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!
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.