The Basics of Choosing Better Books
When choosing books, I look for three main things: Is the book beautiful, meaningful, and intelligent?
The things we share with our children reflect their own value back to them, and bring out their own innate beauty, meaning, and intelligence. Is it real artwork? Is the language carefully crafted? Is it wise and gentle, or rough and silly?
I also consider the underlying assumptions that are not explicitly stated, but that permeate the book and would need to be addressed with my child. For example, I was looking at a children’s book the other day that started off with a husband and wife arguing about whose work was harder. The underlying assumption of the book was that hard work was not fun. I would prefer to share other values with my child, (that anything worth accomplishing is likely to be hard, and that the day-to-day work we do is an opportunity to have gratitude for what we have, to do meaningful things in the world, or to show our love for our home) so this is not a book I would choose.
Many children’s books are about winning, or being the best. The value I would prefer to share is about cooperation – that being better than someone else is not the point, and that what is important is that we leverage everybody’s strengths to solve problems and come to solutions that honour everyone involved.
Thirdly, I consider the possible behaviours or language in the book that the child might imitate. Just this past week, my little one decided to colour all over our walls and herself. Not coincidentally, she had been reading a book at Grandma’s that was all about markers and colouring on people and walls. Children try out new behaviours and language all the time, and if you don’t want them to do it, don’t condone it by having that example on their bookshelf. In general, the idea that children will figure out that certain behaviour (ie the “bad guy’s” behaviour or the behaviour the character in the book learned NOT to do) is unacceptable, is not correct. Children try out a wide variety of behaviours they are exposed to, and the bottom line is, out of sight, out of mind.
Lastly, when choosing books for children, I consider the child’s age and developmental stage.
For babies, beautiful, simple pictures of real things are key.
For toddlers and preschoolers, books about reality, real people, and nature are my choices, since children under 6 are still figuring out the difference between reality and fantasy.
For 6 through 12 year-olds, humanity’s myths, stories of ancient people, and real explanations about science, children all over the world, the universe, our Earth, rocks, seeds, how things work, and children who are doing things to make the world a better place are my choices. Fantasy stories are also interesting and meaningful to children this age.
For teenagers, books that put teen struggles into a big picture perspective are key, and books about real people in history who have done things to change the world.