This week I was thinking a lot about picture books and early reader books and what makes some of them better than others. Then I asked myself, better for whom? The grown-up or the child? Is there a difference?
There seems to be. Some of the books my daughter liked and wanted read repeatedly were not books that I liked or would have chosen myself. For instance, some of the books she enjoyed were DK board books—basically, pages of thematically related photos with captions. She had a Halloween book, a book about colors, and I just found the Baby Faces book she adored. These books were incredibly boring to read aloud. There are only so many times that I can point to pictures of spider cupcakes or pink balloons and find something to say about them. “Those would be fun at a party.” But she clearly enjoyed the books.
More interesting to me as a grown-up (though still somewhat difficult to read aloud) was Children Just Like Me. I liked looking at the children from different countries, reading the central text about them, and then examining photos of their favorite meals, toys, drawings, and so forth. Reading this book aloud still involved a lot of pointing at photos, reading the caption, and commenting, but at least it was something more interesting (to me) than spider cupcakes or pink balloons.
On the other hand, there were books that I really enjoyed but which which probably had less appeal for my daughter. In particular, there was a book called Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy, which was about a mother (elephant) who just wants five minutes to herself away from her rambunctious and demanding children. It was funny and it rang so true for me as an adult, but I always wondered what my daughter was getting from it. After all, she was a child and the mother in the story, patient though she was, really wanted time away from her kids. Did she think it was funny because parents do say things like that? Or funny because of the way the kids hopped in the bathtub with her and made waves and splashed and were naughty children? (Naughty children are the most entertaining kind.)
I also really enjoyed the Commander Toad books by Jane Yolen, but these are most entertaining if you are old enough to appreciate the puns and have enough familiarity with Star Trek and Star Wars to catch the references. Since they are early reader-type books, it seems likely that the grown-up doing the reading is going to get more of the humor than the child being read to. Still, the books have enough adventure and uncomplicated humor to be fun for the child as well, and it’s good to be dipped into wordplay early on.
Probably most of the really good books appeal equally to children and adults. I really liked Bread and Jam for Frances as a child—Frances’ rhymes are fun, and I could understand the situation of someone really, really liking a food more than anything else until suddenly they don’t. I can’t say the book inspired me to “practice with a string bean”, but I did love to hear the detailed description of Albert’s lunch and later, Frances’s lunch. I still like this book, and for the same reasons.
I don’t remember how I felt about Frog and Toad as a child, but I love them now. The situations are mostly universal ones: not wanting to get out of bed, being reluctant to try something new, wanting more cookies than is good for one, running into unexpected problems with a task, and getting all upset about something that turns out to be silly. The characters are clearly defined. Toad is the one who worries, who is reluctant, who is sometimes quite silly, but who, it must be said, retreats with dignity when his pride is offended. Frog is easy-going and a loyal friend. He never gets mad at Toad, even when Toad is being especially silly or stubborn.
The conflicts in the stories are clear, too. Frog wants Toad to share spring with him, but Toad wants to sleep. Frog and Toad both decide to make a nice surprise for the other, but the weather foils them. Frog sends Toad a letter to make him happy, but the snail takes too long to get it there. Toad prepares to rescue Frog from imagined dangers, only to find Frog safe and sound.
And then there’s The Cat In the Hat. It has beautifully smooth rhyming, a frantic fish who is worried about the children’s mother coming home, and a mischievous cat who likes to play games—games that are dangerous in the “you’re going to break something!” kind of way, not the “someone’s going to get hurt!” kind of way.
My daughter enjoyed The Cat In the Hat, but did she like it as much as I do now? I don’t know. I do remember that she enjoyed it. Maybe part of the reason I like these books so much now is that I have gotten pickier about books over the years, so the ones that still read well (to my grown-up self) stand out as especially good.
Fortunately, we had plenty of opportunities to read aloud when she was young, so we were able to try a lot of different books, some better for her, some better for me. (Thank you, public library!!) And it’s possible that the occasional reading of Five Minutes’ Peace gave me the patience for yet another reading of the Halloween book.