No Ordinary Kind of Love

I did an interview recently for the local SCBWI blog, Kite Tales, and one of the questions was, “When did you first feel like you were a writer?” My first reaction was, I don’t feel like a writer. I don’t, for practical reasons. I’m not published or even represented. Also for emotional reasons. Who the heck am I? I can’t write. I’m playing make believe. This is all a grand exercise in delusion.

I let that weed of a knee-jerk reaction subside and really considered the question. Supposing I did have flashes of feeling like a writer, and I do, when did those begin, and sparked by what? The answer? I felt like a writer over the course of writing this blog.

What a horrible answer, but there it is. A blog. Woof, such a cliche. Amiright? I don’t write this blog for readership; I never have. If that were my intent, I promise you I know enough about marketing to know that I’d go about it differently. I don’t write this blog for attention, or to get discovered, or picked up, or anything really. I don’t write it for anything. Except, just, to write. To work out who I am as a writer. To experiment with putting words together. To wrestle with words. It’s a blog, it’s social media, but it’s intimate. Because I don’t care if you like it, or comment on it, or share it, or ever read it at all. It’s public enough that I’m accountable to how I put the words together, but private enough that I don’t feel prey to anyone’s scrutiny or validation. I love this blog, and it has made me feel like a writer.

This year I need more of that. And I need it to be next level. An agent, a sold manuscript, an award in a writing contest. Something. Something else from somewhere outside my own fingers, something from the cosmos that hears my call and responds, “Yes, okay, you are a writer.”

The older I get, the more I realize that quiet was what I was always meant to be. My ego has longed for fame, fortune, acclaim, praise—all on the highest level, and yet my actions have led me to a small, quiet life with a wonderful partner, a pair of cats, a tiny apartment by the sea, an office job, and all the accouterments of standard, out-of-the-box happiness. Nothing too extraordinary, or revolutionary, but as singular as a snowflake to me. As quiet as one too. My ego wanted one thing, but my heart took me to another. Peculiar. Does the heart just win?

Am I equivocating? Trying to console myself for being in my mid-thirties, still in debt, still unknown and working in an office? Maybe. I honestly don’t know the answer to that because if my life were a bit more exclusive, maybe I’d be happy with that too. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I wouldn’t take away a single thing today that makes me happy in order to obtain the extravagance about which my ego is so curious. I wouldn’t trade the great love I have, my sweet cats, my family, or the little baby growing inside me.

Oh yeah, I’m expecting. Probably nothing exemplifies the paradox of wonder as it relates to my ordinary life, better than my pregnancy. I am growing a human being. She’s the only one of her kind. I am doing something that millions of women around the world are doing, and billions of women since time immemorial. It is, arguably, the most mundane thing anyone could possibly do, from a statistical standpoint. And yet, why does it feel like I’ve won a Pulitzer? How does it feel like I’m the first woman on the moon? It’s like I’m spinning a new universe from scratch when all I’m really doing is something that most women will do at some point in their lifetimes. It is, at once, the most ordinary and extraordinary thing in the world.

That’s my life. An extraordinary, ordinary life. Even that’s a cliche. There’s nothing special. There’s nothing singular. And yet, it feels as though these cliches have something in common with walking on the moon. Growing humans. Loving someone. Writing. Making a life.

Acts of creation?

My ego wants to be the only one. The only one who gets told I’m great, I’m special, I’m beautiful, I’m known. But something else, something that’s not my ego, knows that just as much magic can exist in a small version of greatness. The outcome may look different. The compensation almost certainly will. The core is the same. All acts of creation are singular, no matter how small, or prolific among humanity.

