Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 2:17 am | Mostly Cloudy 59º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: How Do You Know What Book to Give a Child?

I know more than a thousand famous people and have visited hundreds of places. I have lived their lives and they became a part of mine forever.

Some have been real, but many came through books. They have taught me to walk in someone else’s shoes, speak up for what I believe, look at both sides of issues and ways to get through life’s conundrums.

The first ones I found in children’s books like The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew series and stories like The Secret Garden. Books today still help me understand our confusing but fascinating world.

On another note, those green-and-red decorations have hit stores, a reminder that December, Santa and holiday gift-giving is drawing near. What to do? When it comes to children, the answer is easy. Few things have a longer lasting effect than a good book. But how to find that just-right gift?

Local authors Bruce Hale, Marni McGee and Lee Wardlaw took time out from their busy lives to share thoughts on children and books. Why busy? All three have published at least one book this year but took time to share their advice.

Follow their suggestions and you will look like a winner when present-opening day arrives. Better yet, your recipient will be the ultimate winner.

The first question was: Why is it important for children to read books?

Hale writes funny if not a tad crazy stories — 35 so far — aimed for grammar school-age kids. Since he has three books out this year, count him as prolific with Big Bad Detective Agency (Scholastic, January 2015), Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark (HarperCollins, August 2015) and School For S.P.I.E.S.: Ends of the Earth (Hyperion, June 2015).

“NEA (National Education Association) studies have shown that kids who read for pleasure set themselves up for success,” he said. “They’re more empathetic, get higher test scores, and are more engaged in their community.

“An ability to read fluently is the foundation of all learning. But more than that? It’s fun!”

McGee, author of 22 books, writes narratives for picture books, a key factor drawing children into reading. Her latest, Bear Can’t Sleep! (Tiger Tales, September 2015), tells about a grouchy bear who frightens the other animals until one of them comes up with an answer to help him sleep.

Meanwhile, her popular The Best Christmas Book Ever (Little Tiger Press, 2010) is about to come out as part of an anthology of children’s holiday stories, My Favorite Christmas Stories (Tiger Tales, September 2015).

“While a video game may provide engagement and excitement, a book offers something more: a kind of intimacy — a relationship that invites a child into conversation and friendship with ideas and, most important, with characters,” McGee said.

“Books are quieter creatures and children need some quiet places for reflection and retreat. By ‘quiet,’ I don’t mean boring. Au contraire. A story inhabited by strange, exotic characters stimulates a child’s imagination. A story inhabited by more familiar folk — be they human or animal — provides safety, confirmation and comfort.

“The pace of a book is different from the pace of electronic games. Books offer character-friends in a more peaceful form that allows a child time to contemplate ... to wonder and to wander in a different world. Children need characters with whom to share their lives, characters worthy of being remembered ‘till death do us part.’ We all do.”

Wardlaw’s latest book, Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Story Told in Haiku, has proven a success with my own grandchildren. They have asked over and over to have it read as their bedtime story. This story has the bonus of entertaining and intriguing me as well as our two small boys.

Wardlaw looks back to her own childhood for an answer.

“When I was little, my grandfather used to tell my brothers and me that if we ate Cheeri-ouches (his name for Cheerios) and read lots of books, we would grow up smart and strong with lots of hair on our chests,” she said. “Thank goodness the hairy part didn’t come true (for me, anyway), but he was right about reading.

“Recent studies prove what Italian educator Dr. Maria Montessori observed more than 100 years ago: reading aloud to a child between the ages of birth and 6 actually helps her mind create itself. It’s like the neurons are having a party. They grow and connect and synapse like crazy, increasing intelligence, vocabulary, imagination, concentration, etc.

“And, when the child reads on her own, her literacy skills only continue to expand and develop. Win-win!”

Even in today’s world of electronics, books count more than ever, but which book? Children’s shelves in a bookstore can overwhelm the buyer. Among the best resources are bookstore clerks and librarians. A trip to the new Children’s Library at the main Santa Barbara Central Library can save you incredible time about books you may have never known existed.

The next step is how to hone in on that book. McGee looks at book choices with illustrations.

“When my first picture book was published in the early 1990s, my editor told me that he would ‘marry me’ with an illustrator whose artistic style would be well known, one whose work would capture the attention of prospective buyers,” she recalled. “Not flattering but true.

“In picture books, art usually draws the buyer’s hand. Look for color, imagination, movement and humor. Personally, I avoid harsh, jarring art in books for young children even if it’s supposedly funny. Why inject ugliness into the life of a child? Why make cruelty appear to be a ‘normal’ acceptable source of humor?

“Picture book art, beginning with the cover, is what first intrigues the young reader. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the illustrators chosen for my books. Sean Julian, the illustrator for Bear Can’t Sleep!, is one of the best. He’s wonderfully playful with visual surprises and humor sprinkled throughout.”

She points out a critical factor when buying a book to be read out loud.

“Pacing is important in children’s books,” she explained. “Modern kids won’t stand for the staid plots and conclusions that our grandparents loved, but we should seek a balanced pace that still allows for thought, conversation — and giggles. ‘He stole the mouse’s undies!’ Choose a book that pleases both reader and child, one that knits the two together, with a conclusion that feels good to both of them.”

Wardlaw, with 30 books published for a wide range of ages, echoes these suggestions with specifics.

“First and foremost, consider the recipient,” she advised. “How old is the child, what are her interests, what is her reading level? Too, the book should be entertaining. Avoid books that are moralistic, that ‘teach’ a lesson.

“When adults read for enjoyment, they don’t want to be lectured to, and neither do kids. Three-dimensional characters ... an engaging, logical plot ... a satisfying ending ... appealing illustrations (if it’s a picture book), all are crucial. When in doubt, ask the children’s book specialists at your favorite independent bookstore — or your friendly, local children’s librarian.”

Hale, like McGee and Wardlaw, frequently participates in events encouraging children to read. All three know our Santa Barbara reading community well.

“This is where having a bookstore in town like Chaucer’s Bookstore with knowledgeable employees comes in handy,” he said. “They can always recommend something, if you can describe the child. When I’m picking on my own, I always try to match the book with the kid, assuming I know his or her reading tastes.

“For example, if the child isn’t a big reader, I’ll go with a story that’s action-packed, adventurous, funny or sports-related, depending on the reader’s interests. If I don’t know their tastes, I will either go for a book that I found eye-opening at their age (one of the classics) or with something I read recently that is age-appropriate and really stands out.”

McGee sums up the point of this column.

“Giving a book to a child is an excellent way to entice that child to sit on your lap and share a story,” she said. “hat could be better than that? A gift times two!”

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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