Does a book have to have won an award, be recommended by someone of note, or appear on an annual ‘best of’ list published by a ‘reputable’ publication in order to be considered ‘good’? Perhaps it has to chalk up sales in the hundreds of thousands? The answer seems to be a resounding ‘no’. But why? Literati goes on the hunt to find out what makes a truly good book?
- A young girl embarks on an underground adventure after accidentally falling down a rabbit hole.
- A pig is saved from the slaughterhouse by his barnyard-dwelling spider friend.
- Four children disappear into a magical wardrobe and end up in a land of talking animals and mythical creatures.
What makes a children’s book great? Does it have to have parent-approved role models? Does it have to include life lessons or morality tales? Or does it have to be gripping, just plain funny, or un-put-down-able?
Do other people even have to like it at all? Perhaps, unlike Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Charlotte’s Web, or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a less popular title can lay claim to being a really great book. When Pigasso Met Mootisse by American author-illustrator Nina Laden, for example: a warm, funny story that chronicles a clash of egos between artistic titans Picasso and Matisse, who are rendered in childlike, animal form. Or You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum! – a Roald Dahl-esque romp that follows the travails of a disgusting man who hates children (but has a very tidy garden) – by British author Andy Stanton.
The last two titles were chosen by Literati, a try-before-you-buy book club for children based in Austin, Texas. “Ultimately,” says Literati’s CEO Jessica Ewing, to choose the best books for your child “you have to attempt to inhabit their brain space. If a book is good, you’ll feel it.”
RULE #1: If a book is good, you’ll feel it.
According to education.com, which publishes teaching aids, “A book doesn’t have to win an award to be considered ‘good.’ It doesn’t have to be a best seller or on a recommended booklist, either. A good book is simply one a child enjoys reading.”
The problem is, there are just so many books to choose from. Last year, according to BookScan, which tracks around 85% of U.S. book sales, there were 233 million children’s books sold, compared to 181 million in 2012. Adult book sales were actually down slightly on the previous three years but the children’s book market is thriving – up 3% on the previous year. In addition there was 11 percent year-over-year growth in board books and 20 percent growth in graphic novels.
So with that many books on the market, how do you separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff?
“At Literati,” Ewing says, “we source recommendations from around the world, and we don’t stop scouring. Our monthly curations begin with a theme; there has been ‘Our Great Civilization’ to teach about history; ‘In My Heart’ to teach empathy; or themes designed to foster curiosity in science or in art. We look at classics that have stood the test of time, at popular backlist titles, and when you read thousands upon thousands of children’s books, ultimately you develop an intuition for it.”
A few years back, Adam Gidwitz, author of children’s book A Tale Dark and Grimm, wrote a short piece for The New Yorker magazine asking what made a children’s book good. He pondered “novelizations” of superhero movies. Did they count as having read a book, he wondered? Or how about a graphic novel? Goosebumps, by R. L. Stine was, he said, the “kid’s-lit equivalent of B-horror movies” – but it was immensely successful, selling more than 350 million copies across the globe. Gidwitz’s conclusion: Goosebumps books must be good. But there was a caveat: “Kids have weird ideas of quality.”
Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his needs, is good for him. – Maya Angelou
Dr. Laura Jimenez, a lecturer at Boston University’s school of education who researches adolescent reading comprehension and motivation says the qualifier of ‘good’ is messy. “It’s a very inexact word,” she says. Besides, what’s good to one person might not be good to another. And why should adults be offering opinions on good children’s books anyway? Let’s ask the kids.
“Sometimes when adults talk about a good book for a child they have a lot of veiled bias,” Jimenez says. “And part of it is that we think trashy, garbage-y, fun, bubble-gum books are somehow damaging or don’t deserve consideration. But I’d say this: how bad can they be if a kid can’t put them down? Your child will only read ballerina books with glitter on them? Good. There are a lot of those. Give them all of them.”
RULE #2: Ask children what they want to read
Children’s literature expert Leonard Marcus says it takes extra effort for an adult to comment sensitively about a children’s book due to forgetfulness (or denial) when they look back at their own early years. Marcus is the author of more than 20 biographies and curated the New York Public Library’s landmark exhibition The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.
