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Come out of the Literary Closet: Buy *Yourself* a Kids' Book this Holiday

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In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (weekly rag for academic types), Professor Andrew Martino came out of the closet.

Martino -- a "self-styled literary snob" who teaches world literature -- confessed a new found love of kid's books. After picking up an edition of Holly Black's The Spiderwick Chronicles, he was hooked.

"I began buying titles in the children's and young-adult section of the bookstore. I became an addict, and what's worse, I started to act like one. I would sneak into the children's section to look for something to read, all the while hoping that none of my students, or worse, one of my colleagues, would catch me ... I began to feel like a pedophile lurking among the children's books. But I couldn't stop -- my imagination was sparked."

Professor Martino now teaches Cervantes and Italo Calvino by day and by night devours Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and Roald Dahl's "epic in miniature" James and the Giant Peach.

Reading these books is compelling, he explains, because of their succinctness and brevity. But mostly he delights in the way these books have allowed him to rediscover his "imagination."

"Reading "for fun" should not be just for children, but required of us all if we want to hold onto what makes us essentially human -- our imaginations."

As an ex-literary type myself and now a mom to a book-loving five year old, I couldn't agree more with Prof. Martino. Kids' fiction unleashes our long-ago dampened imaginations. Moreover, children's books are "every bit as complicated and thought-provoking as the texts" on any university literature syllabi.

Martino talks mostly about chapter books for middle grade and young adults. But I think kid's picture books should get a mention too. Although often just 32 pages (even 16 pages) long, many picture books are not only beautiful and full of wonder, but they're also complex about human psychology and contain trenchant critiques of society and our world.

So if you want to take a break from that Salman Rushdie book you're reading, skip over to the kids' section and treat your mind and your imagination to a new book this holiday (or maybe dust off one from your attic).

Here are my top 5 picture books:

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax -- A classic and a must if you want to understand our current economic crisis. In short: overconsumption of unnecessary products ("thneeds" in Seuss-lingo) will screw us and our world.

Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could -- Another classic and one for any self-respecting feminist. If you read carefully, you'll notice that it is all the "he" engines who leave the dolls, toys, and broken train stranded and it is a little blue "she" train who saves the day.

Peter H. Reynolds' Ish -- A small and relatively recent picture book which tells the story of Ramon who loves to draw but is mocked by his brother because his pictures don't look real enough. Ramon soon learns that creativity doesn't have to be about exactitude - "vase-ish" or "tree-ish" can be beautiful too.

Jonah Winter and Ana Juan's Frida - A stunning book about the life of Frida Kahlo. Not only does it tell her story, but also offers a nice message about how art can help people through great pain and despair.

Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand - You can't help but love the sweet bull who chooses smelling flowers over fighting matadors in this seventy year old classic.