Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TT~What Even Makes a Children's Picture Book "Good" Anyways?

My first Guest Post was a Book Review for Mother/Daughter Book Reviews.  I met Renee while hopping around and thought, "a book review blog, how cool!"  So, I asked if I could do one!  Without further ado, here's Renee:

Dawn’s Disaster

This is a great way for me to learn more about my bloggy friends and to help promote their blog.  So, once you're read their fantastic post, stop by their blog and leave them a note.  Tell 'em you stopped by from Dawn's Disaster :)  If you'd like to be a part of my Traveling Tuesdays, give me a holler or stop by my contact page!

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Mother Daughter Book Reviews Button

I am so pleased to be posting as a guest for my bloggy friend Dawn. As I was thinking about what to ramble on about, I decided to write about something that has been niggling at me since I started blogging about books with my kids. You see, I blog over at Mother Daughter Book Reviews. The reason I started the blog was because I was getting increasingly concerned about finding "good" books for my son and my daughter. I quickly came to realize that my opinion of "good" as a parent means something completely different than my kids' opinion of "good".

In short, my kids want to be entertained (duh!). My standards are a bit different. I think we've reached a compromise.

With over 50 reviews in the past 10 months under our belt, it is time to reflect back on and share with you some of the questions we ask ourselves when we are doing a book review. To be honest, our reviews of picture books are different from those of middle grade books because they are vastly different genres. For this post, I will discuss our criteria when examining picture books only.

1. Can children identify with the main character(s)?

Gender and age is the most obvious way that a child will identify with a character. My daughter prefers to read stories about girls her own age or older and my son prefers books with a boy as the main character. My daughter loved Phillipa Knickerbocker Glory and the Ice Cream Castle, whereas my son preferred Chase Danger Super Spy. Can you see why?

Phillipa Knickerbocker Glory and the Ice Cream Castle
Phillipa Knickerbocker Glory and the Ice Cream Castle by Sarahjane Funnell

Chase Danger Super Spy by Chase and Lisa Olivera
Chase Danger Super Spy by Chase and Lisa Olivera

However, some books transcend gender, age, and other such physical traits and seek to find a connection with the reader through a character's emotions or thoughts.

The Day No One Played Together by Donalisa Helsley
The Day No One Played Together by Donalisa Helsley

For example, in The Day No One Played Together by Donalisa Helsley, the two characters were girls, but my son could identify with the younger sister and having to negotiate with an older sister around playtime. He gave the book 5 stars. Thus, I hesitate to claim that the target audience for a particular book is solely dependent on the gender and age of the characters. One needs to explore the larger context of the story and anticipate whether ANY child can identify with what the characters are experiencing in the story, rather than simply seeing the physical similarities between themselves and the characters.

2. Is the Book Cover Interesting?

When you are perusing books in the library, in a bookstore, or even on-line your first impression of a book will always be made based on the cover of the book. The cover does matter. Allow me to illustrate. Which of the following children's books about monkeys do you want to share with your child?

That's Not My Monkey by Fiona Watt
That's Not My Monkey by Fiona Watt
Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins
Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

I rest my case...

3. Are the illustrations inside a book appealing to children?

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Speaking of the cover, it only follows that this applies to the illustrations within a book as well. Do you know why Goodnight Moon by Margaret Brown Wise is such a great book (IMHO)? The illustrations. I will never forget the day when my speechless daughter responded to my question "Where is the red balloon?" while reading Goodnight Moon by putting her stubby little baby finger right on top of the red balloon. Before kids can read to themselves, they look at the pictures. It's very simple: the illustrations must go with the story.

There is no single style that will necessarily be more appealing. Think of the range of artistry in picture books from Eric Carle's use of collage, to the beautiful watercolour pictures used in books such as Mem Fox's Time for Bed (illustrated by Jane Dyer) and Laura Krauss Melmed's I Love You As Much (illustrated by Henry Sorenson) to the use of bold and bright colours in Sandra Boynton's distinctive style.

