Another guide to guides to children’s books

March 3, 2013

Some months ago I wrote brief appraisals of several guides to children’s literature. In the meantime I have read a few more such books. For instance:

trelease-readaloudThe Read-Aloud Handbook
Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2006; 6th edition)
432 p.

This book, now in its sixth edition, has evidently been a great success. Sometimes the world is funny like that. The book is pitched as a parents’ guide to reading aloud for children. There are sections on why to read to children, how to read to children (duh), and what to read to children. I am struggling to find a way to describe the overall impression the book makes. It’s as though one were reading a how-to guide to eating breakfast: this is the section describing the differences between toast and cereal, here is the part where jams are defined and listed, and here are the frequently asked questions about which utensils to use in a variety of different situations. In other words, the content is 95% completely obvious, and even then it is dressed up in faux-intellectual garb to make it seem complicated and important. This is a book that leans heavily on acronyms like SSR (which stands for “sustained silent reading” — or, you know, reading). There are some marginally interesting data on effects of television exposure on academic performance, but even then we all knew the answer in advance. (To wit: television is not good for academic performance.)

The second half of the book consists of lists of books recommended for reading aloud. The majority of the books are of fairly recent (post-1990, say) vintage. I was not familiar with most of the titles, so I can only say that after my experience of reading the first half of the book, I could but page quickly through this second half, looking doubtful. Where respect is lacking, there can be no bond of trust.

I am glad to see a book recommending that families stock their shelves with books and read them together; this is praiseworthy. But the best that can be said for this book is that its heart is in the right place.

1001-Children-s-Books-You-Must-Read-Before-You-Grow-Up-97807893187631001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up
Julia Eccleshare (Ed.)
(Universe, 2009)
960 p.

I did not have very high hopes for this guide, expecting it to be a list of books more or less culled from publishers’ promotional materials, its massive bulk an inadequate substitute for thoughtful appraisal — but I was pleasantly surprised. The peremptory tone of the title might well be the worst thing about it.

The first surprise is the breadth of titles selected: not only does one find the great classics of children`s literature, and a host of solid runners-up, but also quite a few foreign language books (presumably available in translation). Even more impressive is the historical sweep of the selections: I estimate that roughly 10% of the titles date from the nineteenth-century or earlier, and approximately 40% were published more than 50 years ago. Having now perused a few guidebooks of this type, I can say that that level of interest in older books is as rare as it is welcome.

Each book receives something between a half-page and two pages for an illustration or two and a short description. It isn’t much space, but after sampling fairly liberally my impression is that the writing is clear and informative and the critical judgements are generally sound. The book is divided into sections based on age, starting with a 0-3 category on picture books and ramping up in stages to a 12+ age group. There are good indices for titles and authors, which obviously make the book much more useful than it would otherwise be.

It is an edited volume, so the reviews themselves are contributed by upward of 70 different pens. This prevents there being a consistent critical perspective, and thus makes it harder to assess whether to trust a particular recommendation, but this is an unavoidable concession for a book of this size. There are also dozens of ‘featured’ reviews contributed by notable children’s authors, such as Eric Carle and Philip Pullman (to choose two poles).

Overall, I was impressed. It is not the sort of book one reads from start to finish (and I did not try to do so), but it would serve admirably as a kind of treasure chest for reading ideas. I am thinking of adding it to our family’s library, which cannot be said for most of the other children’s literature guides that I have looked at.

(If anyone is wondering, one would have to read one book roughly every six days between the ages of 2 and 18 in order to get through all 1001 books before one grew up.)

Books-That-Build-Character-Kilpatrick-William-9780671884239Books that Build Character
A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values through Stories
William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe
(Touchstone, 1994)
332 p.

Selecting books specifically for their moral value could be done well or ill. Here it is done well. The danger is that stories not be valued for their merits as stories but rather patrolled for compliance, and reading lists compiled on those grounds are unlikely to make a strong appeal to the imagination. Nor is this, as one might suppose, a temptation principally for “conservatives” who want to teach their children traditional values; anything your child has been assigned to read in school has been patrolled for compliance, and not by a conservative. The authors of this book declare themselves in the introduction:

We don’t think fiction, whether for adults or children, ought to hit us over the head with a blunt moral. We don’t think writers should write primarily out of a moral intent. A storyteller is, preeminently, a person who has a story to tell.

At the same time, stories do instruct; literary quality cannot be the sole criterion by which books are judged. This book wants to steer clear of “problem stories”, in which the aim is to provide a kind of therapeutic reassurance that everything, however disordered, is “okay”. Rather, the authors select books “that challenge, thrill, and excite, and awaken young readers to the potential drama of life, especially to the drama of a life lived in obedience to the highest ideals”.

How does this play out in practice? Pretty well. Certainly there is nothing musty or cramped about these recommendations — about 300 in all. Most of the classics are here; there are many Newbery Medal winners, many Caldecott Medal winners; stories about war, about adventure, about domestic life, and about imaginary lands. The books are divided into sections: picture books for young readers, fairy-tales and folk-tales, books “for holidays and holy days”, stories drawn from sacred texts, historical and contemporary fiction, science fiction, and biographies. For each book there is a brief (< 1 page) description and assessment. Quite a few of the titles were new to me, and quite a few of the new-to-me titles sounded worth exploring.

Overall the book is one of the more thoughtful guides that I have read.

new-york-times-parents-guide-best-books-for-eden-ross-lipson-paperback-cover-artThe New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children
Eden Ross Lipson
(Three Rivers, 2000; 3rd edition)
550 p.

I have to eat my words: I said above that in a book with 1001 recommendations a group effort would be “unavoidable”, but here comes Eden Ross Lipson to prove me wrong. She was the children’s book editor at the New York Times for over twenty years, and she single-handedly penned this impressively sized list of exactly 1001 books, each accompanied by a short description.

It is interesting to compare this guide to the edited volume above. The scope here is actually quite a lot narrower: whereas the Eccleshare guide devoted about 40% of its space to books more than 50 years old, in this book that fraction falls to about 15%. The recommendations are almost (though not quite) exclusively twentieth-century books, and my impression after paging through the entire volume is that a significant fraction of the recommended books are from the 1990s alone. As one would expect from a book conspicuously advertising that provenance, a good deal of attention is paid to “diversity” and political correctness; there is little that could offend the sensibilities of upper-middle class parents for whom a copy of the NYT tucked under the arm is an important cultural accoutrement. The selections are mostly works of fiction, with a bit of non-fiction and poetry thrown in. Books are organized according to the age of the target audience, beginning with picture books and extending up to books for adolescents. Many of these latter are “problem stories” of the sort avoided by the authors of the guide immediately above.

An unusual feature of this book is its set of extensive indices: about 120 pages worth of small-type listings which provide topical entry-points into the main listings. Happily, among them are book suggestions for girls and (separately) for boys. Even the Grey Lady is not quite senile.

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3 Responses to “Another guide to guides to children’s books”

  1. kathyB Says:

    When my brothers and I were in grade school in the 80’s, part of the curriculum was 20 minutes daily of U.S.S.R. (uninterrupted sustained silent reading). I remember that we had to explain to my mom that it had nothing to do with a communist country.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’ve never heard that; very funny. I think I could actually get behind a USSR acronym, if only for the fun of it.


  3. “It’s as though one were reading a how-to guide to eating breakfast”

    People like reading the obvious. Or perhaps it’s because it’s not obvious.

    I spend a lot of time writing the obvious on my architecture documents, but even that is often not enough, lots of people really do seem to be rather blunt instruments in need of being informed to not stand on the very top of ladders.


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