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The Complexity of Children’s Stories and Social Development

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling cover art
What makes for good children’s books?  In this series on how to choose children’s books, I have suggested that choice-worthy children’s books have both subjective appeal, and developmental value.  In other words, good kids’ books are appealing to a child, and help her grow.

One characteristic that can affect the developmental value of a kids’ book is the complexity of the book’s story.  In this article I will explain what I mean by “story complexity,” and what I see as the connection between the complexity of children’s stories and social development (e.g., emotional and intellectual development).  I will draw on prominent examples of recent juvenile and young adult fiction to illustrate my points: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seriesHarry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling, and Rebecca Stead’s Newbery Medal winner When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, Newbery Medal Winner.  While what I have to say will apply mostly to older children, I will also try to give some rough guidance on choosing complex stories for younger children.

If you would like to read from the first article in this series, How to Choose Children’s Books,” click here.

Children’s Stories and Social Development: Complex Characters

Viewed one way, the basic elements of a story are characters and plots.  Both of these elements may contribute to the complexity of a story.  First, I will discuss how the characters in a story may contribute to its complexity.  A complex character is one whose mental, emotional, and behavioral activity is developed by the author to such a degree that she seems deeply true to life. Continue reading →

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Mem Fox: Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

Mem Fox books Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, cover artMem Fox books Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, cover art
Title: Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little ToesMem Fox books Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Author: Mem Fox, (illustrations: Helen Oxenbury)
Genre: Baby Board Books
Age Category: Infant to 5 years

Baby’s toes are one of nature’s wonderful features.  When I catch a glimpse of them I can’t help but marvel a bit.  The toe pads are almost perfectly circular.  And the skin is so fresh and pure-looking.  As parents know, they are also great for tickling and nibbling on…okay, okay, I’ll stop now.  Suffice it to say, for all you fellow baby-toe-lovers out there, this Mem Fox book is a gem that’s sure to make you and your baby smile.  It was first published in 2008, but has recently been released in a baby board book edition.

Mem Fox Book: Summary

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little ToesMem Fox books Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury opens with the following lines:

“There was one little baby who was born far away,
and another who was born on the very next day.
And both of these babies—as everyone knows—
had ten little fingers and ten little toes.” Continue reading →

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Pippo Gets Lost, by Helen Oxenbury

pippo gets lost by helen oxenbury cover art
Title: Pippo Gets Lostpippo gets lost by helen oxenbury
Author: Helen Oxenbury
Genre: Best Baby Board Books
Age Category: Infant to 2 years

In my view, Helen Oxenbury’s old-school baby board books set the gold standard for children’s books in the infant-to-2-years age category.  Here I review a board book from her delightful series about Tom and Pippo.  For my review of Oxenbury’s equally delightful baby board book Clap Hands, click here.

Best Baby Board Books: Summary

Tom is a toddler with a favorite toy monkey named Pippo.  On the first page of the board book—the page with the publication details, before the story begins—there is a picture of Pippo wedged between two books on a bookcase.  As the title suggests, Pippo is lost, and this first illustration shows us where he is hiding.

When Tom discovers that Pippo is lost, he begins looking for him.  The board book’s opening line, “Sometimes Pippo gets lost…,” suggests that Pippo has been lost before (does this bring to mind any toddlers you know?). Continue reading →

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Children’s Books that Support Language Development

Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury cover art
There is sometimes a difference between good children’s books, and books that children like.  But what is that difference?  I think it is summed up in the term “developmental value”: good children’s books are books that both appeal to kids, and help them to develop.

In the previous article in this series—“Criteria for Book Selection: Developmental Value in Children’s Literature”—I explained the notion of “developmental value” and its importance as a criterion for choosing children’s books.  In this article, I will begin to explain the specific qualities that might make a book developmentally valuable, focusing on children’s books that support language development.  I will explain the book characteristic I call “edifying language,” i.e.,  language that contributes in some way to a child’s development, and how edifying language contributes to child development.  I will also try to give some guidance on choosing children’s books that support language development.

This article is the eighth in a series on how to choose children’s books.  If you would like to read from the beginning, click on How to Choose Children’s Books.”

