One of the things I miss most about working at Powell's (besides working with the funniest, smartest, quirkiest folks you'll ever meet) is finding random, old children's books on our daily carts of recently acquired used books. Some of these books I remembered from my childhood, others were new to me, if not to the world. Here are some of my favorite discoveries from my eight years as a bookseller.
- Plants That Never Ever Bloom by Ruth Heller
Some of Heller's gorgeous nature-themed books are still in print, but not this one. The rhyming text is simple enough for my three-year-old son, but delivers plenty of facts.
In proper scientific terms all of these are GYM-NO-SPERMS.
- Where Have You Been? by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Barbara Cooney
There are favorites and there are favorites. Margaret Wise Brown occupies a superlative category all her own. Her ingenuity attracted some of the best illustrators of her day, including Cooney (known best for her own classic, Miss Rumphius).
Little Old Rook/ Little Old Rook/ Where do you look?/ At the very last page/ Of this very same book/ Said the Little Old Rook.
- Shaker Lane by Alice and Martin Provensen
This is probably my favorite book ever about rural living and changing landscapes. The Provensens, Caldecott winners, illustrated some of the most beloved children's books of the 20th century, like Margaret Wise Brown's The Color Kittens, and countless Golden Books (big and little).
Not so long ago, if you went down School House Road and crossed Fiddler's Bridge, you would come to Shaker Lane. A Shaker Meeting House once stood at the crossroads. Nothing was left of it but a few stones.
- Wonders of Nature by Jane Werner Watson with pictures by Eloise Wilkin
This book is technically back in print, as a Little Golden Book. The version I discovered, years ago, is a Big Golden Book, from 1974. Jane Werner Watson was an editor and author of Golden Books. Eloise Wilkin also illustrated and wrote many Golden Books; the chubby children of her work are immediately recognizable.
Isn't it a wonder the way the woods know that spring is coming before the snow is gone?
- Birds by Brian Wildsmith
Wildsmith — besides having an enviable variation on my own surname — had his own distinct way with wildlife illustrations. This book explores the sometimes peculiar, always beguiling, names for groups of different types of birds. So we find "a stare of owls," "a siege of bitterns," "a congregation of plover," and all the rest.
- The Winter Bear by Ruth Craft with pictures by Erik Blegvad
I actually found this one at a church rummage sale for 25 cents. Without a dust jacket, the brown cloth binding didn't look like much. But one look at the illustration and I knew it was a special book. Blegvad, like the Provensens and Wilkin, has illustrated tons of kids' books over the years. (There's a great blog post by another Blegvad fan here.)
I don't know anything about Ruth Craft, except that this is an endearing book about siblings going out to play on a winter's day.
So, three set off/ In the cold still air/ With an apple or two,/ (And plenty to wear). And one jumped high./ And one jumped low./ And one walked backwards.../ As far as he could go.
- In the Middle of the Night by Aileen Fisher with pictures by Adrienne Adams
I adore Adrienne Adams. Almost none of the books she illustrated are in print anymore, so I snatch them up whenever I come across them. Aileen Fisher wrote many nature-themed books for kids, often in unmetered, rhyming verse. This one is about a little girl who wants to know what the world is like in the middle of the night.
And that's where the moths hovered,/ we discovered,/ feasting on bread and honey/ because (isn't it funny?)/ moths do their sleeping when it's sunny.
(A note on the pictures: I took all these pictures on my beloved 1960's faux bois laminate kitchen table. It belonged to the old lady who lived in the house my dad bought in Seattle when I was 11. The lady sold us a bunch of furniture with the house because she was moving into assisted living. For a long time it was in my dad's kitchen, then in his garage under piles of vinyl records. A few years ago he gave it to me when I needed a new kitchen table. Now, it is my favorite backdrop for taking pictures of the second-hand books, records, and objects I find.)
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Alexis M. Smith grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has written for Tarpaulin Sky and Powells.com. She has a son and two cats, and they all live together in a little apartment in Portland, Oregon. Glaciers is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Alexis Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House New Voice)