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What We Find In Young Children’s Literature

From “Good Night Moon” to this year’s crop, what we seek and share in young children’s literature.

Kathy Johnson, of Pleasant Garden, N.C., reads a copy of "Goodnight Moon," at the New York Public Library's bookstore, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in New York. Author Margaret Wise Brown's unpublished poems were recently released in a brand new collection. (AP)

Kathy Johnson, of Pleasant Garden, N.C., reads a copy of “Goodnight Moon,” at the New York Public Library’s bookstore, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in New York. Author Margaret Wise Brown’s unpublished poems were recently released in a brand new collection. (AP)

News from the snuggly world of children’s bedtime books lately.  The world of our first reading to little ones one and two and three and four years old.  The world of “Good Night Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny.”  From an old trunk of “Good Night Moon” author Margaret Wise Brown, a new trove of songs and poems.  She died in 1952.  She’s back.  And a new study saying in the thousands of children’s books published last year, still few with children of color.  What are we reading to our littlest ones these days?  Are we reading? This hour On Point:  what we seek and share in young children’s books.

– Tom Ashbrook


Leonard Marcus, children’s book historian and author. Curator of the current New York Public Library exhibit “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” (@leonardsmarcus)

LeVar Burton, actor, host of the popular PBS children’s reading program, “Reading Rainbow.” (@levarburton)

Starr LaTronica, manager of children and youth services for the Four County Public Libraries in Vestal, New York and current president of the American Library Association’s Association for Library Service to Children. (@starrreader)

See Some Great Children’s Book Suggestions Over On Our Blog

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: The Apartheid of Children’s Literature — “This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects.”

Publisher’s Weekly: ‘Goodnight Songs’ Collects Never-Seen Margaret Wise Brown Works — “The story of the songs’ discovery goes back almost a quarter century. Amy Gary, who in 1989 cofounded WaterMark, a small publishing company in Birmingham, Ala., and had previously been a library sales rep for Doubleday, followed the advice of some librarian friends. ‘They suggested that I consider reprinting some of Margaret Wise Brown’s out-of-print works, and I decided to contact the author’s sister, Roberta Rauch, about that possibility,’ said Gary. In 1990, she visited Rauch’s Vermont home for what proved to be a propitious meeting.”

The New Yorker: The Lion and the Mouse – “In the first half of the twentieth century, no one wielded more power in the field of children’s literature than Moore, a librarian in a city of publishers. She never lacked for an opinion. ‘Dull in a new way,’ she labelled books that she despised. When, in 1938, William R. Scott brought her copies of his press’s new books, tricked out with pop-ups and bells and buttons, Moore snapped, ‘Truck! Mr. Scott. They are truck!’”

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  • Matt MC

    Dear John Irving. Please make “The Door in the Floor” into a real book. Sincerely, Everyone.

    • Dorman T. Shindler

      Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Irving published a children’s book entitled, A SOUND LIKE SOMONE TRYING NOT TO MAKE A SOUND, obviously based on — and inspired by — the book that his character, Ted Cole, wrote in A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. It’s a terrific bedtime story type book, and the illustrations by German artist Tajana Hauptman are great, too.

  • monicaroland

    One of our family’s favorites is “Pierre Bear,” a Golden Book beautifully written by Patsy Scarry with wonderful pictures by Richard Scarry. I can still hear my Marine Corps aviator father reading the opening line: “In a windswept cabin, away up north, lived brave Pierre Bear. He lived all by himself.” He would read it over and over to my baby sister Claire, whom he called Claire Bear. He would try to trick her by reading some of the words incorrectly, but she caught him every time. In turn, I read the book to my firstborn, Robert, always emphasizing the part about Pierre and Mrs. Pierre’s baby bear. “He was round and funny and full of fun. And oh, how they loved him.” The book, sadly, is now out of print — no doubt because Pierre Bear was “the bravest hunter of all the North,” bagging moose and seals. How I wish everyone could delight in this lovely text and beautiful illustrations`.

  • Andrea Golaine Case

    Please give a recommendation for Donald Crew’s Freight Train. Its subject is one of the most popular for little boys (girls would love it too), it teaches colors too. But it was our son and family’s favorite because of it’s beautiful clear graphics and the poetic words that read like a freight train speeding along the track. You couldn’t help but hear the rhythm of a train in its text. Also his daughter Nina Crews does wonderful books with a racially diverse cast. Her book Below is a fantastic celebration of imagination.

