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Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Makes a Good Children's Book?

What makes a good children's book? I'd suppose that's a tough question to answer, otherwise Microsoft would have already written Newbery Notebook 1.0 and Caldecott Creator for Windows. A good children's book is far from formulaic.

It seems, however, that Little, Brown Books has done a pretty good job of nailing some of the more prominently recurring traits of good children's books (both novels and picture books). See the whole list at the Upstart Crow Literary blog (a cool place to peek behind the curtain of the writing and publishing biz).

What use is this list to the average classroom teacher?
  • It may help you understand why some books win with children while others fail. The list explains, for example, why a common literary motif of many children's novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Flies, Narnia, Holes) is the removal of the protagonist (and other main characters) from adult supervision and control.
  • The individual attributes may help you create some connections between otherwise unrelated texts. One successful exercise with every novel, for example, is looking at how a character grows or changes over time. I've used this approach with Number the Stars, Because of Winn Dixie, Crash, Flipped, and Island of the Blue Dolphins to name just a few. Check out this sample recording sheet.
  • The list can be used a fairly accurate indicator of a book's overall value when teachers must choose just two or three titles for study. Many teachers, for example, complain that their boys just don't "get into" books which feature strong female protagonists. A book like Poppy, however, which features a female animal protagonist, is somehow more readily embraced.
  • Teachers can use the list as a reference for writing minilessons. If these are the traits that make good children's books work, and if these are the attributes with which children have the most first-hand experience, then perhaps many of them could inform student writing as well.
How else do you see putting this list to work for you? Email me or leave a comment below!

(This same post appears at my How to Teach a Novel blog).


Theresa Milstein said...

I like your list of book. As an assistant, I ran reading groups over a number of years, and found that a strong character that males or females could relate to was more important than the sex of the character. I read, Because of Winn Dixie to a mixed group, and all got into it. But a book like, Princess Academy would only work with a girls' group because of the subject matter.