How to Choose Good Children's Stories

The bookstores and libraries are full of books for children — thousands of them. But not all children's books are created equal. With so many choices, it's hard to know where to begin.

There are gems hidden in the discount rack and a few stinkers with the Newbery Medal stamped on them. Whole books have been written about which books are worth reading to your children. Bill Bennett's anthology The Book of Virtues, Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Child's Heart and Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook come to mind. Such collections are helpful, but knowing what to look for can expand your selection even more, enabling you to create your own list of favorites.

  • Avoid simplistic moralizations — Look for stories that show, not tell. "C.S. Lewis said that no book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty," writes Gladys Hunt. "Children's books cannot be written for or down to children.… A good book has a profound kind of morality — not a cheap sentimental sort which thrives on shallow plots and superficial heroes, but the sort of force which inspires the reader's inner life and draws out all that is noble."
  • Beware of adaptations and retellings — In the name of political correctness, new releases of old stories are not always true to the original. When the Three Little Pigs all survive by running to the home built of brick, the lesson of planning ahead and heeding advice is blunted. In this age of political correctness, it's harder to find the original where the two pigs that took the easy route become snack food for the hungry wolf. But it's worth the effort. Too often plots are altered to reflect modern sensitivities at the expense of the story's effectiveness.
  • Keep it principled — Some stories give too much detail about painful subjects, subjects a lot of kids wouldn't necessarily encounter in their everyday lives. Stories about divorce, child abuse, homosexuality and other "hot topics" prematurely erode children's innocence about the world. Look for stories that focus on what it takes to overcome crises, rather than those that dwell on the crises themselves.
  • Avoid mere description — Some kids need books to survive. For kids who have experienced such crises in their own lives, the last thing they want to do is read books about how everyone else is equally oppressed. It's not enough to say life is hard. They need stories of survival where characters persevere and overcome hardship

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