The very best books about the very best season

For kids, summer means dirt and sand and water and sun. It means shorts and swings and popsicles and peaches.

But most of all, what summer means for kids is freedom.

These books beautifully capture that.

One Morning In Maine

Writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey (1914-2003) is more famous for two other picture books set in New England, Make Way For Ducklings and Blueberries For Sal, but I prefer this one, which chronicles a big morning in the life of a small girl.

This girl is also named Sal, but she’s a couple of years older than she was in Blueberries, and now, she has a baby sister, Jane. (The characters are based on McCloskey’s real-life daughters, Sally, born in 1945, and Jane, born in 1948, whom he and his wife raised on a small island in Maine.)

It’s a Saturday in late spring or early summer. When Sal’s washing up for breakfast, she discovers that one of her teeth is loose, and she panics. Does this mean she’s sick? Does it mean she can’t spend the morning in town with her father and Jane, as she’d hoped to? Or does it just mean that she’s finally growing up?

The beauty of the book is in its intricate detail, both verbal and visual. When Sal’s tooth pops out unexpectedly on the beach, where she’s digging for clams with her dad, “[s]he felt with her tongue, and she felt with her muddy fingers,” McCloskey writes.

“‘Why it’s gone!’ she said sadly, feeling once more just to make sure. The loose tooth was really and truly gone. The salty mud from her fingers tasted bitter, and she made a bitter-tasting face that was almost a face like crying.”

Without the tooth in hand, Sal can’t make a wish on it, so she starts looking for it “in the muddy gravel where the clams live.”

“Sal’s father helped her look, but a muddy tooth looks so much like a muddy pebble, and a muddy pebble looks so much like a muddy tooth, that they hunted and hunted without finding it.”

The meticulous black-and-white drawing that accompanies those lines conveys so much all at once: Sal’s hope, her father’s concern, the sticky mess they’ve both waded into, and, behind them, the timeless and gentle waters of the sea.

Written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey • Puffin Books, 1952 • Caldecott honor book • Good for grade-schoolers

The Other Side

One of the best children’s authors of our time, Jacqueline Woodson (1963-) often writes, without sentiment, about the loneliness and confusion that kids feel but don’t talk about.

In this book, which is illustrated with loose, evocative watercolors, a young black girl named Clover doesn’t understand why her mom told her not to climb over the fence that separates her neighborhood from the one where white people live.

And does that mean she can’t befriend Annie, the white girl who lives just on the other side?

For the first few weeks of summer, Clover and Annie just watch each other. But one day, they get right up close to the fence and start talking.

“My mama says I shouldn’t go on the other side,” Clover tells Annie.

“My mama says the same thing,” Annie replies. “But she never said nothing about sitting on it.”

So the girls climb up and sit together, even though Clover’s friends look at them askance.

Day after day, Clover and Annie meet on the fence.

“Some mornings my mama watched us,” Clover narrates. “I waited for her to tell me to get down from that fence before I break my neck or something.”

“But she never did.”

“‘I see you made a new friend,’ she said one morning.”

“And I nodded and Mama smiled.”

“That summer me and Annie sat on that fence and watched the whole wide world around us.”

Written by Jacqueline Woodson • Illustrated by E.B. Lewis • G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001 • Good for preschoolers & grade-schoolers

Blackout

Inspired by the East Coast blackout of 2003 and rendered in cartoon panels, this story celebrates life’s simple pleasures—the ones that elude us when we’re glued to our screens.

It’s a hot summer night in Brooklyn, and a little girl wants to play a board game with her family.

But her mom’s busy typing, her dad’s busy cooking, and her big sister can’t be bothered because she’s on the phone.

Dispirited, the girl slumps in front of a video game.

But everything changes when the lights go out.

The family gathers in the kitchen, where they huddle around flashlights and candles, and, for the first time all night, really see one another.

They make shadow puppets with their fingers for a while, then venture up to the roof, where they find “a block party in the sky”: neighbors are stargazing, barbecuing, and dancing to music from an old-fashioned phonograph.

There’s another party down on the street, thanks to a neighbor who brought out his guitar, a firefighter who pried open a hydrant, and an ice cream shop where everything is free.

