Some Insights on the Mystery of Children’s Books

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I had never thought about it before, but the Little Old Lady in "Good Night Moon" does not appear until the middle of the book. Why I find that striking is that, at least for me, when I had read the book in the past, it appeared to me that time did not pass in the book. I had always seen the story as occurring in the moment.

But, if the Little Old Lady is not there in the beginning then that means that time has passed and maybe a lot of time. That sense of the vagueness of time is one we all experienced as children. Think back to your childhood and you will see what I mean. Author Margaret Wise Brown is therefore allowing us to see the room, not through our own eyes, but through the eyes of the child in the bed.

That is just one thing I learned from an outstanding article, "The Grown-Up Joys of Reading Children’s Books", by Bruce Handy.  I strongly urge you to read the entire article as it will give you insights, not just on what makes a great children's book but on how a child sees the world.

Mr. Handy also woke me up when he wrote: "We are living through an extended golden age for children’s books, a product of America’s astonishing prosperity—and growing child-centeredness—in the long postwar era." I had never thought of this as a golden age of children's books but it truly is. How fortunate we are to be able to enjoy Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle among many others. 

Another nice touch point for Mr. Handy is his concentration on our adult enjoyment of these books. I have always felt that a great children's book, the kind you read to a child, needs to entertain not just the child but the adult as well. A book that entertains the adult reader is one that generates an interested and therefore interesting voice. 

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To give you an example, let me cite my experience reading my niece "The Early Bird" by Richard Scarry.

I had read it to her several times and was getting bored when I noticed something in the above page from the book. There, clustered with a salt and pepper shaker, a canister of jam and a cup of coffee is A HARD BOILED EGG. What is a Father Bird doing eating a hard boiled egg!? Not only that but why is Early Bird eating his eggs sunny side up!? Are they cannibals?

Then I realized that Richard Scarry had made a joke just for me. He knew I was reading the book and he wanted to speak to me. And here is what I believe he was saying:  

"Did you notice that I put an exclamation point on the end of the sentence: 'Look at What Early Bird Ate for Breakfast!"

"I did that for you."

"Did I make you laugh?"

Yes he did. He also made me read him far more closely. After all, any author who can wield an exclamation point so cleverly has my full attention. 

Writing about children's books makes me feel warm inside. I hope you enjoy reading about them.

Thanks to Wendy Levey for bringing the article by Bruce Handy to my attention.

One thought

  1. I also love children’s books – even if I am a grown up! I’ve seen jokes for the adults contained in Disney & Pixar movies, but I never thought of looking for the hidden jokes aimed at us in kids’ books!

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