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janbb's avatar

What makes a great work of children's literature great?

Asked by janbb (43752 points ) March 10th, 2014

A friend and I are planning to collaborate on writing some children’s fiction. We have been discussing the elements of good children’s literature. I think originality, characterization and plot are key. We are talking about whether there needs to be some didactic element as well or whether that is more of an outdated idea. Obviously, one needs to decide what age one is writing for and whether the book will be a picture or chapter book. Would like to hear some Jelly opinions on what makes great children’s books for you, with example if you have them. I have my own personal favorites, of course, but would like some collective wisdom. Thanks.

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29 Answers

thorninmud's avatar

I wish I could get my wife, the youth services librarian in on this Q, but that ain’t gonna happen.

In my opinion, didacticism is a major buzz-kill in kids’ lit. Kids want a book to be a refuge from the rest of their world that’s always preaching at them, not yet another delivery vehicle for “adult wisdom”.

To the contrary, the books I like best were the ones that portrayed kids liberated from adult constraints. When I was very young, I had a crush on Pippi Longstocking. Later, I loved My Side of the Mountain and Wrinkle in Time. Very different books, but all about kids who were acting outside of adult constraint. And my kids loved Roald Dahl for the same reason; he didn’t hesitate to kill the parents off and then let the kids confront the terrible yet delicious freedom of taking on the world. The Lemony Snicket books had that same flavor, and they loved them, too.

gailcalled's avatar

THe Maurice Sendak books, with their perfect marriages of text and drawings, were interesting enough to generate banning, conflict and reviews by some of the great reviewers. Given your subject matter, I see “The Wild Things” and the psychoanalytical subtext as an ideal model.

‘Literary Significance of “Where the Wild Things Are.” Source

According to Sendak, at first the book was banned in libraries and received negative reviews. It took about two years for librarians and teachers to realize that children were flocking to the book, checking it out over and over again, and for critics to relax their views

Francis Spufford suggests that the book is “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger”.

Mary Pols of Time magazine wrote that “what makes Sendak’s book so compelling is its grounding effect: Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper ‘still hot,’ balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort.”

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted that “there are different ways to read the wild things, through a Freudian or colonialist prism, and probably as many ways to ruin this delicate story of a solitary child liberated by his imagination.”

In Selma G. Lanes’s book The Art of Maurice Sendak, Sendak discusses Where the Wild Things Are along with his other books In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There as a sort of trilogy centered on children’s growth, survival, change and fury He indicated that the three books are “all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”

zenvelo's avatar

What makes great kid’s literature are two things:

1. It doesn’t talk down to them, it respects them as being able to discern what is happening.

2. What ever reality it creates, whether talking mice, or wizards, or visiting the wild things, it is consistent with that reality through out the book.

skfinkel's avatar

Great books for children are great books for adults as well. For example, I don’t mind reading any of the Frog and Toad stories over and over, their simplicity, humor, humanity are all eminently readable and somehow I can read them hundreds if not thousands of times. And reading a book over and over is what children love to hear. Also can do that with the Madeline books. Maurice Sendak is another author who provides layers and depth that make his work great for adults and children. By way of contrast, I don’t enjoy reading Dr. Seuss. I find those books (with a few exceptions) too wordy and annoying.
There was a wonderful exhibit of children’s books in NY at the 42nd Public Library—not sure if it is still on, but it might be of interest to you if you are in that neighborhood.

ucme's avatar

Anything that taps into their vivid imagination without patronising them, keep it simple.

Cruiser's avatar

The truly great books all paint very visual images with their words and almost always has an underdog who often overcomes sizeable odds to do something they initially doubted they could ever do. They often have cute animals as well.

gailcalled's avatar

Another brilliant example of text and illustrations that interlock, with the text trumping the drawings (as they does not in the Sendak books), is Shel Sliverstein’s The Giving Tree.

“Despite the recognition that the book has received, it has been described as ‘one of the most divisive books in children’s literature.’ The controversy concerns whether the relationship between the main characters (a boy and a tree) should be interpreted as positive (e.g., the tree gives the boy selfless love) or as negative (e.g., the boy and the tree have a sadomasochistic relationship).”

“Silverstein had difficulty finding a publisher for The Giving Tree. An editor at Simon & Schuster rejected the book’s manuscript because he felt that it was “too sad” for children and “too simple” for adults.” Source

(This is so fascinating that I can’t resist one more quote, from the same source.)

“The book has generated opposing opinions on how to interpret the relationship between the tree and the boy. The possible interpretations include:

The tree represents God or Jesus and the boy represents humankind.
The tree represents Mother Nature and the boy represents humankind.
The tree and the boy are friends (i.e., “the message of the tale is seen as a relation between adults”).
The tree and the boy have a parent-child relationship.

