This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to choose children’s books. “How to Choose Children’s Books” is the first in the series if you would like to read from the beginning. Last time, in “Illustrations in Children’s Books,” I discussed how to choose books with illustrations that are attractive to kids of various ages. In this post I will discuss the place of a story in rendering children’s books appealing to kids, and what to look for in a good kids’ story.
Now, it will soon be clear that I am a big fan of good stories in children’s books. However, it is important to emphasize that not every subjectively appealing children’s book must have a story. For example, a good ABC book might simply march through the ABCs without a story at all. However, if a children’s book does not have a story, parents need to make sure the book is appealing to the child in other ways (e.g., via themes, illustrations, humor, etc.).
Anatomy of a Good Story
There are, of course, a few components that are common to all good stories, kids’ stories included. To boil it down to the painfully obvious, a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end (revelatory, right?). The beginning introduces and develops the main characters of the story. The middle generally introduces some sort of problem, and the end brings some sort of resolution to the problem. As I will discuss below, this pattern can be slightly different in books for very young children, mainly because most toddlers cannot yet conceptualize problems and solutions. Nevertheless, there is still something like this pattern in play, even for good toddler stories (as I will explain).
A good story can be part of the subjective appeal of most any good kids’ book. Now, of course I am primarily referring to fictional children’s books here. However, I would argue that the point holds even for many works of children’s non-fiction. For example, I think the success of books like the Magic Tree House series, and The Magic School Bus series—books with clear non-fiction educational ambitions—is largely due to the fact that they employ stories in communicating historical and scientific knowledge. My kids have loved learning about (e.g.) ancient Egypt and the hydrologic cycle through the adventurous stories in these books. The picture book Martin’s Big Words (see our review, “Children’s Books for Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Martin’s Big Words“) is a further example of a non-fiction book that fruitfully employs story.
How Good Stories Work
Why do good stories make kids’ books appealing? In short, because they engage a child’s affect, or feelings, in appropriate ways. Children identify with and like the characters in the story, they feel anxiety at the problem—as if they themselves were part of the story—and they equally feel relief and satisfaction when the problem is resolved. This affective involvement in the story draws the child into the book, holding her interest. After all, it is hard to be bored when your emotions are engaged!
Now, I said a good story engages a child’s affect in appropriate ways. Obviously, there will be differences of parental opinion over what constitutes appropriate affective engagement. I’m thinking particularly of the use of fear in stories. Historically, children’s stories have often been quite terrifying (e.g., Grimm’s Fairy Tales). In contemporary times, children’s stories have moved away from such explicit use of fear. Since my children tend to be very sensitive (e.g., unable to sit through Toy Story; yes, the horrors of Pixar movies…), we don’t generally read very scary stuff. However, the use of fear in children’s stories is an issue parents should weigh carefully for themselves.
Incidentally, the affective engagement provoked by a good story is also a great help in learning. When a child’s emotions are active in the right way, her mind is much more focused and attentive to the activating content. For this reason, children’s books with good stories can also be extremely valuable to the development of a child on cognitive, moral, and spiritual levels. Borrowing a term from Charlotte Mason, I like to call books that productively engage a child’s affect in this way, “living books”. I will explore the developmental value of good stories further in future posts.
Age Appropriate Selection Criteria for Children’s Stories
For children in the infant-to-two-years age category, stories are less important to the subjective appeal of a kids’ book. Indeed, most kids in this category would not really engage with the components of a good story (especially the problem and its solution) since they are still acquiring basic language and concepts. So, it is not important for toddler stories to have a middle section with a problem and an end with a clear solution. Nevertheless, children at this age still appreciate the characters in a book, they still want to see those characters engaged in some sort of activity, and they still appreciate a sense of completion at the end.
For example, in Grandfather Twilight (see our review, “Baby Board Book: Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger”) we begin by meeting Grandfather Twilight and his pets. The middle of the story has these characters going down to the water and magically putting the moon in the sky, and the story ends with everyone going to bed. This sort of cycle still brings a sense of completion and satisfaction for the toddler, even though it does not have an actual problem and resolution.
For children in the three-to-five- and six-to-eight-years categories, a good story will have the more paradigmatic structure. For example, in Are You My Mother? (see our review, “Picture Book: Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman”), the story begins by introducing the mother and baby birds, and it progresses by raising the problem of where the baby bird’s mother is. The problem is heightened by the baby bird’s encounter with a seemingly dangerous “Snort”. The problem is resolved when the Snort puts the baby back in his nest, and he is reunited with his mother. The story also makes great use of repetition, which helps children anticipate what is coming, and is thereby an effective story-telling tool for kids in these age categories. At this age, stories cannot be too complex or employ too much logic or children will simply be lost.
For children of nine years and older, adults should look for stories with the same paradigmatic structure, but with increasing complexity in all parts. For this age group, a story’s beginning should employ increasingly complex character development. For example, the beginning of Caldecott Medal-winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret (see our review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick) is almost entirely driven by the masterful development of the book’s central character, Hugo Cabret. Hugo is somewhat mysterious, and the reader wants to find out who he is.
For older kids the problem introduced in the middle can also be more complex. For example, in Newbery Medal-winner When You Reach Me (see our review of When You Reach Me, Newbery Medal Winner), there are several problems introduced: Who is sending the mysterious notes to Miranda? Why is Sal suddenly cold toward her? Why did Marcus hit Sal? Who is the crazy man on the corner? Such questions set problems for the reader in Rebecca Stead’s compelling children’s mystery.
Resolution at the end of the story can also be more complex for older children. For example, in the Harry Potter series many smaller problems are resolved on the way to the ultimate resolution in the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Indeed, smaller problems are resolved throughout each book in the series, each book itself ends with the resolution of a somewhat larger problem, and the series as a whole brings resolution to the ultimate problem it presents: the conflict between good and evil. This pattern typifies the genre of saga. For older kids, the problems and their resolution can involve much deductive logic and subtlety.
In the next post in this series on how to choose children’s books, I will continue to discuss the particular factors that contribute to a book’s subjective appeal—i.e., the considerations that render a book appealing to a child—taking up the role that humor plays in good kids’ books, and how adults can identify children’s books that are funny for kids.
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