This is the worst line in all the children’s books I’ve read:
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood today, and now it is nighttime.
I hate that line. I’m not sure why. It seems inartful, like fishing with dynamite. I guess it gets the job done—but at what cost to our sensibilities?
My father visited a few weeks ago and overheard my wife and I bemoaning this children’s book. He didn’t get our complaint. It’s a children’s book. Your grandkid brings it to you and you read it. You enjoy a family moment. That makes it the best children’s book in the world.
Wrong. As with everything else, there are good children’s books and bad children’s books. Sure, plenty of bad ones are sold and even enjoyed. But the good ones are enjoyed more, by everyone involved.
A bad children’s book is bad because:
- It’s hard to read aloud. Perhaps because it has long and complex sentences, or because it uses hard-to-enunciate words (like “asked” or “exclaimed”). Or because the writing is just plain clunky.
- It’s too didactic. In other words, the “story” is merely an excuse for a lesson.
- It’s too long. The author or publisher forgot that a child will demand it be read five times in a row every time it is picked up.
- It’s a collection of books in one volume. These seem like a great value when grandma buys them at the bookstore. They seem like a great pain when your kid insists on reading the entire thing. Again, five times in a row. Because to a toddler, it’s all just one book.
A good children’s book, on the other hand:
- Uses short, simple words and sentences. It’s easy to understand and easy to read aloud. It flows verbally.
- Tells a funny and engaging story that also contains a lesson.
- Is easy to pick up and read through many times, and remains enjoyable on the 100th reading.
- Is visually interesting.
Most importantly, a good children’s book is enjoyable to both the child and the adult. It’s easy to make something a two-year-old will like. It’s hard to make something their parent will like as well.
It all comes down to knowing your audience. Pixar and Disney, for example, have known for a long time that the audience for children’s movies is not just kids. It’s obvious in a movie theater. For some reason, it seems less obvious with books. We tend to think a book has just one audience, just one type of reader. But many books, like children’s books, are used by different people for different reasons.
Understanding your entire audience is the key to making a good book of any type.