Children’s books that made me rethink careers

When Squarespace contacted me and asked me to collaborate with them, I said yes. I usually say no to everybody. But, everybody I know uses them for their sites and their sites all look so good. And I thought it would be really good for my brand to be working with Squarespace. So I said yes. Then I did a lot of thinking about the best way to do the partnership with them, because I had a million ideas and you can do anything on Squarespace.

My grandma had a children’s book store. I helped her do the book buying to open the store. I got to pick the books for the kids my age.

I remember thinking this is so fun. And also, why does she get to have a store and I don’t?

Every day after school I went to the bookstore. There were after-school snacks in the fridge and dry shoes if I forgot to wear boots. I loved opening boxes of books and hearing the crack of a new spine.

The inventory system was all on handwritten index cards. My grandpa taught me calligraphy and we wrote the name of the book and the author and the publisher, and then we sat next to our card, rereading it, while the ink dried. Then we tucked it into the book, significantly slowing down the already-slowest inventory system in the world.

Ask me the publisher of any children’s book published from 1975 – 1990. Really. I know every publisher. Every author. When I hear about how people with Alzheimer’s remember stuff from when they were young, I imagine myself in a nursing home shelving imaginary books, first alphabetical by author, then by publisher.

When there was an auction for my first book of career advice, I toured big publishing houses with my agent. When we got to Dutton I felt like I had entered the Versailles of book publishing.

“Don’t get so excited,” my agent said, “you have interest from better publishers.”

I said, “The children’s book list at Dutton is amazing. No one else comes close.”

I spent the whole Dutton meeting talking about their children’s books. The editor who would be bidding on my book took me to meet the editors in the children’s department and, in a star-struck moment, I asked for their all their autographs.

The hardest part of a career change isn’t having to learn something new, or taking a risk, or the pay cut. I’ve changed jobs a lot and the hardest part is leaving behind all the hard-won knowledge.

I know the history of children’s books. I know how to run a children’s bookstore with my eyes closed. I know what book to give a sixth grader who hates to read. And a five-year-old who thinks picture books are for babies. A third-grader who likes history. Working at the bookstore was nonstop Trivial Pursuit and I was the nonstop winner.

Also, for those of you who have kids with Aspergers, retail is a great job for those kids. I had no social skills, but I got to interact with people all the time because retail is a structured, repetitive interaction where it was my job to say what I know: an Aspergarian dream! If I had known then that I had Aspergers I could have stocked a whole section of books on the topic.

There weren’t any of those books, of course. And maybe that’s why I got fired from every job. Including my job at the book store, actually. I had no social skills to fall back on as I was going through my career. All I had was my confidence I gained from running the bookstore, memorizing the books and helping tons of kids find a book they wouldn’t hate.

What did I do with my book knowledge after I left the bookstore? Well, I funded the beginning of my beach volleyball career by selling first editions of Caldecott winners to book dealers in LA who depended on me to set the price. (High. Very high.)  Later at the farm I started building shelves and sorting books by size and now in Swarthmore I’m sorting by color.

But there’s one more thing. I want to tell you that picture-book advice is great for choosing a career. Really. I noticed it while I was sorting books one day. I looked at books I had read so many times, but I looked at them differently, with the eye of a career coach.

Each November I tell myself I should put together a list. At first I told myself I shouldn’t just give away the list. I should make a book club and overcharge people for each book recommendation. When I never took action I decided it’s because I want everyone to see the list. I want everyone to read the books.

So I vowed to just publish the list. And I wrote it all up in a post, but it didn’t look right. This is not just another blog post. These picture books are my friends. They saved me. I sold them to hundreds to hundreds of people and then I carried them all over the country with me. Boxes and boxes of picture books, going in and out of moving trucks for 20 years. Because I couldn’t live without them. (Well, unless they were first editions. I’m not THAT sentimental.)

My list of books needs to be on a special page. Because I want you to know how special my knowledge is and how special the books are. So I did what everyone does when they decide something is super special and important: became incapacitated by the pressure of doing something good.

