Lots of children’s books suck. How to choose a good one.
Writer and writing teacher Eirlys Hunter on the pragmatics of holding on to magic.
I have been choosing children’s books for over 60 years, for myself, for friends, for my four children and now for my three mokopuna, who are seven, four and two years old. I also taught writing to children at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington for 12 years. I have a strong opinion of what makes a good children’s book. Not that children should only read good books; Children should be encouraged to be omnivores. But adult readers should only need to read books that they enjoy. An avid reader can sell almost any book to a child, so the most important person to please when choosing a reader is the adult who will read it. If that probably applies to you, the job is done. Choose books with pictures you like and texts that make you smile. This is even more important with toddlers because if a toddler reads a book, you can read it hundreds of times.
Good picture book text is damn hard to write, despite what princesses and celebrities seem to be thinking. Your few words should read like poetry and pay attention to rhythm, assonance, sibilance and all other language techniques. There has to be a story, a reason to turn the next page. But not a word too much, and everyone should roll their tongues and say with joy: “The-night-Max-wore-his-wolf-suit-and-made-one-and-another-misschef, his-mother-called-him-wild thing … “
Its essential quality is rhythm, but too many writers abandon rhythm in their scramble to find some rhyme. I used to warn my students about rhymes and get them to read their stories and clap to see if they were happy with the rhythm, but every year someone lurched through a text that tangled up in unnatural syntax and seedy rhythm was to force a rhyme word to end of line:
He was in such a hurry to tell his friend Joe / that he was walking on the street
I don’t think their attempts at rhyming texts ever turned into books, but many published picture books are difficult to read because of cardiac arrhythmias. Even without the constraints of rhyme, too many picture books ignore the rhythm. To be fair, they’re not too difficult to identify, as they usually also have boring illustrations, are written in banal clichés, and tell a hackneyed story – or no story at all. They come from a cynical production line and there is no love for writing – or respect for children – in their creation. Local examples may show New Zealand wildlife in some shape or form or Christmas (not all Kiwi / Fantail / Christmas stories, okay? Just some) because they have gift potential for take-and-go shoppers who don’t know any better.
Fortunately, you can afford to ignore books like this because you will find many great titles in any bookstore if you take a moment to read the first few pages. The best are not only captivatingly rhythmic, but also imbued with what the children’s book author Katherine Paterson describes as childlike amazement. Wonder is the opposite of cynicism and world weariness, and I wish every child could stay forever permeated by it. Margaret Mahy’s stories radiate wonders. Every little person I love has a copy of The Moon and Farmer McPhee with David Elliott’s gorgeous animal illustrations Alive with joy sing and dance in the moonlight. Also on the back of the chair and The Boy You Followed Home and Bubble Trouble and The Lion in the Meadow, and, and …
Aside from rhythm (and rhyming if it’s perfect) and having fun with language, there is one other, more elusive, quality that many of my favorite picture books share, and that is an element of mystery. Children’s authors should have a note Not everything has to be explained pinned above their desks. There is no explanation for the tiger that rang the doorbell on Sophie’s door, or for the elephant that went down the whole street rumpeta rumpeta, or for the private boat that brought Max to the wild guys.
Good illustrations also include mysterious spaces for readers to get lost in, add to the text, and allow young children to have their earliest experience of art. The best illustrations are allusions and provide clues that suggest (but not dictate) a meaning and give the adult reading the opportunity to help the child decipher what is being depicted. “What do you think what he’s feeling?” “What do you think you mean?”
Choosing a book for a child reading can be daunting. Everyone knows that The Right Book can set a child on the path to literacy and academic success, and is cited as a major influence if that child solves the climate crisis and rules the world. Specifically, the right book can make a child giggle while you have your umpteenth Zoom meeting or buy peace between siblings quarreling in the back of the car. The worst that can happen is that the child ignores the book. If so, try reading it out loud. Even very old children are happy to read aloud and there can be time for this over the summer, individually or with the whole family. In an ideal world, we would read to each other all our lives: sharing the joy of books, getting to know the characters, waiting to find out what will happen next. When on vacation, the right audiobook can transform a long drive for anyone.
When browsing I start in the New Zealand section of the bookstore. If I don’t buy books from other local authors, how can I expect someone to buy mine? And there are shelves full of brilliant local titles telling our stories in our voices, as well as stories from other times and other places, real and imaginary. There are also lots of beautiful hardback covers, Taonga for special gifts (not for the back of the car) like Gavin Bishop’s Aotearoa the New Zealand Story and now Atua – Māori Gods & Heroes (not to mention his very excellent activity book). . You’ll pay back umpteen reps and spark family discussions; Adults will get as much from them as children.
Even if you don’t believe in literary canons, there are books and stories that are cultural necessities that reading children become aware that they should know, be it Peter Gossage’s Māui and other Māori legends or Peter Rabbit or Grimm’s fairy tales. A beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland / Through the Mirror can signal to a nine or ten year old: “I take you and your imagination seriously. You are a reader and a person who deserves this particular book. “
If you are shopping for a literal kid over eight years old today, they can tell you exactly what to get because they’ve checked the internet for the latest series they’re living in and know what day it is due in the bookstores. If it is delayed by supply chain issues, there will be another streak they started while they wait. You can buy Book Seven. If Book Seven isn’t available, do what I do and ask a bookseller. What can you buy a kid who has read all of Stacey Gregg and Kelly Wilson? What comes after Roald Dahl? If you’re unable to physically go to a bookstore and flip through the options, give them a call or go online to ask. In addition to children’s librarians, children’s booksellers are global experts on “What kind of book is next?”
And if the child is your own and disappears into Book Seven, barely speaking to you, and resentful that they are forced to get involved in family life – go to them. Ask to borrow and read Book One. Find out about the world your offspring live in. What big questions does he deal with? If the plot is complicated, ask your child to explain. Even if the story seems unoriginal and the characters seem unnatural, don’t criticize. At least now, you have a sense of the genre, humor, and tension and complexity your child is enjoying. Armed with this knowledge, your bookseller can lead you both to other authors, other series. And you will have enabled your child to show you something of the world that is currently dominating their imagination.
Short addendum from book editor Catherine Woulfe:
What Hunter forgets to mention is that she is the author of The Mapmakers’ Race, a great 2018 youth novel about a colorful troop of brothers and sisters venturing across a mountain range. In fact, race over a mountain range and map them while doing it, all without the pesky adults – other than the horrible ones they face off against. It is so good! There’s a lot at stake, but not too scary, the story is quick and intriguing, there’s a parrot and it’s really fun. Above all: the characters are wonderful. I especially love how cute Humph, the littlest, is, but also has the ability to act and dexterity – he’s a “good attendant” – and how all the children look after their sister Francie, who has to deal with crowds and loud noises, and at the same time she loves down to the smallest detail and is constantly impressed by her art.
Now there’s a sequel: The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia is just as good and was released last month. The set is highly recommended as a Christmas present.
The Uprising – The Mapmakers in Cruxcia by Eirlys Hunter (Gecko Press, $ 22.99) is available at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
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