Years ago, when my daughter went to summer camp she learned a song about the fruits of the spirit. “The fruit of the spirit’s not a coconut!” she’d yell, and rap on her head with her knuckles while clucking her tongue like it was hollow. And “the fruit of the spirit’s not a papaya!” and she’d “hi-ya” karate chop. I don’t know if she really understood what the fruits of the spirit were, but she certainly remembered them. The song went on to name the fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
So how do we come to understand, and pass on the wisdom, of these big concepts that can feel so big and unwieldy? A picture book can be a powerful tool, winsomely engaging even the youngest child’s attention with the magic of beautiful illustrations and carefully chosen words. I thought it would be fun over the next nine months to find picture books that exemplify these fruits, one a month, starting with joy (because I want to save love for February). And also, what better way to start the new year than with a little joy?
Molly Lou Melon is full of joy. Even though she’s short, with buck teeth, and has a voice “that sounded like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor.” Her grandmother encourages her to be herself, and that self is full of joy. But what happens when she moves away from her grandmother and all her friends and has to start in a new school? A bully named Ronald Durkin calls her SHRIMPO! and BUCKY-TOOTH BEAVER! But the rest of the kids are impressed with the way Molly runs under Ronald’s legs to score a touchdown, and the way she can stack ten pennies on her teeth. Turns about being filled with joy and being your best self is a great way to make friends, and even Ronald eventually comes around. The illustrations are bright and outrageous and perfectly capture the little spitfire that is Molly Lou Melon.
Is joy the same as happiness? Maybe not, but they live close to each other, and this book looks at all different flavors of happiness, and lots of other emotions, too. There’s, “the patience of a dog at the door,” and we see a dog waiting with a leash in his mouth, and then, “the happiness of a dog with a ball in its mouth,” and the dog races across a grassy field. And how about, “the worry of looking,” we see a little girl lost in a sea of legs, and then fold out the right hand page and read, “the happiness of finding” as the girl hugs her mother. This is one of those books that adults will enjoy as much as kids, and I love how it names the good that follows bad. I also love the illustrations, simple and childlike. It’s published by Enchanted Lion, a fantastic publisher that makes beautiful books.
Babies can exude such a simple joy, and Baby Loves captures all the feels throughout a day. Each page features something Baby loves more than anything except . . . we turn the page to see what else baby loves. “Baby loves breakfast more than anything in the world except . . .” and the picture is a big, bright picture of baby with a bowl on his (or her?) head. Turn the page, and we read, “. . . Teddy. Baby loves Teddy more than anything in the world except . . .” Turn the page and we see baby who has loved teddy so much she’s (or he’s) pulled a leg off. Baby and teddy look at us with eyebrows raised, like oops! Makes me laugh every time. So does this illustration:
Baby finds joy no matter what she’s doing! It circles round at the end. “Mommy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world except . . .” page turn . . . “No. Mommy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world . . . anything at all!” My copy of this book got lots of giggles and snuggles and joy when our kids were babies, so much that several of the pages are taped, always a sign of a good one.
You can see the joy starting on the cover, as this smiling little girl asks her mother, “What are you doing?” The mother responds in short, rhyming text throughout to the same question. First she’s feeding the sheep, “Snowy day, corn and hay.” Then she’s shearing the wool, “soft and deep, sheepy heap.” The illustration shows the mother holding a sheep up against her and using scissors to cut the wool while the little girl hides under a wooly pile, holding up two leaves for ears as she pretends she’s a sheep.
In every spread, they’re laughing together, filled with joy. Even the dog is happy, whether rolling in the mud with glee, or shaking inside as mom and girl wash the wool, “soap and steam, fleecy clean,” (mom and girl laugh at their naughty pup). There’s so much to love about this book. The rhymes are clever, the illustrations cheery and sweet, and the girl gets to help her mother every step of the way.
Bonus, you’ll learn all the steps that go into making a soft cozy sweater, which the mother makes for her little girl in the end. So much joy as we see the little girl and her mother, “sweater snug, woolly hug.” And on the last spread, the girl who has been so full of questions answers her mother when she asks, “What are you doing?” “Feeding the sheep,” the girl answers, as she tugs a heavy bag of corn and the process starts all over again, the little girl empowered by all she’s learned.
Let’s Go Visiting by Sue Williams, illustrated by Julie Vivas
This is a very simple book about a child asking different baby animals if they want to play. There’s a lilt to the question as the child (could be a boy or a girl) says to a dog with a big smile, “Let’s go visiting. What do you say?” And then turn the page and we read, “One brown foal is ready to play.” The adorable foal nuzzles the child, who throws up their hands and grins as the dog crouches, tail up, wanting to play. What joy there is in simple play!
This book can be used as a simple counting book with young readers as the animals accumulate. The dog, foal, calves, kittens, piglets, ducklings and puppies romp and roll until, “No more visiting. No more play. Let’s curl up and sleep in the hay.” There is joy in the visiting, and joy in the resting as they literally dog pile into a heap of happiness. Julie Vivas is one of my favorite illustrators. She captures the expression of joy so perfectly (she’s the one who illustrated The Nativity which I featured December 2023).