As a publisher, I have a pretty strong opinion about what makes a good children’s book. Sometimes one of my children will pick up a book that doesn’t meet my exacting standards. Inevitably that will become their new favorite book.
As much as I am pained by a book that is badly written or sloppily put together, I have to remind myself that my child likes it. I approach these situations in the same way as, say, when my child looks at me hopefully after matching plaid pajama pants and the top of a pirate costume and telling me that this is the best outfit ever to wear to the school. Children have opinions. Sometimes their taste is questionable. I’m aware that giving children choices and letting them make the call is empowering. So if they aren’t offending anything other than my fashion sensibility I go with it. Which explains why I’ve been spotted at the supermarket with a child in a full Batman costume. In July.
Sometimes I read books I hate. I try to not let my contemptuous attitude show. I do not, as my husband has done, hide the book under the bed. I try really hard to see what it is that appeals to my child. Maybe it’s as simple as… honestly, with some of them I have no idea. There is one book one of my children loves. Loves as in we read it every night. It’s terribly written, fragmented, and the illustrations are horrendous. Its saving grace is that it’s short. It is about a tow truck and we are in an all-trucks-all-the-time phase, but I would argue we have many other far better truck books to choose from.
My other child has a horrible current infatuation with a handbook. About Hot Wheels. According to the pagination it’s only 96 pages, but it feels like 396 so I guess that’s…value? But I dutifully go through the history of each car. As I worry that I’m actually contributing to his literacy and well-being by pointing out things like a Camaro (with extra sensitivity; we live in New Jersey) I keep coming back to my own publisher mantra that kids want to read what they love.
True, my publishing head also tells me it’s important to give kids good quality, well-written, well-produced books. And I do, plenty of them. But as the saying in our preschool goes, “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” As much as some of these books make me absolutely cringe I try my best to see the good in them. After all, someone published them; someone thought they had worth. I am the Anne Frank of readers.
The books I hate the most are the ones that are long. Because in our house there’s never just one story, even if it’s 300 pages. I am incapable, first of all, of having that fight and winning it. If my child asks for another lollipop it’s easy to say no. Another book? Of course I’m going to say yes. So when the 300 page tome gets dragged out I shudder. And those Five Minute story collections. Ohhhh I hate those. Someone thought that putting together a volume of short stories that could presumably be read in five minutes each was a great idea for bedtime. This person didn’t have children. Because first of all, you cannot actually read those stories in five minutes AND take a breath. And please name me one child who has had just one read to them without saying “Just one more?” If you have that child, for the love of all things good please read that child another story because that child is indeed one in a million.
When people know I’m a publisher they’re curious about what my kids are reading. Which is why I agonize when it’s time to “bring in your favorite book!” for Show-and-Tell. Am I really going to let my child bring in the very cruddy book that’s his favorite at the moment? Or do I sub in an award-winning classic in its place, even though it’s been relegated to the bottom of the bookshelf for now?
At a birthday party a group of parents asked what I was reading to my kids. I named a few good favorites. Then I sheepishly admitted that the one that gets read every night is actually a stat book about the NHL. I felt like Mario Batali would if he got caught feeding his kids Pizza Hut.
I rolled my eyes and tried to laugh it off, but then I reminded myself that reading is reading. If that’s what had my child’s interest–and it is a book he really does love–then what’s my issue with it?
When I read books I hate I have to leave my publisher self out of the equation. I try to stop editing. I overlook bad transitions. I gloss over an illustration that doesn’t work with the text, bad text breaks, a poorly formed plot and poor character development.
When my children hand me books that might have landed in my rejection pile at work what do I do? I suck it up and read them. Because it’s still reading.
Here are the books I named at the birthday party that we are really reading and that ARE really good.