Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1

A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear, the eye, and the imagination.

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overthesteamyswampYesterday while at the library searching the shelves for  a list of picture books, I was talking to the children’s librarian about a picture book I loved — Over the Steamy Swamp by Paul Geraghty.  I told her how I laughed over the pictures and found it such a wonderful book for illustrating the food chain.  She wasn’t familiar with it, but she then pulled out another book which she thought would be similar — Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, by Tom Willans. So I brought it home to read.

wait-iwant2tellI was quite disappointed.  First, the illustrations weren’t as funny as in Over the Steamy Swamp. But that would have been okay if the language was as vivid. In Over the Steamy Swamp, one mosquito is flying over the swamp, unaware that she is being watched by a greedy dragonfly, who is too interested to notice that he, in turn, is being watched by a famished frog, and so on up the food chain to the peckish fish, the heron, the starving snake, the craving crocodile, the hostile hunter, and the ravenous lion. Paul Geraghty’s text is simple and reminiscent of  The House that Jack Built in its repetitive style. But it’s his pictures that make the book so funny. These animals have facial expressions you won’t ever forget — especially when the book reaches its climax. After the lion’s great, big, ravenous nose is bitten by the mosquito, to say he is surprised and upset is an understatement. Suddenly, everyone in the food chain hears the lion’s yowl and looks backwards and sees what’s been about to eat him.  Not only is the art work bold and expressive, but the text will teach some great adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.

In comparison, Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story, though entertaining, has less educational value.  Although a child may learn the names of some animals — muskrat, tiger, frog, shark, lizard, snake, fly, spider, and crocodile — the interesting adjectives are missing. Although both books have repetition, the repeated phrases in Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story consist mainly of the title itself followed by “Okay, said the (name of animal), “but make it quick!” This book begins with a muskrat sitting quietly in a tree, when a tiger comes upon him and informs him, “I’m going to eat you, little muskrat.”

The clever muskrat exclaims, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.” The story consists of other animals about to be eaten by something bigger, and each begs, “Wait! I want to tell you a story.”

Each predator replies, “Okay, but make it quick.” This works until the spider says, “I’m going to eat you little fly.” But the spider does not want to hear the fly’s story, and eats the fly. (This is all part of the muskrat’s story.)

As the tiger is about to eat the muskrat, just as the spider ate the fly, the muskrat shouts, “Wait! There’s more… and he tells how the lizard ate the spider, the snake the lizard, the frog the snake, and the shark the frog. The tiger gets curious and asks what happened next, and the muskrat said “The crocodile ate the tiger.” About that time the tiger discovers the very real crocodile, who then snaps up the tiger as the muskrat escapes. (The picture shows the tigers tail dangling from the crocodile’s mouth.)

Whereas both books do illustrate the food chain, in Over the Steamy Swamp the most violent moment is when the mosquito stings the lion’s very sensitive nose.  Everyone gets scared, but no one gets eaten. I think this story is also easier to follow, since there is no story within a story to be confusing.

In Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story it is sometimes hard to tell the story from the real events. There are no interesting words describing the animals, and the repetition, instead of being an exact recitation all the exciting phrases in a chain, one word — the name of the animal talking — is always different.  That makes it harder for children to chant along with you as you read to them.

I hope our library actually does have Over the Steamy Swamp in her library to recommend to children, and so she will have an alternative to recommending  something which I believe is a bit inferior in its use of language, repetition, and illustrations.  There are so many books in the library to choose from, but some of the best choices aren’t there. A child may judge a book by its cover, but when adults choose a story to read aloud, I think they should choose the story that most effectively uses new words to build vocabulary while entertaining the ear,  the eye, and the imagination. Wait!…. will add few exiting new words to a young reader’s vocabulary, and although it might have some striking illustrations, there is not much to feed the imagination. What happens just happens. In Over the Steamy Swamp, the illustrations have the reader anticipating what he expects to happen and then just as he expects all the animals to start eating each other, the plot twists and every one except the lion is left unharmed. The lion is left with just  a sore nose. It’s less violent and more fun. It’s a shame it’s out of print. Maybe your library will be lucky enough to  have a copy.

