In today’s disposable culture, the classics of children’s literature continue to exhibit remarkable staying power. You won’t find many copies of Margaret Wise Brown’s sixty-year-old “Goodnight Moon” clogging the landfills. Jim Carrey and Mike Myers are no match for “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat” in their original format. Savvy marketing alone cannot account for the popularity of Ian Falconer’s “Olivia,” who landed a postage stamp in 2006, just six years after she was unleashed on an instantly adoring public.
Of course, for every “Olivia” there’s a wheelbarrow full of unrecognized but deserving candidates and a back hoe’s worth of witless, poorly illustrated tripe. Given the less-than-discerning nature of childish taste, there’s a real danger that your kid’s favorite book, the one you’ll be asked to read aloud several thousand times, will concern some cartoon teddy bear’s insufferable adventures in the Land of Rainbow Twinkles. Think about that the next time you’re browsing the children’s section. Remember that the greats share certain elements in common. And while all of them need not be present to signify a masterpiece, a book that is entirely bereft of these attributes could spell trouble in your reading future.
Given that you’ll be serving as the text’s primary interpreter, quirky, character-driven exchanges are always preferable to lackluster lines offering no clue as to how they should be performed. Look for something with pirates, or better yet, treat your inner ham to the over-stimulated and wonderfully articulate vintage toys populating Tony Millionaire’s “Sock Monkey” series.
Repetition That Feels Like Poetry
Children love recurrent lists. Most parents do not. Hold out for repeaters that achieve the rare, echoing beauty of Abbie Zabar’s “55 Friends” or Verna Aardema’s “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain.”
A Light Touch When Imparting Moral Lessons
As in life, actions speak louder than words. Don Freeman, the author of “Corduroy,” could refrain from force-feeding his readers such pablum as “it’s okay to be different!” because that worthy notion is embodied so well in his main characters’ conduct.
Recognition of Anarchy’s Comic Potential
The unspoken damage to the mattress and multiple injuries sustained by “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” would not be funny in real life, but on the page there’s a gleeful, vicarious thrill to their refusal to be brought to heel. Any parent suffering through the natural anarchy of toddlerhood will appreciate the grim humor of Emily Jenkins’ “Love You When You Whine.”
An Ultimately Charitable Attitude Toward Younger Brothers and Sisters
Real as sibling rivalry may be, why reinforce the rift with pandering references to “dumb babies” and “stupid, stinky” brothers? Reject this maddening trend by reaching for the far more valuable tenderness redeeming the characters in Russell Hoban’s “A Baby Sister for Frances.”
Illustrations That Actively Further the Story
Often these will feature an exasperated, exhausted parent. Witness the look on Olivia’s mother’s face when her husband’s offer to buy their wailing daughter a new and better toy in “Olivia and the Missing Toy” is met with a happy cry of “Oh, Daddy, I love you better than anybody!”
The Power to Bring a Lump to the Adult Throat
There’s no shame in getting a bit choked up over “The Runaway Bunny,” especially if you’re haunted by the scene in which Eileen Atkins reads it aloud to a dying Emma Thompson in the film “Wit.” After a long day, “Walter the Farting Dog’s” dedication to “anyone who’s ever felt misjudged or misunderstood” just might be enough to bring a tear to your eye.