Don’t mistake my introspection for complacency. I am ambitious. I want to be on the New York Times Bestseller list. I want to win a Newbery. I want one of my books to be made into a movie and have a chair on set that’s always saved for me. These are not quiet ambitions. I know that. I also know that achieving them will not make me any happier than I feel on a Friday night, coming home to my husband, eating spaghetti, watching Netflix and feeling my baby kick me from the inside. I know it. One day I’ll accept my Newbery Medal and I’ll say to my daughter, this award means the world to me, but you were my world first. I’ll say to my husband, this award brings me joy, but I only know joy because of you. I’ll say to my cats, you are little stinkers and neener-neener, I got a medal. I won’t talk to my cats about it. They don’t care. But they make me happy.

If I never actually get that medal, or that spot on the NY Times list, at least I know what it feels like to win. To be the luckiest woman in the world. Happiness. Its potency doesn’t increase with scale. It’s in the sun, and a grain of sand. The same amount.

And love. Singular, unique, exclusive, magical, love. A fertile soil where all creation begins, and blossoms an extraordinary garden. What’s more ordinary than a flower? They grow all over the world. But they always make you pause, don’t they? Pause, and wonder.

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The Halloween Story

Last weekend I finished editing the fourth draft of my novel. Which means two things. One, I don’t want to look at it anymore. And two, that’s good because it needs to cook for a while. I need at least a month between drafts to let the yeast rise—or fall, depending on how badly the revision went.

In between drafts of the novel I usually focus on my picture books. This week I re-read some of the manuscripts I’ve been working on this year. A few months ago I thought they were great. I read them again a few days ago and became transfixed with my own mediocrity. I thought the sudden wave of self-loathing would zap me of all creative ambition, but the opposite happened. I became possessed.

Perhaps because I’m a glutton for punishment, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out This is Not My Hat. I wanted to read something by someone who actually had talent and knew what they were doing.

this-is-not-my-hat

Again, if removed from this situation and asked to bet on my reaction, I would have bet that reading Jon Klassen in my current state would have sent me into a pity spiral, knowing I’d never be able to write anything as good, funny, or original. But no, I opened my computer and vomited two new picture books onto the screen. Then I revised an older one. Then the next day I wrote one more. I think they’re pretty good. Don’t worry, in a month or two I’ll think they’re total spit wads. They probably are; I don’t know.

It’s mid-September now, which means I’ve been in Halloween mode for two weeks already. I can never get enough. Bring on the pumpkins. Bring on the scary movies. Bring on the chill in the air. The decorations. The costumes. Monster Mash and Thriller on repeat. Bring. It. On.

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What I’ve really always wanted to write was a Halloween book, but an idea eludes me. Let me preface that by saying that I don’t normally have blocks on ideas for picture books. Perhaps that well will run dry one day, knock on wood, but I currently have a list at least twenty ideas long that I haven’t even touched. Not a spooky one in the bunch.

I think I want it too much. I love it too much, maybe? I don’t get it. This morning I sat down and simply started to write down the things I loved about Halloween. That has turned into a decent poem, which could be a rhyming picture book. Who knows, maybe it will one day see the light of day, but my intention was to write something in prose. Something with a beginning, middle, and end. That, I still can’t do.

I have cherished memories of reading “scary” books in my childhood. I devoured everything from The Berenstain Bears (well, it was Berenstein in my universe), to Goosebumps, to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations still haunt me in the absolute best way.

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I could actually draw a direct line from my current love of writing back to my childhood love of reading scary books. I would have thought I was destined to write kids horror, but I just can’t get it out of me. It feels stuck. Like I can actually feel it, in my stomach, a big stuck thing.

What do you do when you have a creative block? How do you get unstuck?

Oh and Happy Halloween.

In The Eye of the Hurricane

I know a staggering number of successful people. I often can’t believe it, like, is this normal? I don’t think so. And they’re all people I grew up with in one way or another, meaning I knew them at the beginning of their journeys and have watched their success unfold. High school, college, or right after college. I won’t drop names; that’s not what this is about. I’m not here to brag; I’m here to marvel. It’s just insane. Movie stars. Plural. Broadway stars. Yeah, plural. Novelists. TV stars. Directors. Designers. Comedians. Screenwriters. All plural.

