What Makes a Good Book
The following is a recapitulation of a series of columns that appeared in various issues of the 1995 Childrens Literature Newsletter.
Basic Construction and Illustrations
When evaluating a book for a child, there are a lot of characteristics to keep in mind. But lest you feel overwhelmed, remember that if you have been reading books, especially childrens books, you have probably developed an innate ability to select the good ones. You just may not realize what influences you and why. This, first in a series of columns, will address the features of a good book.
Lets look at the basic construction of a book. Consider the quality of the fabrication-will it hold up to repeated handling and reading? Look in particularly at the binding and cover construction. If the slip jacket is removed, will the cover still have appeal? Is the paper of good quality, or does it tear easily? Look at the books size and shape. If the book is for toddlers then keep it small for little hands. Oversized books are usually not appropriate for those under nine--they are just too big and too heavy.
Next, look at the illustrations. Are they clearly reproduced? Are the color registration and clarity acceptable? Although black-and-white helps babies clearly distinguish objects, color is very important for older kids. Colors do not need to be vibrant or garish to appeal to children; studies have shown that pastels are soothing and can encourage learning.
Also, are the illustrations appropriate to the story or text? Do they enhance and exemplify the text, or do they head off in an entirely new direction. Author/illustrator Chris Manson commented that the childrens book market is really the best place in the publishing industry for full color art. Sometimes it blows away the story. He believes that illustrations need to be in balance with the story. Illustrations should make the story bigger, but not different. Marilyn Courtot Publisher and Editor
Childrens Literature Volume 3, Number 1, January 1995
Type-Style and Placement
Last month I discussed basic construction and illustrations. This months focus is type style and the placement of type on the page.
Look at the books typeface. Is it readable? Usually a type style or font described as simple sans serif is recommended. That is a type style that does not have small lines to finish off the main stroke of a letter-to illustrate M (serif) versus M (sans serif). For youngsters leaning to read and write, the sans serif characters are easy to recognize and print. For all readers the important issue is whether the typeface is easy to read.
Next, is the type big enough or of a sufficient point size for young readers? The point size is the height of the font or typeface from the bottom of the descenders such as q to the top of ascenders such as h. Also, there should be sufficient leading (the vertical space occupied which determines the amount of white space between lines). Look at the track or amount of space between the characters. For most readers, characters that touch each other are more difficult to identify and recognize.
Finally, is the type clearly set off from the illustrations? Is there good balance? White space can help to focus on detail, and its importance should not be overlooked. Is there sufficient contrast between the text and the illustrations? For example, if the text is printed within an illustration, does it clearly stand out either against a lighter part of the background or is it placed in a white box within the illustration? If the latter approach is used, does it have a negative impact on the visual presentation of the art?
Use your own eyes and trust your judgment.
Childrens Literature Volume 3, Number 2, February 1995
Types of Books
Most children are curious about their world. To help satisfy that curiosity parents, teachers and caregivers should provide books that teach and explain concepts and provide factual information. Concept books teach counting, the alphabet, colors, opposites, and the like.
Counting is a concept usually introduced to children very early in their lives. Most parents play games counting fingers and toes. Kids pick up the sounds and pattern and frequently memorize the sequence of numbers, although the actual concept of what the numbers represent comes later. The intended audience for a counting book is children ages three and up. Since these are young children, a really successful counting book should be small enough for kids to handle, and also sturdy and of good quality paper.
Good counting book clearly display the numeral and the appropriate number of objects in a clear and uncluttered illustration. The numeral should be placed in reasonable proximity to the objects, so that the association can be made between it and the number of objects. Therefore, a double page spread may not be as effective as single pages. You may want to stick to a single page format until the child is about six years old. Counting books are also most effective when they use familiar objects, particularly with very young children.
A rhymed text- or at least one that has either rhythm, onomatopoeia, or repetition-will entertain and help kids remember. The text should use language appropriate to the age group. A few good examples are: First Steps: Letters, Numbers, Colors, Opposites; One White Sail; Ten Little Rabbits, Mouse Count, A Number of Animals, and How Many.
