PART 1: INTRODUCTION
It goes without saying that a child’s engagement with good books is important and valuable in the child’s development. Not only can reading good books expand a child’s cognitive abilities, but it can also spur a child’s emotional, moral, and spiritual development. However, a quick visit to one of the big online or brick-and-mortar book retailers is enough to make you realize there are zillions of children’s books. Some of these books are good, but many are not. So, if you are looking to buy a book for a child, you are left with a question: “How do I choose a good children’s book?”
In this article I will present the first two parts of a multi-part article series that I hope can go some way toward answering that question in a general way, such that after reading the series (or part of it) you will be more equipped to choose a children’s book, even if you do not have access to reviews or recommendations. I have chosen to write on this topic in a series of articles since I hope to treat the topic in some depth.
The roadmap for this series is as follows. In the first section of the series I will discuss the factors that make up what I call the subjective appeal of a children’s book. In other words, I will try to explain the considerations that might make a book appealing to the key person we have in mind, namely the child that will engage with the book. Simply put, these are the reasons that the child will like the book. So, for example, in the articles on subjective appeal I will be talking about things like humor and illustration quality. Some of these considerations will be general–i.e., they will apply to all children–and some will be particular to the child you have in mind. In addition to simply listing and explaining these considerations, I will try to emphasize the importance of considering subjective appeal when choosing a children’s book. Indeed, I will take up the topic of the importance of considering subjective appeal in Part 2 of this article, following the introductory Part 1.
After discussing subjective appeal, in the second section of the series I plan to take up the factors relevant to the developmental value of a children’s book. The factors I have in mind here are those that allow a book to contribute to a child’s cognitive, emotional, moral, and even spiritual development. The assumption here is that as an adult choosing a children’s book you have some goals for your young reader that go beyond sheer delight (though this is important, as I will emphasize); presumably you will want the book to educate or spur growth in the child in some way, or at least not to detract from this process. In my lingo, books that educate or spur growth in this way have developmental value. Moreover, you might think of a book with developmental value as possessing certain qualities that you hope your child will one day fully appreciate in a book, such as beautiful language, or creativity. Given this hope, you will want to choose books that exhibit these lofty qualities–even if the child doesn’t fully appreciate them now–so that she can develop a taste for them. As a bonus, some of the considerations that make a book developmentally valuable will also make the book attractive to you as an adult, which will help you want to read it to your child!
In the third section of the series I will discuss pitfalls to avoid when choosing a children’s book, such as books that slide by on marketing alone, and books that set particularly bad examples of adult-child interaction. In the final section of the series I will point out the value of “trusted opinions” in choosing children’s books. I am thinking here of such things as “top-100” children’s book lists and children’s book reviews, where authoritative voices weigh in and help you decide which books to choose.
PART 2: SUBJECTIVE APPEAL IS NOT OPTIONAL
With that introduction to the article series, I will begin discussing a book’s subjective appeal in more depth, and in particular I will argue for the importance of considering subjective appeal when choosing a book.
So, here is the central–and what I take to be very important–point: choosing a book with subjective appeal is not optional. Rather, it is a crucial, non-negotiable part of the selection. Now, this might go without saying for most of us: of course we aim to choose books that kids will like! However, this is not obvious to everyone. I have in mind here a certain kind of parent or caretaker that tends toward the “all business” approach to child education and development. This kind of adult might tend, at least sometimes, to read a book to a child because it is good for the child, regardless of the fact that the child would rather not be reading it.
I know that adults with this tendency are out there because I sometimes exhibit it myself! For example, my wife and I are trying to help our children learn French from a young age. Part of the way we encourage French language learning is by reading French language children’s books to them, such as a French translation of Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, called Bonsoir Lune. My kids enjoy this to a certain extent, but they get tired of it pretty quickly, and when they do I sometimes turn into a book nazi, forcing them to attend to a book that they are not enjoying.
However, this kind of practice–where we neglect what is enjoyable to a child–can have disastrous effects. First of all, it tends to erode the child’s desire to be read to. (My children are definitely less inclined to go back to the French language books after an episode like that.) And that fact is, of course, terrible given all the amazing relational and emotional (not to mention cognitive) benefits that derive simply from an adult sitting down and reading a book to a child.
However, as if that were not bad enough, forcing a child to bear with a book they do not like also erodes a child’s desire to read at all. In other words, such a practice may well contribute to turning the child off of reading altogether. Keeping in mind that what we want to cultivate in a child is a love of being read to, and a lifelong love of reading in general, it will be crucial to choose books that a child will enjoy reading, i.e., books with subjective appeal. After all, do you consistently read things you find boring or unappealing?
There is one final caveat to my emphasis on the importance of considering subjective appeal when choosing a children’s book: simply choosing a book that a child will like is also not enough. Why? Because sometimes children like books that are not so good for them (so do adults!). For example, my kids love the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, which I do not think serves them well.
The implicit point here is that we, as adults, have certain developmental goals in mind for the children in our lives, so we also need to consider those goals when choosing children’s books (I will say more about what constitutes a book’s developmental value in future articles). So, given a child’s proclivity for certain forms of junky books, and given that we have certain developmental goals in mind for our children, that a book has subjective appeal for a child should not be enough to seal your choice, but it is a crucial start since it encourages a love of reading. Plus it is just plain great to see a child enjoying something!
In the next article in this series I will begin to discuss the particular factors that contribute to a book’s subjective appeal. Specifically, I will take up the topic of the themes of appealing children’s books.