Avoiding Terrible Books

A response to the witty and wise post by Drew Magary of Deadspin entitled If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, You’re F***ed: 10 Tips for Avoiding Terrible Children’s Books. (no longer available)

First, I have to disclose that reading is absolutely my favorite thing to do with my kids. Unlike Drew Magary over at Deadspin, I will not be able to commiserate with you about how rough it is to read to kids. As my husband recently noted, “Reading hypnotizes our kids. It turns them from savage beasts to civilized creatures.”

That said, I am in total agreement with Magary that booktime becomes intolerable when spent reading terrible children’s books, and it is critically important for us as parents to maintain our sanity while reading books to our kids.

My three kids in their favorite reading chair. This is what I am up against.

To ensure that booktime is fun for parents as well as kids, I am a big believer in having an outbox for children’s books. When one of my children receives a terrible book as a gift, it heads straight for the outbox. When one of my children checks out a terrible book at the library, it heads straight for the outbox. On occasion, a book that was initially inoffensive becomes intolerable due to overexposure. In that case, a not truly terrible book might have to spend a few days or weeks in the outbox…until I am ready to give it another chance.

Which books belong in an outbox? Here are Magary’s 10 tips for avoiding terrible children’s books and my responses:

1. Avoid books that are too long or too wordy.

Magary equates books with large swaths of text on each page to medieval torture devices.

I agree and am an advocate of rewording books, skipping paragraphs, and, if the text is impossible to salvage, describing illustrations in your own words.

A good children’s book is like a good poem. Every word should be chosen carefully. See for example Swimmy by Leo Lionni or Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.

There are kids (e.g. my eldest son) who live for reading books that contain lots of details about obscure subjects like the lost city of Machu Picchu or, say, beagles. In my mind, these kids will be reading on their own soon enough and can wait until they become independent readers to read all of the inane facts they want.

2. Make sure the text rhymes.

Magary asserts, and I am quoting here, “If it doesn’t rhyme, it’s ass.”

I disagree. To the contrary, when I am reviewing a book and realize that the author has attempted to tell a story in rhyme, I get nervous. If good children’s books are hard to write (and they are), good rhyming children’s books are even harder to write. Good rhyming books exist (e.g. Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka, Sandra Boynton has written several good ones), but good rhyming books are few and far between.

3. Avoid one-trick ponies. 

Magary is pretty harsh when assessing Laura Numerhoff’s series of books in which she adopts basically the same formula that she used to write her first book: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. I have heard others discount all of Eric Carle’s books based on the fact that several books that he and Bill Martin Jr. teamed up to write (e.g. Polar Bear Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You Do You See?) employ the same formula.

I agree with Magary…with the caveat that if a book spawned an entire series of imitators, the first book is likely worth a read. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? are both excellent books.

4. Avoid repetitive books.

Magary warns parents that repetitive books like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham will destroy their love of reading.

This one is tough. I too have felt the pain of reading repetitive books to my kids – We’re Going On a Bear Hunt immediately comes to mind….and, yes, Green Eggs and Ham…ugh. If booktime were all about me, I would not read these books.

However, repetitive books are not terrible books. All three of my kids have gone through stages where they have requested these books incessantly, and they did so for good reason. Books with repetition teach toddlers to form sentences, engage kids, and help kids (“emergent readers”) learn to associate words they are hearing with words they are seeing on a page.

Thus, read repetitive books to your kids…in the same way that you play catch with your toddler who cannot yet begin to catch a ball or listen to your child plunk out their first awkward song on a musical instrument. At the same time, it is also important to know when, for the sake of maintaining your sanity, Green Eggs and Ham needs to spend a few days or weeks or months in the outbox.

5. Do not buy fancy pop-up books.

Magary does an excellent job of explaining the problem with pop-up books: “Oh hey, look! Someone took the time and care to craft an elaborate pop-up model of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai! You know how long it takes your kid to render that page to shreds? Four seconds. Congratulations, you now have an empty book.”

