Here are ten books that I always jump to share with my kids, because they have “heart.” Yes, that sentence is intentionally ambiguous. As sappy as it sounds, all of us, kids included, have thirsty hearts and need books that have heart—books that eschew commercial glossiness and speak with life-affirming authenticity.
My list is in no particular order and is by no means exhaustive. (Please email me with your own favourites – there cannot be too many entries on such a list.)
1. The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters by Roslyn Schwartz
With childlike simplicity, this collection of ten stories by a Montréal author-illustrator captures snippets of mole-sized adventures in nature. The stories show the moles’ unshakable optimism and resourcefulness—and who doesn’t want more of that for themselves and their kids? Stalks of wheat and moss stand in for playgrounds. A leaky roof becomes an improvised swimming pool. All is accompanied by shrieks of glee and silly sound effects (KERPLUNK. WHOOSH. Aaaaaaaaah. BOINGA-BOINGA). My almost four-year-old daughter who adores climbing (everything!) and playing outdoors really relates to the stories and characters.
2. Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, drawings by Robert Lawson
I have always felt a deep kinship with Ferdinand. Not only because my mother was born and raised in Madrid, but also because, if I dare say, I’m the kind of introspective guy who prefers to sit quietly and smell the flowers instead of running around and butting heads with others. Ferdinand embodies pacifism and unembarrassed self-acceptance. If I weren’t so busy taming my own wild wee broncos, I could pore over the book’s striking black and white illustrations for hours.
3. The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
A childhood favourite of mine. Two kittens named Brush and Hush, who have buckets and buckets (and buckets) of paint to make all the colours in the world, spend the story attempting to create green. The illustrations are deliciously retro and verge on the surreal. The text has a playful rhythm and is scattered through with unexpected associations. We smile each time, no matter how often we read the book. For my daughter, nothing beats that “world of Easter eggs / That danced about on little short legs.” Once, during a bedtime reading, she asked me if she, too, could dream about them. Surely the mark of a good book.
4. Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
Another book about mixing colours, this story follows the adventures of two best friends, “little blue” and “little yellow”, who one day hug each other so tightly that they become green. The illustrations look like they are made out of paper cut outs. The book is a bold visual feast, but what really stands out is the drama of loving someone so much that it becomes messy and scary.
5. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Little Harold draws the world around him using his purple crayon. He is the author and illustrator of his own life and adventures. I hope my kids will feel that power as they make their own ways. The book is in black and white, except for Harold’s crayon markings. Johnson’s subtle yet clever wordplay might be over kids’ heads but will leave adults smiling.
6. Amos & Boris by William Steig
This book is philosophy for kids. Scratch that. It’s philosophy for everyone. Amos & Boris was a recent find but I fell in love with it immediately. The unlikely friendship between a mouse and a whale is captured with beautiful watercolour illustrations. But this isn’t your average odd-couple story. What really stands out is the seemingly effortless blending of delicate language and weighty themes. A mouse and a whale, sure—but there is no talking down to the young reader. Don’t take my word for it: here’s a sample from the book:
“One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all.”
Wow. Just wow. Amos & Boris makes my list for desert island books any day.
7. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
I had to include this other William Steig book on my list, because like Amos & Boris, this story is filled with wonderfully intricate language, and its dramatic narrative plays into the deepest wishes and fears of small children. Sylvester, a donkey, finds a magic red pebble that can make all of his wishes come true, but when he is unexpectedly turned into a large stone, the drama is truly palpable and, at times, heartbreaking.
8. McDuff Moves In by Rosemary Wells, pictures by Susan Jeffers
I don’t have a dog—I’m allergic—but I do have a soft spot for West Highland terriers (“Westies”). I just want to shmush their little faces! Here, a friendly young dog, who has escaped from a dogcatcher’s truck, at last finds a new home. The text is as comforting as the dog’s long awaited warm vanilla rice pudding and sausages. Jeffers’s gorgeously painted nighttime scenes evoke the 1930s and make me feel like I’ve entered an Edward Hopper painting. There are several McDuff books out there, but this one is our favourite.
9. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
This book has been a mainstay with our daughter. The main character, Lilly, is a bubbly, enthusiastic mouse who loves school, her teacher, and yes, her new purple plastic purse. But one day, when Lilly disrupts his class one too many times, her beloved teacher confiscates her purse, and oh boy… Beware the wrath of a jilted schoolchild! Masterfully told through the eyes of Lilly, with fun and energetic illustrations, spunky kids everywhere can relate to her very dramatic day. Self-absorption gives way to self-awareness, and the messy process is realistically and humanely portrayed (even if by mice).
10. Read Me A Story, Stella by Marie-Louise Gay
Our daughter received this book by the talented Montréal author-illustrator as a birthday present. We were hooked right away. Stella, the older sister, is imaginative, bold, and intelligent, while her brother is slightly more cautious and exceedingly inquisitive. What I love about this particular book is that Stella is constantly reading or telling stories to her brother, even during their wild outdoor shenanigans. I am convinced that it was from this book that my daughter learned how to tell a story while hanging upside down from our lilac tree. I fantasize that my daughter and son (the little guy is one year old, and just took his first steps) will soon be hanging upside down, reading books, with their hearts, together.
Greg Santos is the author of Rabbit Punch! (DC Books, 2014) and The Emperor’s Sofa (DC Books, 2010). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in Manhattan. He is a graphic designer, teaches creative writing to at-risk youth, and is the poetry co-editor for carte blanche. He lives in Montréal with his wife and two children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @moondoggyspad.