Shelf Improvement: Powerhouse Picture Books Edition

Shelf Improvement is a bimonthly column highlighting three books guaranteed to improve your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey. The theme of this installment is powerhouse picture books.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdickby Chris Van Allsburg
Though best known for Caldecott Medal winners The Polar Express and Jumanji, Chris Van Allsburg is the incomparable author-illustrator of nearly 20 books, including the spellbinding and obscure The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book like no other. In this lesser-known masterpiece’s introduction, Van Allsburg explains how a (real or fictional?) visit with children’s book publisher Peter Wenders revealed to him the strange story of Harris Burdick. According to Wenders, Burdick came calling at his editorial office with 14 drawings, each accompanied by a title and caption representing 14 complete stories he had written. It was Burdick’s hope that the drawings would resonate with Wenders and he might consider publishing them.

Wenders was immediately enthralled by the drawings and asked Burdick to return the next day with the full stories behind the illustrations. Burdick agreed but never came back, and any attempts to reach the man or discover more about him were unsuccessful. Thus, Wenders was left with not just the artwork, but the desire to imagine the real tale behind each captivating image. Per Allsburg, Wenders and his friends and family spent years writing their own stories to accompany Burdick’s art, stories Allsburg spent the day reading out of an old cardboard box. Some of the invented tales were strange, some were funny, others were beautiful, dark, or puzzling.

In The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Allsburg reproduces the original (again, real or fictional?) drawings by Burdick, and accompanies each with its title and caption. What results is a book of prompts that makes readers pause on every page, concocting stories in their own heads. It’s a fantastic selection, full of trademark Allsburg black-and-white beauties, that encourages readers to think big and deep, to play sleuth and storyteller. This book does what all great books do: it continually bewitches and demands to be picked up again and again. It’s so good even Stephen King was inspired by the book’s final drawing and compelled to write a story titled “The House on Maple Street,” which appears in Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Not to mention, an all-star cast of 14 authors (including Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, and Lemony Snicket, among others) got together 27 years after the book was published to write their interpretations of the drawings, gathered in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. This is a must-have selection for readers, writers, and dreamers of all ages.

Fortunately, by Remy Charlip
If you’re unfamiliar with author-illustrator Remy Charlip, prepare to be delighted with all you’ve been missing. Trained as a choreographer, as well as a theater director and designer, Charlip brings a fanciful and surreal air to all of his eccentric picture books, particularly the laugh-out-loud Fortunately.

Fortunately tells the bright-side/dark-side story of Ned, a New York boy who has fortunately been invited to a surprise party that is, unfortunately, in Florida. Each page of this brightly realized jewel either features a “fortunate” event in Ned’s journey or an “unfortunate” one. This back-and-forth juxtaposition (Ned fortunately is loaned a plane to fly to Florida, that unfortunately suffers an engine explosion. Ned fortunately parachutes into a haystack that unfortunately has a pitchfork sticking out of it) is amusing to both the children who hear the book and the grownups who read it aloud.

Filled equally with catastrophes (in black-and-white drawings) and miracles (in full-color charm), Fortunately is the sort of page-turner that provides illustrative foreshadowing and comical details that keep readers rapt and wanting more. Which is a good thing. Because, fortunately, Charlip wrote and/or illustrated 28 additional children’s books.

Richard Scarry’s Best Nursery Tales Everby Richard Scarry
Everyone knows and loves the prolific and whimsical Richard Scarry, but this howler is one of his sleeper hits—not as well known as his famous Best Word Book Ever, perhaps, but easily one of his greatest productions. Within, Scarry takes eleven well-known fairy tales (such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The Gingerbread Man,” to name a few) and reinterprets them starring unsuspecting domesticated animals, wryly dressed and sporting lederhosen, of course.

What results is one of the funniest approaches to telling time-worn fables EVER. Scarry breathes new life into these cautionary tales, making the patronizing, old-fashioned, and dull seem relatable, fresh, and hilarious. Scarry’s retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” starring a nosy calico as Goldilocks, is ridiculously successful. His portrayal of “The Musicians of Bremen” as a donkey, labrador, housecat, and rooster (who are later confronted by a wild boar, fox, wolf, and a warthog named Snaggle-Tooth Louie) is an example of all-ages humor at its finest. And if you can manage to get through “The Three Wishes”—in which two pigs battle a giant bratwurst—without gasping for air, you’ll be the first to do so.

In short, if you’re looking to brush up on your fairy tales, or want to treat your kids to the classics without boring them to tears, reach for this treasure. Chock full of Scarry Bavarian pearls (like cuckoo clocks and butter churns and grocery cart–pushing pigs wearing bonnets and dirndls), Richard Scarry’s Best Nursery Tales Ever lives up to its big-promise title.

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