Books with heart speak to a universal truth—in an authentic way. They can be sad and quiet, rollicking and hilarious, thoughtful and challenging, or none of the above. As I was preparing this post, Adam Gidwitz of The New Yorker published a piece, What Makes a Children’s Book Good, in which he dissects the question, turns it round, consults the experts, and ultimately settles on the elusiveness of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in children’s literature, concluding, “It’s not important, in the end, whether a child is waltzing to Tchaikovsky or to Strauss. The most important thing is that she is waltzing.”
Amen. But when there’s heart in the music—we tend to listen, and play it again.
But what is heart? Not sap, no; please, no. Not a moral. Egads, even worse! (Want to know the quickest way to bore children? Overtly attempt to teach them a lesson.) No, heart is a subtler, somewhat more difficult-to-describe quality in kids’ literature. But you know it when you read it.
Here are a few of my favorite picture books with heart.
Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller; Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
On a trip to the farmers’ market with her parents, Sophie chooses a squash, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. From then on, Sophie brings Bernice everywhere, despite her parents’ gentle warnings that Bernice will begin to rot. As winter nears, Sophie does start to notice changes…. What’s a girl to do when the squash she loves is in trouble?
If you’ve ever been a kid (or knew a kid) who adopted an odd, impractical and/or perishable object as a special friend, you will appreciate the perfect pitch of Miller’s Sophie’s Squash. Sophie’s innocence in wondering why her squash Bernice begins to look a little blotchy, and her dogged determination to keep Bernice for her very own, will charm both kids and adults.
The heart of it: Sophie’s Squash celebrates the unique exuberance of children, and their capacity for unconditional love.
Goodnight, Already! by Jori John; Illustrated by Benji Davies
Meet Bear. He’s exhausted. All he wants is to go to sleep. Meet Duck, Bear’s persistent next-door neighbor. All he wants is to hang out . . . with Bear.
An unconventional choice for a book with heart? Not really. Remember what I said about universal truth? Well, ask any sleep-deprived parent of a sugared-up toddler if this book strikes an authentic cord. Ask the sugared-up toddler, too.
With dry wit and plenty of sight gags, John and Davies deliver the giggles (and emphatic head nods) in this story of a sleepy bear and a (not-so-sleepy) duck, at bedtime.
The heart of it: Duck is your kid, or the annoyingly needy/ sleepless friend at a sleepover.
I Am Small by Emma Dodd
From the eyes of a baby penguin the world is a great big place. The sky so high, the ocean so deep, and the mountains so steep—all these things are magnificent from its point of view. But in the eyes of its mother—this little penguin is the biggest, most important thing in the world!
“The world is big,/ and I am small./ The world is fast,/ and I am small./ The ocean is deep,/ and I am small. /The mountains are steep,/ and I am small.” So goes Dodd’s sweet story told from the point of view a fluffy baby penguin. A beautiful book both in design and language, Dodd expresses a depth of sentiment with a few simple yet elegant lines.
The heart of it: It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be little in a vast world. I Am Small reminds us, while celebrating the bond between parent (or caregiver) and young child.
Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
Buckley and his Mama live in a cozy cabin by the ocean. He loves to carve boats out of the driftwood he finds on the beach nearby.
He makes: big boats, long boats, short boats, and tall boats, each one more beautiful than the last, and sends them out to sea. If they don’t come back, he knows they’ve found their way to his papa, whom he misses very much.
Confession Time: I don’t like children’s books about death. I know they are important and needed. I know they are. I lost both my parents in the past five years to aggressive, unexpected illnesses. But I find reading children’s books on loss a bit excruciating. My kids do, too. After my mom passed away, I tried reading Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs to my young daughter. She gave me a horrified, “Why are you doing this to me, Mom?” look, and I ceased and desisted.
But then came Boats for Papa. It’s a near-perfect picture book, if you ask me, handling loss with such an empathetic and subtle touch, I fell head over heels for it. I’m not the only one. School Library Journal said a starred review, “The only thing better than this title for anyone who has experienced loss is the redemptive nature of time.” That’s some heady praise.
Beyond being gorgeously written and illustrated, the book never mentions death specifically, so is therefore relatable to other kinds of absences and losses. I’m spoiling it a bit here, but in the end, Buckley, a young beaver, discovers his mother has kept all the boats he’s made and set sail for his Papa, bringing closure to Buckley’s hope and longing, but in a most delicate and loving way.
The heart of it: Boats for Papa is a gentle, authentic and ultimately redemptive meditation on loss. The story, which never feels overly sentimental or trivializing, is a healing read for both children and adults.
Anika Denise is the author of several critically acclaimed books for young readers, including three illustrated by her husband, Christopher Denise: Baking Day at Grandma’s, Bella and Stella Come Home, and Pigs Love Potatoes. Her most recent picture book, Monster Trucks, was hailed “a mash up made in heaven” by Publishers Weekly, in a recent starred review. Anika’s books have been recognized by Parents’ Choice Foundation, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and the Rhode Island Center for the Book. Visit her online at www.anikadenise.com, or on Twitter @AnikaDenise.