What makes a good children’s book?

I dropped by Julie Paschkis’ the other day while I was searching for a topic for this blogpost. Her friend Marjorie was sitting at the kitchen table.

“Write about your favorite book as a child,” Marjorie suggested and began to tell us about her favorite, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket. Marjorie had searched and searched for a copy in her adult years and luckily a friend found it. Marjorie keeps the book in a vault, but she had photos on her phone, which she delightedly showed us, spread by spread.

The story follows Little Bobo, a child elephant. He takes his blue jacket to a monkey for laundering. The monkey mishears and thinks Bobo wants the jacket shrunk. When the jacket no longer fits, Bobo goes from animal to animal hoping to find someone who will fit it. Many try with no success. Then the hippo wiggles into the shrunken jacket. Although it is too small for the hippo, trying it on stretches the jacket and lo and behold Bobo can fit it again!


We agreed that, compared to today’s picture books, the text is wordy – maybe twice as long as is currently typical. The artwork is cute, as you can see: cartoony and sweet at the same time. The story seems unremarkable.

But something about that book resonated with that little girl at that moment in time. The child Marjorie and the Little Bobo book made a connection that has lasted a lifetime.  By the measure of belovedness ­­– the Marjorie Meter, I think we should call it – Little Bobo is a good children’s book.

• • • • •

Fellow children’s author Adam Gadwitz writes about what makes a good children’s book in the October 3 issue New Yorker magazine. He suggests several measures by which to judge, beginning with the financial measure, noting the Goosebumps series has sold over 350 million copies. He suggests others might rate a book for its social consciousness, on how “instructive or nutritive, often morally so” that it might be. And he brings up Bruno Bettelheim’s idea that a good children’s book helps the child reader find meaning in life.

Does a good children’s book have to work for adults as well? Gadwitz lets C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia published in the 1950s, answer: “… a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”

Gadwitz, who writes middle grade novels, has found two guides to his own writing. One is content-oriented: “I aspire to write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to devour every page, and are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring.”

The other, results-oriented: “If a child opens a book, reads every page, closes it, clutches it to his chest and says, ‘I love this book,’ then it is a good book.”

It’s good to be aware of these scales on which to measure a good children’s book:  financial success, social relevance, significance to a child’s understanding of life, accessibility to adults and kids, longevity, content and results.

But in the end I have to agree with Gadwitz. It’s content and results that matter.

Content – My favorite picture books are favorites for many different reasons. I love some of them because they have a wonderful voice, (like Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks and illustrator Martin Matje, 1999);

some for the dance of text and art, (Emeline at the Circus by Marjory Priceman, 1999);

some for the expressive illustrations and shining story, (All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrator Marla Frazee, 2009);

some for a resonant theme, (Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and illustrator Patrick Benson, 1992);

and some for the characters, (Ben Clanton’s brand new Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea, 2016).


All these content aspects of picture books are vital to the species. Every book has its own mix of these ingredients, stirred in in service to the story.

Results – In the end, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket shines by measures of results as well as longevity. I would be so happy if, like Little Bobo, one of my books mattered to a reader across a lifetime.

Julie P mentioned Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed Cakes. For me, it would be Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear. 

SO WHAT ABOUT YOU? Is there a book from your childhood that is still beloved by you? As people suggest them, I will add covers of other books that scored high on the Marjorie Meter.

From “hangtown”:

From Cathey Ballou Mealey:


Childhood favorites of Deirdre O’Sullivan:

Favorites of Wendy Wahman:

11 responses to “What makes a good children’s book?

  1. Charlotte’s Web is by E.B. White. C.S Lewis wrote the Narnia books.
    Remembering my favorite childhood books – Oz books, Little House books. Thanks

  2. Thanks for the catch! I confused two of my favorite double-initial authors. Of course CS Lewis and Narnia, EB White and Charlotte. And thanks for reading our blog. The Little House books were my favorites as a child, too. Now I am too aware of their negative images of native Americans to have the same warm feelings toward Pa and Laura.

  3. Cathy Ballou Mealey

    CRICTOR by Tomi Ungerer -still brings a smile as the beneficent boa and elderly owner bond in France. I am soft for unusual pet stories!

  4. I am very, very flattered , Laura ! I look forward to all of those books that will be posted. M2

  5. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    The first book I learned to read all by myself at the age of four, was “A FISH OUT OF WATER” by Helen Palmer (she was the wife of Dr Seuss)- published in 1961. Kids could really relate to the smallness of Otto the goldfish – being tiny is a really big deal for kids! Otto grows bigger and bigger, because his owner feeds him just a pinch too much fish food. I still remember the hilarious suspense I felt, as the little boy rushed madly around, trying frantically to find bigger and bigger containers to shove his bulging goldfish into. It’s still a guaranteed giggle-maker today!
    Another standout for me was THE CABBAGE PRINCESS by Errol
    Le Cain, 1969. He was a superbly talented story teller and illustrator – now his divine books are all sadly out of print – but you can look up images from his work on Google. His style is lavish, fruity and flamboyant, and it sparked my imagination as a kid – I’m still besotted by it today.
    Thanks for your post today, Laura. I truly believe you never love a book as much as an adult, as you did as a child. Perhaps it’s because kids feel love with a fierce intensity – this sadly fades as we get older!

    • Deirdre — THANK YOU for your comment. I have to agree HUMOR is a big factor in making a book remembered and beloved. I have continued to find books I love deeply all through my life, though the the titles change as I change. Right now my favorite is Kent Haruf’s novel, OUR SOULS AT NIGHT.

  6. Wonderful post, Laura. Marjorie, I had this book and loved it too! What a wonderful walk down memory lane. I’d love to see it again, if you would share the photos from your phone.
    So many favorites, but what always surfaces right away for me is HARRY GETS A BATH, HARRY AND THE LADY NEXT DOOR. A few years later, CHARLOTTE’S WEB and HARRIET THE SPY.
    And yes, yes, yay, for Ben Clanton’s Narwhal series. I love Ben’s friendly, conversational tone, and his characters, so simple and endearing, become our friends too.

  7. Thanks, Wendy. And thanks for all these treasured titles. I think Ben has a great future in children’s books. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

  8. Sam, Bangs and Moonshine, by Evaline Ness and Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I still remember the thrill I felt the first time I heard those read out loud by our teacher at school. James and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl was another favorite. I think my best friend and I alternated turns checking it out of our school library for an entire year.

  9. I LOVED (and was horrified by) Black Beauty, the first real novel I read when I was a child. The book resonated deeply, so much so that I now have perhaps 20 different editions (including my first, well-loved copy) on my shelves! The Narnia books were also favourites as were the stories of Little Black Sambo and the Ant and Bee books (there was just something so friendly about Kind Dog).

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