Picture Books For A Super-Smart Kid
April 21, 2009 7:34 AM   Subscribe

What are the cleverest, wittiest picture books you know? I'm looking for something you might recommend to a very smart kid who is still young enough to prefer picture books to chapter books. Another way of putting is, I'm looking for the picture book equivalent of McSweeney's.

(I should mention that I know that McSweeney's actually does publishe some kids' books -- those are already on my list!)
posted by yankeefog to Writing & Language (57 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
How about The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg?
posted by jackmcc at 7:41 AM on April 21, 2009

Not books, but you and your youngun' may enjoy Kiddie Records Weekly, devoted to the golden age of children's records. This period spanned from the mid-forties through the early fifties and produced a wealth of all-time classics. You can download the music and the cover art directly to your computer for easy listening and enjoyment.
posted by netbros at 7:42 AM on April 21, 2009

Antoinette Portis' Not a Box and Not a Stick are two recentish favorites. I like Mo Willems a lot too.

And you could do a whole lot worse than just going down the Caldecott list.
posted by box at 7:44 AM on April 21, 2009

Second on that Caldecott list recommendation. That's the award they give for illustration in children's books, and the winners are always worth a perusal.
posted by hippybear at 7:47 AM on April 21, 2009

This kind of question comes up at lot at work (I work in a public library). There are lots of great books out there but I usually ask for a bit more information from the child before randomly suggesting titles. It helps to know the gender of the child (not that boys can't enjoy female protagonists but a list that is heavily skewed with one gender or a chlid that has a strong gender preference needs to be taken into account). Also, if the child is non-white I try to find books that depict their reality as they get enough white culture shoved down their throats. One of the first questions I ask though is "What were the last three books you really enjoyed and what did you really like about them." Like I said, there are so many awesome books out there that a little guidance makes it quicker and easier to find some great books.

That being said: Stormy Night (Michele Lemieux) is pretty cool.
posted by saucysault at 7:49 AM on April 21, 2009

Grahame Base's "Animalia." Beautiful, smart, witty, absorbing.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:50 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any of D.B. Johnsons Henry books. Our pre-chapter-book-picture-book kids like the I Spy stuff as well. For beauty of illustration, I like Beatrix Potter and Howard Pyle.
posted by jquinby at 7:50 AM on April 21, 2009

I cannot recommend The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales hard enough.

I got thrown out of the library for laughing uncontrollably the day I found this.
posted by namewithoutwords at 7:50 AM on April 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Seconding both Grahame Base and Chris Van Allsburg. In fact, The Eleventh Hour is one of the most challenging picture books I've ever seen--it's actually a mystery, with codes and clues hidden in the images. Very cool.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:51 AM on April 21, 2009

In the Night Kitchen, Chicken Sunday, anything from Jan Brett.

Those were all faves at our house.
posted by Danf at 7:52 AM on April 21, 2009

I cannot recommend The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales hard enough.

Son of a...I can't believe I forgot Stinky Cheese Man. See also Math Curse.
posted by jquinby at 7:52 AM on April 21, 2009

Off at a tangent perhaps, but I enjoyed Hunkin's Experiments.
posted by devnull at 7:56 AM on April 21, 2009

Our kids keep coming back to "Where the Wild Things Are." But then you knew about that already.

Zoom is a fabulously sophisticated picture book without words as is Flotsam. Big Blue Whale combines gorgeous illustrations with an informative and poetic text.

Shirley Hughes Dogger is a treat of a story beautifully illustrated. Not quite McSweeney's, but damned rewarding intellectually and emotionally. Same goes for John Burningham's books. Mr. Gumpy's Outing has some of the smartest, funniest, most beautifully conceived and executed illustrations I've seen. His other books rock too. Avocado Baby still enthralls us all.

Oh, and The Snowman. The version without words.
posted by firstdrop at 8:07 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Looking at the (great and very helpful) replies thus far, I realized my question was inadvertently misleading. I'm not actually going to give these books to a specific kid -- I'm keeping them all to myself(*)! I'm interested in writing children's books, and as a kid, I always most loved the books that didn't assume I was dumb just because I was a kid. So, I'm looking for contemporary books that will inspire me, and help me learn how to write smart stuff for kids.

