Last spring CHRISTIANITY TODAY published an article on children’s books by Bonnie M. Greene, “The Books No One Notices” (April 23). In it she urged Christians to take children’s literature more seriously and listed some qualities to look for in a book for children. Her advice was well taken. To help readers select good books for children I will regularly review some new books from major publishers. This time I will concentrate on books for younger children; some are Christmas books, and others would make excellent presents.
Since these books are meant to be read aloud to younger children, it is important how the words sound, how sentences are put together, what the rhythm feels like. Are the rhymes clever? How well has the author used alliteration (repetition of initial sounds), onomatopoeia (words that sound like the thing described or named), and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds)? Those are some of the tools of writing. Used skillfully they stimulate a child’s imagination and teach him to love the flavor and feel of words. The surest way to make a child dislike reading is to give him books filled with pedestrian language.
Wilma Shore tells her tale of Who in the Zoo (Lippincott, $4.95) using many of these techniques, particularly assonance. Although it gets a little heavy-handed, children should enjoy hearing this clever little story.
Most books for young children are now heavily illustrated, usually with a great deal of color. Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment) thinks that a picture book destroys or drugs a child’s imagination. If a story is already illustrated, a child’s imagination has nothing to do, he says.
For certain stories this may be true. But if the illustrations reinforce the words, if they are skillfully and symbolically executed, I think they aid a child’s imagination. Children need to appreciate form, composition, and color just as much as the logical patterns of the English language. Sight and touch shouldn’t be slighted.
The Bed Book (Harper & Row, $4.95) combines clever language with colorful, at times symbolic, illustrations. What, Sylvia Plath asks, is your bed like? What sorts of dreams does it bring? “Beds of amazing shapes and sizes—NOT just a white little tucked-in-tight little nighty-night little turn-out-the-light little bed.”
How a book is put together is also important. Is the layout imaginative and well paced? Do text and illustrations vie for importance on the page, or do they work together? How effectively has the designer used white space to set off text and illustrations? A book that looks busy will overwhelm a small child. Mr. Slef by Ralph Mattson (Revell, $6.95) is a good example of what not to do. The drawings are cowed by aggressive, avant-garde typography, and the poor story is unreadable because of it. The book looks like a catalogue of type.
Plot or theme should be clear, interesting, and unpredictable. A good story doesn’t necessarily need to be original. Mary Rayner does a fine job of updating “The Three Little Pigs” in Mr. and Mrs. Pig’s Evening Out (Atheneum, $7.95) Uri Shulovitz, one of the finest children’s book illustrators today, adds potency to Robert Louis Stevenson’s striking and little-known fable, The Touchstone (Greenwillow, a division of William Morrow, $6.95; see previous page).
Writers need to guard against the mighty moral. Too often it takes over a story, spoiling it. Never superimpose a moral on a story; allow it to grow from the tale itself. Kazuko Taniguchi’s colorful Monster Mary Mischief Maker—a great title—(McGraw-Hill, $6.95) has that problem. The exciting design and rich drawings cannot compensate for the weak story.
Adults should appreciate the book on some level, for either the text or the illustrations or the story idea. If an adult delights in reading a charming story to a child, his enthusiasm will show in his inflections and pacing and add to the child’s enjoyment of the book.
Westminster Press has published two Christmas books for children. The Christmas Cookie Tree ($6.95), written and illustrated by Ruth Hershey Irion, is better than its title would lead one to expect. The story takes place in Pennsylvania Dutch country and is illustrated with Pennsylvania Dutch designs. The story is somewhat nostalgic, without excessive sentimentality. Every page conveys aromas of Christmas baking, and the feeling of warm kitchens, cold, snowy days, and the comfortable and comforting country church. Irion makes a bygone era live, even for those who have no memory of such times. The book ends with “great granny’s gingerbread recipe” and designs for cookies and for baked Christmas tree ornaments. It is a delightful family book.
The other Christmas book from Westminster, Tomás Blanco’s tale for Epiphany entitled Los Aguinaldos del Infante or The Child’s Gifts ($8.95), is beautifully designed and written. All the book’s elements—text, etchings, and parts of a musical score composed for the original use of the story as a radio program in Puerto Rico—work together. The Spanish text is set side by side with a fine, cliché-free translation by Harriet de Onís. The story has four sections, each a good length for bedtime reading. Or perhaps the book could be used as part of a child’s devotions. This twelfth-night tale is better fare than the typical devotional material for children.
Two Christmas books from Harper & Row fail to come up to that publisher’s usual high standard. Christmas in the Woods by Frances Frost ($3.50) is a sentimental reprint. The other, Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus ($4.95), has fine black-and-white drawings by Ken Munowitz. But they overpower Charles L. Mee, Jr.’s text. The words seem to function only as illustration captions.
But Harper also has published two of this fall’s best children’s books. It’s Not Fair by Charlotte Zolotow with pictures by William Pène du Bois ($4.95) heads my list of gift books for children. The language is simple, the story humorous and clever. It teaches a moral lesson the way it should be taught. Adults as well as young children will enjoy it. And that’s good, because it’s the kind of book children will want to hear over and over again.
The other fine book from Harper is Come Again in the Spring by Richard Kennedy ($4.95), a more serious tale. Old Hark bargains with Death—and wins until spring. This sensitive story is a good balance to the morbid and macabre tales about death that have recently been published for children.
Ruth Craft’s book about Pieter Brueghel’s The Fair (Lippincott, $7.50) meets all the requirements for a first-rate children’s book, and is another one to put high on any gift list. The language is intriguing and invigorating, the layout intelligently designed. Text and art are both necessary. Craft shows children how to understand a painting and urges them to exercise their imaginations by the way she examines The Village Fair: “Like all painters,/Pieter Brueghel took his time./Take yours./See what you can find.” The painting is reproduced on a two-page spread at the start of the book. Then sections are blocked off, and Craft weaves tales around them. Each page tells its own story, and each is a gem. The book abounds with such sentences as, “There’s gossip and chatter,/chin-wag and natter”; “Pick up your toes in time to the tune./Swing round your partners;/give your elbows some room”; or my favorite, “This soft white hat,/it won’t do./A floppy hat, or a loose shoe,/can slow you down/when you’ve things to do./Now hat,/stay firm./Stay tight./I can’t stop every minute to put you right.” Grade-school teachers should use this book; parents ought to buy it.
In future issues I will survey more picture books; look at a new trend in children’s publishing, the ethnic folktale book; and talk about some new fantasies for older children and teen-agers, written on the order of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
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