When I choose a book to read to kids, the main criterion is this: it must be engaging to me. Because I know I will be reading it over and over and over for weeks and generations. And kids can tell if you are faking it.
Here are a few examples of books that don’t reach that bar:
[Disclaimer: I apologize in advance to the authors. All of you are wildly successful and more talented than I ever hope to be. I have also purchased copies of all these titles, so you got your royalties out of me.]
1) Goodnight Moon
When we had our first child, this book was recommended by every mother, including our pediatrician. So it was the first book we bought.
I don’t think I’ve ever finished it.
Every page in the book is basically the same picture of a bedroom with a kid saying goodnight to everything. Moon, mittens, mush. A weird old lady whispering “hush,” knitting in the rocking chair. It feels like a crime scene about to happen.
I will say it put me to sleep.
The premise is that “shipwrecked humans and sentient dinosaurs have learned to coexist peacefully as a single symbiotic society.”
I’m sorry. It not only offends the science teacher in me knowing humans and dinosaurs did not “coexist,” but we learned in 9th grade history that utopias–like perpetual motion machines–are seductive ideas that never ever in the history of mankind have been successfully implemented.
I read it once and banished it to the highest shelf in the house. The only reason I didn’t burn it was because it was a gift and a high quality print. In the spirit of its premise, I donated it to the library book sale.
I hope whoever bought it for 50 cents appreciated that it was “unused.”
3) Dr. Suess
I know I’ll lose some of you on this one. I’ve always loved Dr. Suess, but the books seem so tedious now.
They go on and on and on. I get it, green eggs and ham. I get it, Cat in the Hat. I get it, Horton sitting on an egg. How about some editing?
Even my kids started rooting for the Grinch over those annoying Whos in Whoville.
4) Hank the Cowdog
I tolerated reading Hank when my older son brought one home from school. Then I learned there are about 87 books in the Hank series. Better stated, there is one Hank story reprinted 87 times. I was relieved when my son moved on to GooseBumps.
So which books do I like?
I buy over and over anything by Sandra Boynton (Horns to Toes; Moo, Baa, La La La!; But Not The Hippopotamus), whose simple drawings and clever words work on many levels, even after generations of reading.
“U is for ugly birds.” Classic.
Books from my childhood never age: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Scuffy the Tugboat, Little Tin Soldier. They all have a classical story arc, starting with an idyllic child’s world (toy room, playing with a boat in the bathtub) that goes through a scary disruption, and ends with the protagonist overcoming the challenge and ending up back home. Like the Wizard of Oz.
I often mine my old Childcraft books from the 1950s. They are filled with good art, and poetry and stories by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter de la Mare, and Alfred Tennyson.
What books did my children prefer?
None of the above.
They wanted me to make up stories. It was fun for a few nights. But here’s a tip for aspiring writers–if you want to hone your craft, write for your kids. There is no pressure like the pressure of your children snugly tucked in bed, wide-eyed with anticipation for the next chapter in the original saga starring them.
The best stories are always the ones you make.