I have 17 minutes to write this before I go to bed. Coincidentally I was inspired by a recent episode of Up All Night where “the Fonz” guest stars as one of the main character’s Dad. He plays a role, where if you grew up during a certain time you will recognize as a parody of Ezra Jack Keats, children’s author and illustrator.
When I was six, I got my first public library card and I was very impressed with myself for knowing where to find books by Ezra Jack Keats; my favourite one, was A Letter to Amy. But I’m sure I was introduced to him at school via the librarian reading us “A Snowy Day”. It was the beautiful water colours that I enjoyed and on some level, the fact that the main characters were not white. While I was not African-American, nor was I growing up in New York, I was drawn to the brown- skinned characters and their urban “adventures”. Adventures such as going for a walk in the first big snow; learning to whistle, mailing a party invitation to a crush. I never realized how much of an imprint these books left on me until I was pregnant with my first daughter, and I bought her Keats’ Neighbourhood as a present. I read them to her while she was in the belly and when she was just a baby. Now, she reads them to herself and her sisters.
There are so many other books I’ve passed on to her that I grew up loving (I will definitely write more about). But I think the Keats’ books meant so much to me because picture books – of a high quality – were rare things to own. I had dozens of books as a very young child, but the illustrations were of varying quality, and they were typically fairy tales. Not like the dozens,- close to a hundred- picture books my girls have by award winning authors Mo Willems, Emily Gravett, Oliver Jeffers, and Canadians Melanie Watt and Jeremy Tankard to name just a few. These books are hilarious, cheeky, and smart. Many of them have a direct appeal to the grown-ups reading them – from Scaredy Squirrel’s neurosis to Willems’ Knuffle Bunny Free epilogue bringing my partner and I to tears it so obviously written for the parents. It’s easy to find and buy children’s picture books now. And, I confess that we go to the bookstore more than the library, but we do go there – to borrow fiction and non; books by familiar authors and new ones; books that are older and books that are brand new. But be it at the store or in the library, I’ve yet to come across a collection that speaks to me the way the Keat’s books did. And they really did speak to me and I spoke back. Because in this very vivid memory I have of my first visit to the public library (I could retrace that path exactly if I had to), I remember talking to myself and the books as I chose them. I wonder if my girls will have a memory of a children’s picture book like that?
Did you grow up with picture books that had and continue to have a special place in your heart? Who are your current favourite children’s authors?