Books getting meta. Books about books. Books that refer to themselves as books. Books where the characters are aware of being in a book. While my categories may stray from the generally accepted definition of “meta,” these self-aware books and books about books are sure to be page turners for your book-loving readers!
The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Snow, illustrated by David Smollin (2003–most recent edition): In this Sesame Street classic book, Grover warns the reader not to continue on with the book because there is a monster at the end of it, and he is scared of monsters! In his distress, he tries everything to avoid getting to the end. Not to worry, however–Grover himself is the monster at the end of the book! I vaguely remember this book from my childhood, and the fact that it is still in print is telling. A great breaking-the-fourth-wall book for preschool and early elementary children, this book is best shared as a read-aloud.
Book! Book! Book!, by Deborah Bruss, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (2001): When the children all go back to school after a summer of fun, the animals on the farm are bored. The hen decides to go looking for something to do, and the other animals follow. When they come upon a building where people with smiles on their faces are exiting, they decide this is the place for finding something to do! (The place is the public library.) The horse thinks the hen is too small to be the one to go in to ask, so he goes in, but all the librarian can hear is “neigh, neigh,” so he leaves sadly. Each of the other larger animals also try, but the librarian can only hear their animal noises. Then the hen, frustrated, determines to go in herself. When she arrives, she starts clucking, “Book! Book! BOOK!” It takes a few tries, but the librarian suddenly realizes that she’s asking for books! She gives her three, and the hen takes them back to the farm with the other animals to read together. Everyone is happy except the frog; he keeps claiming that he’s already “read it!” With a cute story and simple plot, a read-aloud (to emphasize the chicken-y sound of the word “book” in particular) to children as young as preschool would be a crowd-pleaser!
We Are in a Book! (An Elephant & Piggie book), by Mo Willems (2010): Gerald the Elephant and Piggie are sitting back to back on the ground when Gerald suddenly notices that someone is looking at them. When Piggie gets up to investigate, coming closer to the reader, they realize that they are being read by a reader! They are very excited and try to get the reader to say the word banana, then they laugh and laugh about it. Piggie offers to let Gerald try it before the book ends, and Gerald is shocked to realize it will end (on page 57, no less). He is distraught over the approaching end, but Piggie comes up with the idea to ask the reader to read the book again to prolong their fun. The book ends semi-abruptly with the two of them hoping their request works (because, after all, having a conclusion to a book where the characters want it to be read in a continuous loop would be counterproductive!). While this is a perfectlly acceptable book for an independent young reader, all the Elephant and Piggie books make amazingly fun read-alouds as well.
The Best Book in the World!, by Rilla (2014): When I looked up this author’s website to see if I could figure out her name (her full name is Rilla Alexander, but the library copy I have has “Rilla, Alexander” like Rilla is the last name!), I discovered that she is primarily an illustrator and graphic designer (which, considering the appearance of the book, didn’t surprise me). I also discovered another of her books (also featuring the character she calls her “alterego, Sozi”) that I really must have–Her Idea! (I was just having a chat with a friend this morning about all the writing ideas I have that I never carry through to completion!) The relevant book to this theme, however, features Sozi as she gets started on a book. With book in hand and a superhero mask over her eyes, she moves through town as she progresses through her book, and then things start to focus in more on the story world she enters. The book states, “Page by page you’re carried away. So let yourself go!” Sozi (whose name isn’t mentioned in the book) travels deep into her book, picking up strange companions on her way. Just as things seem to be getting overwhelming, she takes a moment to “rest [her] eyes” and dozes off. All the characters who populated her book now populate her dreams, and they huddle around her book–The Best Book in the World–as she dreams because of the secret they share: “the story won’t stop…[i]f we go back to the beginning again!”
The Children Who Loved Books, by Peter Carnavas (2012): Angus and Lucy don’t have a lot in the way of personal possessions; in fact, they even live in a camper with their parents instead of a regular home or apartment. What they do have, however, is books. They have so many books, in fact, that they soon overwhelm their tiny living space, and their father hauls them off. In addition to the logistical problems they start having because books were a literal prop in their home, the abundance of space in their house allows a lot of space to form between the members of the family as well. When Lucy brings a book home from the library, they can’t help opening it up and starting to read aloud. They all crowd around the father as he reads, and they read together on the couch late into the night (where they also all fall asleep). Bonded together once again through a shared story, they take their bike out first thing in the morning and head to–you guessed it!–the library for more books. As the last page says, “Angus and Lucy didn’t have very much, but they had all they would ever need.”
