Tips from a Book Critic for Selecting Great Books
Suggestions for selecting books for young people
in preschool years through adolescence
by Stephanie Loer
Author Orville Prescott wrote in A Father Reads to His Children, “Few children learn to love books by themselves. Someone has to lure them into the wonderful world of the written word: someone has to show them the way.”
Today’s society has become increasingly visual, and fewer young people read for pleasure. It is essential, therefore, that adults—be they parents grandparents, teachers, or librarians—lure children into the “wonderful world of the written word” and provide the link between children and books. Introducing children to good books encourages the idea that reading is not only necessary, but enjoyable.
Let’s begin with books for the youngest child—picture books.
Children’s picture books provide a unique link between the visual, sensory world of the pre-reading child—to the more structured world of words and symbols. Picture books are a child’s introduction to a simple storyline and to the idea that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.
After having a picture book read aloud a few times, the pre-reading child can comprehend or “read” from the pictures. And the child who is just learning to read is drawn into both the visual and literal realms at once. Illustrations in a picture book make the text more approachable.
Picture books for the youngest listeners are often termed “board books.” Board books were introduced in the 1970s. They are books designed specifically for infants and toddlers. Although board books are not considered literature in the truest sense, they have established a solid niche as a genre within contemporary children’s books.
They are extremely popular with parents, and it is easy to understand why. First, board books are printed with non-toxic ink on durable cardboard pages. They can be wiped clean and stand up to rugged use. And they come in a variety of sizes. Board books are an excellent way to stimulate an infant’s or toddler’s mind by visual images and sounds of language.
Good Night, Gorilla, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann and first published in 1994, has become a favorite board book among the youngest set. With only a few words scattered throughout the text—all of which pertain to a kindly zookeeper saying good night to his charges—the story gently unfolds.
Children readily identify with the little gorilla who unlocks all the animal cages and brings his animal buddies into the house to sleep with the zookeeper and his wife. Mrs. Zookeeper, however, sets things straight—but the childlike gorilla has his way in the end.
Bright pictures tell the story in an almost wordless text. The humor and the eventual triumph of the small protagonist is spot on for the very young.
A picture book that belongs on every child’s book shelf is Mother Goose. A newer version of the well-loved classic comes in two volumes entitled My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose, both part of My Mother Goose Library.
Young children naturally love rhymes. The rhythm, repetition, action, and subject matter—ranging from nonsense and games to ballads—particularly suit them. As nursery rhymes go, nothing has stood the tests of taste and time with small children as well as Mother Goose. Rhymes such as “Hey diddle diddle” and “Jack and Jill” have for centuries been the beloved possessions of the very young.
My Mother Goose Library is edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Editor Iona Opie and her husband spent most of their adult lives gathering, comparing, validating, and interpreting nursery rhymes. This collection of Mother Goose, which contains about 130 chants, games, and rhymes is one of the most handsomely designed contemporary versions.
The large and inviting illustrations by veteran illustrator Rosemary Wells capture the simple joy and sly humor that are the essence of Mother Goose.
From the verses of Mother Goose we go to a rhyme about learning numbers in Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3 by Bill Martin Jr., Michael Sampson, and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. This rhyming, rhythmic picture book will have small children clapping, stamping their feet, and singing their way from number one through one hundred in a rollicking romp through colorful collage art.
There is a simple storyline and a hero in this tale, too, that enables kids not only to learn number concepts, but gives them an idea of a beginning, middle, and end to the story.
You Can Do It Sam is a wonderful book for preschoolers written by Amy Hest. Here a writer, who is adept at presenting familial issues in a warmhearted fashion, explores the pleasure of a small child’s personal triumph as he develops self-confidence. When Mrs. Bear and her son, Sam, deliver the cakes they have made for their friends in the neighborhood, Sam carries the cakes—all by himself—through the snow and up to each neighbor’s front door.
Double-page colorful illustrations humorously and gently illuminate the youngster’s behavior from a child’s-eye point of view.
Continuing with the theme of confidence; readers encounter a herd of overly confident cows who assert their demands when they learn to type. In the comic story, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, author Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin have created a fresh and immensely appealing book that turns a simple barnyard tale into a round of hilarity.
The first page states “Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears: Click, Clack, Moo, Click, Clack, Moo.” But Farmer Brown’s real problems begin when his cows start leaving him notes about their need for electric blankets. Poor Farmer Brown makes the mistake of not heeding the demands of the cows and requests from the chickens. So, the animals go on strike. No milk; no eggs. Farmer Brown gives in and all is resolved for the moment—until the ducks take over the typewriter.
The understated text combines high humor for children and for the adults who read aloud to them with irresistible illustrations featuring cows and other assorted barnyard animals.
