A well-written children’s book is a beautiful thing. Yet beauty is an elusive quality, and many books fall short of that standard. Parents are sometimes encouraged to believe that children’s books are like exercise, in that anything is better than nothing. However, just as not everything that fits in a baby’s mouth ought to be there, not everything with an ISBN number ought to find its way into your kiddo’s hands.
Most parents would hesitate over a volume that praises North Korea’s cruelly oppressive regime. Most would reject “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles,” a story “written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully,” or a cheery tale about a child whose elder sister was aborted. Other books are obviously wonderful. Authors like Beatrix Potter, Bill Peet, Michael Bond, or even Sandra Boynton come to mind.
Yet amongst the many books that lie in the middle, some are dreadfully “meh.” Children don’t deserve to drown in “meh” any more than they ought to consume all the fluff from under the bed. A little bit might boost the immune system, but a lot is just unfortunate, especially when it takes the place of something truly awesome. In my quest to provide my kids with stories that will nurture them, there are four kinds of “meh” books that I avoid.
My two-year-old recently brought a lift-the-flap book home from the library. The text focused on counting the beach-themed animals beneath the flaps. For some reason, we seem as a culture to think that precocious counting is more important than cultivating habits of thought like attentiveness, wonder, and eagerness to engage with ideas.
It is not that counting is wrong, or that small children can’t enjoy it, but that it’s something which ought to be kept in proportion. The pervasive pseudo-academic approach to children’s stories can have several unfortunate effects.
For one, it mistakes the primary purpose of a book. Real books don’t exist to drill children on rote skills they could learn more naturally elsewhere. After all, children can always count their toes, bites of broccoli, or the number of eggs mom puts into the brownie batter. What they cannot so easily find without a book is a way to interact with stories, ideas, and images that draw from the riches of the wider world. Books are a way to cultivate the taste, to learn to recognize beauty, and to cultivate wonder. This is just as true for pudgy-handed toddlers as for adult readers.
Relentlessly skill-based stories not only mistake but can also undermine the purpose of a book. When parents ask for an accounting of the sea gulls then briskly turn the page because the activity is now “done,” we are distancing our children from sea gulls. We are suggesting that birds, like buttons or beads on a string, are merely objects to be counted. We teach both them and us to hurry on and do something useful instead of asking questions about why seagulls have red spots on their beaks or whether they could be cooked like chickens. This is all very deadening.
Even the smartest person in the world does not know everything. No matter how brainy or educated we consider ourselves, if we do not have the humility to listen to others’ perspectives, we are in very real danger of behaving like an idiot. Worse, we’re in danger of behaving like an idiot who harms those around us as well as ourselves. Yet many books for children encourage a certain ugly smugness.
One common snobbery is exemplified by the phrase “We now know.” The story tends to go like this: Once upon a time, children, people were unenlightened. They thought witches cause disease, or that the sun rotates around the earth, or that women should wear corsets. That is why they were always burning old ladies and astronomers at the stake, dying of smallpox, and fainting. Fortunately, we are now modern, so we know. We know the truth. Aren’t you glad that you live today?
This kind of book presents the beliefs of the past so simplistically as to sound incredibly foolish, and the beliefs of the current age as absolute truth. This kind of storytelling masks the likelihood that future generations will look upon our own body of knowledge with far less admiration than we do. It discourages children from questioning the values and mores of their own world, from being able to look around them with the perspective that is gleaned from history—the strengths and weaknesses of other eras—and from seeking wisdom from the past as well as of the present. It encourages the narrow poverty of cultural snobbery.
Comically, we are hardly the first generation to fall into “we now know-ism.” Consider this quotation from a nineteenth-century volume on education: “[In T]he ancient world. . . . education was always defective. . . . Sometimes the physical was emphasized, sometimes the intellectual, sometimes the moral, sometimes the religious; but never all together in perfect symmetry. It has been reserved for the nineteenth century, so distinguished from its many-sided advancement, to realize an education which leaves no part of man’s nature neglected.”
It’s laughable when someone else does it, isn’t it?
3. Misguided Encouragement of Bad Behavior
Imagine that you have a small child. To prepare your little one for the arrival of her new sibling, you purchase one of the many picture books about the subject. You and your kiddo snuggle up and read about a protagonist who shouts, “I hate the new baby!” Is that really how you want to present the topic of babies?
Researchers have found that when small children read books about conflict resolution—say, a tale about siblings who fight, then learn to get along better—they behave more aggressively than they had before they read the book. Well, duh. Scenes about hitting and biting are a lot more memorable than scenes in which the characters talk about feelings.
It is one of our sillier modern tendencies to present children with stories that counteract the reason we chose them. Sometimes this pattern can have a darker side, as when we share books about specific fears and tragedies with very young kids. I see no need, for instance, to give my toddler or preschooler the idea that his parents might divorce or die of cancer by reading a realistic story about such a situation. Better to let him process whatever vague fears he has through a fairytale or fable—a tale in which bad things happen and children survive, but only in a stylized fashion that allows a young reader to interpret it in his own way.
4. The Achievement Burden
Children have long been encouraged to take inspiration from stories about peasant boys who win a princess and a kingdom, intrepid explorers who survive near-death experiences, or even boys who cannot lie about cherry trees. Yet the inspirational storybooks of today take on a slightly different tone. In today’s books, the message is not simply that a person of character might achieve great good fortune after enduring trials, but that anyone can achieve his or her dream, often simply by wanting it badly enough.
Today’s message is that, just as a garden snail can win the Indy 500, a child can be anything he wants to be. Reality need not be an issue. In contrast, many older stories suggest that life provides a framework the child can use to orient himself as he figures out how to find and fulfill his own special role.
For instance, Margaret Wise Brown’s classic 1956 “Home for a Bunny” is the tale of a little rabbit who meets a sequence of other animals who all live in ways that would be unsuitable for a bunny. At last, however, his need is answered: he meets another rabbit, and they are able to live together in a lovely rabbit hole. If the book were written today, surely the bunny would be able to make a home with any animal he chose. Even Boynton’s charming 2014 “The Bunny Rabbit Show” includes a scene in which all the non-bunny animals are able to join the bunny chorus simply by donning bunny ears.
Relentlessly inclusive optimism sounds encouraging, but it is also a heavy burden to place upon the shoulders of a youthful human. If a kid can achieve anything, surely he ought to. Surely he ought to earn the highest grades in the school, become president, cure cancer, or at least accomplish something measurably special and impressive. With few stories about ordinary characters who find themselves forced to find happiness in useful but ordinary roles, children may not receive the memo that it is okay for a bunny to need another bunny. Furthermore, it is okay if one cannot achieve his—or his parents’—dreams of greatness.
As my children grow, I’m sure they will not always choose titles that are my favorite. That’s okay. I doubt that a few “meh” books will cause them harm. However, I consider it my job to seek out better books (this site provides excellent book lists, as does this one) and to function as a sort of maternal book-sieve, straining out the titles that aren’t worth a place in our home. I will also make sure to occasionally vacuum under the beds to reduce my children’s intake of literal dust bunnies.