I’ve managed to narrow down a few reasons for this. The first is the potent creative energy of Sacramento circa the turning of the century (it probably continues to this day but I haven’t lived there for many years so I can’t speak to it). Lots of folks from my little theatre community in my little town have gone on to much commercial success. I can’t really explain why our fair city turns out so much talent, except to say that Sacramento is awesome. As a city it is, for the most part, free from industry pressure, which creates a fertile environment for growing creative wings—the only pressure being the desire to one day go out and spread them.

The second reason I can explain. I went to a prestigious conservatory for undergrad. Notable grads include Julianne Moore, Alfre Woodard, Geena Davis, Uzo Aduba, Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Alexander, Marissa Tomei. Lots more. The odds that someone from my class or a surrounding class would go on to join this list was always high. The time has come, and now that’s happening, and again I marvel.

The third reason is living in L.A. If you live here long enough and have even a peripheral relationship to the industry, and you’re not a jerk, you will eventually either become or befriend greatness.

I’m not jealous. Merp. Sniff. Sigh. No really, I’m not.

No seriously, I’m not. I’m amazed. I’m proud. I don’t know if it’s normal for a little gal like me to be surrounded by so much greatness. I stand here, still, as all this creative success swirls around me. My jaw drops and I’m smiling, and yes I fluff my feathers a little bit that I happen to know these people.

But I’m so still. I’m watching it all happen around me, and I don’t seem to move.

In the eye of a hurricane
There is quiet
For just a moment
A yellow sky.

I wonder what’s coming for me? Will I continue to walk along in the middle of the storm, quietly, admiring its madness from my calm seat in the center? Will I be pulled in at some point? Sometimes I dip a toe in to see what it feels like. Sometimes it feels good, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. It does look like fun, though. One helluva storm. I like rain. Will I be pulled in or will I have to jump? It’s not my style, jumping into things. I wait for windows. I tiptoe in and let the wind help. Then I fly. That always works out better for me.

I’ll keep sitting here, amazed, and I’ll keep writing. It’s a really very nice place to write, in the eye of a hurricane. Quiet. A yellow sky. One of these days, when the winds are right, I’ll write my way out.

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The Pixar List

Reactions to my Disney movie rankings surprised and delighted me. I was glad to see so much love for Pocahontas in your responses. I thought that might be an outlier, especially since it’s so historically inaccurate. But if you look at the film as a work of pure fiction and not historical fiction, it truly is one of the most beautiful animated films Disney has made—I think. I do hope, if nothing else, that my list has compelled one or two of you to give Brother Bear a chance.

I had so much fun ranking the Disney animated features, I simply couldn’t stop there. So here it is; behold the Pixar list.  I wonder if perhaps we’ll find our lists match up more closely here. There seems to be a bit more consensus on the quality of Pixar’s canon, but who knows, I think some things may surprise you.

PS, word of warning, just thinking about Toy Story 3 has caused me to start crying at my desk, so if you’re not comfortable crying at work, maybe stop now and read later. You know how Pixar gets you.

  1. Up
  2. WALL-E
  3. Toy Story 3
  4. A Bug’s Life
  5. Monsters, Inc.
  6. Inside Out
  7. Finding Nemo
  8. Toy Story
  9. The Incredibles
  10. Ratatouille
  11. Finding Dory
  12. Toy Story 2
  13. Brave
  14. Cars

I have not seen:

  • Cars 2
  • Monsters University
  • The Good Dinosaur

Pretty, with a but

So the gentleman who owns the store next to my office stopped me on the street as I was walking back from getting coffee, ostensibly to apologize for calling me Sarah as I walked into work that morning. I said, “Don’t worry about it. Everyone always calls me the wrong name. Usually Sarah or Rachel. All those Old Testament wives.” I went on my merry way but he stopped me again. He had something else to say. I think it’s important that I preface this story by saying that this guy really was not trying to hit on me, which in some ways makes it all worse. Okay, I’ll continue. Here’s what he said.

