Posted in Lists, Reading

11 Modern Picture Books That Make Great Baby Shower Gifts

Books make the best gifts. Period. And buying a book for a baby shower means not having to set foot inside a Babies R Us or search through online registries full of products called Chew-Choos and Boogie Bulbs. I don’t know what either of those are, and I don’t want to.

Plus, these particular books make great gifts because they were all published after the year 2000. Everyone loves the classics—Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, everything by Dr. Seuss—but many families already own those well-loved titles. If you choose a book off this list, there’s a good chance the baby-to-be’s parents don’t already have a copy. (Unless of course they’re teachers or librarians, in which case they’ll be impressed with your impeccable taste in literature.)

It’s important to point out that these aren’t board books (the thick-paged tomes made for young babies with a stronger appetite for grabbing and chewing than for reading). Most of these are aimed at children ages four through eight, but they still make great baby shower gifts because:
A) Books don’t go bad.
B) It’s never too early to start a child’s library.
C) These are books that parents will enjoy reading too. They’re creative and sweet and thought-provoking and hilarious and, in the case of I Want My Hat Back, a little bit shocking. Plus, a couple of the books in this list will help prepare Mom and Dad for some of the precious predicaments they’re likely to encounter in parenthood.

One more note: I do not believe in genderizing gifts for kids, especially books. You won’t find any advice here about gender. If you’re wondering if the book is good for girls or boys, the answer is yes. I would give any book on this list to any child.


1. Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon

Written by Patty Lovell, Illustrated by David Catrow – 2001

“Molly Lou Melon had buck teeth that stuck so far out, she could stack pennies on them. She didn’t mind. Her grandma had told her, ‘Smile big and the world will smile right alongside you.’ So she did.” I love everything about this book, from the quirky little character to the colorful illustrations to the great message about being yourself even when faced with adversity.


2. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Written and illustrated by Mo Willems – 2005

If you’re not acquainted with Mo Willems, you should be. He’s written dozens of children’s books and they’re all amazing (and difficult to keep on our library shelves) but Knuffle Bunny is my favorite. This cute father/daughter story about what happens when a beloved stuffed animal gets left at a Laundromat uses a combination of color drawings and black and white photographs to create unique images. Also, it’s the first in a series of three books, so it lends itself to more great gifts in the future.


3. The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – 2007

Henry loves books. The problem is he loves to EAT them. Luckily, he figures out there’s a better way to ingest the information, one that doesn’t make him sick to his stomach. Oliver Jeffers uses a unique artistic style that adds layers of pleasure to this cute, creative story.


4. All the World

Written by Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee – 2009

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig, a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep

The simple words and beautiful pictures in this book will stay with you long after you read it.


5. The Boss Baby

Written and illustrated by Marla Frazee – 2010

Having a baby changes everything. This adorable book paints a hilarious (and accurate) picture of what life is like once the new “boss” arrives.


6. Shark vs. Train

Written by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld – 2010

Who will win? Shark? Or Train? Well, it really depends on the scenario. I mean, swimming is kind of a no-brainer, and when it comes to carnival rides, Train has an obvious advantage. But what about selling lemonade? Or roasting marshmallows? This book is hilarious. I love it.


7. Press Here

Written by Hervé Tullet, Translated by Christopher Franceschelli – 2011

This interactive picture book is SO simple and SO creative. It’s one of those books that made me scream, “WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS?” Well, I didn’t, but I’m really glad Hervé Tullet did.


8. I Want My Hat Back

Written and illustrated by Job Klassen – 2011

The bear’s hat is gone. He wants it back. This simple tale will help teach kids how to make inferences while they read, but it does have a slightly controversial ending. (See, now you HAVE to read it!)


9. The Monsters’ Monster

Written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell – 2012

I love the artwork in Patrick McDonnell’s comic strip, Mutts, and I’m partial to all children’s books that are spooky, creepy, or Halloween-related, so this one is right up my alley. The Monsters’ Monster is not actually creepy though, it’s sweet.


10. Once Upon a Memory

Written by Nina Laden, Illustrated by Renata Liwska – 2013

Does a feather remember it once was a bird?
Does a book remember it once was a word?

This poetic picture book will put a smile on your face and one in your heart.


11. Grandfather Gandhi

Written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, Illustrated by Evan Turk – 2014

This nonfiction picture book, co-written by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, teaches kids a powerful message about how to turn anger into peace, and darkness into light.


*** BONUS BOOK ***

HaikuMamaHaiku Mama: Because 17 Syllables Is All You Have Time to Read, by Kari Anne Roy – 2006

Yay! The perfect time
to strip down naked and scream–
when Mommy’s on phone

This one’s for Mom. This collection of hilarious (and honest) haiku covers everything from nap time to potty training.


