November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Selecting Children’s Books: A Reader’s Advisory by ‘The Horn Book’ Editors | Fostering Lifelong Learners 2014

The Horn Book editors Martha Parravano and Roger Sutton. Photos by Carolyn Sun.

The Horn Book editors Martha Parravano and Roger Sutton. Photos by Carolyn Sun.

The Horn Book editors Roger Sutton and Martha Parravano charmed an audience of librarians and early childhood educators during their reader’s advisory and what-to-look-for session at the “Fostering Lifelong Learners” conference, presented by SLJ and sister-publication The Horn Book, at the Cuyahoga County (OH) Public Library on September 19.

Armed with a depth of knowledge about selecting board books—and humor—The Horn Book editor-in-chief Sutton and executive editor Parravano framed their advice on what elements to look for in children’s books and their picks based on the worldview of preschoolers (birth to age 5) for their presentation entitled “Reviewing/Selecting Books for Children and Reader’s Advisory for Parents and Children.” “They’re the center of the universe,” exclaimed Parravano to the audience in the auditorium of the Parma Snow branch near Cleveland.

The duo, co-authors of A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Candlewick, 2010), then held forth on the business of choosing board books for both babies (ages one and two) and toddlers (ages three and four).

The book Global Babies

‘Global Babies’ from the Global Fund for Children.

“You want books that have familiar objects and situations, pictures without a lot of background distraction, and the chance to interact,” said Parravano. She referenced a comment by the event’s keynote speaker, Reach Out and Read cofounder Robert Needlman, who stated that “babies do not exist in a vacuum,” when she asserted, “Babies don’t exist in a vacuum. The more interactive you can be with a book, the more engaged that child is going to be.”

She went on to recommend selecting baby books with a tight focus, brief text, familiar backgrounds in the pictures, familiar subjects, opportunities to interact, and subjects children are exploring in their own little world, such as animals.

“One size does not fit all… Give [the kids] scrapbooks, animal magazines, board books—if it’s oriented toward them, give it to them,” said Parravano.

One prime example of a book geared towards the very young is Global Babies (Charlesbridge, 2007) by the nonprofit Global Fund for Children, which displays “picture after picture of adorable babies,” she said. Little ones looking at the book “will go right to the eyes of the babies [in the book].”

Roger Sutton spoke of what not to choose in children's books.

Along with what to look for, Roger Sutton also spoke of what not to choose in children’s books.

Sutton talked about knowing what books not to select, which he likened to “What Not to Wear.” He cited one board book, Magritte’s Imagination (Chronicle, 2009) by Susan Goldman Rubin, as one example. Its surrealistic art is “beyond children,” said Sutton. “Mom, why is there a clock coming out [of] a person’s face?” he quipped, explaining how certain books may appeal to parents and librarians, but they don’t “speak to the aesthetic or development of a young child.”

Parravano spoke fondly of a book that came out when her daughter was a preschooler called Let’s Make a Noise (Candlewick, 1992) by Amy MacDonald that is “developmentally perfect for that age.” She revealed to the crowd that both she and Sutton chose both new and older picture books for the reader’s advisory, because “your baby will not care if the book was published in 1940s. There is no such thing as a jaded, world-weary 18-month-old.”

The duo bantered, while recommending board books such as Ten, Nine, Eight (Greenwillow, 1996) by Molly Bang; Blue Hat, Green Hat (S. & S., 1984) by Sandra Boynton, about colors and clothing with a fun read-aloud cadence and rhythmic text; and a bedtime and concept book called Orange Pear Apple Bear (S. & S., 2011) by Emily Gravett, in which the book reviews different colors.

The board book edition of Goodnight Gorilla (Putnam, 1996), originally a popular picture book by Peggy Rathman, has a “little red shiny balloon” at the end of each spread that a kid gets to follow as the pages turn, raved Parravano.

Books that go “thunk”

Sutton touched upon ebooks saying that he recently heard children’s book historian Leonard Marcus speak at the Cambridge Public (MA) Library who’d noted that books “lose their size when they become ebooks” and consequently lose the intended presentation of the designer and the author. Some picture books are inappropriately large for a young child—said Sutton, dropping a “mega-size” board book edition of Goodnight Gorilla with a thunk to illustrate. Choose something that a child can grasp, he urged.

isadora_jake-at-gymnasticsIt’s not always about board books, said Parravano, picture books are good for infants, too. She praised Jake at Gymnastics (Penguin, 2014) by Rachel Isadora about a group of kids who are doing gymnastics, rolling on a mat, and cheering each other on. “I found it very empowering—lots of ‘good jobs’ and ‘let’s try this,’” she said, praising the text and showing the illustrations that display a diversity of children so that every child can recognize him or herself in the pictures.

She also built upon what Needlman had said earlier in his keynote—how the language in books is so much richer than what’s used in everyday life—i.e. “Don’t do that.” Eat your peas.” One of her favorite tried-and-true children’s books for rich language and its variety of moods, she shared, is My Very First Mother Goose (Candlewick,1996) illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Parravano recited a selected rhyme:

Jelly on a plate! Jelly on a plate!

Wibble wobble, wibble wobble.

Jelly on a plate!

To which Sutton followed up with his Mother Goose favorite:

I’m Dusty Bill from Vinegar Hill.

Never had a bath—and I never will.

PocketfulFor the rest of their presentation, Sutton and Parravano recommended a slew of books, including: the nursery rhyme book Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (HMH, 2010) by Sally Mavor, which features illustrations in embroidery and won the 2011 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Picture Book; The Tiny King (Candlewick, 2013) by Taro Miura; Higher Higher (Candlewick, 2010) by Leslie Patricelli, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (Little, Brown, 2013) by Peter Brown; and the wordless The Farmer and the Clown (S. & S., 2014) by Marla Frazee.

The Horn Book editors also spoke about selecting books for “slightly older children” (ages 3–4):

“You want high interest material, you want books about machinery, dinosaurs, you want books about other kids, you want books about animals that you can make the noises, you just want lots of action and sounds, things for them to join in with… definitely,  you want a beginning and an end.”

Selecting books is often a matter of taste, but reading to a child, said Parravano—is “the opportunity for the parents… the child, and the book to interact.” While reading books to kids is undoubtedly the best way to help them gain literacy for learning, according to Sutton, it is also vital to teach kids to just enjoy great books.

The daylong professional development event, “Fostering Lifelong Learners,” was sponsored by AWE, Candlewick Press, Junior Library Guild, PNC, and Simmons brought together by SLJ and sister publication The Horn Book. Program highlights from this early literacy event included a keynote by Reach Out and Read cofounder Robert Needlman.

Click here for a PDF of this presentation with book list (starting on page 6).

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Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.