Most children’s books are bought by adults just before Christmas—which is like sending children downtown to the Saturday sales to get their mother a new dress. It might fit, and then again it might not; but it would probably reflect pretty accurately what they thought mothers should look like.
Parents manage fairly well when they’ve been told beforehand exactly what book is wanted: “another funny science-fiction story” or “a book that tells you how to take care of mice.” A relative or friend of the family, not shopping under orders, is more likely to be influenced by nostalgic visions of himself as a child, or of the kind of child he always wanted to have. That’s perhaps why the large, elegantly illustrated book that his aunt thought would teach your eight-year-old the French words for 100 common objects has turned into the roof of a garage.
But when shopping for children too young to read to themselves, you should consult no one’s taste but your own. For you, or his mother or father, will probably have to read the words slowly aloud, and look at the pictures, twenty or thirty times during the next five years. (This is a conservative estimate assuming that the book will be read only once every two or three months, to only one child; and that by his eighth birthday he will be reading to himself, or at least will prefer to hear Charlotte’s Web and Tom Sawyer.) So make a point of staying away from all sorts of cuteness, moralizing, bad jokes, and bad verse, which presently you will know by heart like advertising slogans, only more so.
Isn’t this being selfish? Shouldn’t good parent be willing to read his child whatever he likes, over and over again, no matter how illiterate and silly it is? Of course not. What your child really wants is to lean cozily against you on the sofa every evening, while you speak to him exclusively in a soft voice for fifteen or twenty minutes. Anything else is secondary.
Here are some titles chosen from this year’s list, with the help of a group of experts aged five to twelve, including their comments on a few books that an unwary shopper might be attracted to owing to the fame of their authors. Not that well-known writers always fall on their faces when they try children’s books—John Buchan’s The Magic Walking-Stick and John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk are excellent evidence to the contrary, and A. A. Milne himself was a sentimental dramatist—but sometimes they do.
Topsy & Turvys by Peter Newell (Macmillan, 72 pp., paperback, $1.00). Consumers up to twelve loved this tricky book, first published over sixty years ago by the author of The Hole Book and now finally reprinted. When each of the 74 drawings with a caption underneath is turned upside down, another picture appears and a rhymed couplet is completed. An elephant …