Monday, March 02, 2009

Child friendly?

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?


Elaine Magliaro said...


A number of years ago, one of my second grade students, a girl, told me that her favorite illustrator was Thomas Locker. She had fallen in love with his paintings in a poetry book that I kept in my classroom--SNOW TOWARD EVENING, with poems selected by Josette Frank. The illustrations in the book are oil paintings of landscapes that look like they should be hanging on the walls of a fine arts museum.

I guess one never knows what book, what text, what kinds of illustrations may speak to a child. That's why it's good tohave such a variety of writers and artists creating picture books for kids.

In my opinion, WABI SABI is a book for people of all ages.

I feel strongly that publishers should be publishing picture books for older kids. They love them. When I was a school librarian, I often read picture books aloud to my fourth graders--and they relished sitting and listening to great stories and looking at the illustrations.

Libby Koponen said...

Great post!

I will think about this question and answer it in a minute.. the first thing that came to mind is an experiment our school librarian did.

I was in 6th grade. She read (and showed) our class two picture book versions of the same story (song?) that had been published in the same year. Then she asked us which we liked better.

EVERY SINGLE KID -- including me - liked the same book.

Then she told us that every class had responded the same way and that the OTHER book's illustrations had won a big prize.

Could it have been the Caldecott? I don't remember the name of the book, or the story, except that it was I think a song and the last line was:
"Daddy better go back again 'cause it must a mighty fine town-o, town-o, town-o."

This is going to sound really self-serving; but it's true, The firs time i ever met Adam, I brought a big stack of books with me (explaining to him that since I didn't know him I didn't know what he liked) and he could have ONE. He looked at them all really carefully and finally -- after much thought -- chose MY NEW YORK. Then I told him I had written it (for those blog readers who don't know: I ghostwrote this book so my name isn't on it and I certainly didn't tell Adam).

Another time, he came over and I let him choose a book to read. He chose ALIENS and LOVED the story. It made a huge impression on him -- he was SHOCKED that the people believed the radio story. And he loved the fact that it was true.

Another surprise: I gave an eleven-year old in town (a girl who's very hip and has parents who don't read much -- she doesn't either) a copy of THE SECRET GARDEN and she loved it. My neice loved HARRIET THE SPY and her mother, my sister, then said that had been her favorite book in 4th grade, which I had either never known or forgotten.

Other surprises? I gave an eleven-year old a copy of THE GOLDEN COMPASS and she stopped reading after 10 pages: she said it was "too scarey." She and I like a lot of the same books and this really surprised me.

Fun question and I hope my answer isn't way too long!


Libby Koponen said...

PS Elaine, I absolutely agree!

Kimbra Kasch said...

I loved Wabi Sabi but I also love ”NG’s Newberry Book”

I even blogged about this Newberry Award winning book on my blogsite today. My husband loved it too and now my 24 year old son is reading it. Okay, so we are a family of Peter Pans - we never grew up but we all love Neil's books.

thomi said...

Dear Alvina,

My name is Thomi Liebich. I'm a big fan of Wabi Sabi, and it's been a great pleasure to read your lively blog about its long journey toward publication. To continue the journey of the book beyond the English language, I would like to contribute a German translation of the story.

As a native German, with all of my family still living in Germany, I sometimes translate English books that I want to share with them, if German translations don't exist.

For Christmas, I sent out five copies of Wabi Sabi to members of my family in Germany, promising that I would send a translation soon. I must say that, at the time, especially the prospect of translating Haiku felt daunting. I have a nuanced second draft of the translation completed now and feel quite happy with the result, almost surprised (the way writing sometimes happens).

I hope there are plans to publish Wabi Sabi in Germany. If that's the case, I would like to offer my translation for that publication.

I'm a public school teacher of English, Art, and German with a Bachelor's Degree in English and an MFA in painting and drawing. For about eight years, I have been studying Haiku, together with Taoism and Buddhism, which allows me to bring my knowledge and experience to the translation-table.

Here are example translations of the three Haiku composed by Wabi Sabi, in order:

Gelber Bambus beugt
Sich tief vor der Teehaustuer --
so auch der Kaiser.

Dunkle Gebaeude
Schwimmen auf weissen Sandseen.
Kiesel singt im Bach.

Ein Moench streut Blaetter
Ueber frischgeharkten Sand.
Jetzt versteht sie es.

I don't know if you are personally involved with the publication of this particular book in languages other than English, but I hope that you could help me get in touch with such a person or the author, so I can offer a full presentation of my translation.

My email address is

My home phone # is 801.363.3878

My cell phone # is 801.503.2958

Thank you for reading. I hope to hear from you soon.


Thomi Liebich

Christine Tripp said...

I think Robert Munsch's "Love You Forever" could be considered a surprise. I don't think children view the book as a favorite, and adults are torn between love it, hate it but it continues to be a best seller since /86. PW named it an all time best seller for paperback, over 6,970,000 copies and not including the hardcover sales, well over 1,00,000.
Children do, however, love the song.
On the flip side, I think there are probably a lot of parents who are not fans of "Walter the Farting Dog" yet kids are and it is a commercial success.

It is very hard to know which books children are loving, since adults buy them. I suppose the best gauge we have is our own local librarians.

Laura said...

