Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mad's whacky blog of books. It's all books, all the time!

Moma left this comment on a recent post:

One thing I was wondering about was how to evaluate kid's books and was hoping you might write a post on that. For example, my daughter loves the Arthur and Franklin series. Would these be considered good reading? What should I be looking for in a book for a preschooler? It was easier to pick out books when they only had a few words on the page.

I always find it hard to blog about this kind of thing because we all have to stumble our way through libraries and bookstores as parents and we all develop tips and tricks in the process. I never like to presume that I have better ways of doing things than the next parent. Having said that, selecting children's books is what I do for a living and I do think I have developed professional savvy over the years. I regularly give library instruction sessions to education students who will need to select and evaluate books for children in their careers. About a week ago, I gave a workshop on picture book literacy for a large group of day care and preschool teachers. So, for those who might be interested, here is my 2 cents dollars worth.

I will make my answer a series of posts that will come out over the next couple of weeks or so with the odd interruption for Hallowe'en post-mortems and other daily life occurrences that demand bloggy treatment. The series will run as follows:

Part 1 (today's post): Tips for finding good books and making the most of your local library.
Part 2: How to know when a book is superb: pictures edition
Part 3: How to know when a book is superb: words edition
Part 4: Genre summary with a few title recommendations
Part 5: A list of 100 excellent author and/or illustrators for the pre-school set

Part 1: Tips for finding good books and making the most of your local library

1. Ask your children's librarian for recommendations: A good children's librarian is yours and your child's best friend. She/he will be able to recommend books that are pitched to your child's interests and abilities. She/he will know other books that are like titles your child already loves. She/he will know if a new dinosaur book has just come in or if the latest Stella and Sam book is about to be published. If Christmas is coming, ask him/her about what books to buy vs borrow for your child or other children. Ask her what tools and resources are available at the library to help you self-select materials. Shop around for a librarian or library staff person that you mesh with. Just because you had a bad experience with one person at the help desk doesn't mean that another person in the organization won't be more up your alley.

I know that this recommendation doesn't particularly help people who rely on small or rural libraries as much as it does to people in larger centres but, hey, that's why I have several recommendations on this list.

2. Use your library catalogue: Find out how to use your library catalogue well and then use it often. In my library, I can limit search results to just children's books (and sometimes depending on the search I can limit to just the picture books in the collection). Setting such limits makes it easy to perform targeted searches on subjects my daughter is currently interested in: elephants, dinosaurs, farms and the like. Library catalogues may also allow you to limit your searches by date of publication or language as well. For example, I get countless language students coming to me looking for French children's books to help them as they learn the language.

3. Read reviews: Does your local paper write reviews of children's books? If so, read them and then ask for recommended titles at your library. Does your library subscribe to a reviewing service like the Children's Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD)? If so, you can quickly and easily look up reviews of books that you might be considering for your child to find out if a) they are recommended and b) if they would be appropriate for your particular child. If your library does subscribe to the CLCD, you can generate subject specific book lists that are pitched to a particular age range or reading level.

4. Devour award winners: Read your way through the extensive lists of award winners and honour books that are now posted all over the internet. If you find a book you especially like, then find every other book that author wrote. Keep in mind that award books can span age ranges so make sure you've got an age-appropriate book in your hands before you start reading aloud at bed time. Here are some lists of award winners to get you started but there are plenty more out there:

US-based awards
The Caldecott Medal: Awarded to the best picture book by an American citizen or resident published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are listed here. A complete listing of past winners is here.

The Newbery Medal: The oldest, ongoing prize for children's literature in the world, the Newbery medal is awarded to the most distinguished work for children published in the US in any given year. The current winner and honour books are here. Past winners are listed here.

The Michael L. Printz Award: An annual award that recognizes literary excellence in young adult literature. The current winner and honour book are listed here. The full listing of past winners and honour books is here.

The Coretta Scott King Book Award: This annual award is given to African-American writers and illustrators of books for children. The current winner is listed here (and is sitting by my bedside) along with the 2008 honour books. A full listing of winners and honour books can be found here.

The Boston-Globe Horn Book Prize is presented annually in three categories for prestigious picture book, fiction and poetry, and nonfiction published in the United States. Here's the current winners and the full listing of award winners.

The New York Times Best Illustrated Books for Children is an annual listing. Here is a slideshow for the 2007 edition of the awards.

Canadian Awards
The Governor General's Literary Awards: Awarded annually, one for children's text and one for children's illustration with categories in both English and French. Here's the 2008 shortlist. Here is the list of past winners.

The Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Award: Awarded to the outstanding illustrator of a children's book published in Canada. The complete list of winners is here.

The Canadian Children's Book Centre maintains a listing of Canadian book awards. Rather than reprinting it all here, you can find the full list on their website.

British Awards
The Kate Greenaway Medal: Awarded annually for children's illustration. It's the UK's equivalent to the Caldecott Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

The Carnegie Medal: Awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It's the British equivalent of the Newbery Medal. Current short list is here. Past winners are here.

Smarties Prize (renamed Nestle Book Prize): A recently discontinued UK prize for various age categories of children's literature. The Smarites Prize was sometimes considered controversial because of its affiliation with Nestle and their practice of promoting infant formula use in developing countries. 2007 winners are on the main page. Past winners are listed here.

International Distinction
The IBBY Honor List: a bienneal listing of excellent books for children put out by the International Board on Books for Young People.

5. Seek out lists, blogs and children's book web sites: In this bloggy age, a lot of informed people are posting book lists, reviews and recommendations. I keep lists of all the books Miss M has read over on my sidebar there. Librarian-mother-blogger extraordinaire, Kittenpie, has a couple of review sites: one for younger kids and one for older ones. That second link also has links to some other children's review sites. Mo-Wo and P-Man also recommend books every now and then. Just One More Book features daily podcasts on children's books. The list goes on and on, but my hope is not to overwhelm you in this post.

6. Make sure you cover off as many genres as you can. There are so many kids today who never hear poetry or who don't receive grounding in oral folk-tale culture. That grieves me. In Dewey classification systems, the picture books and easy readers are catalogued separately from poetry, folklore, non-fiction, music, biography and the like. You have to go hunting to move beyond picture books. More on this in part 4 of the series.

7. Give your child free range in the library and work by trial and error. A child needs to know that he/she has some agency when it comes to selecting books. I have read some real howlers to Miss M but I respected the fact that she chose the books. This is where all those dreadful movie spin-off books come into play. There's also a number of didactic or messagey books out there that I flat-out disagree with, but I suck it up and read them anyway if my daughter has taken a fancy to them. I try to not pass judgment while I'm reading a book but I will often discuss my likes and dislikes after the fact. Take, for example, The Rainbow Fish. I personally don't like how preachy that book is. I don't like the message that in order to be liked you must give up all of what it is that makes you unique. I do, however, like fostering notions of sharing and consideration for others and so Miss M and I have talked about what I did and didn't like about the book. She's a fan but I think her love of the book has more to do with the brightly coloured illustrations than the book's message.

OK, so that's part 1. I really haven't answered your question at all, though, have I? The Franklin and Arthur series are perfectly fine books. They're not standouts in my opinion but they are also not dross. Miss M and I have read all that we can get our hands on. Clifford and Little Critter books too. I like the early Franklin books the best of this entire bunch because the illustrations in them are more naturalistic than the more cartoonish later versions of the series. The realistic pictures of the animals sets those early Franklin books apart, in my opinion. And look at that, I've used the expression "in my opinion" twice in this last paragraph. Literary preference is always one part quality and one part opinion.

I welcome all comments, additions, links, discussion issues, what have yous. Part two will come your way likely early next week.