A response to the witty and wise post by Drew Magary of Deadspin entitled If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, You’re F***ed: 10 Tips for Avoiding Terrible Children’s Books. (no longer available)
First, I have to disclose that reading is absolutely my favorite thing to do with my kids. Unlike Drew Magary over at Deadspin, I will not be able to commiserate with you about how rough it is to read to kids. As my husband recently noted, “Reading hypnotizes our kids. It turns them from savage beasts to civilized creatures.”
That said, I am in total agreement with Magary that booktime becomes intolerable when spent reading terrible children’s books, and it is critically important for us as parents to maintain our sanity while reading books to our kids.
To ensure that booktime is fun for parents as well as kids, I am a big believer in having an outbox for children’s books. When one of my children receives a terrible book as a gift, it heads straight for the outbox. When one of my children checks out a terrible book at the library, it heads straight for the outbox. On occasion, a book that was initially inoffensive becomes intolerable due to overexposure. In that case, a not truly terrible book might have to spend a few days or weeks in the outbox…until I am ready to give it another chance.
Which books belong in an outbox? Here are Magary’s 10 tips for avoiding terrible children’s books and my responses:
1. Avoid books that are too long or too wordy.
Magary equates books with large swaths of text on each page to medieval torture devices.
I agree and am an advocate of rewording books, skipping paragraphs, and, if the text is impossible to salvage, describing illustrations in your own words.
A good children’s book is like a good poem. Every word should be chosen carefully. See for example Swimmy by Leo Lionni or Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.
There are kids (e.g. my eldest son) who live for reading books that contain lots of details about obscure subjects like the lost city of Machu Picchu or, say, beagles. In my mind, these kids will be reading on their own soon enough and can wait until they become independent readers to read all of the inane facts they want.
2. Make sure the text rhymes.
Magary asserts, and I am quoting here, “If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s ass.”
I disagree. To the contrary, when I am reviewing a book and realize that the author has attempted to tell a story in rhyme, I get nervous. If good children’s books are hard to write (and they are), good rhyming children’s books are even harder to write. Good rhyming books exist (e.g. Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka, Sandra Boynton has written several good ones), but good rhyming books are few and far between.
3. Avoid one-trick ponies.
Magary is pretty harsh when assessing Laura Numerhoff’s series of books in which she adopts basically the same formula that she used to write her first book: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I have heard others discount all of Eric Carle’s books based on the fact that several books that he and Bill Martin Jr. teamed up to write (e.g. Polar Bear Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You Do You See?) employ the same formula.
I agree with Magary…with the caveat that if a book spawned an entire series of imitators, the first book is likely worth a read. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? are both excellent books.
4. Avoid repetitive books.
Magary warns parents that repetitive books like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham will destroy their love of reading.
This one is tough. I too have felt the pain of reading repetitive books to my kids – We’re Going On a Bear Hunt immediately comes to mind….and, yes, Green Eggs and Ham…ugh. If booktime were all about me, I would not read these books.
However, repetitive books are not terrible books. All three of my kids have gone through stages where they have requested these books incessantly, and they did so for good reason. Books with repetition teach toddlers to form sentences, engage kids, and help kids (“emergent readers”) learn to associate words they are hearing with words they are seeing on a page.
Thus, read repetitive books to your kids…in the same way that you play catch with your toddler who cannot yet begin to catch a ball or listen to your child plunk out their first awkward song on a musical instrument. At the same time, it is also important to know when, for the sake of maintaining your sanity, Green Eggs and Ham needs to spend a few days or weeks or months in the outbox.
5. Do not buy fancy pop-up books.
Magary does an excellent job of explaining the problem with pop-up books: “Oh hey, look! Someone took the time and care to craft an elaborate pop-up model of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai! You know how long it takes your kid to render that page to shreds? Four seconds. Congratulations, you now have an empty book.”
