Jay Bushara is the founder of onepotato.net, an online children’s bookstore specializing in lost and lesser-known titles. Since the Kidoinfo family also loves beautiful and unusual picture books we’re delighted for Jay to share some of his favorites. My son adored “The Yellow Balloon” by Charlotte Dematons when he was younger. Thanks Jay for the reminder – we’ll add this book along with some of the others to our permanent collection.Â – Anisa
Always on the lookout for simply written fables that do not insult my, and your, and three-year-olds’ intelligence, I was recently delighted and inspired and finally a little conflicted to discover a right-size meditation on beauty and friendship hiding out in one of those extra tall hardcovers which apparently do not fit anymore on American shelves. Hardly anyone makes these here now, perhaps mirroring our smaller expectations for the form.
Big Wolf and Little Wolf, The Little Leaf That Wouldn’t Fall is admittedly a mouthful of a title, and the fault doesn’t lie in translation. Like a lot of children’s oddities from European authors and illustrators, this is a book determined to mean exactly what it says. And if that should sometimes need to take a little longer, or if some space on the page should once in while go unfilled, or questions unanswered — if long stretches should pass where we’re not entirely sure if we’re dreaming or awake, then at least we may want to continue returning in the hopes that there’s something we missed.
Because that’s literature, right? No matter our age, or its provenance.
Big Wolf and Little Wolf, The Little Leaf That Wouldn’t Fall by Nadine Brun-CosmÃ© and Olivier Tallec
These wolves may wear hats and booties but you’d never mistake them for cartoons. With vibrant summer landscapes fading to winter, and plenty of warmth to go around. A classic on beauty and friendship.
The Enemy by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch
Unmanned bombers in Afghanistan are these days being piloted by a guy with a joy-stick in Arizona. Kids don’t know this necessarily, but they will. In an age where it is increasingly difficult to look away – from blockbuster movies and gaming simulations and Diane Sawyer – this book is a worthy and graceful reminder of the lives and family pictures at the other end of our generalizations. Because if the enemy is us, maybe we have less to be afraid of. With spare line drawings, simple, accessible text, and a message in a bottle.
Manneken Pis: A Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War by Vladimir Radunsky
No, really. It’s hard to imagine some poor editors’ reaction when Radunsky approached them with this idea, apparently inspired by a urinating statue in Brussels – that and his native continent’s inclination for ruinous, ridiculous war. Was this one part of four-book deal with Atheneum to keep Radunsky happy? The happier the better, it says here – even through this author’s occasional misfires and rebellions – because you cannot inhibit this sort of splashy enthusiasm without also imperiling the singular visions it sometimes spits out.
Benny’s Had Enough! by Barbro Lindgren and Olof Landstrom
As always, beneath their forbearing, enlightened exteriors, these Swedes are apparently up to something, though it isn’t always clear what, or when it will come bubbling into the open. Read and wonder: about Benny the piglet, fuming as his mother arranges his “sticks and potatoes in long rows” (but why?), then running away in a rage, a stuffed Piggy under his arm, passing pigs in their cabins staring at their computer screens, hoping to move into a hot dog stand, and finally digging a joyful, muddy hole on the property of man who appears raging and threatening to “to straighten his curly tail.” “Life is so hard,” laments Benny. Thank goodness it’s also surprising.
The Story of the Root-Children by Sybille Von Olfers
Eerie and absorbing, like listening to a story in another language you only sort of understand. Did I hear that right? Little children underground – with springtime arriving – busily sewing and pressing lovely colored bits of cloth. You said bugs? They need to be painted, do they? Also featuring a slug called “old father Slifslaff-Slibberlak,” and an old German lady as Mother Earth, opening and closing trapdoors. Memorable and classic sounding: this is a legend that people have probably been telling since they were living a little closer to the dirt.
The Merchant of Noises by Anna Rozen and Francois Avril
Klackata. Tirika Trika Trika Trok. Foooboolooooo: The writer and illustrator of this book hail from France, and it’s funny how even their noises sound foreign. Mr. Bing, the eponymous merchant, savors, copies, and peddles the splendors of our auditory landscape. The conceit may feel sometimes stretched to the breaking point, and unfamiliar touches – the geometric drawings, and rambling plot, and surprising motivations – may test a reader’s equilibrium, still here is a playful, almost Seussian reminder of all of the places you can go when you keep an open mind.
