As you may have heard, Jan Berenstain, the lady who co-created the Berenstain Bears series, died this week. And it's measure of how bad those books are that some people wasted no time dancing on her grave. Now, it's incredibly crass and rude to rip into a poor old woman who just died. But those books are REALLY shitty. They're all way too long, and the bears NEVER kill any campers or steal Molson from a nearby tent.
I have two children, and I have spent a lot of time reading to them. When you have the right book, reading to your kids can be tolerable, even fun. But with the wrong book, reading to your kids is MURDER. They squirm. They half-sit on you and wrench your back out of place. They get too close to the book so that their big fat heads block the text. Or worst of all, they demand you read the same shitty, awful book night after night after night. There are kiddie books that you will be forced to read literally hundreds of times to your kids. You need to make sure that they don't suck. Here's how.
1. Check for length and textual density.
Before you buy the book, open it. Are there large swaths of text on each page? That's not a kid's book. That's a medieval torture device. My kid once brought a book about beagles home from the school library. This thing was a goddamn reference book. It must have contained 20,000 words, all of which were useless facts about the beagle. Did you know beagles are the smallest of hunting dogs? Did you know that information serves NO fucking purpose?
Some books have many pages but very little text, whole others have very few pages but a TON of text. You want a book that features, at most, five or six lines of text per page. Any denser than that and you are on the dark side of the Reading Rainbow. If you get caught reading a book that's far too long to a kid, do what I do and just start skipping entire sections of copy. Sometimes, I just point at the picture and I'm like, "Oh hey, there's a nice dog," and then I flip the page before my kid can object. And if my kid notices that I forgot to read part of the book and wants to go back? NO DESSERT. THERE IS NO GOING BACK.
2. Make sure the text rhymes.
I have no idea why rhyming books are more fun, but they are. If a book rhymes, then I can really get into the performance of reading it to my kid. I can figure out the rhythm of the text (though it can take a couple pages to sort it out—"Oh, I see! It rhymes every THIRD line! TRICKY!"). I can sing it. I can do voices. I can become mellifluous. I can PERFORM. It's really a parent's time to shine when the text rhymes. If it doesn't rhyme, it's ass.
3. Avoid one-trick ponies.
One of the best-selling children's books of all time is Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The story is basically a set formula. If you give that mouse a cookie (Who gives a mouse a cookie? You know what you should give mice? GLUE TRAPS.), he'll do X, which make him do Y, which will cause him to do Z, which will make him want a cookie all over again. Very cute.
But then Numeroff wrote a shitload more books, all of them deploying this exact same formula. There's If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, If You Give a Dog a Donut, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and even—I shit you not—If You Give a Moose a Muffin. You think I can't see what you're doing, Numeroff? You think I can't see the creative rut you're in? Maurice Sendak was right to trash you. THE ANIMAL ALWAYS ENDS UP EATING TREATS.
4. Avoid repetitive books.
Repetition helps children learn. Unfortunately, it also contributes to Daddy's alcoholism. There are few things worse than children's books that are structured to be essentially like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with a growing laundry list of items that you have to repeat over and over and over again. Even Green Eggs and Ham, one of the greatest children's books ever written, makes you say plane and train and house and mouse and fox and box a million times over. It will destroy your love of reading. It's like being hit on the head with a hammer repeatedly until you finally submit. That fucking Gingerbread Boy. Do you how happy I am when that fox finally chews him up and shits him out after he's outrun the baker and the cow and the dog and every other incompetent idiot trying to catch him? VERY HAPPY.
5. Do not buy fancy pop-up books.
Oh hey, look! Someone took the time and care to craft an elaborate pop-up model of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai! You know how long it takes your kid to render that page to shreds? Four seconds. Congratulations, you now have an empty book.
And be careful with books that have flaps. Some flaps are hard to pry open, and your little child's fat fingers won't be able to get underneath. I swear they purposely make some of the flaps impossible to open, just to make parents suffer.
This isn't to discount flaps entirely. There are few things more enjoyable than opening a flap and yelling at your kid HOLY SHIT IT'S A LION! RAWWRRRRRR!!! I'm also a big fan of scratch-and-sniff stickers. Our copy of The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about 30 years old. But I swear the orange sticker still smells kind of orangey. The magic of BOOK MOLD.
6. Buy any book that features textures.
Feel that bunny's tail! It really IS soft! I could feel up a copy of Pat the Bunny all day. Would that be inappropriate? The best thing about texture books is that they have to make the pages extra thick in order to embed the fabric, and that means the book is that much shorter. You know how gratifying it is to turn a page that's three inches thick? I feel like Speed Reader:
Shorter reading time equals earlier bedtime equals more time for drinking and watching violent Korean movies. NICE.
7. Do not buy any Amelia Bedelia books.
She's awful. I hate her. She takes everything you say literally, so when her boss is like, "Make the bed," she literally makes a little bed out of craft supplies. What a moron. Kids are too young and too stupid to understand the concept of figures of speech, so all the jokes go right over their heads. They're the lucky ones. I actually understand these jokes, which only makes it worse. If this woman existed in the real world, she'd be arrested and sent to prison and then she'd die from swallowing bleach by accident and she would DESERVE it. Every time she gets fired in these books, I cheer. And when she gets rehired, I want to vote Republican. STOP BAILING OUT THESE PEOPLE.
8. NEVER buy a DK reader book.
If you browse a children's section at Barnes & Noble, you'll notice that the back shelves are littered with DK books. According to the back cover, DK books are "a multilevel reading program guaranteed to capture children's interest while developing their reading skills and general knowledge." That's what their little marketing team tells you. Now, in reality, these books are mass-produced dogshit written by some kind of corporate spambot. Most of them are little more than cheap movie tie-in books designed to get your kids nuzzling at the Star Wars teat for the rest of their lives. I bought one called Luke Skywalker's Amazing Story, and here is some of the text:
This is Luke.
He dreams of having adventures. He lives on a far away planet with his aunt and uncle. His aunt and uncle are called ... [turn the page]
... Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
There's even a quiz at the back of this thing. A QUIZ. Just in case your kid wasn't fully subsumed by George Lucas's deathless money-grubbing shitblob. It's repulsive. Every time I see one of these books, I want to douse it in kerosene and throw it onto my Char-Broil. That brings us to a broader rule ...
9. Never buy any book that's a movie or TV tie-in.
Most of these books don't even list a proper author, mostly because they were conceived and executed during a conference call between brand managers. None of them has any value. They just use still photos and screencaps from the movie properties and then vomit up a shorthand version of the movie story. You can find any number of examples of this. You're essentially buying an advertisement. Don't be a slave to Big Book.
10. NEVER buy a children's book written by a celebrity.
You already knew this. But just in case you were walking by I Already Know I Love You and thought, "Hey, maybe that one won't suck," SHUT UP. You should know better. Celebrities write children's books because they're too stupid to write full books and they think anyone can write a children's book.
The truth is that only a few people in history have managed to create great lasting children's books: Seuss, Scarry, Sendak, Rey, Eastman, etc. Stick with those, and you and your child will have a happy reading time together. Or try these 10 titles:
• Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems
• One Witch, by Laura Leuck
• The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
• The Olivia books by Ian Falconer
• The Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney
• Iggy Peck: Architect, by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
• The Paper Princess, by Elisa Kleven
• The Amazing Machines series by Ant Parker and Tony Mitton
• Noisy Nora, by Rosemary Wells
• Little Pea, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Veer into beagle dissertations, and you will curse the written word for the rest of your days.
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