This same rule applies to books with other gimmicks, such as built in movie projectors, buttons that make noises, and the like. These books are irresistible to kids, but oh-so-infuriating. They break. They fail to entertain in the long-run. And, to top it off, they cost substantially more than a book…a plain ol’ book, with a good story.
(BTW Flaps, textures, and cutouts are not gimmicks. Flaps, textures, and cutouts are superbly entertaining to babies and toddlers who are just discovering books.)
6. Buy any book that features textures.
I am fairly certain that Magary does not mean this. Have you seen Pat the Puppy? by Edith Davis? Blech! Let’s move on.
7. Do not buy any Amelia Bedelia books.
I have not read an Amelia Bedelia book recently and thus cannot comment.
8. Never buy a DK reader book.
I will second Magary on this one. There are many well-written, fascinating nonfiction books available these days. There is no need to subject yourself or your children to terrible nonfiction books.
9. Never buy any book that is based on a movie or TV show.
Magary reveals the ugly truth behind children’s books based on movies or TV shows: “Most of these books don’t even list a proper author…because they were conceived and executed during a conference call between brand managers. None of them has any value.” – What!??? Really?! I had no idea!
This is horrible news because books based on movies and TV shows are irresistable to small children. Furthermore, I have heard that if you want children to become readers you should allow and even encourage children to choose their own books. I have even heard of instances where a reluctant reader was enticed by a familiar TV or movie character to pick up a book for the first time.
That said, I agree with Magary. Never buy any book that is based on a movie or TV show. The familiar characters will entice kids, but generally speaking the stories inside are terrible and will teach kids that reading is not particularly enjoyable.
At our house, I let my kids choose any books they want from the library. When we get home, I immediately hide books based on movie or TV shows. Often, these books never get read. If my kids request them, we read them and then they mysteriously disappear again. They are rarely requested a second time.
10. Never buy a children’s book written by a celebrity other than Jamie Lee Curtis.
Actor Jamie Lee Curtis has written some quality children’s books, so it is good to be aware of the Jamie Lee Curtis exception to this otherwise solid rule.
I will add two additional tips for avoiding terrible books: 11. Avoid alphabet books; and 12. Beware of books that prominently feature dinosaurs or princesses on the front cover.
Lastly, I take exception to Magary’s final claim: “The truth is that only a few people in history have managed to create great lasting children’s books: Seuss, Scarry, Sendak, Rey, Eastman, etc.”
If I were able to magically rid the world of terrible books — excessively wordy books, painfully awkward rhyming books, formulaic books, fancy pop-up books, DK readers, books based on movies or TV shows, books written by celebrities other than Jamie Lee Curtis, alphabet books, and books that prominently feature dinosaurs or princesses on the front cover – there would still be more wonderful children’s books in the world than I could possibly read in my lifetime.
Furthermore, while I am certain that Magary did not intend to include only white males on his short list of recommended authors, many parents and teachers do this unintentionally.
I urge you to rid your shelves of terrible children’s books and make a little more space for books by Emily Gravatt, Grace Lin, Kadir Nelson, Rukhsana Khan, Ana Juan, Patricia Polacco, Lauren Child, Margaret Wild, the three Pinkneys, Barbara Reid, Denise Fleming, Shirin Yim, Monica Brown, Allen Say, Alison Lester, Bronwyn Bancroft, Jutta Bauer, Mary Hoffman, Erin Stead and many other wonderful children’s book authors and illustrators.
Magary recommends 10 fantastic books to ensure that storytime is fun for parents as well as kids. In addition, here are 10 more crowd-pleasing books to add to his list:
- Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall
- Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney
- Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek by Minfong Ho and Holly Meade
- Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman
- Cherry Tree by Ruskin Bond and Allan Eitzen
- Goal! by Mina Javaherbin and A.G. Ford
- Dance by Bill Jones and Susan Kuklin
- Ben’s Trumpet by Rachel Isadora
- Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown and John Parra
- Elena’s Serenade by Campbell Geeslin and Ana Juan