If you’ve ever been to an Ikea, you might have seen a display in kitchens with a robot arm opening and closing a cabinet door thousands of times. Parents who’ve read Olivia eight million times can relate. Children’s books go through a similar test of durability. I’ve read plenty drab Batman and Ninja Turtle books to my three-year-old that I’ve had to condense and reword on the fly.
Here are a few books that shine through countless readings:
Curious George Takes a Job
By Margret and H.A. Rey (1947)
The Reys only wrote seven original George stories — the others are all franchised and only worth reading once or twice. None of the new ones have quite the same elegantly simple language, and none of them have George getting into a jug of ether at the hospital. “Then rings and stars danced before his eyes. Then everything went dark…”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
By Judith Viorst (1972)
Speaking of dark, the word malaise is often associated with the 1970s, thanks to an infamous speech by Jimmy Carter. (He didn’t actually use the word.) A word I like better is melancholy, which connotes a spiritual depth associated with being down, and this book, with its black-and-white crosshatch illustrations, really captures that melancholy. You can almost hear a Carole King song in the background as Alexander mopes through his day, looking for ways to make the day perfectly miserable.
Of course, by the 1980s, Alexander would have pulled himself up by his paisley suspenders. Corporate culture dictates that we can’t afford any more downer decades. Even if you trip on a skateboard getting out of bed, it’s morning in America.
The Butter Battle Book
By Dr. Seuss (1984)
Seuss was no stranger to “message” books — save the earth (The Lorax), try new foods (Green Eggs and Ham), keep your ears clean (Horton), but The Butter Battle Book is so pointedly anti-nuclear it belongs in a time capsule with War Games and “99 Red Balloons.” Two city-states are in a cold war over the right way to butter bread and an arms race ensues, proliferating from slingshots up to the “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo,” a plum-sized bomb of mass destruction.
Where the Wild Things Are
By Maurice Sendak (1963)
“A disturbed young man in a devilish costume chases a dog with a sharp object, then threatens to cannibalize his mother when she objects … [Later] Max gets hungry and decides to leave the imaginary world, as the demon-spawn horde promise to cannibalize him if he’ll only stay a bit longer. I just realized, this is probably my first review in which I’ve used the word ‘cannibalize’ three times.” — from a one-star review on Amazon.
As this critic learned, there’s a lot of depth to Wild Things. It gets richer with each reading, all 338 words pretty much perfect. (Except for “Let the wild rumpus start!” I always want to say “begin.” But maybe using “start” better emphasizes the word “rumpus.”)
The Dave Eggers/Spike Jonze film adaptation turns the picture book into a grown-up fable of passive-aggressive monsters trying to build a rough utopia. Though not really for kids, the same acceptance and recognition of dark emotions in the book are all there in the flesh and fur. As Judith, voiced by Catherine O’Hara, says, “You don’t really need to know me, I’m kind of a downer.”
I like to think that if there were a TV series made of the movie, O’Hara’s monster would be fleshed out into a trolling online commenter.
I Want My Hat Back
By Jon Klassen (2011)
Speaking of cannibalism, it’s no secret that kids and kids’ stories love the “eat or be eaten” theme, either as an act of love or aggression or just coming to terms with the natural world. (“Hansel and Gretel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” — in Finding Nemo, Marlin gets gulped three times.) At first reading, I thought Jon Klassen’s simple story of a kindly bear looking for his missing hat was just too stark, too twisted. Now I’ve read it probably 60 times. It’s a cool, modern return to the no-holds-barred stories of Beatrix Potter and the Brothers Grimm and Dwight Schrute. Maybe the dimwitted bear didn’t see his pointy red hat on that rabbit at first, but you didn’t see that rabbit-eating ending coming either, did you?
Jonathan Sanchez is the director of YALLFest: Charleston Young Adult Book Festival, the Write of Summer camp for kids, and the owner of Blue Bicycle Books.