Happy Shopping!

[Is there a modern picture book that needs to be on this list?
Share it in the comments!]

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Why I’m Grateful for The Spider and the Fly


Today, while I was trapped inside by the quarter inch of ice that shut down Austin, Texas, I attempted to weed-out my picture book collection.  I was not successful.  Rather than getting rid of a single book, I instead spent forty-five minutes re-reading favorites such as Miss Nelson is Missing and Harry the Dirty Dog and Frank Baber’s  Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was one.

“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children she didn’t know what to do…” Anyone remember how this nursery rhyme ends?

During my fruitless search for titles I could live without, I came across Tony DiTerlizzi’s beautifully illustrated version of Mary Howitt’s The Spider and the Fly, and it brought a grin to my face.  This cautionary tale about a fly who is foolishly taken in by a spider’s flattery was one of my favorites to use in the classroom.

You may be thinking, Wait, I thought she taught middle school?  I did.  Children’s books are excellent teaching tools for students of all ages.  They’re short, they’re great mentor texts for introducing new literary elements, and they’re crowd-pleasers.  It’s amazing how quickly twelve-year-olds will gather on the floor for someone to read to them.  Most of us never outgrow of the joy of “story time”.

Over the course of my teaching career, I read many picture books to my classes.  I used Jane Yolen’s Greyling to teach plot development, Denise Gruska’s The Only Boy in Ballet Class to teach theme, and Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty for word choice.  We read Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick to brainstorm short story ideas and Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man just for the fun of it.  But The Spider and the Fly was always one of my favorites.

As a literary reference, the book has lots of merit—it can be used to demonstrate anything from theme to mood to rhyme scheme to how to punctuate dialogue.   But for me, the real reason for reading it came after the lesson was over, when I had the pleasure of having the following conversation with my students.

It goes something like this:

We finish discussing the literary elements of the story, and I tell my students that my favorite thing about the book is that the fly dies at the end, which elicits the expected reaction.  The students gasp, accuse me of being mean, and ask the big question.  “Why?”  I tell them it’s because the story hasn’t been messed with yet.

“Messed with?” they ask.  “What do you mean?”

Then, I ask my students to tell me the story of the three little pigs.  Without exception, every class tells me the version where the pig who builds his house out of straw runs to his brother’s house when his own is blown down by the wolf, and then both of them run to the third pig’s house when the one made of sticks is blown down too.  There, saved by the sturdy brick house, they all survive.

“Wrong,” I tell them.


“The first two pigs get eaten by the wolf.”

What?!  The thirteen-year-olds in front of me are shocked.  They honestly don’t know this version of the story.  When asked why it was changed, I shrug.  “Too violent, too upsetting for little kids.”  They seem to understand this—some of them look pretty unsettled themselves.  They don’t see any problem with the revision.  So I probe further.

“In your version of the story,” I say, “the moral seems to be that if you’re foolish and lazy, someone smart and hardworking will save you.  What do you think is the moral of the original version?”

They think for a moment until someone says, “Um, if you’re foolish and lazy… you die?”

I shrug, and they get a little nervous.

They ask me what other stories have been changed and I tell them about the evil stepsisters cutting off their toes to try to fit the glass slipper in Cinderella.  This also produces the desired effect.

“So,” I say, “back to The Spider and the Fly.  Right now the story is still unchanged.  It’s a cautionary tale about the dire consequences of giving in to false praise and dangerous temptations.  What would happen if someone decided the story was too harsh for children?”

The answers come in bursts, pieces.

“She wouldn’t die.”

“He wouldn’t eat her.”

“The spider would learn a lesson.”

I am nodding, but obviously waiting for more.  Then, inevitably, one kids gets it.

“They would become friends!”

I smile.  Yes.

One year, a student with eyes wide open in astonishment, said, “She wouldn’t die.  The spider would learn his lesson. Then they would learn to appreciate their differences, and they’d become friends and eat pancakes together!”

Exactly.  Well, I’m not sure about the pancakes part, but otherwise, yes, you got it.  It’s only a matter of time until this tale too is softened, its true lesson buried beneath our fear of scaring children.


At that point, if I had paced my lesson appropriately, there would be just enough time left before the bell for the class to ponder this new revelation.  Their stories had been changed.  In the real world, flies died, pigs were eaten, and greed could lead a person to chopping off her own feet. These kids were seventh graders.  It was time they knew.

These are the conversations I loved when I was a teacher, the moments of epiphany I miss.  The lessons not covered in the curriculum were always my favorites.

I keep my copy of The Spider and the Fly as a reminder, a cautionary tale.


[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]