A MOTHER and her daughter enter a children's bookstore in search of something suitable yet challenging to read. Within minutes the daughter is rifling through the series book section until she hits the jackpot. "Number 23," she yells gleefully. "It's the new one!" she explains to her long-suffering parent, who has pulled from the shelf an inspiring book about a girl living in colonial times. "You've read so many of those already, dear," says the mother wearily. "Wouldn't you like to try something new?" This rhetorical question is met with a predictable "No."
The mother enlists the help of the bookseller. The daughter turns sulky and displays some impressive eye-rolling techniques while her mother nudges her to pay attention to "the lady." Having exhausted 15 different suggestions, the bookseller recognizes a stalemate and discreetly withdraws.
"The mother falters for a moment, then picks up the book about the girl in colonial times as well as the cursed number 23 and heads for the register. As she pays for the books she makes embarrassed apologies to the bookseller: "I'm paying good money for this." The bookseller smiles and nods. She's seen it all before.
There is an unwritten law that parents serve fruit salad instead of Twinkies for dessert. They also begin early morning conversation with winning lines like "I don't want you wearing that thin little t-shirt on a day like this." It is therefore no surprise that books can be added to the list of topics about which adults and children don't always agree.
With approximately 3,000 juvenile titles published annually there is justifiable confusion over what is worth reading. Of course it could be argued that with so many books to choose from there must be a few titles that everyone could agree upon. The simple truth is that adults and children approach books in very different ways. They each have their own set of criteria for determining what constitutes a good read. Since book selection is a fairly personal process, the publishing industry doesn't bombard consumers with advertising gimmicks or commercials to influence their choice of books. Peggy Hogan, marketing director for children's books at Houghton-Mifflin explains, "We direct our advertising and promotional efforts towards librarians and booksellers because often the best way to put the right book in a child's hands is to have a good matchmaker. A skilled librarian or bookseller who knows books and children can give a child a particular book at just the right time to ignite that magical spark of interest that creates life-long readers."
Terri Schmitz, owner of The Children's Bookshop in Brookline, Mass., observes that adults and children come to books looking for different things. "Children come in wanting to know what the story is about and what the book is like. They want a funny book, or something scary or fast-paced. In other words, they're looking for something they can respond to and be drawn into. Parents often want a book that has some socially redeeming value. The ideal book should contain a positive message and look like a book with literary merit." Schmitz encourages adults to be flexible when choosing books with children. "I remind parents that we all read Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys without any severe repercussions," she says.
It is easy for us as adults to have idealized memories of what we liked to read when we were younger. Who didn't feel a twinge of disappointment when Great Aunt Lillian's annual birthday book was a biography of young Louis Pasteur, rather than a new Trixie Belden mystery? Most of us have also had the experience of remembering a book as wonderful and magical, only to rediscover it years later in the attic and find it dull and commonplace. As you pick up the umpteenth Babysitter's Club or sports story in your child's room, keep in mind that sometimes we love not what is best but what satisfies us at some point.
Fortunately, the less distinguished titles from our past are balanced by a canon of classics in children's literature. These books form a connection between adults and children. Whether it is through the rhythmic cadences of Goodnight, Moon or the naughtiness of Curious George, who despite his pranks always returns to the Man in the Yellow Hat, they offer comfort, reassurance and familiarity. Years later parts of these books linger in the recesses of one's mind so that it is not unusual to find grown-ups still able to recite, say, the opening to Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline: "In an old house in Paris/ All covered with vines/ Lived twelve little girls/ In two straight lines."
In sharp contrast, a new class of books has recently flourished. These are books thinly disguised as parenting tools, demanded by and created for adults only. No self-respecting child would enter a bookstore and say "I'm a 5-year-old who is about to begin school. I'm feeling apprehensive about this critical juncture in my life and I was wondering if you have a book that might help me." Or, "I'm 7 and feeling stressed out because my brother and I are constantly fighting. The wear and tear of these arguments is really getting to me. What do you suggest I read?" However, nervous parents and concerned adults are often looking for books that address precisely these concerns. While reassuring to adults, they do not always have the same effect on children. Books written with an ulterior motive are about as much fun as writing sincere thank-you notes to Aunt Lillian for that deadly Pasteur biography.
Schmitz advocates an indirect method of giving children a well-written enjoyable story instead of beating them over the head with a message. If your child needs to learn something about responsibility, try reading Dayal Khalsa's I Want a Dog (Clarkson Potter), the story of a little girl who takes care of a roller skate on a leash to prove to her parents that she can be trusted with a pet. For those troublesome siblings offer Rosemary Wells's Stanley and Rhoda (Dial/Dutton), an ideal furry brother and sister who get along and help each other in a series of hilarious vignettes. Annabelle Swift, Kindergartener by Amy Schwartz (Orchard) is a marvelously written and illustrated tale about an older sister preparing her younger sibling for success on her first day at school.
Once parents have recuperated from helping their child cope with the most recent life trauma, they can increase their anxiety all over again by reading the recommended age levels on the back of jacket covers. As if adults don't have enough to worry about, publishers have created a whole new area of concern by putting grade or age levels on books. This has made the term "age-appropriate" popular, but it has also caused undue stress. Good books can be read by a wide audience. Children should not be restricted to an arbitrarily assigned age limitation. Schmitz has seen a perfectly contented child happily settle on a book only to have it whisked away when the parents discovered it was for readers a year younger.
Picture books are an example of a genre that has been routinely assigned to the youngest readers. Middle schoolers and older readers have been made to feel that it's beneath their dignity to show an interest in picture books. This is unfortunate, particularly when contemporary author/illustrators are experimenting with the traditional structure of the picture book. David Macaulay's recent Black and White (Houghton-Mifflin) is an extraordinarily challenging book that will have adults puzzling over whether it is actually four stories or one. Graeme Base, who created the intricate alphabet book Animalia (Abrams), has recently published The Eleventh Hour (Abrams), a mystery book with clues hidden in the illustrations. The solution to the puzzle is in a sealed envelope on the last page. A mix-and-match approach to books allow children a greater chance to find books that have a particular meaning for them.
As adults we want to give children as idealized a childhood as possible. We want to believe that they can like what we like for them. When that doesn't occur, it's not the end of the world. We should always remember to give children the room to make some of their own choices about the books they read. Claudia Logan writes frequently about children's books.