Children’s Books that Support Language Development

Children’s books can be an essential help to a child in learning her native language.  Depending on how much a child is read to—and I hope the kids in your life are read to a lot!—children’s books can be a central example of how the language works, i.e., how sentences are structured, what the basic rules of grammar and syntax are, and what particular words mean. Continue reading →

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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. Continue reading →

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Beezus and Ramona: Summary and Review

beezus and ramona by beverly cleary cover artTitle: Beezus and Ramonabeezus and ramona by beverly cleary
Author: Beverly Cleary
Genre: Juvenile Fiction / 3rd Grade Chapter Books
Age Category: 6 to 12 years

With the upcoming release of the movie “Ramona and Beezus” on July 23rd, I thought it would be fun to review Beverly Cleary’s classic  chapter book Beezus and Ramonabeezus and ramona by beverly cleary, the first in the series of books Cleary wrote starring the Quimby sisters, Beatrice (nicknamed Beezus) and Ramona. (Cleary won the Newbery Medal for Dear Mr. HenshawDear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, and Newbery Honors for Ramona Quimby, Age 8Ramona Quimby Age 8 by Beverly Cleary, and Ramona and Her FatherRamona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary.)  While the trailer for the movie (embedded at the bottom of this post) suggests that the movie tries to capture the entire Ramona series—and thus may not be a straight translation of this children’s book into film—the movie’s title does resemble the book title (with the names in reverse order), so I’m sure there are points of connection between movie and book.

Beezus and Ramona: Summary

Beezus and Ramona beezus and ramona by beverly clearyis a character driven 3rd grade chapter book that focuses on Beezus Quimby, the 9-year-old sister of 4-year-old Ramona Quimby.  The book is essentially a series of vignettes depicting the relationship between the two sisters, in which Ramona’s mischief features prominently.  The book is different from the other books in the Ramona series in that Continue reading →

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Interview: Marya Jansen-Gruber, Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Review

Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews logo

For some time I’ve wanted to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites focused on children’s book reviews.  With that intention, over the next little while I plan to interview some bloggers and online writers who focus their work on children’s book reviews.  I will then post the interviews in brief transcript form, with links to their excellent websites.  So, today I’m posting the first of these interviews.  Marya Jansen-Gruber (abreviated “MJG” below), editor of Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Review, graciously agreed to be my first interviewee.  After reading the interview I encourage you to check out her website and her related blog (click here for Marya’s blog).

Q: How and when did you become interested in children’s books?

MJG: I was living in Washington DC in 1992 and I was walking home one evening when I saw this large stone lion statue on a bridge. I found myself wondering what could happen if it came to life. I began writing a story about the lion soon after. I have been involved in the world of children’s book in some way ever since. Continue reading →

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle cover art
Title: The Very Hungry CaterpillarThe Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Author: Eric Carle
Genre: Baby Board Books
Age Category: Infant to 2 years

The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Summary

Eric Carle’s classic baby board book, The Very Hungry CaterpillarThe Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, begins with a small white egg resting on a leaf by moonlight.  When the sun comes up the next morning—on Sunday—the little egg hatches and a tiny, very hungry caterpillar pops out.

The caterpillar goes searching for food over the course of the week.  It finds and eats holes through several kinds of fruit, food that you might expect a caterpillar to like.  For example, on Monday he eats through an apple, on Tuesday two pears, on Wednesday three plums, and so on.  However, after eating five oranges on Friday he is still hungry (he is a very hungry caterpillar!), so on Saturday Continue reading →

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Summary and Review

Harry Potter Books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling, cover art
Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Age Category: 14 to 19 years +

I plan to review the seventh and last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter booksHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling—before the release of the seventh Harry Potter movie in November, 2010.  But, I can’t review the seventh book before I review the sixth, right?  So, here’s my take on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling.  While I will not divulge here any important plot twists or outcomes of this book, I will talk about the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling, so if you are worried about spoiling that book, stop reading!

Harry Potter Books: Summary

In the previous installment of the Harry Potter booksHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling—Voldemort and his minions tried to steal a prophecy (i.e., a crystal ball that preserves prophetic words previously spoken) about Harry and the Dark Lord, to help them in their wicked bid for power over the wizarding world.  With help from members of the Order of the Phoenix—a secret society formed to counter Voldemort’s forces—Harry and his friends foiled the plot in dramatic “shoot-em-up” style. (For my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, click here.) Continue reading →

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How to Choose Funny Children’s Books

how to choose children's books for your students: frog and toad togetherThis post is part 6 in a series 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 Selection Criteria for Children’s Books: Good Stories,” I discussed stories in children’s books, and how to choose stories that are attractive to kids of various ages. In this post I will discuss the role of humor in rendering kids’ books appealing, and I will give some suggestions for how to choose funny children’s books.