And even though I should never have put off doing this for so long, I hope you see this as a gift to you. And you give these gifts to people you love. Here it is: Nine Books I Love.

Please read these books with your friends and your kids and notice that a picture book is like a poem – using so few words to say big ideas that could otherwise take a lifetime to discover.Advertisement

61 replies
  1. Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson
    Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson says:

    As an INFP, I disagree with you 90% of the time. Yet, I also enjoy your perspective and look forward to each of your posts and have remained on your mailing list for years. There have been moments when I nearly took one of your career courses or consultations for personality types, but eventually I found my way on my own and you were right. I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and much happiness.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for letting me know. Its fixed now. Did you love the under construction gif? I was so excited to use a gif from the 90s.


  2. Emily
    Emily says:

    Thank you so much for the book list! Using it now to purchase a few for my 5 year old. I have been so lost this year for some reason when it comes to books for him. Thanks again!!!

  3. Lauren Teller
    Lauren Teller says:

    Hi Penelope
    Thank you for this beautiful post. I was lonely and now I have nine new books to read….. gotta go. But first, do you and the boys have a favorite dessert? I want to bake you something sweet in return for your delicious gift.

  4. Maria
    Maria says:

    Thank you for your beautiful books. I too have a lover of books. I even worked in the school library learning the dewie decimal system. I loved encyclopedias and my mom’s extra thick French dictionary with colored pictures. I learned first aid with those pictures which served me well in the military… except for what to do with a broken leg… I failed that part… even when I broke my own leg decades later… I forgot what to do.

    My favorite books are pop up book’s. I see them as pieces of art. They are too beautiful to pass up. When they are on clearance, I buy them and give them as gifts.

    One thing I can do is go to a thrift store, and pick up autographed books, sometimes autographed first editions.

    Also art how to books and cooking books with lots of photographs… I live vicariously through them.

    Once again, thank you.


  5. MBL
    MBL says:

    Ah, books!

    Five or six years ago I combined a book that you recommended Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang with one of my most favorite books, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. It was for an MFA presentation and they complemented each other beautifully. So thanks!

    (I recently insisted that a favorite artist of mine, Jill Van Sickle, get Picture This. I need to follow up on that…)

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    This is a comment from my mom. I have banned her from the comments section, so she sends emails to me. My mom was one of the first women to choose work over staying home with kids and that fascinates me. This email she sent is so interesting because it seems like a snapshot of how women were thinking when first going to work in the ‘70s. So I’m posting it:

    I remember when both you and Grandma read and loved Teammates. Also: “work is the first time we have an identity separate from our parents.” And children! Part of the joy for me in working at Kemper is that I was not someone’s wife or someone’s mother. I was me. My very own identity!

    • California
      California says:

      Assuming that the woman can get a decent job, it’s hard to imagine preferring being a full-time, unpaid caregiver to a partner and child(ren) for the long run. Trading away the freedom that you get from working reasonable hours and earning fair wages is a hard sell. I think that people have to experience both for themselves to really understand what it means to be a full-time, unpaid caregiver — being unable to disengage from the endless physical, emotional, and mental servitude to progeny, and living without financial power. It’s nice to do for a while, but you really have to be a saint to do it for life — or have an extremely unusual set-up (i.e., lots of help and unfettered access to money).

      • Bos
        Bos says:

        To each her own. My mother worked full-time throughout my entire childhood and into her seventies. I can’t imagine her not doing so.

        That was not, however, the path for me. I gave up a six-figure job to stay at home and take care of my children. I was never so happy at work. I get to see my son again in an hour and a half, and if I were at work I wouldn’t have that joy.

        I remember when he was tiny I wrote a poem called “I curse the hours” about how much I hated being at work while he was at day care. It had a special invective for each hour of the work day.

        I see things very much the opposite from your description: while at work I was unable to disengage from caring deeply about my wee son, but powerless to do anything for him but leave him in day care eleven hours a day. I feel more freedom now than I did when I had to be at the beck and call of the corporation I worked for.

        I hope that if my children want to stay at home and take care of children when they’re grown up they’ll feel that’s a good choice.

