What Makes a Children’s Book Good?
By Adam Gidwitz
October 3, 2016, The New Yorker
As someone who writes books for children, I am privy to a never-ending debate in children’s-literature circles. (You may now be imagining old ladies in floral dresses sitting around Victorian parlors, knitting and discussing the relative merits of “Johnny Tremain” and “Little House on the Prairie”; I assure you, nowadays it is mostly tattoos and pink hair in these groups, though there are still some lovely floral dresses.) The debate is this: What makes a children’s book “good”?
Now that summer vacation is over and students are submitting lists of books they have read since June, the question is particularly relevant. Does having read the novelization of the latest superhero movie “count” as having read a book? How about a graphic novel based on a line of toys? After my seventh-grade summer, I turned in a reading list that consisted of a single title—the illustrated book “Dinotopia,” by James Gurney. My teacher wrote “This is a sad list” on the paper. More fool her: I hadn’t even read “Dinotopia.” It just happened to be the only reading material other than _Mad _magazine in my room that summer, and I’d felt that my proximity to the book constituted reading it.
The conundrum of the “good” children’s book is best embodied by the apparently immortal—or maybe just undead—series “Goosebumps,” by R. L. Stine. “Goosebumps” is a series of horror novellas, the kid’s-lit equivalent of B-horror movies. It’s also one of the most successful franchises in the business, selling over three hundred and fifty million copies worldwide—which is a ludicrous, almost obscene, number. And here’s a secret from the depths of the publishing industry: neither marketing nor publicity nor movie tie-ins can move three hundred and fifty million copies. The only way to sell that many copies is if millions of kids actually and truly want to read the books. The conclusion is obvious: “Goosebumps” books are good, right?
Maybe, but kids have weird ideas of quality. The children’s author Laura Amy Schlitz, in her 2007 Newbery Medal acceptance speech, explained: “I must remind myself that ‘good’ is an approximate term. A second-grader once asked me for ‘a really, really good book,’ and I asked him, as librarians do, what he considered a good book. He eyed me with thinly veiled impatience and replied, ‘Medium-long with poisonous snakes.’ ”
Adult responses to the question of good children’s books tend to fall into two general camps: a content-oriented approach and a results-oriented approach. The ladies in floral dresses of ages past were concerned with content. A good book for children is somehow instructive or nutritive, often morally so. You might laugh that off as hopelessly old-fashioned, but there has been a broad resurgence of the idea that children’s books should be “socially conscious,” which isn’t that far from morally instructive. Vast numbers of children’s books these days are somehow “timely” and “relevant,” taking on issues like discrimination or animal cruelty. Some particularly wonderful ones that might be described as “socially conscious” are Gene Luen Yang’s “Boxers and Saints,” a duo of graphic novels about religious and colonial persecution during the Boxer Rebellion; Katherine Applegate’s masterpiece “The One and Only Ivan,” which deals with the cruel treatment of a gorilla in a roadside zoo; and Cece Bell’s brilliant and funny “El Deafo,” a graphic memoir about the author growing up with a hearing impairment. But _must _a book be “socially conscious” to be good?
A different content criterion is psychological value. This is what the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim advocated. As he explained in “The Uses of Enchantment,” he believed that a good book would “promote [the child’s] ability to find meaning in life. . . . It must stimulate his imagination; help him to develop his intellect and to clarify his emotions; be attuned to his anxieties and aspirations; give full recognition to his difficulties, while at the same time suggesting solutions to the problems which perturb him.” As a children’s-book author, and even as a purchaser of children’s books, I am daunted by those requirements. Bettelheim claims that few children’s books achieve these lofty goals—with the exception of fairy tales. When I read this passage, Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” always comes to mind. That one, it seems to me, satisfies Bettelheim’s stipulations. O.K., so we’ve given our children Grimm and Sendak. Now what are we supposed to do?
The results-oriented approach gives us a much broader set of criteria for determining quality. “Results” can range from book sales (“Goosebumps,” in that case, would definitely be good) to making a child laugh (any book written by Jon Scieszka would loudly ring that bell). C. S. Lewis took the results-oriented approach in his landmark essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Anyone who believes that children’s books should be read only by children, or who slanders the art of writing for children, should read this essay and then graciously admit defeat. After castigating authors who pander to children, Lewis writes, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”
What a beautiful idea. And how perfectly stated. Lewis is not saying that adults determine which books are good for children, but rather that the truly good books for children are those that fall in the center of a Venn diagram, where one circle is books that children like, and the other is books that adults like. But as much as I enjoy this idea, and as much as I like the waltzing metaphor, why should this be true? If we are asking what makes a good book for children, why should we care what adults think of it at all?
I asked Laura Amy Schlitz. “I think,” she said, “you’re really dealing with two questions here: What makes a children’s book good, and what makes a children’s book lit-ra-cha.” She went on, “Some children’s books are like children’s shoes: they fit children perfectly, but they don’t fit adults, and in time children outgrow them. ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ on the other hand, is literature. It has breadth and depth, and it’s beautifully illustrated and cadenced. I’ve read it hundreds of times to children, and every now and then I take it out and read it to myself. I never grow tired of it.” Sendak? Again? Damn you, Sendak!
What good, though, is calling a children’s book “literature”? Doesn’t that just permit us to alloy children’s opinions with adult ones? We give children’s shoes to children because they fit_ _children’s feet. And why would we denigrate a waltz that can only be danced to? Children, in particular, are made to dance.
One of the best things about being a writer of fiction, as opposed to, say, a philosopher or a theorist, is that when I am faced with a tough question, I don’t have to choose a single answer. I follow the prophet Walt Whitman: I contain multitudes, and I contradict myself whenever I choose to. In the case of determining quality in children’s books, I have two answers.
The first guides my writing process, and is therefore content-oriented. I aspire to write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to devour every page, and are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring. Authors who aim to write serious and important books for children sometimes forget that if a child isn’t motivated to finish a book, then all that fancy stuff halfway through becomes nothing more than self-serving. Authors who aspire only to write mere entertainment, on the other hand, are missing an opportunity: If you’ve got a kid’s attention, why not put it to good use? More importantly, children want to be challenged, made to think and reconsider; they want to learn and grow and become wiser. 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.
But I also have a results-oriented answer, because, once my books are written, I want to know how I’ve done. If a child opens a book, reads every page of it, closes it, clutches it to his chest, and says, “I love this book,” then it is a good book. Do kids clutch “Goosebumps” to their chests? Some do. Many others clutch “Where the Wild Things Are,” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” or “El Deafo,” because those books help them find meaning in life, be it moral, psychological, or ineffable.
It’s not important, in the end, whether a child is waltzing to Tchaikovsky or to Strauss. The most important thing is that she is waltzing.
- Adam Gidwitz has a new book for children, the “The Inquisitor’s Tale.”Bottom of Form