Thursday, January 11, 2007

BOOKS: Kids' Books That Don't Suck

Before I say what I'm about to say, I want you to stop and rewind the tapes (or whatever personal archiving system you choose) and make a note of the fact that I'm not one to use this space to brag about young Master Sam. Historically, I've actually been more likely to bemoan his little peccadilloes, such as his old habit of waking up six times a night and his unique gift for nursing grouchily and his tendency to blame me for all of his problems.

So bear all that in mind when your eyes are rolling in their sockets at the end of the following bragfest:

My Samuel has mastered the entire alphabet (English version).

That's right. From A to Zed (or as he prefers to say, in his cheekily yankified way, "Zee"), he knows all the letters, upper case AND lower, thankyouverymuch... though, admittedly, certain typefaces can leave him befuddled in matters relating to lower-case B, D, G and Q. He has his favourite letters, of course. He harbours a nostalgic fondness for A, B, C and D, the vanguard of his alphabetical achievement. And he can't pass any kind of signage with the letters K, M, U and V in it without stopping to exclaim (loudly) over them.

And *cough* did I mention he doesn't turn two until April?

It's easy for me to start getting excited about my budding genius -- sending away for Mensa applications and planning how he's going to start doing our taxes in '08 and whatnot -- but then I remind myself that this is a kid who still stuffs food in his mouth without chewing until he gags, and who can't seem to understand why it's not a good idea to pick up cat poop with his bare hands. Ahhh... sweet reality check.

All this is a roundabout way (and a not-even-remotely veiled excuse to brag, I know it) to get at something I've been thinking about lately, which is children's books. I don't know if Sam's preternatural love of the alphabet is connected to his love of books, but what I do know is that we're reading dozens of stories every day around our house and let me tell you: the wheat is quickly becoming apparent from the chaff.

Now, I've always given a fair bit of thought to kids' books, but this past holiday season -- when I was scouring bookstores and the web to find the very best stories I could for Sam -- really brought this issue into my mental spotlight. Specifically, what I noticed is that, while there are many, many GOOD books readily available, there aren't so many GREAT books. And then I started wondering about the long-term ramifications of this.

I had some specific titles in mind for Sam. As I've already posted, I really wanted to get him copies of semi-classics such as Olivia, Corduroy, and Where the Wild Things Are, among others. It was harder to find these than I anticipated. I visited every single independent bookseller in my proximity, and none carried these books. I ended up going to Chapters, where I was able to find all of them in the huge children's section... provided I didn't mind poring over shelf after shelf of mediocre books in my search. It took me an hour to locate seven books -- books whose titles and author names I'd written down completely and correctly -- among the store's oddly organized offerings. And when I tried to browse new, unfamiliar books... well, I gave up after another half hour with empty hands.

So on hand, you've got narrow selections at smaller booksellers. On the other hand, you've got huge -- if not exactly top-drawer -- selections at larger booksellers. But this isn't an indies-versus-big-boxes debate. Rather, as I've already asked, my question is, no matter where you go, whither the great books?

Because I'm not as bright as I'd like to think I am, it took me a couple of weeks to realize my approach was totally backward. I don't just go to bookstores and pick books I've never heard of off the shelves for myself. (Maybe this technique works for some of you, for which I applaud you, but it's worked for me maybe three times in my entire book-purchasing career, so I generally give it a miss.) No, I read bestseller lists, and I (sort of) follow the big literary awards, and I get recommendations from smart people like you. So I decided to do the same thing when it comes to getting books for Sam. And I'm starting right at the top, with the Caldecott Medal.

I've always been aware of the Caldecott on the periphery of my literary radar. I knew it was kind of a big deal, and that it -- and its runner-up, the Caldecott Honor -- has been bestowed on a few books I count among my favourites, such as
Where the Wild Things Are and Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. But it wasn't until I started researching that I realized that this award has been around for almost seventy years, which is pretty amazing when you ask yourself how far back your knowledge of children's literature goes. I also didn't know that this prize is awarded to the book's artist, not the writer, and that it's named after nineteenth-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott.