        • California
          California says:

          I’ve read your stuff, Bos, and you and I both know that people like you are rare. Some people might even say saintly.

          Your kids will be fine. Try not to judge them too much if they end up being super career-driven. Like you said, “To each her own.”

          • Elizabeth
            Elizabeth says:

            I disagree. I’m a full-time caregiver to my young daughter and I run our household while my husband works. I left my job to do this, but I don’t consider myself unpaid – I feel like I earn half of my husband’s salary, although it doesn’t matter how I mentally split it because it all goes into a joint bank account. Saying the caregiver needs financial freedom/power is akin to assuming a marriage will fail. We are a team and we have enough confidence in the strength of our partnership to not assume the worst and hedge our bets. I’m an ENFJ which is one of the personality types that does fine working or staying home, and I certainly plan to work again, but I don’t feel powerless staying at home.

          • Elizabeth
            Elizabeth says:

            My skill set allows me to work part-time on any schedule, and as my kid gets older I’ll have more time to do so. My husband’s salary is adequate but if I work we can take vacations, pay our mortgage off faster, save for college, etc. This past year I have not missed working and I will probably never go back full time. My favorite job really is running the household, and it doesn’t make me feel powerless or stuck. I have a partner who values what I do for our family, so it’s far from a thankless job. I think it’s great when women – and men! – have the option to work OR stay home, and it doesn’t mean that a person is a saint if they prefer the latter.

          • California
            California says:


            1. Your husband decides to share the money that he makes, with you. You do not make that decision, no matter how positive your feelings are about it.

            2. I did not say that the caregiver needs financial freedom/power. I also did not imply that caregivers feel powerless.

            3. I am genuinely happy that you have a solid marriage, and it sounds like your husband is a great guy.

            4. You are fortunate to have a skill set that gives you access to not only a decent job, but also one that offers flexibility and part-time hours.

            5. Your reading comprehension and writing skills need work.

            The first sentence of my first comment is: “Assuming that the woman can get a decent job, it’s hard to imagine preferring being a full-time, unpaid caregiver to a partner and child(ren) for the long run.” Everything that follows thereafter refers to full-time and the long run.

            You clearly plan to start working again and reaping the benefits of doing so. Your classification of your situation under the one that I described is incorrect. You do not plan to be a full-time, unpaid caregiver to a partner and child(ren) in the long run, let alone for life.

            So, while it is good that you have positive feelings about your present and future, we do not disagree.

          • Bos
            Bos says:

            I’m no saint, California. I don’t volunteer for much. I’m selfish and lazy. I’m not even the best parent. Maybe I could be the Patron Saint of Cane-Wavers and Cloud-Yellers. Oh, Saint Bos, please protect me in my agitation as I become irate at the young man who just threw a candy wrapper off the bridge.

            What I am is just a person who takes much greater pleasure in spending time with his children than he did at his corporate job. As I said when I quit, if I’m going to be listening to somebody cry and cleaning up shit all day, I’d rather it be an adorable baby than a sixty year old boss.

            I had some inkling when I was younger that this was likely, and I set my life up to permit it. I married the right person (nb: if you want to be a stay-at-home parent, marry somebody ambitious). I worked as long as I needed to, saved a lot, and shifted when it was propitious.

            I must object to the idea that I’m living off my spouse’s money, at her sufferance. There was a time when I was working and she was not. There has never been my money and her money, just our money. If we had thought of things that way, it would have been a red flag that staying at home was a bad idea. We are a team, and we are successful as a team.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          Okay guy. My singular experience does not prove your opinion. I’m happy being a caregiver, I’ll be happy working part time and also caregiving, but mostly right now I’m happy that I’m not rude to strangers in online comments sections. Really? My reading comprehension and writing skills need work?? Get a life.

  7. Amanda L Sutton
    Amanda L Sutton says:

    Please share more children’s book recommendations on other topics too! I love love love children’s books and don’t know where to start.

