Celebrating favorite children's books

By KAREN MACPHERSON Scripps Howard News Service Published:

Before we leave 2012 behind, it's time to celebrate the "birthdays" of a few favorite children's books:

n When Judy Blume read a newspaper clipping about a toddler eating a tiny pet turtle, she figured it would make a great picture book.

It was the late 1960s, and Blume, a mother of two young children, was an aspiring writer. She wrote up the story, but publishers turned it down and so Blume decided to shelve it.

Blume continued writing and found publishing success with several books, including the groundbreaking teen novel "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." At that point, Blume decided to try working again on the toddler-eating turtle story, which an editor suggested she turn from a picture book into one chapter in a children's novel.

It turned out to be a great idea, as Blume ended up writing "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing" (Puffin, $5.99, ages 8 -12). Published in 1972, the book was the first of several about a boy named Peter Hatcher and his travails with his younger brother, nicknamed Fudge.

Now celebrating its 40th birthday, "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing" remains hugely popular with young readers who revel in the book's humor as well as Blume's clear understanding of what it means to be a kid.

In the book, Blume tells the story from the point of view of Peter, who lives in a Manhattan apartment with his parents and his 2-year-old brother, Fudge, a magnet for trouble. Each of the book's chapters details yet another wild thing that Fudge does -- from refusing food unless he can eat from a bowl under the table like a dog, to scribbling on Peter's school project, to eating Dribble, Peter's turtle.

As Peter succinctly states in the book's first chapter, "My biggest problem is my brother."

If your children haven't yet discovered "Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing," they're in for a treat. Other books in the series include "Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great," "Fudge-a-Mania," "Superfudge" and "Double Fudge." Blume herself is the reader for the audio versions of the books, which are also entertaining.

n Fifty years ago, author/illustrator Bernard Waber published his second children's picture book, "The House on East 88th Street." In the book, Waber told the story of what happens when a family moves into a New York brownstone and discovers a crocodile splashing about in the bathtub.

The crocodile is named Lyle and, over the course of the book he makes himself invaluable to the Primm family as they establish themselves in their new home. The book was a hit with readers and reviewers, and Waber has since published seven more books about the talented, cheerful crocodile.

Several of the books have been gathered in a wonderful new collection, "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Storybook Treasury" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $10.99, ages 3-7), which includes a downloadable recording of Waber himself reading "The House on East 88th Street."

Note: It's well worth tracking down a copy of the audiocassette (yes, cassette!) titled "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Collection." It's a selection of the "Lyle" stories marvelously read by actress/dancer Gwen Verdon.

n It's a beguiling blend of text, art and photographs that also teaches young readers about Impressionist artist Claude Monet. It's "Linnea in Monet's Garden" (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $16.99, ages 8-12), a book first published in the United States 25 years ago.

Over the years, the book, originally published in Sweden, won a following among young readers and their parents, who thrilled to the discoveries that a young girl named Linnea makes when she visits Monet's flower-filled property in Giverny, France.

Written by Christina Bjork and illustrated by Lena Anderson, the book was unusual at the time for the way the author and illustrator melded text, photos and illustrations into a volume that today would be called a "hybrid" book.

Three years ago, the license for the U.S. rights to the book expired and, according to a recent article in Publishers Weekly, the book went out of print. Fortunately, officials at Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky publishers decided to purchase U.S. rights to "Linnea in Monet's Garden" and re-issue the book in a slightly larger-sized book.

Here are a few other special book birthdays, several of which have already been celebrated:

n "Charlotte's Web," written by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams, released 60 years ago;

n "A Wrinkle in Time," written by Madeleine L'Engle, released 50 years ago;

n "Clifford, the Big Red Dog," written and illustrated by Norman Bridwell, released 50 years ago;

n "The Magic Tree House" series, written by Mary Pope Osborne, released 20 years ago; and

n The "Junie B. Jones" series, written by Barbara Park, released 20 years ago.

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