Criteria for Book Selection: Developmental Value in Children’s Literature

This article is the seventh in a series on selection criteria for children’s books.  If you would like to read from the beginning, click on “How to Choose Children’s Books.”  In this article, I will explain the concept of “developmental value,” and its importance as a selection criterion for children’s books.  I will also give a brief roadmap for the next several articles in this series, which will focus on the particular considerations that give children’s books developmental value.

Criteria for Book Selection: Children’s Literature

As I see it, there are two main criteria that should govern the selection of kids’ books.  First, adults should choose children’s books that have what I call “subjective appeal”. In other words, adults should choose books with qualities that make them attractive to children. The subjective appeal of a children’s book might consist in any number of considerations, such as an interesting theme, attractive illustrations, a good story, or humor. To this point in my series on how to choose children’s books, I have focused on this criterion of subjective appeal, and I have written articles on each of the considerations just noted.

However, there is a second general criterion that should guide adults in choosing kids’ books, which I call “developmental value.”  A children’s book has developmental value if it has qualities that allow the book to contribute to a child’s cognitive, emotional, moral, or even spiritual development. In the next few articles in this series, I will unpack what these developmentally valuable qualities are.  However, before doing that, in this article I want to emphasize the importance of considering developmental value when choosing children’s books.

The Importance of Developmental Value

Presumably, an adult that cares about a child—e.g., a parent, a grandparent, an aunt, a teacher, etc.—has certain goals (or at least hopes) for the child.  At a minimum the adult likely wants the child to learn to read. However, she might also want the child to gain knowledge of the world, to understand herself better, to develop reasoning skills, to learn to manage her emotions, to appreciate beauty, to learn to make good choices, and generally to become a good human being.

In my view, children’s books have the potential to contribute to each of these kinds of development. Most obviously, a child will not learn to read well unless she gets some practice, and reading children’s books with an adult is the best way for a child to start practicing.  Indeed, empirical studies have shown that parental reading to preschoolers is strongly correlated with literacy and language acquisition in children.

Similarly, children’s books open the opportunity for kids to gain valuable knowledge.  For example, even a simple board book like The Very Hungry CaterpillarThe Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (for my review of the board book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, click here) introduces kids to numbers, days of the week, and the life-cycle of a caterpillar.  Moreover, complex mysteries can encourage a child’s deductive reasoning abilities, while good characters can function as moral and emotional exemplars.

While I could multiply examples here (and I will in subsequent articles), suffice it to say that children’s books represent an incredible opportunity for growth and development in a child.  For this reason, it is important for adults to try to choose children’s books with qualities that will facilitate the kinds of development I have mentioned.

On the flip side, children’s books can also be detrimental to certain goals that an adult might have for the child in her life.  For example, just like television, books that glamorize certain forms of misbehavior might well encourage the wrong sort of behavior and character in children.  Thus, if a children’s book lacks developmental value, not only might the book represent a lost opportunity for growth, but it might also represent a backward step in the child’s development.  In other words, such a book might well leave a child worse off (albeit incrementally so).  Thus, this potential harm is another reason for adults to pay attention to developmental value when choosing children’s books.

Now, a book need not exhibit all of the characteristics that might make it developmentally valuable for it to be worth reading; however, I usually look for at least one of them in any children’s book I choose.  In some cases I might still choose a book that has lots of subjective appeal (i.e., one the child will like a lot) but that is relatively neutral with respect to developmental value, as long as the book does not detract from a child’s development.

Roadmap for the Series

In light of how important developmental value is as a selection criterion for children’s books, I aim to focus the next several articles in this series on the qualities to look for in a developmentally valuable book.  For example, I plan to write about characteristics such as exemplary characters, mischief, character-building stories, edifying themes, story complexity, and edifying language.  I will explain further what these qualities are and how they contribute to a book’s developmental value, and I will try to give guidance on how to identify them when choosing children’s books.  In the next article in this series on how to choose children’s books for your students, I will focus on edifying language in children’s books.

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