There are many of children's books out there, but it's important to evaluate children's literature critically before introducing it. Suffice it to say that not all books are created equal.
How Professionals Evaluate Children's Literature
Professionals do not always agree on how to evaluate children's literature. After all, who's to say that there is one definitive set of standards regarding what makes or doesn't make a good book? Sometimes beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Add to this, the fact that there can be different criteria for different genres and it can be hard to evaluate a piece of children's literature objectively. So what is it exactly that makes a book truly stand out?
There is no doubt that a classic book is highly creative in either story or illustration-or perhaps both. The most creative books aren't always the ones that tell a new story either. Often, the most creative books find new ways to tell old and familiar stories. Some questions to consider when evaluating a book for creativity are:
- Has it been done before? (If it is the retelling of a familiar story-is it done in a new way?)
- Does it further ignite the imagination of the reader?
- Does it expand real possibilities or engage the reader? (There is a line between creative and just plain strange.)
- Is it thorough in its creativity-completing characters, setting, etc?
Another criterion that is regularly used to evaluate children's literature is how the book deals with difficult or unique subject matter. Generally in picture books, this aspect is evaluated within the context of creativity. However, chapter books, particularly those that deal with harder subject matter, get high marks from evaluators for bringing points home to a younger audience. Excellent (and award winning) examples of such books include:
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, is told through the eyes of a ten year old African American girl living in Mississippi in the 1930s. It has been called the best children's book of all time.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry deals with what it would mean to truly create a utopian society.
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, poignantly addresses the theory of a fountain of youth.
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech deals with death.
Even if a book is wonderfully creative, and deals with its subject matter in a new and thought provoking way, the story still has to be well written. So what is considered well written? While there is not one set of definitive characteristics that defines something as well written, there does seem to be some agreement among children's literature scholars:
- Sing song and simplistic prose does not necessarily make a great children's book. While there are some great books that use simple words, the trend is toward language that is more complex and that paints a picture.
- Vocabulary in children's literature is particularly important because professionals like to see challenging vocabulary in pieces of literature.
- The language used is deep and thought provoking as opposed to trite or simplistic. It paints a picture as opposed to simply telling a story.
The reality is that evaluating prose is very subjective. However, if you take the time to compare some titles that are considered classic along with something more modern-you begin to get a sense for what is generally considered "excellent prose."
Some books are simply known for their phenomenal illustrations. After all, in the world of picture books, the illustrations have to be as important, if not more so than the actual words. There tends to be two noticeable trends in evaluating children's literature. One is towards those who use very creative mediums-like Eric Carle or David Wiesner for example. The other trend is towards illustrative work that is simply beautiful such as Maurice Sendak or even Beatrix Potter.
The critics may love or hate a book but it's the reader's response that can help launch it into classic status. In fact so important is the reader's response to a book that this factor alone can occasionally override any critical comments. A great example of this happening is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, which was poorly received when it was first published.
What Makes a Classic?
While there are a variety of established criteria used to evaluate children's books for awards and critical reviews, the final evaluation is in the hands of the people who will read and enjoy the book most: the parent, the teacher or the child. When choosing books to read to your children or students:
- Choose books with good vocabulary that will challenge the listener's thinking skills.
- Choose unique books.
- Choose books with engaging plots.
Choosing good literature is the key to inspiring a love of reading that will last a lifetime.