“And no one was busy at all.”

Written and illustrated by John Rocco • Disney Hyperion, 2011 • Caldecott honor book • Good for preschoolers & grade-schoolers

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever

What happens when parents get out of the way?

In this book, another extended cartoon, two buddies, James and Eamon, spend a week of their summer vacation at the beach with Eamon’s grandparents, who both indulge them and leave them be.

So they eat too much ice cream, play too many video games, and, at week’s end, have the most awesome night of their lives.

The book, which was published in 2008 and was a runner-up for a Caldecott Medal, is based on a true story: author and illustrator Marla Frazee (1958-) really did send her son James to spend a week with his friend Eamon in Malibu, Calif., where Eamon’s grandparents, Bill and Pam, lived on the beach.

After James came home, Frazee sketched some cartoons about the week as a way of thanking Bill and Pam, and she realized she’d conceived of a book.

The fictional James and Eamon are more interested in each other than in Bill and Pam, but Bill and Pam take that in stride—even when the boys seem to rebuff Bill’s attempts to teach them about Antarctica, with which he’s infatuated.

Left to themselves, the boys roughhouse on the floor, do handstands on their air mattress, and make fun of the nature camp that Bill drives them to daily.

But late on their last night together, as they look up at the stars and out at the ocean, a grand idea takes hold. They gather what they need from the beach—boulders, pebbles, sticks, and shells—and convert Bill and Pam’s deck into a fantasyland of sharp icebergs, giant whales, and penguins that huddle close to survive.

“It turned out to be the very best part of the best week ever.”

And it turns out they were listening all along.

Written and illustrated by Marla Frazee • Harcourt, 2008 • Caldecott honor book • Good for preschoolers & grade-schoolers

Orani

Author and illustrator Claire A. Nivola (1947-) was born and raised in New York City, but in the summer, she and her family often visited the tiny town on Sardinia where her father grew up.

It might as well have been a different world, which is why this memoir is spellbinding. The streets were narrow and twisted; there were lizards and fig trees in the gardens; and if you were thirsty, you sipped water from a clear mountain stream.

Day after day, Nivola ran free with her cousins, she recalls.

“Like little birds in ever-shifting combinations, we flew and settled wherever something was happening, and in Orani, something was always happening—close enough to touch.”

“We ran to see a baby newly born to a neighbor, to eat ice cream at a café owned by an uncle, to ask the miller to grind a bag of wheat into flour, to watch the tailor stitch jackets for the shepherds out of thick velvet—olive green, burnt ochre, brown, and black.”

“Once, we found a fledgling fallen from its nest and took it to a cousin who loved birds and had once tamed a hawk.”

“From courtyards and doorways goats stared at us with their slit pupils, or a tethered donkey twitched flies from its ears.”

“Old women everywhere offered us holiday biscuits and chocolates. The roadside trees bent low to hand us their fruit.”

“All the village, it seemed, was ours.”

Written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola • Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011 • Good for grade-schoolers

BigMama’s

In this wistful but understated memoir, author and illustrator Donald Crews (1938-) recalls the carefree summers he spent as a boy at his grandparents’ farm in Florida, where light came from kerosene lamps, food came from the pear tree and the chicken coop, and the days were packed with barefoot adventures.

Every year when Crews and his family arrived, “Bigmama and Bigpapa were waiting for us on the porch. There were hugs and kisses and ‘Oh my, how you’ve grown!’ and ‘How tall you are … is this you?’”

“Then off with our shoes and socks. We wouldn’t need them much in the next few weeks.”

Later, at dinnertime: “Everybody sitting around the table that filled the room—Bigmama, Bigpapa, Uncle Slank, our cousins from down the road, and all of us. We talked about what we did last year. We talked about what we were going to do this year. We talked so much we hardly had time to eat.”

“The night was jet black except for millions of stars. We could hardly sleep thinking about things to come.”

On the last page, many years have passed, and a grown man is lying in bed at sunset. An urban skyline is visible out the window.

“Some nights even now, I think that I might wake up in the morning and be at Bigmama’s with the whole summer ahead of me.”

Written and illustrated by Donald Crews • Greenwillow Books, 1991 • Good for preschoolers & grade-schoolers