A Maine Sense of Place: Great First Books for Little Kids

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Odds are you don’t remember your first book. I don’t mean a childhood favorite, but your very first book. I certainly don’t. But in a lifetime of reading, someone gave you your first book.

As a bookswain, you get to pass on the literary love to your littlest friends and family members. But, with so many kid lit options available, how do you pick a worthy first book to give?

You could stock a pretty impressive baby-toddler library with just the works of Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle, Richard Scarry, and Dr. Seuss. They’re fun, engaging, surefire winners, appreciated by both kids and parents (even after the third time in a row).

However, when welcoming someone new to the world—and the world of books—consider giving a book that also shares something distinct about you, such as your sense of place, your values and interests. For me this means 1) Maine, where I live, and 2) the outdoors.

First up, here are my favorite Maine books to give the youngest readers out there, whether they’re native Mainers or “from away.”

Blueberries for Sal
by Robert McCloskey

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Blueberries, bears, and the drawings of Robert McCloskey. Blueberries for Sal is as classic Maine as you can get. And the story and illustrations hold up 60-plus years later.

Little Sal and her mother go up one side of Blueberry Hill, picking blueberries to can for winter. Little Bear and his mother come up the other side, eating berries to get fat for the long cold winter. And kids and parents get mixed up among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill.

Toddlers may worry about the youngsters being briefly separated from their mothers, but Blueberries for Sal is a simple, sweet story, without being saccharine (both bear and human mom know enough to be shy of Sal and Little Bear, respectively). And if you know Maine or have ever picked berries with a kid, you’ll find plenty to recognize in McCloskey’s tender, accurate drawings and words.

Blueberries for Sal won a Caldecott Honor in 1949. Readers can rejoin an older Sal and her baby sister Jane in One Morning in Maine, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1953.

The Circus Ship
by Chris Van Dusen

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Inspired by an actual steamer with circus onboard that went down off the coast of Maine in 1836, this fictional version is less terrifying, but still vivid and exciting.

Plus, we’re huge fans of author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen‘s bright gouache paintings and rollicking rhymes, which start right into the action and keep up a brisk pace:

“Five miles off the coast of Maine and slightly overdue, a circus ship was steaming south in fog as thick as stew.”

Toddler to elementary school readers will enjoy the lively, rhyming storyline (best read aloud) and the fresh, detailed pictures, including a search for all 15 animals in one notable spread.

The Circus Ship may be my favorite Van Dusen book of all, which is saying something. Check out his Mr. Magee (and his little dog Dee) books and If I Built a Car (an E.B. White Read Aloud Award winner), among others.

Naturally, Van Dusen’s also a nice Mainer. My kids and I met him at a local book signing, where he kindly chatted with each child (he and my son discussed Maine skiing) and drew a little picture in each book he signed.

Miss Rumphius
by Barbara Cooney

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When little Alice Rumphius grows up she plans to go to faraway places and then live by the sea, just like her artist grandfather. But there’s a third thing she must do:

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” says her grandfather. But little Alice does not know what that could be.

Narrated years later by her great-niece, Miss Rumphius follows Alice’s adventures to faraway places, first working in a city library then traveling to a “real tropic island, where people kept cockatoos and monkeys as pets,” climbing “tall mountains where the snow never melted,” and finally back home to live by the sea.

But, she still has to do something to make the world more beautiful, nice as it is. What? Eventually Miss Rumphius finds how as the Lupine Lady.

Author/illustrator Barbara Cooney won the National Book Award for Children’s Books in 1983 for Miss Rumphius. I love how the story and its watercolors gently remind us of our place in the world, and our ability and duty to make the world more beautiful, even if we’re not sure how, quite yet. Not to put too much pressure on you, kids.

Other Maine Mentions

There are many wonderful books by Maine authors and illustrators and stories set in the state, for readers of all ages.

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But here are a few more options for the youngest:

Do you have a favorite children’s book you love to give the newest bookswains out there? Does it share something special about your sense of place?

Stay tuned for my favorite reads for budding outdoors-loving kids.

3 thoughts on “A Maine Sense of Place: Great First Books for Little Kids

  1. Just loved this post – I still have our original Blueberries for Sal that I read to my boys and am now reading with EB who just loves it. And Miss Rumfius will be next – still have that one from the 80’s. In fact Rodney’s parents lived a couple of houses down from Barbara Cooney’s family house in Waldoboro, Maine and knew her quite well. I am really looking forward to reading your other suggestions with Eastman, almost 3, who loves all books and gets to Maine every summer! Thanks so much for doing this and sharing. Sandy

  2. Thanks for the kind words and thoughts, Sandy. We actually got our copy of “Miss Rumphius” as a gift from you when our oldest was born (nearly nine years ago!). So a big thanks to you for bringing that one into our home. I’ve given it many times since to other friends.

  3. Pingback: First Books for Raising Outdoorsy Kids | Bookswain

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