    • gayle

      Freight Train is my grandsons’ favorite book. We live near railroad tracks and they are able to identify all the different types of cars – hopper, tanker, etc.

  • hullfg

    “Good Night Moon” was a favorite of mine as a little one and I looked forward to reading it with my daughter. Her response is interesting in view of this discussion about diversity. She was adopted into our family at 15 months and her response to the ending, where the quiet old lady whispering hush disappears was “where did the momma go?”

  • Fred_in_Newton_MA

    My wife is a published children’s author and has a doctorate in educational psychology. Her observations: many recent books targeted at young children disregard developmental interests and capabilities of the kids (e.g., depending upon age, colors, counting, rhyme and repetition) and seem more directed at engaging the parents/readers. At the same time, word counts are down and more sophisticated words which used to appear have gone missing. Easier to sell?

    Also, appears to be a publishing crisis with the shift away from printed books. Harder for a would-be author to justify spending time creating a quality work if she can’t sell it.

    Comments from the guests on-air, please?

    P.S. Reading Rainbow was a household favorite when our kids were young.

  • J__o__h__n

    How could he not mention Nichelle Nichols? Won’t that be awkward at the next Star Trek convention?

  • James

    I can’t wait to start playing episodes of “Reading Rainbow” for my daughter. Thank you, Levar Burton, for all of your work, from “Roots” to “Star Trek” to “Reading Rainbow.” There is an openness, intelligence, graciousness, optimism, and humanity to everything that you do that is sadly lacking in the new Star Trek (and most everything in movies/television these days).

  • http://argonnechronicles.blogspot.com/ Dee

    My son is 12 and I still read to him because we both enjoy it. We read books about kids/people of all colors. Genders, too. He’s not a big reader on his own (getting there) but he has always loved being read to. I love to read so I cannot imagine not having read to my son.

  • OHreader

    See Karen Lee’s wonderful illustrations of children of colors in “Highlights” magazine!

  • Bug Ford

    Just listening in the car (back in the office now) and felt compelled to mention a book that i wrote and self-published (i know, i know…). It’s called “Jam-Bo, Litta-Girl, and the Bullies” and the illustrator at first gave me drawings of all white kids for the book and i told him that the characters needed to be more urban and mixed, racially. He complied and i think that it turned out wonderfully. Look for it. Thanks.

  • geraldfnord

    I loved the “Anatole” books as a child; I’ve never heard anyone else mention them…. My mother helped me to read using comic books…a tablet application could start with pictures alone and then gradually move to text with no pictures or few.

    I recently loved Calvin Ramsey’s “Ruth and the Green Book” about a young girl’s encounter with Jim Crow and a bit of African-American ingenuity in making the best of it. (The Green Book had listings of places a traveller could stop for the night or get a meal, helping to avoid a diet of candy bars and a choice between dangerous sleep-derived driving or dangerous road-side sleep.)

    • J__o__h__n

      I liked the Anatole books too.

  • AC

    no one read to me or moitored what i read when i was little. i read books i would NEVER allow a child to read!! the painted bird indeed…..

  • nomeatbarefeet

    How should children’s picture books address ‘convtroversial’ topics like war, hate, rejection, sex, depression, bullying? Should children’s books be clean and sanitized, ensuring that readers don’t have to grapple with the way the world really is? Or should we allow children to encounter the world and ask questions about why people do the things they do and treat others the way they do?

    • Ray in VT

      I think that they should address all topics that occur in life, but introducing those topics is something that requires judgements from parents and teachers.

  • hellokitty0580

    As mixed race children, my mother also tried to read us books with black characters like Flossie and the Fox in addition to all the classic books like Dr. Seuss, Berenstein Bears, Streganona, Hungry Hungry Caterpillar, and Make Way for Ducklings. When my brother and I were young I believe my mother didn’t want to make us feel limited and she wanted to expose us to all types of things, but we really loved books about animals which I think was safe and an all encompassing subject. My mother read Beatrix Potter to me and my brother and we loved it. I still love the stories; Jemima Puddleduck is still one of my favorite characters.

    Also, I love you Lamar Burton!! My brother and I always watched Reading Rainbow, even into our middle school years!

