I’m not so good with remembering the everyday details of my life. I can’t tell you the name of my eighth grade math teacher, or my freshman year dorm room number, or my cholesterol reading from my last checkup, or even who I had lunch with last Thursday (without checking my calendar first). Just last week, I’m not proud to admit, I forgot my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary. Compared to Jenny, whose institutional memory for every moment and triumph and hiccup of her life is downright scary photographic, I’m like the amnesiac guy from Memento: I should probably start tattooing every inch of my body with the little stuff — i.e., the important stuff — before it fades away forever. You know what I do remember, though, with almost perfect clarity? Finishing The Trumpet of the Swan when I was a kid. (I was eight. Or maybe nine. I forget!) I remember turning that last page, and not wanting it to end, thinking this was the best book I’d ever read, and having this vague sense that something was going on here that I didn’t quite understand — at least, not enough to articulate it — except maybe to say that the words on the page, and the way way they made me feel, were a whole lot more powerful than what I was getting from Strange But True Sports Stories. The last paragraph still crushes me:
On the pond where the swans were, Louis put his trumpet away. The cygnets crept under their mother’s wings. Darkness settled on woods and field and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.
The cygnets crept under their mother’s wings! Such a beautiful earth! The light that returns with the day! Dear, dear god. I would never forget this one. The Trumpet of the Swan was the book I would always think about when I thought about books from my youth, the book I would use to forge an identity apart from the big brother I revered (he was a devoted Stuart Little guy), the book I always imagined reading aloud to kids of my own. Which, thirty years later, I did.
Not only that, but I now push this book on my friends, too. Whenever someone has a baby, I go immediately to amazon and order up a copy — in hardcover, to ensure its longevity — secretly hoping that their kids will love it one day, too. But I also order other books — books for infants and toddlers and four-year-olds and eight- year-olds. Over the past few years, this has become our standard baby present, seven or eight books we’ve come to think of as a starter kit for the library we’d want, a gift that will keep on giving for years to come; a collection of books that will inspire some meaningful dinner table conversation. The list is always a little different, as I tailor it to the friend in question, but I generally pull from a list of books that I loved as a child, or came to love as a parent. I thought I’d write this list down here in case you need some good baby gift ideas…and so I won’t forget them. — Andy
Bruno Munari’s ABC by Bruno Munari (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: The extremely beautiful, graphic watercolors on a stark white background from this legendary artist and designer, and the fly that appears on every page.
I am A Bunny by Ole Rison, illlustrations by Richard Scarry
What You’ll Remember About It: The gorgeous, very un-Busytown illustrations from the great Richard Scarry, and the simple, tender story chronicling a year in the life of a bunny named Nicholas, who sleeps in a hollow tree and dreams of spring.
The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: While everyone else is buying (the admittedly classic) Goodnight Moon, I firmly believe that if you’re going to own one Wise Brown book, this should be it. A range of everyday objects — rain, a spoon, grass, a daisy — are demystified for kids in the most poetic, heartbreaking ways.
One Red Dot by David A. Carter
What You’ll Remember About It: The joy your child takes in this book of insanely intricate, three-dimensional, geometric pop-ups…until he or she finally gets his grabby little hands on it and destroys it. Until that moment, though, worth every penny. (If you like this one, also check out Yellow Square.)
The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss
What You’ll Remember About it: The simple beauty of the message: You is me. I is you. The end.
Dahlia by Barbara McClintock
What You’ll Remember About It: The lush, finely detailed, almost Victorian illustrations, the kind of artwork you don’t see anymore. Much less girly than it appears, which is also part of the message.
Rainbow Goblins by Ul De Rico (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: The artwork. And I use the word artwork, as opposed to illustrations, because these aren’t illustrations. They’re jewel-like oil paintings on wood panels by a fine Italian artist, lending the whole thing the otherworldly feel of a children’s book as imagined by a Renaissance master. Storyline is so-so, but the landscapes alone are worth the price of admission.
That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: The inspired story-telling. It’s not easy making something original, after all, but Cowell makes it look easy here. This was a huge hit whenever we would read it aloud for the kids on story day at kindergarten. Funny, unpredictable, creative, and whimsical (in the best possible, non-cloying way).
Amos and Boris by William Steig
What You’ll Remember About It: It’s never to early to question your existence. Or to realize the value of a good friendship.
The BFG by Roald Dahl
What You’ll Remember About It: All the classic Dahl-isms: Fleshlumpeaters and whizz-poppers and Bloodbottlers and whiffswhiddles and snozzcumbers and Gizzardgulpers and the odd, backassward, pig-Latinish syntax of the BFG himself. “‘I did not steal you very much,’ said the BFG, smiling gently. ‘After all, you is only a tiny little girl.'”
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: Everything, really. The dreamscape illustrations by Lane Smith, the message about empathy and community and the importance thinking beyond yourself, the heroine’s name (Capable — how great is that?), but really: this one, for me, is all about the writing and the humor. “She soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark. That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all.” You want a book that gets talked about at the dinner table? This is the one. Deeply wise, generous in spirit. Hard to overstate how much I love it.
The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: One of our finest poets doing the storytelling, and a young Maurice Sendak providing the woodcutty illustrations? Seriously, what could be better? A perfect little fable, starring a hunter and a mermaid, about the comforts of family. “Below them the white-on-green of the waves was lined along the white shore — out beyond, the green sea got bluer and bluer till at last it came to the far-off blue of the island. There were small seals on the seal rocks, and the little gray spot out above the waves was a big black-and-white osprey waiting for a fish. But no fish came, and it hung there motionless. Everything lay underneath them like something made for them; things got smaller and smaller in the distance but managed, somehow, to fill the whole world.” Now that’s writin’!
A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears by Jules Feiffer (above)
What You’ll Remember About It: You already know how we feel about Jules Feiffer in our house. In addition to being an iconic New Yorker cartoonist and the man who kicked off our daughter’s comic book obsession, he also happens to be the author of some really memorable chapter books. Chief among them: the exquisitely-titled Barrel of Laughs, the plot of which is too unconventional and playful to explain here. (The reader is part of the narrative, I’ll just say that much.) This one breaks open, for young readers, the endless possibilities of storytelling.
The Trumpet of the Swan
What You’ll Remember About It: See above.
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
What You’ll Remember About It: The kind of sad fact that, despite all the Newberry Awards and the covers touting “three million copies sold,” Lloyd Alexander probably did not get the respect he deserved for this richly imagined, thrilling series — the first series I ever remember tearing through, the first fictional world I remember not ever wanting to leave. If your kid likes Tolkien or Rowling, give this a shot.