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Children’s Literature

Why do I find it so hard and time-consuming to find decent books for my two-and-a-half-year-old son?

OK, I am not talking about the books in Serbian. For those books, I rely on my mother’s taste. Sometimes I wish she sent us some books that met the following criteria: 1) not a Brothers Grimm fairy tale; 2) not an Aesop fable.  Despite the fact that I love The Brothers Grimm’s and Aesop’s stories  (I grew up with them), I’d like to be able to introduce my son to a piece of contemporary, possibly imaginative and capturing, piece of Serbian children’s literature. But, ultimately, I am grateful for whatever books I receive from my mother. I use whatever tools I can think of (different voices, my hands, etc.) to keep Andrei’s interest in the books.

But this post is really about books in English. Just regular children’s books that fill libraries and bookstores. What puzzles me is how much time I spend in libraries and bookstores to eventually find two or three decent books that are appropriate for Andrei’s age.

The first problem is a matter of logistics. How does one organize “picture books”? Usually, they are called just “picture books,” I guess because they have pictures. OK, that makes sense. However, I feel there is a big difference between the books I read to Andrei when he was one and the books I read to him now when he is two and a half. And, in a year or two, I imagine I’ll be reading him some quite different picture books because he will be able to handle so many more words for each picture he sees. So, it seems logical to me that “picture books” could be organized by age (maybe something like 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, whatever). The bottom line is that it would be incredibly helpful if there was a section with books that included a single line/picture, and then another one that included books with maybe a paragraph of text/picture, and finally a section with books that included multiple paragraphs/picture.

Finding the right content for my son I find even harder. Now, remember, my son is two and a half and quite distractible in an environment such as the library or bookstore, and with no interest in selecting any books himself, although with a very refined  taste once we are at home reading. So, I am the one whose job is to choose the right books. Now, what is my definition of the “right,” good, decent children’s books? Honestly, I expect the same combination of qualities that I look for in the books I select for myself. A fresh, imaginative story that will take me to a new mental and emotional place; imaginative, poetic language that will delight me, surprise me, make me feel like I touched on a place I have never touched on before. And in Andrei’s case, I’d like to see pictures that have life in them and evoke interest, compassion, connection.

We do find books that include all those qualities. There are so many of Andrei’s books that I find delightful – the language, the story, the mental pictures the text evokes. The books that come to my mind are Welcome to My Neighborhood, Papa, Get the Moon for Me, Happy Birthday, Moon. Some other books we read don’t quite take me to the point of delight, but I think they are still good, decent books.

My question is: Why is it so hard to find these kinds of books? Why do I run into tens of outright boring stories with colorless, lifeless illustrations and lifeless characters for every good book I find? Why are there so many books that are trying to teach children facts?

OK, maybe it’s not a bad idea to have some story-less books that attempt to teach kids about fruits, and animals, and means of transportation. But shouldn’t they have their own category  (something like nonfiction)? And maybe it’s not a bad idea to have some, preferably a limited number of books that teach children manners (please, and thank you, and phone etiquette) or introduce children to some developmental milestones that they will go through (potty-training, for example). But why  don’t these kinds of books have their own category? And why so many of them? Why do I have to run into at least ten books that try to teach my son something in order to be able to find a single book that simply tells a story, a delightfully imaginative story that teaches my son things far more important than manners and numbers – teaches him how to be a human in the world and helps him celebrate what he already has, delightful imagination and playful language? What is happening with children’s literature, or maybe, with literature in general? Are we on our way back to the didactic literature of the Middle Ages (OK, maybe with a contemporary spin: manners instead of a moral lesson)?

  1. March 21, 2012 at 8:11 am

    I have the exact opposite problem! So many fabulous books I find in English and I spend so much. I wish we had an English library here so that I didn’t have to buy them all! My blog started off as a bilingual-kids blog and turned into a kidslit blog just because there is so much I love – some of it for my kids but sometimes I enjoy the picture books more than they do, like the recent Virginia Wolf (okay, they love that one too!). My kids tend to love the same characters over and over again though. So many more books to explore rather than Strawberry Shortcake!
    If you are looking for nonfiction kidlit there is a meme every week- Nonfiction Monday, which has great suggestions.

    I am not as fond of Japanese children’s lit as I am of that in English. I think English kidlit is so much more unique. I wonder if this is really because English stuff is better or if I just like what I know?

    2-3 is a hard age. I find rhymes work great, so something like Sheep in a Jeep http://is.gd/pTwzsC or anything by Michael Rosen (especially Bear Hunt http://is.gd/DmQ3WP) works well. But your mileage may vary!

    • March 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      We’ll definitively check out Sheep in a Jeep – thanks for the suggestion! My son Loves Bear’s Day Out and Bear Flies High, but he did not like Bear Hunt.

  2. March 21, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I totally hear you on the Grimm books! As German-speakers we have several versions. Along with other Germanic Children’s Literature that is way too old for our son! I appreciate the gifts (mostly from a friend’s mother) but I would prefer books that are more age-appropriate.
    Like Perogyo, I, too, have a hard time keeping myself from buying lots and lots of English books 🙂 But I think you make a valid point – having subcategories (I love the idea of the non-fictions ones that gave me a chuckle!) and age ranges would be so useful! I encounter this problem more when I’m looking for German books – I’m just so unfamiliar with children’s books in German! You might try Amazon – they often give an age range (although checking the box somehow doesn’t always give me what I’m looking for).
    Just off the top of my head, here are some we (my 2-year-old son and I) love:
    – anything by Eric Carle (even Have You Seen My Cat – my son loves it, I want to rip my hair out if I have to repeat that phrase one more time!)
    – On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman
    – I Took the Moon for a Walk (can’t remember the author)
    – Sandra Boynton has super silly rhyming books
    – In Grandma’s Arms
    – The Monster at the End of the Book (with Grover from Sesame Street – I think there’s a “sequel” with Elmo, too)
    – Goodnight Gorilla (another one I dread having to read – there are very few words, so you have to make up the story yourself – but A. LOVES it)
    Hope this helps! I wonder if in addition to Perogyo any other English-speaking bilingual bloggers have a list out there? I finally put up a similar in German on my site.

    • March 24, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      Thank you so much for all the suggestions! We’ll definitely look for these books!

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