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.

Meh: A Story about Depression, by Deborah Malcolm

Meh: A Story about Depression is a wordless picture book with remarkably evocative, content-rich illustrations leading the reader on an emotional and spiritual journey through an episode of depression and recovery.

The concept of using a picture book to launch a conversation about depression with a child is fascinating and brilliant, in my view. You’ll want to see the book for yourself, through your own lens, and no doubt it will bring to mind memories of experiences and observations. It’s also a testament to the miraculous quality of art – I read all of the following from a book that has no words!

The Title

The title is a word made popular by the “meh” emoji (star of the recent Emoji Movie), and it’s a fascinating choice for two reasons. Emojis are a regular part of life for children and teens, and it’s telling that this emoticon was chosen as the main character in the film. Like the film, this picture book’s choice of “meh” is an important nod at research linking technology use with anxiety, and depression, especially in younger users. It’s one of many aspects of the book that lead easily into a conversation that’s essential for a child encountering depression, or anxiety.

But the title is also an immediate, powerful statement of understanding. “Meh” means “I’m not strongly negative or positive.” It suggests an absence of feeling where feeling would be desirable, so there’s an overtone of wishfulness. This is a simple, one-word verbalization of the complex numbness that’s often a hallmark of depression. And the choice to describe this feeling with a word anyone under 30 will immediately associate with an emoji is a message to a child reader that whoever wrote this book “gets it” and is familiar with the world the child is confronting. Loneliness is depression’s weapon, and to be understood is the first, best antidote.

No Text

One difficult but important task in caring for a child suffering from depression or anxiety is to leave space for them to vocalize what’s happening. It’s so tempting, in our effort to show understanding and support, to rush in with our own words, covering over their experience with our perception of it. The wordless pictures in Meh remind us to ask and then be quiet, letting the words come from the child. The book includes a list of questions to encourage discussion, along with a kindly reminder to be clear that there are no wrong answers.

In addition to the questions provided, Meh lends itself to the kind of simple, non-threatening questions you would ask about any picture book you’d read with a child. But in this case, those natural questions lead straight into important conversation because the illustrations are creative and intelligent. These questions could include the following, and more:

  • Why is there so much blackness in the picture now?
  • When did you first notice the cat?
  • Why do you think the cat is light-colored?
  • How do you think the boy feels about the cat?
  • How do you think the cat feels about the boy?
  • Does the cat remind you of any people you know? Why?
  • What decision do you think the boy is making on this page where he’s looking up at the cat?

Two Roles

That last question highlights another vital strong point of the book. In the depths of those black pages (and moments), our first reading of the picture is that the loving little cat is leading this boy out of the darkness (sorry for the spoiler!). The cat is rescuing the boy. This is true, but it is not the whole truth, either in the picture or in life. The boy is choosing to follow the cat.

One illustration is especially poignant. On the left page, we see the boy standing at the bottom of a formidable rocky hill, looking up at the cat, who is looking down at him from the top. On the facing page, the boy is struggling hard to climb over the ledge onto the top of the hill, where the cat is waiting for him. Just below that image, we see the boy and the cat resting together. The message is clear – the cat is not rescuing the boy single-handedly. The boy is rescuing himself, with merciful and responsible guidance from the cat.

This is an enormous truth. All of us in the darkness need that leading light, AND we need the gritty, hang-on-by-your-fingernails effort to work our way back to healthy life.


Meh is an excellent tool for reaching children struggling with depression or anxiety. But it can also inspire informed sympathy in children who may see a classmate or cousin who needs help. You can read the book through the eyes of either character (or both!). Children will notice that the cat enters gently – at first, we see only the tiny paw prints on the dark earth – but becomes powerful as a lion when strength is needed. The cat is encouraging, but not enabling. And the cat stays with the boy through the entire journey, even the end of the journey, in peace and celebration. I would love to see the #bethecat hashtag taken over by children and caregivers who are choosing to walk into the darkness, and out again, for the people they love.

A paperback edition of Meh: A Story about Depression is available on Amazon. 

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman

“Grace loves stories, whether they’re from books, movies, or the kind her grandmother tells. So when she gets a chance to play a part in Peter Pan, she knows exactly who she wants to be. Remarkable watercolor illustrations give full expression to Grace’s high-flying imagination.”

Word person that I am, I’m still going to talk about the pictures first for Amazing Grace. Caroline Binch has created an extraordinary work of art here, precisely because the pictures aren’t “extraordinary” in the usual sense. They are life-like. It’s not photo-realism, but it’s clear on every page that she must have taken the people in the book from life – she had models. You look at Grace and Mama and Nana, and you are POSITIVE that they are real people who agreed to pose for the illustrations. And Caroline’s genius is that she achieves this powerful sense without photo-realism. There are soft edges. You know it’s a painting. But the personhood it depicts leaps out of the page at you.

That’s especially important for this story, in which Grace is struggling to overcome the limitations other people want to set for her. Her own peers try to use her gender and her race against her, and just as the illustrations are life-like, the text is life-like too – undramatic, simple, and resoundingly true. Grace’s classmates aren’t deliberately cruel. They’re unconsciously giving voice to the prejudices that are accepted by the world around them. The same children are just as susceptible to Grace’s confidence and talent when she finds the courage to display them.

This is what makes Amazing Grace so powerful – the just-plainness of it, the way you immediately recognize it as truth despite the fact that story is fiction. The best art, in my view, reveals and reflects on truth. Mary Hoffman pulls it off, with both simplicity and depth. Where some stories can be funny for both children and adults, this story can be true and encouraging for readers of all ages.

This book is available on Amazon in hard cover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions, and a special 25th anniversary edition.

Froggy Learns to Swim, by Jonathan London

“Zzzziiiinnngggg splash!
Everyone’s favorite frog learns to swim!

Frogs are supposed to be great swimmers. “Not me!” says Froggy, who’s afraid of the water. But with a little encouragement, some practice, and the help of a silly song or two, Froggy becomes an expert frog-kicker!”

You have to read this book out loud. You can’t help reading it “in voices.” Froggy’s voice is very life-like (which is to say child-like), and if you are a parent, the voice of Froggy’s mother will come naturally to you. It’s the voice you hear coming out of your own mouth a dozen times a day.

“Say, ‘Bubble bubble,’ under water. Then raise your face for air and say, ‘Toot toot.'”

“I don’t want to,” Froggy whined.

“Oh come on, Froggy, just try it. Repeat after me: ‘Bubble bubble, toot toot.'”

Frank Remkiewicz’s illustrations are the best – the froggy facial expressions and body postures exactly match the querulous, bowdacious, very human moods and reactions of this amphibian family. The story is funnier because the characters are frogs, but also because those frogs are so much like people!

I must admit that part of me would adore a watermelon swimsuit and ruffly pink bathing cap, just like what Froggy’s mother is sporting. And of COURSE her name in the book is “Froggy’s mother.” Speaking as one who has also given birth (though not to a frog), this is how we are known. If Froggy’s mother ever had a name, you can be sure no one uses it now. She’s Froggy’s mother. You can’t blame her for the watermelon swimsuit. Not at all.

But with all this froggy fun at the pond, the book makes a good point. If you are hesitating on the brink, sure you can’t do it (whether “it” is swimming or another challenge), if you just keep breathing and working the routines you’ve been taught by someone who loves you, you’ll be surprised what you can overcome – even your own nervousness.

Bubble bubble, toot toot!

This book is available on Amazon in paperback, ebook, and school/library binding editions.