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Steve Alvest


Elements of a great children's book

I've been reading children's books to my three kids just about every night for the past twelve years. These days, I only read to my youngest, who is 8. At some point, they're older and prefer to read longer books on their own. There's a last time for everything, and I'm realizing that I may be nearing the last time I read a children's book to my kids. It's a little bit sad, but it's also exciting given that there's still so many things I can do together with my kids for the FIRST time.

Many non-authors have told me that I should write children's books because it's easier. I disagree. Children's books are not easier to write. Their simplicity may give people the perception that they are easier to write, but a great children's book is hard to come by.

Conservatively, I can guess that I've read THOUSANDS of children's books by now. So what makes a great one?

Elements of a great children's book

    1. Deep concepts using simple words

    The best children's books convey deep concepts, but with elementary school level words. The best of them can make the grownups cry. One book that comes to mind is The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

    2. A rhythm when you read aloud

    When you read a great children's book aloud, it should just flow off your tongue. You should never get caught up on difficult words or the wrong combination of words. One master of rhythm that comes to mind is the author Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo and Superworm are my favorites).

    3. No rhyming, please

    I hate rhyming books... except for Dr. Seuss books. Dr. Seuss is the master of rhyming books. The reason I hate most rhyming books is because most children's books authors do a lousy job. They rhyme for the sake of rhyming, while compromising rhythm, meaning, and simplicity.

    4. Beautiful artwork

    Often, what catches my eye at the library is a beautiful book cover. It turns out, you often CAN judge children's books by their covers. Beautiful artwork is a reflection of the author also paying attention to getting the words and story right.

    5. Must be fun for the grownups, too

    Not only does the book have to keep the kids entertained, it also has to be interesting to the grownup reading it

    6. No counting and repetition, please

    The moment I see words like "counting" or "numbers," I put the book back. Books that keep repeating the same lines or predictably count numbers are so boring to read.

    7. No "alphabet" books, please

    These books sound educational, but they're just boring. They're the books that go "A is for apple," "B is for buzzy bees," "C is for cat," "D is for dig me a grave and shoot me now..."

    8. No agendas, please

    Sometimes, I'll get suckered into reading a book where the author has some kind of weird agenda. It'll be a perfectly good story until at the end it goes into a sermon of "God is great, have you found Jesus yet?" or you realize in the middle of the book that the main character is non-binary and it gets confusing when the author keeps referring as the one person as "they" (of course, there's nothing wrong with religious-themed or LGBTx-themed children's books, but I don't like being taken by surprise with a bait and switch).

    9. Unpredictable

    If I can predict what's going to happen at the end of the book, I won't enjoy reading the book.

    10. Must have a clever ending

    The best children's books have a clever ending. After the grownup finishes the book, they should be thinking, "wow, that was a clever idea."

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