6 Book Flaws That Make Parents Hate Reading To Their Kids
Baby books don't get a ton of respect because they're primarily about cows, are about 60 words long each, and have art that looks like it was made by someone with too many thumbs. Because I have two young kids myself, I read about 30 of these things a day. Probably not coincidentally, I also think about 30 times a day, "I could do that. And I'm an idiot."
And yet some of these books are way worse than others. Any idiot might be able to make one, but clearly some idiots know something their peers don't at avoiding wretchedness when writing books for infants. I suspect the key is that some idiots realize that baby books are meant for a split audience: a child who looks at the pictures and a parent who has to read the words (again and again and again). These two audiences have different tastes and needs, and satisfying both at the same time is evidently a pretty subtle art. It's not just clumsy rhymes about poultry. Those are necessary, yes, we crave them. But there's more.
Because I know many of you are idiots with too many thumbs and rhymes about poultry, eager to make a quick buck or prove something to everyone who doubted you, I thought I'd lay out some of the more common missteps authors seem to make when making baby books. Who knows! With these tips, you might one day become the next celebrated Dr. Seuss yourself, instead of the shameful Mr. or Ms. Seuss you currently are.
It Don't Read Good
Many baby books rhyme, and for good reason. Babies love picking up patterns and learning to anticipate the rhyming word before it happens. Also, these books are meant to be read aloud, and rhymes generally make that more fun. Or tolerable. Yeah, let's go with tolerable.
But it takes more than rhymes to make words fun to read aloud. There are long and elaborate definitions of the things required, but it basically requires an understanding of rhythm and meter, counting syllables, and something about stressed or possibly chilled out syllables. It's involved. If you don't understand this stuff, people reading your writing will stumble and stutter or abruptly speed up to reach a rhyme which is just miles from where it should be.
I see this most often in homemade or self-published children's books -- stuff clearly made by amateurs who thought "I could do that! And I'm an idiot!" too. But it shows up in professional books as well every now and then, as if the people who made them had something better to do than read them 50 times in a row like a normal par- oh my god, what am I doing with my life.
It's Too Predictable
Rhymes aren't the only way to establish repeating patterns in books. There can be objects and characters that show up at regular intervals. Or every page can have a repeating bit of dialog, a sort of call and response. Even the rhyme scheme itself doesn't have to be static. Simply switching from aabb to abab to THE ACE OF SPADES! THE ACE OF SPADES! at intervals can be pleasing. Dr. Seuss was great at this.
Lemmy too, I guess.
But more than just establishing these patterns, the best baby books also break them from time to time. Goodnight Moon is a good example. It introduces all the elements in the room, and then begins to say goodnight to them in a slightly different order. Some are omitted entirely. Two different moons are referred to, as if it's all taking place on another planet or something. It's neat, and even if the baby doesn't pick up on any of this, maybe this isn't about them.
The bowl of mush, that's for you, baby.
It Has Way Too Many Words
A corollary of the twin audiences problem is the issue of the two audiences having differing appetites for books. In short, babies love books, but they're dumb and can't read them, which means that for book-time to occur, a baby knows it has to crawl onto the lap or chest or head of whatever adult is nearest and strike them on the face with a book. Or so has been my experience. And while the adult has very little say in the matter, they still have some. And you'd better believe we gravitate toward shorter books.
Get to the damned point, baby book writers. One lovingly crafted paragraph is always better than two. If you're telling a story about a whatever-the-fuck who meets five delightful who-gives-a-shits to learn some important lesson about playing with matches, ask yourselves: Could you do it with two who-gives-a-shits? Because your readers sure will, whether it's by skipping stanzas, double-dealing pages, or just stopping on page 4, saying Babar died, and shutting the book.
Public Domain Song Lyrics
There's a special type of hell-book that's nothing but loosely rewritten or transcribed lyrics of public domain songs. Old Macdonald Had A Farm or Wheels On The Bus are favorites, and while there are others, surely, between those two, I have "read" those stories one trillion times each.
The songs are fine, and I understand the need for them. They illustrate basic sounds needed for bus maintenance troubleshooting, and also educate children about the noises their food makes prior to becoming food. But to transcribe those endless lyrics for a book? I think you're missing the point of a book, my man, my lazy book-writing man. Yes, they're illustrated, and that's clearly the main appeal to the kids, seeing a picture of a bus like we don't have a thousand of those around the house already. But they're still no fun to read for the parents, and if you're not satisfying both audiences, or at least just me specifically, you're failing.
It Doesn't Know Its Own Subject Matter
One of my kids likes trucks. If you have a truck and it goes missing, it'll be him. He took it. Don't bother with security cameras, he's very short and fast. Anyways, one other fun consequence of this passion is that by the age of three, he knows more about construction vehicles than most grown-ups. So do I, because I have personally read books on the subject to him eight trillion times or so. This is pretty typical, from what I understand, but what's a little surprising is that we apparently know more about trucks than many toddler book authors.
Let's talk about "diggers" for a second. I'm fine with the term. It's a simple, memorable word, easy for a child to wrap their mouth around. If you want to use it to describe an excavator or a backhoe or a front-end loader, that's cool. We can deal with that. But when you start referring to these vehicles by their actual names, know what the fuck you're talking about. An excavator is not a "tracked digger," and a backhoe is not a "wheeled digger." A front-end loader is not a bulldozer, and neither is a snowplow, and JESUS CHRIST THAT IS A GRADER, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT, BOOK.
Some of the worst offenders for this were pretty clearly knocked together by some intern with a stock photo account and a basic knowledge of how a wheel works. "What's the difference," I imagine this person saying, their eyes not pointing in entirely the same direction. "Sure my eyes aren't pointing in entirely the same direction, but why should I learn the proper names for these things? The kids won't know."
But they do know! If there's like one fucking thing kids are good at, it's learning about trucks. YOU HAVE TO CARE ABOUT THIS TOO.
Fuck Your Noise-Making Book
Fuck any toy which makes noise, but especially a book. Books are meant to be quiet. That is the whole point of them. That is why librarians shush you when you talk in libraries. What are they supposed to do with a talking book? Shush it? The books are their only friends, why would you ask that of them?
Attention publishers of books that make noise: I will set them on fire, and then you. I am keeping a weird, deeply incriminating list of everyone who does this, so I hope you enjoy not being on fire, because that chapter of your life is coming to a close. Don't bother with security cameras, though now for different reasons.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and amazing father. As the author of the amazing novels Freeze/Thaw and Severance, he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.
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