  8. Erin
    Erin says:

    We had a mouse this fall. I couldn’t find the mouse traps bc I have trouble finding everything since Matt left, so the mouse had time to settle in. Our fat cat chased him around the house for a bit. Then she got lazy and just started napping in the tall (unmowed) grass out in the yard.
    We saw the mouse so frequently we named him: Frederick (after the book). I even have a photo somewhere of him peeking out from behind the fireplace insert. He just kept sticking his head in and out again as if he was trying to restart reality and erase our interference with his hard drive.
    Eventually I found the traps. Frederick was dead the next day. I walked across the street and tossed his body down into the gully on the vacant land. Poor Frederick.
    But the next day there was a familiar scratching again. Frederick had a wife! Mrs. Frederickson! It didn’t take long to mousetrap her, too, and wave goodbye as she joined her husbands body in the gully.
    It took a few days, but, eventually, we heard a scratching again. And it took a little longer, but the mouse trap eventually activated, and the smallest little mouse body was dead under the sink, back behind the garbage where his parents used to feast. He was the last Frederickson. And as I flung him over the cliff, I couldn’t help but have mixed feelings over seeing something so helpless meet its demise.
    It was October. Halloween was on our minds. And ever since Matt has been gone I’ve tried to overcompensate for his absence with festivities. So I asked Phoebe how she wanted to decorate, and she decided tombstones in the front yard were The Thing. And then she suggested we write the names of people we actually knew who had died on each one.
    It was a creepy thought. Perfect for the season. But do you want to know who we ended up memorializing?
    The Fredericksons.

  9. Garen Corbett
    Garen Corbett says:

    I have been following your posts on and off for years. This is your best one yet. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Katrin
    Katrin says:

    Love this so much. Wish my kids were still little. I’ll have to lavish this wisdom on my grandkids one day. Books! PS I got a two book deal for my novels. Finally get to figure out if that scratches my itch :)

  11. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    I am a picture book junkie. My kids are 8 and 10, and thank goodness they still let me read them picture books sometimes. There are a few on your list I haven’t seen before …off to the library website. Nine is so few. Whenever you want to procrastinate something, go ahead and make a 50 or 100 list…. hah!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Five good picture books to read aloud to eight and ten year olds:

      The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Service
      Sunday Morning, by Viorst
      Slither McCreep, by Johnston
      The Empty Pot, by Demi
      The Incredible Painting of Felix Clouseau, by Agee

      Let me know what your kids think of them if you read them!


  12. sarah
    sarah says:

    My local library only has about half of these – and I think someone local read your list before I did, because they all have holds on them! :)

  13. Pam O
    Pam O says:

    Of course, this is my favorite of your posts. I am a librarian and hoarder of children’s books and vintage Readers (the best are from the 1930’s). We had a (female) cat named Frederick. I love your focus on career books. I sort my collection by grouping unlikely books by narrow topics as well. I love that you got autographs from all the editors at the publishing house. I understand that. Thank you!

  14. Sarah Faulkner
    Sarah Faulkner says:

    I am a huge reader, of children’s books, fiction, auto biographies, of anything. If it is well written I will read it. I never share book crushes with people, I don’t want to hear them not lobe my books. It offends me. I was surprised over how many you recommended that I have never read. I have read many of the authors, I have recommended them myself, but some how I missed their award winning book?? What the heck? I am a tad bit ashamed. :)

  15. Jim
    Jim says:

    When I was 16 I worked at “Amvets Thrift store” in Chicago Heights as the book sorter and pricer. Part of my very low pay was that I could keep any books I wanted! As I sorted skids, I would throw the interesting books in a box, at the end of the day, I would sort the several boxes down to one, and take that box home. Ah, fond memories……

  16. Jim
    Jim says:

    Speaking of books. This morning on “Morning Edition” of NPR there was a delightful story about the 1936 book: “The Story of Ferdinand”

  17. ellen chamberlin
    ellen chamberlin says:

    i can’t wait to read these! especially the book about the suit and frederick! thank you! christmas gift for my boss who advised me: “don’t be yourself and don’t laugh” when i was going on interviews.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “I’ve changed jobs a lot and the hardest part is leaving behind all the hard-won knowledge.” and “All I had was my confidence I gained from running the bookstore, memorizing the books and helping tons of kids find a book they wouldn’t hate.”
    While it’s true you left behind some hard-won knowledge, you retained your self-confidence. I think that’s worth a lot more as it is transferable to wherever you go. I could also sort books by size, color, author, publisher, etc. What I couldn’t do is find books for children of different ages and tastes that they would love. That’s a special talent. You love hearing the crack of a new spine. I love smelling the pages of a new book.
    I subscribed to as I’m interested to see what you do there with more posts.