He says certain books he loved as a child that may not have been particularly well written or illustrated were nevertheless meaningful to him. “What that tells me is while there are all sorts of valid criteria one can apply to separate better ones from less better ones, I wouldn’t dismiss effort. Children like books for all sorts of reasons.”
Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light. – Vera Nazarian, author.
Marcus says although there are objective criteria when assessing the value of books for young people, beyond that it depends on the goal. “It could be to offer a child an experience which strengthens their sense of self and personal freedom, to think in an independent way, or to accept rather than feel shameful about feelings we know everyone experiences in their early lives, and that all leads to certain ideas about what makes one book better than another.”
Lewis Carroll paved the way
Alice in Wonderland was fairly revolutionary at the time it was published in 1865, Marcus says, because it came out at a time when children’s books were very moralistic in tone, and Lewis Carroll wanted to write a novel that poked fun at authority. “A lot of children’s books were designed to set examples of good and bad behavior and point children deliberately in the right direction,” he says, “So the author’s point of view was as a teacher or a stern parent. The character of Alice has grown up with books like that but as she enters into this fantasy world of story she sheds that consciousness.”
A lot of children’s books were designed to set examples of good and bad behavior and point children deliberately in the right direction
Marcus says Alice wasn’t the very first book of that kind, even though it tipped the scale. Twenty years earlier, the painter Edward Lear wrote his Book of Nonsense — “limericks that made fun of adults with wonderfully silly pictures of adults behaving in ludicrous, undignified ways. People continued to write books aimed at teaching a lesson to children in a ham-fisted way but Lewis Carroll started a new tradition of children’s books that talked about life as it was rather than as it should be.”
Even though Mark Twain wrote in a very different vein from Carroll, Marcus says both shared a similar irreverent distrust of authority. Twain wrote about children who misbehaved — but he sided with the children. When The Adventures of Tom Sawyer came out 11 years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Marcus says the characters “had minds of their own (and) put their adventures above the right-thinking behaviors of the adult world.”
There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. — Marcel Proust
The National Science Teachers Association puts it like this: “Think back to your earliest memories about reading. What do you remember? Did the story spark a sense of adventure and discovery, or make you believe you were invincible? Did the book provide answers to questions about the world around you? Did it make you smile? What feelings and images come to mind?”
Don’t dismiss books that make you laugh out loud.
Boston University’s Dr. Jimenez says children have no interest in a lot of the things adults look for in children’s books, like moral lessons; that those books are laden with guilt and bias and the promise of adulthood and she questions whether children need that. “I want books in kids’ hands that are not going to damage them in any way; that are not sexist or racist or overly violent or ableist. But I’m not worried whether it’s going to teach them to pick up their socks or look both ways when they cross the road. What about having a good laugh? What about really good sarcasm or irony that punches up? We’re stripping kids of the freedom to develop a love of getting engrossed or lost in a book.”
RULE #3: Good books don’t have to contain moral lessons; what about something that’s just plain funny?
Jimenez says there’s a reason Where the Wild Things Are (which won the 1964 Caldecott Medal, and which Literati wrote about here) still appeals to kids today. “There’s something about Max that they recognize in themselves; getting in trouble, drawing on the wall, acting like an animal. He’s acting like a kid. And he’s punished for it, but in that punishment he actually finds freedom. He gets on his bed and floats across the sea. It’s a completely liberating act on Max’s part, and I think kids recognize that.”
10 Years of Caldecott Medal Winners
Story is King
Tisha Aragaki, chief children’s librarian for the State of Hawaii and a curator for Literati, thinks it’s more important to have a really good driving story that happens to contain some sort of lesson than the actual point of the story being some sort of moral admonition. For younger readers especially, Aragaki says, the most important thing is for reading to be fun. “It has to be entertaining; a good, riveting read, and it has to be done well.”
But she concedes that looking for new authors is challenging. “Finding someone you’ve never heard of in a sea of millions of books is nerve-wracking, especially when you want to give your child the best quality.” We’re getting a lot better though, she says, at opting for books that are well-written but entertaining and that act as gateways to more complex reading. The best books, she thinks, are those that grow with your child. “There are certain books where it almost doesn’t matter how old they are; the art or nature of the book keeps pulling them back. And that’s hard to find. I don’t know if any review or ‘recommended’ list will help you with that. Aragaki suggests paying attention to the kinds of books your child finds magic in. “And everyone is different.”
