1. “Where the Wild Things Are” By Maurice Sendak
This classic, brought alive by the brilliant voice and illustrations of the late Maurice Sendak, is, to a child, about the unique power of an imagination, about facing your deepest fears and then appreciating the piece of good fortune that is having your parents provide you with a hot supper. For someone a little older though, it can still providesome lessons. For one, about leaving the comforts of your childhood home (or the comforts of your college campus) to a much more dangerous place, the real, working world: where the wild things are. In the story, Max doesn’t let himself be overwhelmed by their roars and teeth-gnashing of the wild things, but instead stares into their yellow eyes and, without blinking, shouts “be still!” He’s steely eyed as he works his way up to be king of all wild things. And the book could have ended right there and taught us a lesson about not being scared and steadfastly working for what we want: to be king. But, instead, ‘Wild Things’ also teaches us to always remember what’s most important as we try to enhance our own standing. Because, once Max has made it to king of the wild things, he realizes that being king is worth nothing if he can’t be with those who he loves most and who love him the most back. So he gives it all up and instead enjoys a hot meal with his parents. The book reminds us that being given all the power in the world doesn’t really matter if it means missing out on the love of your friends and family to get there.
2. “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” By Judith Viorst
In this book, Alexander goes through a day where absolutely everything goes wrong for him and everything seems to go right for everyone else. He gets increasingly frustrated, trying to tell everyone about how shitty his day has been only to find out that, as we find out when we consult the wrong people about our bad days, they don’t really give a damn. And then, instead of having something go really right at the end of his day, or providing some sentimental reward to Alexander at the end of the book, the author just lets the book end. With everything being really shitty. ‘I’m moving to Australia’, Alexander proclaims near the end of the book, hoping he won’t have any more days like this if he simply moves overseas. The book closes with his mom telling him that it doesn’t work like that, that everybody has crappy days sometimes, even people in Australia. There’s no escaping it. There’s only trying to remember it’s temporary, that you’re not alone, and that there will be a time when days like this will have given you the perspective needed to keep your kid from shipping himself off to Australia simply because he had a bad day.
3. “Love You Forever” By Robert Munsch
I’m not ashamed to admit it, this one still makes me cry every time. After reading this touching book about a mother’s love, a son’s appreciation, a father’s love passed on from his mother and a grandmother’s love given to a mother by her son, we would be remiss not to call our own mothers, fathers and, if we still can, grandmothers and grandfathers. To thank them for all their love, to remind them of how appreciative we are. Because, one day, and maybe this day has already come, maybe it will come soon or maybe, hopefully, not so soon, they will no longer be able to pick us up, rock us to sleep and tell us they’ll love us forever and their baby we’ll be. So we’ll have to keep that practice going on our own. First to them, and then to the people we cherish most in the lives that we make for ourselves after they’re gone.
4. “The Story of Ferdinand” By Munro Leaf
This one, written back in 1936, is about a bull who’s not interested in butting heads or playing rough with the other bulls, but instead likes to sit in a field, under his favorite cork tree, and smell the flowers. He grows up to be big and strong, and one day he is chosen to participate in a bullfight in Madrid. He goes, but once he’s in the ring he is much more interested in smelling the flowered hats of the audience members than bouting with the matador. Eventually, people realize that Ferdinand isn’t going to fight because it’s just not in him, and they take him home. Home, where he goes back to happily sitting under a tree and smelling the flowers. There are a lot of political statements packed into this story, some about pacifism and non-violence, others about going against gendered expectations. Outside of these, though, I think we can take from it that only we can know what makes us happy, it can’t be dictated to us by our gender, our body type, or anything else, really. This is not to say we should shirk all responsibilities and focus only on seeking our own happiness, but it is to say that it is part of those responsibilities to know and be comfortable with who we are.
5. “Mr. Angelo” By Marjory Schwalje
This one you may not have heard of and it has become quite hard to find. It’s about a man, Mr. Angelo, who loves to cook. Every day he makes large amounts of whatever he feels like cooking that day. And every day it’s different, because what he cooks is at the whim of what he’s in the mood for. He tries to start his own restaurant but the customers who come want to order food from a menu, not just be fed again and again whatever he had been in the mood for that day. Mr. Angelo doesn’t want to do this, so he quits. He doesn’t want to make the same thing every day. Most of us have been here before in one way or another, whether it’s with a job or a relationship or a place to live and settle down. We are so often at the mercy of trying to figure out who we are and how we feel, that we are sometimes afraid of settling down, of settling on one thing, one menu. And, like Mr. Angelo’s customers, many of the people in our lives probably get pretty tired of our jumping from one thing to the next. At the end of the book, Mr. Angelo decides to go into business with a young boy and his wagon, who rolls into town every night and sells whatever Mr. Angelo was in the mood to cook that day. The book doesn’t end up teaching us the lesson that, one day, we’ll have to settle on certain things that will define us, and that we’ll be happy to do so because the timing will be right. Instead, it teaches us that it’s okay if that day to settle down is not today, that there are ways we can make the most of this mercurial time while we’re in it. Also, as good and tempting as an endless cycle of frozen burritos and takeout will forever be, maybe it can teach us that it would make us feel good to actually cook what we’re in the mood for every once in awhile.
6. “Frog and Toad are Friends” By Arnold Lobel
Frog and Toad is the longest book in this list and only chapter book. It is made up of a series of vignettes about a cheery frog and a grumpy toad and the ways in which they are best friends. It’s simple and it’s lovely. From a story called “The Letter” about Frog writing Toad a letter when he’s feeling lonely and sad because he never gets mail to, my personal favorite, a chapter called ‘The Story’ where Toad makes hot tea for Frog and lets him rest in his bed when he’s feeling sick. In this one, Frog asks Toad to tell him a story while he’s resting. Toad says he doesn’t know any stories but he’ll try to think of one. So he goes through great lengths to rack his brain for a story: he pours water on his head, he slams his face against a wall repeatedly, he stands upside down, all in his attempt to think of a story to tell his sick friend. It takes so long that Frog starts to feel better, but now Toad feels sick from slamming his face against the wall and standing on his head and pouring water on himself. So Frog makes toad some hot tea, tucks him into bed and tells him the story of the time his best friend tried and failed to tell him a story. Most of us are lucky enough to have best friends, maybe even multiple best friends. As caught up in our own world as we get sometimes, what with our jobs and romantic endeavors, Frog and Toad Are Friends serves as a good reminder that there are few jobs or relationships more important than the one we have with our best friend. To lift them up when they are feeling down, to do very silly things together and then tell the story of those things you did together again and again, over hot tea.
7. “Everyone Poops” By Taro Gomi
It’s so easy to forget this sometimes. Like with the boss who we’re terrified of or with that girl we see every day and think is really cool but we’re afraid to ask on a date or with that former classmate who’s so perfect and successful now and we’re so jealous of because, fuck, we’ve accomplished nothing in comparison. It’s too easy sometimes to forget that they’re all human and, like us, they all poop.
While the real world can seem scary sometimes, and we can feel like we’re not nearly as grown up as everybody else seems to be, the books of our childhood can still serve to bring us together, and keep us growing up. Because we all live amongst the wild things, we all have horrible, no good days, we all have parents and grandparents who have given us life, love and baggage, we all have to find our own way to stop and smell the flowers, we all are at the mercy of what we’re in the mood for and we all have best friends who we should look out for and who should be looking out for us. And yes, we all poop.