What Year Is It? Retro Kids' Books and Retro Art Styles

Filed under: Books for Kids, Activities: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Gear Guides: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Activities: Big Kids, Gear Guides: Big Kids

Between contemporary illustrators who recreate the look and feel of old-timey picture books and publishers printing new editions of under-the-radar "classics" from decades past, it can sometimes be hard to tell what era a children's book actually originated in. But as long as there's a great story and fantastic art between those covers, does it really matter? Here is a round-up of nostalgia-inducing new picture books along with a few rejuvenated old ones that will most likely be new to you.

Mr. Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo by Kevin Waldron (Templar, $16) NEW!
Thanks to an avocado-heavy color palette and a protagonist who dresses the way I imagine zookeepers did in 1935, this animal-themed comedy of errors feels like a volume from your parents' generation rather than your children's. I suppose Waldron could have given his characters and settings a more modern look -- maybe even left the handlebar mustache off Mr. Peek -- but the retro style feels absolutely right for this quaintly humorous tale.

The Bear That Wasn't (New York Review Books Children's Collection) by Frank Tashlin (New York Review of Books, $16) OLD!
This scratchy, ink-heavy, black-and-white social satire tells the story of a bear who wakes up after his winter hibernation to discover that a factory has been built up around him. What's worse, no one will believe he's a bear and he is repeatedly directed to get back to work. The more the bear told he's not a bear, the more he begins to doubt his own animal nature. Kids will laugh, even as they're being presented with some pretty profound stuff to think about. We owe the New York Review a debt of gratitude for finding and resurrecting this amazing book

Herbert: The True Story of a Brave Sea Dog by Robyn Belton (Candlewick, $16) NEW!
To illustrate this heartwarming real-life tale of a boy who loses his beloved pooch in a storm at sea, only to find him safe and sound after 24 hours afloat in the Big Blue, New Zealander Robyn Belton used a light, sketchy, watercolor style reminiscent of Robert McCloskey with a touch of Virginia Lee Burton. It has such a Greatest-Generation aura about it that you feel you're right there in 1949 when that dog was rescued -- until you realize that the real-life incident apparently happened in 1986. No worry -- it's a lovely book no matter what time period you imagine it to take place in.

The General by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Templar, $17) OLD!
The half-mod/half-flowerchild artwork and the few bits of Cold War imagery you'll find in this anti-war fable may give away the fact that it was first published in 1961, but its uplifting message is both universal and timeless. The intimidatingly large and impressively be-medaled General Jodhpur is the most famous, most battle-savvy leader anywhere, but his entire worldview is changed after a fall from his horse and an accidental encounter with some wildlife. This book really fits the definition of "inspirational."


Red, Green, Blue: A First Book of Colors by Alison Jay (Dutton, $17) NEW!
Nursery rhyme regulars pop up in scenes that illustrate the use of different colors for preschoolers. Humpty Dumpty's purple pants are highlighted. And the turquoise of the water spilling from Jack and Jill's bucket. And these scenes are all beautifully painted on cracked pages made to look like ancient collector's plates. Like Jay's other recent preschool books, this one successfully impersonates a forgotten treasure found in Grandma's attic.

The Sorely Trying Day (New York Review Books Children's Collection) by Russell and Lillian Hoban (New York Review of Books, $15) OLD!
If the quaintly archaic title doesn't give it away, this is an old book. This tale of a cranky family, each member of whom (including the animals) blames his or her mood on another, has been forgotten for the past 40 years, during which it has been out of print. And it comes to us from the creators of the classic Frances books. Its look and language may be unmistakably those of a different era, but this is the kind of little gem that makes rediscovering old books such an interesting and rewarding experience.


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