In picture books much of what happens is about animals, because kids and animals have a natural affinity toward each other. Which brings us to our next hero – Dexter in SUPERDOG: The Heart of a Hero, written and illustrated by Caralyn and Mark Buehner.
Dexter is a little dog. He’s a dachshund. And according to Cleevis, the local tom cat and very unpleasant bully, Dexter looks like a plump sausage standing on four meat balls.
The pup is an underdog.
But Dexter has dreams—very, very big dreams. He wants to be a superhero. He starts a superhero training program and, of course, it works. Suddenly, even Cleevis, the bully, needs his help. In a perfect resolution not only does Cleevis now want to be a good friend, he wants Dexter to help him become a Supercat. Everyone likes the little guy to triumph over the bully—and Superdog does it in the best and kindest possible way.
Although it is my personal belief that no one ever outgrows reading good picture books—children do go on to read beyond picture books. The magic usually occurs between the first and third grades. Some mechanism—still unknown to scientists—triggers the ability to decode words and sentences. Reading begins.
So we will begin by introducing some good fiction. (Age levels are only suggested; the individual child should be the real criterion.)
For children in early elementary school—ages six through ten—there are The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. In a handsomely produced series of five books, The Spiderwick Chronicles follow the mysterious adventures of the Grace children—thirteen-year-old Mallory and nine-year-old twins, Jared and Simon—who with their mother move into the old, dilapidated Spiderwick Estate and quickly find themselves pulled into the dark and fascinating world of faeries.
The story content, which is exciting and well-written for the intended audience, coupled with the art and design of the books endow the series with irresistible appeal. Each story promises a quick read, snappy plot progression, and complete involvement with characters.
These are books that entice boys as well as girls. Kids of elementary school age love series books. A child is likely to begin with the first book of The Spiderwick Chronicles and quickly move through the entire lot.
Moving from one element of fantasy to another fantastic creature, let’s talk about dragons. Dragon Rider is a book intended for ages eight through twelve, and it’s written by a Cornelia Funke. This is one of those books readers really won’t want to end, even though the ending is wonderfully satisfying.
The main characters are Ben, a homeless boy who discovers his purpose, Firedrake, a kind and charming dragon, and Sorrel, an odd creature that looks something like a cat, only it’s bigger and eats mushrooms.
Firedrake, Ben, and their furry friend Sorrel begin a journey. They are in search of a mythical place where dragons can live at peace forever. Along the way they traverse strange lands, meet allies—often under unusual circumstances—find the courage to defeat a ruthless villain, and discover the true meaning of home.
From dragons and other fantastic creatures, let’s move to the area of families and a story just published this March for children ages eight through thirteen-years old.
The author of Each Little Bird That Sings, Deborah Wiles, writes in comfortable, almost conversational prose about beloved, unforgettable characters and families who love each other and face dramatic events together. Her stories are beguiling, with lovely surprises, near tragedies, happy endings, and clear insight into the hearts of children and adults.
The main protagonist of Each Little Bird That Sings is ten-year old Comfort Snowberger. She has attended 247 funerals. But that’s not surprising, because her family runs the funeral home in the small Mississippi town in which she lives. Comfort knows how to deal with loss—or so she thinks. But life is full of surprises. And the biggest one of all is learning how to handle them.
The author has created a unique coming of age story—filled with warmth, affection, and homespun unaffected humor. The book is a loving tribute to a family’s devotion to one another.
Now we leave the sleepy southern town and move to the ocean and two very different tales of adventure at sea.
The first of these stories is Young Man and the Sea, appropriate for ages eight through fourteen. With a nod to Ernest Hemingway, novelist Rodman Philbrick writes of fishing boats, family, and about the courage of a young boy who makes the choice to take the world on and set it right.
Twelve-year-old Skiff Beaman’s mother died recently, and his father can’t seem to get off the couch to do anything. So it’s up to Skiff to take care of everything, including financial support of himself and his father. When the Beaman’s fishing boat takes on water and sinks, Skiff decides to take serious action. He sets his sights on hooking a big, blue fin tuna. If Skiff can somehow catch just one, he might make enough money to save the old fishing boat, and more importantly, save his family.
The author introduces us to a retired fisherman and an elderly and wise boat builder, who take the time and patience to guide young Skiff as he pursues his dream. Then Philbrick takes readers out to sea on an exciting yet poignant journey with important lessons for readers young and old.
The second sea story, The Wreckers, is appropriate for ages ten through fourteen resonates with the tone, pacing, and grand tradition of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The book’s author, Iain Lawrence, lives on Killer Whale Island off the coast of British Columbia. One can immediately recognize he is at home with the sea and with history.