Yet another incredible thing: a great many, if not all, of the past Caldecott winners are still available in print, which puts paid to my half-formed notion that kiddie lit is largely disposable. But don't get too excited just yet. When I made a longlist of titles I'd like to find, almost none of them were available in the bricks-and-mortar stores in my vicinity.

So here's the situation, in shorthand:
  • Great books for children exist. Yay!
  • But they're not necessarily in stores. Boo!
  • But you can look them up in places like the Caldecott site, and then order them online. (Did you know that sites like Amazon, Chapters and Barnes & Noble tag all their Caldecott recipients, so all you need to do is use "Caldecott" as a keyword?) Yay!
  • But how many people are actually going to do this? Boo!
  • Kids really can like books and reading. Yay!
  • But how can we foster this if the books that are readily available aren't the very best ones in existence? Put it this way: how would you feel if someone kept hectoring you for not reading enough, and then you found out they've been hiding the good books in the basement? Boo!
To speak to my last two points: I really do believe that kids have the innate ability to discern great books from kiddie pulp. Why is it that so many of us, with no adult prodding, managed to find wonderful books -- books like Alice in Wonderland and the Little House series and Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- all on our own, and then feel the compulsion to read and re-read them endlessly? Because we KNEW there was something special about these stories, even if we couldn't explain what it was (or more likely, didn't give a rat's ass about explaining it).

It's discouraging. I know I can order all these books, and it IS wonderful that they're still in print, but I picture all of these fabulous stories buried in a warehouse, truly like treasure in a cave. And in the meantime, pap like Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow lines bookstore shelves. I'd beat my head against a wall, but I need the brain cells.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're kidding, right? in the 2 weeks since I've seen Sam, he's learned the alphabet!?! That's sooo awesome!

We're not quite there though (my) Sam is a genius with the Thomas trains and has memorized all of our Thomas dvd's citing upcoming scenes minutes before they happen: "mean trucks! (when the mean trucks are just around the corner), "eyes!" (crazy googly eyes), and our favorites, "Percy", "Emily" and "Duck". That has to count for something, no????

Anne-Marie

landismom said...

Kudos to Sam! That is really amazing.

After reading this post, I feel the need to hug you, perhaps while a tiny sob escapes my lips. (That didn't sound stalker-ish, did it?) I'm so happy that you've entered the world of kid-book-blogging. Finally!

There are a ton of great kids' books out there (IMHO), but you're right, the way to finding them is not through browsing in stores. I've found a fair amount through two sources: 1) the NY Times bestseller list for kids' books & 2) a monthly not-really-a-zine I get called Bookwomen--there's a woman who writes a column about reading with her daughters, and she has a bunch of good suggestions.

The Caldecott tag is a great thing, too.

Claudia said...

I understand your irritation. I fondly remembered a number of books from my younger days and wanted to stock a few for my new little one. It's amazing how few were on the shelves. Barnes and Noble even has a Caldecot section... with twelve or so books on display. Sigh. They didn't have Babar, for pete's sake.

Coleen said...

My standbys are "Tikki Tikki Tembo," "Old Turtle," "Caps for Sale," "Harold and the Purple Crown," "The Giant Jam Sandwich," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," and "The Duchess Bakes a Cake." I feel very strongly about the last choice, especially since they finally brought it back in print a few years ago.

Does Reading Rainbow have any lists? I know they're skewed towards older children, but they may have some recommendations as well.

Anonymous said...

The New York Public Library has a list of "100 Picture Books that everyone should read." It's a good list, although some of the books are out of print. You can find it at

http://kids.nypl.org/reading/recommended2.cfm?ListID=61

Yertle the Turtle! The Little House! Be Nice to Spiders! I love them all!

jam said...

So... he's not going to do your taxes? I was going to give him a call...

The world of children's books is dear to my family's heart. My mother is an illustrator who, after years of freelance graphic design work, finally took the plunge and went after her dream of entering the childrens' book market. It's been really fascinating and sometimes disheartening to hear her (now insider's) take on the field. So much of the tripe that ends up out there is marketing- instead of quality-driven and there are all these arcane methodologies for determining what age level a particular manuscript falls into if it's even deemed marketable to begin with, and one can't help but look at all that dry data and realize it's no wonder you have to wade through so many shelves of "Barbie's Princess Unicorn Wish Adventure" to find the true gems.

