Buying books for Children

Paperback books covered with transparent film may last just as long as a poorly-produced hardback version. books for toddlers should be neither too heavy nor too flimsy and a small size is easier to manage than a large one.

Baby books, which are probably a child’s first experience of accepting one-dimensional representation of a real object, need particular care. There are one or two excellent ones which show photographs of simple objects and these are very useful for one-year-olds. For the next stage uncluttered pictures are necessary.

There can be many variations in detail, language construction and vocabulary but in books which tell a story, instead of simply drawing attention to individual pictures, the same simple themes keep recurring. This happens within stories for different age ranges, by different authors, from different communities and different countries.

Nursery reality – stories of everyday happenings to ordinary children – allows children to identify closely with the people and situations in the story and gives rise to a good deal of conversation. Within traditional nursery stories one of the most widespread themes shows the efforts of the smallest, weakest, least considered individual achieving some object that stronger, larger people failed in doing – the (published by Bodley Head) is typical. The downfall of the strong ‘baddie’ due to the superior intellect of the weaker’ goodie’ hinges on the same idea – as in (Portway) or (Puffin books). In similar vein there are stories such as the lion and the mouse where the small and insignificant is able to help the all-powerful simply because he is small. One can see why these stories appeal to children. There must be many times when they feel weak, small and oppressed. The stories where the small and weak are saved by protectors who are yet larger, more powerful and more fierce than the wicked bully – (Ladybird) or (Bodley Head) – must also reassure children. Slightly older children appreciate the come-uppance of the boaster as in the (Longman Young books) and the (Faber), but those children just coming up to the boastful stage themselves at about five to six years also enjoy stories where the boaster comes out on top such as Brer Rabbit.

A quite different type of story is the one about a lost individual finding his way back to the right group – as in or the individual trying to find an identity for himself. These stories give a lot of incidental information about group characteristics. The story, and several of the others already mentioned, appear in abridged versions in Eileen Colwell’s collection, published by Puffin books. Different again, but still on the same theme of how desirable it is to be a member of a group, is the story of the individual who is unhappy because he is different from the others or desperately tries to change himself to be like some group he admires but does not belong to – (Blackie) is the obvious example. Undoubtedly children enjoy this theme but perhaps adults should consider whether we use it too frequently. In these stories everything usually ends happily but there is still the implication that to be difTerent is to be rejected and ostracized. This is only too true in most cases but to perpetuate such attitudes, which equally imply that it is acceptable for the normal members of the group to do the rejecting, can hardly be desirable. Further’ lonely’ situations, arising either by mistake or the march of progress, which are mitigated by happy accident must also strike a chord with young children. An example is Virginia Lee Burton’s story of (Faber).

Stories making some comment on or acknowledging the existence of’ naughty’ behaviour are very popular with the age group which is beginning to develop a conscience and to have some idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Dorothy Edwards’ (Puffin), Michael Bond’s (Collins), even A. A. Milne’s (Methuen) can be disobedient, stupid and downright inconvenient but are much loved and well tolerated just the same. Victorian children did not get off so lightly. And of course it was not only in books that children in these times fared badly -life itself was hard. The type of stories our children are given would have seemed like fairy stories to them.

By the same token many of our traditional fairy stories, in which everything is black or white, come from those centuries when life was like that. One was either very rich or very poor, a master or a servant, beautiful or ugly, very good or very bad, and really nasty things did happen. There was no need to gloss over the scene where the woodcutter chopped off the wolf’s head and where the baddie was thrown to the bears, in a century where wolves could and did attack travellers. The magic and mysticism in the stories was part of everyday folklore. These stories may be enjoyed today by late infant and early junior-school age children but are not really suitable for pre-school children who do not yet have a firm grasp on what is fact and what is fantasy.

All of these themes can be varied in detail and treatment. Some are humorous, many include easily remembered refrains, some invest animals with the characteristics of humans, some are told in rhyme. Choice of stories therefore is wide in style rather than theme. It should be possible to provide variety within each age group’s reading matter by choosing varied styles. The length of story, the amount of detail and the difficulty of the language construction is important. First story books need to be short and simple. Later, when adults are still having to read to children they can be more complicated. Story books for children just starting to read need to be just as interesting but obviously the type and amount of text has to be adjusted. Even children who can read still need and enjoy books to be read by adults.

Apart from story books there is a place for collections of rhymes and also for books giving clear factual information. Good reference books for young children are few and far between. Quite often well illustrated books meant for adults are better. It is sometimes possible to make information books for children if one can find a good source of picture material. Non-fiction books which give information, such as %m ¥ 1^

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