Friday, July 19, 2013

Choosing a children's book by its cover

As a mom to a five-year-old boy, I’m constantly making trips to the library to get out books on naughty dinosaurs, blue monsters and run-away dump trucks. Children’s picture books is an area where I break my steadfast rule about only reading non-fiction. And I usually only have enough time in there – between avoiding knocking over the fish tank while wrestling with a screaming newborn – to select books based on the quality of their illustrations, often just the one on the front. To choose books by their cover.

The proverbial warning is so true. Because I pay for my superficiality by getting home and being continually disappointed by the quality of the writing. On average, only three out of the twenty books we’ve chosen are truly worth rereading. Despite the pretty pictures.

Of course, this has made me – a wannabe writer – want to write my own children’s books. How hard could it be? After all, I make up stories every night after the lights are out and some of them even have a beginning, middle and end (though no one is awake to hear it).

But apart from cool illustrations, I’m not sure what the ingredients are for a great children’s book. What is the magic formula used in books like Room on the Broom (by Julia Donaldson) and Say Hello to Zorro (by Carter Goodrich), and because we own a fine collection of Italian-language story books, I’ll also add something like Il Signor Tazzina (by Maria Sole Macchia)?

But if the magic formula were that easy, everyone would be writing and publishing children’s books. In the wild hope that an overnight inspiration – and a couple days’ work – could turn into an overnight sensation.

Perhaps all I can do for now to get anywhere close to the magic ingredients to an amazing children’s book – apart from funky pictures – is to work out what they are not. Here’s my list thus far of things I can’t stand in a children’s book:

·        protagonists named Tommy or Billy

·        a spelled-out moral at the end

·        forced rhyme, especially where word order rules are broken just to make something rhyme

·        onomatopoeia – zip, screech, brrr, zoom, plop plop

·        too much dialogue – with all the different voices required (high-pitched, gravelly, Southern accent, etc.), this just makes more work for tired parents

·        overly poetic feel-good plots with no beginning, middle or end

·        serious plots (the girl in wheelchair, grandpa dying, etc.)

·        geographically misplaced animals

·        finding out, in the end, that it was all made up (isn’t Billy an imaginative little chap?)

Can you add any pet hates? Or what, for you, is a magic ingredient?


  1. I love the ones that have little details in the text or in the illustrations that are funny for the parents who have to re-read the books over and over again. I don't like the kind that look like art school projects - lovely illustrations that appeal to parents but yawn yawn storylines.

  2. I'm so with you here, on both points, Ester!