The Wreckers takes place in the 1700s—off the rugged coast of Cornwall, England, where a small community of people lure storm-tossed ships to crash upon the jagged rocks along the shore. Villagers fed, clothed themselves, or sold the loot they salvaged. Most of the community never questioned their murderous way of life.
Then after one such wreck, there was a survivor, fourteen-year-old Jon Spencer. And in a haunting story things begin to change in Cornwall. Here is a survival story, historical fiction, mystery, and adventure all rolled into a fast-paced, page-turner with a rousing finale. The best part is—this is just the first in a series of three books about the sea-going adventures of John Spencer.
Readers who enjoy a good contemporary mystery story will want to know Sammy Keyes, the hottest sleuth to appear in children’s literature since Nancy Drew. Sammy, a modern day seventh grader, stars as the main character in eight mysteries. The stories are the creation of Wendelin Van Draanen, a former teacher and mother of two.
In Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen for ages nine through fourteen, Sammy is set to celebrate her fourteenth birthday, but her mood quickly changes when her life begins to unravel. First, Sammy finds out that she and Heather Acosta, her archenemy, share the same birthday. And then Sammy discovers that her cat, Dorito, has gone missing. Miss Kitty, a psycho-cat lady believes that Sammy is to blame. Worst of all, Sammy’s mother informs her that she lied about Sammy’s age to put her in school early—so, in fact, she must turn thirteen all over again.
Through all this personal drama, Sammy and her best friend begin snooping around when they find out numerous cats in the neighborhood are missing. With these detectives hot on the trail the case is soon solved.
Nonfiction is as much a part of children’s books as fiction. Today, kids read nonfiction for fun as well as facts. Take for example the beautiful design and graphics of these books.
In paleontologist Don Lessem’s fabulous Scholastic Dinosaurs A to Z, readers ages seven through adult will find the most up-to-date, accurate encyclopedia about dinosaurs for young people.
Kids love dinosaurs because they are a combination of reality and fantasy. On the one hand, they have a mythological, dragon-like appeal, and at the same time they are genuine and scientific.
Studying dinosaurs also appeals to children because it’s not such a complicated science that they don’t understand how it’s done. “Basically, you dig a hole, take something out, and document it,” claims author Don Lessem.
Then there are snakes—also a favorite subject of most children—although, some prefer them from afar. The Snake Scientist, written by Sy Montgomery for ages seven through twelve, is a wonderful photo essay full of facts about how one man launched a campaign to protect the red garter snake. This book is part of Houghton Mifflin’s terrific series of books entitled Scientists in the Field.
Nature in the Neighborhood, written and illustrated by Gordon Morrison, is a treasure that can be referred to again and again by all members of the family. Here is a volume that is beautiful to look at and full of wonderful information about the flora and fauna in a local New England neighborhood. Morrison exquisitely reveals the diversity and abundance of wildlife that can be found as nearby as your child’s own backyard.
All books suggested are currently in print and available in book stores or libraries. When you are looking for good children’s books, one of the most valuable guides you have is a good children’s librarian. Don’t be afraid to ask what books are appropriate for your child.
Titles Mentioned in this Article
The following lists the titles recommended by Stephanie Loer. Please share these books with the young people in your lives and help them discover the “wonderful world of the written word.”
Good Night, Gorilla (Putnam)
written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann
My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose (Candlewick Press)
edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells
Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3 (Simon & Schuster)
written by Bill Martin Jr./Michael Sampson and illustrated by Lois Ehlert
You Can Do It, Sam (Candlewick)
written by Amy Hest and illustrated by Anita Jeram
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Simon & Schuster)
written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Superdog: The Heart of a Hero (HarperCollins)
written by Caralyn Buehner and illustrated by Mark Buehner
The Spiderwick Chronicles (Simon & Schuster)
written by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
Dragon Rider (Scholastic)
written by Cornelia Funke
Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt)
written by Deborah Wiles
Young Man and the Sea (Scholastic)
written by Rodman Philbrick
The Wreckers (Random)
by Iain Lawrence
Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen (Knopf/Random)
written by Wendelin Van Draanen
Scholastic Dinosaurs A to Z (Scholastic)
written by Don Lessem and illustrated by Jan Sovak
The Snake Scientist (Houghton Mifflin)
written by Sy Montgomery with photographs by Nic Bishop
Nature in the Neighborhood (Houghton Mifflin)
written and illustrated by Gordon Morrison
Stephanie Loer has written about children’s books, their creators, and reading for the Boston Globe and other periodicals for over twenty years. A member of the NCBLA’s Honorary Board, Loer also works as a consultant for children’s literature to many educational establishments and frequently lectures on children’s books.
© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance