One year ago, the children's book world lost one of its most beloved voices. Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who wrote more than 30 books for kids, was such a singular talent, a complete genius, a wordplay magician, and so much more.
As a storyteller myself, I must admit that her work both immensely inspires me and also paralyzes me. How is one to write something new when these works of perfection are already out there?
But this winter I read her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, which reminded me that each of us has a very particular well to draw upon when penning our stories. And no two stories are the same.
Forever a student, I recently did a deep dive into Rosenthal's picture books to better understand her unique brand of magic. Here are the stories that have made the biggest impact on me and my family of five, and the qualities that make them so phenomenal:
Precise & Powerful
Amy Krouse Rosenthal knows how to begin a book. The start of PLANT A KISS is a perfect example: It goes like this. Little Miss planted a kiss. Planted a kiss? Planted a kiss. So full of music. So full of voice. Rosenthal’s opening pages make you buckle your seat belt… then tighten it.
PLANT A KISS is concisely packed with this characteristic passion and punch. I marvel at how Rosenthal takes the reader from despair to elation over the potential of a buried kiss: Doubt. Pout. Sprout. SHOUT! SHOUT! In only five words... and one of the words even repeats... we travel so far and gain so much hope.
Hyper aware of Rosenthal’s restrained, inspired choices, I get goose bumps every time I read this book – in awe of how effortlessly her text plays on the page. She gives each word exactly the space it needs to breathe, zing and dazzle.
There are just 86 words in PLANT A KISS. Yep, that’s all Rosenthal needs to tell a sparkling, captivating and entirely complete story.
Conversational & Silly
When reading books aloud to my three girls (often during dinner), I typically sneak peeks to gauge their interest. The last time we read DUCK! RABBIT!, I needn’t be sneaky. My younger two made their impressions known, crawling out of their seats and onto the table for a closer look and listen.
That’s because Rosenthal’s tales aren’t just great read alouds – they’re participatory. In DUCK! RABBIT!, the characters argue about whether they see a duck, or a rabbit, within the pages of the book. The banter is silly, and the predictive back-and-forth rhythm leads kids to eagerly await the next disagreement. (Very eagerly, in our case!)
At reading time, my girls love shouting out words that the they know are just around the bend. Rosenthal tees up this sort of involvement beautifully in DUCK! RABBIT! Rather than bury differentiating nouns in complex sentences, she smartly places them at each sentences’ end, helping young readers jump in and be a part of the story.
Rosenthal’s familiar, conversational tone and expert pacing are on full display in this book, which is a really stodgy, grown up way of saying that her books are SO MUCH FUN!
Essential & Clever
What are the irrefutable characteristics of a spoon? Well… They come in all shapes and sizes… More often than not, they’re silver... And sometimes they’re bent out of shape…
Where some people see simple facts, Rosenthal sees opportunities for personification and humor. At every spin, scoop and turn, SPOON reveals what is essential, meaningful and inherently comical about a utensil we all know so well.
Quick and relevant confession: I nearly hate puns. They can be a little too slapstick, obvious and goofy, in my view. Rosenthal’s puns, though? Not so. She places them in just the right place. Not only do they move the story forward, they’re also just sooooo darn clever.
I find myself constantly saying, "Oh man, that was good," when reading Rosenthal’s books - and especially so in SPOON. She has a way of extracting every joke possible but without over doing it. The result: All the #perfectpicturebook feels.
Defining & Memorable
Feeling "different" is something that every kid has experienced. So what better way to help a child understand punctuation then sending them on an exclamatory journey of self-discovery?
In EXCLAMATION MARK, Rosenthal allows her lead character (!) to dwell on what he isn't (simple, uniform, declarative) when all he wants is to be just like his (.) friends. A new friend (?) helps him learn what he is: Celebratory! Enthusiastic! And LOUD!
By walking through these distinct differences, Rosenthal builds great conflict... and she also creates a text that’s really instructive.
I imagine many teachers use EXCLAMATION MARK when introducing punctuation. Through this text, readers get to see, hear and feel all that this special mark can do, in such a playful and poignant way. My favorite line in the book comes when (!) finally uses his unique talents: It was like he broke free from a life sentence.
Ugh. So good.
Like many of Rosenthal’s books, this is one you simply cannot forget. Period. (Her joke, not mine!)
Musical & Magical
We've all read fairy tales and are familiar with the basic structure. UNI THE UNICORN AND THE DREAM COME TRUE delivers all that we expect from such a picture book. And then some.
This sequel to UNI THE UNICORN is a big favorite in our house. My 3 year old is unicorn obsessed, so that's part of it. But more so, it's due to Rosenthal's lyrical storytelling.
The publishing world talks a lot about the power of voice. So it's both exciting and debilitating (as I mentioned before) when you read someone who does it so well. UNI is full of phrases that ring with Rosenthal's voice - a voice that lifts kids up (She was smart that way.) and makes all who encounter her words float with hope (Could they ever!)
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Rosenthal's body of work is among my very, VERY favorite in all of picture book-dom, past and present. She has made a huge mark in the hearts of our home and has expanded my view of the possibilities of what a book can be and the light that it can add to the world.