The following blog was inspired by the children’s book, The Costume Trunk, by Bob Fuller, which I read (to Sophia) as a participant in the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received the book gratis from the publisher, but was not paid to write this article.
What constitutes a quality children’s book? Quality is often ephemeral—you know it when you see it, but it’s hard to put words to it. Still, I’m going to try.
To some extent, the quality of a children’s book can be measured by the impact it has on the reader, which I suppose is true of any book, regardless of the audience.
1. If it evokes a strong emotional reaction:
When I was about ten years old, I read The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The book broke my heart. By the end, I was dissolved in tears, and completely shocked by my own reaction. I remember running down the stairs calling for my mother, “Mom, this book made me cry!” She said, smiling, "Books can do that."
2. If it has rich, three-dimensional characters that help a child reach higher, yearn for more, and expand the possibilities of who he/she can be:
Madeline L’Engle’s brainy, empowering heroine of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry, was unattractive, socially awkward and had trouble in school, yet she made me want to be smart, a scientist, and introduced me to a whole new, traditionally male-dominated, genre of fiction.
3. If it teaches you something new…The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Transports you to another time…Tikki Tikki Tembo. And another place with imagery so rich, a world so complete…Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?....you forget your own surroundings.
4. If your child begs you for novel stories about his or her own life that incorporates a literary figure…Curious George (the original H.A. Rey books, not the formulaic ones based on the videos)...
…you know it’s good.
You also know schlock when you see it. Often, it’s gimmicky, intended to further market characters, toys, and branded goods to children (e.g. Disney Princesses, Dora the Explorer, Spiderman, Smurfs, etc.). These books are typically vehicles to introduce and promote series of characters. They typically introduce figure after figure, with a flimsy, incoherent, or meandering plot. Most follow a formula. Almost all are predictable. Despite the best efforts of some of these books to appear wholesome and “teach a lesson,” the lesson is either oversimplified without the complex moral subtleties that real dilemmas carry or it is obscured by the much more seductive inappropriate behaviors in the book. These books do not show, they tell. They ask you to believe, rather than inspiring belief. Their characters are flat and constricted by traditional gender roles. Yet, they appeal to kids. They carry a seductive, almost addictive quality. And they turn kids who would otherwise be happy playing with a cardboard box into consumers…wanting related toys, figurines, towels, book bags, Happy Meals that never seem to satisfy.
So, in honor of quality children’s books, I would like to list a few of Sophie and my favorites…I hope there are some here that you’ve never heard of, but will be inspired to read. I invite you to please share amazing books you’ve read with your children—I’m always looking for a new, wonderful read, and I’m sure my readers are too.
Melissa’s Non-exhaustive List of Wonderful Children’s Books (in no particular order):
The Other Side
When Vera was Sick
Vera Rides a Bike
Rhyming Dust Bunnies
Black Book of Colors
The Growing Up Tree
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
Knuffle Bunny (One, Two and Free)
The Secret Remedy Book
I’ll Be You and You Be Me
What Do You Say Dear?
Now We Can Have a Wedding!
It Looked Like Spilt Milk
Pink Me Up
The Show and Tell Lion
I Spy Shapes in Art
Pricilla and the Pink Planet
The Paper Bag Princess
Trouble at the Dinosaur Café
Rubia and the Three Osos
The Uglified Ducky
Once Upon a Wood
Fancy Nancy (yes, it’s good, so are the subsequent ones but only those written by the original author)
Secret in the Garden
Good night, Pillow fight
Will I have a Friend?
The Three Questions
When Sophie Gets Angry
Leo the Late Bloomer
On the Day You Were Born
I love you, Blue Kangaroo
(also: It Was You, Blue Kangaroo and Happy Birthday Blue Kangaroo)
The Bag that I’m Taking to Grandma’s (and all the other wonderful rebus books by the same author)
Anything Dr. Seuss
Anything Richard Scarry
Almost anything by Jan Brett
Any of the Lola and Charlie books by Lauren Child
Any of the Llama Llama books (though the holiday drama one is less good)
Any of the Frog and Toad books
The original Madeline books
And last, but not least:
The original Curious George books: (Curious George, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, Curious George Takes a Job, Curious George Flies a Kite, Curious George Rides a Bike, Curious George Gets a Medal)