One of the best jobs I’ve ever had was when I worked as a bookseller in the children’s department of my local bookstore. All day long I was surrounded by my favorite books from my childhood; it was like getting to work with all my best friends! And I could go anywhere I wanted, so long as I didn’t leave the store. I traveled to Terabithia, to Whangdoodleland, to New York City inside a giant peach.
One question I got all the time was, “Can you recommend the perfect book for my kid?” My answer was always “Yes. Absolutely. That is my favorite question.” This was a chance to share all of my favorites with a new generation; I found this really meaningful.
But I was disappointed to see that many of my co-workers did not take this as seriously as I did. They would suggest the same five books to every kid they saw, pulling their inspiration from best seller lists or outdated classics. There was no originality, no creativity put into their selections. I was furious. Giving a child a book that’s not right for them is a real crime. At a young age, a bad experience with a book can determine whether you grow up to be a Lit student, or “I’ll wait until the movie comes out.”
But it’s okay! No need to start hyperventilating about your kid becoming a dunce just because you picked up the wrong book from Barnes and Noble. I’m here to help you out with a few handy guidelines for choosing the perfect book. They’re not foolproof, but it might mean you don’t have to rely on some gum-snapping minimum wage salesgirl on your next trip to the bookstore.
1) Take a test drive. Always, always, always have your kid read at least the first page of a book before you buy it. Better yet, read the first three. The beginning of a great book is a magical thing, like a glass slipper: you can tell immediately if it fits. Is it too challenging? Too easy? Too girly? Too magic-y? Too scary? The first page test accounts for all of these things. Your kid will get a vibe for the book before they even really know what it’s all about, and you’ll know right away if they’re excited to turn the page or totally ambivalent. This might mean making a little extra time for your trip to the bookstore, you won’t be able to just grab something and go, but it’ll pay off.
2) Feel free to judge a book by its cover. Publishers are no dummies—they know how to get your attention. More and more thought is being toward good design these days, especially with books that the publisher thinks are destined for success. If the publisher thinks a book is likely to bring in a lot of cash, they’re more likely to spend a little more up front on things like cover design so that it gets the attention it deserves. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule and there are a lot of gems out there with unassuming covers, but it can be a useful tip if you’re going in blind.
3) You are not the head of a PR campaign for your favorite childhood book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched families leave the store with a book that was clearly not right for the child, just because Mom or Dad had loved that story when they were young. Those kinds of books can be wrong for any number of reasons, but more often than not the kid simply isn’t ready yet. I know the temptation is fierce, and I have no doubt it’s a wonderful book. But forcing your child to read something that’s too advanced or challenging is the surest way to make sure that they never pick that book up again. If they’re not into it, back off and try again in a few years. Or, if you really can’t help yourself, try reading it together. Maybe your infectious enthusiasm will rub off.
4) Take a step back. Let your kid take the reigns. I saw a lot of parents refusing to buy their kids books like Zombie Butts from Uranus on the grounds that it was too silly or stupid. Sometimes letting your kid read something light and goofy is better than them not reading at all. Think about it like this: most adults, even literate, well read adults, don’t only read Dostoevsky! This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t encourage your child to choose challenging material. But only allowing them access to “sophisticated” books is a surefire way to teach your kid that reading is for homework, not for fun.
So there you have it folks, a few handy tips to find the perfect book for your kid. To finish it off, here are a few of my favorite suggestions for the trickiest kinds of customers:
For the 9 year old boy who hates to read:
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things – Lenore Look
Guys Read series – Jon Scieszka with contributions from the likes of Dav Pilkey, Jack Gantos, and Dan Gutman
Shredderman series – Wendelin van Draanen
For the 11 year old girl who has read everything:
The Underneath or Keeper - Kathi Appelt
Drizzle – Kathleen van Cleeve
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place – Maryrose Wood
For the boy-crazy 13 year old who only wants to read age-inappropriate books:
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks – E. Lockhart
Paisley Hanover Acts Out – Cameron Tuttle
Flipped – Wendelin van Drannen