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Celebrating and Selecting Children’s Books,
Part 2: Beyond Picture Books
(The Second in a Two-Part Series)


By: Margaret MacMillan

In the Winter/Spring issue of CKW Luxe, the first part of this series focused on the elements to look for when choosing picture books for children ages zero to four. The article also encouraged readers to choose books that would inspire infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers to become lifetime readers who would continue to seek out the adventure of books during their adult lives. This article progresses from there by concentrating on choosing books for the older child, which I’ve divided into
three age groups: five to seven, seven to nine, and ten to twelve. The four elements that tie books for these three age groups together are: 1) the stories are divided into chapters; 2) pictures illuminating the story become less important; 3) the story becomes more important; 4) the child reads the story themselves. 

As children grow, so do their attention spans, and they can listen to a story for a longer period of time. As attention spans increase, other developmental changes occur: Children begin reading on their own, progressing from simple to more complex volumes; their understanding of concepts and the world around them grows; their vocabulary increases; they need fewer pictures to help hold their interest; they become more open to expanding themes that stretch beyond their corner of the world. Feelings, emotions, and everyday concerns are also becoming more complex, and right and wrong are beginning to develop gray areas.

Children are also becoming aware of their own interests, whether it be artistic, scientific, love of the fantastic, or the desire to solve mysteries and puzzles. Thus they are drawnto fantasies, mysteries, historical and mythical yarns, and tales of inventors, ballerinas, singers and others pursuing a dream. Some will seek out books that make them laugh by reflecting familiar situations they can relate to in a humorous way. Others will look for stories about other children, animals, or beloved toys whose world is changed by a single event.

Reading introduces children to the various kinds of personalities, including people like themselves, which make up this complex world. In so doing, children learn understanding and tolerance and the importance of diversity. As well, their worlds are expanded beyond what they experience in their daily lives opening their minds to new possibilities and discoveries. And, even though they’re growing older, children learn through books that imagination doesn’t end when you’re five but continues into adulthood expanding as far as they want to take it. Holding onto imagination allows children to dream big and imagine limitless possibilities for themselves and their world.

How then do we select books for beginning readers and beyond who have continued their love affair with books? In this article, we’ll focus on the elements to look for that make books successful by age group. Two of the most important things to keep in mind are: Know the child and have an understanding of what they, not you, want to read; be collaborative and ask them what kinds of books interest them being certain those are the types of books you seek out.

Children Ages Five to Seven
These children are moving from more complex picture books and fairy tales to beginning readers and simple chapter books. Important elements that make books for this age group successful are: 1) Simple language. It’s important for this age group to begin reading for themselves and to be successful at it. Words they can sound out, that are repeated, and that are familiar to them help them achieve that and endow them with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. 2) Pictures. First readers will have a picture on almost every page, or on the page facing the text, as pictures are still necessary for enjoyment and entertainment. The number will lessen as the child progresses to higherlevels. 3) High interest. It’s important the stories employcolorful characters, stories with lots of action, and some amount of simple complication so that children become completely involved with them. 4) Humor. Children love to laugh, especially in this age group and will be tickled by anything silly or out of the ordinary. Series books fit the bill and are numerous for this age group.

Here are three series that are perfect for children ages five to seven:

Fly Guy, written and illustrated by Tedd Arnold: Combining simple language, zany illustrations, and high-energy stories, the Fly Guy series follows the adventures of one of kids’ lit’s most likeable characters. Fly Guy is the unlikely, but beloved pet fly of a young boy named Buzz, whose qualities of loyalty and curiosity, along with an adventurous nature, are mirrored in his pet. These shared qualities make for buzzworthy adventures getting Fly Guy and Buzz into all kinds of hilarious predicaments. Designed for the earliest first readers, the Fly Guy series is inventive and fun and will
engage your beginning reader from the moment they discover the first book.

Mercy Watson, by Kate Di Camillo, illustrated by Kris Van Dusen: Mercy Watson is a single-minded likeable pig always on the hunt for hot buttered toast. He lives with Mr. and Mrs. Watson in their simple suburban home, but manages to find adventure and excitement around every corner. Illustrated with bright action-packed pictures and filled with rollicking good-natured fun and simple language, the Mercy Watson series is ideal for learning to read or just enjoying at bedtime.

Nate the Great, by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont: Nate the Great is a boy detective and he works alone. Fortunately for young readers, the star of this mystery series allows them to accompany him on his sleuthing adventures. Combining line drawings, progressive plot lines, and short chapters with dry wit and clever detecting, Nate’s stories resonate with children who love to solve problems and puzzles and anyone who likes to see someone triumph where others have failed.

Children Ages Seven to Nine
These children are generally reading longer books with fewer pictures. Important elements that make books for this age group successful are: 1) More challenging language. It’s important for children of this age to begin increasing their vocabulary with a few words that are unfamiliar to them. 2) Medium length. Children at the lower end of this group will require shorter books, but those at the upper end will be able to handle longer material. 3) Familiar characters. Friends, family members, pets, beloved toys, and figures of authority are all important to this age group and should
figure prominently. 4) Familiar situations. Complications with friends, families, and authority figures are normal as is making a decision that may have consequences, and books can help this age group understand these matters better. 5) Adventure. Children at this age love books where the main character embarks on an adventure that is successful and transformative in some way. 6) Humor. Kids in this age group love to laugh at events they can relate to. Both series books and stand-alone titles work well for them.