Funny Children’s Books

My eldest daughter, Isabella, loves funny children’s books.  In particular, she thinks the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip is hilarious. In second grade her teacher had a small classroom library of books that the kids could take home for a few days at a time. The definitive three-volume collection of Calvin and Hobbes, The Complete Calvin and HobbesThe Complete Calvin and Hobbes, was Isabella’s favorite item in that library. Continue reading →

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Selection Criteria for Children’s Books: Good Stories

This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to choose children’s booksHow 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.). Continue reading →

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Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger

grandfather twilight, by barbara berger, cover art
Title: Grandfather Twilightgrandfather twilight, by barbara berger
Author: Barbara Berger
Age Category: Infant to 2 years
Genre: Baby Board Books

Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger: Summary

The central character of Barbara Berger’s baby board book Grandfather Twilightgrandfather twilight, by barbara berger is, logically enough, an old man with white hair and beard named Grandfather Twilight.  He lives in a beautiful deciduous forest and spends his days reading in a comfortable armchair, accompanied by his dog, his cat, and a bird.

The story of this board book traces Grandfather Twilight’s evening routine.  He takes a pearl from an endless strand he keeps in a wooden chest and goes for a walk with his dog.  As he walks, the pearl grows, the sounds of the forest hush, and the colors of a beautiful twilight sky fan out behind him like a misty ethereal wake.  At this point the illustrations alone tell the story for a time, unaided by text. Continue reading →

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Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman: Summary and Review

Are you my Mother? by P.D. Eastman, cover art
Title: Are You My Mother?Are you my Mother? by P.D. Eastman
Author: P.D. Eastman
Age Category: 3 to 5 years
Genre: Picture Books (Beginner Books / Easy Readers)

Well, I’m a bit late with this—Mother’s Day was last Sunday—but I couldn’t resist.  This is one of my favorite Beginner Books / Easy Reader picture books.  A classic.  I still remember reading it with my mom when I was about four…

Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman: Summary

Are You My Mother?Are you my Mother? by P.D. Eastman by P.D. Eastman opens with a mother bird sitting on a big yellow egg in her nest.  The egg starts to jump and shake, so the mother bird decides she had better go and find some food to feed her baby bird, who is about to arrive.  Soon after she flies away, the egg hatches, and the baby bird asks, “Where is my mother?”

Since the baby bird can’t see his mother anywhere, he decides to go looking for her.  He steps out of the nest, falls to the ground (can’t fly yet!), and sets off on an adventure to find his mother.  He encounters a series of things—a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a steamboat, an airplane, and a large steam shovel that he calls a “snort” (because it snorts!)—and asks each in turn, “Are you my mother?”.

Finally, as the baby bird is puzzling over the snort, the huge machine Continue reading →

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Summary and Review

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, cover art
Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Author: J.K. Rowling
Age Category: 12 to 16 years +
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Book Review and Summary

Today I present a Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix book review and summary.  This fifth installment in J.K. Rowling’s masterful juvenile fiction series about Harry Potter picks up where the fourth book left off.  The Dark Lord Voldemort—having been restored to power at the climax of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling—and his minions are covertly at work, preparing for outright war.  They seek something Voldemort “didn’t have last time” (p. 96), i.e., when Harry was a baby and Voldemort last launched his campaign for power over the wizarding world.  But, what exactly is Voldemort seeking? This question drives the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling forward on the deepest level.  Harry’s consistent experience of visions hinting at Voldemort’s activity and emotions help him and his friends in their efforts to understand and foil Voldemort’s plans.

In Rowling’s trademark style, the path toward answering the central question of the novel has many twists, turns, and subplots.  One significant subplot is Continue reading →

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Children’s Books for Earth Day: One Child, One Planet

Children's Books for Earth Day, One Child One Planet, by Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick, cover artTitle: One Child, One Planet: Inspiration for the Young ConservationistChildren's Books for Earth Day, One Child One Planet, by Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick
Author: Bridget McGovern Llewellyn
Photographs: Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick
Age Category: 3 to 5 years +
Genre: Picture Books

Children’s Books for Earth Day

One Child, One PlanetChildren's Books for Earth Day, One Child One Planet, by Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick is an attractive children’s book for earth day that conveys the message and importance of resource conservation to children aged three-to-eight-years-old.  The book conveys this message via loosely rhyming verse and photographs of children and animals interacting with stunning natural landscapes and habitats.

This children’s book for earth day begins by briefly describing the earth and the trouble it faces due to global warming, and then focuses on what people—and especially children—can do to help counter global warming via conservation.  Specifically, the book points to familiar practices such as reducing the consumption of water, planting trees, conserving electricity, recycling, reducing the use of electronic devices, and generally squashing greedy consumer habits. Continue reading →

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