Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What to Read - Quality Children's Picture Books: Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Amos McGee, Don Freeman, Mo Willems

Let quality storybooks weave their magic spell
Annie Ho familypost@scmp.com 

When my eldest daughter was born, I started to allocate some of my book purchases to works for children. At first, I focused on collecting book sets of favourite titles from my childhood: C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and the complete works of Jane Austen. But what books could I share with my daughter in her younger years? 

Browsing through Hong Kong's bookshops, I found the shelves filled with maths and language exercise books. There were stories about Disney princesses, Thomas and friends, and other characters from film and television. Other than random copies of well-known classics such as Margaret Wise Brown's Good Night Moon and Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, there seemed to be a shortage of quality children's storybooks.

But what exactly is a good quality children's storybook? Perhaps it's easier to start by excluding the books that do not fall into this category.

First there are the 'trademarked character' books. They are marketed and marketable because of their recognisable lead characters. The adult equivalent would be celebrity memoirs and celebrity-endorsed cookbooks. Such books are rarely known for their beautiful prose or even inimitable recipes.

Then there are the 'morality' books, with characters created solely for the purpose of being used in a series of stories that teach children a lesson. There are the Mr Men and Little Miss series. Locally, the choices are endless: Hoppi and Friends' main character is best described as an anthropomorphic cushion; Momo the rabbit experiences feelings of happiness, jealousy and anger; and Sasa is a little girl who gets into trouble then learns her lesson. My own favourite title is Sasa Gets Conjunctivitis. Morality books are like adult crime fiction or romance novels. They have formulaic plots and stereotyped characters. 

Like the great literary classics, a good children's book must tell a good story. Sometimes it will teach a lesson, but the message is so much more subtle and the delivery so much more entertaining than the trademarked character or morality book. A good storybook must be well written. It has been said that writing children's books is like writing poetry. That's because poets and children's book authors both need to be precise in their word choices and concise in their delivery. 

In addition to telling a good story, a good children's storybook must be beautifully illustrated. The total package can stir the reader's imagination time and time again.

Books for children up to two years old include My Friends by Taro Gomi, Pajama Time! by Sandra Boynton and I Kissed the Baby! by Mary Murphy. 

For the two to four years' group there are A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library by Don Freeman and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems. 

My daughter also has a long list of favourite books that fall squarely in the trademarked characters and morality book categories. I always let her take the lead on what I should read aloud to her. We have a small mountain of books about using the potty and welcoming a new sibling.

She also loves to look through Peppa Pig books and other storybooks based on episodes of children's television shows that she's seen, and I'd much prefer that she revisit such stories through the book versions than watch the animated versions over and over. 

Books I recently bought for myself - Tina Fey's Bossypants and Ann Patchett's State of Wonder - show that a celebrity memoir is capable of satisfying the soul, too.

Not all books are created equal, and children should be introduced to quality children's storybooks. But a passion for books can only come through reading works that a child is interested in. 

Children should be encouraged to choose whatever they like from a wide selection of books. The important thing is that if you are spending time reading with your child, you should both be enjoying the experience.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud and providing easy access to children's books for deserving communities. (www.bringmeabook.org.hk)

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