This same rule applies to books with other gimmicks, such as built in movie projectors, buttons that make noises, and the like. These books are irresistible to kids, but oh-so-infuriating. They break. They fail to entertain in the long-run. And, to top it off, they cost substantially more than a book…a plain ol’ book, with a good story.

(BTW Flaps, textures, and cutouts are not gimmicks. Flaps, textures, and cutouts are superbly entertaining to babies and toddlers who are just discovering books.)

6. Buy any book that features textures.

I am fairly certain that Magary does not mean this. Have you seen Pat the Puppy? by Edith Davis? Blech! Let’s move on.

7. Do not buy any Amelia Bedelia books.

 I have not read an Amelia Bedelia book recently and thus cannot comment.

8. Never buy a DK reader book.

I will second Magary on this one. There are many well-written, fascinating nonfiction books available these days. There is no need to subject yourself or your children to terrible nonfiction books. 

9. Never buy any book that is based on a movie or TV show.

Magary reveals the ugly truth behind children’s books based on movies or TV shows: “Most of these books don’t even list a proper author…because they were conceived and executed during a conference call between brand managers. None of them has any value.” — What!??? Really?! I had no idea!

This is horrible news because books based on movies and TV shows are irresistable to small children. Furthermore, I have heard that if you want children to become readers you should allow and even encourage children to choose their own books. I have even heard of instances where a reluctant reader was enticed by a familiar TV or movie character to pick up a book for the first time.

That said, I agree with Magary. Never buy any book that is based on a movie or TV show. The familiar characters will entice kids, but generally speaking the stories inside are terrible and will teach kids that reading is not particularly enjoyable.

At our house, I let my kids choose any books they want from the library. When we get home, I immediately hide books based on movie or TV shows. Often, these books never get read. If my kids request them, we read them and then they mysteriously disappear again. They are rarely requested a second time.

10. Never buy a children’s book written by a celebrity other than Jamie Lee Curtis.

Actor Jamie Lee Curtis has written some quality children’s books, so it is good to be aware of the Jamie Lee Curtis exception to this otherwise solid rule.

I will add two additional tips for avoiding terrible books: 11. Avoid alphabet books; and 12. Beware of books that prominently feature dinosaurs or princesses on the front cover.

Lastly, I take exception to Magary’s final claim:  “The truth is that only a few people in history have managed to create great lasting children’s books: Seuss, Scarry, Sendak, Rey, Eastman, etc.”

If I were able to magically rid the world of terrible books — excessively wordy books, painfully awkward rhyming books, formulaic books, fancy pop-up books, DK readers, books based on movies  or TV shows, books written by celebrities other than Jamie Lee Curtis, alphabet books, and books that prominently feature dinosaurs or princesses on the front cover — there would still be more wonderful children’s books in the world than I could possibly read in my lifetime.

Furthermore, while I am certain that Magary did  not intend to include only white males on his short list of recommended authors, many parents and teachers do this unintentionally.

I urge you to rid your shelves of terrible children’s books and make a little more space for books by Emily Gravatt, Grace Lin, Kadir Nelson, Rukhsana Khan, Ana Juan, Patricia Polacco, Lauren Child, Margaret Wild, the three Pinkneys, Barbara Reid, Denise Fleming, Shirin Yim, Monica Brown, Allen Say, Alison Lester, Bronwyn Bancroft, Jutta Bauer, Mary Hoffman, Erin Stead and many other wonderful children’s book authors and illustrators.