(*) OK, I'm actually going to pass them on to some young friends and relatives after I read them, and/or save them until my one-year-old daughter is old enough to read them. But I'm not asking on behalf of a specific kid.
posted by yankeefog at 8:19 AM on April 21, 2009

The Church Mice books.
posted by lemuria at 8:20 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't believe no one has mentioned Zen Shorts yet. Probably one of my favorite books of all time. Gorgeous art, wonderful characters, and a very powerful message.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:25 AM on April 21, 2009

Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean's The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. It's adorable and surreal and all the things children might enjoy.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:26 AM on April 21, 2009

I always enjoyed CDB as a kid. Pictures + letters that sound like words. Certainly fits your "clever" requirement.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 8:28 AM on April 21, 2009

Who Needs Donuts by Mark Alan Stamaty is my favorite picture book ever. Each page is densely crowded with visual and verbal jokes. You can read the story (Summary: Young Sam leaves home to satisfy his craving for donuts, finds a job with a donut collector, and discovers the answer to the question "Who needs donuts when you've got love?") in about ten minutes, or you can spend hours poring over the detail in the pictures. It's awesome.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:29 AM on April 21, 2009

When I was in my 20's, my mother was taking some college courses in early childhood education; one of them was a children's-lit course, so she started having all these different kinds of children's books lying around the house. During one of my visits home at this time, I had just gotten home and put my bags in my room while Mom was putting some other things away; I wandered into the living room, and spotted a book called Tuesday lying on the coffee table. Idly, I picked it up and started flipping through it. Five minutes later, when my mother came to join me, I was giggling delightedly, and I closed the book, turned to face her, and said, "I need a copy of this."

It is nothing but pictures, but it is gloriously, deleriously fun. I got my copy, and showed it to friends -- all of whom were jaded 20-somethings at the time -- and each and every one of them moved through first smiling, then chuckling, then giggling, then outright laughter at the very end. From what I've seen of David Wiesner's other stuff, this is kind of his vein -- surreal-yet-goofy things.

Another good one is a Christmas-themed story that was just lovely and sweet -- Berkley Breathed's The Red Ranger Came Calling, which was his illustration and retelling of a Christmas story his father always told. The very last illustration in the book is a photo, and I guarantee that if you read this book, when you see that photo, you will for at least a split second believe in Santa.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:35 AM on April 21, 2009

"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" helps start discussions of what-ifs that let you and your kid(s) tell your own stories, and the drawings are full of tiny details that reward repeated viewings. I like it a lot.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:41 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame) also wrote some picture books - the illustrations by Nicola Bayley are stunning - check out The Tyger Voyage.
posted by Sparx at 8:44 AM on April 21, 2009

Seconding Flotsam.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 8:50 AM on April 21, 2009

Are you writing/illustrating for kids or adults? Go spend some time in the kids section at the biggest Borders you can find. Pick the brain of the bookseller at a kids bookstore, and buy some books to compensate them for their time. Most of all, pick the brains of good children's librarians. I'm a parent and a former bookseller, and the books kids like are not always the ones grownups like.

My son loved every Robert McCloskey book we read to him. Mike Mulligan and his steamshovel was read to him hundreds of times, at his request(demand).

Pick an issue or theme, and bring it to life. Tell a story that's as true and authentic as possible.
posted by theora55 at 8:50 AM on April 21, 2009

Along the same lines as The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.
posted by geeky at 8:53 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't post a link from my phone, but I highly, highly recommend tracking down a copy of Ul de Rico's The Rainbow Goblins. It is a breathtakingly gorgeous picture book, easily the most beautiful I've ever seen in my life. Seriously, you can get lost in those spectacular illustrations.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:00 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lord a' mercy! Has no one mentioned Edward Gorey's work yet? The Gashlycrumb Tinies came instantly to mind, and many of his other works would, I think, fit this bill. Grisly, but great.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:04 AM on April 21, 2009

Oh, two more just sprang to mind: 1) Neil Gaiman's Blueberry Girl is pretty great, especially if you'll be passing it on to your daughter, and 2) Click, Clack, Moo -- a treatise on socialism in a barnyard setting. I swear it is pee-your-pants funny.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:12 AM on April 21, 2009

These are both on the Caldecott list, but I just wanted to highly recommend:

The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey
Hondo and Fabian by Peter McCarty

I love to read these to my son. McCarty's illustrations are gorgeous and led me to buy all the rest of his books that I could. Moon Plane is also fabulous.

