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.
Some books are just better than others. They have better illustrations, better production quality and better stories. There are good reasons to choose your children's books wisely:
- The repeat factor — Like best friends, your children's favorites will be identified and asked for over and over. It's not unusual for a 3-year-old to ask for the same book 100 times in a row. That's reason enough to make sure you choose books you enjoy reading.
- The memorization factor — Kids' memories are amazing. After five or so readings of a book, it's not uncommon for a toddler to have the story down cold. And it's not just the flow of words they catch, but the underlying message. Look for books that are consistent with your values.
- The reality check — Kids want stories that are based in real life. For example, big brothers the world over know the power of their little sister's whining. But that doesn't mean you have to concede the point that little sisters are annoying and the best you can hope to do is neutralize them. One of our favorite books, The Little Brute Family, describes a typical sibling relationship where brother and sister push and shove and punch and pinch their way to school. Though the telling may be exaggerated, most kids will see a bit of themselves in the book, and it's hard to miss the point that this family's existence in a "dark and shadowy woods" is far from sunny. And the ending is a refreshing antidote to sibling quarrels.