What Happened to Marion’s Book?, by Brook Berg, illustrated by Nathan Alsburg (2003): Marion is a hedgehog who loves to read all kinds of books in all kinds of places. She’s looking forward to starting school because her nana said that she should become a librarian some day, and she knows school is the place to start! She is most excited about visiting the library and taking out two books at a time. One morning at breakfast, however, she drops some raspberry jam on her open library book and knows she can’t just leave it there. She tries all kinds of things to fix the red stain (from letting the dog lick it to washing it in the washing machine!), and she even considers donating one of her own books to replace the ruined one, but all of her books have been dirtied because she reads them everywhere. She worries that she doesn’t know how to treat books, will be banned from the library, and will never be able to become a librarian. She finally gets the courage to tell her mom, and her mom tells her that she’ll have to pay to replace the book. When she brings the ruined book back to the school library, the librarian is disappointed, of course, but she gives Marion a tour of the “book hospital” where books are repaired and gives her a bookmark to remind her how to care for books. And, of course, Marion pays for the ruined book and checks out two new ones! (This hit close to home since GirlChild’s milk Thermos leaked in her backpack and spoiled a library book recently!)
Wild about Books, by Judy Sierra, pictures by Marc Brown (2004): In this rhyming story, librarian Molly McGrew accidentally drives the bookmobile to the zoo. Instead of being perturbed by her mistake and their reluctance, Molly starts reading Dr. Seuss aloud to attract a crowd. Soon, all the animals come to check out books (in two senses of the phrase!). The crocodiles enjoy Peter Pan, an elephant reads Dumbo, the pandas request books in Chinese, and then the puns begin! The llamas read The Grass Menagerie, the scorpion leaves stinging reviews of the poems the insects are inspired to write, and the hippo wins a Zoolitzer Prize for her memoir, Mud in my Blood. Then Molly hires some of the construction-minded animals–the beavers in particular–to create a branch library to satisfy their literary needs right there at the zoo. Now that they have their very own zoobrary, it’s sometimes hard to see the animals because “[t]hey are snug in their niches, their nests, and their nooks, [g]oing wild, simply wild, about wonderful books.” This book is a great one not only for introducing the concepts of reading, getting inspired by reading to write, and finding the perfect kind of book for your interests, but it also appeals to little readers who simply like animals and learning new animal names!
Have I Got a Book for You!, by Mélanie Watt (2009): Al Foxword is a creature (of some sort, I can’t really place him!) and a salesman. This book serves as an infomercial for itself as Al tries to convince the reader not only that he or she should buy a copy of the book but that he or she should buy multiple copies of the book. He tries every trick of the trade, wheedling and exaggerating, throwing in bonus gifts and deals for buying more than one. When all his efforts seem to have failed, he reminds us of the one big rule of merchandise: “You break it, you buy it!” And the last page is “torn.” Definitely meant to be read aloud by someone with few inhibitions. 😉 (Also, might be a great book to use when teaching information literacy and the tricks advertisers use!)
Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar, by Emily MacKenzie (2015): Ralfy Rabbits loves books so much that “one thing led to another,” and he starts actually burgling books from people to get his fix! Unfortunately for Ralfy, Arthur also loves books, and he notices when parts of his well-organized collection start to go missing. Arthur stakes out his bookshelves and sees Ralfy, but no one believes his story about a thieving rabbit, not even the police. That is, I mean, until Ralfy accidentally burgles the home of PC Puddle, the officer to whom Arthur had spoken when he called in his complaint. When Arthur is called in to view a line-up of bunnies wearing “I ❤ Books” shirts, he isn’t sure which rabbit is the robber until a conveyor belt of goodies is passed in front of them, and the only bunny who goes for books instead of the carrots and lettuce offered is Ralfy. Arthur feels sorry for Ralfy because he is only in trouble because he loves books, and he has a great idea of where Ralfy can borrow his fill of books without having to steal them: the library! And Arthur and Ralfy become “best ‘book buddies'” and visit the library together often. Good fun for elementary readers.
The Book that Eats People, by John Perry, illustrations by Mark Fearing (2009): I read this aloud to BoyChild, and he was a little concerned about it. Once I realized it wasn’t just a play on words or something, I was a little concerned, too, that young BoyChild would be having nightmares about his books…but it was better to finish and remind him that it was just pretend than to leave him hanging with carnivorous books running through his dreams! Recommended for ages 3-7 on Amazon, I’m going to go ahead and suggest a slightly older crowd despite the relatively small amount of text per page. I’m thinking middle elementary is probably a safer bet what with the book actually eating people and phrases like “it coughed up his bones and they clattered across the floor like wooden blocks” and the like. Sure, it’s darkly hilarious, but that seems like more the sort of thing that children with a stronger grasp on the concept of reality versus fiction might enjoy. Featuring a ton of collage elements and a very cranky-looking book, the visuals are also geared toward the upper end of the suggested age range and beyond. Future fans of the Series of Unfortunate Events would like this book!
The Incredible Book Eating Boy, by Oliver Jeffers (2006): Henry loves books, but not in the same way that most people do; he literally devours them. It starts by accident at first, when he mistakenly licks his book instead of his popsicle when he’s distracted. It quickly progresses, however, into tearing into pages and then into whole books and eventually several books at once! He eats all kinds of books–he’s not picky–and finds that he grows smarter and smarter with each one he ingests! Eventually, though, eating all those books so quickly without giving himself time to “digest” them leads to confusion and nausea. Henry stops eating books then, and it takes him a while to figure out what else he can do with his books…and he tries reading them. Just like before, he gets smarter with each book he reads, although this method is slower. Now he reads all the time, and he only occasionally slips back into bad habits (as evidenced by a large “bite” taken out of the last few pages and back cover). The irony and graphic design elements of this book make it better for slightly older picture book readers, middle to upper elementary.