“You know, actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you. You, I think, are the perfect image of a full-figured woman. I’m just wondering what you think about that. Do you feel good about yourself?”

Now, this dude says awkward and strange things to me and my co-workers all the time. He’s a lonely divorcee who owns a suit shop that never gets any business, so Lord knows what thoughts twirl around his brain all day while he’s surrounded by all that linen and no other humans. But, this was beyond the standard unusual comment. He seemed earnest, like he wanted to learn something about body confidence. I was taken aback, and not super interested in having that conversation, so I tried to end it and leave.

“Um, yeah, I’m pretty confident in myself.”

“That’s good because, you really are perfect exactly how you are and I know a lot of men put pressure on women to lose weight and be skinny, but you really shouldn’t change. You’re like a perfect image of a full-figured woman. I know you’re married, but I hope your husband feels so too.”

Ladies, we’ve all been here, right? In one form or another? We’ve all found ourselves confronted by a man who feels entitled to comment on our bodies even when it’s inappropriate, back-handed, and unprofessional. I meant it as a compliment, they say when we call them on their behavior. And the little feminist pixie that lives inside me turns red and screams because she’s too exhausted to take the time to educate this ignorant man on why it is inappropriate to comment on the body of a person, pretty much ever, but especially when that person works next door to you. And that pixie is also frustrated because she knows that this man really does believe he’s being noble, and perhaps in a twisted way he is. He sees the pressure put on women to be skinny, lose weight, please a man, and he is making a statement to a woman who does not fit that mold to say that she is perfect the way she is and should not succumb to that societal pressure. So how can I be mad? But I am. I am mad. The pixie is mad. Because even though he meant it as a compliment, it made me feel like shit. Which then makes me feel like a failure because it feels like a test as to whether or not I truly have body confidence and when given that test I failed because on the inside I totally collapse as if I’m twelve years old all over again and just got called chubby on the playground. So I’m mad at the man, I’ve failed my inner feminist pixie, and I’ve reverted to the child I was when I was bullied. I don’t have the fortitude to make this a teachable moment. I’m too sad. Now do you see why it’s basically never a good idea to comment on someone’s body? Hot-button is a phrase that doesn’t begin to paint the picture.

Just when I start to think, hey, I think all this body confidence I’ve been working on is really paying off. I’m starting to feel like a confident woman. Not a fat woman, not a curvy woman or a skinny woman or a woman on a diet. Just a woman. Cool. It’s nice to just be a person.

And then, poof.

Along comes a well-intended old man to remind me that no, you are not just a woman. You will never be perceived as just a woman. You are a “full-figured” woman. You are pretty—for a curvy girl. You will never just be pretty. You will always be pretty with a modifier.

I feel so average sometimes that I actually feel invisible. It’s appropriate that this whole confrontation began because the man got my name wrong. It happens ALL. THE. TIME. I usually have to meet someone at least three times before they remember me—not remember my name, remember me at all—and when they finally do remember me they then get my name wrong. Sarah, Rachel, Heidi. These are names I’ve been called this week alone. Everything but Rebecca, who is invisible. I’ve tried to embrace it, my average-ness. There’s a benefit to disappearing into the wallpaper. You get to see very interesting things when people don’t really know you’re there. I also always know that when I have an instinct about something I’m probably right because I’ve learned that part of being average is having unextraordinary opinions. If I think something, chances are thousands of other people have thought it as well, so I’m not alone in my ideas and can generally trust them to have some backing. I’m not an outlier. I’m not an iconoclast. I’m not a trailblazer. I’ve embraced the benefits of being ordinary. It’s led to me being a strong administrator and a creative writer. I like being an invisible pair of hands that makes cool things happen from behind the curtain. But then conversations like this come about and make me feel like the only things that do make me visible are things that are negative. Like being “curvy” or “full-figured.” What does that even mean? The world around this issue is changing a little bit. But not really. Not really. Plus-size models are still plus-size; they’re not just models and I’m not sure they ever will be. They will always be models with a modifier.

