Images courtesy of Allison Busch Photography
Looking at the stack of books on my bedside table, some I’ve picked for education and growth (Cory Booker’s United) while from others I ask for amusement (Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?) or to be swept away on an adventure in time or emotion (Karen Marie Moning’s Feverborn). My three kids choose books for a similarly diverse set of reasons, including everything from a chance to process conflicting feelings (Grimm’s Fairy Tales) to having a good laugh at a grown-up’s expense (The Book With No Pictures).
Come to think of it, good juvenile book selection mirrors the adult variety for many reasons:
- Pick an author and stick with them
Finding a writer whose style reliably appeals to me is like opening a Wonka bar and seeing a flash of gold foil. That is, unless dependability becomes predictability. Take John Irving, for example. I devoured A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp, but after a few more of his titles, I just couldn’t take any more bears, boarding school, and wrestling. J.K. Rowling, however, mixes things up enough to keep me coming back for more.
Our best-loved picture book author/illustrators—Chris Van Dusen, Kevin Henkes, and Audrey Wood (often with Don Wood)—do the same, offering complex, engaging, and legitimately novel tales plus unique artwork perfectly attuned to the unfolding story. Beverly Cleary dominates the chapter book category, filling book after book with emotional storylines that enchant my six-year-old with enough surrounding silliness to keep my four-year-old tuned in. The follow-ups to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, however, left us all feeling cheated.
It doesn’t really matter who their favorites are though. The trick is having some.
- Give bestsellers a try
There’s a reason The History of Love, The Silver Linings Playbook, and The DaVinci Code were all bestsellers: they’re enthralling. The nearest recent parallel for children has got to be Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. Yes, we’ve received it as a gift five times, but that’s because it’s awesome. As are other perennial fan favorites such as Where the Wild Things Are, Blueberries for Sal, Goodnight Moon, The Snowy Day, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Caps for Sale, The Frog and Toad Collection, Go, Dog. Go!, Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?, Goodnight, Gorilla, Where Is the Green Sheep?, and Blue Hat, Green Hat, to name a few.
- Don’t be afraid to revisit
I started the Twilight series just before giving birth to my first child. A few weeks into her troubled infancy, I finished the last book and depression suddenly descended. I sat there topless, sick baby attached to a breast, tears rolling down my face as I asked my husband, with no sense of irony, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” He suggested I start the first book again. I put aside my lifelong conviction that rereading is unproductive and boring, and it worked.
It also made me more tolerant of my kids’ insistence on reading the same books over and over again. For the baby, that’s I Like It When and I Am a Bunny. Both of my older kids put Fancy Nancy, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, and Albert the Fix-It Man on repeat as toddlers. When it comes to chapter books, they don’t beg to start the whole thing over, but many times my kids have asked to reread a certain chapter or vignette.
When the repetition tests the limits of my patience, I spice things up, adding in gestures for each page of Boy of Mine (like waving, tickling, and a modified head-shoulders-knees-and-toes routine; spoiler alert: it’s just head and toes); asking them questions about details in the illustrations; or making like a shrink and turning their questions back around (e.g., “Hmm, I’m not sure why Ramona’s dad did that. Why do you think he might have?”). I also remember how much I loved Midnight Sun, Stephenie Meyer’s retelling of Twilight from Edward’s perspective, and ask my kids what a bit player in the story might be thinking or what would have happened if the plot were tweaked in x, y, or z way. I’m often surprised and highly amused by their answers.
- Fads and phases are okay
For a while it was all dinosaurs, with a fixation on Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs and Dino Dig. Then there was some concern over how much I care, apparently: I Love You Stinky Face, The Way Mothers Are, and Mama, Do You Love Me? featured prominently in the nightly line-up. Firefighters came and went with Firefighters in the Dark and Tito, El Bombero dominating the scene for a while. Just when I thought reading Inside Your Outside Machine or The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body one more time would liquify my brain, that too passed. Just like my summer-long obsession with Kennedy biographies in college did.
- They don’t all need to teach something
I read so many parenting books that I write an entire blog about them. But that doesn’t mean I can read two nonfiction books back to back happily.
My kids are the same way. The Quiltmaker’s Gift helps them learn to empathize and prioritize people over things, Violet the Pilot and Giraffes Can’t Dance tell them girls can be anything they want to be despite naysayers, Iggy Peck, Architect warns against judgment made out of fear, Cookies enhances their vocabulary, and Chimpanzees of Happytown imparts: “things will always blossom if we dare to set them free. It’s no different for a little flower than for a chimpanzee.” But sometimes they just want a little Bee-bim-Bop, Moo, Ba, La La La!, or Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons for the lyrical whimsy, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus so they can be the ones saying “no” for once.
My bottom line consideration when choosing books for my kids is that the experience should prepare them for a lifetime of loving the written word. That means it’s more about process than content. I can’t get enough of Scottish time travel romance novels. Weird? Yes. Lowbrow? Certainly. Utterly captivating? Why yes, m’lord.
For my kids, I set baselines, eliminating inappropriate material and anything downright unpleasant for me to read aloud. Beyond that, I follow their enjoyment, flipping pages written by beloved authors and new ones, on the subject du jour or old stomping grounds, forward, backward, and all over again.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by the Washington Post, Salon, the Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy, among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.