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The 3 most satisfying kids books of the century

Will Mary Anne dig the cellar before sundown?
Will Mary Anne dig the cellar before sundown?
Virginia Lee Burton

While many children's books end in a way that is somewhat satisfying, three books stand out as leaving the largest smile on a child's face as she drifts off to sleep. These are The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, and Otis by Loren Long.

The Story of Ferdinand is a classic worth re-reading now. When it first released, it was considered too "pacifist" by the governments of Spain and Nazi Germany, as it centers on a handsome bull who is different from all the other bulls in Spain. Ferdinand doesn't care for conflict, but rather appreciates the smell of flowers.

The story for Ferdinand is particularly resonant for many of today's parents. A broader acceptance of alternative lifestyles in our society has made this story from 1936 even more relevant. Children may cheer for Ferdinand as he vexes the matador by refusing to fight, but parents will stand up and applaud Ferdinand's mother "because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow."

Ferdinand has long ago established himself as a cornerstone of our society, and children who enjoy the book may also get a kick out of Disney's short movie based on The Story of Ferdinand. The movie includes even more delicious, and accurate, illustrations of pastoral Spain.

The prize for Ferdinand's best visual depiction still belongs to Robert Lawson, for depicting the moment that Ferdinand sits on the bee with just the perfect amount of drama.

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel also centers around compassion, and its ability to melt even the meanest heart. Written in 1939 by Virginia Lee Burton, the author of other wonderful, anthropomorphic books including The Little House, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel focuses on the relationship between a man and his trusty steam shovel, Mary Anne, whom he loves even though she has become outdated.

Burton's illustrations of the great canals and foundations that Mike and Mary Anne dig together etch themselves into a child's mind indelibly, and the economic peril that they face together is well-depicted. Children will especially enjoy knowing that it is a little boy who saves the day when Mike and Mary Anne dig themselves into the corner of a foundation and cannot come out -- an idea suggested to Virginia Lee Burton by a child as she wrote the story (Dick Berkenbush is thanked in a footnote.).

It is a secondary character, Henry B. Swap, who undergoes the greatest transformation in the book. It is a marvelous thing when a man who initially smiles in "rather a mean way" determines how he might see things differently, and is rewarded with warmth and friendship.

HBO created a 25-minute charming movie based on the story, which is available on HBO's YouTube channel.

And finally, there is Otis, by Loren Long. This 2009 book about the friendship between a calf and a tractor belongs in the satisfying triumvirate for two reasons.

First, it is a direct homage to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Story of Ferdinand (as well as Little Toot by Hardie Gramatky). Parents and children will enjoy finding cameo appearances from those books sprinkled throughout Otis (Ferdinand's tree is adorned with apples instead of corks, but it's the same tree!).

Second, Otis stands on its own feet (or wheels... or hooves...) as a satisfying story. Otis becomes a mentor and friend to the calf when she is separated from her mother, comforting her with sweet tractor noises ("putt puff puffedy chuff") so that she can sleep.

When the little tractor is replaced by a newer model, he retreats in dismay, and leaves the calf to play by herself -- until the calf desperately needs her friend and Otis bursts back onto the scene with a solution worthy of Dick Berkenbush.

Long's illustrations are wrought with emotion, and the sepia tones create the sense that one has gone back in time, to the era of Mike Mulligan and Ferdinand, when it first became fashionable to depict sentimental steam shovel owners, to care deeply for pacifist bulls, and to love one another just as we are.