Perhaps better known to adults for his stage and screen work, actor John Lithgow has an amazing body of work for children. His picture books are some of my (and my children’s) absolute favorites!
Topping the list for me is The Remarkable Farkle McBride. The story centers around a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is able to master instrument after instrument with ease, but throws each one away as he becomes bored with it. Through an unfortunate illness on the part of the orchestra conductor one evening, Farkle discovers that it is the sound and experience of ALL the instruments together which brings him joy, as opposed to the mastery of an individual instrument.
The illustrations by C.E. Payne are amazing in their vibrancy and humor. (They remind me of David Catrow with slightly more realistic human facial features.) The text is extremely exciting for several reasons: (1) the melody and rhythm of the words lends itself to read-alouds; (2) the language, while being the opposite of condescending to young readers, is still challenging in vocabulary with words like “beseeching,” “rhapsodical” and “bombastic”; (3) the text contains multiple original examples of onomonapoeia when describing instruments, which offers an excellent opportunity to teach both that specific literary technique, and as an introduction to language as sound, music, and poetry.
The story of Micawber again sees the same team of author and illustrator relate the story of a squirrel who lives in Central Park and enjoys going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One afternoon he sees an art student copying one of the artworks on the wall. This is the first time it has ever occurred to him to think about how the paintings were created in the first place. Intrigued, he stows away in her satchel and accompanies the young student home. Once she is asleep, Micawber, for the first time, experiments with her paints. Using his tail as a brush, he creates his own masterpiece, ties it up with one of the student’s shoelaces and returns home. Once back in Central Park, he converts the upper floor of a carousel into an art museum for the other animals where he shows his growing collection of original canvases.
The same things that are wonderful and thrilling about Farkle exist here in this story about the visual arts. The vocabulary includes words such as “peregrination” and “viridian”. Payne is just as delightful in his illustrations, particularly the image where the student has discovered her shoe–without its shoelace.
Marsupial Sue and Marsupial Sue presents the Runaway Pancake, I’m a Manatee, Mahalia Mouse Goes to College, I Got Two Dogs are additional works by Lithgow.
The Marsupial Sue books are about a kangaroo that wants to be something MORE than a kangaroo, but after traveling to many other areas and trying the ways of several different animals, she determines that being a kangaroo is EXACTLY who and what she wants to be.
I Got Two Dogs is a simple, delightful rhyme about the author’s two dogs with colorful collage-ish illustrations similar in style to those of Todd Parr. I’m a Manatee is a fun, imaginative tale of a boy and a manatee. It can be used for children who are already familiar with and interested in the manatee, or as an introduction to the animal, as well as the dangers to its existence. In my opinion, Mahalia Mouse is the weakest of all his picture books, but it is still a nice little story–just not anything exceptional.
All of Lithgow’s books come with CDs when sold in hardcover. The author usually sings the text of each story on the CD which is great to use at bedtime or in the car.
Lithgow also has music CDs available, which I use at home with my own children, and for my theatre and dance classes. There is an entire Farkle and Friends CD which includes the story of Farkle as well as other pieces of music highlighting orchestral instruments, styles and sounds.
The CDs On the Sunny Side of the Street and Singin’ in the Bathtub contain Broadway and jazz-style songs for children. Some are children’s songs, some songs have the lyrics altered to be extremely silly and appeal specifically to children (and those of us who love music and are children at heart). They are harder to find in retail outlets, but easy to purchase from amazon.com, etc.
Lithgow’s work is for ANYONE who loves language, stories or the arts. I think they are truly brilliant and stand among some of my very favorite books. I highly recommend his work for independent and read-aloud selections.