If you are reading this, I suspect I am not alone in my love for children’s books. What is it that adults love so much about books written for kids? Is it the artwork, the colors, the fact that animals can talk, being able to read a book in a single sitting? Yes!
I am a children’s book author and recently asked my fans to complete a short survey on children’s books. I only asked three questions — what was their favorite book (or books) as a child, what made the book memorable, and what is their favorite children’s book now, perhaps that they read to their own children/nieces/nephews, and why? (OK, so maybe that’s really four questions!)
I admit that the survey sample was quite small, but I suspect the answers are fairly representative of what I would get whether asking 5 people or 5000. In response to the question about favorite books from their own childhood, many of the expected kid classics were mentioned: The Borrowers, The Boxcar Children, Franklin, Mother Goose Rhymes, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Nancy Drew Mysteries. Interestingly, Nancy Drew was mentioned more times than I would have expected given my small sample size. I have to admit those books were a memorable part of my own childhood. I guess many of us love a good mystery!
For recent favorites, the responses included Harry Potter (specific book not mentioned), the Little Critter books, and multiple people listed anything by Robert Munsch, but especially I Love You Forever.
More interesting perhaps than the actual books were the reasons why people loved these books. I had expected to see more answers suggesting a love of a particular character, or remembering it as the first book they could read on their own, Instead, the answers were quite simple and not surprising.
From their own childhood, people loved and remembered great illustrations, interesting characters in general, and either fun or suspenseful storylines. As adults, it seems that one of the most important factors for current favorites is that the book teaches a positive lesson. Multiple people detailed these to include either an important life lesson was taught in the book, the fact that the story could lead to more in-depth conversations with a child, or that the book shared lessons about history.
As adults, whether authors or readers, choosing books for children or for ourselves, I think this survey supports what we already know. Just as with adult fiction, children’s books need to have interesting characters and a meaningful plot. Unlike adult fiction though, the illustrations are also important for books expected to have them. They should enhance the experience of reading, bring the action and characters to life, and not be a distraction.
People did not mention the latter lesson in the survey, but from reading many children’s book reviews, I know this can be a problem. If the pictures don’t fit with the words, or the font and illustrations aren’t easy to look at, it makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Those are the books that won’t be read over, and over, and over at bedtime because either the child won’t like the book, or the parent will conveniently misplace it.
Also gleaned from reviews, readers find it important that when a book is a rhyming picture book, the rhymes need to be good, make sense, and flow easily when reading aloud. No one wants to have to be forced to stretch the pronunciation of a word to make it rhyme.
I like what Adam Gidwitz wrote in his New Yorker article about what makes a good children’s book. After noting various experts’ opinions, it seems one key to the best children’s books is that they are loved by both children and adults, though not necessarily for the same reasons.
I think that could be seen in my survey results — the books most remembered and best-loved would hold up as really good books whether the opinion was coming from a child or an adult. He also notes that “Kids will like a book with a great story. But they will only love a book that makes them see the world in a new way.”
Who can argue the point that both Nancy Drew and Harry Potter engage children’s imaginations and make them want to interact with the world in whole new ways, whether as an ace detective or a wizard? Or, for some of us, as writers who hope to bring similarly inspiring characters to life.