Best Last Books: Which Ones Are Worth Reading?
I don’t have many literary podcasts on my feed (if you have any to recommend, please drop ’em in the comments!) but one that I always make time for is Marlon and Jake Read Dead People. Hosted by author Marlon James and his editor Jake Morrissey, I am consistently impressed by the range of topics the two delve into. And in one recent episode the topic was “Best Last Books”. In other words, “Which last books are actually worth reading?”
Naturally, this made me think of the wide and wonderful world of children’s books. Were someone to do a kids book version of the Marlon and Jake show, you could probably take a lot of the same topics and work with them. This one struck me as particularly vexing, though.
There is only one thing for it: Let’s set up some ground rules. Not because we have to, of course. I just really like ground rules.
- All “last books” must be books published within the author/illustrator’s lifetime. So Maurice Sendak’s Bumble Ardy would count but not, say, Presto and Zesto in Limboland. The creators had to be involved in their book’s publication every step of the way.
- For author/illustrators, their “last book” may be whatever book they worked on last. So if the last book they did they illustrated, that counts. If instead they just wrote their last book, that would count instead.
- Reprints do not count. Not even if the creator added additional elements. And certainly not if the reprint was published posthumously.
I think you may see an inherent flaw in the structure of this game. Mainly, that creators that die young have a leg up on the creators that die at a ripe old age. And I would almost, but not quite, agree with you. While it is clear that many people do their best work while young, there are some folks who are capable of keeping up the quality. William Steig’s last book When Everybody Wore a Hat, for example, while not quite as gripping as books like Doctor DeSoto or Shrek, had an outsized charm. His style also naturally lent itself to old age, adapting naturally to the page.
So what would be my personal favorites? We’re not necessarily looking for books where the last book was their best book. Rather, we’re looking for books where the last book was worth reading in some way.
With that in mind, here is a list of some of the people we lost in late 2020/21 and the last books they left us that are well worth a read:
Mitsumasa Anno – Anno’s Spain
Right off the bat we come up against the question of translation. It’s entirely possible that Anno had other books, after this one, published overseas. I think that since I’m making up the rules, I’m just going to consider the last books done in the States, and Anno’s Spain would be an amazing achievement no matter where it came in his output. I mean, where else are you going to find a miniature Guernica displayed outdoors in Guernica?
Beverly Cleary – Ramona’s World
One of the more impressive feats in Cleary’s already impressive career was that at the age of 83 she was still able to put out a legitimately good Ramona book. Horn Book took issue with the inclusion of nose piercings and Velcro (“the sisters are otherwise untouched by life as we know it in the nineties”) but all told the reviews were otherwise incredibly positive. It even inspired my friend Peter Sieruta to create an April Fool’s blog post 18 years later that really leaned into that discomfort with Ramona entering the 21st century.
Arnold Adoff – Roots and Blues: A Celebration
It wasn’t until after Adoff died that I realized he had been married to Virginia Hamilton (listen to the Fuse 8 n’ Kate podcast episode on Black Is Brown Is Tan to hear their epic how-they-met story). This book, coming out around ten years ago, shows off the talents of R. Gregory Christie, which is always a good thing. With Kirkus calling it “incandescent” and SLJ lauding it as “exquisite”, I feel that it’s sort of slipped out of sight over the intervening decade. The book, however, is still in print and doesn’t look like it’s in any danger of falling out anytime soon.
Byrd Baylor – The Table Where Rich People Sit
I attending a small Quaker college in Indiana, back in the day. While there, one of my Quaker friends introduced me to some of the picture books that were important to her. So out came the Byrd Baylor. I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I thought the restrained messaging in The Table Where Rich People Sit was well done. Apparently Byrd and her illustrator Peter Parnall had won three Caldecott Honors over the years. This book didn’t win any, but I might argue that it’s their best known (and possibly best period) book of them all.
Floyd Cooper – Unspeakable
This one hurts to include. It is probably a good thing that a person cannot solicit committee members to award certain books because if it were okay I’d be camped out on the lawns of the Caldecott committee members’ homes right now. We lost Floyd, one of the rare cases where kindness in a human being is inseparable from incredible talent, at what may well have been the peak of his career. What a way to end it too.
CORRECTION: Sharp-eyed spotter Eric Carpenter pointed out to me that in actual fact Cooper’s last book was A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson. Also, a top notch book.
Ted Lewin – I See and See
Just before I left New York in 2015 I had a chance to attend a Holiday House librarian preview where Ted Lewin showed off the art for his book Look. I was gone by the time he created I See and See, one of the “I Like to Read” easy books. You can see his talent right there on that cover too. Lewin left an impressive career and this book was a lovely way to bow out. May we all be so lucky.
What are some last books you’re particularly fond of?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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