Finding someone you’ve never heard of in a sea of millions of books is nerve-wracking
Literati’s social media editor Gaby Brabazon, also a writer and Montessori teacher, agrees. “Some parents I’ve spoken to worry their child is only interested in Captain Underpants; people don’t like the poop humor. Lately some parents have been up in arms about Junie B. Jones, by Barbara Park, because Junie is rude to her teacher and her parents, but my mom would read them out loud to us when we were young because she thought they were hilarious.
I remember my grandmother laughing so hard. I think you have to know your kid and know the book. If you’re concerned, have a conversation with your child and address it. I hesitate to say no book should be off limits, because there are some books out there that are objectively bad, but in general, books that have value mixed in with the problematic are worth reading and using to facilitate discussion between parent and child. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Children have much more emotional and social intelligence than we give them credit for. Let them pick what they want to read.”
Some parents have been up in arms about Junie B. Jones because Junie is rude to her teacher but I remember my grandmother laughing so hard.
Brabazon adds that children want to read books that contain some emotional truth. “If there’s no truth, a child won’t be interested. And unlike with adult books, books for young people have to end on a note of hope. Take The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Those books are very dark but they’re wildly successful. And at the end of the third installment the protagonist is a shell of herself but there’s still the theme of rebuilding. She’s lost everyone she loves and her country is unrecognizable, but the important thing is she’s moving forward – and that’s inspiring. Persistence is what drives those books. Young people need to know that, whatever they’re going through, it’s survivable.”
When child characters make important decisions
Dr Mark West, head of the english department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and Literati’s go-to children’s literature expert, says a common thread he sees running through many excellent children’s books is child characters who make decisions that matter. “All too often the child protagonists are acted upon, but they do not have a sense of agency or the ability to alter the unfolding of plot elements. In an excellent children’s book, the child characters are able to solve problems on their own. They might have assistance or guidance from adult characters, but they still act independently.”
In an excellent children’s book, the child characters are able to solve problems on their own.
West says in the Harry Potter series, Harry is given advice by Albus Dumbledore and the other teachers, but when faced with a crisis, he and his friends have to deal with that crisis on their own. “When child characters have agency and face real problems and dangers, child readers are much more likely to care about the fate of the characters. This makes for engaged readers, and excellent children’s books almost always engage their readers.”
RULE #4: Look for books where the child protagonists have a sense of agency; that they’re the ones solving problems.
‘Showing not telling’ is equally important in children’s books
Literati’s Jessica Ewing says one of the biggest challenges she sees with some children’s books is that they make the classic writing mistake of telling not showing. Just because an author is writing for children doesn’t mean they should ignore this pillar of wisdom dished out for more than eighty years in hundreds of creative writing MFAs.
If they do, Ewing, who studied cognitive science and neuroscience at Stanford, says you end up with a book that tells the story instead of allowing you to experience the story. “Having an experience creates space for some kind of new development to take place that’s really exciting. Children are so impressionable that they’re able to have an experience with books in a way that you or I would expect to have in real life, because they’re wearing less armor and they haven’t yet developed the analytical tools to separate themselves from their environment.”
Children are able to have an experience with books in a way that you or I would expect to have in real life, because they’re wearing less armor.
Ewing says the right children’s book can flip a switch toward empathy; an experience of art or science can help kids really internalize universal values on a deep level.
RULE #5: Like adult books, good children’s books should also show and not tell.
“At Literati we tend to curate at the sweet spot between literary and commercial.” Ewing also says that because Literati is the only subscription service that allows children to read and return anything they don’t want to keep, it has access to a host of learning and data to make the curations better and better. “And that data just isn’t available anywhere else,” she says.
No matter whether you judge a book as good or bad, or even whether you think there is such a thing as a bad book, it takes time (and even luck) to pan for literary gold for your kids. As Kelly Carroll, Creative Director and co-founder of Literati says, “Ultimately our goal is to save parents time, get them offline and reading great books with their children. Those timeless moments should be savored together.”