Magary recommends 10 fantastic books to ensure that storytime is fun for parents as well as kids. In addition, here are 10 more crowd-pleasing books to add to his list:

  • Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall
  • Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney
  • Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek by Minfong Ho and Holly Meade
  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman
  • Cherry Tree by Ruskin Bond and Allan Eitzen
  • Goal! by Mina Javaherbin and A.G. Ford
  • Dance by Bill Jones and Susan Kuklin
  • Ben’s Trumpet by Rachel Isadora
  • Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown and John Parra
  • Elena’s Serenade by Campbell Geeslin and Ana Juan

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36 Responses to Avoiding Terrible Books

  1. Amy says:

    As a parent of four grown boys (who all love books!), and an assistant children’s librarian, I agree with almost all that you’ve said. My one modification would be to #1. Avoid books that are too long or too wordy. I guess I would say, avoid books that are too long or wordy for you and your child. As I read to my first son, I found that both his attention span and my endurance grew, and by the time he was 3 1/2, we were reading chapter books like Winnie the Pooh and James and the Giant Peach (and he ALWAYS wanted more). By the time all four of the boys were listening, we were reading for about 2 hours twice a day (we home schooled); the littler ones didn’t always stay and listen to the “older stuff”, but their “listening level” was quite high for their ages.
    BTW, my personal devil, as both a reader and a librarian, is the “Fairy” book series by “Daisy Meadows”–there are seemingly hundreds of them, and little girls love them (unfortunately). I wish more parents were as discerning as you and your readers! Keep up the good work.

  2. Kimberly says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject! A couple of books that have proved to be exceptions to the above-stated rules, at least in our household, are the alphabet book entitled Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and the celebrity-authored book Micawber (John Lithgow).

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a parent, I would agree with most of what you say. As a teacher, not so much.

  4. Kathy says:

    I agree with most everything you say here, though my son does love his Thomas books. I would encourage one exception on the pop-up books rule even for the really young ones. Matthew Van Fleet has several that are built for little hands – sturdy thick pages, a lot of the action behind clear plastic shields, etc. We have Tails and it has clever text, tons of interesting and unusual animals (Pangolin?), and tons of movement and textures to explore. My son got it at about 18 months and loved it. It is still going strong almost a year later.

  5. I was intrigued to read this post as I wondered how, when reading is such a subjective activity, one can classify a book as terrible. What I mean is that while we as parents may detest certain books (and I have been there, done that, bought the book), surely what matters in these days of declining literacy is that children actually read. I have been guilty of telling my child not to get something or refusing to give her the money for a pink book about a cat with a necklace added as a last-minute attempt to bribe people to buy it. It shows, to me as an adult, that the book must be poorly written drivel that needs a cheap and tacky incentive. However, is it right for us as adults to choose the literature that children read? Certainly if it can be in any way offensive I concur but at the same time I think one of the great things about reading is that children can have their own ideas about things. I do freelance writing work for a literacy charity and the message we are constantly pumping out to parents is that it doesn’t matter necessarily what we read with children, it’s the fact that you are reading to them that matters. Perhaps for parents who have already instilled this love this isn’t such an issue but I would now be careful about warning against any children’s books. And as for the textures comment – this is supposed to be a developmental activity for young babies, who will enjoy what they are feeling. And Dr Seuss I know annoys people but repetition in stories is important for children learning to speak and read so it does have an educational place.

    Sometimes I think that we as parents just have to accept that inevitably there will be books we dislike (I have plenty!). We can try to gently steer them away by suggesting another story though this is more likely to create stubborness. But at the end of the day, how much does this take up in the grand scheme of life?

    • I agree with you. I don’t know that it’s a good thing to be prescriptive about books (unless, as you say, the book is offensive or racist)…every child is different, and has different likes and dislikes. You have to try different things & let them explore…it is surprising to me sometimes what my child does/doesn’t like, but it’s not necessarily reflected in this list. For example, she loves pop-ups (esp. the gorgeous artsy ones) and they keep her occupied for a long time by herself. This has inspired her to make her own books. And, she adores Dr. Seuss. She also reads princess books (which I’m not keen on) alongside all the classics, and we really love reading vintage books. I try not to judge and let her imagination take flight.

      • Amy says:

        When I reread my description of my outbox (which I truly have…thanks to apt. therapy’s home cure), I do sound like I prescribe which books my children can and cannot read. I feel like I should clarify a little…although I also do not feel like my methods are the one and only right ones. The outbox is for books that are both terrible and that my kids forget about when out of sight. If a kid likes a book enough to request it, it will magically reappear. Also, I absolutely never criticize a book that my kids pick out from the library. To the contrary, I try to encourage them to choose their own books and get excited when they do…whatever the books are. In addition to the books they choose, I also choose books that I think they will enjoy.

