Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Child friendly?

cross-posted from the Blue Rose Girls.

I've been thinking more lately about what "child friendly" means in terms of children's books, and if it's a valid assessment to evaluate a book. This comes partially out of that old Newbery discussion, and partially because I've found myself using that criticism regarding some books (that will remain nameless). "I liked the book" I've said, "But I just couldn't see kids getting into it." But of course, when that same criticism is made about a book I've edited, I bristle. Who are they to say that a book isn't child friendly? They're underestimating children. A book that some kids hate, others will love. I know this! We all know this! There is a very wide range of work that can be child friendly.

So, shame on me.

I'm fairly out of touch with what kids think of the books I edit, especially picture books. I do give books to kids I know and watch them interact with them, but these occasions are few and far between. I'm mainly drawing on my memory of the types of books I loved as a kid, the ones I read over and over again, and hope that there are kids today that have the same type of sensibility I had/have. (For novels, in terms of feedback, teens will write reviews and post them on blogs. We also get feedback from our hip scouts. Six-year-olds don't generally have blogs.)

One specific example of a book whose child friendliness is in question is Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein and Ed Young. Perhaps you've heard of it? (I write about it enough, don't I?) I know that there are people who find this to be a book more for adults, or older kids, but from the moment I read an early draft of the manuscript, I had faith that younger kids would love this story about a cat trying to find out the meaning of her name, and that kids would also respond to the gorgeous collage illustrations. Not every kid, of course, but many of them. And now that the book has been out about six months, the only evidence I have to go on is from what people tell me and from the reviews I read. Some of the reviews on Amazon vary from:

My favorite seven-year-old girl bookworm (and cat lover) begged me to stop reading it at about page three. And my favorite nine-year-old boy bookworm and ravenous reader wanted nothing to do with it.


My four-year old grandson enjoyed the story as did his nine-year old sister.


What a wonderful way to expose a young audience to meaningful simplicity. One reviewer said this wasn't a children's book but I guess it depends on the child. Curled up in bed with his dog and his cat my son pays rapt attention to this story.

One of my favorite reviews was one I read recently online. Here is the bit regarding its child appeal:

This is not your ordinary children’s book. But nevertheless, my almost 3-year old was completely absorbed as I read haiku after haiku. Sometimes I mistakenly believe that complex thoughts and art are beyond my toddler. But really I think if we as adults could appreciate art and words like a toddler must, we might have an unanticipated deep understanding of truth. That is, in one sense, the beauty of wabi sabi.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is how we in publishing will categorize books as "institutional" versus "commercial"--which maybe is another way of saying: "will sell mainly in libraries" versus "will sell mainly in bookstores" and also: "the type of books teachers and librarians need to introduce to a kid in order for him or her to like it" versus "truly kid friendly." I always hope that the books I edit will be successful in both ways, but generally, when I'm acquiring a book I do believe that it will be more successful in one over the other. And in the case of Wabi Sabi, I'm sure my publisher thought it would have more institutional appeal. But now, as it reaches its tenth week on the NYTimes Bestseller list, we've realized that it has become a true commercial hit (not that it hasn't been a success institutionally, too!).

Anyway, I suppose when people say "child friendly" they mean, "will be liked by most children." A good example would be the four "butt" books that Alison Morris highlighted on her PW blog recently (my personal favorite is the last one, Chicken Butt by Erica Perl, illustrated by Henry Cole).

It would be an interesting study to see how many kids, when forced to choose between Chicken Butt and Wabi Sabi, would choose the latter. If any of you lovely blog readers want to do a test study, I'd love to hear the results!

A question: have you ever been surprised by a book, either one that you thought would be a no-brainer in terms of kids liking it, but they turned out to not be interested, or vice versa--a book you were pretty sure they would hate, that it turned out that they loved?


Anonymous said...

I know I've surprised myself with books I was sure I'd love (MT Anderson's OCTAVIAN) and didn't and vice versa.

Some days I crave a meat and potatoes read and other days junk food is quite satisfying. I think that goes for kids too.

Your discussion reminds me of that frustrating line editors like to say, "I'll know it when I see it." but what 'works' is so hard to define. Is it defineable? It's not even one thing.Is it?

I do believe in feeding children's minds and not putting limits on the learning process, and by feeding I mean enriched with reading, art, music, all that good stuff that makes life worth living.

You brought up really interesing points.

And I have to say it gave me a giggle that The Graveyard Book won the newbery this year. Popular = yes. Well written = yes. Worthy = yes. And yet a bit naughty.


Anonymous said...

Most picture books don't have a wait list at the Santa Monica library, but WABI SABI does !!!

I'm in the middle of EVERY SOUL A STAR, picked it up not realizing you were the editor, and just loving it.


gael lynch said...

I loved Wabi Sabi and so did my sixth graders. In fact, in their complicated worlds, I think it gives them great comfort to know that they can savor an old toy, a moment or even all the wonderful old picture books that were so important to them not so long ago. I just finished Coraline, and thought perhaps I'd read it aloud to them. They heartily protested. I think they were afraid and didn't want their fear showing in public. We've settled into Jeremy Fink instead, and they're loving every minute of that.