck driven by a man who isn’t being tracked by GPS and therefore can stop along the road to play with farm animals. The more screens, wires, waves, beeps, and clicks surround our children, the more they need stories that reconnect them with the simple outside world. Our children need farm animals and dirt, green grass and free time. They need to remember what sound a chicken makes. They need to develop an imagination that immediately grasps what a great slide you could make in the bed of a friendly dump-truck.

Spontaneous, Not Random

The happy man is not the only example of generosity in this book, or kindness. The animals are generous, too. Not all of the farm animals are present when the happy man first drives by. He gives several rides because each group of animals asks him to come back to the farm and pick up the next group. So all the characters in the book are responding to a gift by passing it on.

We hear a lot about “random acts of kindness,” and I am thankful for their influence in the world. But I prefer to describe kindness as “spontaneous.” Kindness is not random. Kindness is the natural expression of goodness that comes from the heart. It can inspire us at any moment, in any situation, and because we often don’t foresee that inspiration, it is spontaneous. The cycle of generosity in this book is a wonderful model for children, and adults. When something good happens, what is our first response? When we receive gifts, or are blessed with good circumstances, we need to think like the happy man and his animal friends. “I love this. How can I share it?”

This Classic Little Golden Book is available on Amazon in a hardcover edition.

Swimmy, by Leo Lionni

The gorgeous, Caldecott Honor-winning tale of a very clever fish by beloved picture book creator Leo Lionni.

Deep in the sea lives a happy school of fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and team work—they can overcome any danger.”

Swimmy is a classic. Why haven’t you read it?!? There is so much in this book!

Personally, I have used it at work to train authors, bloggers, and podcasters how to succeed at collaborative marketing. But it works just as well in the classroom and at home, to help little readers ponder how important they can be to one another. This is a book about grief, fear, friendship, and the ways beauty and purpose heal us. And all these BIG topics are handled with a light, clear touch. Just right.

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again.

The water-color illustrations are wonderful. Water-color is the lovely for a story set entirely under the sea. The words are wonderful too, simple but so lyrical and perfect. The descriptions of the creatures Swimmy encounters will make you say, “Oh, my, yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” I especially like the lobster “who walked about like a water-moving machine” and the eel “whose tail was almost too far away to remember.”

Although this book was originally released in 1968 (and there are still hardback originals available on Amazon), I am delighted to tell you that there’s a new paperback edition! You can find it HERE!