I'm a bit ashamed to say that I didn't start discriminating about the content of what Sam read until fairly recently. When she was a baby, it was just words, voice, and pictures, so I chose books based on whether they had pictures I thought she could perceive as related to real-life objects. I also chose books based on whether they were the right length and whether they had the right amount of words on the page - too many and she would lose interest, too few and the page-turning would become distracting and chaotic.
I think this was a good set of criteria for book-choosing up until Sam was verbal. But at that point, I should have thought more carefully about what she read. Looking back, I think in her early verbal stages (18 to 30 months old or so) I would have looked for a few things:
- Books with words on one page and a picture on the opposite page. About 6 months ago (when Sam was 3.5), she expressed confusion about how there were "two Cliffords." There was a picture of Clifford (the Big Red Dog) on the left page and on the right page, and she thought there were two Cliffords! She didn't understand the temporal advance from left-to-right. I was surprised that she had never figured that out. Of course, she learned it (we focused on that for a while), but I would have isolated the skill of matching one set of words with one picture early on if I had thought about it. (I strongly agree with the Montessori principle of isolating the difficulty, but it is a huge challenge to do it properly. Scroll down to "I" in this glossary of Montessori terms to learn about isolation of difficulty.)
- Books with a story-progression. The purpose of fiction books is to tell stories. Pre-verbal children obviously follow stories. By the time they are verbal, they need to be challenged with more and more complex stories. I think this is good preparation for literature (it is early literature!) and also a way of focusing and ordering the mind. There are so many children's books (obviously targeted to toddlers and pre-schoolers) that just have no story whatsoever. There's nothing wrong with those books - some have great language or pictures or are just fun. My second favorite book (listed below) doesn't have a real plot. But if I could do it over, I would have limited them and focused more on stories. I think we did pretty well by default, though, since we all like stories so much.
- Books with more real-life characters and less fantasy and nonsense. I wish we hadn't read quite so many Dr. Seuss books to Sam. Adam and I had purchased a bunch of them for ourselves before Sam was born because we like them as adults. I don't think they are entirely worthless, but they are full of nonsense words, nonsense characters, and nonsense "stories." They're probably appropriate later, as silly fun, when the child has a firmer grasp of reality versus fantasy. But it's not just Dr. Suess (though he is probably the worst offender). Why are children's books so full of senselessness and fantasy - and even animal characters? I laughed with derision when I heard that some Montessori teachers recommend no books with talking animal characters at all, but now I'm not so dismissive of it. Again, I don't think I'd eliminate all of those kinds of books (it would be so limiting!), but I'd certainly be on the lookout for real people in real situations as much as possible.
- Poems. We did read a lot of Mother Goose when Sam was about 18-24 months old. She loved them, but maybe I would have differentiated poems from stories for her by only reading poems at a certain time of day or something like that. We read her some more advanced children's poems now, along with adult poems that seem intelligible to her.
Now that Sam is four, we're looking for books with all of the above characteristics (except the word/picture issue), plus we are more concerned with the themes and messages. We recently got rid of one book that was explicitly altruistic and one that was pure subjectivism and egalitarianism in a sickly sweet, moralistic way. Those pedantic books with conventional values are out. But we have no problems with books with themes like "loyalty" or even "cooperation," even though those are not on our list of top virtues and values. If a book shows that loyalty is good when it is loyalty to one's own (objective, not subjective) values in the face of pressure from others - that's a good theme. When a book shows that a child who cooperates with others has more success than a bully - that's a good theme. And "show, don't tell" applies here. Overly pedantic books are irritating. The theme must be part of the plot, just as in adult fiction.
We also like books with more advanced vocabulary or interesting language, but it's hard to get all of that in one package. This is lower on the priority list for now, but I think it will become more important later.
Here is a partial list of some favorite age-appropriate books on Samantha's shelf right now. Not all of these meet all the above criteria, but each has at least one special thing about it:
- Brave Irene, by William Steig
- The Napping House, by Audrey and Don Wood
- The Wishing of Biddy Malone, by Joy Cowley (best book ever!)
- Rickki Tikki Tavi, by Rudyard Kipling and Jerry Pinkney
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
- The Rusty Trusty Tractor by Joy Cowley
- The Fancy Nancy series, by Jane O'Connor
- Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
- Buford the Little Bighorn, by Bill Peet
- Adios Oscar, by Peter Elwell
- All the Places to Love, by Patricia Maclachlan (second best book ever!)
- Dr. DeSoto, by William Steig
- The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf