In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

On choosing books

Dear Annie,

Well, it's late, and I'm a bit brain dead because I've spent the last four hours going through the many offerings of three different small non-fiction publishers.  Some of the titles I've been looking at:

I Know Someone with Cancer
A Day in the Life: Meerkat
Inside My Body: Why do I have Periods? (photo of pained-looking teenager holding her stomach on cover)
Predator vs. Prey: Dolphins Vs. Fish
Robert E. Lee: The Story of the Great Confederate General (this one's a comic book)

Although some of these publishers' many new books are obviously not right for our clientele (the cover of the period book, for example, discourages further reading), many of them just might be good and useful for kids with different focused interests.  The meerkat book, for example, has lots of charming photos, clear writing, and interesting information.  Did you know that meerkats eat scorpions because they aren't affected by their poison?  I didn't.  Am going to order that one.

The cancer book is one of those too much information/too little processing of it books, so I'm passing on that one.  A slim volume called The Legacy of the Holocaust is one I had to read all of before deciding that yes, it's a keeper. 

All of this is to make a point about the New Yorker article on kids' books about emotions that you pointed out in your last post.  I understand the basic point that Daniel Zalewski is making: kids' books these days are too tolerant of bad behavior.  He gives examples of some books he feels are over the top on this issue, and others which are okay with him.  I could pick nits with a few of his characterizations of individual books, but generally agree with most of his criticisms (Knuffle Bunny excepted). 

But he's assuming parents have no capacity for critical thinking.  Because these books exist, he's damning a generation of parents, whether or not they're reading them to their kids.  And he's also assuming that to read a book about a child behaving badly is to accept that behavior. Part of the charm of Trixie's dad getting up in the middle of the night to get Knuffle Bunny back is that it's so silly.  To read it to one's child does not mean you're going to acquiesce to an outrageous demand. 

We're talking about picture books here.  And one of the advantages of this genre is that a parent can often read the whole thing before reading it to a kid.  Not always possible, I know, but parental control of reading material is much more a possibility here than later in children's lives.  If a parent reads and is repelled by the message in Pinkalicious, cited in the New Yorker piece, one does not have to read it again.  Or one can talk about what's wrong with it with a child.

Because how can someone grow up to be a critical thinker if they're not given the chance to understand competing points of view?  Every book one reads to a child doesn't have to be debated and disagreed with.  But if one only read books whose message one supported completely, reading time would be a blander experience.



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