Books THE LITERATE CHILD

Not all the good children’s stories are about spaceships and robots.

My daughter, Maggie, is a guinea pig. She has access to more books than the average child, as review copies come flooding in, so I allow her to select the books that most catch her fancy. I can only guess what it is in the flood of pictures and text that captures her heart, mind and eye. But since her taste usually coincides with mine. I think she’s a pretty good critic.

Maggie is not immune to hype. (Though why shoud I, who frequently find myself singing, “Come on to Taco Taco Taco Taco Taco Bell” under my breath, expect her to be?) There’s been no more intense hype recently than that of Star Wars, and Artoo Detoo and SeeThree-pio are now as large in her mythology as Bert and Ernie. Random House is the first to cash in on Star Wars in the kids” book market. For children Maggie’s age, The Pop-Up Book of Star Wars ($3.95), from which three-dimensional sandcrawlers and X-wing fighters arise, will suffice. The pop-up gimmick wears thin pretty fast, and the moderately curious child is likely to dismantle the cardboard figures in an effort to make them do more than just pop up. Slightly older kids will like The Star Wars Storybook ($4.95). a retelling of the movie’s plot with excellently reproduced stills.

I don’t know what sort of child The Star Wars Punch-Out and Make It Book ($3.95) is for. Not one with a short attention span. And not one whose parents give up in dismay at any project more difficult than opening a childproof aspirin bottle. The cardboard figures one produces by inserting Tab A into Slot A, and so on. are useless as toys and unconvincing as models, though a few of them can be held together by Scotch tape for a session of play.

I don’t really object to the Star Wars hype, though it extracts a few more of my dollars than I’d like to spend on droids and Wookies. The movie’s old-fashioned good-vs.-evil narrative is refreshing. I’m not supposed to say that. I’m supposed to recommend books like Sometimes I Get Angry and Sometimes I’m Afraid (Golden, $3.95 each), psychological self-help books for parents to read to their children to help both understand their emotions. These little books come with the imprimatur of the Menninger Clinic. Their simple message is that kids act up or get scared when they’re three or four because they’re discovering their identities. And this is fine the first time you read them. The 15th or 50th time, the insistence of the little boy in Sometimes I Get Angry that “I just want you to know that I’m ME ME ME!” becomes a shrill war cry. Maggie took up that refrain early – and often.



Every generation has primers of manners and morals. For mine, they were annoying little books by one Munro Leaf, of which Manners Can Be Fun was a representative title. Sometimes I Get Angry is aimed right at the superegos of what Tom Wolfe calls the Me Decade. The didacticism of such books ultimately becomes wearying and unproductive. If you want to know what’s going on in your child’s development, read Selma Fraiberg’s The Magic Years (Scribners paperback, $2.95) to yourself, but read something more entertaining to your children.

There are books about behavior, or misbehavior, that are entertaining. Maggie likes Wretched Rachel, by Diane Paterson (Dial, $5.95). Rachel is like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When Rachel is horrid, her friends and family are distressed, but the book’s message, wittily understated, is that they love her still. Pleasantly reassuring, and not heavy-handed. A similar book for older kids is Dragons Hate to Be Discreet, by Winifred Rosen with illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren (Knopf, $4.95). Margaret’s dragon – her bad-tempered spells – occasionally wrecks the household. Her attempts to come to terms with her dragon – that is, to achieve self-control and maturity – form the plot.

Not all the good stories are about spaceships and robots, and you need something more soothing than inter-galactic conflict for bedtime reading. Maggie took immediately to two small books, Moving and Annabelle (T. Y. Crowell, $4.95 each). In the former, by Wendy Watson, a small furry animal-child balks at her parents’ plans to move to a larger home. A good book to get if you’re anticipating a move and, consequently, anxieties from your child. Anna-belle, by Ruth Bornstein, is an engaging adventure of a stuffed monkey; it ends with a bedtime reconciliation of toy and child, just the thing for tucking in a small child.

I don’t know why Maggie is so captivated by Anne Rockwell’s Gogo’s Car Breaks Down (Doubleday, $5.95). Maybe it’s because the automobile is so much a part of her daily life. Or maybe it’s just Rockwell’s effectively naive illustrations.



