“To somebody, at the right moment, these books were great:” A guest post from our CEO, Dick Robinson
By Scholastic on June 5th, 2012
What makes a children’s book great? This was the theme of a conference held by Publishing Perspectives at the Scholastic headquarters on Thursday, May 31st (read more about it here). Scholastic’s own chairman and CEO, Dick Robinson, delivered the keynote, and we thought you’d enjoy a portion of his address. Read on for this guest post from our CEO!
A great children’s book is the one which at this moment is making a child so connected to a picture or a story that the child brings that book into their heart and mind because it ignites a connection to a feeling or an idea that becomes all-important to that child. This definition means that a wide variety of children’s books can be great, because they can touch a child and bring alive an important idea or feeling.
You might come at this idea by simply reviewing what the words “great children’s book” bring alive in your mind. My guess is that it will immediately bring you to books that have endured, that have had wide circulation, that have won prizes and are broadly known. You are probably thinking Where the Wild Things Are and Good Night Moon and perhaps even The Carrot Seed or A Hole is to Dig or Katherine Paterson or J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, but most likely there is a relatively narrow list of books in your head which our Scholastic polls show are most likely to include To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter and perhaps a Maurice Sendak book.
But if you ask a broad segment of people that question, “what makes a great book,” you will get Richard Scarry and Where’s Waldo, Captain Underpants and Arthur, and board books and alphabet books, and informational books from DK or Usborne or The Magic School Bus. And you will get joke books and mysteries like Goosebumps and romances and friendship stories such as The Babysitters Club because to somebody, at the right moment, these books were great because they grabbed you and brought you into their world.
If you are 6 months to 18 months old, your great book might be our multicultural board book series of babies faces smiling. And if you were asking this question 60 years ago it might be Catcher in the Rye or Pippi Longstocking, and if you were asking it today it might be Rick Riordan or the Wimpy Kid series.
So my answer to the question of “what makes a children’s book great?” is to define children’s books very broadly and allow for the great variety of stories and ideas that can change the way a child looks at the world.
But even in the broadest definition of what makes a great book there are some characteristics almost certain to be present.
First, the central idea of the book is likely to be simple and original and presented with extreme clarity and visual simplicity and power. In this area, I think of The Carrot Seed, A Hole is to Dig, Swimmy, The Little Prince, Eloise, Goodnight Moon, anything by Maurice Sendak, and a host of others.
Second, the book somehow connects with the reader, assembling its world effortlessly in the reader’s mind, and makes you an immediate part of the story. In this area, I think of how Jo Rowling made every child feel he or she was Harry Potter, or Dickens made you feel you were Pip or David Copperfield. The writer draws you into the world of the book.
Third, a great book makes the world seem larger and more interesting and filled with infinite possibilities. Here I think of the initial impact of DK’s Eyewitness non-fiction illustrated titles or the recent book on the elements.
Fourth, I think humor and a light touch is incredibly important to children as proven by Captain Underpants, The Wimpy Kid series , Dr. Seuss and the incredible popularity of joke books.
Fifth, the realization of a fully realized but very different world such as Alice in Wonderland, Roald Dahl, Stuart Little or the dystopian books so popular now. But each of these touches an emotional chord because the people are recognizable even in strange settings.
Finally, every great book brings forth an emotional response, a sense of identity, a sense that I could be that person even if the person is in the form of an animal or a dragon or someone very different from who you are.
My answer, therefore, to the question is to appeal to you to look broadly at the world of children’s books and celebrate the wide diversity of answers to the question, “what makes a children’s book great.”
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