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Librarians Share 10 Amazing Lesser-Known Books for Kids

Nov 17, 2016

No matter how good the story, by the eighth straight reading, you’re probably ready for a change. But how do you find some new titles? There’s always looking for books bearing prestigious Caldecott or Newberry medals, or any one of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC) Awards. Sometimes, though, the best ones are unheralded — the just-under-the-radar deep cuts that may not be obvious choices because they’re a little older or a little more obscure. Since they were so helpful recommending back-to-school books, we asked five librarian experts from across Canada to share some of their favourite picture books and early-reader stories for kids.

Thunder Boy Jr. (Sherman Alexie)

Recommended by Leah Pohlman, adult services librarian, Halifax Public Library

Thunder Boy Jr., author and poet Sherman Alexie’s first foray into the world of picture books, is a funny, heartfelt, poignant story about individuality and finding oneself. This book tops my list due to its positive portrayal of First Nations People and father-son relationships, as well as its simultaneous presentation of an important aspect of First Nations culture — the naming ceremony. This is a fantastic book for children exploring feelings of identity and belonging, and it is an excellent choice for parents or teachers looking to introduce First Nations culture and cultural diversity into their picture book repertoire.

Book cover:

Chicken Big (Keith Graves)

Recommended by Niki Sutherland, Mayfair branch supervisor, Saskatoon Public Library

Chicken Big is about a chicken who is so big, the other chickens (and the rooster) in the coop don’t know what to make of him. Every time Chicken Big helps the group out (by blocking the wind, providing shelter from the rain, or noting that acorns are NOT the sky falling), the other chickens use the behavior as clues to guess what Chicken Big might be: An elephant? An umbrella? A SWEATER? Their guesses are more and more preposterous, leading to chuckles from the reader. This book is silly fun, and works especially well as a read-aloud using ridiculous chicken voices — I like using the Kids in the Hall’s Chicken Lady.

Book cover: A big yellow chicken so big that its yellow feathers basically take up the whole image, with

Warning: Do Not Open This Book (Adam Lehrhaupt and Matthew Forsythe)

Recommended by Scott Robins, children’s services specialist, Toronto Public Library

This picture book is a current favourite of mine — I use it all the time in story times at the library. There is currently a glut of interactive and self-aware picture books available, but this one has kids engaged and begging me to read it to them again and again. The cover warns readers of the potential dangers in the book, but the enticement to turn the page is too strong. By the end, it’s up to readers to problem-solve a way to ward off the hazards. Parents will love how this book will instantly capture the attention of their kids, and have them rolling around laughing by the end of the book. Absolute fun.

Book cover: Warning tape and chains criss-cross with a sign that reads

Who Needs Donuts? (Mark Alan Stamaty)

Recommended by John Mutford, public services librarian, Yellowknife Public Library

One book I never grew tired of reading to my children is Who Needs Donuts? — I find something new and delightful in the incredibly detailed artwork every time. The story itself is quirky, involving a young boy named Sam who runs away to the big city in search of donuts. Once there, he befriends a fellow donut-collector, Mr. Bikferd, and a sad but prophetic old lady who asks, “Who needs donuts when you’ve got love?” But if the story is quirky, the art is downright bizarre. Black and white, intricate with hatching and cross-hatching, the city scenes are full of visual and verbal puns, people dressed in eccentric styles, and almost every square centimetre of the page is taken up with delightful nonsense. I cannot imagine how long the book took to make, but I could look at it for almost as long.

Book cover: An intricate black and white drawing of a city street with cars, buses, birds, buildings and a book shop. On a billboard with red letters reads the title,

We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers (Julie Flett)

Recommended by Linda Lines, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

This counting book in both English and Cree celebrates the unique world view of the First Nations child. Influenced by Cree and Inuit artists, as well as by her Cree and Metis roots, Flett’s art is beautiful, spare and classic, but so appealing and friendly that little children will want to read this again and again. I predict this book will become a Canadian classic like Mary of Mile 18 by Ann Blades.

