Saturday, March 13, 2010


Children's books are a dime a dozen, and you could spend all your time attempting to read as many as possible to your child. But that doesn't mean that they're all worth reading. Let's face it, some books are what Charlotte Mason calls twaddle: books that talk down to children, books that do not spark the imagination, books that are junk food rather than a nourishing meal.

But it's not as easy to agree on what is good children's literature as you might think. My sister, for example, is very picky about what books my niece reads. She's even started a website to help highlight the best in children's literature (and guess who's going to be a contributor to that blog every now and then??). But despite the fact that she is in general more picky than I am when it comes to books, there are books she loves that I would consider twaddle.

Dr. Seuss is an excellent example. I'll go ahead and say it: I think most Dr. Seuss books are twaddle. I think the illustrations are awkward, the prose is too dumbed down, and there are far too many made-up words. The only one I've decided I want in my house is Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? The others are perhaps okay for reading while waiting in the doctor's office or at the library, but honestly most of the time I'd rather not. You can all label me a bad mom now. ;-)

I'd much rather read Sandra Boynton's books, which have better rhymes and better illustrations. But I get the impression that my sister considers But Not the Hippopotamus twaddle.

We also disagree on Eric Carle books (although she told me she hasn't read a whole lot of them). I find his illustrations to be largely garish and his prose to be completely lacking. I enjoy Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (which was only illustrated by Eric Carle) because of the delightful rhythm and despite the illustrations. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a decent book, but pretty much every other Carle book I've read has fallen well short of expectations.

And on it goes. So what do we make of this? "Twaddle" is not a strictly defined list of books. Neither, for that matter, can we have a set list of excellent and worthy books. We each have personal preferences, and that is okay. Pearl will not be forever stunted in her education for reading Horns to Toes and in between, just as my niece Savannah will not be stunted for reading Green Eggs and Ham. The important point is that my sister and I are both setting the bar high for our children. We have standards, and while those standards might vary, the end result will be that Pearl and Savannah will both be exposed to excellent literature... with perhaps a few sentimental favorites thrown in for good measure. :-)

So if you're feeling ashamed that your favorite book was labeled twaddle by some list online, or feel embarrassed because you think some highly lauded book is little better than a paperweight, stop being so hard on yourself. Continue to be discerning when choosing books for your children, but stop thinking that someone else's standard should be your own.

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6 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Laura

    Okay, here's my defense of Seuss: What I value most in his books is the lyrical rhythm and the clever use of puns. At the risk of giving old Geisel too much credit, I'll note that those are two things Shakespeare had going for him. Shakespeare is easier to recite out loud than it should be, given all those unfamiliar words, simply because the rhythm is so perfect. Tolkein is the same way, but with prose. So to me Seuss isn't easy or dumbed down, because in this case, the ease is a sign of well-flowing language.

    I don't mind the silliness at all -- our home has a silly atmosphere, and to me there's a big difference between silliness and talking down to children. And the made-up words? Seuss is in good company there -- Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare come to mind.

    I am with you on the illustrations, though -- they take away from the good writing. It's fine for the illustrations to be lighthearted, but I'd look for something like the sketches in A Hole Is to Dig instead.

    That being said, I'm not sure Seuss is really a "living book" either. We tend to talk as if there are two categories, twaddle and living books, when there is at least a third category in between, if not a full spectrum. I don't hold "Fox in Socks" up as high as "The House at Pooh Corner." And I don't think "But Not the Hippopotamus" is as bad as the latest Dora the Explorer book even though IMO it's not a "living book." I can accept that we disagree about the order of books in that middle category.

    I am also more generous than most with books in the My First Little House Books series and with the American Girls series. You hear a lot of people saying those are twaddle, but I think they're pretty good. *shrug* To each his own, I guess.

  • Sherry

    "Twaddle" is in the eye of the beholder. If it weren't for Seuss, I do not think I would have loved reading so quickly. I agree, in some, the illustrations make the book, and in others it is the rhythm. It is good when you can have both, but as the child gets older, there aren't any pictures in great literature, to speak of, so the content is what is important. Be picky if you must, but getting kids to enjoy reading is the most important thing to me!

  • Laura

    I don't know, Mom... enjoying reading is really a very small part of the goal. True, you can't accomplish very much without it. But why do we want them to love reading in the first place? A child who simply loves reading is not educated. There's something more that we expect him to get out of the books he reads.

    We expect the reader to improve his vocabulary, to understand history and geography and culture, to consider other points of view, and to develop a rich writing style influenced by the books he reads. But the student will make very little progress if the books he reads are poorly written and dull. Part of giving a child the best education you can involves choosing the best books you can find so that his reading encourages this growth.

    Parents who allow their children to get used to easy, twaddly books and later try to switch to challenging books often find that their children resist the change. So I can see a good case for starting early, preferring quality picture books in preparation for quality chapter books.

    I understand where you're coming from... in the public schools, you start the year with kids who hate reading, and you have only one year to change that. But as homeschoolers, we have many years to work with a child, and as a result our goals can be much more ambitious.

  • Harmony

    La, I completely agree that there's a category somewhere in-between pure twaddle and living books. I suppose that was the point I was trying to make here - although not as well as you made it, naturally. :-)

    Mom, I see where you're coming from. If a child already doesn't like reading, it's best to start with whatever they do like to read IMO. Then you go from there. But Laura's right... we've got a clean slate to work with here, and if we have a choice between great books and so-so books, shouldn't we choose the great ones?

    Perhaps I'm being too hard on Dr Seuss... he just doesn't appeal to me very much. But I think the general principle applies: read the best books you can find. If you think Seuss falls in that category, then read Seuss. I just don't happen to agree with you. ;-)

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    I LURVES Dr. Seuss AND Sandra Boynton. Fox in Socks is hilarious and great fun for new readers, and so is the Going to Bed Book.=)

    Not all Dr. Seuss is equal- the Lorax makes me gag, and HOrton is best as a musical with Boris Karloff rather than a book.

    I like Mother Goose better than either Seuss or Boynton, but I largely agree with Laura's points.

    Fun post!

  • Kerri

    My dad didn't even LET me read Dr. Seuss when I was a kid because of all the nonsense language - and I loved reading anyway - and went to public school.

    As I am starting my oldest in Kindergarten this year, homeschooling, Seuss really has no place in our home either. A story should tell a story, and my little girls love their books - without any of the nonsense. There are plenty of books and poems out there with wonderful verse and rhyme without the garbage that fills a lot of the books that some critics consider to be "great."

    The one that sticks out in my mind is The Grouchy Ladybug (Eric Carle). It was a gift from an aunt, but after reading through it, I immediately sold it. What kind of values am I teaching if I read, page after page, "Want to fight?" Out it goes!