Eeny, meeny, miney, mo? Is that the best one can do when selecting a book for a child? Certainly not! The book you hand to a child, especially if it is a gift, can make or break a burgeoning reader. Think about it–if you were not quite sure if all this work involved with reading was worth it, what would it do to you to be handed a dull, dumb, or dry book? If you had the choice between doing other things you already loved to do or reading a book, what would you do if an adult urged you to read a dreadful story?
You’d not read, of course (humans are really quite logical and that’s the logical choice at that point).
So how do we avoid ruining reading for a child? Here are some of my pointers:
- Look for a story. Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end and movement of some sort happens between the beginning and the end. Good stories have a problem. Good stories show as well as tell. Good stories create a world.
- Look for books where the story and the pictures match up, tie together, and support each other.
- Ask yourself, “What is this book teaching when it’s not teaching?” Now listen closely: Books do not have to teach. We do not have to teach all the time. But to paraphrase John Westerhoff, we do teach all the time, even when we are not teaching. What do we teach, then, when we are not teaching? What will that book say to a child about himself or herself, about the world, and about their place in it. Is what it teaches what you want taught?
- When all else fails, look for books that make you laugh–or cry (or at least bring a lump to your throat). I’m not endorsing sappy, melodramatic palaver, but books that touch the heart or the funny bone. We remember and treasure stories that grab us emotionally.
- Finally, for children under 2, forget stories. 😉 Find board books that have pictures of babies and young children, board books that show a little one going through his or her day, board books with pictures and words of what’s familiar in a baby’s life. And for the very youngest, books with black and white, very simple pictures are most interesting to young eyes and brains.
Here are a few don’ts:
- Don’t give books that require a kid to buy something in order to enjoy the book.
- Don’t buy books with TV or franchise characters; it feeds celebrity culture at a very young age. And they are consistently, dreadfully written. Don’t believe me? Try reading one aloud.
- Don’t buy books where the story doesn’t make sense. Laura and Jenna Bush’s picture book is a fine example of this, but it also happens in board books as well as picture books.
- Don’t buy books with gimmicks. I’ve got one here to discard that’s got glitter throughout, and there are words on the pages as if it had a story–but there is no real story to it. Mere words a story do not make.
Look, expect, and demand quality in writing and illustrating in children’s books. Purchasing quality books forces writers and publishers to produce quality books.
Final thought? Please do not give to charity any book that you would not give to your own child or grandchild. That gift changes a life; make it the change you want to see.
Happy Gift Giving!