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.
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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 Cathey Ballou Mealey:
Childhood favorites of Deirdre O’Sullivan:
Favorites of Wendy Wahman: