This is the third in a series of posts on how to choose children’s books. The series starts here with “How to Choose Children’s Books” if you want to read from the beginning. Last time, in “Selection Criteria for Children’s Books: Subjective Appeal”, I argued for the crucial importance of choosing children’s books with subjective appeal, i.e., books that a child will like, and not books that are merely good for a child in some way.
Themes in Children’s Books
In this post I will begin discussing the considerations that make up the subjective appeal of children’s books. Specifically, I will discuss the role of a book’s themes in rendering it appealing to a child, and I will try to give some specific guidance on what to look for in the themes of children’s books. In particular, I will try to give some guidance on choosing age appropriate children’s books.
What do I mean by the “themes” of a children’s book? By “themes” I mean the specific content of the book, or what the children’s book is about. For example, in a science book about snakes, the theme might simply be snakes. Or, in a book like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the themes might include coping with loss, or finding one’s purpose in the world (click here for our review, “Juvenile Fiction: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick”). In a children’s book like Martin’s Big Words, the themes might include justice, equality, and love (click here for our review “Children’s Books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Martin’s Big Words“).
The key to choosing a book with themes that will make the book appealing to a child is to choose themes that directly relate to the experience of the child. Some aspects of a child’s experience will be shared with most every other child in her age or developmental category.
Age Appropriate Children’s Books: Themes
For example, most every child in the infant-to-two-years category is acquiring basic language and concepts, is learning to control her body in various basic ways, and is coming to recognize some of the objects in the world. Given that most every infant-to-2-year-old shares experiences of this kind, kids’ books with themes that directly connect with these experiences will be thematically age appropriate.
Thus, for the infant-to-two-years category, age appropriate themes might include colors and numbers (e.g., One Red Sun: A Counting Book), the alphabet (e.g., Dr. Seuss’s ABC), making noise (e.g., Clap Hands; see our review “Board Books: Clap Hands, by Helen Oxenbury”), dogs (e.g., Follow Carl!), potty training (e.g., Once Upon a Potty), and bedtime (e.g., Grandfather Twilight).
Children in the three-to-five-years category are learning to do more things for themselves, are continuing to gain more understanding of the how the world works, are working on mastery of their impulses and emotions, are beginning to navigate relationships with parents, siblings, and friends, and are beginning to acquire basic values. Thus, age appropriate themes might include doing things “by myself” (e.g., Hey, Little Baby!), going to the zoo (e.g., When We Went to the Zoo), getting angry (e.g., When Sophie Gets Angry–Really, Really Angry…), or friendship (e.g., Frog and Toad Are Friends).
Age appropriate themes for children in the six-to-eight-years category might include relationships at school (e.g., Chrysanthemum), pets (e.g., Comet’s Nine Lives), moral character (e.g., Once a Mouse…), and family relationships (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble). Age appropriate themes for children in the nine-to-twelve-years category might include friendships (e.g., When You Reach Me; see our review “Juvenile Fiction: Newbery Medal Winner, When You Reach Me“), conflicts between good and evil (e.g., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1); see our article series, “Harry Potter: Christian Allegory or Occultist Children’s Books?” which starts here), and finding one’s place in the world (e.g., The Invention of Hugo Cabret; click here for our review, “Juvenile Fiction: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick”). These lists of age-appropriate themes are just a start and should not be taken as exhaustive.
Children’s Book Themes by Interest
Finally, while age appropriate themes will likely connect with any child in a given age or developmental category, there will also be certain themes that will appeal to the particular child you have in mind simply because of her specific interests.
For example, my eight-year-old daughter Isabella has always been fascinated by all things scientific, and especially the science of living things. When she was five or so her aunt gave her a kids’ book on plant function and anatomy, and she devoured it. She still tells me about “stomata” and “pistils” years later! In my initial estimation, this sort of book would have been dead boring for a five-year-old (and it would be boring for many five-year-olds). But, for my little scientist, it was fascinating because she had a special interest in the theme of the book.
The bottom-line is this: when choosing a kids’ book, consider the themes of the book and whether they connect with the current life experiences of the child, given his age and special interests. Themes of this sort will contribute to making the book appealing to the child you are choosing for. In fact, sometimes an interesting theme alone is enough to make a book appealing to a child.
In the next post in this series, “Illustrations in Children’s Books” I will continue to discuss the particular factors that contribute to children’s books’ subjective appeal. Specifically, I will take up the important topic of illustration quality.
Are there particular themes that the children in your life are drawn to? Any age appropriate themes you want to add to the list? Share them in a comment below!