When a child says, "Read me a story," it is a request no adult should refuse. Whether it is a parent, grandparent or older sibling, reading to a child is an opportunity to build close relationships and instill a love of the written word.
What exactly attracts a reader to a children's book is not easily answered. For some, it is a lovely cover, for others it is fanciful illustrations or a charming story line. Sometimes it is as simple as the perfect size to fit the hand of a toddler, so picking the right book for a child can be a daunting task.
Bookstores, libraries and online book sites offer thousands of choices in various age groups and categories.
NANCY BAUMGARTNER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent
Betsy Rider, owner of Otto Bookstore, reads her favorite children’s book, Woolbur.
NANCY BAUMGARTNER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent
Nearly 10,000 children and young adult books can be found in the children’s section at From My Shelf Books and Gifts in Wellsboro.
At hometown bookstores such as Otto's in Williamsport and From My Shelf Books and Gifts in Wellsboro, owners and staff take special care when selecting, displaying and offering suggestions about children's literature.
At Otto's, owner Betsy Rider reserves about 1/5 of her 2,000-square-foot space for children's books. In Wellsboro, co-owners Kasey Cox and Kevin Coolidge stock nearly 10,000 children and young adult choices at their 25 Main Street location.
At both stores, the children's sections include books geared from "pre-birth" through young adult and are arranged for easy viewing.
"Most of our picture books are on racks showing the covers face out," Rider said. "The chapter books are on shelves arranged alphabetically by author and on separate shelves are books that belong in a series."
At the Wellsboro shop, children's books are divided into many sub-categories by age and group, or by subject matter. There are picture books for the pre-reader child, animal stories, mysteries, science and history books, as well as classics.
It is not surprising to learn that grandparents top the list of people who buy children's books.
"Grandmothers are the best customers of children's picture books, keeping in touch with their grandchildren by choosing books for them," Rider said.
Cox agrees, adding that her customers also include parents with kids in tow, teachers, children themselves and adults who just like reading children's literature.
Most bookstores today offer areas where parents, grandparents and youngsters can sit down and actually look though books they are considering.
"Don't be afraid to look for books you loved as a child, said Miriam Fisk, of Colorado Springs, Colorado who is a mother, grandmother and educator. "Classic themes never go out of style. Even though Boston looks different than it did 70 years ago and the drawings are in brown and white, what child cannot but love 'Make Way for Ducklings,' " she asked.
Advising customers on how to choose a good book for their particular youngster is an especially personal part of these booksellers' jobs. Cox said that, for her, a "good children's book is any one that has good sentence structure, grammar and some plot, even if it is silly, and one that keeps a child's attention."
Rider and Cox agree that an adult must use caution when helping children choose books.
"I try to discourage the adults from saying to the young person "you don't want that!" Rider said.
Timing, however, can be crucial when trying to help a child form good reading habits. For some children, reading a book that is not geared to their
comprehension level can be discouraging.
Since children's literature is a vast and all encompassing area, most parents prefer to become familiar with their children's choices. Parents can remain open minded while still being vigilant.
Fisk put it this way: "Reading the book first is helpful to see if what is 'inside a book' is what you want 'inside your child' because books are that way ... they can become part of you."
In the thousands of children's books available, some have won Caldecott and Newberry medals for excellence in children's literature. The Newbery Medal, named for 18th-century English bookseller, John Newbery, is awarded annually by the American Library Association. Its purpose is "to encourage original creative work in the field of books for children."
Since 1938, the Caldecott Medal also has been awarded by the same association. It honors the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children and was named for 19th-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott.
"We certainly pay attention to those awards," Cox said, "but I put a lot of credence in the National Book Awards for Young Writers, as well."
Established in 1950, the mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards is "to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America."
Although there are adults and children who collect, or are drawn to books honored by these awards, they need not be the only yardstick with which to measure a deserving book.
Stories that have strong characters, surprising plots, unusual settings or diverse backgrounds are favorites of Rider and her employees, Alissa DuBois and Nancy McCarty
"We like the books that make the reader feel bigger, free-er or more alive for having read them," Rider said.
Technology is making its way into the world of children's literature in the form of e-readers where books can be downloaded to these devices. Libraries have Internet resources where children can read all or parts of a book.
Various schools of thought exist on the impact technology may have on reading. There is, however, agreement that whatever encourages children to become avid, discriminating readers is valuable.
Bookstores such as Otto's and From My Shelf have incorporated new technology to serve their customers. They maintain informative, user-friendly websites where books are reviewed, store events announced and customers can "browse." Drawing bookworms to their downtown store locations has expanded their vision of what a bookstore can provide.
One of the answers for Cox and Coolidge is to include classes for teaching young, aspiring authors. A writers' group for youngsters ages 9 to 14 meets twice a month at From My Shelf.
Cox, who has a background in education, encourages students to share their manuscripts, discuss settings, dialogue and point-of-view and learn the art of critiquing another's work.
At Otto's, the personal touch always is top priority. Rider endeavors to create a space and atmosphere where customers and experienced staff can share their tastes, their reading experiences and get lots of help choosing just the "right" book for a child.
There is no better way to escape reality than to open a good children's book. Whether it is "Anne of Green Gables," "The Wizard of Oz," "Good Night Moon" or Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit," the stories can whisk readers to magical times and places. The world of children's literature is vast, but those who journey down its many avenues realize it is a place of unending promise and possibilities.