Earlier this year, after moving into my new place, I dug up some of the boxes in my parent’s basement to consolidate and prune my collections. Of course, digging up some childhood favorites, I had to pause to flip through them again, reminding me of days past when there was plenty of time to read, whether on hot summer days or cold winter nights. Many of these books were Christmas or birthday gifts, of course, the inscriptions from family members still scrawled on the inside covers, 1988, 1990, 1994. How well did they hold up?
Animalia and the Discovery of Dragons by Graeme Base
Australian writer and illustrator Graeme Base was always one of my favorite authors in elementary school and soon after finding his alphabet book Animalia in my primary school library, I became entranced with studying each lush, beautiful page filled with larger than life animals, trying to come up with all of the hidden alphabetical items for each letter. Each letter includes a funny poem highlighting it, such as "Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library," which became kind of my mantra.
This eye for detail and humor continued with the Discovery of Dragons, published some years later; by that time I was a fantasy-loving kid, and the weird, pseudo-scientific historic examination of the various dragon species was very interesting to me. I'd recommend any of Base's work for story times.
Of course, my favorite topic as a kid was definitely dinosaurs, so these imaginative, amazingly detailed books by James Gurney were some of my favorites. Framed as a recovered nature journal of a nineteenth century professor and his son shipwrecked in a lost world of sentient, peaceful dinosaurs, Gurney's paintings really bring the world to life. A true utopia, there is no real conflict (though are some delicious explorations and mysteries of this ancient world), but the story is really told through the pictures. While the dinosaurs themselves are a little old fashioned in their forms (no feathers, a little lumbery), how can one knock messages like "weapons are enemies, even to their owners?" Those dinos have some pretty compelling ideas!
I recall spending a lot of time as a kid looking at the art in this lushly illustrated book, which is beautiful and captivating (particularly the little details and asides the fill many of the paintings), but I do not recall if I’d actually read the story. James C. Christensen, a renowned fantasy artist, paints vibrant, ethereal paintings filled with detail, natural and mystical.
However, the story is pretty facile and the writing far blander than in Dinotopia, in spite of a similar premise. An answer to Darwin’s HMS Beagle, the Victorian Professor Algernon Aisling, his daughters, and a dashing crew of dwarves and gremlins set out to chart the realms of the imagination, though their results, while enchanting, are rather uninspiring.
Picking up quite the menagerie of mythical creatures along the way, less and less space is allowed to give anyone a personality and sometimes we forget they’re there at all; occasionally, they are re-mentioned as if to say, oh yeah, don’t forget, the Sphinx is still there too! Maybe its just because I'm not religious, but the message here, "by believing, one sees," comes off as a bit of a platitude to me.
This was, I think, the first picture book I recall being read as a child. It may have sparked the obsession with owls I had until after first grade. I remember my Mom reading it to me, as well as listening to the gentle narration on cassette tape. Jane Yolen’s magical, spare language, and the evocative art of brings this moonlit winter landscape alive, celebrating the natural world. I still enjoy walking around in the snow at night, and throughout my childhood became obsessed with owls, especially owl calls, often going to sleep listening to cassette tape recordings of the calls of various wildlife.
I checked Patricia McKissack's The Dark-Thirty from my middle school library in 6th grade, and it became a great introduction into the world of American, specifically African American, folklore, like nothing I'd heard before. Referencing the half an hour around sunset as the time best suited for telling ghost, the stories here are definitely spine tinglers! For some reason, I read this around Christmas, which while not really thematic seemed to suit the dark but hopeful tone of these spooky stories, as it is simultaneously the darkest and the most festive time of the year.
Upon returning to the book, the best aspect was that each of the stories, in addition to ghosts, monsters, witches, and other scary supernatural creatures, confront a different aspect of the oppression faced by Black Americans throughout US history, introducing readers to these topics. The evocative, moody drawings by Brian Pinkney compliment them perfectly. I definitely recommend this one!