    • Amy says:

      Thank you very much for your candor and for contributing to the discussion. You have expressed the view that I regularly hear repeated by literacy advocates: If you want children to read, children should be allowed and encouraged to choose their own books. I agree…with the caveat that I think that it is very valuable for parents, teachers, librarians, or other adults to provide guidance to kids with helping them find books that they will enjoy when they are young (e.g. <7).

      For one reason, young kids do not know which books they will enjoy until they have tried reading a variety of books. I regularly watch preschool-aged kids veer like bees to honey to the library books with pictures of familiar TV characters on their front covers because that is all they know…and parents rolling their eyes unsure of what to do. The book bins full of books featuring Dora, Thomas, and all Disney princesses are heavily picked over, while lots of really wonderful books — books that these preschoolers would likely enjoy more if introduced to them — are overlooked.

      In addition, the parents who are going to be most successful at passing on a love of reading to their children are the parents who love picture books and storytime themselves. Magary's post seemed to resonate with a lot of parents presumably because there are a lot of parents out there who are only grudgingly reading books to their kids. In a recent interview for NPR, Mo Willems talked about how he intentionally writes books to entertain parents as well as kids b/c parents are going to be more likely to read books to their kids if they are enjoying them too. I thought that was a very wise observation.

      I hope Magary's post and mine will encourage parents who have been reading solely "terrible" books to their kids to pick out some new good books to read to their kids. Magary suggests 10 great books that he thinks will have broad appeal to parents and kids. Once kids are exposed to a range of great and terrible and mediocre books, then they can and should get to decide over time which books they really enjoy reading.

      In the post above, the bold bullet points are Magary's. In my response, I too argue that books with texture and repetitive books are valuable.

      • It’s all really interesting isn’t it? I just read an article in an academic book about children’s literature that raises the question – can it ever be called children’s literature, when it is written by adults for children presumably with some kind of (conscious or unconscious) agenda. Apparently the books that are written for adults as well as children are less popular with children than ones that are written expressly for kids so authors such as Enid Blyton – often pilloried by adults – are timeless classics for children. I agree that parents should hopefully help introduce children to good books (I tried to persuade my daughter to read The Hobbit with me!) but hopefully even if they pick up the merchandising books that will get them interested in reading more generally and then move on to a wider range of materials. Well, you can but hope I suppose! ;-)

  6. Some very good tips, even though I didn’t agree with all of them.

    I second the pop-up book tip–only if your kids are still very young. I learned that the hard way with “Spot’s Playtime Pop-Up” book for my 2 and 3 year old. They liked looking at the book and hearing me read it to them, but within a month it was all torn up… :( When the kids are older though, I plan on introducing them to more pop-ups. Robert Sabuda has some awesome books–truly works of art.

    With “One Trick Ponies” I’m on the fence…My kids happen to love when I read the “Mouse” books and “Brown Bear” to them. I have pretty much all Laura Numerhoff’s Mouse series books. I think what we like most about them is not so much the words, but the illustrations. The same with “Brown Bear.” That book actually helped my oldest son learn some of his colors when I used to read it to him in his younger days. However, I do understand that the same formula for books can seem played out after a while..

    As far as the Amelia Bedelia books, I’m not sure my sons would find them interesting right now, but I actually liked the books when I was younger. As an adult, I still think the books are hilarious. I’m curious as to why Margary finds them awful? You didn’t mention why in your post. She may have a valid reason, but I just think they’re straight out funny. Have you read any of them yet? What did you think of them if you did?