The emotional waves settle. My head comforts my heart and I accept that perception is reality. I can’t control how people perceive me therefore I can’t control their reality. I can only control how I perceive myself, so my reality is that I’m just a woman. A woman who struggles from time to time with body image, but is mostly over it. A woman who struggles every day with eating healthy. A woman who runs marathons and loves dance parties. Who is on Weight Watchers but loves carrot cake. Who has a husband who thinks I’m pretty. Period.

I know how much privilege I walk around with as a middle-class, able-bodied, cis, straight, white woman. Crossings like this remind me that what I experience in micro-doses once in awhile, minority groups experience daily and in much more aggressive doses. It’s not right. Perhaps I’ve even been that well-intended person asking someone a question about their life experience that has the affect of making them feel small. I’m going to use this experience to remind me of that, and to remind me to always treat people like people. Not like plus-size people, or disabled people, or ethnic people, or gay people, or trans people. You breathe oxygen and are carbon-based? Cool, then you are people. No modifiers.

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Every Disney Movie . . . Ranked

In today’s edition of not finishing my novel, I’ve decided to rank every Disney movie ever made in order of my favorites. Disney fans, I’m sure you’ve pondered your favorite Disney movies—probably even assembled a top ten—but have you ever ranked all of them? It’s hard. Been wanting to do this for weeks, so here goes.

What does it mean to be a favorite? There are movies that intellectually I can understand are better than others, but I might like the “lesser” film more. Why? Not sure. Only explanation is that art is a two-way street, and half of it is what I bring to my experience of the thing. So while I acknowledge that Beauty and the Beast is a good film, it really had very little emotional impact on me, landing it way down on the list. This is why things like lists and awards are fun, and also really stupid. It takes a special snowflake to rank Brother Bear above Frozen. I am that special snowflake, and the cold never bothered me anyway.

I’m not including Pixar, Amblin, Disney Toons, or Studio Ghibli. Perhaps I’ll make separate lists of those. For now this is strictly Walt Disney Animation Studios.

So here it is—every Disney animated feature in order of my personal favorite, for any weirdos out there who are curious. My top ten might surprise you.

  1. The Little Mermaid
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Lilo & Stitch
  4. Alice in Wonderland
  5. Tangled
  6. Lady and the Tramp
  7. Pocahontas
  8. Pinocchio
  9. The Lion King
  10. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  11. Peter Pan
  12. Aladdin
  13. The Sword in the Stone
  14. Bambi
  15. Brother Bear
  16. Frozen
  17. Mulan
  18. Cinderella
  19. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  20. Zootopia
  21. Moana
  22. Dumbo
  23. Robin Hood
  24. Fantasia
  25. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  26. Beauty and the Beast
  27. Big Hero 6
  28. Oliver & Company
  29. The Jungle Book
  30. The Rescuers Down Under
  31. Fantasia 2000
  32. The Princess and the Frog
  33. The Aristocats
  34. Wreck-It Ralph
  35. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
  36. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  37. Hercules
  38. The Rescuers
  39. Bolt
  40. The Fox and the Hound
  41. The Great Mouse Detective
  42. Tarzan
  43. The Emperor’s New Groove

I have only seen the following in snippets, so did not include in the ranking:

  • Saludos Amigos
  • The Three Caballeros
  • Make Mine Music
  • Fun and Fancy Free
  • Melody Time
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (I’ve seen The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which would rank highly, but I’ve never seen Wind in the Willows and definitely haven’t seen them together in this packaged film)
  • The Black Cauldron
  • Dinosaur
  • Treasure Planet
  • Home on the Range (this is when things got real tough for the Studios)
  • Chicken Little
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • Winnie the Pooh (I know! I don’t know what’s wrong with me)

So? Are you surprised by my list? Anything you would bump out of the top ten? Would love to hear all the ways in which you think I’m crazy.