Book cover:

Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret (Bob Shea)

Recommended by Leah Pohlman, adult services librarian, Halifax Public Library

Ballet Cat and Sparkles the Pony are trying to decide what to play, but nothing Sparkles suggests — making crafts, playing checkers, and selling lemonade — goes well with the leaping, spinning, and twirling Ballet Cat likes to do. With colourful illustrations and humorous text, this is one of my favourite early-reader books. The simple, repetitive text is excellent for new and beginning readers, but can also be enjoyed as a picture book by non-readers. Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret includes strong depictions of empathy and compassion, and is an excellent choice for parents looking to discuss these values with their children.

Book cover: A yellow background with blue and white cross-hatching with pink dots to the left.

The Truth of Me (Patricia Maclachlan)

Recommended by Niki Sutherland, Mayfair branch supervisor, Saskatoon Public Library

The Truth of Me is more of an early-chapter book, rather than a ‘beginning reader.’ It gently explores the universal theme of dealing with difficult people and relationships. Robert is spending the summer with his grandmother, whom he loves unreservedly. Meanwhile, he is dealing with the fact he has a hard time connecting with his mother. This is a solid book to share with six to nine-year-olds to explore concepts of relationship and family.

Book cover: a background of several green trees, with the top of a blue tent in the left corner; the title

The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo (Judy Blume)

Recommended by Scott Robins, children’s services specialist, Toronto Public Library

This book started my addiction to reading Judy Blume’s work. I remember identifying with the lead character, Freddy, because he was a kid that felt out of place. In high school, I was involved with plays and musicals, and I believe Freddy’s courage in auditioning for the school play and becoming the Green Kangaroo inspired me and helped me get through being shy in elementary school. Parents with kids just starting to read on their own should definitely put this in their hands. It’s an accessible, short, chapter book full of humour, honesty and authenticity. And it will get your kids asking to read the rest of Blume’s library, like it did for me!

Book cover: blue and light blue stripes on the left side with

Binky the Space Cat (Ashley Spires)

Recommended by Linda Lines, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

In this hilarious graphic novel for young readers by Ashley Spires, we meet Binky. Binky is space cat and the self-appointed protector of the humans in his household – or at least that's what he thinks he is. The story follows this feisty feline hero as he carefully prepares for his first big adventure exploring outer space (otherwise known as outside) and doing battle fearsome aliens (bugs). When it comes to encouraging children to develop a love of reading, humour is a great way to go. And with an entire series of Binky the Space Cat stories to enjoy, this tremendously entertaining graphic novel is an out-of-this-world choice that is sure to get both kids and adults reading (and laughing) together.

Book cover: A border of a dark blue sky with little white stars around

The Mummer’s Song (Bud Davidge and Ian Wallace)

Recommended by John Mutford, public services librarian, Yellowknife Public Library 

My son’s first favourite picture books were ones that could be sung; they were the illustrated versions of words that began life on the radio, like Stompin’ Tom’s “The Hockey Song,” Dolly Parton’s “The Coat of Many Colors,” and Bud Davidge’s “The Mummer’s Song.” The last in that list was also a favourite of mine, recalling warm memories of Christmases in outport Newfoundland. It tells a story of a grandmother who longs for the old days of mummers — those mysterious costumed folks who travelled door to door during the 12 days of Christmas. They’d play music and dance a few jigs, have a drink, allow you to make a few guesses as to their identity, and then move on. Ian Wallace’s coloured pencil illustrations capture such a scene perfectly. I’ve read the occasional review of the book suggesting some of the images might be a bit too scary for some younger readers, with their odd angles and shadows, but these miss the point that this was half the fun for many young children who really experienced mummering. These wild, disguised folks would come charging in with unbridled energy and noise, and it was a bit scary! But then, it was over almost as quickly as it began. There were a few more dirty glasses lying about, the pictures on your wall were likely askew, and your mother would be mopping up the melted snow. And you were missing them already, just like the granny at the beginning of the story.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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