  • MoFloBot

    Barbapapa’s Ark, 1974, had a huge impact on me. It was a moving book about environmental issues and the consequences of pollution and mistreatment of our planet. The Barbapapa’s, a family of shape shifting do-gooders, build a spaceship and remove all of the animals to protect them from the destruction. The humans, who at this point were wearing gas masks, decide they must take responsibility for the planet and have the Barbapapa’s bring the animals back. This book inspired me to become educated at a young age and later become active in progressive environmental and social movements. The book was originally French but has been published in many languages. I have a half sleeve tattoo of the whimsical world of Barbapapa and every single day, people stop me on the street and love to tell me their stories of Barbapapa. I love that this series was such a wonderful inspiration to me and others.

    I am 32 and I have ever intention of sharing these books with my children, when I have them…but in the meantime, they are always a gift that I share with my friend’s children.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Thank you LeVar Burton for Reading Rainbow! My girls, now 19 and 21 were avid viewers. Unlike most children’s’ shows, especially those for the youngest children, RR was as interesting for me as a parent as it was for my girls.

    Good Night Moon was a staple. My younger daughter’s favorite book was Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle

    • Ray in VT

      I wish that PBS would air the old episodes. I quite vividly recall the episode where they went to the Star Trek: the Next Generation set.

  • J__o__h__n

    The NY Public Library exhibit is great. It has the original Pooh animals, original Wizard of Oz illustrations, PL Travers’s umbrella, John Tenniel illustrations . . .

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Has anyone studied WHY middle and upper “class” children are read to 1,000 hours before Kindergarten and those from less well off families only get 100? I found that to be an amazing, and very sad, statistic.

    • msrichards

      I am not sure I believe the 1,000 hours statistic.

  • Scott B

    Mt daughter is almost 7, and has been fascinated with books since she was 18 months. We read at least 3 books every night before tucking her in, and the worst punishment we can dole out, is to take away books.

    Now days she reads several grade levels above her age, and even makes her own books. Cutting up paper, stapling the pages together, writing the words and drawing the art. It’s a fantastic thing to experience.

  • Jan

    I just wanted to mention an important point that was left out of the discussion of Goodnight, Moon: the magic of Clement Hurd’s illustrations. The room gets a bit darker on each page, the moon rises a bit more, the clock advances, and of course, children love trying to find where the mouse has crawled to on each page. Looking for the mouse while listening to the gentle words, as they grow sleepy…a delight!

  • Jan

    I work in a large children’s library, and want to add that there are of course thousands of picture books for children of all ages, beyond preschool age. I read to my kids even past elementary school. There are funny, hilarious, mysterious, weird, complicated, moving, cool, sophisticated, and every other kind of picture book out there for all ages, with marvelous and endlessly creative illustrations.

    Some of my favorite authors/illustrators for older children are: James Stevenson, James Marshall, Cynthia Rylant, Jerry Pinkney, Rachel Isadora, Jon Scieszka, Jacqueline Woodson, Chris Van Allsburg, Amy Hest, an endless list, and two of the greatest geniuses, William Steig and of course Dr. Seuss. So, keep reading picture books to your kids even when they learn to read, and enjoy them yourselves, even if you don’t have children!

  • msrichards

    Many of the most important children’s books have anthropomorphic animals as the central character. Here one does not have the problem of skin color. Children have no difficulty relating to bunnies, toads, frogs, etc.

  • anamaria23

    “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney is a favorite in my family. It is a tale of an elderly woman who has lived an exciting life, but has not done the one thing her grandfather had counseled her to do i.e. do one thing “to make the world a more beautiful place” Gazing out the window of her seaside home in Maine, she is inspired by the lupine flowers and sets out to beautify the countryside, sowing lupine seeds. It is a beautifully told story as well as instructive.

  • X-Christian

    “Night of the Moonjellies” and “Go Dog Go!”
    Those were great books.

  • Clay Cahoon

    I enthusiastically endorse Liza Lou by Mercer Mayer! My daughter just
    asked me randomly the other night about my favorite memories of life,
    and the image of my mother reading this book to my twin brother
    and me on her lap was a clear standout. There was something in the way her
    sweet Southern accent brought to life this very clever character, who
    confidently outsmarted some very haunting characters, that made it okay to turn off the light. I
    still have the book from my childhood, raised my kids on it and passing
    it now to my twin who has his first child. Thank you Mr. Mayer, mama
    and imagination!

  • hennorama


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