Also, buy the first Knuffle Bunny book and start reading it to your daughter in about 6 months. I wish I had video of the first 2 or 3 times I read this to our son when he was 2. There's a part of the book where the protagonist says, "Aggle Flaggle Klabble! Wumpy flappy?!" (she can't talk yet and is really trying to get her point across), and believe me, even tiny kids "get" what's happening.
posted by peep at 9:13 AM on April 21, 2009

When I was little, I loved the Brambly Hedge books. We had Spring Story, Summer Story, Autumn Story, Winter Story and The Secret Staircase. The illustrations of the homes of these mice inside trees and treestumps, and their rural British customs were absolutely fascinating.

More recently, I loved Buttons by Brock Cole.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:14 AM on April 21, 2009

Terry Pratchett's book "Where's My Cow" is awesome. I hope I'm doing the hypertext correctly so that you'd be sure to give it a look, but believe me, it's worth the effort to google it.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 9:20 AM on April 21, 2009

Look's like my first effort with a like worked, so you shouldn't even have to google it.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 9:21 AM on April 21, 2009

For pure surreal silliness, it doesn't get any better than A Day With Wilbur Robinson.
posted by Sculthorpe at 9:24 AM on April 21, 2009

Okay that makes sense, but then you can turn it around and ask from the perspective of a potential child (customer), who exactly is your market? It is funny that you specified that you wanted to WRITE children's books but many of the books suggested above are wordless/more appealing because of the illustrations (my fav - Rob Gonsalves). A strongly written book WILL fail because of its illustrations. As a writer, you generally do not have a choice in your illustrator so that is something to keep in mind. Books that I consider have strong written narratives that have many layers AND are also poular with children include Shel Silverstein, Virginia Lee Burton, Roch Carrier (esp the Hockey Sweater), Barbara Reid (The party), David Wisniewski esp The Secret knowledge of grownups, Jamie Lee Curtis (yes the actress, her books are fantastic) and Geraldine McCaughrean (her retelling of Greek myths especially). If I think of any more I will post later but I really must run to a job interview.

Instead of a chain bookstore I would recommend you find an independent children's bookshop and pick the staff's brains in addition to your local children's librarian's brains too. England has a great tradition of witty children's books that do not rely as heavily on TV/movie brands as the North American Market does. In addition to the US award winning books be sure to look further in the commonwealth for award-winners.
posted by saucysault at 9:32 AM on April 21, 2009

Now that I'm back at my desk, a few links:

The Rainbow Goblins
Blueberry Girl
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type

But yeah, most of all The Rainbow Goblins. If one person discovers that book as a result of this thread, I would be a happy girl.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:33 AM on April 21, 2009

Gary Larson's There's a Hair in My Dirt
James Thurber's The Thirteen Clocks (illustrated prose rather than a picture book, per se)
posted by Zed at 9:33 AM on April 21, 2009

Shaun Tan. Particularly The Red Tree, and The Arrival.
posted by Alex Voyd at 10:17 AM on April 21, 2009

Oliver Jeffers (sorry about the flash) and Mo Willems are great.

and Kids Can Press is putting out a series of books that I would describe as classic poetry reinterpreted by illustrators to magnificent effect. I would not call them children's books, but if what you are interested in is what can be done in the form then they are worth looking at.

nthing finding a good independent bookstore and asking for whoever knows the kids' books.
posted by spindle at 11:16 AM on April 21, 2009

I remember an awesome book called The Eleventh Hour that was about a party for an elephant. I think it might require some reading, but I remember renewing that book for months on end and pouring over the pages with my friends in elementary school, and I highly recommend it.
posted by brenton at 11:39 AM on April 21, 2009

I'm looking for the picture book equivalent of McSweeney's

Check out the books in the Little Lit series, edited by Art Spiegelman & Françoise Mouly.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:01 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Absolutely nthing Mo Willems - he's ex-Sesame Street and he just seems to get kids. Leonardo The Terrible Monster is one of the books I find myself recommending over and over as well as his Pigeon series for younger ones. I also really like The Haunted House, Moon Rabbit, and one more When a Monster is Born. What these books have in common is an individual illustrative style, engaging plots, and plenty of humour. Oh, and two very British Books Burglar Bill and Not Now Bernard (by the author of Elmer).