    I’m trying to make time to get through as many posts of yours as I can. You’ve got some great lists and I’m already cataloguing the books I want to introduce to my sons! I totally agree with your idea of simply wanting your kids to love reading books! I also have the same desire for my boys, since reading is on of my passions! :)

    Sorry, I seem to have written a novel in your comments…I just get so nerdy when it comes to reading and books. ;)

    • Amy says:

      I remember enjoying Amelia Bedilia books as a kid. I honestly have not read them since I was a kid and didn’t feel like doing so in the name of research for this post.

  7. Interesting list! My daughter loves pop-up books. They keep her occupied, and that makes me happy! Dr. Seuss for his rhymes and pictures are tops at our house.

    • Amy says:

      It is awesome that your daughter loves pop-up books and is inspired to create her own! Some pop-up books are truly works of art! My immediate acceptance of Magary’s assertion here stems in part from the fact that my kids would absolutely destroy pop-up books right now. This probably reflects the fact that I have not done a good job of teaching my kids to take care of things. In fact, I have done a very, very poor job. Also, my kids both spent their Christmas money on movie projector books that cost $25 each, were not read, and are are now broken.

  8. I. Garden says:

    Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee was also on regular rotation at my house, and would have been a nightly read were it not for my insistence that we diversify. That said, it was IRRESISTIBLE to my daughter from about 12 to 20 months. It was also her first book, brought to our house by a smart and good friend when baby was only a couple days old. So, I second the plea for another exception to the no-celebs rule.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for the suggestion! I have a lot of respect for Spike Lee and Kadir Nelson. I will have to take a look at Please, Baby, Please.

  9. I was mentally adding “DK readers” to the list, and then I saw it there. I despise those books. I love non-fiction, but they are sooooo distracting, Each page has way too much going on.

  10. Amy Rhodes says:

    Very funny post :) my husband has banned me from buying any more peppa pig books so may be he has more sense than I thought. My local library need these tips they always read a rubbish story at our book club and it really annoys me there are so many good books out there.

  11. Wonderful suggestions! While I may not agree with every point in every case, this is an excellent starting point for parents putting together their own guidelines for building a reading library at home with their children.

    • Amy says:

      Well said. I would not expect anyone to agree with every point here about which books are terrible and which aren’t. I do hope that this encourages parents of young kids to offer kids a little guidance in choosing books.

  12. Amy, I enjoyed reading your response to the Deadspin piece. Very thorough and well written. You certainly know children’s books! Great post!

  13. Great post, Amy — and great conversation to go with it. I had not seen many of the books in your set of 10 here, and I think it confirms your point: even if you got rid off all the “junk” (using the criteria you offered above) there is STILL plenty of great literature that families can enjoy together.

    I would offer with pop-up books, though that you save them for the “older kids.” We have several of the Robert Sabuda that we treated like Fine China when the 10-YO was 7 and 8, but that she now cherishes and scours, lifting flaps, creating spreads. I like to think it was an exercise (painful at the time because of the whining) that helped her learn how to treat a book.

  14. Rachel says:

    I take exception to the celebrity rule. I teach preschool and can tell you that Spike Lee’s “Please, Puppy, Please” and “Please, Baby, Please” are favorites of almost all preschoolers. The simple, repetitive text is brought to life in extradorinary ways by the brilliant illustrator, Kadir Nelson. Neither book ever fails to please. :)

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I will have to read Spike Lee’s books. Will Smith’s Just the Two of Us (also illustrated by Kadir Nelson) has also been on my to read list.

  15. While I broadly agree with you on most of your points, where I would take issue with you is your dislike of alphabet books. Some, admittedly, are dire, but what about such gems as ‘Dr Seuss’s ABC’ or Mick Inkpen’s ‘Kipper’s A to Z’? Or even ‘The Children’s Book of Alphabets’, which is a strict alphabet book in that it doesn’t have a story, but has beautiful illustrations? And as for repetitive books, ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’ is a work of pure genius – if you don’t believe me, listen to Rosen reading it (it’s on YouTube somewhere).
    Like others, I hadn’t heard of many of the 10 books in your list. We do have another book by Minfong Ho though (Hush: a Thai lullaby), and while I agree that it’s a beautiful book and one that I, as a Thai-speaker, appreciate, my children have all been bored by it and have rarely requested it again.
    Sometimes you just have to bow to your child’s tastes, however much you disagree with them. After all, if they’re given a wide variety throughout childhood chances are that they’ll come to be much more discerning later on. There are plenty of books which I wouldn’t want to waste my money on, but as for borrowing them now and again from the library, your child will survive. As will you as a reader. Just.