(Her website -- brand new! -- is www.bonnieadamson.net, by the way. Yay, Mom! Of course, I think the Caldecott awards should just be rolling in...)

Ali said...

Yay, The Snowy Day! I buy that every year for our angel tree recipients, if they are of appropriate age. It was one of my favorites when I was little, as was Make Way for Ducklings.

Allie said...

What!? Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow is the Anna Karenina of our time!

(You hope I'm kidding right? Me too.)

Some of my kiddy favorites I do wonder about though - sure some of them were great books but what about books like The Monster at the End of This Book or The Berenstain Bears books - are they great or do I just love them (then and still)?

That said, I really, really hate that so many of the books out there today (especially for older kids) are just thinly disguised marketing tracts for Disney/ABCFamily/Nickelodeon/etc. Bleh - it's like the foam version of literature.

Lins said...

I volunteer for a childrens literacy program and we did an event with Chapters. They set up a table of recommendations for donation and the ones that weren't branded type books were just as bad. There was actually one "big book of answers" type book which actually had a comic depiction of people using ether recreationally and then falling and slamming their heads into tables as a way of talking about the origins of medical anesthesia.

Alice said...

I am actually currently re-reading The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler right now. I'm 29 and it's still awesome.

Lazy cow said...

This is a subject dear to my heart! I've found myself opting for the old classics, rather than buying a lot of newer, untried books. We use the library heaps, and can renew an unlimited number of times, so new kids's books get a good run before I even think of buying them.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Owl Babies, Madeline, The Owl and the pussycat are some of our favourites. Good luck with your quest. I've found secondhand bookstores ocassionally stock some of the classic kids' books.

Gina said...

I usually just lurk here, but I have to add the title of my favorite children's book of all time. Miss Twiggly's Tree is a great story (so great the rhyming only makes it more fun, not irritating) about loving yourself for who you are, and helping people just because it's the right thing to do. There's also a lesson to be gleaned about not judging people who are different.

My copy was ruined in a flood, but I eventually found a new copy on E-Bay. Worth every penny of the Buy It Now price! I hope the little boy I'm due to have any day now will love the book as much as I do!

jagosaurus said...

Ah, The Snowy Day. I still have my childhood copy.

Carrie said...

I know the feeling after searching for a few new kids' books recently. I have found some great new books that I could suggest for older kids (after I look up the titles, but Chris Allsburg is one author), but what I need now are some board book suggestions for the droolers...

PS- I see from your amazon sidebar that you're goin comics crazy. I can get behind that...

Also, you should be proud of Sam. Hooray for the A to Zeds.

Emily said...

Just wait until Sam's tall enough to rummage through the book bins for you. My younger brother was not nearly as precocious as Sam, alphabet-wise, but he soon learned that our parents were suckers for the books with the shiny medal on the cover. It saved us a lot of searching.

His favorites were Tikki Tikki Tembo, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Millions of Cats. I read those to him so many times I can still recite parts by memory.

Linda said...

All time faves of my three kids (all grown now)

All of the Frances the Badger books by Russell Hoban. (especially the one about the tea set!)

And "Blueberries for Sal" by Robert McCloskey.

Anonymous said...

For board books, may I recommend Big Little, Quiet Loud, and Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli? Adorable, great quality, and the kids I've given them to have loved them.

Genevieve said...

I get my kid-book recommendations from some fabulous bloggers. For young kids, Chicken Spaghetti and Big A Little A are two of the best. Book Buds has a wonderful index (right-hand column) of its picture book reviews. For somewhat older kids, A Fuse # 8 Production and Jen Robinson's Book Page are great sources. I read Fuse almost every day - she's a prolific and terrific poster who is a NYC Children's Librarian.

Fuse and Chicken Spaghetti and Big A Little A all frequently review picture books. They find the gems out there and tell us about them, and then I put them on my library list and my bookstore list.

http://fusenumber8.blogspot.com/

http://chickenspaghetti.typepad.com/chicken_spaghetti/

http://dadtalk.typepad.com/book_buds_kidlit_reviews/

http://dadtalk.typepad.com/book_buds_kidlit_reviews/

Genevieve said...