Return of the Library Dragon, by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Michael P. White (2012): Miss Lotty (short for Lotta Scales, we discover), librarian at Sunrise Elementary School, is retiring. As she tries to reassure the students that the new librarian will be as much and more fun, one of the children asks if the new librarian will let them use computers, and her old dragon-ish ways rear their heads briefly as she declares, “Over my dead dragon body!” On her very last day of work, she is greeted in the morning by the unpleasant discovery that IT has arrived, taken all the books, and filled the library with electronics only! Miss Lotty is steaming mad (literally), and the students beg for their books back, listing all the reasons books are still relevant and enjoyable. They also discover, however, how enticing technology can be, and Mike Krochip (the IT guy) crows that soon the kids will forget all about books in a month! Miss Lotty loses her temper, and everyone flees, but they warn the young woman in the hallway that the “librarian’s a real dragon!” This young woman, it turns out, is the new librarian, and she is the same woman who, as a child twenty years prior, had convinced Miss Lotty to shed her draconic book-lending practices in the first place. (You have to read the short newspaper article in the front matter for this to make any sense, actually, so don’t skip it!) Molly reassures Miss Lotty that the books will be returned because she insisted that they remain as a condition of her employment, and completely replacing books with technology makes her feel a little dragon-ish as well. The last page shows an image of Miss Molly at her desk with children, books, and a sign proclaiming Technology Free Tuesday–striking a balance between printed and electronic resources. This is apparently the second book about the Library Dragon, so reading The Library Dragon first would be an alternative to making sure the newspaper article page gets read. Quotes on reading, books, librarians, and information technology fill the end papers. The controversy about technology and the proliferation of punny names and book titles probably wouldn’t register with younger readers, so I’d suggest a middle elementary to upper elementary audience for this book.
It’s a Book, by Lane Smith (2010): This book is more for big kids and adults than it is for the picture book crowd (particularly if you don’t want to read/have your kid read the word “jackass” for comedic effect–just giving you a heads-up here!). It features a mouse, a jackass, and a monkey. The monkey is reading a book (with the mouse under his hat, for some reason), and the jackass is using a laptop. The jackass keeps asking the monkey if his book can do some thing that the laptop does (scroll down, connect to wi-fi, play music, etc.), and the monkey keeps responding with, “No, it’s a book” (or some variation on that theme). Then the monkey hands his book over so the jackass can see for himself, and the jackass gets totally absorbed to the point of not wanting to give it back. When the monkey gives in and lets him keep it (he’s going to the library anyway), the jackass offers to charge it up for him when he’s done. That’s when the mouse says, “You don’t have to…it’s a book, jackass.” So, a book that might have been fun to read with small children of the digital generation kind of gets fouled up with a double entendre. If you don’t care and wish to share it with your children anyway, that’s fine; it’s a clever book! If that’s a little more mature than you like to go with your child’s vocabulary (or if you’re a school teacher and probably shouldn’t), you can try It’s a Little Book for the same kind of cleverness but in a board book without the words to make children giggle (and with contents suited for an even younger set).
Books for Older Kids that I Wish I’d Had a Chance to Actually Read and Review Properly But Didn’t:
Secrets of the Book, by Erin Fry (2014, upper elementary): This book features a book called Pandora’s Book which is full of images of positively influential historical people that the guardian of the book can bring to life. That there is a shady man who has a book called Pandora’s Other Book suggests that infamous historical people are included in that book. The heroes of the story are sixth graders: a boy who is losing his sight, another with autism spectrum disorder, and the “resourceful” granddaughter of the previous keeper of the book (who goes missing right after passing the book on).
Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret, by D. D. Everest (2015, upper elementary): The first in a new series, this book tells the story of Archie Greene, a boy who receives a very old book on his twelfth birthday and learns that he is part of a gifted family given the job of protecting and preserving magical books. Archie himself has some hidden talents as well. The reviews I read suggest that there is a lot of content to process, so this is probably good for a dedicated reader who enjoys the concept of magic hidden in the real world. The summaries made me think strongly of The Librarians show and of Warehouse 13, if you happen to be the adult in charge of selecting books for your tween or early teen and know those series!
Inkheart trilogy, by Cornelia Funke (2003, upper elementary to middle school): Meggie’s father, a man who repairs rare books, never reads aloud to her, and she discovers why when one of the characters he accidentally read out of a book (and Meggie’s mother into it) shows up outside their home late one night. This fantasy story starts with the idea that spoken words–particularly words spoken by someone with talent–are powerful, and the three books in the series continue in that vein, and with added elements of the power of skillful storytelling and writing added in, to create a world where a good reader can literally make a book come alive and a good writer can transport you into a book. (I have actually read all of these books, but it was long enough ago that I can’t give a very specific review!)
I know there are many, many more of these books available! Just search the subjects “Libraries–Fiction” and “Books–Fiction” to find a vast selection from which to choose!