Boris’s Glasses by Peter Cohen and Olof Lanstrom
Not beautiful or anything, but wise and laconic in a Scandinavian sort of way. The two-dimensional pictures and present-tense narrative mask a zanier sensibility: Boris boasts of his astigmatism as though it’s some form of exotic pedigree, and takes a job in the plug department of a radio factory “because if you can’t plug the radio in no music will come out.” Whatever lesson there is to be learned at the end of his self-discovery never interferes with the entertainment, indeed the overall effect is of listening to a story told by someone who doesn’t even know he’s funny.
I Love You Dude by Vladimir Radunsky
The doodle as Odysseus. This sometimes reads like the author is making it up as he goes, which isn’t as bad as that sounds. In fact, from an imagination as fertile as Radunsky’s, it’s really kind of great. You catch yourself wondering: which came first, the picture or the chapter? (There are ten of them here, plus a Foreword). Chapter 6: “I ran and ran and ran and ran and ran…” Chapter 7: Tremendous Belly, in which our hero decides whether he would really like to spend the rest of his life as a tattoo. If Radunsky doesn’t always seem to have prepared his answers in advance – how, and why, will Dude escape from a coffee cup? A circus poster? A sidewalk? – the outcome is a journey more alive, and consistently surprising, than any destination. In Chagally-looking hues.
The Yellow Balloon by Charlotte Dematons
Transfixing. No words, but if there was ever a place where words were not welcome, it’s this. What a wealth of busy, magnificent landscapes – from city to mountain to desert to the plains of East Africa – and look! Is that a magic carpet hovering below us? Witches on brooms?! And there, among all of the multitudes – of skiers and sunbathers and eskimos and shepherds – is inevitably one very small intersection of humanity lucky enough to ever spot the balloon. Look closer.
The Rainbow Goblins by Ul De Rico
This is a story before humans, apparently. The prose itself is timeless, or anyway old-fashioned, and the goblins aren’t demented or demonic – just greedy – so this probably won’t scare the very young ones, but it will almost certainly fascinate them; you could stare at these pages for hours. Weird, beautiful and enigmatic.
Theodore and the Talking Mushroom by Leo Lionni
Not a happy ending here, which would probably account for this book’s almost-disappearance for many years. Still, it’s a pretty lively story about lies and the lying liars who tell them, and Leo Lionni is one of the most original illustrators of his time. The mushroom doesn’t talk exactly — it quirps. You will not be forgetting this fever dream very soon.
Andrei’s Search by Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson
Two orphans set off wandering St. Petersburg in search of their mothers whom they can scarcely remember – one recalls living in the womb, with an attic and a tiny staircase, and a lettuce patch out back, the other believes he was delivered by a dog. Some of the peculiarities of this book probably derive from the translation, some from the fact of its conception in a completely different neck of the world (Sweden), with different storytelling traditions, and scarier bugaboos – and then some are just probably peculiar. But welcome, in a culture that can occasionally use a brisk draft. Maybe this is not the sort of fable that you or your children refer back to for a unified world view, but it’s a fascinating detour. With snorting, sparking trolleys, a cheerful tugboat, free pierogis, and a sudden, happy ending that seems every bit as illusory as the start.
The Scarves by Daniela Bunge
Oddball and daring. While books meant for children can barely acknowledge the marital status of something like forty percent of this country, here is a story about the apparent dissolution of two grandparents’ marriage – oh, those wacky Germans! Some aspects get glossed over (grandpa’s television habits and favorite colors hardly seem to merit kicking him out), yet here is an honest effort, at least, toward understanding the quiet accumulation of differences that can often occlude the most promising unions. With trippy, striking artwork, and a hopeful ending.
A Day with Dad by Bo Holmberg and Eva Eriksson
Magnificent. Try to ignore the blandness of the title, which speaks more to the modesty of these characters than the author’s aspirations. There’s a divorce somewhere in the background here, still this is a story determined to look at the simple, even ritual acts of putting something back together – a hot dog, a movie, the library – rather than lingering on whatever broke it. “This is my Dad!” blurts the boy to no one in particular on the train heading out. Unblinkingly hopeful.
The Boy Who Ate Words by Thierry Dedieu
A challenging book. The boy of the title may be autistic, or he may be a construct, but the author has accomplished something rare in either case: he’s made him sympathetic. And hopeful and heartbreaking. And unforgettable. Older readers might have an easier time following this, but the concept is pretty universal. Because which of us – young or old – hasn’t at times felt completely overwhelmed by the power of words?