A circus clown sets out to visit his mother, but his car gives out on the highway. Moral of the story: Keep your sparkplugs clean. I can, as they say, identify with Gogo’s anguish in the face of mechanical disorder, but I’m afraid that Maggie will be disillusioned if, the next time we have car trouble. Daddy isn’t as cheerful as Gogo when he pays the bill.

In Alexandra the Rock-Eater (Knopf, $6.95), Dorothy Van Woerkom retells a folk tale about a peasant woman who outwits a pair of dragons. Rosekrans Hoffman’s witty illustration – an eclectic mix of styles from tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and Japanese prints – are as lively as the narrative. Like Gogo’s Car Breaks Down, in which one of the mechanics is a woman, Alexandra will please feminists: Her husband stays home with their hundred children (!) while she goes forth to deal with the dragons.

There are also, wonderful to tell, two new Paddington Bear picture books, Paddington at the Seaside and Paddington at the Tower (Random House, $2.95 each). Of the two Paddington series – the one for older children has more text and a different illustrator – I think I prefer the one for smaller kids, because of Fred Banbery’s charming illustrations. In the stories, by Michael Bond, Paddington gets into scrapes with such very British institutions as a seaside Punch and Judy show and the ravens at the Tower of London.

But narrative, for a child of Maggie’s age, is only one of literature’s delights. Color, for example, is at least as important. When she presented me recently with a particularly vivid watercolor, I asked, “Are those flowers?” “No, just colors.” Spoken like an abstract expressionist.

This summer’s most colorful titles are among Maggie’s favorites. Ezra Jack Keats’s The Trip (Greenwillow, $7.95) is about a small boy, recently moved to a bleak city neighborhood, who takes a fantasy trip to his old neighborhood in a toy airplane. Keats blends cutouts, photographs, and drawings in a childlike style for Louie’s flight into a rich but scary dreamworld. I thought the alien landscapes and spooky images (the trip takes place on Halloween) might be a bad trip. But the richness of color caught Maggie’s mind and eye, and the book affirms the power of imagination. Children, who live in the shadow world between the actual and the potential, need to be assured that their dreams and fantasies matter.

From Germany and Denmark come two richly colored books, Achim Broger’s Bruno Takes a Trip, illustrated by Gisela Kalow (Morrow, $6.50) and Svend Otto’s Taxi Dog (Parents’ Magazine Press, $5.95). In the former, a small boy wraps himself and a pet raven in a package and mails himself to some friends for a visit. In the latter, a small mongrel takes rides on the running boards of tum-of-the-century taxis. Is it coincidental that all three of these excellently illustrated books deal with travel, flight, and escape?



If you’re most concerned about basic literacy, you might look at some of the new ABC books. The Most Amazing Hide and Seek Alphabet Book (Viking, $5.95) features pull tabs that reveal an alphabetic bestiary (with some eccentric choices: “V is for Vole”). Like all the books that have movable parts, this one’s appeal is limited by the durability of the cardboard; though generally the book is well made, in time your ape will cease to swing from his A. The Bears’ ABC Book, by Robin and Jocelyn Wild (Lippincott, $4.95) tells the story of three bears who cavort through a junkyard whose contents are conveniently alphabetical. Good for introducing a few simple words as well as letters.

Also good for vocabulary building is Busy Day, by Betsy Maestro with illustrations by Giulio Maestro (Crown, $5.95). The story of a circus’s day in town is told in single action words: “Waking,” “Washing,” “Swinging,” “Jumping,” and so on.

Unlike adult titles, children’s booksare perennial: This year’s bestseller willnot be next year’s junk. There are fads inchild development, of course, but theclassics, from the Brothers Grimm toMaurice Sendak, transcend them. Theyspeak to the continuities in childhood:the pains and pleasures of being verysmall in a large world. The books youfind boring and insipid are probably thoseyour child will find boring and insipid; weare none of us far from the age of wonder,and reading to your child is a simple wayto get back through that small door intothe enchanted garden.

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