Funny that you posted this today. I was in a bookstore this very weekend and was happy to see Wabi Sabi. As I walked closer, two women stepped in front of me and were also headed to the same book. I let them go ahead and I was listening to their comments.
One woman was saying she liked it and the other was saying she didn't think it was for kids, and didn't like the design because she thought the way it opened was cumbersome for a kid.

I was standing right there, and I couldn't help myself. I said that as a mom of 4 and as an artist I think it is beautiful. Daring to be different, and opening minds up to what a book can be. Outside the box thinking. Not everyone in the world reads left to right after all. I write arts in education programs for my school visits and wabi sabi is a perfectly timed concept for where we are in our nation's situation today to teach children to see beauty in the ordinary... .. I love the youtube clip with Ed Young, so much so, that I rethought my studio space when I saw his studio!

As an artist in residence it is my job to create art with students that has curriculum relevance and here is a beautiful book, a work of art, and a wonderful learning tool.

Not a book for ONLY children, but a book to soak up WITH children. I think it is wonderful and I hope that many other people can see that too!
(sorry this is so long.)

Christine Tripp said...

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.

Another study that would be interesting would be to set up "Chicken Butt" or "Wabi Sabi" beside the Presidential books listed on the Times page and see which children choose. As a child I really don't think I would have begged my mother to buy a picture book about a president.
Granted one of the books is intended for "all ages" which makes me wonder, should it still be called a picture book even though it has pictures?
I will have to look for it at our local Chapters to form a fair opinion.

Then there are books that, for one reason or another, score huge with adults AND children. The most recent success that always comes to my mind is the "Scardey Squirrel" series by Melanie Watt. Two years ago I was at the OLA convention in Toronto, standing near the KidsCan booth. Suddenly two Library Tech's flew past me, to get to the soon to be released copy of Scardey on the publishers shelf. They were flipping through the pages and laughing to each other over every sentence and commenting on how funny and cute the little nerotic cartoon squirrel was.
I love the books too and we talked about the first book for a while. They said they had a huge waiting list at their libraries for it, it had been a year and it had never touched the shelf.

MotherReader said...

First, I need to echo Elaine in saying that I'd also like to good picture books for older readers - and that's how I saw Wabi Sabi. Not as a preschool book - though some young kids may like it too. We need to stop saying that picture book equals preschool book, because then a different definition of child-friendly comes into play.

Wabi Sabi made it on the Cybils Fiction Picture Book shortlist with some of the same reservations you mentioned about being kid friendly - which is actually in the Cybils award criteria. But the end thought was that it would certainly be enjoyed by many kids and needed to be on the list.

For what it's worth, I loved the background story about it and I loved the book. It's simply beautiful and I'm glad that you brought it to us.

Lynn said...

I was actually just thinking about this sort of issue myself tonight, although not in nearly so eloquent a way. My son is only 15 months old, but I'm often surprised by best selling favorites that he refuses to look at. I struggle with whether to review them or admit this in our reviews, because it seems sort of unfair to punish the author with a bad review from one fickle toddler. A few examples from the top of my head (from authors who can withstand the criticism!): Is Your Mama a Llama (after 100 or so attempts, he's slightly better about this one now), Guess How Much I Love You (never more than a page or two), the Runaway Bunny (forget it, can't even get through one page)...

alvinaling said...

Thanks all for these anecdotes--and thanks for the compliments for WABI SABI--I wasn't fishing, I swear!

Infant Bibliophile, what are the books your toddler loves? (I assume there are some!)

Christine, I LOVE YOU FOREVER is certainly polarizing, but I would say that many more love it than hate it. I was always surprised by how many people (adults) asked for it when I worked at B&N, although I don't know what kids thought of it.

Lynn said...

Hmm, some current favorites include:
Bubblebath Pirates
Goodnight Moon
In The Town All Year 'Round
Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever
Counting Colors
Hand, Hand Fingers Thumb
Nina Laden's board books
Moo Baa Lalala
A Lion in the Meadow

I could go on forever, but you can see all of our reviews on our site ( - not fishing for traffic, but I include a section for his perspective in each review.

Anonymous said...

I have learned through the years both through personal experience as a parent, in gifting books and through working a couple of college summers in a bookmobile setting as well as through my work at RIF there are SO many factors that go into "child friendliness" or a child's affinity for a particular book or lack of desire to read it, hear it, check it out, buy it. My nieces and nephews tell me books their children would not previously touch are genuine favorites when it arriving as a gift from Aunt Carol which puts some real pressure on me to choose a variety of genres! Thank you for a great post!

Christine Tripp said...

I LOVE YOU FOREVER is certainly polarizing, but I would say that many more love it than hate it. I was always surprised by how many people (adults) asked for it when I worked at B&N, although I don't know what kids thought of it.

There have to be more love then hate votes for sure Alvina, can't argue with 8 million copies sold, for sure. I know that at every baby shower, someone will enevitably give a copy of "LYF" to the expectant mom. It brings the strongest of us to tears (or at least a lump in the throat)
I don't "think" many kids love the book, at least not enough to ask to buy it. I think it is more bought FOR them, sort of a see, see how much you'll miss me when I'm gone, so be good!!!!:)

My granddaughters favorite books as a toddler were ALL of Sandra Boynton's little board books. The humour got to her, through the simple words and the cartoons.
She's 3 now, and sadly she only likes Dora. Mass market kid!