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Baffled in the Bookstore

Monday, January 14, 2013
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Dear Miriam,

What makes for a great children's book?

Signed,
Baffled in the Bookstore


Dear Baffled,

For many years, I was privileged to have a side gig reviewing children's books for the Horn Book Guide. I wrote 60-word reviews on anything they sent my way, which mostly included Jewish-themed picture books and science textbooks for new readers. I wasn't sent the featured, er, best books, but there were always some gems that made the experience worthwhile, even once I wasn't a classroom teacher anymore. 

This experience helped fuel my love affair with children's literature, a love I hope to pass along to my children and to anyone reading this. I gave the most favorable reviews to books that made me feel good, that were substantive without being preachy, that I could imagine a kid actually reaching for again and again. As you might expect based on my current side role as an advice blogger, it was great fun to express my opinions in book reviews, but I tended to rely on a gut feeling rather than a specific set of criteria. For expert opinions on children's books, however, I'm lucky to be able to turn to two dear friends who are children's librarians.

Naomi Socher, currently working at the Strayer University library, offers this analysis: "Generally, children's books should be judged on the same criteria as good adult books...They should assume the reader's intelligence (not talking down to the kids), be accessible at multiple levels (adults can enjoy them too), give the reader something to think about (developmentally appropriate, by which I don't mean lack of R-rated content, but an awareness of the different issues that kids deal with at developmental stages), be well-written and edited (especially important for new readers who can't deal with typos or clunky sentences), and be entertaining. Of course, most of these criteria are subjective, which is where all the fun and opinion comes into play."

Jenny Berggren and I actually learned to read together, which makes quoting her here especially delightful. Berggren, a children's specialist at Word bookstore in Brooklyn, provided insights based on different reading levels. For babies and toddlers, she says, "repetition makes for a successful book — something the child can recognize after multiple readings and feel good about remembering.  It's worth mentioning that these kinds of books should be very acceptable to the parent also, because they'll be the ones reading them over and over!" For preschoolers, she recommends books that have "something familiar in it, but also a twist." For those learning to read, "the most popular easy reader books are the funny ones. Kids work so hard to read these, it's great when their reward is that they've read aloud something funny." Finally, Jenny offers this: "A great chapter books for kids (or adults!) successfully puts you in someone else's shoes, and makes you care about them — whether it be a contemporary kid in a new situation, someone from two hundred years ago or someone from another planet. It can be realistic fiction, sci-fi, historical, an animal story, whatever — if it's got great characters that you can believe in, then it's a good book." 

My "finally" in that last sentence is terribly inaccurate because both Jenny and Naomi have so much wisdom on the subject that it was painful to edit down their comments. I also want to take this opportunity to plug PJ Library, a wonderful resource in Philadelphia and many other cities around the country. The organization mails free children's books to Jewish kids on a monthly basis. A lot of PJ Library books have become read-aloud staples in our house. If you or someone you know is eligible, you'll really benefit from signing up.

Keep scrolling for a selected reading list, and be well,
Miriam

Some of Naomi's favorites (with a strong leaning towards fantasy):

Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (ages 0-2)
Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathman (ages 3-4)
Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (ages 4-5)
Half Magic by Edward Eager (ages 6-8)
The Wondrous Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznic (ages 8-12)
Graceling by Kristen Cashore (ages 12+)

Some of Jenny's favorites:

Baby/Toddler: 
Chugga Chugga Choo Choo by Kevin Lewis
Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff 
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell 
 
Preschoolers:
Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein 
What! Cried Granny by Kate Lum
Bark George by Jules Feiffer 
All the World by Elizabeth Scanlon
 
Middle-age readers:
Anything by Eva Ibbotson, including The Secret of Platform 13, Which Witch and Island of the Aunts
 
Chapter books:
Wonder by RJ Palacio
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

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