    • Amy says:

      Hi, Elli. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is fine to read books that aren’t top notch literature, and it is important to pay attention to what books your kids truly enjoy and request repeatedly. I think Magary’s piece resonated with a lot of parents b/c there seem to be a lot of parents whose kids pick out books that stink at the library based on the cover art or a familiar TV character. They find themselves reading terrible books to their kids at storytime, and they are not enjoying storytime and their kids are learning that books are poor versions of their favorite TV shows. I wrote this for these parents. -Amy

      • Oh I agree – if children are only ever exposed to TV/film spin-offs then it’s a painful experience for all concerned. Even the thought of a Disney book makes me shudder – although I have at various times read them through gritted teeth. Normally if my children pick out terrible books in the library I read them to them at the library but don’t borrow them – that way they get to feel they’ve chosen a book, without it driving me completely insane.

    • Amy says:

      Excellent suggestion! I too read some of these books to the kids at the library and then leave them there.

  16. Anonymous says:

    We just discovered “Big Red Lollipop” and the kids LOVE it—much mourning when it had to go back to the library, and now that we need to make another trip it is on top of the list. Great post!

  17. Ali says:

    My son, Mason, has led me to the books that are important to him and I, as a parent-in-training, followed. We read Green Eggs and Ham hundreds of times and in fact he learned to read with that book. Fortunately that forged a path to many other Dr. Seuss books that he loves including The Lorax.
    As a 7 year old he’s obsessed with Captain Underpants books. And part of me wants to hide them. But another part of me watches him become consumed by the stories. So, despite my wishes that he read something a little more high-brow I’m not going push it. He’s reading without me having to encourage him and I’m happy with that for now.
    And, by the way, I couldn’t agree more with the pop-up book comment.

    • Amy says:

      I should clarify that my comments about ruthlessly hiding terrible books apply to young kids who are choosing books based solely on cover art. Once kids hit ages ~5-8 and know what they like, I think it’s important to let kids choose their own books. As parents, we can still nix reading material that’s not appropriate for their age (just as we do with movies, TV shows, etc.), but I no longer hide or criticize any books my oldest son picks out. He knows what he likes.

  18. Zoë says:

    Very informative! I consider myself fairly well-informed on the children’s books popular with the 3-and-under set and I haven’t heard of any of the books on your top ten.

    Adding to something you implied–that kids love repetition and that you sometimes are reading for their enjoyment despite your boredom–I think it’s important to remember that there is such a thing as reading books that are too old for your child. Complicated plots, wordplay, and asides to adult readers make reading to kids fun for grown ups, but if your child can’t give you some decent feedback on what the book was about, it’s not really a great book for storytime. I’ve been guilty of this myself. At least with my younger (R, 22 mo) I can make the excuse that I need to read something that will interest the older one (C, 3.5 years) and at least he’s looking at nice illustrations and getting a sense of how language works, but I know that what R really wants is for me to read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” for the 87th time.

    • Amy says:

      This list is not my top 10 list. (See “Top 60” above for 60 of my very favorite books. There is some overlap.) This is a list of 10 excellent books with protagonists from a variety of cultural backgrounds. In contrast, Magary recommends 10 books that he thinks parents are likely to enjoy reading to their kids (a Mo Willems book, the Olivia books, the Llama Llama books etc.). I like Magary’s list too.

      I really like that Magary’s article encourages readers to stop reading books that are terrible both for parents and kids. But, yes, especially when reading books to the three and under crowd, there is often a conflict. The books that are truly humorous to adults are often above the heads of and not the books that will engage young kids.

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