I’m a home educator. Every July I buy the books and supplies we need for the school year. In case you, too, are deciding what books to get for your child, I am posting a 2008 article I wrote for parents of young children. (This article is also a downloadable PDF file. The full contents of the PDF follow.)
Choosing the Best Books for Our Children
[T]o give the children of the world the words they need is, in a real sense, to give them life and growth and refreshment.
– Katherine Paterson, Gates of Excellence, (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), page 6.
A child without words starves. But what are the words they need? What will we give our children for their nourishment? How can we tell which books will give them life and growth and refreshment? We have limited opportunity to place good books in their hands—books they will open, words that will come before their eyes and into their hearts. How can we choose wisely?
In evaluating children’s literature, I’m afraid there can be no checklist. Books and people interact with each other in a way that goes beyond a clinical evaluation. A book that deeply moves one individual may bore or repel another individual. Your “Top Ten” book list will not be identical to your mother’s, your best friend’s, your pastor’s, your spouse’s, the Newbery Award list, the Caldecott Award list. Whether you seek to know if a book is a good book, or whether you want to know what makes a good book good, the first and best thing to do is … read. Keep reading. Be a good reader. And as you read, ask yourself, what do I consider valuable and worthwhile in children’s literature? It is your own task and cannot be done for you. The path before you requires time, effort, energy, sacrifice, but it is a path of reward, enrichment, learning, and fun! Read, read again, and read some more!
Is this a “good book”?
Think of your favorite book. What do you love about it? Why did you read it over and over? What makes it attractive and precious to you? This is just one of the ways I would answer.
An Internal Connection
Language helps shape our thoughts and emotions. Lack of words causes tension. Because the complexities of spirit and soul develop well before language, children often experience life with feelings they are yet unable to express. Then, in a good book, they recognize themselves or their experiences (internal or external), and breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude. A good book releases the inner tension and frustration in a child who lacks the words to communicate, even to himself, his own life.
I didn’t read Bevery Cleary’s Ramona books until I was in my thirties. While reading Ramona the Brave, I wept. All those books are the work of a genius. I think those are good books, and, like Katherine Paterson, I tried to figure out why.
Is it because she is easy to read? She is, but so is “Run, Spot, Run.” Is it because her settings are contemporary and her characters familiar? They are, but there are thousands of books fitting both descriptions that never capture a fraction of Cleary’s devoted readership …
Cleary has the rare gift of being able to reveal us to ourselves while still keeping an arm around our shoulder. We laugh (ha ha) to recognize that funny, peculiar little self we were and are and then laugh (ahhh) with relief that we’ve been understood at last.
– Paterson, pages 41–42.
So Katherine Paterson explains. A good book helps a child articulate thoughts and feelings he cannot put into words himself. It makes an internal connection with and for the child. A good book becomes a kind of companion which assures the reader that he is not alone.
A problem or conflict appears in every novel. How did the main character move through the story? By the end of the book, is he a different person than he was on page one? Character growth is in every good book.
Does the book feed and renew my sense of wonder? Does it invoke in me amazement and awe at everyday things? In Katherine Paterson’s Invisible Child, in the chapter, “In Search of Wonder,” she lists three aspects of wonder in a story:
- Wonder of nature and human nature (setting, characters)
- Wonder in the telling (language, style)
- Wonder behind and beyond the story (the story’s shape, flow, theme)
I also recommend Katherine Paterson’s Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, and The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children, for insightful and profound thoughts on children’s literature.
Does it have value?
If we say with the psalmist, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless,” (Psalm 101:3) the task before us is to ask ourselves, Is this book worthless? Or, better yet, Does this book have value? Use this verse as your standard, pray for God’s guidance, and read!
Besides being a good reader yourself, ask yourself questions.
What kinds of characters do you want your children to read about? Role models? Characters they care about and identify with (though the characters would be terrible role models)?
What is the book’s tone? Is it didactic, trying to teach the reader a moral lesson? Is it believable, genuine to its setting and characters?
What do people I respect consider good books? It’s always a good idea to get recommendations from people whose literary opinions you respect.
You are in a good place, having to determine your child’s reading list. Enjoy!