  19. Portal Genç
    Portal Genç says:

    When I was 16 I worked at “Amvets Thrift store” in Chicago Heights as the book sorter and pricer. Part of my very low pay was that I could keep any books I wanted! As I sorted skids, I would throw the interesting books in a box, at the end of the day, I would sort the several boxes down to one, and take that box home. Ah, fond memories……

  20. sarah McKinney
    sarah McKinney says:

    Looking forward to reading these books. My boys loved Fredrick when they were little. This is a different side of your writing and i love it!

  21. enfj writer
    enfj writer says:

    What personality type editor would be good for an ENFJ writer? What would be a good balance for writing books, blogs, etc.?

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      As an ENFJ editor, I can safely say that personality type won’t make much of a difference when it comes to selecting an editor because ENFJs hate being edited. You could try to choose someone who will be kind to your ego, which depends so much on external validation, but that’s not what people need in an editor. So, I would suggest you pick someone who comes recommended (look for remarks like “when she was done it read exactly like I wanted it to” and “he didn’t change my voice so it still sounds like me, but better”) and resolve yourself to simply hating your editor. Don’t worry, we’re used to it.

  22. Cathy Eads
    Cathy Eads says:

    So loved this list! As a rep for a children’s book publisher, I can relate to that special relationship you described having with certain books that you schelpped around. Picture books can indeed resemble poems: full of profound meaning, in an efficient and visually appealing “packaging.” I think you’d like Singing to the Sun, a fairy tale about choices, where the Princess does not run off with the Prince at the end. (Full disclosure, it’s a book my company sells.)

  23. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    You are unbelievable.

    Every time I read a blog post, even when I dislike the content, the style is so…’s art. It feels good, it lands in my belly good, like art.

  24. Ruthie
    Ruthie says:

    thank you for the list, Penelope. Even though my kids are a little older for picture books, I’ve picked them up and will casually leave them around the house. It always works.

    I love my kids to read books I enjoyed as a kid. I just read “Big Brain” series to my kids and also reading “the Teddy Bear Habit” by James Lincoln Collier. So even after 35 years, it’s a great read.

  25. Nicola
    Nicola says:

    Hi I always enjoy your posts I have been reading your posts for years. It was the first place I heard about Aspergers. Turns out I now have a five year old son with Aspergers which has been and is confusing at times. Any future book lists for children that children with Aspergers would love (or I should read) would be greatly appreciated. Anyway some of your posts have been so helpful to me I am so glad I found your blog all those years ago. Thanks.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m glad you asked! Books without words are great for kids with Aspergers because they have to interpret wha they’re seeing. And the kids with Aspergers have to come up with their own description of what people are doing/feeling/wanting.

      Hurricane, by Wiesner
      Can’t Sleep, by Dupasquier
      Sushine, by Ormerad
      The Party, by McPhail
      Frog, Where are You, by Mayer
      Ben’s Trumpet, by Isadora

      Good luck!

  26. Maria Gomez
    Maria Gomez says:

    Thank you for sharing! It’s very original approach for rethinking our careers and not only for children!

  27. HD
    HD says:

    So good!! All your kids book knowledge and judgments are being wasted! Please could you share more, more regularly or just start a full time kids book blog. Would really love your recommendations for all ages all topics. Thank you!!!

  28. Misha
    Misha says:

    Nobody really knows what career they will follow through out their life! I never knew I never knew I wanted to follow a roofing career so I found this blog post very interesting and reassuring that this is what I want to do! Great read and an amazing post!

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