Good children’s books are deceptively simple. That is to say, they are not really simple at all. Even if they appear to have simple words, simple pictures and a simple message, getting the combination of those things ‘right’ is as complex as any science. Children’s brains, imaginations and developmental stages are far from ‘simple’. In order for children to embrace reading, kids’ books need to meet their exacting standards; and young readers can be very harsh critics!
So, what makes a ‘good’ children’s book? It depends on your definition, of course, and also on your reason for publishing the book. At Library For All, our mission is to bring the joy of reading to all kids, particularly in places where history, poverty or remoteness limits access to conventional reading materials. We work with educators, governments and NGOs on targeted literacy projects, as well as making our books widely, freely available to ALL.
To achieve this mission, the books in our collection need to be educational and geared towards development of early literacy skills – but not at the expense of being fun, informative and engaging. A book has a matter of seconds to capture a new reader’s attention – but if captured, the payoffs are considerable.
Why reading matters
Recent UNESCO research confirms that literacy is about much more than simply reading and writing. It is defined as ‘a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.’ Learning to read is about decoding letters and understanding their connotations, but that’s only the mechanics. Reading also opens up diverse opportunities for identity formation, cross-cultural understanding, and realisation of hopes and dreams.
On a developmental level, learning to read often goes hand in hand with improved listening and speaking skills. Reading helps increase a child’s vocabulary and reinforces the core structures of language, like spelling, sentences and grammar.
Reading also triggers an understanding of one’s place in the world: children learn to unpack life lessons, construct an opinion on social issues, and benchmark themselves against the lives depicted in a story.
Learning to read is also about embracing sophisticated metacognitive tools around imagination and interpretation. Some particularly ‘good’ kids’ books in fact have no actual words, instead inviting children to look for story clues in the illustrations, posit theories about cause and effect, or read emotional triggers on the faces of characters.
In the earliest stages, children learn words via repetition (just as they do with oral language) and association with imagery, moreso than rote learning the alphabet or spelling lists, for example. Consider the role repetition plays in some of the world’s most popular storybooks, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.
Just as oral language development is complemented by nonverbal signals (such as body language) early literacy invites readers to interpret everything about a book – not just the words. The cover design, the placement of titles and author names, and the style of illustration all contribute to a child’s concept of a ‘book’; that is, what a book actually is and does. The more books a child is exposed to, the more quickly they will learn to decode these extratextual signs and rapidly decide whether a given book is likely to be ‘good’ in their eyes.
Once again, there is nothing ‘simple’ about this process.
What do we mean by a ‘good’ book for early readers?
So, a good book for early readers can take many forms. For the purposes of literacy education, Library For All endeavours to follow 3 core principles.
When a child learns to speak, we encourage them by repeating words: ‘Mum, Mum, Mum’. Learning to read follows the same pattern: children need to read the same word many times, in similar sentence structures, to commit it to memory.
Repetition can also be playful. It invites rhyming, singalongs, and reading out loud. It encourages readers to progress to new action in the story whilst simultaneously revising what they’ve already learned. They also grow in confidence, realizing they can ‘read’ at least one part of a sentence whilst working on new vocabulary.
A good book for young readers needs to propel the reader from beginning to end. From an attention-grabbing opening, to a central point of conflict, and onwards to a satisfactory conclusion, the reader needs a reason to keep reading. Children are easily bored by books that try too hard to be ‘educational’ and skimp on action! Children’s books need to operate as a micro-version of the books we love as adults – with cliffhangers, relatable characters and resolution.
Even non-fiction titles, which are more explicitly educational, should motivate the reader to keep turning pages. The reader should find themselves asking questions: when? why? what happened next? as they read.
Illustrations that tell their own story
Illustrations, whether drawings, paintings or photographs, do not necessarily need to be literal representations of the wording. Given the short number of words in a book for early readers, illustrations are the opportunity to tell the ‘unspoken story’, answering some of those ‘when and why’ questions for the reader. What was the character wearing? What did their house look like? Was it a sunny day? What does it look like under the sea? Illustrations answer all these questions and more, extending well beyond the limited words on the page.
Illustrations also gradually give children an understanding of genre. Individual readers grow to embrace whimsical drawings, or funny cartoons, or informative photographs – and these, too, will become part of their understanding of ‘reading’.
Illustrations are also a key component in grabbing a reader’s attention. Children do not abide by the notion that you can’t judge a book by its cover! Good books for young readers are enticing from the first moment a child picks them off the shelf.
Library For All Australia specialises in creating educational, culturally diverse and generally ‘good’ books for young readers. Help us to help the world read!
Dr Lara Cain Gray is the Senior Research Librarian at Library For All. Click here to meet the rest of our expert team.