Sophie Suggests: Picture Books

Sophie Oehler | April 10, 2023
Sophie Oehler reads at the Forest Society.

I've spent the past several weeks living at my grandmother’s house. We have a good time, most of it spent listening to NPR or the classical music station, eating Carb Smart ice cream or watching Call the Midwife and whatever other period piece is the monthly craze of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. And when we’re not walking the dog in the fields behind her house or arguing about Instagram’s negative effects on the youths of today, we are cleaning.  

Over the years, the boxes in her attic have begun to overflow with old photos, stacks of old letters from her mother, and my grandfather’s tax returns, dating back to ‘83. There are also boxes full of my old children’s books, abandoned next to some old mattresses from years ago when my house went under construction. I guess we never came to get them back. We had a lot of fun going through them, inspiring good memories in the familiar illustrations and laminated covers.  

This month, book club is dedicated to my favorite picture books from my youth. Feel free to read them to the young ones in your lives. Or read them to yourself. It is never too late to ignite your inner child.  

Sugaring by Jessie Haas 

When I was growing up, my father ran a very small maple sugaring operation in our backyard. We tapped five trees and let the sap flow into the bright red buckets he bought at Home Depot, warding off the squirrels that tried to climb into them to taste the sweet liquid. We didn’t make too much syrup, only enough for our own pancakes, but every March, my brother and I waited with bated breath for those red buckets to appear on the trunks of our maple trees.  

“Sugaring” inspired much of our interest in making maple syrup. The story follows a little girl, Nora, her grandfather (Gramp), and their two horses, Bonnie and Stella, as they collect sap and haul it to their Vermont sugar shack to make sweet maple syrup. I remember loving the way that Nora always wants to give sap, and then maple syrup, and then maple sugar to the horses, telling Gramp that they are working just as hard as him and deserve to taste the product they are helping to make. The pictures, too, are wonderful, so detailed and precise I feel I could almost drink the maple syrup off the page.  

The Salamander Room by Anne Mazur  

Another springtime activity that I always looked forward to as a kid was going salamander-ing with my dad. Around this time, when the peepers announce their return to the vernal pools, my dad would dress my brother and I in our rubber boots and drive out to the woods. In the gleam of the moon and our headlamps, we search for wood frogs and marbled salamanders, being careful not to disturb the jelly masses of eggs floating in every corner of the pool.  

“The Salamander Room” inspires curiosity in its readers through vibrant illustrations and lessons about our relationship with the natural world. Brian, a young boy with a keen interest in nature and all that grows within it, discovers a salamander on his walk in the woods. He brings it home, and his mother asks him where he plans to keep it. Brian lays out his plan of how he will transform his bedroom into a lush landscape, perfect for a salamander habitat. As a kid who never went anywhere without their bug box, “The Salamander Room” was a favorite of mine, because I loved to imagine, too, what I could do to turn my house into a home for the various creatures I brought inside without my mother’s consent. This book is sure to inspire the biologist in all of us. Though maybe refrain from turning your bedroom into swamp country.  

 Comet’s Nine Lives by Jan Brett 

If I could jump into a book like Mary Poppins through a chalk drawing, I would do just that with all of Jan Brett’s work. I have seen the Mona Lisa. I think “The Mitten” should take its place. Down to the borders around each page, all of her drawings are genuinely to die for.  

Which is what Comet, the main character of “Comet’s Nine Lives,” spends much of his story doing. Not really, of course, that would be far too morbid for a children’s story. But on his quest to find a forever family, Comet finds himself trapped in numerous precarious positions that tick off eight of his nine lives one by one. Despite the many barriers that get placed in his way, Comet remains optimistic and ever ingenious, traits which eventually reward him with the company of a gentile light housekeeper and his fellow feline assistant. The story is set in Nantucket, which makes for beautifully illustrated scenery, and the residents of the town all seem to be of the canine persuasion, which makes for interesting characters. I would recommend this for anyone who is more attracted to the “picture” in picture book. In this case, Jan Brett proves that a picture IS worth a thousand words, certainly all of them positive.  

Trout are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre  

This is a great pick for any younger child just beginning their foray into the world of naturalism and ecology. Sayre is a renowned children’s author who specializes in exciting kids about the natural world around them with fun and catchy stories about everything and anything wildlife related — from man made threats facing sea turtles in their natural habitat to a bear’s search for the best foods in the forest after coming out of hibernation. If you are trying to raise an eco-conscious kiddo, Sayre is a must have in the playroom bookshelf.  

“Trout are Made of Trees” follows the food web, beginning with tree leaves and ending with humans. Using whimsical poetry and simple yet colorful illustrations, this picture book lays out how each living thing in the universe is connected through our diet. It helps to demonstrate the importance of even the smallest organisms, because even they play a part in keeping us all fed and healthy. And, what’s even better is that we will be putting on a story stroll with this very book this month at Creek Farm! Shameless plug, I know, but this is a book that can’t be missed, and who wouldn’t want to soak up its content on the banks of Sagamore Creek? Come enjoy April Pulley Sayre’ work with us in her natural habitat: the outdoors.  

Stella Luna by Janell Cannon  

Growing up, my dad recorded himself reading my brother’s and my favorite books, so that on long car rides or plane trips, or when we were having trouble falling to sleep, we had hours and hours of our favorite stories on tape. Hearing his distorted voice announcing through the speakers that the next story was to be “Stella Luna” was always met with great excitement.  

This story follows a baby fruit bat who is knocked away from her mother by an attacking owl (admittedly, this part was a little traumatizing to me, even as a child my empathy extended to all things, even illustrations of fruit bats). She falls into a nest of birds and is adopted into the clutch of babies — Pip, Flitter and Flap. The story follows the bat, Stella Luna, as she tries to adjust to the upside-down world of avian life. It is made harder by the mother bird, who sees Stella Luna’s tendency to sleep upside down (among other things) as bad habits being passed along to her own children. This book is all about trying to fit in, finding similarities in our differences, and remembering that true family will accept us just the way we are.