Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Read This, Not That

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? 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
Press Here
Black Book of Colors
The Growing Up Tree
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
Wanda’s Monster
Wacky Wednesday
Knuffle Bunny (One, Two and Free)
Wow City!
Wow America!
Wow School!
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
Princess Fishtail
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)
Naughty Parents
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)

Your turn.


Carrie said...

I agree 100% with your tenets of what constitutes quality literature. Sadly, there are so few books that meet those guidelines these days. When I find one, I snap it up!

Amazingly, I'm not familiar with about half the books on your list, and you know what that means: time to get myself to the library! {I only say amazingly because I was a school librarian so I should know those titles!} As for Knuffle Bunny, we are huge fans. Jan Brett, too. Have you read any Kevin Henkes? "Julius, the Baby of the World" is wonderful, one of my favorites. Knuffle Bunny Free made me cry. As for board books, we loved the Sandra Boynton ones because they were so funny and original-- "The Bellybutton Book" and "Red Hat, Blue Hat" and "But Not the Hippopotamus" all ranked high with us when we read them.

Thanks for the list, I'm off to the library!

Carrie said...

Oh, and the Charlie and Lola books NEVER stayed on the shelves in my library. NEVER. They are so funny!

Joy Weese Moll said...

I've been reading to 5 and 6 year olds the past three summers and Dr. Seuss went over well with my group, too. We also got a kick out of the two Bill and Pete books by Tomie DePaola which they found uproariously funny. And they liked the Sheep books by Nancy Shaw. For some reason Charlie Parker Played Be Bop didn't go over with this crowd, but it was very popular with the two previous groups -- lots of fun nonsense words. Maybe I didn't read it as well!

Lorrie D. said...

Hey Melissa,

I agree with you about the "gimmicky" books based on the currently popular characters or movies. They are short-lived books.I teach Kindergarten and I like many of your choices. Most people don't even know about The Bag I'm taking to Grandma's. It is one of my favorites for teaching growing patterns in Math. I printed graphics to go along with the story and then put magnets on the bag of each piece. I've done the lesson with another teacher. I read, while she puts the graphics on the board in a growing pattern. I love any good book where I can tie in mathematics with reading. I LOVE the Little Quack books by Lauren Thompson. If you're not familiar with them, they will soon be on your's and your daughter's favorites list. You must make up character voices for all of the little ducks by looking at their expressions. She will love it!
Anyway, I am starting, with great interest, a new theme to start the Kindergarten year. I just bought three of the Curious George videos and the orginal Curious George book, Curious George Visits the Library and an eight storybook collection. Why do you not like the books based on the videos as much as you like the older books? I picked up the videos and read how they are related to STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. That is what we are learning about in my master's courses- Walden online. There are also extension activities on PBS kids and the ReadWriteThink website.
I thought I would follow one Kindergarten teacher's plan to help students learn about their school by placing a stuffed animal George in various places around the school. Then, the students draw/write (or teacher scribes) about how George could get into mischief in each place. What do you think?

Melissa B said...

Lorrie-I hope you come back and read this. What I think is that you sound like an AMAZING kindergarten teacher. Your kids are so lucky to have you--what an exciting, fun, joyful entry into school you are providing. The Curious George lesson is sure to get their creative juices flowing. I think I'm going to do it in my house. My daughter would love it. I really appreciate that you are doing multidisciplinary Lesson development. Literature and math and science are too frequently taught in isolation. You're really helping to establish the relevance of what they are learning. As for the CG books based on the videos, take a look at the one on dinosaurs. It's about how school children are bored at the museum and only become interested in the dinosaurs once George is climbing one. It assumes disinterest and boredom. It glamorizes "not listening.". All the books follow the same canned formula--George is bad, George is caught, Georgr gets scared and runs away. George's actions have unintended positive consequences. George is forgiven his misdeeds and hailed as a hero. It lacks all if the originality and quirkiness of the original stories and fails to capture the true spirit of George. Still, I don't know about the STEM relationship, so perhaps there are worthwhile ways in which they can be utilized. At any rate, thank you for your thoughtful reflections...and best wishes for a wonderful school year! Melissa

Janis said...

I know I'm writing this way after the fact, but I'm glad you made the distinction on the Curious George books. A relative gave us a compilation book (the one you can find at any Target) saying that C.G. was his favorite when he was growing up (40 years ago!). I have never been too impressed by the C.G. stories but never thought about it long enough to put it into words, which you did so well. I just pulled the book off the shelf and checked, and all of the stories are copyrighted from the late '90s on. I try hard to stay away from condensed versions, books written 'in the style of', Disney stories (that just strip the story of all the good qualities it once had), etc. and hadn't noticed that the book was not originally written by H.A. Rey. I'll have to check out some of the originals from the library...Thank you!

Becky said...

Great list to take with me to the library! We are into a lot of the books by Donald crews right now such as Inside Freight Train, Ten Black Dots, Bigmama's, etc.