4. Does the story appeal to children?

Will a child be interested in the story? How does does the story make your child feel? Sad, scared, happy, excited, melancholy? A good story will elicit at least one or more emotions (preferably not scared!). Does the story have a start, middle, and end (i.e., does it make any sense whatsoever)? We can all appreciate that even adult fiction sometimes doesn't follow these rules, but it's no different with children's books. A good picture book relies on more than great illustrations and interesting characters - something needs to happen. If you want a child to be engaged with and emotionally invested in a story there needs to be a series of connected events (i.e., a plot). The ultimate sign that of an epic fail - I can't answer their "Why?" questions because even I don't know! It took a while for my kids to realize that when I respond to their questions with, "Well, what do YOU think?", that usually means that I have no idea. ;-)

5. Is the book fun to read aloud?

I cannot reiterate enough my love of rhyming text. Does a good picture book need rhyming text?
maybe, well, not really. Perhaps rhyme is not necessary, but if there is going to be rhyming, I expect proper rhyming and good cadence. Let me illustrate good rhyming and cadence first using an excerpt from Gimme Jimmy by Sherrill Cannon:
One day his daddy said, "Jimmy, my boy,

You must learn to share, or you'll have little joy,

You'd better be careful, you must understand,

Your greed may show up in the size of your hand."
Now an example of rhyming that doesn't quite work from our recently reviewed Baby Unplugged - Blanket by John Hutton:
Blanket for parties, Blanket for dolls

These are not blankets at all!
Here are two additional lines from Book (also by Hutton) to demonstrate a lack of cadence:
Turn the page - what comes next?

Farmyard friends? Princess? Tyrannosaurus Rex?
It is such a different experience to read to a child than to read a novel silently to oneself. The issues with rhyme and cadence become apparent when reading out loud.

One final consideration regarding reading aloud is whether there are opportunities for a child join in because there are parts that are repetitive such as in The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood ("And on that cat, there is a mouse, a slumbering mouse, on a snoozing cat, on a dozing dog, on a dreaming child, on a snoring granny, on a cozy bed...) or there are natural places for a child to contribute such as in Chicka Chicka "BOOM BOOM" by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault.

6. Is the word density age appropriate?

You'll often see me commenting on word density or the number of words found on a page. With books for babies and young toddlers, one or two words per page is usually appropriate as they are trying to grasp simple concepts. As children get older, they can comprehend more complex word combinations and thoughts therefore word density can increase. The trick is finding the appropriate number of words (or think of it as the amount of time needed to read a page) to match with the complexity of the accompanying image. With a very simple image, there should be a few simple words or sentences. If it takes too long to read a page and your child is "done" looking at the picture, they will likely do what my children did: turn the page themselves before you are done reading it. Here are examples of pages with different word density (of course, you have to gauge what you think is appropriate for YOUR child - not every child is the same). These books are targeting the same age group (roughly 3 to 6 year olds) but the word density is drastically different especially with regards to the complexity of the accompanying image.

The Teeny Weeny Tadpole by Sheridan Cain
The Teeny Weeny Tadpole by Sheridan Cain

One Little Christmas Tree by The Curto Family and Rusty Fischer
One Little Christmas Tree by The Curto Family and Rusty Fischer
Lou Lou by Safia Guerras
Lou Lou by Safia Guerras

7. Is the language used age-appropriate?

There's nothing like watching your child's eyes glaze over or witnessing the loss of interest in the middle of reading a book because the language is either too simplistic or too complex. Striking the right balance in a book can be very tricky. A good book will use language that is rich, flowing, and challenging to the imagination. A good book will introduce new concepts in the text and on occasion will include a glossary with definitions of these new concepts. As we saw in the book LouLou by Safia Guerras, which introduced us to a culture different from ours (i.e., Maldivian), the author provided a glossary for words and concepts such as encyclopedia, continent, and global warming. It is my opinion that this provides additional educational value even in a picture storybook.

8. Do you and your child want to read the book again?

Love you Forever by Robert Munsch
Love you Forever by Robert Munsch
Like it or not, a good book will get frequent requests to be reread, again and again and again until you find yourself changing the words in the story just to keep it interesting for yourself (much to your children's chagrin if they are anything like mine!) In my opinion, the best indicator of the quality of a book is ultimately whether or not your child pulls out that same book over and over because THEY LOVE IT! Sometimes you'll find it's the most unlikely book that becomes a favorite. We've listed our favorite picture books on our website: Our Favorite Children’s Books for Preschoolers 3 to 5 Years Old.

*** So, what do YOU think? How do YOU decide on a "Good Picture Book"? What are some of YOUR favorites? ***

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