Here are three titles/series that are perfect for children ages seven to nine:
My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett: This beloved but sometimes overlooked tome is part of The Dragons of Blueland series, but can be read on its own. It’s the perfect transition for seven to eight year olds graduating from first chapter books as it contains some pictures, short chapters, and a slightly more sophisticated vocabulary. Telling the story of Elmer Elevator, a young boy who goes to a faraway land called Wild Island to rescue a baby dragon, this adventure also illustrates the fundamentals of basic problem solving. Each discovery Elmer makes leads him to making another decision and following its path until he’s successful. The Pain and the Great One, by Judy Blume, illustrated by Irene Trivas: This is a stand-alone title, but it has spawned a series of other The Pain and the Great One books. Hilarious, touching, and insightful, as are all Judy Blume books, it tells the story of an eight-year-old girl, “The Great One” and her six-year-old brother, “The Pain” and the quarrel they have one rainy afternoon about which one of them their parents loves best. Told with realistic language, the way a brother and sister would actually talk to each other, the book reinforces the fact for children that parents really don’t play favorites. The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Louis Darling: The first in the Ralph S. Mouse threepart series, The Mouse and the Motorcycle takes readers on a rollicking ride with a mouse who lives in a hotel. Always having dreamt about escaping his world on the second floor and venturing into the great outdoors, Ralph gets his wish when he discovers a toy motorcycle. After finding out how to ride it, Ralph makes his escape and motors into some tight spots that need quick thinking and a little grown-up courage.

The Child’s Bothersome Behaviors In the case of bothersome behaviors, it is the child who doesn’t empathize with the parent, instead of the other way around. Bothersome behaviors are things the child does consistently that upset the parent, although the child probably isn’t aware of the problem.
For instance, the child may habitually leave a mess in the kitchen after making a snack or throw their dirty clothes in a pile on their bedroom floor that keeps on growing ever larger. In these situations, the key thing for the parent to remember is that the child is probably unaware the behavior is causing anyone concern. In situational parenting, the solution to the problem is threefold:

1) The parent brings the problem to the child’s attention and explains how it makes them feel.  2) The parent speaks with the child about what is expected of them and helps the child be successful by altering the environment in a way that will lessen the likelihood the behavior will be repeated. For instance, in the case of the pile of dirty clothes, they provide the child with a hamper. 3) The parent establishes a consequence. For example, if the hamper isn’t used, the clothes don’t get washed. Eventually, the child will run out of clean clothes. 

A Combination of the Two 

Sometimes when a child feels a parent doesn’t understand their feelings, the child reacts with a bothersome behavior to try and change that. We’ve all been in the situation in the department store where we’ve had to pass the toy section in order to get to the appliance section and our child spots something they believe they can’t live without. When they are told “no” a tantrum sometimes ensues. In situational parenting, the first thing for the parent to do to handle the situation is acknowledge the child’s desire. The parent then explains why the desire isn’t practical at that time. Finally, the parent explains to the child the right way to ask for something and the expectations that have to be met in order for them to receive it.

Situational parenting emphasizes empathy, reasoning, empowerment, safety, and creating an environment for success. All children aren’t the same, nor are all families. Some children are more easy-going than others and some parents are, too. One family’s manner and frequency of problem situations will differ from another’s. Situational parenting is practised in an environment of love, understanding, and emotional warmth while offering help and stimulation. When you cocoon each situation with these attributes, you create an environment where the child is more likely to succeed.

Children Ages Ten to Twelve
These children are generally reading longer books with no pictures (with some exceptions) and more complicated plots and characters. Important elements that make books for this age group successful are: 1) Challenging and realistic language. Vocabulary that challenges this age group a little helps them improve their language skills. It’s also important to this group that characters talk the way they do. If not, the words won’t ring true. 2) Complex characters. Children at this age are beginning to understand that people possess character nuances and need to see that reflected in the characters in their books. 3) Complex situations. Children at this age are realizing life is more complicated than they once believed. Reading about problems characters have to overcome helps readers make better sense of the world and the complications they face. 4) Adventure and the unknown. Other worlds, magic, legendary or historical times, quests, and tales of the future all hold great interest for this age group. Both series books and stand-alone titles work well for them.

Here are three titles/series that are perfect for children ages nine to twelve:
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney: Called “a novel in cartoons” the clever and very funny Diary of a Wimpy Kid is just that. Because it’s written in diary form using language someone in middle school would use, and illustrated with doodle-like cartoons, the reader is convinced they’re actually looking at the private diary of undersized weakling Gregg Hefley. The first book in the series of the same name, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid follows Greg, with whom most kids will identify, through his trying, often hilarious, first year of middle school. Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull: Fablehaven, is a good choice for children who love the Harry Potter books. This exciting and imaginative volume follows siblings Kendra and Seth as they stumble upon a world where the mythical creatures from fairy tales and mythology still exist and live together in a sanctuary that prevents their extinction. Girls will relate to Kendra, a bright girl with all the selfdoubts of a normal adolescent, and boys will relate to Seth, a typical eleven-year-old boy whose curiosity gets the better of him. Above all, Fablehaven will reopen the world of magic to kids allowing them to fall in love with fairies, goblins, and elves all over again. 

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead: This clever fast-paced stand-alone tale combines mystery with time travel and a twelve-year-old heroine named Miranda with a lot going on her life. Well-read girls who love Nancy Drew and mysteries in general and who have discovered the classic, A Wrinkle in Time, Miranda’s favorite book, will welcome the challenge of When You Reach Me. Like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, Miranda will discover that life is complicated, but that by working through her problems it can be enriched by the answers she finds no matter how much it may have changed. Children are naturally curious, imaginative, and filled with wonder about the world around them. They are born with the innate desire to learn and discover whatever they can about it and about themselves. Books contribute to that knowledge and stoke that wonder leading children to places, people, and situations they never dreamed of, discovering, in the end, they are not so different from those in their own lives.

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