I am an older brother to four siblings, and the father of four children whose ages now range from twenty-four to eleven. Essentially, I have been reading to children almost continuously since I was old enough to read, myself. Here is one thing I’ve learned over nearly a lifetime of sitting down, book in hand, child at my side or on my lap: the best kids’ books are the ones parents (or older siblings) can enjoy reading too. If the reader doesn’t enjoy it, doesn’t believe it, or is just mouthing the words without engaging in the story, kids tune out.
Of course, for good children’s picture books, there is a rhythm, a cadence to the words that engages reader and child. Once children themselves learn to read, they need this cadence more than ever. A skillful children’s-book author can make individual words come together to form not only understandable ideas, but pleasurable feelings in the sounds of sentences. A well-written kids’ book has music contained within, and between, words. The joy children feel in successfully reading books will set the tone for how they approach literature for the rest of their lives. Is reading a fun exploration of words and ideas? Or is it a chore? A good book, early in life, could make all the difference in developing brains.
This necessity for musicality in language carries over into middle-grade and young-adult years, but in a more sophisticated way. When I was discovering books in grade school through high school, the ones that gave me the greatest joy were those that “sounded” so wonderful; I had to go back and read them again—not to reinforce the ideas, but just to reexperience the enjoyment. For a young adult, this musicality can often come in the form of what book reviewers often call “relatability.” A teenager reading about somebody like herself—a person who seems to think like her, have the same emotions and inner dialogue as her—can help set up layers of self-exploration.
What I enjoy about the three reviewers we’ve chosen for this special section—Pallas Gates McCorquodale for picture books, Rebecca Foster for middle grade, and Stephanie Bucklin for young adult—is the way they evaluate not only the stories, but the way in which they are told. “Reader enjoyment” is an element to book reviewing that is hard to define, since it may seem subjective. But there really are higher standards by which children’s books should be evaluated. There’s “message”—is it a good one that tells an entertaining story while also teaching the broader impact of action upon others and society—and then there’s “joy.” It’s the latter quality that will create lifetime readers.
I hope you find joy in the children’s books we recommend in this special section.
Howard Lovy is executive editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow him on Twitter @Howard_Lovy