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Choosing the Right Children's Books Can Make Reading More Enjoyable

September 12, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the fastest-growing sections in many bookstores is children's literature.

The reason bookstores are making more space for children's books, of course, is that sales are growing. Fueling the growth is an increasing awareness on the part of parents of the importance of reading in a child's academic success, and the importance of starting as early as possible.

With such a range of children's books available, choosing one that is suitable for your son or daughter can be a challenge. But there are some things you can do to improve your odds.

Considerable research has been conducted on what children like and don't like about books, and on what constitutes a good book for them.

The first guiding principle is basic: For kids, the strongest attraction to books is interest . The subject must be one the child wants to read about.

Boys and girls in certain age groups tend to have common interests. For example, most boys in fourth and fifth grades like sports, adventure, and nonfiction; girls in the same grades prefer fantasy and social dilemmas.

But don't trap your child in stereotypes. As a girl that age, I liked reading about motorcycles and basketball players and might have stopped pleasure-reading if I'd been denied those subjects.

The best way to assess your son's or daughter's interests is to ask about favorite hobbies, sports, places they'd like to visit or learn about, and other subjects they fancy.

Matching the text to your child's reading ability is crucial, too. After all, children often become frustrated by books with too many difficult words.

A rule of thumb: Your child should be able to pronounce about 98% of the book's words, and answer at least 90% of simple comprehension questions. Fortunately, many books are now marked with a suggested age or grade level on or within their covers.

Children care about plot, too. Young ones want simple but interesting plots; older children enjoy greater complexity. Plots should contain action, excitement, suspense, and a realistic conflict that kids can care about. They also want a clear and exciting climax, and a believable and satisfying conclusion.

Characters in well-liked books are those who seem warm and real: They like each other, look and act lifelike, have several personality dimensions, and change or grow as the story unfolds.

Consider a book's setting. Children generally like settings that have detailed, realistic, and easily identifiable historical periods and geographical locations. A good setting must also match the story's plot and reinforce its overall mood.

Children like books that they can easily understand and apply to their own lives; they also like books that teach a lesson, as long as it's not overly preachy.

And sad stories? Kids generally don't like them.

One of the advantages of children's books over most adults' books is illustrations. The first step in evaluating them is, of course, to determine whether they're visually appealing to the child.

But illustrations should also portray the story's characters and settings accurately, and reinforce the text by presenting the story's major events.

If you'd like a head start on the process of choosing books for children, consider the "Children's Choices" list. It contains titles recommended by about 10,000 children throughout the country, and is updated every year. For a copy, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Children's Book Council, 67 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003. Be sure to write "Children's Choices request" on the envelopes.

Finally, once you've brought the right books home, consider a few inside tips about children and reading.

For one, children love being read to throughout elementary school, so do it as often as possible (at least three times a week).

Children also like being read to in groups, so invite a few kids from the neighborhood to join your family for a story.

Children appreciate some basic information before reading. Tell them about the author, characters and the gist of the story.

Finally, remember that children, like adults, enjoy discussing books with other readers. So make intellectual schmoozing a regular part of your child's reading experience.

Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School.

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