Becky’s Favorite Picture Books

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I really do love making lists. Lately I’ve been so tickled to share picture book recommendations with friends that I got the idea to compile a list of my all-time favorites. This list could go on forever, so let’s see if I can limit the number to fifty—for now. It should be noted that I haven’t included any Dr. Seuss books here, as the Doc really deserves his own list. Also not listed here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which falls somewhere in between picture books, chapter books, and middle grade, but just know that no matter what, Winnie-the-Pooh is always on the top of my list.

I do so deeply love picture books, and not just because I write them. I love them because they introduce human minds to the concept of reading. How weighty is that? I love them because they are a perfect marriage of the written word and visual art. We don’t get that enough in the “adult” world. Much of the art you’ll find in picture books is daring and experimental. I love them because when you condense storytelling into such short form, you often can’t help but end up with myth and fable. To read a brilliant new picture book is to witness a fairy tale being born. It’s exciting.

If you’re wondering about my taste, okay I’ll tell you. I like books that pull on specific strings in the old heart. I like books that make me cry hard, laugh hard, or feel weird inside. It’s like I’ve got these book-shaped holes in my heart and my favorite books are the ones that were meant to fill those holes. I’m not one for lukewarm books. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be. There are plenty of books in the world that are solid from beginning to end and I read them and I didn’t necessarily cry or laugh or question much, but I liked it a whole lot. Knuffle Bunny comes to mind. It’s a great book. It’s charming. It’s lovely. It’s solid. You should read it. I just wouldn’t put it on my fifty list.

Here they are, in some particular order but certainly not in any sort of scientific ranking. My favorite picture books:

  1. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  2. Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood illus. Don Wood
  3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  4. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  5. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  6. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard illus. James Marshall
  7. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Clement Hurd
  8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  9. Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick illus. Sophie Blackall
  10. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers
  11. Penguin Problems by Jory John illus. Lane Smith
  12. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  13. Dream Snow by Eric Carle
  14. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  15. Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman illus. Adam Rex
  16. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
  17. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Christian Robinson
  18. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  19. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka illus. Lane Smith
  20. Waiting by Kevin Henkes
  21. Egg by Kevin Henkes
  22. Tough Boris by Mem Fox illus. Kathryn Brown
  23. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
  24. The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt illus. Oliver Jeffers
  25. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  26. The Friend Ship by Kat Yeh illus. Chuck Groenik
  27. A Letter for Leo by Sergio Ruzzier
  28. Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex
  29. Otis by Loren Long
  30. Lon Po Po by Ed Young
  31. This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary illus. Julie Morstad
  32. Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett illus. Christian Robinson
  33. The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin illus. David Shannon
  34. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson illus. Diane Dillon
  35. The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell illus. Charles Santoso
  36. Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming illus. G. Brian Karas
  37. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds illus. Peter Brown
  38. Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett
  39. Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds illus. Matt Davies
  40. Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto illus. Ed Martinez
  41. Old Bear by Kevin Henkes
  42. Tea Rex by Molly Idle
  43. The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
  44. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch illus. Michael Martchenko
  45. Aberdeen by Stacy Previn
  46. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett illus. Chris Van Dusen
  47. Journey, Quest, and Return (Journey Trilogy) by Aaron Becker
  48. The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
  49. Teeny Tiny Toady by Jill Esbaum illus. Keika Yamaguchi
  50. Guess Again! by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex

Oh goodness there are many more, but I promised to stop at fifty. There are lots of books that I love for specific reasons, e.g. how they address a certain issue, but for this list I tried to stick to my general favorites. What do you think? Any big ones that I missed? What picture books would you add to the list?

 

top illustration from A Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers