Top 10 dads in picture books
Dads often get a raw deal in picture books – often absent or else caricatured as the not-very-smart or the fix-it-all-with-my-toolbox father. Here Sean Taylor picks the best well-rounded dads in a selection of fabulous picture books for Father’s Day
So for my top 10, I’ve chosen books featuring fathers who are both at the centre of the story and more alive than the caricatures. The books are ordered roughly by age of reader: younger first, older last. I hope there’s something new for you to find and enjoy.
- Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough
A special story told (as Jez Alborough brilliantly does) in few words and with rhymes that read just right. A young dog called Sid is so filled with happiness that he flies! But he can’t convince anyone that this has happened. He’s laughed at. “…dogs don’t fly – it can’t be done,” says his teacher. “Dogs don’t fly!” repeat his friends. This leaves Sid alone and sad. But his father comes by. He asks what’s wrong, and it saves the day. Sid’s dad believes in him. He understands Sid’s free spirit because he shares it. And these two things (literally) lift Sid up again. It’s a wonderful image of the magic a father-son bond can do.
- The Father Who Had 10 Children by Bénédicte Guettier
A quirky tale, first published in France. The father in question does everything for his 10 children. He takes them to school. He cooks their meals. He tells them stories. He kisses them good night. Then, wanting a break, he builds “a secret boat”. He says he’ll leave the children with their grandma, and sail away for a long holiday. But he can’t live without his kids. He’s back soon. The ten children join him in the boat. It’s an engaging depiction of what it is to have (or be) a loving parent. The absurd realism draws you in like a nursery rhyme. Just right for younger picture book readers.
- Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig
It’s raining. Pete can’t go out to “play ball with the guys”. So he’s in a bad mood. His father thinks it might cheer Pete up to be made into a pizza. He’s right, of course! Dad kneads him and twirls him up in the air. He sprinkles on cheese (actually torn up bits of paper) and puts him in the oven (actually the sofa). This is a celebration of the parents’ trick of distracting a grumpy child with a bit of zany humour. (Best trick in the book, as far as I’m concerned.) And what a wonderfully loving, inventive, energetic dad William Steig has created! Pete laughs “like crazy”. And the sun comes out at the end.
- Oscar’s Half Birthday by Bob Graham
One of many memorable picture books from a master of creating dads, mums, children and all human beings. (Also fairies, in fact.) A family go walking to a green hill in the city to celebrate baby Oscar’s “six-month birthday”. Bob Graham paints the world as a jumble of different lives, made beautiful by the warmth that can come between them. And in this story, there’s particular attention to moments of grace that children and parents can conjure up, if they want. I love the dirty-old-town setting, with its colourful graffiti. And I like the spiky-haired dad. He makes the sandwiches. He gets on with the stuff of the family day. He does it with love. And he’s involved one of my favourite of all picture book endings. When the kids are asleep, he pushes back the furniture and dances with Mum…
- At the Crossroads by Rachel Isadora
A brilliant book (who would dare publish this today?) by the author of the equally brilliant Ben’s Trumpet. In a South African township, some children expect their migrant-labourer fathers to arrive home after 10 months away. They wait, in celebratory mood at first, but with increasing tiredness and uncertainty as the day and the night go by. They tell stories to stay awake. But the youngest falls asleep. A truck pulls up. It’s not their dads. Then the day dawns. And, with it, the fathers arrive. There’s hardly any characterisation of the dads. They come to life through the children’s excitement and persistence. So does the deep emotion of an absent father returning. My boys have often chosen this book at bedtime. And they know it well enough to look up curiously when the dads arrive – to check if there are tears of happiness in my eyes. There usually are.
- We’re Off to Look For Aliens by Colin McNaughton
Colin McNaughton was once a prolific picture book maker. His jaunty, colourful touch is much missed. I always feel that there are traditional strands in it – from pantomime, or music hall even. And you don’t get those in some cooler, sharper contemporary picture books. We’re Off to Look For Aliens is a lovely yarn. The dad is McNaughton, himself. The story starts with his newly published book being delivered. He shows it to his family. And here, this second book is pasted into the first. The book-inside-the-book is a catchy verse tale about a space journey McNaughton once made. After a string of mishaps, he fell in love with “a lovely alien girl” and she travelled back with him. It’s another original dad: irrepressibly playful, eccentric and warm. And there’s a surprise. The final spread reveals McNaughton’s wife and kids have big, overhead eyeballs and extra arms…so the whole story is true!
- Don’t Let Go by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross
A story about a father-daughter relationship told in rhythm and rhyme. Megan wants to visit her dad. But her mother is too busy to take her. Megan suggests learning to ride her bike so she can make the journey alone. Dad teaches her. He’s patient and encouraging. “I won’t let go,/Not until you say.” So Megan overcomes her fears. She calls out, “Okay, you can let go now!” Then she’s off into the delight of a first bike ride (illustrated by Tony Ross, with a magical touch, as a journey past a tiger, into jungle.) Meanwhile Dad is left behind, knowing he’s let go of his daughter in more ways than one. Set in the big, wide world of a windswept park. Lovely writing, as always, from Jeanne Willis. And another human-hearted dad, alive on the page.
- Ted by Tony Di Terlizzi
This one is for older picture book readers. The narrator is a six- or seven-year-old boy who lives with his rather serious father. Ted is a large, pink imaginary friend who shows up one day, talking about birthdays and raspberries. Antics follow, which get the narrator into deeper and deeper trouble with his father. They invent a barmy game called monopoly twister. Ted gives the boy a bad haircut. They paint the walls. Then they flood the house. Dad can’t take it. “NO MORE TED! EVER!” he says. But there’s a good twist. Ted tells the boy not to worry. He says he was once his father’s imaginary friend. They used to play space pirates. He even remembers where Dad’s atomic blaster toy is buried. When Dad sees his old toy, memories wake up in him. The story turns around. And the three of them end up playing “space pirates monopoly twister”.
- The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by PJ Lynch
A longer story, more for 5-8 year-olds. It is illustrated with great skill and feeling, by PJ Lynch. (And it’s another one that brings tears to my eyes most times I read it!) Jonathan Toomey is a wood-carver who has moved to a village, far from where his wife and baby died. So this is not a typical picture book dad. He is solitary and grieving. The widow McDowell and her son, Thomas, are newcomers to the village. In their move, they have lost a precious nativity set. So they ask Jonathan Toomey if he will carve them a new one. The carpenter reluctantly agrees. His heart warms to both Thomas and Thomas’s mother. He carves a beautiful replacement nativity set. In the making, he faces his terrible loss. And the final, beautiful, image is of the three of them walking side by side on Christmas day with laughter in their eyes.
- My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Lizzie’s mum has died and her father can’t cope. In fact, he’s decided he’s a bird. He thinks that if he can make a good pair of wings, he’ll fly across the River Tyne and win the Great Human Bird Competition. David Almond’s eye for what’s precious in the human drama we live in makes this a deeply enjoyable story. It’s junior fiction rather than a picture book. But it does have wonderful artwork by one of the best picture book illustrators at work these days: Polly Dunbar. So I’ll end my list with this. Lizzie’s father is just the sort of rounded, engaging dad I’m pointing to. He’s wounded and inarticulate. But he brims with things that can make a good father: love, humour, enthusiasm, energy. And the story has a positive outcome, as he and Lizzie try the impossible.