A curious thing occurs when you find yourself pregnant. I don’t mean the sudden desire to devour your neighbor or the embiggening of the belly region. I’m talking books. A person could work with children’s books for the majority of their adult life, think they know them back to front, up to down, forwards to backwards. . . . and yet when it comes to YOUR OWN child, horrors! Suddenly you know nuthin’ bout nuthin’. Less than that. I mean board books? Seriously? I need to have opinions on these now? And different kinds of nursery rhymes? I thought I knew non-fiction but I’ve never even heard of the Basher Five-Two by Captain O’Grady! Slowly it dawns upon me that if I’m having this much trouble with my shiny library degree, what the heck do normal people do? Of course, there are lots of books out there designed to direct parents to good literature for children. Heck, I think even the New York Times produces such a book. But if I’m going to place my child’s literary fate in something, I want people who know what they’re doing. None of this fly-by-night stuff. Horn Book editors, now there are some professionals who know what they’re talking about (even if I don’t always agree). Better still, they’ve the ability to call upon other reviewers, authors, and illustrators working in the field to get their suggestions as well. The result of all this is a new title for parents: A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Made for moms and dads, but savvy enough for professionals working the field, a book of this sort is only as good as the contributors it contains. And when you want contributors, you want folks with some knowledge in the field. Check and mate.
“In A Family of Readers, we seek to provide parents and other interested adults with an essential understanding of books for children and teenagers.” Sounds simple enough. But growing a reader isn’t just some fly by night operation. You need strategy and forethought and, most important of all, great books. That’s where Sutton and Parravano come in. Alongside contributors to the Horn Book, the book is broken up into Parts and Chapters that cover everything from baby board books to teen fare. Along the way the authors make sure to tip their hats to easy readers, fantasy, a whole chapter on nonfiction, as well as historical fiction, poetry, humor, you name it! Insofar as I can tell, almost no one is left out in the cold. Later chapters even cover books on sex ed, nontraditional families, and that most dreaded of terms: “bibliotherapy” *shudder*. A parent who didn’t know their Goodnight Moon from their Chocolate War can pick this book up and immediately be updated on some of the finest fare for their young. Regular sections that recommend titles and a section at the end for “Further Reading” round the whole book out.
Some chapters stand out more than others, but that’s just the nature of the game. For example, Martha Parravano’s chapter on “Stores of Transferable Energy” is one of the finer looks at the world of picture books (blighted only by a momentary reference to the Na’vi that may prove incomprehensible in ten years). She brings up problems and issues that people might be aware of but have not yet put into so many words. For example, when distinguishing between picture books written for adults and picture books written for children she says, “A doting parent may enjoy a book about a little bunny whose mission in life is to tell his mommy how much he loves her, but there’s nothing there for the child audience.” Little wonder that Parravano is also the author of an earlier section that explains how picture books adapted into the board book format only truly work on rare occasions. She has a way of pointing out inconsistencies and peculiarities that need to be noticed and acknowledged. Even a parent new to children’s books can appreciate that.
The book is ostensibly for parents, but its professional development possibilities are crystal clear. For any children’s or teen librarian in need of a swift kick in the pants to remind them why they’re in this line of work in the first place, A Family of Readers acts like a quick acting can of Jolt cola to the senses (I think I’m mixing my metaphors here). On the flip side, it would also be useful for new librarians just entering the field. I got quite a lot of use out of it myself, frantically writing down the non-fiction adventure selections from Vicky Smith’s chapter on “Know-How and Guts” (which contains the fabulous line, “You’ll love it. He has to eat bugs”). And Roger Sutton’s chapter “Go Big or Go Home” on boy books has given me a wonderful example to bring up whenever anyone says that paper books will be dead in five years. Just look at The Guinness Book of World Records, man. Kids can see all that stuff online, but they love paging through it in a paper form. Something I’d never really considered until this title brought it up.
One unfortunate thing is that the book in its effort to explain one point or another doesn’t always take into account whether or not the average reader will be able to get their hands on some of its recommendations. The most disappointing of these is K.T. Horning’s inspired dissection of Baby Says by John Steptoe. Everything she says about the book, from the emotional connection between the siblings (and even between the characters and the reader) to the very design makes you want to run to your local independent bookstore to demand your own edition. Unfortunately, no such copies will you be able to find. Not unless you’ve a particular wish to shell out $44 for a used paperback, of course. This goes for other books mentioned as well, like the Raymond Briggs Mother Goose Treasury. A reader would do far better to get books based on the helpful “More” boxes at the end of some of the chapters. There you can find that lists like “More Great Folklore” or “More Great Biographies” contain books that are well and truly in print (as of this review, anyway, since nothing in life is certain).
Reading this book, you may find yourself gravitating more towards one voice than another, depending on the subject matter. For example, I tended to look forward to any sections containing Ms. Parravano’s style and opinions, while I was sometimes baffled by Marc Aronson’s selections. Mr. Aronson has contributed to the parts of the book that discuss great nonfiction for children, a subject that is given adequate praise and attention in this book. Yet he sort of drops the ball when recommending nonfiction graphic novels, eschewing actual graphic novel nonfiction (like Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes) for Gene Luen Yan’s American Born Chinese (which is a great book, but nonfiction it is not). And in his chapter “Cinderella without the Fairy Godmother” I was baffled by his sense of the history of nonfiction in children’s reading lives. It may well be that what he says is true, that “From the expansion of national literacy in the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, middle-class Americans shared an assumed nonfiction knowledge base.” Later after the rise of the 1960s Aronson laments that “We got the History Chanel instead of History” which is a cute phrase, sure. But consider if you will what history for kids was prior to the 1960s. The content, after all, was based as it was in a kind of Eurocentric man-only world. You might well regret that children now don’t read nonfiction the way they used to, but surely you have to agree that while the quantity is lacking the quality has improved by so many leaps and bounds. I cannot decry the fate of nonfiction after the sixties when I see what the sixties did to nonfiction itself. Suddenly our kids were reading about women and other countries without the word “savage” cropping up. By all means, feel badly that less children see nonfiction in their daily lives, but I do not miss the “one book, or one set of books, that every cultured family was assumed to own” when I consider what those “one book” or book sets used to contain. I know what he’s trying to say, but I think it could be phrased better.
Parents don’t have all the answers. They have some of the answers, and if they’re smart they’ll find people have some of the other answers and turn to them. And when it comes to turning your kids into readers, some of those answers are right here. A book that can speak just as well to a newbie in the field as an old grizzled professional is a rare beastie. This book balances out a variety of the top issues and discussion topics raging today, while also offering some honestly awesome book choices. The other day a woman asked me if there was a single title on children’s literature that a person should read when entering the field. Had I read A Family of Readers when she asked me, this is what I would have handed her. A kind of go-to text that should prove invaluable to book lovers, big and small.
On shelves now.
- Galley sent for review from publisher.
- Go to a single source to read reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, VOYA, and SLJ.
- The Star
- Roger spoke with Monica Edinger on her Huffington Post blog and with Mitali Perkins via a Twitter chat.
- And both Martha and Roger spoke with Jules in an intense interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- Read a selection from this book: “Girl Books: Telling the Truth” by Christine M. Heppermann.