Childrens Literature Volume 3, Number 4, April 1995
History and geography books provide concrete facts, but also offer the opportunity to answer related social issues. The American Association of Geographers in conjunction with the National Council for Geography Education has identified five themes to promote the learning of geographic principles.
First, books and activities must help children learn where physical and man made entities are-countries, rivers, mountains, landmarks and other characteristics that differentiate the earths surface are illustrative. Second, kids need to know what makes a place special-is the vegetation, climate, elevation or soil. Third, it is essential to understand the relationship among people and places-for example, the origin of place names. Fourth, children should be aware that there are patterns of movement of people, products, and information. Fifth, children should recognize that the earth can be divided into various regions for study, such as time zones, climatic regions, and elevations.
A good book for history and geography has a perspective, and this perspective can be more important than the factual information. This months issue provides many good choices to help children enjoy geography and history. These books incorporate one or more of the five themes noted above. Our selections place particular emphasis on the United States and the westward expansion.
Additional information relating to the Educational Goals 2000 for geography is available from the National Council for Geography Education at 1600 M Street NW, Washington DC 20036. For 50 cents you can obtain a copy of Helping Your Child Learn Geography by requesting it from the Consumer Information Center-4C, P. O. Box 100, Pueblo, CO 81002.
Childrens Literature Volume 3, Number 5, May 1995
Ninety-nine percent of childrens book manuscripts are turned down because the author has nothing to say, the story is unclear or not pertinent to a childs world, the plot is shopworn, characters are stereotyped, or overall the book is not balanced.
For a book to be in balance, it is important that all the components be right for the target age group and the story. In a picture book targeted to four-year-olds, the theme may be a power struggle with a parent in a story of a childs refusal to eat vegetables. The same theme, in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds might develop a plot line relating to overeating or bulimia. Not eating vegetables could be a minor theme or plot line.
A really good book moves a reader emotionally. Pity, sorrow, joy, anger, and other emotions become vibrant. The emotional quality is critical because the world is complex, and often it is only on the emotional level where the lives of children and adults can intersect. The emotion must be effective and without sentimentality. The theme is where the search for emotional qualities starts.
In general, a picture book should have only one theme. Books for older children can have one or more themes or a theme and subthemes. When children read a book and subsequently are asked about the focus, the real test is what they remember or take away. For example, if the story is about a brother and sister who fight a lot-sibling rivalry is the theme. The theme is the ultimate truth that stays with the reader. The theme helps children make sense of the world, but it is not the same as a message or license for teaching and preaching. Books and reading are fun, and if children can learn something at the same time, so much the better.
Childrens Literature, Volume 3, Number 8, August 1995
When you read a childrens book, pay attention to the characters. In a good book, they will be well developed with multifaceted personalities. It is important for children to see the good and bad in the characters, and to avoid stereotypes. Individuals are rarely totally good or completely evil.
Think about characters from books that you read. Did Jo March of Little Women or Philip in The Cay seem real to you? Did you share their worries, joys, and everyday experiences? I know that I did. These characters were well defined and they did things that kids can understand. Books, more than any other medium, allow children to understand the thinking process. They afford an opportunity to put oneself safely into a situation and allow the reader to relate to the way the character responds to situations. To be believable, the character must respond in a logical or realistic way, and the character should learn or grow during the story.
In a picture book, the format doesnt lend itself to much character development, but it can be done. Patricia Polacco has successfully created memorable characters in her picture books as have Mem Fox and David McPhail. In chapter books, more characterization is needed and writers like Patricia Giff, James Howe, and Elizabeth Levy are skilled at providing three dimensional characters.
For young adults, realistic and believable characters are essential. They can provide solace through shared experiences and answers to the trauma and angst of the teen years. Books by authors such as Bruce Brooks, Betsy Byars, Katherine Paterson, and Paul Zindel, to name a few, exhibit fine characterization in their novels.
Childrens Literature Volume 3, Number 10, October 1995
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