Picking good Children’s books

So, after my last post it struck me (based on some comments) that I didn’t want to suggest that I wouldn’t read Curious George to Doctor Destructo or that I was going to be all uppity about the books we would read. We are still reading Curious George and Winnie the Pooh, and other merely fun books (as in not necessarily more than a fun story). In fact, I think these are the kinds of things we need to be reading now. So, I thought I’d present my thoughts on what makes for a “good” children’s book and book collection.

“Good” as in I think its worth reading more than once, perhaps many times. Such is the way with books these days, in that if Doctor Destructo decides he likes a book, he wants it read over and over and over again. Like putting a song on repeat.

What makes a book good?

1. The book tells a story. Books with pictures that are labeled certainly have their place, but better are those with stories. Doctor Destructo really likes the Baby Words book, which has photographs and words, but no story. Those are nice when you want to point and give words, but true language development, I think, come as the child hears a narrative. They hear the way the story progresses from the beginning, to the climax, into the denouement. This is where a child will hear those odd ball grammatical structures that we really hardly ever use in everyday conversation, like “If I were a butterfly, I’d….” or those fun conditionals, “if you give a mouse a cookie….”. If you are lucky (and likely worked hard), and can read to your child in a language other than English, you might find other fun grammatical structures like the Spanish subjunctive (I think that’s what its called. We don’t really have it in English.)

2. The books shows life in a way that says ‘normal’ to you. This will vary from family to family and what your values are. But I believe strongly that parents SHOULD instill in their children a set of values that reflects what you believe. (note: not someone else, not the school, but the parents). If you think ‘normal’ is a Mommy and a Daddy and kids, then let your books reflect this. If you want your child to think that ‘normal’ includes a different configuration of people as family, then your books should reflect this. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have any books but those that reflect ‘normality’, but it serves to point out that what your children see in life, in books and on TV is what they will learn as ‘normal’. (I know this is very not p.c., but then I don’t care too much about being p.c.) I figure by some certain age, children will learn that what they know as normal isn’t normal for everyone. That will bring new teaching moments when you get to talk about being kind and generous even when it seems strange or different. But I think that is a discussion on a different topic.

3. The book uses precise language. Not that it must use lots of big words or words with complicated ideas. But you shouldn’t have those moments when you think “what did that mean? Did he mean A or B?” and then have to figure it out yourself. The example I can think of comes from the Jesus Storybook Bible (which I love!). In the story about Paul, the author states something to effect of ‘he was a good man — he kept all the rules.” I think she means “he thought he was a good man because he kept all the rules.”

4. The lack of typos, grammatical errors and spelling errors helps. We have found two grammatical – capitalization errors in Blueberries for Sal, and its been in print since the late 40s. I doubt we are the first to find these errors, but it surprises me that our 1977 version wasn’t fixed before printing. But then, perhaps the editors have the view that children don’t need good modeling of these writing mechanics. Of course, it might be that I would have never noticed them unless Hubby hadn’t pointed them out to me.

So that evaluates individual books, but what about the collection of books that reside in your home? Or, more appropriately, the kinds of books you aim to check out from the library.

1. Have some books that are just beyond your child’s current “reading level”. And let them have access to those books. At first, Doctor Destructo only had access to 3 board books (e.g. when he was 4 and 5 months old). Later, when we acquired a larger collection of books via hand-me-downs, I added a slew of new-to-us board books. I think Doctor D was about a year old when I pulled out The Berenstian’s B Book, Green Eggs and Ham, and other books that had paper pages. It took several tries before we made it all the way through Green Eggs and Ham, that’s  a decently long book. And The Cat in the Hat took many readings before we made it through the book in a single session. But, with practice we could read it all in one sitting.  In the past month, I pulled out some larger (and older) picture books that have a fair number of words in them. For Christmas it was The Polar Express and The Story of the Candy Cane. Now its The Frog Princess , Velveteen Rabbit, some Winnie the Pooh books (not Milne written though, Disney written) and a few others that I’ve collected through my years at a teacher that have presented challenges. We’ve made it through The Frog Princess once, though Doctor Destructo tends to loose interest when there isn’t a picture on the page (there are 2 spots where both pages are just text). Most of these books we have not even read through once yet. But we give it a try every now and then.

I knew one little boy who had read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the summer before kindergarten. Yes, he was particularly bright, but more important, I think, he had 3 older siblings, one of whom was in 5th grade when this child went into kindergarten. Likely, he’d been hearing stories that were ‘too old for him’ since he was born. So, it was only natural that he venture into such a chapter book at a young age. I do not expect Doctor Destructo to do such, I have no plans to pursue it, but I do plan to start reading chapter books out loud to him when we can actually talk abut the story (rather than merely name the things from the story), which will be several more months I suspect. We will read them out loud and talk about them — I think this makes for excellent language development. When he chooses to read them on his own, whenever that is, it will be a good day, even if he is 7, 8, or 10 at that point.

2. Books that prompt conversation or thoughts beyond the book itself are great tools. At the beginning, it will be just you talking, but it establishes a habit of talking about what you read and reflecting on it. Even now, I will talk to Doctor D about what we are reading and what it means. Now days, he usually responds by naming something from the story, but a “conversation” has started. When you see something that reminds you of that story you read yesterday, remind your child. Doctor Destructo received two fun posters of colorful pictures showing opposites (hot-cold) and prepositional opposites (in front of, behind). We aren’t so much talking about the grammar presented, but we do name the animals and objects. And when we name the treasure chest, Doctor D made the connection to the Bible story about the treasure the man found in a field. He got his Bible and went looking for that story. I helped him find it and we talked about it (retold the story in our own words, really). Doctor D has connected the wise men story in his Bible to the wise men from the manger set we have to the wise men in the Christmas cross-stitch on the wall. I’m pretty sure I helped him make those connections by pointing them out, but he’s got them down now.

I imagine this changes as your child grows in their language use. But the principle remains — talk about what you read. Books that give you something to talk about are good to have around to encourage this.

3. Don’t bother with twaddle (trivial or foolish speech or writing; nonsense). We had these cute little board books in the shape of different animals. They were counting books, but the one shaped like an octopus counted up to only six. Yeah, random. Books that really feel dorkish to you are not worth the suffering they will cause. Be done with them! While the child is little, we parents control a great deal and we can weed out the twaddle. Encourage your child with books that are worth reading.

4. Big, colorful pictures! Those pictures grab your attention and will hold your attention longer than any word will. Now, not every book should be a picture book, but have some around. And if your child is still exploring the idea of reading, those pictures give him something to look at as you read the words. The Kohl’s Cares books are great in this area, we’ve got several of them and we love reading them (Actual Size, What do you do with a tail like this, Lama Lama misses Mama). There will be a time and place for reading books with no pictures, but that shouldn’t be all your books.

Well, I’ve hopefully, given at least one person the tools to find good books. Do others think about these things at all or am I as weird as Hubby says I am?

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