I’ve got three coffee cups out this morning to tell you what book has, arguably, replaced this as my favorite gift for friends having babies (well, maybe I can get both books for them), not to mention anyone who tells me they want to study children’s literature. In September, Candlewick released A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature, written by Horn Book editor Roger Sutton and executive editor Martha V. Parravano. It’s a wonderful read, and the book’s very premise was a smart one: As Roger writes in the introduction, “your passion for reading isn’t necessarily accompanied by a knowledge of children’s books, and that’s where we come in.”
As the sub-title tells you, this is a guide to children’s literature for those families passionate about reading — yet who may not know how to navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of children’s lit. “It is a book,” he writes later, “for readers, people who need books as much as food or air, and whose idea of the perfect vacation and/or evening meal is to have more time to read.” Even calling it a “guide” is somewhat misleading. To be sure, it’s a guide, yes. But this isn’t your go-to book for those parents who don’t read and suddenly decide they want their kids to. Don’t expect shallow lists of how-to’s and what-to-read’s (or, as Roger writes, “not bland lists of dos, don’ts and surefire recommendations”). Refreshing, indeed. This is a collection of well-crafted essays (Naomi Shihab Nye on poetry, Jon Scieszka on humor, Mitali Perkins on girl books), many previously printed in The Horn Book, about children’s literature, touching mainly upon, as Roger writes, how to give children the skills and opportunities to read, how to create books that both interest and respect them, how to allow children ownership of their reading, and how to know when and how to guide young readers, as well as knowing how to leave them alone already, when they need it.
The book is constructed around these guiding thoughts, opening with chapters on books for babies and picture books. Part Two: Reading with Them covers easy readers and chapter books. Part Three: Reading on Their Own delves into genres (offering up thoughtful essays on fantasy, historical fiction, humor, and adventure), nonfiction (covering biographies, science, and poetry, girl books, boy books), and “message” books (considering such issues as censorship, didacticism, bibliotherapy, and more). Part Four: Leaving Them Alone is your go-to section on books for teens.
The essays in the book are written by authors, illustrators, reviewers, professors, poets, editors, and much more. Horn Book nerds will note many favorite series and articles re-printed, such as the “what makes a good book” series. But there’s plenty of new stuff here for children’s lit aficionados, coming from the calm, cool, and collected minds of Roger and Martha. (I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things about the Horn Book is their studied, let’s-take-a-breath-folks response to whatever the latest trend or crisis in children’s lit is.) And there are so many engaging essays here that I hardly know where to begin in covering them, but suffice it to say that, again, this is not only a great read for children’s lit fans (consider getting a copy of this for incoming grad students of children’t lit and library majors, I suggested to one friend who teaches), but it’s also the perfect book to hand over to your book-nut friends with growing families, those who feel lost by all the choices in children’s books out there. (Note: The book is also sprinkled with short interviews with such book-creators as Sendak and Katherine Paterson, all excerpted from The Horn Book.)
Throughout the book, Martha, Roger, and the essayists discuss and recommend many children’s lit titles from both past and present. Each section of the book also ends with more recommendations, and the book’s close features a detailed bibliography. Roger and Martha are here this morning, briefly, to note what books have been published since the book was completed that they would have really liked to have included.
“The problem with a book like ours,” Roger told me, “is both what you have to leave out and what you hadn’t yet seen — the books just keep on coming, thank goodness! I would have loved to talk about Sharon Dogar’s novel Annexed, a retelling of Anne Frank’s story from the point of view of Peter, also hidden in the Achterhuis. Published too late to include in A Family of Readers, the book gave me tons I wanted to say about YA books, boy books and girl books, and how the Holocaust is presented in books for young people. Even the title is brilliant. I guess we’ll have to write another book.”
“For me,” Martha added, “three new books illustrate the almost limitless possibilities of children’s books. Salley Mavor’s Pocketful of Posies, a collection of nursery rhymes that I hope will become a classic (along with the Iona Opie / Rosemary Wells Mother Goose collections), features scene after stunning scene created in embroidery — which sounds quite static, and yet the pictures are not only gorgeous but also full of life and movement and story.”
Martha continues, “Anthony Browne’s Me and You turns ‘The Three Bears’ on its head, providing an entirely fresh perspective on an age-old folktale; you will never think of Goldilocks in the same way again…
Oh, hi. I’m back. I was making notes for my to-be-read pile.
Publishers Weekly calls Roger’s and Martha’s A Family of Readers “an indispensible guide.” Not to be missed, I say. I thank Martha and Roger for stopping by.