I actually do run an independent children's bookshop, so if you want more, memail me.
posted by featherboa at 1:04 PM on April 21, 2009

Also amazing - The Way Things Work. I spent hours reading about physics and mammoths when I was a kid. Probably contributed to my current mammoth fixation too, now that I think about it.
posted by awenner at 1:55 PM on April 21, 2009

Some awesomes:

I Stink
A is for Salad
The Year I Didn't Go to School
Who's Got Game (the Ant or the Grasshopper)
Rosie's Walk
Hail to the Mail
All James Marshall books
All William Steig books
All Ezra Jack Keats books
All Daniel Pinkwater books

(These are mostly "clever" in the sense I think you're looking for, but some just "work" for some reason that I can't explain.)
posted by serazin at 2:00 PM on April 21, 2009

Can't believe no one has yet mentioned Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay, writer of all things awesome. This is a smart, amazingly illustrated picture book that you'll understand at 8 and still read at 18 (and above), about the archaeological rediscovery of an American city after a terrible (funny) catastrophe of our own making.

Also have to second the Graehme Base books (Eleventh Hour!) and Gashlycrumb Tinies.
posted by whatzit at 2:06 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of great suggestions in this discussion. I also found that all my children enjoyed Tintin before they could read too much.

posted by mdoar at 2:17 PM on April 21, 2009

Well, once again a lot of the appeal is illustrations, but Tomie dePaola has some wonderful stories including Strega Nona.

Favorites that I inherited from my parents include The Fire Cat (they've republished it; my worn-out copy has much more character), The Story of Ferdinand, and Uncle Wiggily for pure nostalgia.
posted by dormouse at 2:26 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second shaun tan

The Arrival is objectively,
the greatest picture book in human history
posted by compound eye at 4:53 PM on April 21, 2009

I imagine intelligent and slightly silly kids (and adults) would love and cherish the works of Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-On-Whey, including the educational classics Giraffes? Giraffes!; Animals of the Ocean, in Particular the Giant Squid; Cold Fusion; and Your Disgusting Head: The Darkest, Most Offensive and Moist Secrets of Your Ears, Mouth and Nose. The Amazon pages say that the series is for ages 9-12, but I suppose not all 9-12 year olds would appreciate it. You might want to look before you buy. If your kid loves Monty Python (most do), I think this would be a match.

I also wish I had discovered Tintin as a child. Although, it's never too late to start.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:54 PM on April 21, 2009

Well, since this is not for a specific kid, but for you...

I suggest Bitter with Baggage. Which is photos of dioramas made with little wire puffball chicks. Um, like easter chicks. And captions. My god they are poignant, and some of them hilarious.

Also, the Bunny Suicides.
posted by bilabial at 8:57 PM on April 21, 2009

The Trek by Ann Jonas was a favourite of mine when I was really young. It's full of illustrations with animals that are cleverly hidden into an everyday city surrounding.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 9:23 PM on April 21, 2009

I was ready to jump in here and say THE ARRIVAL but it's been said.

So maybe Blood Song? It's a whole silent narrative about a girl and her dog and her village gets burned and she meets a musician and it's all pretty and stuff.
posted by The Whelk at 9:44 PM on April 21, 2009

Oh god howdidImiss and Fuck Yes the Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay,

It's an Intro to Anthropology and Alt History/Sci-Fi picture book all in one. It is made for turning on young minds.
posted by The Whelk at 9:47 PM on April 21, 2009

Seconding Bitter with Baggage for grownups. It looks like the author has done some kids' books as well, but based on the couple pages I saw on her website, they look far less clever.
posted by myohmy at 11:41 PM on April 21, 2009

Maybe a bit young for what you're looking for, but The Monster at the End of this Book still reliably cracks me up.
posted by itesser at 1:23 AM on April 22, 2009

Response by poster: Wow--thank you ,everybody! This is an amazingly helpful set of answers. I've got a lot of great reading to look forward to.

Thanks again!
posted by yankeefog at 2:07 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

William Steig! Yankeefog, you have to get to know him! New Yorker cartoonist since the age of 23 (in 1930, ultimately producing 1,600 drawings for them, and 117 covers, over 6-7 decades), Steig came to kid's book writing at age 61. "CDB", mentioned by Juiceboxhero as one of his favs as a kid, was his first. Two books later, his third book, "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" won the Caldicott. You want clever and witty, original and delightfully sophisticated use of the English language, check out his books. He was one of a kind. Great heart and wit both with words and drawings. Masterful. Distinctive. Meaningful. Exquisite on many levels. He wrote till his death in 2003 at age 95. A very inspiring human, for his creative, humane spirit and accomplishments, his originality. If you know that he was behind Shrek, I must assure you that his Shrek and the film's share little resemblance. Check out the original, Steig's, for a really funny, repulsively appealing love story...!
Steig is my perennial favorite.
posted by sparrowdance at 7:23 PM on April 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Cracking the sushi bar code   |   WHAD simply folk whats that song Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.