What Makes a Children’s Book Great?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Today in New York City at the Scholastic headquarters, Publishing Perspectives is hosting its inaugural children’s book conference. For this event we chose the theme “What Makes a Children’s Book Great?” It was inspired in part by my own daughter. She’s a fortunate child, one surrounded by thousands of books, and blessed enough to have a serious library of her own.

Included in her collection is also a collection of worn, dusty (and perhaps a touch mildewy) Grimm’s fairy tales, stories from Mother Goose and other timeless classics. These were my books, and my father’s before me. They are family heirlooms. But reading them is jarring. So many generations removed from their authors, editors and publishers, many of the stories come across as menacing and haranguing, and are wholly unsuited to lulling her into a peaceful sleep.

It’s became apparent to me, as a parent and reader, that stories—just like children — grow, mature and change with the times. The idea of what is a “classic” changes, too. Just pick up some of the prize-winners from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which read like fever dreams fueled by hallucinogens…

Today in the fast evolving world of children’s books and publishing we see a great many dichotomies: print vs. digital, nostalgic favorites from childhood fighting for diminishing shelf space with the tide of new books, YA titles that cross-over to adult readers, who then turn into mass market sensations. As Scholastic’s own David Levithan suggests in our profile of him in these digital pages, labels are useless. And, I might add, unnecessary.

Rather than ask, “What Makes a Classic?” or “What Makes a Bestseller?” we decided to ask, “What Makes a Children’s Book Great?”

“Great” is a word that captures the sheer exhilaration of falling in love with a book, the unfettered enthusiasm of childhood and teenage reading. It’s an exclamation of pure joy. And who couldn’t use more of that?!

You can follow live tweets from the event under the hashtag #PPKids. And we hope you’ll join the conversation as we explore this very intriguing question.

So tell us, what do you think makes a children’s book great? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.