Timeout New York Kids

Make the most of your city

Very literary children's books

These adult authors dabbled in kid-lit.

  • Brundibar

  • Brundibar

  • Brundibar

  • The Happy Prince and Other Stories

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

  • The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

Brundibar

It was an afternoon like any other at the Strand children's section—chasing my toddler around, reading Tomie dePaola to my kindergartner—when I stumbled across a picture book that made me look twice.

"It's by Virginia Woolf!"I exclaimed to my husband. "And it's on sale!"

I'd spent a good part of my first pregnancy writing a thesis on Woolf, and I figured my son probably had Bloomsbury in his blood. Here was a chance to introduce him to her inimitable voice, in a kid-appropriate way. And, I reasoned, if Woolf wrote a kids' book (see below) there must be more like her, other literary heavyweights who took a swing at writing for children. So I started my quest for books that not only looked impressive lying on my coffee table but were as much a treat for me as for my kids. Here's what I found.

Nurse Lugton's Curtain
By Virginia Woolf Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Gulliver Books Harcourt, 1991. Out of print but available online. Ages 7 and up.
In classic Woolfian style, this book—written in 1924 but first published in 1965—doesn't so much tell a story as reveal a moment in time. As Nurse Lugton snores in her armchair, the piece of fabric she's been sewing comes to life, and from it springs a parade of wild animals and miscellaneous VIPs like the Queen, the Prime Minister and an admiral. The characters, who've been oppressed by the ogress Lugton's evil spell, take this opportunity to have their own very British wild rumpus—until a fly wakens Lugton and the enchanted kingdom is swiftly pulled back into place. Julie Vivas's loose, lovely watercolors inject the story with a refreshing lightheartedness that, paired with Woolf's lyrical, fragmentary prose, makes for a charming little story.

The Happy Prince and Other Stories
By Oscar Wilde Puffin, $5. Ages 8 to 12.
Wilde is famous for his scathing wit, but there isn't much of that in evidence in this newly reissued 1888 collection of fairy tales. What you'll find instead is Wilde as a real believer in the importance of being earnest, spinning a series of poetic, often sad, always memorable tales. "The Selfish Giant,"probably the best known of these stories, begins with the eponymous behemoth banishing all the local children from his garden, where they had once loved to play. Without the young visitors, spring refuses to come and the giant endures snow, hail, frost and wind—until one day a very special little boy sneaks in, bringing the sunshine and thawing the giant's cold heart. Wilde's language is stunning in its simplicity, his imagery haunting and the moral timeless. No one tires of hearing that love has the power to redeem us all.

Many Moons
By James Thurber Illustrations by Louis Slobodkin. Voyager, $7. Ages 4 to 8.
This 1943 gem begins with a dilemma: Little Princess Lenore has taken ill from "a surfeit of raspberry tarts"—don't you just hate when that happens?—and will recover only if she can have the moon. Her desperate father turns to his advisers—the Lord High Chamberlain, Royal Wizard and Royal Mathematician—but these wise men are really buffoons, obsessed with their own laughable accomplishments. Only the Royal Jester is wise enough to know that the riddle's answer must come from the princess herself. Thurber's sophisticated wit will make parents smile but is accessible to kids, too, who will love how the little girl and the clown end up saving the day. Slobodkin's Caldecott Medal--winning illustrations bring the story to life with understated humor, loose lines and a soft palette of color.

The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine
By Donald Barthelme Overlook Juvenile, $20. Ages 4 to 8.
A postmodern story illustrated with collages of 19th-century engravings and subtitled "the hithering thithering djinn" is what you might call a slightly irregular picture book. Of course, in the case of this 1973 book as well as the fire engine in it, a little irregularity is a very good thing. Barthelme's one-of-a-kind creation, with off-beat combinations of engravings and captions, meta-literary winks to his readers and quirky dialogue, achieves the feat of appealing as much to adults as to kids. The story follows Mathilda, a ten-year-old who wakes one morning in 1887 to find a "mysterious little Chinese house"in her backyard. It isn't the fire engine she was hoping for, but she walks right in anyway and, like Lewis Carroll's Alice, encounters a delightfully absurd cast of characters including a petulant pirate, a somersaulting elephant and a variety of djinns (or genies). The next morning, Mathilda finds the pagoda gone but in its place is a souvenir, and it's precisely what she's always wanted.

Brundibar
By Tony Kushner Illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Hyperion, $20. Ages 4 to 8.
Bring together a Pulitzer Prize--winning playwright and a legendary illustrator to work on a 1938 Czech opera that had been performed by the children of the Terezin concentration camp, and you get 2003's Brundibar. A brother and sister whose mama is ill and in bed set off to market to get the milk she needs to make her well, and encounter a purple-faced, child-hating busker named Brundibar. Alone, their voices can't be heard above his "teeth-chattery bone-rattley horrible song,"but with the help of a few talking animals and 300 schoolkids, Brundibar is defeated and the milk bucket filled. It's a serious story with near-tragedy at every turn, but Kushner's language is so fresh and playful ("Milk for kiddies, milk for mudders / Milk for cats, from Bessie's udders!") that, paired with the warmth and familiarity of Sendak's stroke (look for the Night Kitchen's bakers), there's nothing sad or somber about it.

Additional suggestions

The 13 Clocks
By James Thurber Illustrations by Marc Simont. New York Review Children's Collection, $15. Ages 9 to 12.

Lazy Little Loafers
By Susan Orlean Illustrations by G. Brian Karas. Abrams, $17. Ages 5 to 8.

Mars Needs Moms!
By Berkeley Breathed Illustrations by Breathed. Philomel Books, $17. Ages 4 to 8.

Share your thoughts
  1. * mandatory fields