Second thought: After writing this, I showed Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story to my husband, and he thought it was very clever. The “telling a story to keep from being killed” technique has a long history, after all.  This story does have entertainment value and would still be fun to read aloud, since it does lend itself to dramatic interpretation. It would be easy to ham it up.

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My Goodreads Playground

About a month ago I discovered goodreads.com, and I haven’t been the same since.  In fact, I am close to addicted.  Anyone who’s ever known me or been in my house can tell you I’m a bookaholic. I signed up with librarything.com first, but one has to pay to list more than 200 books there. I also tried shelfari.com, but it insists on putting books on my shelf I don’t have and do not want to have. So I seem to spend all my spare time at goodreads.com. Check out my reading list there .

Now if you can’t understand why anyone would enjoy just making lists of books to read, already read, or what one is currently reading, please understand there’s a whole lot more to it than that. It’s a whole social networking site built around books. You can make friends with those on the site who have similar reading tastes or invite real-world friends to join you so you can keep up with each other’s reading choices.  You can compare your books lists with others to see if a friend invitation is in order. You can read member reviews of any books that interest you and rate and review any books you’ve read to help others with their selections. But, best of all, there’s trivia.

And, I confess, trivia is really what has me hooked.  Once you have your account, just go to the menu across the top and click on “Explore.” And from the drop down menu, pick “trivia.”  Your first multiple choice question will appear. If you don’t like it, you can skip it with no penalty — after all, not everybody can read everything that’s been written. You can even limit your trivia questions to those about books on your lists. And if you think there’s not enough variety, you can write some questions of your own to add to the fun.  The site keeps score of how you are doing in relationship to others, how you answer specific questions compared to your friends, etc.  You can even evaluate the questions themselves. I love playing goodreads trivia and adding questions on the books I’ve read and seeing what others think of them.

One other feature I occasionally use is the “books lists” on the “explore” drop-down menu. This enables me to see what others think are the best or worst books ever in a number of categories and to add my own additions to these lists and to order them according to my own opinion.  This, in turn, has the capacity of changing the main list as others continue to add their input. Looking through these lists is a great way of putting more books on your shelves because you are bound to run into a few you’ve read but not thought about when making your first bookshelves.  The more books you have listed, the more fun the site becomes as you compare reading lists with others — another good way to update your shelves.

The last feature I really enjoy is  the group discussion. There are public groups for every reading interest. Or you can start a private group for you and your real world book club so you can have your book discussions on line. I have joined a few of the public groups and really do have a good time interacting with others who want suggestions or opinions on books I’ve read and who will offer me suggestions for books that might meet my own needs.  As I participate in discussions and get reading updates and reviews from my friends, I find myself adding books I’ve never heard of to my own wish list.

I have by no means described all the features of this site that make it sticky. But I hope I’ve described enough to motivate you to get your own free account and give it a whirl.

Begin at the Beginning

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax –Of cabbages — and kings. So I thank Lewis Carroll for my title, and you can expect to find me talking of many things in this blog.

Since I’ve chosen a blog name from Lewis Carroll, I might as well quote him in the title of this first blog. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is one of my favorite poems. And I’m also rather fond of the Cheshire Cat. Sometimes when the moon appears as just a big smile in the sky, I’m reminded of the Cheshire Cat’s grin when that’s all that’s still visible of him. Another of my favorite scenes is when Alice encounters the caterpillar. I didn’t intend to talk about this, and I’ve no idea where my copy of Through the Looking Glass is right now, but I think these references are to scenes in that book.

'The Time Has Come the Walrus Said To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages -- and kings -- And why the sea is boiling hot -- And whether pigs have wings.'

As the blog name indicates, the topics may change from day to day. I am a affiliate seller of new and used books, and most of them are for teachers or children. Others, especially the used ones, are about topics I’m interested in — gardening, cooking, biography, history, humor, etc. Because I read a lot of books, I’m likely to talk about them often. I may also share experiences I have had as a bookseller or a blogger. And if it’s been a beautiful day, I just might mention my garden or what I’ve seen on a walk. Likewise, if something has inspired me, or if I’m thinking over something, I might share that here.

 

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’ (from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll)

And that’s what I will do in this blog — talk of many things.

I hope you’ll join the conversation by commenting and asking questions. Maybe you have a new twist on something I’ve said here.Feel  free to disagree with me, too. We can all learn from each other.