Oops - that last one got posted twice, instead of this one for Big A Little A:

http://kidslitinformation.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

I have to second the comment about Caps for Sale. It's such a great one to read out loud, and what kid doesn't love monkeys? I'm so sorry you're having difficulties. I work at a Barnes and Noble, and for the record, our Caldecott section is stocked. I guess that doesn't help you much in Canada, though. A fairly recent book I really liked was Quentin Fenton Herter III. Also, Click Clack Moo. Best of luck to you and Sam.

Meghan said...

I teach preschool, and I'm always finding great new kids books for my three year olds. The last one was Little Pea (and I can't think of the author) about a Pea who has to eat candy for dinner ..cause that's what you eat when you're a pea! I found Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers and loved it! It's about a boy who finds a penguin at his door. It's so sweet I almost cried!

citronyella said...

With regard to the above post by allie "What!? Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow is the Anna Karenina of our time!" -
I had a momentary vision of the pink princess under the wheels of Thomas the Tank Engine. I might read that one in graphic novel format. But who for Vronsky? Ken simply isnt up to it. GI Joe perhaps! or Elmo....

tuckova said...

I think some stores separate out the Caldecotts (and the Newberys as well) to save you plowing through the series books in search of something real. I don't know if you asked, but it might be worth it. Your store may be separating them out and hiding them somewhere less visible.

If Sam likes the Frances books, you could read "Turtle Diary" and "Riddley Walker" (same author) right alongside him. It would be like Hoban heaven!

trophycase said...

Be careful with all that education your giving your kids. It's not just me warning you. Fox News has got my back.

Sherry said...

I think you'd like my self-published book, which is really just a list of classic picture books, organized by themes for each week of the year. You can find a link to it at my blog, Semicolon, www.semicolonblog.com

Oh, it's called Picture Book Preschool.

Sonja said...

What about Madeline?!?!

Jenny said...

You know what -- there's a lot worse things to read than Barbie Fairytopia, frankly. Say what you will about the Barbie series -- they have heroines doing most of the action, being brave and making choices, etc., emotionally manageable villains, and lots of pretty things to look at. A little fluff leavens the reading mix at our house, and I'm not ashamed to defend that choice.

Rebecca said...

I'm going to be a big librarian nerd: why not go to the library for classic kids books? I mean, obviously owning books is good, but typically, they will have all the award-winning books. (Librarians love awards -- all the new award-winning books for 2006 will be announced next Monday at the American Library Association's Midwinter Conference in Seattle -- and I'll be there!) And librarians can steer you towards book you don't know about, books on themes, etc. Here's a good page that my library has created on finding good childern's books.

Also, as a librarian (though not a children's one), I might say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE Kevin Henkes. His books might be a little old for Sam right now, but they cover many issues that kids face (blankets, little siblings, getting along in school) and have the most adorable illustrations ever. And I absolutely love Lilly and the Purple Plastic Boats. I think he's won a Caldecott for something too.

Doppelganger said...

Rebecca, I was going to write about libraries in my post, but then decided (for the sake of brevity, mostly) to keep the focus on the fact that you can't find classics in bricks-and-mortar stores. We actually go to the library every week and check out ten books for Sam at a time. (That's the most I can keep track of.) And the library is great. You can find all kinds of hard-to-find classics, plus new books, and you can explore an author's entire ouevre, which is pretty cool. But I've found that we need to have a solid base of books in our home collection, because ten books just isn't enough to satisfy Sam. He probably goes through around thirty or so a day, and that's not including the repeats. And I'll go crazy if I have to read even the best book in the whole world more than five times in one day.

Oh, and we like Kevin Henkes's books, too! You're right: he did win a Caldecott for one of them, but I've forgotten which one.

Anonymous said...

I work at a public library in Colorado Springs and just thought I would let you know that we carry all of the titles you mentioned. The library is definitely in the business of making good books available. Unfortunately, you do have to return them :)

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Amanda said...

If you're looking for books awarded on the basis of their writing, not their illustrating, you can check out Newberry Award winners, although most of these tend to be YA books instead of children's books.

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