What makes a children’s book stand out?

This guest post appeared on Bonnie Ferrante’s blog.

Most children’s books are merely a temporary answer to the question, “Oh, what’ll I buy as a present for little Jimmy?” A book is better than a plastic toy or some battery-operated piece of tomorrow’s trash, but it’s often a “read and forget” exercise. They blend into the crowd of other books of the same kind: fairies or dinosaurs or inanimate objects pretending to be human.

Some books stand out. Something about them makes them remembered, and recommended, and loved. Why?

I’m cursed with a scientific training, so need to make any such question measurable. Here are three measures for your consideration:

Added value

I think the best thing to ever come out of America is the collection of books from Dr. Seuss. My favorite is The Lorax. It is the first-ever bit of greenie propaganda aimed at children, and does it delightfully. Having chanted it with kids so often, I can recite it, word for word. I was once a volunteer at a community school, where the first task the teacher gave was to ask a new person to read The Lorax to some kids. Those who read with verve and enthusiasm were allowed to continue as helpers.

All the other Seuss books have educational value beyond enjoyment. Green Eggs and Ham is about “try it for yourself.” You might want to look at the other ones and see how they each are designed to benefit kids in some way.

The same is true for Roald Dahl’s writing, and for many others that have graced childhoods for generations.

The added value can be humor, education, ethical lessons, empathy, or preferably all of these. I think you’ll find that all the books you remember from your childhood have identifiable qualities beyond entertainment.

I started with oldies, because they have maintained their freshness over the years. I’ve encountered a few new books that should become keepers (if people notice them in today’s avalanche of publications).

A series of illustrated children’s books by Jennifer Poulter qualify. I came across them because she submitted one, Getting Home, for the LiFE Award: Literature for Environment, which I administer. This is a story about baby polar bear being separated from mom, who eventually rescues him. The added value is that, while the words of the story are age-appropriate for preschoolers, there are also adult-language notes for the person reading, with facts little kids will find interesting, and which will lead them to environmental consciousness.

Also, keep an eye out for the work of Claudia Marie Lenart. I know about her because I edit books for her publisher, Loving Healing Press. The added value in her little books is the beauty of the illustrations. She makes intricate pictures with needle felt, and photographs them. My eight-year-old granddaughter loves the pictures, and therefore enjoys reading the stories to her little brother.

I don’t have other examples, but then I neither write nor read kids’ books. I am sure, Bonnie, that you and your visitors can assess books by this criterion better than I can.

Hidden meaning

The best children’s books are full of content meant for an adult. Such gems apparently skid over the kid’s head without being understood or even noted, but they are seeds of wisdom for the future.

Fifty years ago, when I got married, I found out that my new wife had never heard of Winnie the Pooh. So, each evening, I read her a chapter. This was blessedly before Walt Disney had replaced the delightful original drawings. We both enjoyed the experience: the subtle, understated humor, the hidden little barbs about human nature, the way these make-believe characters provided guidance in morality without preaching.

C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books are also ostensibly for children, but they are full of meaning and allegory few kids would pick up.

I think this criterion applies to all literature. In fact, it is what distinguishes literature from read-once-and-forget.

Customer obsession

When my little great-grandson Caleb was given I Need a New Bum by Dawn McMillan, he loved it so much that his mother was required to read it to him, over and over and over, until she was sick of the sight of it. By then, he could recite every word, and did so with relish.

The Harry Potter books belong here. Blessed if I know why, but people of all ages from about 10 to 110 seem to be obsessed with them. I am glad, because they have led so many youngsters to a love of reading, but personally they do nothing for me. I haven’t managed to finish any of them.

In many other cases, the reason for a book’s success also escapes me, but I am happy to trust the reaction of the target audience: the child. Nothing beats observation for evidence. This is why, when I edit kids’ books, I usually advise my clients to try out the draft on real children. Make a powerpoint presentation of the illustrations (if any), go to a nearby school, and read the story to the right age group. Their reaction will tell you everything you need to know.

Bio

Bob is a professional grandfather. Any human under 25 years of age may take advantage of the offer of becoming his grandbaby. Therefore, everything he does, including his writing, is aimed at making this planet a better place for its young people. He wants a survivable future, and one worth surviving in. Our global culture is rushing the other way, toward planetary suicide, because it encourages and rewards the worst in human nature: greed, aggression, hate and therefore fear of those slightly different from us. So, Bob is working for culture change: we need to reward and encourage the best in human nature: compassion, generosity, cooperation.

At the time of writing, Bob is the author of 16.5 published books, five of them award-winners. If you want to know how you can have a half-published book, go to http://bobswriting.com/hitandrun.html, where you can request a free advance review copy of a story that shows how kids, even those guilty of multiple murder, can be led to decency.

His latest published book is Guardian Angel, which is the story of a little Australian Aboriginal girl born in 1850: “child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, instrument of love.”

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About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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