A 1998 study using phenomenographic methods found that Swedish children and mothers tended to interpret the book as dealing with friendship, while Japanese mothers tended to interpret the book as dealing with parent-child relationships.”

Cupcake's avatar

Can you tell us your intended age group?

ragingloli's avatar

They are not actually childish.

Darth_Algar's avatar

I agree with C.S Lewis – a children’s book that isn’t worth reading as an adult wasn’t worth reading as a child.

(Now having said that I did not enjoy Lewis’ books even as a child.)

Dutchess_III's avatar

My Side of the Mountain and Wrinkle in Time…blast from the past!

You don’t like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, @Darth_Algar???

Cruiser's avatar

@Dutchess_III Wrinkle in Time was one of my favs as a kid.

marinelife's avatar

I think that it is a quality that does not talk down to kids.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’m sure someone has said this, but the best kids books and movies are ones that adults can also relate to. Some of my favorites were the Frog and Toad books.

gailcalled's avatar

I am also a fan of Frog and Toad.

My daughter learned to read very young from the Dr. Seuss books. The rhyme scheme, the repetition of sounds and the incessant beat worked. One day I was reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to her (not with much enthusiasm) and the next, she was reading to me. And she was off and running at age five. Whether I cringed at another round of “One Fish, Two Fish” was irrelevant.

janbb's avatar

I do think the sound and the rhythm of the words is important. I love reading “Goodnight Moon” and “where the Wild Things Are” to Jake, as I did to my own two.

And Dr. Seuss can be fun to read though in a lesser way.

LostInParadise's avatar

I was just going to point out that the books have to sound good when read aloud, but you beat me to it. Even if the book is not written in verse, children like a little bit of word play – words that rhyme or have alliteration. Repetition of phrases also works. I still love the phrase in Kipling’s story The Elephant’s Child, “great gray green greasy Limpopo River all set about by fever trees.”

gailcalled's avatar

@LostInParadise: I still love the phrase in Kipling’s story The Elephant’s Child, “great gray green greasy Limpopo River all set about by fever trees.”
_

I too still remember that phrase; I didn’t know people still read “The Just So Stories.” They were already dated when my children were little.

hearkat's avatar

I just re-read all the Madeline L’Engle Time and Austin Family books last year – in the chronology of the storyline, not the order they were written – and thoroughly enjoyed them. I then re-read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Those were my favorites from my tweens and early teens.

I agree that the classics do not talk down to the reader, but instead lift them up; and they can be enjoyed by adults, as well. There is definitely a David vs. Goliath theme in most of them, and a genuine humanity of the protagonists that a kid can relate to, being insecure by nature in their smaller size and inexperience. It gives the kid that sense that although life does have adversity and they will make mistakes, they will grow and learn, and will be just fine in the long run.

The friend who drew my avatar writes and illustrates younger children’s books (I think I link to his site on my profile page). It seems that there is a lot of material out there. I think that with any creative pursuit, there is a lot of subjectivity in what appeals the the audience and catches-on with the masses. Again, the biggest factor seems to be having characters that the readers can strongly identify with.

Dutchess_III's avatar

“The great gray green greasy Limpopo River all set about by fever trees!” Was a catch phrase in our family! Had to be said in a certain way, with emphasis on certain words. Poor baby elephant’s child. Always getting spanked. By his aunt the Ostrich with her big, big feet….and everyone else. O, Best Beloved.

janbb's avatar

@hearkat I only discovered The Dark is Rising sequence as an adult and it is one of my favorites of all time. I try to reread it around Christmas every year.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Dutchess_III , That is so cool! I can hear drums beating in the background whenever I read that phrase,

The Elephant’s Child is dated? Do kids nowadays point out that the story is not supported by the theory of evolution?

Dutchess_III's avatar

And “How the Leopard Got His Spots” is not supported by evolution AND it’s racist! Best stories ever written.

zenvelo's avatar

Kipling’s description of the Camel sound like a vegan hipster: he ate sticks and thorns and tamarisks and milkweed and prickles, most ‘scruciating idle; and when anybody spoke to him he said ‘Humph!’ Just ‘Humph!’ and no more.

Dutchess_III's avatar

That one had a bad attitude!

janbb's avatar

Have you ever met a camel with a good attitude?

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’ve never met a camel, period. But I do know how they got their humps. And also how a rhino got his skin. That story makes me itch all over! Damn pharisees!

zenvelo's avatar

The dinosaurs should be polite.

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