In my classroom, we have a huge library full of many different types of books. Over the course of the semester, I began to notice that even though we do have tons of books, there are some books that are extremely popular with the kids and others that kids don’t even want to touch. This struck me as very interesting because I was able to see that even young readers have opinions about what a good book is. So, for my research question., I decided to explore what makes a good children’s book. To learn more about this question, I relied heavily on my students. During book bag exchanges, I informally interviewed many of them about why they like and dislike certain books. I also had students answer a short survey about what makes a good book. During whole group reading time, I monitored the way my students reacted to different books and searched for trends. In addition to questioning my students, I read articles by children’s literacy specialists and famous children’s authors to understand what their opinions were. Throughout this research journey, I was continuously surprised by what I found.
When I first started exploring this question in my classroom, I was expecting to focus mostly on speaking with kids about books that I don’t enjoy and attempting to understand why they enjoy those books. However, I was quickly surprised after interviewing many of my kids that the books they enjoyed were books I could actually enjoy as an adult as well. After a few interviews and reading through many books, I came to the realization that kids often enjoy the same types of books we do: well written, clever, exciting and with strong characters. More often than not, we disliked the same books because they had boring plots, unrelatable characters or uninteresting pictures.I realized that many of the books I used to love as a kid are still beloved by kids today.This made me reflect on my favorite books from when I was a child, so I decided to direct some of my research back on my own experiences reading.
I was surprised to see that many of those books were still extremely enjoyable for me to read because I could still relate with the characters and themes. What was interesting to me was that I relate to these characters and themes in a different way now. Reading these books now reveals another layer that I did not notice as a child and I began to understand why my parents loved reading these books to me so much! C.S. Lewis summed this up very well in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” (Lewis, 1940) He is not saying that adults decide which books are good for children, he is saying that truly good books for children fall in the middle of the adult- child book Venn diagram (New Yorker).
Of course, not all people, especially children, share the same idea about what a good quality book is. However, in my research, a few constant themes kept on popping up. The most important was far and away strong characters who invoke strong feelings within the readers. The way in which we connect to these characters may be different but every connection is deep. It can be a best friend type of connection, where, through reading the book, you feel as if you are friends with the character. This often happens in series books such as with Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House series. Many people I talked to about this book said they cried when the series was over because they felt like they lost a friend. Other characters become role models, who we admire and wish to be like, such as Nancy Drew. We can also have intense feelings of anger with characters who upset us, such as Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. The characters are the driving force behind any good story, so it is critical that children’s books have strong characters that readers can connect with on a deep level.
The next most important aspect of a good children’s book is a story that teaches a lesson. However, the way in which that lesson is taught is very important. For my recent social studies unit, which is about being a good citizens, on the first day I read my students a generic book about how to be a good citizen. The book had boring pictures and language and pretty much just explained how to be a good citizen. My kids and I were bored out of our minds! So, the next day I read them Alex and the Amazing Lemonade Stand and I was shocked by how much they responded to this true story. They were inspired to be good citizens after connecting with the main character, Alex, who raised millions of dollars to fight childhood cancer.
The lessons they learn from books can also be simple, such as Bill Martin Jr.’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? in which readers learn about colors. It can also be moral themes such as love, diversity, tolerance, respect or manners. The best children’s books teach these lessons in entertaining ways that kids can relate to, such as Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein. I read this book to my class to teach them about interrupting, and my kids all loved it because they could relate to the funny characters but they also took away a very strong message from it. Now, whenever my kids are interrupting each other or me, I call them interrupting chickens and they know I need them to stop interrupting!
The last trend I noticed in good children’s books was engaging language or eye-catching illustrations. These aspects keep the reader engaged throughout the entire book because they make the reading experience more fun. Reading any of Dr. Seuss’s books is an adventure in language because of the fun alliterations, rhymes and words he uses throughout the book. In addition to creative language, interesting illustrations can really pull a reader into the story. I still remember reading Eric Carle’s picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar when I was in first grade because the artwork was so captivating and unique. However, the illustrations don’t always have to be bright and eye catching; darker books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are can have equally interesting pictures that expand our minds with funny creatures and interesting textures.
“Children are actually the best (and worst) audience for literature because they have no patience with pretence.” –Orson Scott Card. After talking with many of the kids I babysit and all of my students at school about books, I could not agree with Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card more. As a teacher, I know that many kids just say what is on their mind without really thinking it through, which can make them brutally honest sometimes. They don’t have patience with bad literature, and we should encourage them to be critical about what they are reading. From this experience I have realized that it is my responsibility to direct students towards high quality books and I will continue to search for the best that I can find. Children shouldn’t have to settle for subpar books, especially when they are learning to read. They need to see from a young age how beautiful good writing can be and how it can transform and transport you because that is what will motivate them to be lifelong readers.
Richmond, Marianne. 2015. Retrieved from: http://thewritepractice.com/childrens-book/
Gidwitz, Adam. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-goosebumps-conundrum-what-makes-a-childrens-book-good
Lewis, C.S. 1950 Retrieved from: http://mail.scu.edu.tw/~jmklassen/scu99b/chlitgrad/3ways.pdf
Card, Orson. Retrieved from: http://www.orsonscottcard.com/